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Defence

Volume 520: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. What assessment he has made of the capacity of the Afghan national security forces to assume responsibility for the security of Afghanistan by 2015; and if he will make a statement. (29876)

Assessments of the Afghan national security forces are regularly carried out by the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, of which UK forces form an important part. There are currently around 144,000 Afghan national army personnel and around 116,000 Afghan national police. The October 2010 targets were exceeded two months ahead of schedule and we assess that the growth in both capacity and capability of the Afghan forces is on track to meet the target of transferring lead responsibility for security to the Afghans by the end of 2014.

When in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister said he was confident that troops could begin to return home in 2011, but the Chief of the Defence Staff has said that we will not “cut and run”, and the Defence Secretary has said that we will be there for as long as it takes. That causes confusion and could make the situation in Afghanistan worse, and it causes a great deal of uncertainty for both our troops and their families. Will the Secretary of State categorically state whether UK troops will begin to depart from Afghanistan in 2011?

The Prime Minister made it clear on his visit to Afghanistan, as the Chief of the Defence Staff and I have done, that if conditions allow, we may be able to see a reduction in 2011 of some UK forces. We may also decide to use UK forces in a different way, particular in more of a training mission, but that will depend on what happens on the ground next year.

May I ask my right hon. Friend, the sixth successive Defence Minister to whom I have pointed out the utter folly of our current intervention in Afghanistan—four of the quintet before him have wisely fled the House, and the first has just been banned from the Tea Room for five years—to whom he thinks the Afghan security force, which has been recruited from various tribes who have been bitterly hostile to each other for centuries, will owe their allegiance? Alternatively, does he expect a military dictator to emerge from their ranks to impose order?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in Afghanistan and his long-standing difference of opinion with the mainstream. It is not just the UK that believes that the mission is essential. A coalition of some 48 countries in Afghanistan believes, and understands correctly, that we need both to degrade the threat in Afghanistan and to increase the capability of the Afghan Government to provide security if we are to see regional, and indeed global, stability.

The progress being made by the Afghan security forces is good news, but when I asked the Prime Minister why he decided to announce a deadline so far out from 2015, he replied that one reason was to get away from the pressure for constant, short-term deadlines. He then went to Afghanistan and announced that our troops may well start coming home by 2011. Why is he doing that? What is the purpose of those constant public announcements on the end of the combat mission and the beginning of troops returning home? No one in the House denies that they want to see the troops come home quickly, but everybody is somewhat worried about those public pronouncements.

There was indeed no announcement of any short-term milestone on the way to 2015. In answer to the question of whether British troops might be able to come home in 2011 and reduce their number, the Prime Minister said that that was dependent on conditions on the ground, which is entirely consistent with the Government’s position in the run-up to 2015.

The numbers of Afghan forces—some 250,000 all told—are encouraging. That is a major step in the right direction, but does the Secretary of State agree that their capabilities and abilities matter more than just the numbers? What assessment has he made of the development—rapid or otherwise—of those capabilities?

The capabilities speak for themselves. There have been enormous leaps in what the Afghan forces can do. The Afghan national army has conducted itself honourably and with great credit in terms of its technical ability, not least in Kandahar, and the Afghan national police are now moving ahead, for two reasons. First, the police were given equal pay status with the ANA, and secondly, along with that, literacy training led to a big increase in the quality of those joining. That is a major step forward from where we were in recent years.

No one doubts the bravery of many of those joining the Afghan security forces—it is beyond doubt—but the Secretary of State will be aware that there are still worries about the quality of current training, the levels of desertion from the Afghan forces, and the very few cases in which some in the Afghan forces have turned their weapons on those in the international security assistance force. This is a crucial issue, because success in Afghanistan depends on it, so will he support increased international effort to improve the training and resilience of Afghan forces on the ground?

Indeed, I will. The right hon. Gentleman makes a crucial point. The international community, if it wants to be truly successful, must recognise that this is about not just the numbers but the capability. Those who intend to transition away from a combat role would do well therefore to put the resources into increased training in Afghanistan to ensure that what the international community sets out to do is achieved.

Former Service Personnel (Support Services)

The Government are committed to ensuring that all our former service personnel receive the support they require from across the whole of government. We also remain committed to rebuilding the military covenant.

My officials are in regular discussion with the Department of Health, the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Work and Pensions and others to ensure that former servicemen and women get the services they deserve.

Has the Minister considered lobbying the Government to change the law so that ex-service personnel can be discriminated in favour of in job interviews? Does he agree that were we to add ex-service personnel to the list of people in our society who can be discriminated in favour of, it would be a true example of positive discrimination?

I would say to all potential employers that most ex-service personnel bring with them a resilience and hard-work ethos that they may not find in every civilian. I would also say that we have very good resettlement packages for people going out into the civilian world, and we will certainly lobby employers to take disabled and other ex-service personnel on to their books. However, positive discrimination is illegal, and I do not think we are aiming to change the statutes. It is also unlawful to discriminate against disabled people.

