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Volume 522: debated on Monday 31 January 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

RAF St Athan

The defence technical training change programme is currently considering options for the future location—or locations—of defence technical training. St Athan is one of the options being considered.

I really do not understand the Government’s approach to this one. Does the Minister not realise that not going ahead with the St Athan defence training establishment as proposed snatches the advantages of integrated training away from all three services, and will be a body blow to south Wales, which is a region that has always been massively supportive of the services? Can we please have a decision from the Government on something positive about the future of St Athan?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the private finance initiative project to deliver an integrated solution at St Athan failed—it simply was not possible to find a cost-effective solution and raise the funds necessary to build it. However, it does not follow that we have abandoned the proposition of an integrated solution. That is precisely what is being pored over at the moment by the change programme team. We hope to be in a position to draw that work to a conclusion as soon as possible.

Does the Minister accept that, in these times of financial hardship, rather than building a new facility it would make more sense to consolidate defence training in areas with spare capacity, such as HMS Sultan in my constituency? It delivers outstanding engineering training and is in the heart of a military community.

The current training takes place at a variety of locations across the three services, some of which, including HMS Sultan, are in good order and could provide training well into the future. However, I have to say that other locations are in rather less reputable states of order and will have to be replaced. The change programme is currently considering whether there are such overwhelming advantages to having everything on one site that they would overcome the case against leaving some of the better facilities, such as the one my hon. Friend mentioned. As soon as we have a conclusion, we will report to the House.

Armed Forces Pensions

2. What estimate he has made of the number of armed forces personnel and their dependants who will be affected by proposed changes to the uprating of armed forces pensions; and if he will make a statement. (36735)

The change in the future uprating of public service pensions to the consumer prices index applies to all new pensions coming into payment, those pensions currently in payment and to the future uprating of deferred pension rights. CPI is deemed more appropriate than the retail prices index because the Bank of England uses it to measure inflation and it is an internationally standard measure. We understand the concerns that have been raised about this matter, but such is the scale of the economic problems that we inherited that no part of society—not even the armed forces—can be fully exempt from the need to find ways to reduce the budget deficit.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that the change to CPI will mean a lower pension for those currently on one, which will be particularly difficult for service personnel who are retiring early because of grievous injuries caused in conflicts we are currently undertaking. Will he confirm to the House whether the change is intended to be temporary for the purposes of deficit reduction, or whether he intends to short-change our personnel on a permanent basis?

We most certainly do care about those whose pensions may be affected. In April 2010, RPI was less than CPI—it was actually negative—so RPI is not always better than CPI for pension uprating. The move is intended to be permanent because it will go forward for all public sector pensions and will be how public sector pensions will be determined in the future. If the Opposition wish to change that, perhaps they should announce now that they will change all public pensions back to RPI, should they ever—God forbid—be re-elected to office.

There is increasing anger about this policy, and that has now been joined and taken up brilliantly in a campaign by the Daily Mirror. Yet the Government will not say how much the move will save them; they will not admit that it could cost a young Afghan war widow £750,000 in payments; and they have not explained that although the deficit is temporary, this cut is permanent. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to offer a direct answer to a direct question: given that, as we now know, this is not about deficit reduction, has he consulted the armed forces families federations, and what have they told him about this permanent cut?

I shall be meeting the armed forces families federations in the very near future. However, I have been reading an article by the right hon. Gentleman in which he said that his pride in the armed forces was “lined with anger”—an interesting use of English! I was proud of the armed forces throughout the 18 years I served, and I, too, am angry—I am angry that we are faced with a financial situation that is damaging this country and our armed forces.

Iran (Nuclear Weapons)

3. What assessment he has made of Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability; and if he will make a statement. (36736)

Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons as assessed. However, it continues to pursue uranium enrichment and the construction of a heavy water research reactor, both of which have military potential, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. We share the very serious concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran not having adequately explained evidence of possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme. We will therefore respond accordingly.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but in the light of recent comments by Meir Dagan, who recently retired as the head of Mossad, about Iran’s first nuclear weapon possibly being ready by the middle of this decade, will he make a statement on how the Government intend to proceed in their approach to Iran’s nuclear programme?

