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Topical Questions

Volume 520: debated on Monday 13 December 2010

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.