The Minister has said in recent letters to Members that the Government have no plans to introduce a veterans card scheme, which many believe would assist in identifying veterans to ensure that they get the care they deserve. However, the report on the military covenant commissioned by the Government and published last week recommends implementing such a scheme. Will he now reconsider his view on this matter?

There is no point in commissioning a report without looking at it, and we are doing so closely—as the hon. Lady will know, we are already implementing one or two of its recommendations. The veterans card is a difficult one, because, as Labour Members in the last Administration will know, it is difficult to identify who has been in the armed forces over a period of perhaps 60 years, and to ensure that it is feasible. It is also difficult to identify what exactly would be the point of it. We should remember, for instance, that there is already a discount service for those people.

Harrier Fleet

The strategic defence and security review published on 19 October 2010 stated that the Harrier fleet would be withdrawn from service in 2011. We have brought this date forward to coincide with the cessation of flying. The Harrier fleet will now be retired from service with the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force on 15 December 2010.

I was lucky enough to sit in the cockpit of a Harrier jet when I was working for the British Forces Broadcasting Service in Gibraltar some years ago. The jets are fantastic pieces of kit. Does the Minister agree that the Harrier jets and their pilots have performed a great service for this country? Will he also update us on the training programme for the joint strike fighter, which is the replacement?

It is a pleasure to echo the hon. Lady’s words in paying tribute to all who have served with the Harrier, in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and in complimenting the Harrier itself, which, in its day, was a much-admired and, indeed, groundbreaking piece of engineering. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I had forgotten the hon. Lady’s question. Training for the joint strike fighter is already under way. Indeed, it will continue throughout the next few years, increasing its momentum considerably as we get into the second half of the coming decade, because of the necessity to bring the JSF into service in 2019. The intense training period will run for several years ahead of that, but the training itself has already begun.

The Minister for the Armed Forces said in an interview on 9 November that the Government would save more money by scrapping the Harrier than by scrapping the Tornado, yet the Minister responsible for defence equipment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), said in a subsequent written answer that the cost of supporting the Harrier to 2018 would have been £0.7 billion, whereas the cost of the Tornado over the next 10 years would be £3.1 billion. However, Lord Astor put the figure at £4.8 billion. Does that not show that there is not only a capability gap, in the words of the Secretary of State, but a credibility gap, too?

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is comparing like with like in those figures, but in any case, the military grounds for the choice were straightforward. It would not have been possible for the Harrier to go back into service in Afghanistan because of the run-down of the Harrier fleet under the previous Administration. Furthermore, the Tornado has a considerably greater range of capabilities, in terms of its range and performance, weapons payload and reconnaissance capabilities. The decision was taken on the basis of military advice.

RAF Bicester

RAF Bicester has been in disposal for some time, and it would not make practical or economic sense to withdraw it from that process now. Because the wider estate rationalisation work that is under way is a complex piece of work that will take some time to complete, where it is sensible to do so, we will allow normal disposal business to continue.

Can my hon. Friend explain to the chief executive of Defence Estates that RAF Bicester has absolutely no commercial value? It is a combination of a number of historic listed buildings, a runway surrounded by ammunition dumps that have the same statutory listing as Stonehenge and a grass airfield riven by Crichel Down disputes. Defence Estates has been trying to market RAF Bicester for several years now, yet absolutely no one has shown any interest in it because it has no commercial value. In the meantime, all that happens is that those wonderful listed buildings rot. That is a dereliction of duty, so can my hon. Friend get a grip with the chief executive of Defence Estates, so that RAF Bicester can be transferred to those in Bomber Command Heritage and others who would like to put it to good, heritage use?

I detect that my hon. Friend has a greater familiarity with the history than I do; suffice to say that whatever the history, it is now understood by Defence Estates. It has now been concluded that the site can be disposed of, and the accounts and views of former owners, among others, are being considered. When disposing of such defence assets, it is essential that competence and experience in dealing with historic buildings be taken into account. Any idea that the site had any significant commercial value has, I think, passed.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), but may I gently say that we must now make a bit of progress?

International Security Assistance Force

There are currently 48 troop-contributing nations and more than 130,000 troops in the international security assistance force. The UK is the second largest troop contributor after the United States, contributing around 7.5% of the total force. This figure is also double the size of the third largest contribution, made by Germany.

At this time I would like to pay tribute to our brave men and women who are serving in Afghanistan, especially as Christmas approaches. Is the Secretary of State surprised that UK troops in Afghanistan account for 43% of the troops contributed by European Union countries? Is he satisfied that our colleagues are doing enough?

No, I am not satisfied, and therefore the Government will constantly be urging our NATO partners to do more. However, it is worth saying that some of the smaller nations contribute disproportionately. In particular, given the difficulties that we face in Helmand, I am sure that the House would like to pay tribute to our Danish and Estonian colleagues, who have done such a wonderful job. In general terms, the message for the rest of NATO is that we all need to act together—and in together and out together.

Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of what he thinks the UK force representation in Afghanistan will be post-2015?

That is necessarily dependent on the security position in Afghanistan, especially as regards the quality—discussed in an earlier question—of the Afghan security forces, but I think it would be reasonable to expect the UK to be in Afghanistan in a training and support role for some time after 2015 to ensure that the legacy we hand over to the Afghan Government is maintained because, in the longer term, that regional stability is important for our safety here in the UK.

New Aircraft Carriers

6. What estimate he has made of the likely effect on the economy of his decision to build two aircraft carriers. (29881)

The construction of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers is expected to create or sustain around 7,000 to 8,000 jobs in the tier 1 shipyards of Appledore, Govan, Portsmouth and Rosyth, with a further 2,000 to 3,000 jobs in the wider supply chain. Equipment subcontracts to the value of some £1.3 billion have been placed to date, boosting local economies across the UK. The strategic defence and security review confirmed that both carriers will be built, and we expect that construction work on the programme will continue until late in this decade.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging answer. He may be aware that I have introduced the Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill to encourage better use of the public procurement system to increase the number of apprenticeships available. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that defence procurement increases the number of apprenticeships available, helping to build on skills bases in areas like the north-east, which has a proud history of manufacturing in this sector?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her initiative, and I can say that defence contractors up and down the country are committed to apprenticeships—and I pay tribute to them for that. It is very important that we maintain the skills base of our defence manufacturing industries, and they will be invited to contribute to the consultation that we are launching shortly on our new defence equipment policy.

Armed Forces Recruitment (Young People)

7. If he will take steps to implement the recommendations of parliamentary Committees in the last Parliament and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to end the recruitment of under-18s into the armed forces. (29883)

The United Kingdom ratified the optional protocol on children in armed conflict in June 2003. The minimum age at which individuals may join the armed forces remains at 16 years, which broadly reflects the minimum statutory school leaving age. There are no plans to change this.

Some 28% of recruits into the armed forces were aged under 18 in 2008-09. Recruitment to the armed forces carries significant emotional and physical risks to well-being for young people. What steps are the Government taking to mitigate those risks?

I recently took a passing-out parade at Bassingbourn, and I was struck by how happy all the young recruits under training appeared to be. We take our duty of care very seriously. It is a tough environment, but the recruits are well looked after, and most of the young people I met were desperate to join their units. We do not allow people under 18 to go to operational theatre as a matter of policy.

New Aircraft Carriers

8. What assessment he has made of the value-for-money of the contract to build two new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy. (29884)

The strategic defence and security review concluded that a carrier strike capability was needed for the future. The most cost-effective way of delivering that capability from around 2020 is to continue building both the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, fitting the operational carrier with catapults and arrestor gear to enable the use of the more capable carrier variant of the joint strike fighter.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that it cannot have been right on the eve of a general election, weeks before we reached the certainty of the strategic defence review, for a large UK supplier to enter into a contract with the Government? It was very difficult to break, so it effectively prejudged the result of the defence review. Is the Minister happy that BAE Systems acted in good faith in this matter?

Cancellation costs are a very complex area. The contract for the aircraft carriers was related to the programme of work, agreed by the previous Government under the so-called terms of business agreement, to sustain the ability to design and integrate complex warships in the UK. Over the next few years, the QE class is providing that work load, with a Type 26 global combat ship taking over later in the decade. If we were to cancel the contracts for the QE class under TOBA we would need to provide replacement work, which would come at a cost, compounding the inevitable costs of cancelling the QE class ships, one of which is already well under construction. This brings us to the position so clearly outlined by the Prime Minister in the SDSR announcement. I would not point the finger of blame so much at BAE Systems as at my predecessor, who acquiesced in the delay of the carrier contract, which led to £767 million of increased costs in the last financial year alone, and a total of £1.56 billion over the life of the programme, making his peerage just about the most expensive in British political history.

As the Minister knows, the best way of obtaining value for money for the “cats and traps” is to fit them during the construction of both Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales. Can he update us on the progress made by his civil servants in discussing the issue with Babcock, and will he also tell us when he will report to the House on the final decision?

The hon. Gentleman has a habit of asking me questions that I cannot answer. No decisions have been made yet, although they are currently being made. However, I can reassure him that we are considering carefully which system of “cats and traps” should be fitted to the carriers. Once again, he has made a point very well on behalf of his constituents.

Two new aircraft carriers fitted with joint strike fighters will put Britain’s naval strike force in the premier league, but how can the Minister justify the absolute necessity in the longer term if he is prepared to accept no aircraft cover in the shorter term?

I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman has even asked that question. It is clear that we can accept the capability gap now to ensure that we have a truly capable carrier in the future—and it will be a truly capable carrier thanks to the decision to change the carrier variant, which will significantly enhance the power and projection of the vessel.