My hon. Friend raises perhaps one of the most important questions at the present time, which is: how do we assess Iran’s intentions and how do we assess the time scale? Despite his long experience, I think that Mr Dagan was wrong to insinuate that we should always look at the more optimistic end of the spectrum. We know from experience, not least from what happened in North Korea, that the international community can be caught out assuming that things are rosier than they actually are. We should therefore be clear that it is entirely possible that Iran may be on the 2012 end of that spectrum, and act in accordance with that warning.

May I invite the Secretary of State to read the article in the current edition of International Affairs by Professor Nigel Biggar, the regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford? He argues that

“one lesson that we should not learn from Iraq is never again to violate the letter of international law and intervene militarily in a sovereign state without Security Council authorization. The law’s authority can be undermined as much by the UN’s failure to enforce it, as by states taking it into their own hands.”

The one thing that might be worse than action against Iran is Iran possessing a nuclear weapon.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a useful point. With the United Nations having made the assessment that it has, it is clear that we have a moral obligation to carry forward the actions outlined, not least the economic sanctions, which are now beginning to have an effect. For Iran to have a nuclear weapon would be the worst of all possible options for global security, not least because it is likely to usher in not only the end of non-proliferation but a nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region.

What sort of signal does it send to Iran and other hostile would-be proliferators that our nuclear deterrent could be put at ransom in the event of another hung Parliament, as a result of our not having signed the key contracts and the hostility towards the replacement of Trident evinced by the Liberal Democrats?

The Government remain committed, including in the coalition agreement, to the renewal of our nuclear deterrent. As I am sure my hon. Friend would expect, I will be campaigning to ensure that the next Parliament is not a hung Parliament, but one in which we have a minority—[Interruption]—a majority Conservative Government.

I shall forgive the Secretary of State that slip of the tongue. Has he made any assessment of the breakdown of the P5 plus 1 negotiations in Istanbul, and can he say whether there are any plans to resume them?

There is always a need to maintain the dialogue, if only to make it clear to Iran that there is no weakening in the position of the international community. It is also essential that, as well as just talking, real measures are taken. If we are serious about the Iran issue, we need to look at it this way. It is a binary question: Iran will either become a nuclear weapons state or it will not. If we are intent on the latter course, the international community needs to act as well as speak. At the present time, that primarily means ensuring that the financial sanctions, which are having an effect on the regime in Tehran, are fully implemented and that no domestic considerations are put ahead of international security and well-being.


The price for the future strategic tanker aircraft service was set in competition and also assessed against a public sector comparator before the contract was let in March 2008. Nevertheless, because I understand the concerns about the use of PFI for military procurement, I commissioned a thorough, independent review of the contract, which concluded that there was now no persuasive value-for-money case for pursuing an alternative mechanism to secure this urgently needed capability.

I thank the Minister for that reply. This is but one of many apparently wasteful and expensive private finance initiative projects within the Ministry of Defence—including, most recently, dog kennels at the Defence Animal Centre that are reported to cost more than rooms at the Park Lane Hilton hotel. Does the Minister think there is a case for taking a very detailed look at the MOD’s PFI contracts to lower their cost and improve value for money to the taxpayer?

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am glad to say that a lot of work is being done within the work strands on renegotiation of PFI contracts. Three operational PFI projects have been selected and the pilot phase has commenced with the aim of making savings as part of the renegotiation process. The three projects are the Corsham development, Main Building redevelopment and the defence sixth form college. We expect to have the potential savings identified by the end of March.

Does the Minister accept that the AirTanker project secures tens of thousands of jobs in the UK and was the best option in comparison with the more expensive and sub-standard option put forward by Boeing?

I am quite clear that the AirTanker will be an outstanding aircraft and do its job very well. It is urgently needed to repair a fragile air bridge and perform its main function of in-air refuelling as well. I understand, however, the hon. Gentleman’s point of view.

Veterans (Benefits)

5. What his policy is on the provision of benefits to veterans; and if he will make a statement. (36738)

Veterans who are injured as a result of their service before 6 April 2005 can apply for compensation in the form of a war pension. For those whose disablement affects their ability to work, additional provision may be made in the form of supplementary allowances, paid in addition to the war pension.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he explain why it is proving so difficult, in terms of benefits, to treat the UK’s atomic veterans as fairly and equally as the atomic veterans of other similar nations?

