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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 513: debated on Monday 5 July 2010

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

1. If he will discuss with his French counterpart joint UK-French procurement of medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles. (5303)

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan last Thursday. His family and friends are in all our thoughts and prayers at this very difficult time for them. We are very fortunate to have such men in our armed forces.

I will be discussing a range of issues when I next meet my French counterpart. I would expect the subject of unmanned aerial systems to be among them.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response, but what assurances can he give me that the progress made by the UK recently in technological advances in UAV research, which have been particularly effective in the fight against improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, will not be lost owing to budget cuts coming up in the Ministry of Defence?

Both Britain and our key partners have defence aerospace skills and technologies that we wish to maintain as sovereign capabilities. As part of assessing any procurement system—we have made no decisions—the impact on critical UK aerospace skills and capabilities will be considered in the strategic defence and security review, as well as in the upcoming budgetary rounds.

But is the Secretary of State aware that the French are thinking of buying in the Reaper drone from General Atomics because their EADS also is so far behind in producing this kind of essential new weapon? After reading your interesting interview in The Independent today, Mr. Speaker, I wonder if you are aware of the report by two French Deputies exactly on drones, produced last December in the French National Assembly—a 90-page specialist report by a Socialist and a Conservative MP presented to the French Ministry of Defence? Do we not need such input from MPs to try to help the Secretary of State as he makes decisions?

I am always open to the help offered by the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps one day we will find a use for it. We are indeed in discussions with the French about joint procurement, but a decision by the French to join Predator would not necessarily preclude them from joint procurement in the future with the United Kingdom on long-term solutions.

Trident

The Ministry of Defence’s work on the value-for-money study should be completed at the end of this month. The findings will go to the Cabinet Office, and will then be considered by the National Security Council. The council’s conclusions will inform the strategic defence and security review and the comprehensive spending review, which will be published in the autumn.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Will the results of the value-for-money study include plans on the infrastructure that supports our deterrent?

It might help the House if I tell my hon. Friend that the programme will cover the timetable itself, submarine numbers, the number of missiles, missile tubes and warheads, infrastructure and other support costs, and the industrial supply chain.

Given that Trident is costing us perhaps £1 billion or £2 billion every year, and an estimated £96 billion over its entire lifetime, does the Minister agree that we should listen to the military figures who are increasingly saying that it is not necessary and counting it as something to be considered in the comprehensive spending review?[Official Report, 19 July 2010, Vol. 514, c. 1-2MC.]

Ultimately, it is up to the Government to decide what the policy should be. There is a wide range of advice, military and otherwise. The House came to the conclusion that it did in 2007 on the basis that we believed that that was a cost-effective way for this country to go forward with a nuclear deterrent. We know that abroad there are a number of countries trying to develop nuclear weapons. We do not know what will happen between now and 2015—the time scale for the Trident replacement programme—and we cannot play fast and loose with Britain’s defences.

NATO

In 2009, NATO agreed a series of measures to improve working practices in its headquarters in Brussels, and a new defence planning process better to help allies develop, acquire and maintain the capabilities required for the full range of NATO missions. Work to reform NATO’s resource management, rationalise its agencies and streamline its command structures is also under way, and should be agreed by the NATO summit in Lisbon in November.

Will the new structure that is in place in NATO be altered again so that we get better results from our operations out of area, particularly in Afghanistan?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very good point, and at the NATO Defence Ministers’ summit last month my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made it clear that command structure reform is a key priority for the United Kingdom and for the alliance, because NATO’s structure is too big and static, and too much is simply not geared up for the missions that we are undertaking, such as in Afghanistan. The House might like to ponder on the fact that, significantly, NATO did not employ elements of its command structure in any meaningful capacity in Afghanistan; instead, it put together a bespoke operation.

As the role of NATO in Afghanistan is increasingly criticised and the threat of terrorism here comes far more from our own disaffected Muslims than from the Tora Bora mountains, is it not rather bizarre that from on high we have heard recently that there are likely to be cuts in our counter-terrorist units here while we continue to sacrifice the precious, heroic lives of our young people in an unnecessary and unwinnable war against the Pashtun tribes?

Order. I know that in the reply from the Front Bench the hon. Gentleman will of course refer to the reform of NATO.

I have quite a few challenges, Mr Speaker, but that is one that I am not entirely geared up to meet in the light of the observations and question from my hon. Friend. His views are well known and I have a huge admiration for him, but I have to tell him that I am not responsible for the resources that are devoted to counter-terrorist operations. None the less, I can tell him that there is a very clear view from the Government Front Benchers here that the mission in Afghanistan is a NATO mission. It is not an American mission; it is not even an Anglo-American mission. It is a NATO mission, and it is extremely important that that mission succeeds.