Defence Exports

The strategic defence and security review set out our clear intention to increase defence exports as part of our enhanced defence diplomacy initiative. The principal purpose of such exports is to enhance our partnerships with allies, share UK ethos and doctrine, and generally promote the UK’s influence. They provide the additional benefit of helping to drive down the cost of equipment for Britain’s armed forces.

Ministers across Departments are already actively promoting the policy, led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Defence and Security Organisation, which is part of UK Trade & Investment, are giving invaluable support to Ministers and industry.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the enormous difficulties experienced by businesses such as Enterprise Control Systems in my constituency in securing export licences for the servicing and maintaining of equipment that they have sold abroad? Enterprise Control Systems makes world-class radio frequency inhibitors, but it is losing business because of the difficulty of obtaining credit licences.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the difficulties faced by the company in her constituency. I can tell her that she is not alone: other companies throughout the country are experiencing the same difficulties. It is very important for us to ensure that licences are dealt with promptly by the Ministry of Defence and its agencies.

Along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), who is responsible for defence equipment, support and technology, I will look into the specific points that my hon. Friend has raised. It would be helpful if she wrote to me.

Rolls-Royce, which is the largest employer in my constituency, plans to build a £100 million extension to its Barnoldswick site and to take on 100 extra workers if it wins the contract for manufacturing engine fan blades for the new F35 joint strike fighter. Is my hon. Friend able to update us on what the Government are doing to help Rolls-Royce to secure the contract?

I am acutely aware of the contribution that Barnoldswick in my hon. Friend’s constituency makes to Rolls-Royce, which is surely one of the extraordinary jewels in the United Kingdom’s engineering crown. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to Congressmen in both Houses on the Hill to emphasise our support for the F136 engine, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has had meetings with the head of Air Force Acquisition, Lockheed Martin and others. I assure my hon. Friend that this Administration are doing everything that he would expect of them to promote a great British product to the United States.

Of course we all want to see a successful defence industry exporting as much as possible abroad, but must there not be a bottom line, namely that we do not sell to corrupt countries or to countries that will use what they buy from us to oppress their own people? In that context, is it not important for us to ensure that exports of small arms—which often keep inflamed the battles and civil wars in Africa—are brought to an end?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to accept that we have one of the toughest export licensing controls for military equipment in the world. I yield to no one in praising the efforts of both the present Government and the last Conservative Government to ensure that, as far as possible, equipment has gone to the right people and not to those who would misuse it. We are, of course, governed by the law as well.

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point about small arms, but unfortunately the world is awash with small arms, many of which do not come from the United Kingdom.

Even during these current difficult economic times, the UK’s defence export sector requires ongoing research and technology investment, but if we are to increase levels of exports in the defence sector, how does that square with the Secretary of State’s view, admittedly when in opposition, that US-UK interoperability is the key and he would intend to follow a much more pro-American profile in procurement?

Of course having a viable and successful defence industrial base in this country is very important; there is nothing to be interoperable with otherwise. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we place a high premium on interoperability, partly because we think it will help to drive down costs if our equipment is interoperable with that of other countries. The United States is, of course, our principal ally in these matters, and is likely to continue to be—provided, of course, that they are helpful to us when we need their help in supporting our industry.

Departmental Reform

10. What recent progress has been made on reform of the structure of his Department; and if he will make a statement. (29886)

So far, the defence reform unit under Lord Levene has considered the key activities defence needs to undertake: an analysis of our current structure; how a number of other countries manage aspects of defence; and the benefits, disadvantages and robustness of a range of different operating models. It is currently considering proposals on how better to manage defence infrastructure and to deliver corporate services across defence. It is also examining the relationship between the head office, the rest of the Department and the armed forces.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his response and congratulate him on the progress made. Can he assure us that the much-needed restructuring of the Ministry of Defence will not impact on the operation in Afghanistan or the provision of services to any of Her Majesty’s armed forces?

As I have said, defence reform is, effectively, a root-and-branch reform of the entire Department including, essentially, everything other than the front-line capabilities that were covered in the SDSR. It will have no impact on what is happening in Afghanistan, which will remain the prime effort of the MOD.

In the context of reform, when does the Department intend to implement the recommendation in the report of the Secretary of State’s party colleague, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), envisaging the establishment of a veterans information service?

That is part of our ongoing programme. Between now and next summer, we hope to unveil a number of measures relating to that and similar aspects of how the MOD and the armed forces interact.

Will the reform of defence acquisition be included in the work of the DRU, and when will the DRU be likely to report?

Yes, acquisition will be part of what the DRU does; my right hon. Friend makes an important point. There will also be an announcement—I hope in the very near future—about a new chief of defence matériel, who will be important in that process. I hope the report on the acquisition reform will be available before the end of July 2011.

The SDSR projected savings from the redundancies of 25,000 civilian civil servants in the MOD. In answers to parliamentary questions, the Secretary of State has previously stated that the cost of redundancy packages are yet unknown. Will he today share with the House the cost of making 25,000 civil servants redundant, or is this just another area of the SDSR where announcements are being made before the work has been done?