The hon. Gentleman ought to discuss that matter with his own Front-Bench team, as it was the last Government who appealed against the ruling in favour of the atomic war veterans—

Absolutely. As the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) will know, the courts have now decided in favour of the Government. I pay tribute to those who took part in the tests many years ago, but it was about 60-odd years ago and I am afraid that the courts have found that there is no causal link whatever between many of the disabilities and illnesses suffered and exposure to any radiation.

Will the Minister expand a little on his reply in respect of the long-term help that veterans will receive. He has referred to the short-term help, but many of the injured veteran personnel in my Devizes constituency are concerned about where the support will be in 20 or 25 years’ time.

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. Injured personnel have a high profile and the support of the country at the moment, but in 15, 20 or 30 years’ time, it might be rather different. We are putting in place a whole raft of initiatives. I pay tribute to the last Government, who put a lot of it together. We supported the personnel recovery centre, among others, and there will be such a centre in Tidworth. God willing, we look forward to opening it in the near future.

The Deputy Prime Minister announced a “health for heroes” scheme for veterans in a newspaper article on 23 January. How much funding has the Ministry of Defence dedicated to this scheme?

This is not actually an MOD but a Department of Health measure. As I understand it, the whole mental health package is worth £400 million and it will be announced in April. Some part of it will go towards assistance with mental health problems among members of the armed forces. We already provide a great deal of support to those with mental health problems, not least through the “Fighting Fit” report of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison).

Defence Contracts

The Ministry of Defence does not have offset agreements in defence contracts. We do invite prospective offshore suppliers to propose, on a voluntary and non-contractual basis, how they would work with UK companies in support of a contract placed overseas. Following the publication of a Green Paper in December, all policy issues relating to the acquisition of defence equipment are the subject of a consultation that closes on 31 March.

Will the hon. Gentleman consider looking at this offset very seriously? Other countries use offset to great benefit, some using it to stimulate investment in environmental technologies. I know that the Government are consulting, as he says, so will he meet a group who have been discussing the issue and some of the industry leaders to discuss it further?

Defence Exports

As I reported to the House during Question Time on 13 December, we are supporting defence exports through an active and innovative defence diplomacy initiative, working closely with the UKTI Defence and Security Organisation. Exports help to build and enhance relations with allies, to support the UK’s defence industry, and to drive down the cost of equipment for Britain’s armed forces. Ministers and officials from across the Government, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, are already actively promoting British defence exports overseas.

Does the Minister agree that there is a real potential for increased defence exports and the increased jobs that they would bring to every part of the country? Perhaps he sees the Type 26 global combat ship as a perfect example of that potential.

The global combat ship frigate programme does indeed present a tremendous opportunity for the United Kingdom to put the policy into practice. I am delighted to say that we are in close discussion with the Canadians. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just returned from an extremely profitable visit to Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. All those countries have expressed interest in joining the United Kingdom in a collaborative programme that would have the benefit of bringing together not only members of the Commonwealth but some of our key allies, while also driving down costs for the Royal Navy.

Will the Minister tell us how he will protect the United Kingdom’s defence industry, as other Governments throughout the world protect theirs? Or will he be leaving it open to market forces, which will inevitably mean that our armed forces will be supplied by foreign Governments and companies?

The United Kingdom is the second largest exporter of defence equipment in the world. This is a fantastic opportunity that builds on the very strength of Britain’s defence industry, which is the second most successful in the world. It is that on which we are capitalising, it is that which we are determined to support overseas, and it is that which, I am pleased to say, commands respect overseas. Let us not knock it; let us support it.

At a time of necessary cuts in Government, some of my constituents would like to see the UKTI Defence and Security Organisation closed. What assurances are the Government given by our allies who receive defence exports that they will not use them to harm or, indeed, to intimidate their own people?