Military Equipment Expenditure

4. What estimate he has made of his Department’s expenditure on military equipment in 2010-11; and if he will make a statement. (5306)

The Department’s current planned expenditure on the procurement of military equipment—excluding urgent operational requirements for Afghanistan—for the financial year 2010-11 is £6.6 billion, of which £5.5 billion is capital expenditure. In addition, planned expenditure on the associated military equipment support costs for the financial year 2010-11 is £6.3 billion, of which £1.6 billion is capital expenditure.

Will the Minister confirm that he has digested fully the lessons of the Bernard Gray report, which was suppressed by the previous Government and, when released, suggested that £2.5 billion was being wasted on procurement procedures? When will he update the House with the new procurement procedures?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a very sensible question. Labour’s record on debt and financial instability makes that challenge even more important than it already was. I have digested the lessons of that very important report, the strategy for acquisition reform continues, and I hope to report to the House at a later date.

The Government recently made a commitment to publish regional and national defence expenditure statistics and then, within days, reneged on it. Does the MOD have any commitment to equitable defence spending throughout the UK?

If Scotland accepted the case for the nuclear deterrent, the hon. Gentleman’s argument would be a lot more impressive.

It is good to hear about the Department’s planned expenditure and, particularly, from my hon. Friend. Last year, on 20 July, the Ministry of Defence published its accounts, which set out the planned expenditure, and for the third year running those accounts were qualified. Will they be published again this month, and will they be qualified again this year?

They will be published at a very early date, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s Committee will take a very close interest in them when they are.

In December last year, I announced £150 million to improve the capacity of our counter-improvised explosive device teams in Afghanistan, and, as that is the highest threat level that our forces face, expenditure was kept under review. Recently, the Prime Minister announced another £67 million for the same purpose, and I welcome that, because it is really needed. However, will the Minister clarify the situation? The Prime Minister has repeatedly said that that £67 million will double the number of counter-IED teams. Is that true?

The £67 million is intended to provide enhanced protection for our teams in Afghanistan and additional mine-detecting equipment, and to procure working dogs—a very effective part of counter-IED work.

I understand that, and it is welcome. That is exactly what I put in place when I was doing the job that the hon. Gentleman and his team are doing now, and I kept that need under review. However, is it all new money, and will it do what the Prime Minister repeatedly said it would? He said in terms, “We are doubling the counter-IED teams.” He cannot double the counter-IED teams for £67 million. Let us have a straight answer.

The right hon. Gentleman is understandably concerned, as this is about a very important threat to our armed forces. I can tell him, however, that the difference between this Government and the previous Government is that we have found the money that is crucial in dealing with this threat, and lectures on new money or old money come very ill from him. In the past, commitments were made for many things, but we are actually going to find the money and deliver this vital tool for our armed forces serving in Afghanistan.

Cadet Forces

The Government remain committed to the cadet movement, the origins of which date back 150 years. It is one of the oldest and most successful voluntary youth organisations in the world. The strategic defence and security review is looking at all areas of defence, and it would be wrong to speculate on its conclusions.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Avonmouth and Filton sea cadets in my constituency, with whom I actively work, and to the volunteers who give up so much of their lives for these organisations? Can he assure me that they will continue to have Government support, since the role they perform is so valuable and they do not always perform it in the best of facilities?

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that I pay tribute to those organisations. The cadet movement is extremely important; as I said, it is one of the most successful voluntary youth organisations in the world. It has been somewhat under-appreciated in past years, and we very much hope that it will now raise its levels of appreciation. Indeed, tomorrow I am going to the march-past and parade in the Mall to celebrate 150 years of the cadet movement.

During the series of Government cuts that we all face, will the Minister consider whether buildings belonging to the Government that are being closed could have a future life in providing headquarters for the cadet movement? Many cadet forces are struggling to find accommodation, and there could well be small offices or equipment stores that they could use. Will he look at that, please?

I would be very happy to look at it. The Government welcome any submissions, from wherever, about broad or individual cases such as those that the hon. Lady mentions. We cannot prejudge the results of the SDSR, as she will understand, but I would, by all means, be grateful if she would make a submission on individual or general cases.

I am lucky enough to be the Honorary Colonel of Nottinghamshire Army Cadet Force—a famous fighting unit. We provide almost 60% of our soldiers—cadets—as recruits for the regular Army. Sadly, too many of these individuals are going to Lincoln and Nottingham Army careers information offices and finding that they are being turned away having been told that there is a delay of at least nine months, and in many cases 12 months, before they can join the regular Army. I do not find that acceptable.