Given the financial position the Government inherited, it was necessary to make major reductions in costs, not least in personnel. How those costs ultimately are manifested is dependent upon whether we require compulsory redundancies, how many are voluntary redundancies and how many are early retirements. These matters are subject to discussions with the civil service at the current time.

Major Equipment Procurement Programmes

11. What arrangements are in place to monitor the progress of his Department’s major equipment procurement programmes. (29887)

14. What arrangements are in place to monitor the progress of his Department’s major equipment procurement programmes. (29890)

I receive monthly reports and quarterly detailed project health checks on the Ministry of Defence’s largest projects. Last year, discounting deliberate policy decisions made by the previous Government, the MOD met all its targets to deliver its major projects to cost, time and performance. This year looks equally encouraging. The top 30 major projects are also reviewed annually by the National Audit Office and in this year’s report the Comptroller and Auditor General said:

“In-year performance on the majority of large defence projects which we examined has been encouraging".

But we should not wait for the NAO to tell us how we are doing at the end of the year. That is why I can announce to the House today that the Secretary of State and I are forming a major projects performance board that will review our most significant projects regularly.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that in a long line of procurement failures from the previous Government, the £38 billion overspend in the defence budget takes the biscuit? Will he reassure the House on what steps will be taken so that that level of commercial failure will be, like the idea of a Labour Government, a thing of the past? [Interruption.]

I hear howls of protest from those on the Opposition Front Bench, but over the weekend I heard the shadow Secretary of State fessing up to major failures in procurement. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.

I am happy to tell you, Mr Speaker, that I cannot comply with your request for short answers and do justice to my hon. Friend’s question because we have a range of measures in place to achieve precisely that outcome, including stronger controls over the entry for new projects in the equipment programme; a formal project start-up process that considers requirement risk, technical viability risk, affordability and deliverability; improving key skills; working closely with the NAO; and reaffirming our commitment to regular defence reviews. All that will achieve exactly the outcome that she so rightly desires.

Historically, one of the fundamental problems with procurement has been a disconnect between Ministers, civil servants, uniformed personnel and the defence industry. How do we intend to address that problem in the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We talk of a conspiracy of optimism in these major projects that has so often characterised procurement decisions in the past. The list I rattled through in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) partly addresses the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster). I am sorry that I said it so fast, but it was important to get it on the record. If I do not deliver on that, I think my job will be on the line.

Cyber-attacks

12. What recent steps his Department has taken to reduce the risk of cyber-attacks on the defence estate; and if he will make a statement. (29888)

As we set out in the strategic defence and security review, we attach a high priority to the cyber-defence of our systems. The Government have placed a renewed focus on that threat. We have recognised attacks through cyber-space as a tier 1 risk to national security and put an extra £650 million in place to enhance our protection. There are technical and procedural measures in place to protect MOD systems from cyber-attack and to ensure we can mitigate the impact of those attacks. The House will understand if I do not comment further on the detail of those measures.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Following the welcome Stuxnet viral attack on the Iranian nuclear facility, what steps is the Ministry of Defence taking to avoid a similar assault on our internet infrastructure?

Our cyber-defences are regularly tested by intruders, and we are confident in our defences. The threat, of course, is changing in extent and complexity, which requires continual improvements in our security measures and novel approaches to deal with the more sophisticated threats.

Recent news reports have indicated that cyber-attacks by WikiLeaks on critical national infrastructure are only likely to grow. Does the Minister agree that we must involve the private sector in ensuring that we can be ahead of the game when it comes to our cyber-security?

Yes. We are committed to working closely with the private sector in defence not only of our own systems but of those across Government. Many are, of course, provided by the private sector, so it is essential that we have the strongest possible partnership with it.

Afghanistan

13. What recent progress has been made on the transition towards Afghan-led security and the withdrawal of UK forces from Afghanistan. (29889)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, the strength of the Afghan national army currently stands at around 144,000 and of the Afghan national police at around 116,000. Through continued investment in Afghan forces, we are confident that, by the end of 2014, they will be able to take the lead for security across their country.

Given that answer—that our aspiration is to withdraw from Afghanistan and that the SDSR is focused on supporting our troops over there—are we still wise to have effective cuts in our expeditionary fighting capabilities, particularly in the light of recent events in North Korea?

In terms of what is happening in Afghanistan, we have made it very clear not only that that is the primary aim of our activity in the Ministry of Defence, but that it would be unaffected by the SDSR, including that particular expeditionary capability. It is not just what the armed forces are doing that contributes to that security: the UK’s biggest direct police training effort is in Helmand, where we have 77 UK military personnel and nine MOD police improving the quality of the Afghan police, who are just as important as the Afghan national army for long-term security.