I am very sorry that the hon. Gentleman wants to see UKTI DSO closed. I can see a few Opposition Members whose faces reveal that they view that prospect with great alarm, as indeed do all my hon. Friends—as well as, I see, the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy). UKTI DSO is doing a fantastic job, but that job is not done in isolation; it is done in accordance with long-established law, under which we ensure to the best of our ability that we do not export irresponsibly.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman, who clearly failed to understand the purport of my original message, that defence exports are not there simply to generate income. They are there to strengthen alliances with existing allies, and to promote alliances with new, important allies, in a very volatile world.

Departmental Procurement

The Government are determined to drive out the mismanagement of the equipment programme experienced under the last Administration. Developing a balanced, affordable programme must be our first priority. The strategic defence and security review and the current planning round process are major steps on the road to achieving that, but ongoing acquisition reforms, the work of the defence reform unit, and the appointment of Bernard Gray as Chief of Defence Matériel are also signals of our determination to address the issue successfully.

I thank the Minister for his answer. I also welcome Lord Currie’s review of single-source pricing regulations. The major projects reports produced by the National Audit Office in 2009 and 2010 issued scathing assessments of the last Government’s record of purchasing defence equipment. How will the Currie review ensure better value for money for taxpayers?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the review, which I announced to the House last week. Given that some 40% of work by value is secured through this route, it is crucial to the taxpayer that we secure value for money from procurements. It is important for industry to be given incentives to reduce costs, and this will be good news for small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which find the present procedures for procuring work exceptionally onerous. Moreover, by making industry more competitive on world markets we will increase our export potential. It is a win-win situation.

Can the Minister tell the House what the implications of the strategic defence and security review are for organisations and companies that depend almost entirely on Ministry of Defence contracts—for example, Remploy? The Remploy factory in my constituency depends entirely on MOD contracts and its workers are frightened for their jobs. Can he give me assurances that I can offer to those workers that their jobs are secure for the future, based on MOD contracts?

I cannot offer that specific assurance—I am not aware of the specific situation—but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the situation in detail, if that would help.

What is the nature of the inquiries taking place into the procurement of the search and rescue helicopter contract? Do they involve the police or potential disciplinary action? When will we know whether the contract has been completely invalidated by what has been discovered?

The investigation into the issue notified by the preferred bidder is ongoing. Until the issue has been properly considered it is not possible to progress to procurement. I hope that it will be possible to make a further statement to the House on the way forward. No decision has yet been taken on this matter and, in view of the issues involved, there is nothing more I can say at this stage to the House.

Tornado Maintenance Facilities

10. What estimate he has made of the cost to the public purse of relocating Tornado maintenance facilities away from RAF Marham. (36743)

As I said in answer to my hon. Friend on 8 November, all relevant costs, including those arising from any necessary relocations, will be given full consideration prior to any decision being taken. However, because the facilities she refers to are a major infrastructure installation, operated by contractors, it would inevitably be expensive to relocate.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In Thursday’s The Press and Journal he is quoted as saying:

“The costs of relocating out of Marham would be very high”.

He also described the economics of making that decision as being “not…clever”. When is he going to present a full analysis? Given the state of the deficit, does he agree that cost should be a major factor in making the decision?

Let me make it clear to the House that the primary consideration in the basing study will be the military advantages and the military necessity of locating particular things in particular places. We will, of course, have to take account of the financial climate in which these decisions are being made and their socio-economic impact. We are addressing all these things and hope to make a full announcement in the spring.

I wonder whether the Minister would care to comment on last week’s press reports that he told a meeting at RAF Lossiemouth that RAF Marham would be too costly to close. Those comments will have appalled those working at RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars, who believed that they would get a fair hearing from Ministers as they carried out their base review. Should we not conclude from his comments that the review is nothing but a sham?

I should correct the hon. Gentleman by saying that the meeting in question took place at RAF Kinloss. What I said to the Moray Task Force, whom I was meeting at the time, was that the costs of moving the in-depth maintenance facilities from Marham and, indeed, paying to relocate the staff of the contractors involved would be so prohibitive that it would potentially undermine any savings that might accrue from closing a base. The economics of moving the in-depth maintenance facilities for Tornado at this stage in Tornado’s life cycle would, as I said on Thursday last, be very questionable indeed.