Nottinghamshire Army Cadet Force is very privileged to have my hon. Friend as its colonel, and I know that he will do very good work for it given his gallant past in the Army.

Regarding recruitment, at the moment the Army, in particular, is almost exactly at full recruitment levels, and there are therefore no places available. However, as my hon. Friend will know from his past experience, these things change literally by the month. I hope that the keen cadets from Nottinghamshire will continue to come forward, and I hope that we can find places for them in the Army. However, especially when we are considering an SDSR, I am afraid that we cannot swell the Army just because there are excellent recruits coming forward; we look forward to seeing them.

Aircraft Carriers

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are in the process of carrying out a strategic defence and security review within which all aspects of the defence programme, including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, will be examined. The impact on any specific equipment projects will be announced following the conclusion of the review in the autumn.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but urge him to stand by the Defence Secretary’s pre-election comments and statements saying that these particular carriers were of urgent and vital importance to Britain’s defence. May I urge the Minister to give full steam ahead to these projects and invite him to meet me at my constituency shipyard to discuss the matter further?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and look forward to doing so on a mutually agreeable date. However, he will understand that with a strategic defence and security review going on, it is impossible to give the type of commitment that he seeks. I wish I could, but I cannot.

Trident

The Government are committed to retaining a minimum nuclear deterrent based on Trident. We have commissioned a review to scrutinise existing plans to renew the deterrent, to ensure value for money.

Have the Liberal Democrats put forward their alternatives to Trident as set out in the coalition agreement, and if so, what are they? They kept very quiet during the general election about what they were.

I am responsible for a lot of things, but the Liberal Democrats’ answers on specific points of policy are a matter for them, not for me. The coalition agreement is very clear that although the Government have set out their policy, the Liberal Democrats are very good at coming forward with their own particular solutions, as I can make clear to the hon. Lady.

In the inexplicable absence of any Liberal Democrat on his feet, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that as an alternative to Trident, the idea of putting nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Astute class submarines would be more expensive and less effective, would put the submarines at risk and, because one cannot know what sort of warhead is on a cruise missile until it has landed, could start world war three by accident? Does he agree that apart from that, it is a great Liberal Democrat idea?

I am unlikely to be tempted down that route.

As the House will know, when we considered the entire issue in 2006 and 2007 we looked at options for other systems, including cruise missiles, silo-based missiles and air-launched weapons. Those other options were discounted due to effectiveness and cost. That analysis has not changed, and alternative systems will not be considered as part of the value-for-money review.

Armed Forces Accommodation

8. What steps he plans to take to improve the standard of armed forces accommodation; and if he will make a statement. (5311)

The coalition Government place a high priority on the welfare of service personnel and their families. We will look at whether there is scope to refurbish the armed forces’ accommodation from efficiencies within the Ministry of Defence.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, because as he is fully aware, the Labour Government put aside £3 billion to improve the living accommodation of the armed forces. Has that money been ring-fenced to protect it from the 20% Treasury cuts?

The last Administration may have put aside a great deal of money, but they did not say where it was coming from, and indeed the money did not exist. As the hon. Lady will know, we are living with the serious economic and financial conditions that the last Administration put in place. In the SDSR we will prioritise the needs and accommodation of defence personnel and their families.

Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as being extremely important to the regular armed forces, accommodation is also crucial to the reserve forces and cadets? Following the earlier question of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), may I urge him to examine the remarkable work of Greater London Reserve Forces and Cadets Association in finding ways of saving money by sharing cadet accommodation with a variety of different youth organisations?

My hon. Friend has been explaining the situation of the reserve forces to me for a very long time, and as he knows, I broadly agree with him. He makes a very sensible suggestion, and I would be most grateful if he made a written submission. If we can save money and be more efficient, we would certainly be delighted so to do.

For starters, has the Minister signed off the money for this year? The money is there, and I wish he would not keep peddling these untruths that things are not costed.

The Conservative defence team, when in opposition, gave a high priority to armed service accommodation. The Secretary of State, in The Daily Telegraph last January, wrote:

“Welfare is another major issue that needs to be better addressed. We all too often hear about substandard housing”.

I am sure that Conservative Members, and more importantly members of our armed forces and their families, will expect the coalition to match our funded commitments on accommodation, or are we just to see yet another cynical ploy whereby the Conservatives support the armed forces in opposition with various spending commitments but then cynically withdraw them, as we saw last week with the freezing of armed forces pay?