Why is the Secretary of State still in denial about the number of desertions and dismissals from the Afghan army and police being similar to the number of new recruits? Will he face up to the fact that when NATO leaves and the Afghan Government are fleeing to their boltholes in Dubai, the number of people deserting the Afghan army will increase massively?

It is the hon. Gentleman’s opinion that flies in the face of the facts. The net size of both the Afghan national army and police are increasing, as is their capability, and the governance that will ultimately determine how they are deployed is improving. There is cause for cautious optimism and it does nothing for the morale of our forces when people constantly pretend that there cannot possibly be a positive outcome in Afghanistan.

Sea King Helicopters

16. What studies his Department has undertaken on the feasibility of operating the existing fleet of Sea King search and rescue helicopters beyond 2016; and if he will make a statement. (29892)

As part of the review of the search and rescue helicopter project a number of options have been considered, including extending the current search and rescue Sea King helicopters beyond 2016. An announcement will be made shortly.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but will he explain why he plans to spend about £7 billion on American search and rescue helicopters rather than upgrade the Sea Kings at a fraction of the cost? Sea Kings did an incredible job during the flooding in my constituency.

Apart from anything else, that is the plan we inherited. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that all options are being considered extremely carefully. I repeat that an announcement will be made shortly.

Service Accommodation

The Government place a high priority on the welfare of service personnel and their families and will therefore seek to improve accommodation where necessary. More than 95% of service family accommodation properties in the UK are currently at the top two standards, out of four, for condition.

The Minister will be aware that as a result of the sale of the Chelsea barracks in 2007, £959 million was raised. Can he confirm that that money will be ring-fenced for service accommodation and that any future investment during the comprehensive spending review period will be new, rather than previously allocated, investment?

There was a story in the News of the World which was not entirely correct. [Interruption.] It was not entirely correct. A great deal of money was raised from the sale of Chelsea barracks but that was some four years ago when I do not recall our being in power. Having checked on this we have discovered that although the money is not ring-fenced, because we do not believe it should be, we have spent the vast majority of it and we will spend well in excess of that amount. As a matter of interest, on Thursday I was fortuitously at Bulford, where I started the work on a new married quarters estate that will provide 260 state-of-the-art houses for our deserving personnel.

Armed Forces Personnel (Redundancies)

19. What effects the redundancies in the armed forces announced in the strategic defence and security review will have on standing commitments. (29895)

The strategic defence and security review sets out the requirements for the armed forces’ contribution to standing commitments and identifies the restructured forces we will need over the next 10 years to meet them. Changes to the armed forces will not affect our non-discretionary standing commitments.

In respect of the cancellation of the Nimrod mark IV maritime patrol aircraft, does the Minister agree with the First Sea Lord, who said earlier this month that he was “very uncomfortable” about it and that

“I don’t welcome the loss of the Nimrod”?

Are there any plans to replace the Nimrod and is it acceptable to make such cuts to our capability when military personnel are so concerned?

I entirely agree, as do all Ministers, with the discomfort that the First Sea Lord feels about this; the decision not to bring the Nimrod MRA4 into service was very difficult. We will have to bear some risk—it would be wrong to claim otherwise—but we will mitigate that risk by using other assets in the meantime, just as the previous Government had embarked on doing.

Defence Industry

22. What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of the defence industry on the effects of the reductions in expenditure proposed in the strategic defence and security review. (29899)

Ministers and officials have had many discussions with industry representatives both during and since the outcome of the strategic defence and security review was announced in October, including a full meeting of the National Defence Industries Council, which I chaired last month.

In October 1,000 people were put out of work by BAE Systems in Lancashire, and last week a further 1,300 job losses were announced, owing to SDSR cuts. Does the Minister think that these job losses are a price worth paying, and does he agree that they will have an adverse impact on the economy of east Lancashire?

I emphatically do not think that is a price worth paying, but sadly it is a price that we have to pay, thanks to the economic incompetence of the previous Government.

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.

What measures will the Minister be taking to improve the timeliness and reliability of the service voting scheme ahead of next year’s elections and referendum?

It would have been highly desirable to make the changes that we envisage ahead of the elections next May. It is unlikely that we will be able to do so in that time frame, but it is clear that change is needed. It is primarily a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but we have had a number of ministerial discussions between the two Departments to try to clarify those plans and to ensure that we have a legislative slot to enable us to implement them as quickly as possible.

We have heard again today that our armed forces are helping to create new freedoms in Afghanistan. Here at home, the right to protest peacefully is crucial, but in recent days we have seen the appalling violation of the Cenotaph. Will the Secretary of State support an all-party cross-Government approach to see whether our war memorials, which are engraved with the names of many of our country’s heroes, are properly protected from the actions of the few of our country’s mindless hooligans?

I fully associate myself with the comments of the shadow Defence Secretary. There must be outrage across this country at some of the scenes that we witnessed last week. In particular, it might be worth emphasising in the House to those students who took part in some of those demonstrations and who seem to take the freedoms that they have so much for granted that those freedoms were won by the sacrifices of previous generations, the names of whom are commemorated on some of those monuments. They deserve to be treated with far greater respect than they were last week.