Departmental Project Management

11. What steps his Department is taking to increase the effectiveness of project management for its major projects. (36745)

The National Audit Office’s recent major projects report shows that the well-documented problems with some of the largest procurement projects have generally been caused by poor and deliberate policy decisions, and that project management itself is improving. But we are doing more to improve project management, including: running a programme to increase skills; forming a major projects performance board to review our most significant projects regularly; and appointing Bernard Gray as Chief of Defence Matériel, where he will build on the improvements made by his predecessor.

Following numerous Select Committee recommendations, the Department’s own guidelines run to eight pages in setting out what should be included in project histories, yet the £4 billion Nimrod project history runs to just two pages; makes no mention of senior responsible owners or senior staff changes; and took the Department seven weeks to produce, even though it already has this document, which is marked unclassified and had no redactions. Will the Minister write to me within the next month listing all the major defence projects that do not comply with the Department’s own guidelines on documentation and what the gaps in documentation are?

I am reluctant to turn this into a diary session for my diary secretary, but I think it would be very helpful to discuss this important issue with my hon. Friend. Departmental good practice guidance on maintaining project histories allows scope for project team leaders to interpret it and decide what best meets the needs of their project depending on its size, complexity and nature. The format and content are not mandated and, frankly, the problems with the Nimrod MRA4 project are about the most well-documented of any major procurement programme we have.


12. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (36746)

Based on what I saw on my recent visit to Afghanistan, including my conversations with commanders and politicians, I assess that important security gains are being made. They are not irreversible and we can expect a high tempo over the winter and throughout the year. Although there are many challenges, there is cause for cautious optimism in the growth of the Afghan national security forces. We have the right strategy, numbers and equipment in place and now a little strategic patience is required to ensure that we are successful. Both 2011 and 2012 will be key years in that regard.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the best way forward for Britain’s long-term strategic security interests is to form long-term relationships between the international security assistance force military leaders and the Afghan police and military commanders? What observations would he make on the level of co-operation between UK forces and Afghan security leaders?

That is an ongoing and progressing relationship. I point my hon. Friend to one particularly successful project—the police training taking place in Helmand. Those involved in that project throughout the country would recognise that what the British armed forces are doing is very possibly and very probably the leading project of that kind. If we can not only continue with what we are doing but export it as best practice to others, we will be making a doubly important contribution.

Gains that are clearly being made by our armed forces at an operational level will be undermined if we do not get things right at the strategic level. The growing of the Afghan national security forces and the attacks being made on the Taliban leadership will not be enough on their own: what is being done to pump some life into the reconciliation process? Surely we need to get that strand of work up and running and get the Americans committed to it before the 2014-15 deadline.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. It has always been the case that there could not be a political settlement without a military settlement and vice versa. We now have quite large military gains on the ground, as he says, but he is quite correct that those gains cannot be maintained unless we get an acceleration in the pace of the political programme. There are gains being made at national and local level but they are neither widespread nor deep enough. We need to ensure that throughout this year we push the Government of Afghanistan to understand that we need to make progress now, while we have a reasonable following wind, because this is the crucial time to be able to get the gain on the ground that will make what we are trying to achieve sustainable.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that all the emphasis in recent months has been on the withdrawal of our combat troops by 2015 and that it would be worth while concentrating on putting some more flesh on the bones of the role that we will continue to play after then, including, perhaps, in officer training?

Clearly, there will be a role for the United Kingdom to play in that period, but it would be impossible to assess now what it will look like without knowing what the contribution from the international community will be. We very much hope that our international allies in ISAF will recognise that the concept of in-together, out-together is a sensible one and that countries do not simply transition from the safe areas that some might be in at present, right out of Afghanistan, but instead take part increasingly in the NATO training mission. By that means, we can have a proper share of responsibility after the transition away from combat forces. I think that would give us greater legitimacy and would give the mission greater acceptability in the UK.