There are such things as parallel universes. We had 13 years of the last Administration and now, after seven weeks, we are accused of failing to address the issues of armed forces accommodation. This is complete nonsense. The hon. Gentleman accuses me of peddling untruths; I refer him to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee, who wants to know about the Ministry of Defence accounts. When we see those accounts, we will be able to judge whether the money was there.

Afghanistan

9. What his most recent assessment is of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (5312)

We recognise that the security situation in Afghanistan remains very serious. However, we remain committed to protecting the Afghan civilian population and to developing the Afghan national security forces, to enable them to take on the lead for security themselves.

Given that the development of the Afghan national forces is critical to the eventual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, will my hon. Friend please advise the House on how the training and equipment of the Afghan national forces is progressing?

There are currently about 119,000 members of the Afghan national army and about 104,000 members of the Afghan national police in Afghanistan. Targets for significant increases in both the army and police, supported by the international community, were agreed at the London conference. I remind my hon. Friend that that target is 171,000 members of the army and 134,000 members of the police by the end of next year. That would take the total security force numbers to more than 300,000.

A detailed American investigation into the Afghan army reports that a third of this group of drug-addicted mercenaries desert every year and that its members have little or no loyalty to their election-rigging President, their own Government or international Governments. Why on earth do we expect to build a stable Afghanistan on that crumbling foundation?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description. I visited Afghanistan just two weeks ago and British and American armed forces spoke very well of their Afghan colleagues. Nobody pretends that the situation is perfect, but we are involved in an embedded partnering relationship with the Afghan national army to try to ensure that the highest degree of skill and professionalism continues to grow and develop. We are impressed with what it has done so far; it is increasingly able both to plan and execute missions in its own right, and I have no doubt whatever that we are continuing to progress in the right direction.

I, too, have been out to see the Afghan national army being trained in Afghanistan. My impression is that it has been doing extremely well under the brilliant professionalism of the British instructors. But does the Minister accept that the police are much more worrying and have hugely further to go? The issue is about not just how many there are but the quality of their training. Can we not get more help from the Metropolitan police or other British police forces to help with their training?

In recent years, it has certainly been true that there have been concerns about the police not being as good as the army. However, I think that that situation is being rapidly addressed and that there is a tangible improvement in the training being given to the Afghan national police. The Helmand police training centre is based strongly on western models. There is a lot of western assistance in there, and most recent reports say that the quality of police recruits has improved tangibly on what it was like a couple years ago.

Can the Minister for the Armed Forces help to clear up some of the recent confusion on Afghan policy? The Prime Minister seems to be saying, both in the House and elsewhere, that there is a deadline—that all our troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the Parliament, by 2014. The Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary appear to be saying something slightly different. And we now have Lord Guthrie; I am so pleased to be able to quote Lord Guthrie. He warns us that

“The Army doesn’t want a government that dithers.”

I agree. Is there a deadline?

The key to our exit from Afghanistan is that we want to see the Afghans take control of their own security. They are not able to do that yet, but will be better able to do it as time goes on. As they progressively do that, our own troop numbers will come right down and our role will completely change. The process of handing provinces and districts to Afghan control will take place on the basis of an assessment of the facts on the ground. However, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that there will not be British troops in a combat role or in significant numbers in five years’ time. Of course, troops will still be there in a training role, as part of a wider diplomatic relationship like that which we have with other countries.

Works of Art

Since 2005, the Ministry of Defence has spent on average around £58,000 a year protecting, preserving and maintaining its art collection. No works of art have been bought by the Department in the last five years.

Was the Minister as surprised as I was to learn that the Ministry of Defence has some 1,500 works of art, complete with curating staff? Does he agree that the MOD should focus on running our armed forces rather than an art gallery?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should concentrate on running the armed forces, but I am sure she would agree that £58,000 is not a huge amount to spend on curating. However, I was pretty surprised to discover that in 2004, £250,000 was spent on Hoque and Cattrell paintings for the foyer of the main MOD building. It seems to me that that money could have been better spent on, for instance, armed forces accommodation, which has was raised earlier.

Will the Minister therefore confirm whether the Department or the Government have any plans to sell off any of the Government art collection?

Defence Training Review

11. If he will consider, as part of the strategic defence and security review, the merits of the Army returning to RAF St Athan rather than RAF Cosford. (5314)

Plans for the defence training review package 1 project remain unchanged, and consequently it is still planned for 102 Logistics Brigade to relocate to RAF Cosford in 2018 under the BORONA programme. Like everything else in the defence world, that is subject to the strategic defence and security review. At this point, no decisions have been taken.