T2. 23 Engineer Regiment is based in my constituency and is one of a number of regiments currently serving in Helmand. The Minister has already taken the opportunity to pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Herrick 13, including our Danish and Estonian friends, but will he also pay tribute to the families of our brave servicemen and women who provide such strong emotional support, especially in this Christmas season? (29901)

I have great pleasure in doing exactly that and paying tribute to all those who are serving in Afghanistan, who will be away from their families over Christmas. Our thoughts are with the families as well. On the contribution being made in Helmand by our friends and allies from Denmark and Estonia, they have both been terrific and resolute allies to us and it will be my pleasure to visit both countries later this week to thank them for what they are doing and to discuss future co-operation.

On “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday, the former Prime Minister, John Major, said

“what I am wary of is giving advance notice of leaving. If you were Taliban what would you do on hearing that troops were leaving in 12 to 24 months? I think you would just wait until they had gone. We have to be clear what we are doing and”

why we are doing it.

Can the Secretary of State tell us why he thinks the former Prime Minister, who is supportive of the current Prime Minister, feels the need to say that now?

As I said, there are no short-term milestones in terms of numbers, so there is no possibility of us setting out in advance the numbers that withdraw in 12 or 24 months. The Prime Minister made it clear that we may be able to reduce troop numbers if conditions on the ground are suitable.

We have decided to extend our membership of the European Defence Agency provisionally for two years, during which time we want to see the agency focus on capability-building, not institution-creation. The EDA, with the support of most other member states, wanted a 4% budget increase, but I am very pleased to be able to report to the House that at last week’s meeting of EU Defence Ministers I was able to secure their agreement, nem. con., on a budget freeze, saving the British taxpayer about £200,000.

Moray has the most defence-dependent economy in the UK, and recently the Ministry of Defence announced the closure of RAF Kinloss in the region. Given that neighbouring RAF Lossiemouth has already been rated as the best base for the next generation of fast jets, will the Secretary of State confirm that the ongoing RAF basing review is considering the unparalleled economic and social dislocation that would be caused by a double-base closure in Moray?

The primary purpose of the basing review is to get the best defence outcomes for the United Kingdom. Obviously, those who represent seats in the area, the Scottish Government, the Scotland Office and others will wish to make representations about other aspects, including the social and economic impact, but the Ministry of Defence’s recommendations will be based on the military solutions and what is best for the country as a whole.

T4. Will the Minister update me on the progress of the reserved forces review, mentioned in the SDSR, and confirm that there will be no cuts to 56 Signal Squadron? It is partly based in my constituency, and I personally had the good fortune to witness the skill and dedication of its members during the cold snap, when, if it had not been for them, I think my local hospital would have struggled to stay open. (29903)

I certainly pay tribute to the Signal Squadron and its work during the cold snap. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot pre-empt the review, which only started less than two months ago, by saying whether there will be any changes to the squadron’s configuration. What I can say is that we very much value the commitment and contribution of the reserves both at home and, now, on operational deployments.

We are constantly being told that the next Parliament after 2015 will have to take the final decision on replacing the Trident nuclear missile system. Exactly how much money, which would otherwise not need to be spent, will be spent between now and then in preparing for that decision?

That will depend on the initial gate decision and what flows from it, but it will be necessary to spend money to make it very clear that we are undertaking the research and development work that will be essential in allowing us to make that final decision. On the Government’s policy, there is no change: we are committed to a submarine-based, continuous at-sea deterrent, because we believe that it is not only most effective, but cost-effective for the United Kingdom in an uncertain world.

T5. I find myself, surprisingly, echoing the comments of the shadow Defence Secretary. Many of my constituents were outraged by the desecration of our nation’s most revered war memorial, the Cenotaph, last week by student yobs. No one has the right—no matter what the reason—to disrespect our fallen soldiers, and we should remember that their sacrifices allowed those people to demonstrate in the first place. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those acts and in calling for the full force of the law to be used against those who carried out that wicked deed? (29904)

In the spirit of Christmas, my hon. Friend should not be surprised that he now and again agrees with the shadow Defence Secretary. I do, again, echo those comments. Last week we saw a number of students who were peaceful protesters in support of their aim and we saw a number whose behaviour got out of hand, but to my eye we also saw a number of hard-line, anarchist and subversive groups parading on our streets, and that is utterly unacceptable in a free, liberal and democratic society.

May I take the Minister back to RAF search and rescue? Does he not understand the concerns of my constituents and the many thousands of people who walk and climb in the Lake district that we might be about to pay substantially more for an inferior service? If it remains the cheapest and best-value option to re-fit the existing helicopters, will he consider doing so?

I can reassure the House that the Government are absolutely committed to best-value options, unlike the Labour party. I repeat that the announcement will be made very shortly and the hon. Gentleman will be able to judge the decision on its merits. I am afraid I can say nothing further until then.