I agree with so much of what the Defence Secretary said in response to those questions. I returned from Afghanistan yesterday with the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary. We were all moved by both the bravery and the modesty of our armed forces in Afghanistan. I agree with the Defence Secretary that people are moving away from a sense of reluctant pessimism to cautious optimism about the effort in Afghanistan. With the international forces exiting combat roles by 2015, as he mentioned, and given the point that he made about training the army, which has to be strong, even though most recruits cannot read and write, and many recruits cannot even count the number of bullets to place in a rifle, what success has there been so far in trying to persuade some of those nations, which are leaving earlier than us, to commit to that training effort not just in their own areas, but across the whole of Afghanistan?

May I say first how grateful we are to the Leader of the Opposition for reasserting the bipartisan approach to Afghanistan? It is very important for our national security and for the morale of our armed forces. I am grateful for that support, even if I know that it is not endorsed by all sections of his party. That makes the decision even braver and even more in the national interest, so I thank him for that.

The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) is right that it is important that we encourage those of our allies who may be moving out of a combat role into a training role. The decision taken by Canada in recent weeks is welcome. We wait to hear more details of the decision that may be taken by the Dutch. The National Security Council, on the Prime Minister’s instruction, has sought to find areas where Ministers have a particular personal engagement, where we might be able to maximise the pressures that we can bring to bear to get exactly that training mission outcome.

Trident Replacement Submarines

13. Whether any components for the construction of Trident replacement submarines are to be purchased prior to main gate decision in 2016. (36748)

We are currently considering the initial gate business case for the successor submarine and, as part of the next phase of work, we would expect to purchase some long-lead items so that the first boat can be delivered in 2028. This is normal good practice for major build programmes.

How much is the Minister planning to spend on Trident replacement before he gets parliamentary approval in the main gate? Will he seek parliamentary approval of such spending?

By definition, until the initial gate business case has been approved, I am not able or prepared to give a figure. We will make that information available in due course, when decisions have been made.

May I say how pleased I was to accompany the Minister with responsibility for procurement, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), around Barrow shipyard a couple of weeks ago? The Defence Secretary knows that of the £3 billion of so-called savings in the Trident value-for-money review, more than half are deferments. Will he tell the House the increased cost of deferment, and why he thinks that approach is acceptable, given how often he spoke out against it when he was in opposition?

There are two imperatives. The first is to ensure that we have the successor programme. The second is to ensure that we do it within the financial constraints that the Government are forced to take on board, given the economic position that we inherited. Through the value-for-money study, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, we looked to see how we could extend the life of the current programme, if possible, to minimise the expenditure in early years. That is helpful not only in reducing the deficit in the period set out by the Government, but in ensuring the success of the programme itself.

It would appear from the answers to freedom of information requests that the steel, the computer systems and the combat systems, among other things, for the first submarine have been ordered and will have been paid for. It also appears that the three reactors for the first three submarines will have been ordered and paid for before MPs can scrutinise the main gate business case. What will remain unspent for the first submarines? Will we be so financially committed that the whole main gate decision is made irrelevant?

Whatever amount of money is spent on the lead items, technically it is up to any Parliament at any time to determine whether any programme can or cannot go ahead. It is clear from the coalition agreement that we are committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea minimum credible nuclear deterrent that will protect this country from nuclear blackmail and ensure that we make our role apparent in reductions in total nuclear armaments.

How can the Government, who plan to save money by closing libraries and selling off our forests, justify wasting tens of millions of pounds on a useless virility symbol when they cannot give any plausible future situation in which Britain might use a nuclear weapon independently?

I have explained the same point to the hon. Gentleman before. I can only explain it to him; I cannot understand it for him. What is important about the concept of deterrence is deterrence; that we do not need to use it. The whole point of deterrence is to make it clear to any potential aggressor that we will not even consider the impact of nuclear weapon strikes against the United Kingdom and so will maintain a nuclear deterrent to ensure that we never get to that position.

Armed Forces Pensions

14. What assessment he has made of the effect on armed forces pensions of proposed changes to indexation arrangements for public sector pensions. (36749)

No robust assessment of the kind requested can be made as future movements of the retail price index and consumer price index are not known. To use the current 2010 rate as the basis for any forecast would give an unreliable representation of future payments in the long term as these rates will fluctuate over time.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but does he not agree that most studies suggest that CPI produces a higher pension than RPI? Does that not count as a cut in military and service personnel pensions?