Let me be clear: Shropshire has a long and proud history of working with the British Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, but does it not make sense, given the presence of the excellent special forces support group and 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and indeed the logistic hangars and a very long runway indeed at RAF St Athan in Wales, for 102 Logistics Brigade to return to St Athan rather than to RAF Cosford in Shropshire?

My hon. Friend is aware that there were two different proposals in the final analysis for the defence training review facilities: Cosford and St Athan. Those were subject to the most detailed scrutiny to decide which was the better fit for our defence requirements and the decision was that the defence training review should relocate facilities to St Athan. We believe that there is an obvious synergy between that and other work at St Athan, particular in high technology, and a lot of work has already gone into preparing for that move. To change course now, as he suggests, would undo a great deal of investment that has already been made and add considerably to the final cost.

I wholeheartedly endorse what the Minister says. He is a brave man: he has seen off the first of the Tories of the afternoon, and I am delighted that he is sticking with St Athan. Is he prepared to meet a cross-party group of MPs from Wales so that we can feed into the ongoing discussions on the strategic defence review, and so that we can ensure that he understands fully the enormous value of bringing those elements of training together in south Wales, better to support our armed forces, which, in the end, is the single most important thing we can do?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement in the spirit it was intended. He will understand that our concern is to ensure both value for money and that the training facilities that we secure are best fitted to our defence needs. Decisions on progress will be necessary in the course of the next few months, and as part of that consideration and that work, I will be happy to talk to him and to others.

Tri-service Military Covenant

We are committed to rebuilding the military covenant through the creation of a tri-service military covenant and have identified a number of areas that will allow us to do so. These measures are listed in our programme for government that was published on 22 May. The Prime Minister recently announced the doubling of the operational allowance in Afghanistan, which was an important first step on this road.

It is crucial that we care for our serving personnel, but we must also care for our veterans. What measures will my hon. Friend put in place to ensure that we care for our veterans properly in the future, especially with regard to mental health issues?

On the broader issue, I have had two meetings in the past week on the military covenant and its implications. My hon. Friend mentions mental health in particular. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is in his place, is considering health issues and will report this summer on all such issues, including the mental health needs of ex-service personnel.

Afghanistan

United Kingdom forces are in Afghanistan as part of an international coalition. We will take decisions on troop numbers in consultation with our partners.

Was the Secretary of State given advance notice of the Prime Minister’s statement in Canada recently that he wanted our armed forces home by 2015, and did No. 10 see a copy of the Secretary of State’s speech before he made it in Washington last week?

The G8 in Canada in June sent a collective signal that we want Afghan national security forces to assume increasing responsibility for security within five years. 2015 is a full year beyond General McChrystal’s assessment of ANSF capability and it is entirely realistic that we will not have combat troops in Afghanistan at that time.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any timetable will depend not just on the numbers in the Afghan national army, but on its effectiveness? What discussions has he had about the emerging problems of recruitment and retention, infrastructure and logistics? Are not those matters critical to the effectiveness of the Afghan national army?

My hon. Friend is correct on all those issues. In fact, the number of the Afghan national security forces has tended to be ahead of trend in recent times. The quality of the training is constantly kept under review and I had discussions in Washington on the subject last week.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the security issue in Afghanistan is really whether we have enough troops on the ground? Even by General Petraeus’s assessment, we have barely one third of those required. Unless and until we can increase that number—and there is no prospect of doing so from any side—the choice will be to expose our troops and the American troops to more danger or, conversely, to expose the Afghan people. In the light of that, will he make a statement about the prospects for the future? Without security we have no future.

We are seeing an increase in the number of American troops at the moment. As for the UK troops, it is not just the number but the relative force density that is important. That has improved in recent times and there is now a better match between our footprint and the size of the force. That happened under the previous Government and will continue to happen under the current Government until we are satisfied that we have an appropriate ratio.

Dedicated Military Wards

14. What steps he plans to take to ensure that injured service personnel are treated in dedicated military wards. (5317)

Injured service personnel will be cared for in the best specialist hospital ward for their clinical condition. Operational casualties with multiple trauma injuries will usually be treated in the military ward at the new Queen Elizabeth hospital in Edgbaston, but all patients, wherever they are treated, are given the invaluable military welfare, care and support that can contribute so much to their well-being and recovery.

Will the Government be proceeding with the four purpose-built recovery centres first proposed by the Labour Government?

We are indeed proceeding with personal recovery units as part of the Army recovery capability. That was a legacy of the previous Administration, and one that I praise.