T6. Will the Secretary of State give the House an as full as possible update on the ability of the Afghan Government to prevent terrorist organisations from organising within their own borders? (29905)

As I said, along with the international community, we are making a major investment in the capability of the Afghan national security forces—both the army and the police—to establish a permanent rule of law and security in Afghanistan. The command structure of the Taliban and al-Qaeda has recently been disrupted, but it is worth the House noting that it is not simply the Government of Afghanistan who are involved in this. We require the constant co-operation of the Pakistan Government if we are to make that very vulnerable border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as safe as possible and give terrorists as little chance as we can of having a safe haven.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the 1,400 job losses announced by BAE Systems as a result of Government cuts. That is a tremendous blow to the people of Preston, particularly those working at Samlesbury and Warton. Will he undertake to support tranche 3B of the Eurofighter Typhoon project, which they have not yet approved, and the joint strike fighter aircraft for the new two aircraft carriers?

It is always regrettable when there are job losses. We remember that, behind every number, a family will undergo financial hardship as a consequence of such decisions. I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that we will be promoting Typhoon at every possible opportunity. I had a number of discussions in the Gulf last week on that issue and I recently visited India to try to boost the Typhoon bid. We are fully committed to the joint strike fighter, which will give us a fifth generation capability far greater than anything we currently have and offer intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—capabilities, which will see us well into the first half of the century.

T7. My hon. Friend will be aware of the sacrifice of the thousands of men and women of Bomber Command during the second world war. That sacrifice has never been properly recognised by the award of a campaign medal. When will it be? (29906)

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those of Bomber Command and, indeed, to the whole of the Royal Air Force during the second world war? They fought to defend our freedom so successfully and we owe them an enormous amount.

A review into medals is taking place—indeed, there are meetings this week—and I am also having meetings about a Bomber Command memorial, which will go up opposite the Royal Air Force Club in St James’s park. It is a very fine memorial, and I look forward to it being erected and to paying proper tribute to Bomber Command, which I know some people feel has been slightly forgotten.

Further to the Secretary of State’s earlier statement that there will still be British troops in Afghanistan post-2015, will he confirm whether Afghan national security forces or someone else will be responsible for their security?

It is very clear that the aim is to have the threat degraded and the capability of the Afghan national security forces increased, so that they can take control of their own security. Some assistance with training and support may be required, but it is very clear—President Karzai has repeatedly made it clear—that it is the wish of the sovereign Government of Afghanistan that they take control of their own security by the end of 2014.

What possible strategic advantage would there be in the closure of RAF Leuchars in my constituency, when the base is uniquely geographically positioned to provide comprehensive air defence for the northern half of the United Kingdom?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an eloquent bid for the retention of the base in his constituency, as he has also done in private. As I said in answer to an earlier question, the basing review will be based purely on what gives Britain the best defence network. We will be taking those decisions over the coming months. We understand that there will be other considerations but, in determining our bases, it is the Ministry of Defence’s job to consider what makes Britain safest.

When will the Secretary of State face the truth that his irrational optimism about a victory in Afghanistan is based on three collapsing foundations—the Afghan Government and the endemically corrupt police and army? Will he ask himself the question that haunted Senator Kerry in the last days of the Vietnam war: “Who will be the last soldier I will send to his death for a mistake?”?

I do not believe for a moment that it is irrational optimism that drives a coalition of 48 countries to want to see not only better security, but better governance in that part of the world, which has a global impact. I would far rather be a victim of hope than despair.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to our armed services, including reservists, who are prepared at a moment’s notice to mobilise to help in a national emergency such as that in Edinburgh last week? (29908)

Our armed forces responded in a number of parts of the country to the snow emergency that we saw last week. In response to the request from Edinburgh city council, we immediately made armed forces assets available. I am sure that it is to the delight of the whole House, and especially to the Scottish Government and the Scottish nationalists, that it was Her Majesty’s United Kingdom forces whom we were able to deploy for that purpose.

I think we can all agree on the overriding importance that this House places on the defence training needs of the whole of the UK armed forces tri-services. In a debate last week, we tried to get an answer to the question of what is the future of the defence training academy at St Athan after the news of its cancellation, but answer came there none. Can the Minister now give us an update with some clarity on what is the future for St Athan?

The defence training requirement across the three services is being reviewed in the light of the collapse of the project at St Athan. We are identifying possible sites either for tri-service training or taking the three services separately, and we will make an announcement when we have concluded that work in the spring.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on Britain’s role and strategic involvement in the middle east following the talks held in Manama? (29909)

There has been a substantial amount of diplomatic activity by all parts of the Government, including the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. There have been a number of visits to Gulf countries as part of our Gulf initiative to strengthen the relationships in what is a very important strategic part of the world. At the Manama dialogue, I had a number of bilaterals in-which I had discussions with the United States and some of our most important allies in the region.