If I may gently prod the hon. Gentleman, he has it the wrong way round: RPI is more likely to produce a higher pension than CPI, which is not what he said. As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), there was no upgrading of pensions at all in April 2010 because RPI was negative in 2009, and that is the way things are. It was a hard decision, but we believe that it is in the best interests of the country and of the armed forces as a whole.

Returning Troop Costs (Germany)

15. What estimate his Department has made of the cost to the public purse of returning British troops from Germany (a) between 2010 and 2015 and (b) between 2015 and 2020; and if he will make a statement. (36750)

The strategic defence and security review stated the Government’s aim to withdraw all forces from Germany by 2020. That objective is now being taken forward within a wider basing study aimed at making the best possible use of the defence estate. The basing study will take into account a range of factors, including cost, and is expected to report in the spring. Any costs incurred as a result of rebasing should be offset by the savings made in the longer term. While on a day-to-day basis it is more expensive to base troops in Germany than in the UK, this policy is not primarily about saving money. It is about enhancing our operational effectiveness and welfare.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but how much will the UK Government need to pay the German Government in compensation or reparations when our bases are vacated by British troops and handed back to German control?

The Government may need to pay redundancy costs to locally employed civilians, depending on circumstances, and costs might also be incurred in buying out any contractual obligations. However, the UK Government are not obliged to compensate either the Federal German Government or local communities for the impact of the British Army leaving Germany. The net injection to the German economy is around £700 million a year, so the hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on whether that might be better injected into the British economy.

The Minister will be aware of the considerable capital investment programme of the past 10 years for garaging and other heated facilities for armoured vehicles of the British Army of the Rhine. Will there be a similar programme in this country, or will the vehicles remain in Germany?

There is a general principle that we do not ask the Army to relocate to premises that are inferior to those in which they are already stationed. It would certainly be our intention to ensure that that is the case when they return to the UK.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

16. What recent assessment he has made of how the commitments in the strategic defence and security review are to be funded from his Department’s budget settlement. (36751)

The strategic defence and security review established the policy framework for the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces, and the capabilities that they will need to meet future challenges. It includes a period of rebalancing over the next few years as we transform, but further work is required to fully balance the books because we are not there yet and are still in planning round 11.

In a recent Financial Times article on the subject, headed “MoD faces fresh crisis over funding”, which predicted a £1 billion shortfall for each year, a senior military figure is quoted as saying:

“Every day at the MoD these days seems like a day at the dentist.”

What on earth could he have meant?

I have no idea, but, given that I can pick in any one newspaper on any one day at the present time some quotation from some senior former or serving military personnel, I can put all sorts of interpretations on all sorts of things. What I am very clear about is that Ministers and the military will work together to deliver the SDSR and our 2020 vision. Hopefully, through that period of transformation, we will come out with armed forces properly equipped and shaped for Britain’s proper national security.

Civilian Personnel Reductions

I have regular discussions, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, on civilian reductions. There is also an ongoing dialogue between officials and the recognised departmental trade unions over the implementation of the civilian reductions.

I thank the Minister for that response. Can he kindly outline which units in the Ministry of Defence he anticipates the 25,000 job losses announced in the strategic defence and security review will come from? If he cannot say now, can he outline when he will be able to end the uncertainty?

That is a perfectly reasonable question from the hon. Lady, but I am afraid I cannot say now. There are two things that I should say, however: first, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are meeting the trades unions about those reductions late in February; and secondly, the permanent secretary to the MOD announced on Friday night—released, therefore, to most people this morning—the forthcoming launch of the voluntary early release scheme. I am sure that the full text will be in the Library.

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 armed forces covenant.

In terms of the Department’s major projects, how much does the Minister think it can save through contract renegotiation, as announced in the SDSR?

There can be some savings on contract renegotiation, and they are currently being discussed, but in the very near future I shall set out a new set of rules for the management of financial projects, which I hope will ensure that we get real-terms control over budgets. Far too often, we have been looking at post-mortems by the National Audit Office, and in my previous profession I did not regard post-mortems as a satisfactory outcome.