The Minister will be aware that under the previous Government the Haslar royal naval hospital was the last military hospital to be shut down. We are now at risk of losing another massive employer in Gosport in HMS Sultan, the Royal Navy engineering training school—recently graded outstanding by Ofsted—which could move to St Athan. Has the Minister considered the effect that any such move would have on the local community?

I have to confess to my hon. Friend that I have not been looking at that particular issue; however, I am sure that the closure—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Well, I am awfully sorry, but it is not part of my remit. However, I am sure that, as with everything else, we will be looking at that issue in the strategic defence and security review, and I hope that there will be no unfortunate implications for employment in the Portsmouth area.

May I pay tribute to the dedicated staff at Selly Oak and to the men and women of Defence Medical Services, whom I had the honour of working with? We owe them a great debt of gratitude, and they include some previously unsung heroes who were rightly honoured in the recent Queen’s birthday honours list. I enjoyed reading about the coalition’s new defence policy in The Sun last week, including the re-announcement of the new military ward at Selly Oak. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has announced that the Army recovery capability, which was fully funded, will be continued. However, can we have an assurance today that Defence Medical Services will be protected in the defence budget, or will we just see cynical re-announcements of Labour achievements, albeit without the funding to go with them?

I do not feel that I have been cynically re-announcing any Labour achievements. What I would say is that it is not Selly Oak doing the work any more; it is the new Queen Elizabeth hospital down the road, which is replacing Selly Oak. It is a good hospital, and the scheme was planned and executed—although the facility was not opened—under the previous Administration. I entirely accept that. Indeed, I visited Selly Oak not a month ago, and I think that the care that people receive there is pretty good—it was not so good to begin with, but it is pretty good now. I shall not be cynically re-announcing anything; I shall just be planning on the basis of the coalition’s policies.

Armed Forces Pensions

I am just so busy today that I missed that one, Mr Speaker. We have received a number of representations on armed forces pensions, including in relation to the 1975 armed forces pension scheme and eligibility for those who served prior to its introduction; the link to the retail price index; and widows’ and widowers’ pensions for life.

I thank the Minister for that delayed answer. Let me make a plea on behalf of one particular group of people. One important thing about the armed forces is the number of people who extend their terms of reference—who want to extend their period in the armed forces. It is imperative that that is not stopped. When the Minister looks at the review that is currently under way, will he ensure that the extension is protected for that group of armed forces personnel, for whom the pension is an important part of the decision to extend their time?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I should declare an interest, in that I am an armed forces pensioner—under the 1975 scheme, I think. I am not entirely clear about the question, so perhaps he could write to me with the details, and I will certainly respond to him.

Chief of the Defence Staff

16. What role he will play in the appointment of a new Chief of the Defence Staff; and if he will make a statement. (5319)

The outgoing Chief of the Defence Staff provides an assessment of his potential successors, together with his recommendation. I then discuss the recommendation with him and my Defence Ministers, before making a recommendation to the Prime Minister. Thereafter, the approval of Her Majesty the Queen will be sought.

Once the appointment is announced, will the Government ensure that both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister make it clear that they support the new appointment, and do not indulge in the spectacle of competitive briefing, claiming that they were the individual who got rid of the predecessor?

No, I can confirm that we will break the precedent set by the former Government, and that we will indeed give full support to whomever is chosen as the candidate.

Defence Procurement

Out of the 57 equipment-related projects that were subject to re-approval as part of the exercise announced by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 17 May, two projects—the search and rescue helicopter project, and the procurement of long-lead items for the successor deterrent—have been suspended pending the outcome of urgent ongoing reviews. However, all projects, including those that have been re-approved, are being considered as part of the strategic defence and security review.

Does my hon. Friend believe that it is in the best interests of our armed forces that senior officials involved in preparing MOD contracts are regularly recruited to work for the contractor and lobby Government on its behalf?

Like my hon. Friend, I have severe doubts about that particular practice, and I can assure him that I am watching it very carefully.

Can the Minister tell the House when he expects to agree the contract signed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) for the A400M, which is built in Bristol and serviced in north Wales? Twenty-two planes with 22 sets of wings are under contract by the Labour Government, but they have been frozen by the Conservative-Liberal Government.

I wish I could answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question at length, but all I can say is that the A400M, like all other major projects, is part of the strategic defence and security review—the long overdue strategic defence and security review.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks, and that we honour the military covenant.

Only last August, a top military adviser stated publicly that it would take between 30 and 40 years for us to nation-build in Afghanistan under the present strategy and that there was no question of NATO pulling out. Within the last few days, the same top military adviser has stated that the time has begun for talks with the Taliban and that we could indeed have resolved our mission within the next four years. What does this conflicting advice say about the quality, the coherence and the consistency of the strategy which our Government have inherited in Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will probably remember a former Prime Minister saying that advisers advise and Ministers decide. For the benefit of newer Members, let me say that she was absolutely correct to do so. The Government decide the strategy in Afghanistan. We believe that we are there for reasons of national security, and we believe that we will have succeeded in our mission in Afghanistan when it is a stable enough state to manage its own internal and external security without reference to outside powers.

T6. On reflection, does the Secretary of State think that the best way to advise of the retirement of the Chief of the Defence Staff is through the pages of The Sunday Times even before the Prime Minister has been consulted or before the Queen has been provided with that information? (5390)

T2. With defence exports being of critical importance to the economy in Fylde and jobs in the north-west, can the Secretary of State update me and the House on efforts made to drive the export potential of the Typhoon Eurofighter? (5385)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the good news is that the Typhoon aircraft, a formidable piece of kit, is in demand across the world, and there are a number of countries that have expressed serious interest in the Typhoon. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had a number of discussions with a number of interested parties, and that we shall arrange some cross-departmental ministerial visits to promote this very important aspect of our policy.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely essential that the training of the three armed forces should be integrated into one site? (5393)

As I said in the earlier part of questions, it remains our intention to proceed as planned, but this, of course, like everything else, is part of the strategic defence review.

My hon. Friend will have observed that the Secretary of State declined an opportunity to state that he would publish the results of the Trident value for money review. May I urge him to publish the foreign policy baseline, which is the starting point of the defence review, so that the House can have the opportunity to debate the Government’s foreign policy objectives before we are presented with a fait accompli in the defence review itself?

During the debate on the strategic defence and security review, I set out the foreign policy baseline, as I have on previous occasions, and as the Foreign Secretary also has. It will be considered as part of the debate inside the National Security Council as part of cross-departmental security reviews.

The Veterans Minister just said that he was redoubling efforts to honour the military covenant and he praised the Prime Minister for doubling the operational allowance, yet he also admitted that he was cutting accommodation, freezing Army pay and making service personnel pay more for their pensions. Will he therefore explain what he means in practical terms by “redoubling” the effort?

I have always maintained that the hon. Gentleman is much nicer than his reputation. However, I have not said that we are cutting accommodation. As he knows, the whole country is faced with the appalling economic and financial situation that was left by the previous Government. We are considering all ways of saving money, including a pay freeze across the public sector. However, the spine increases for armed forces personnel will continue.

T3. The Prime Minister’s announcement last month of £67 million to deal with the threat faced by our troops from improvised explosive devices was most welcome. Will my hon. Friend say what part of that will be for training, which is an integral part of the deal? In particular, will he note the excellent service provided by the International School for Security and Explosives Education in Chilmark in my constituency, which I visited on Friday? (5387)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no doubt whatever that high-threat counter-IED operations in Afghanistan are the most dangerous activity undertaken by members of the armed forces. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a further £67 million included £40 million for protected vehicles for use by CIED teams in Afghanistan and £11 million for remote control vehicles. The remaining funds will be used to enhance other critical capabilities in the counter-IED campaign, including enhancements to our military working-dog capability. There are problems with training, which we are doing our best to address. One problem is the inherited shortfall in counter-IED experts, which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

Ministers will be aware that the Royal Irish Regiment is to deploy to Afghanistan later this year and that our armed forces personnel from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales make a major contribution to operational deployment on a continuous basis. Is it not therefore incumbent on the Secretary of State in his review to look again at the distribution of defence expenditure on a more equitable basis across the United Kingdom?

The allocation of defence spending across the United Kingdom will be determined in the light of what we think are the best decisions for the defence of the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is correct, however, about the contributions made by our armed forces from different parts of the United Kingdom. They are United Kingdom armed forces. When I meet troops in Afghanistan, they do not ask one another whether they came from Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London. They are forces under the Crown and proud of it.

T4. On the eve of the Turkish Foreign Minister’s visit to London, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that Turkey is one of our foremost allies in a most volatile region. What steps can his military take to increase our strategic co-operation with Turkey? (5388)

My hon. Friend is entirely correct: Turkey is a very important strategic partner for the United Kingdom, not only because of its geographic location and the countries that border it, but because of other issues such as energy security. I had a long discussion with the Turkish Defence Minister at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, and I intend to see him again in London next week. We intend to continue to discuss issues such as joint exercising, joint training and potentially joint procurement. It is enormously to this country’s advantage to have Turkey onside and looking westwards rather than in any other direction.

Will Ministers tell me how effective they consider Vector Aerospace, in Almondbank in my constituency, to be in keeping the UK’s armed forces’ front lines effective?

I am delighted to pay tribute to the many defence companies that make such a valuable contribution to the work of our armed services, and I would be delighted to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about the company in his constituency. I know that its work is very valued.

T5. In view of the constraints on military spending, both financially and in terms of personnel, what help has the Ministry of Defence been asked to give the Home Office in providing security for the Olympic games? (5389)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. In the National Security Council, we are committed to a cross-departmental defence of the United Kingdom and defence review. As part of our ongoing discussions, we will continue to discuss arrangements for the Olympics. The Security Minister and I have had a number of discussions on that subject.

There is a growing public perception that the Trident replacement is being insulated from any kind of scrutiny—including the defence review—while the Government continue to tear conventional forces to bits. I am thinking particularly of the cuts in aircraft, which have already been mentioned. How long will the Secretary of State be happy with that situation?

There will be no plans for any part of the defence of the United Kingdom until the defence review is completed in the autumn. We will, of course, face a very adverse financial position because of the utter financial incompetence of the outgoing Labour Government, who have left the country with record debts, and, sadly, we will have to make decisions about defence and other Government budgets in that light.

What steps will the Secretary of State take to reduce homelessness among former members of the armed services? Will he promise to take steps to provide support in regard to mental health and tenancies, and to support those who turn to drugs and alcohol after their time in the armed services?

We are certainly concerned about any ex-service personnel who are homeless, but I do not think that we should overstate the case. According to the most recent review, conducted by the previous Government, only 3% of homeless people served in the armed forces, and three quarters of those were over the age of 45. That is not to say that we are not concerned about people over 45, or people under 45.

We will examine the issue as part of the military covenant. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is examining mental health issues, which do indeed take a long time to come to the fore—typically, about 14 years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be an extremely retrograde step for the cuts in Government spending to sacrifice the new coastguard search and rescue helicopters that are such an important part of front-line rescue services in our country? They would be 30% faster than the Sea Kings, they are fitted with forward-looking infra-red, and they are good at low-flying night-time search and rescue. Surely there cannot be any more front-line expenditure than that.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the services to which he refers. They are currently under review, as part of the defence review and our ongoing discussions with the Treasury. However, it does not come well from any member of the former Government to lecture anyone about public finances when we are having to make decisions on public spending against a more adverse financial backdrop than any Government have faced at least since the second world war.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anger in my constituency because the reverse bidding for the contract for the supply of socks did not work effectively? Does he understand that HJ Hall, which has supplied socks for three generations, lost the contract because it could not make its bids within the existing system, and will he please look into the issue?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his vigorous defence of his constituents. I agree that the matter is important, and I should like to discuss it with him further.

When personnel tragically lose their lives on active service, is there a time limit by which their families must vacate service accommodation? If so, what is the time limit, and what assistance are those families given to find alternative accommodation?

I should make it clear that I was not warned of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I understand that there is no such time limit. However, it is obviously in the interests of families—apart from any other considerations—to move out of service accommodation at some stage. We are examining all these issues because we are convinced of the need to support, especially, the families of brave young men cut down in their prime, and also those who have been injured. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will provide that support.

Is the Minister aware that the previous Government shut down the Harlow Territorial Army centre? What plans has he to restore Territorial Army morale in Harlow and elsewhere in the country?

The role of the Territorial Army has been greatly undervalued too often in the past. I pay tribute, on behalf of the Government, to the role that it plays in the security of our country. The specific future role of the Territorial Army, along with the roles of all sections of our armed forces, will be considered as part of the ongoing defence review.

I am most concerned by what I read in the newspapers about the Taliban’s reaction to the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. What implications does that have in respect of the issue of the Taliban in Pakistan, and has the Secretary of State had conversations with the Pakistan Government, given the crossover and the sensitivity between the two?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently been in Pakistan and has had discussions with the security services there about the importance of the Pakistani Government dealing not only with the Pakistani Taliban but the Afghan Taliban. Unless we see these as a continuum in terms of security, we will not be able to make the progress we want and to achieve the security on the Afghan-Pakistan border that is vital for the security of the people of both countries.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), what decisions, if any, have been made about putting money into home-grown defence projects, especially in the Lancashire region?

The Government intend to look at the value of home-grown defence projects in further consultations about the role of small and medium-sized businesses in the defence industry and the issue of sovereign capability for the United Kingdom. I look forward to my hon. Friend making some very full contributions to that debate when it takes place.