T2. As my right hon. Friend seeks to build the armed forces covenant, will he pay close attention to the Strachan report and, in particular, those recommendations to offer enhanced accommodation allowances, expand the pilot shared equity scheme and encourage banks to offer forces-friendly mortgages, so that members of our armed services get a firmer foot on the property ladder? (36760)

It was, indeed, a valuable set of recommendations, and we are going through them one at a time at the moment. I am instinctively very much in favour of all the elements that my hon. Friend sets out, and in the very near future we shall in fact produce some further projects, which I hope will provide considerable enhancements to some elements of the covenant not previously covered—and at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

The Secretary of State wrote to the Prime Minister on 27 September saying that scrapping Nimrod would

“limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly…increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime counter terrorism, remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.”

Given the sight of Nimrod being broken up last week at Woodford, can he tell the House whether that decision was taken for defence reasons or because he lost his battle with the Prime Minister?

Here is the extent of the humbug. The previous Government, in March 2010, actually took the Nimrod MR2 out of service, so there was already a capability gap by the time this Government came to office. First, we looked at the strategic environment, and the service chiefs and the intelligence services advised us that the gap that would be left could be managed with the assets that were already being used to fill the gap that the previous Government left when the MR2 was withdrawn. Secondly, the financial project itself was too long over time, and too far over budget—it was not able to fly and carry out the tasks that were asked of it. It should have been cancelled years ago. This Government had the nerve to do it; the previous Government did not.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend explain the steps that he is taking to ensure that in future the defence budget is put on a sustainable footing, so that future incoming Governments do not have to cancel capabilities such as the Nimrod MRA4 because of the reckless spending of their predecessors? (36761)

None of us wanted to see reductions in the defence budget for their own sake. What the House and the country need to understand is that the size of our national deficit is a national security problem. Next year, this country will be paying £46 billion in debt interest against a defence budget of only £37 billion. Even if the current Government eliminate the deficit within five years, that debt interest will rise. That is money being paid for nothing because the last Government were unable to contain their urge to spend, spend, spend.

T4. Can the House be assured that the pace of submarine production at the Barrow shipyard is sufficient to retain the skills that will deliver an independent, British-made successor to the Vanguard submarine? (36762)

Yes. In the SDSR, we are committed to the seventh Astute submarine, partly to ensure that the skills base was there as we went through to the successor programme. We regard the ability to build and maintain our nuclear deterrent successor programme as part of our sovereign capability.

T6. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that British small businesses get a greater share of defence contracts, in terms not only of volume, but of value? (36764)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that very important plank of our policy towards the defence industries. At present, we are consulting through the Green Paper and I urge him to respond to that consultation. There are 18 separate questions on what we can do to improve the relationship between small and medium-sized enterprises and the MOD.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the outstanding work of the Centre for Defence Enterprise, which is bringing innovative SMEs into the defence market for the very first time, and is very much welcomed by those SMEs.

T5. The Big Lottery Fund has recently extended the deadline for the excellent Heroes Return 2 scheme, administered from Newcastle, that provides funding to help veterans and their families take part in commemorative visits, either in the UK or abroad. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have been encouraging my constituents to take advantage of the scheme. Will the Minister outline what support he and his colleagues are providing to encourage uptake of that funding? (36763)

We certainly support the scheme, which I understand is largely run by the Royal British Legion, although I do not have the details at my fingertips. It is an excellent scheme. We support the national lottery, the Royal British Legion and the whole programme.

T7. Given the Government’s desire to improve armed forces accommodation and obtain greater value for money for the taxpayer, does the Minister accept that useful lessons can be learned from the Canadian Government’s example of outsourcing the management of armed forces housing, a policy that produced savings and improvements to accommodation facilities? (36765)

My hon. Friend is right. We are looking at every option as to how we can make housing for our troops more efficient. We shall certainly look at what my hon. Friend has mentioned as well; if he wants to make a submission, he is very welcome so to do.

The Ministry of Defence is aware that Moray is the most defence-dependent community in the UK and uniquely faces the threat of a double RAF base closure. Does the Secretary of State understand the damage that the delayed basing announcement is having on the economy of the north of Scotland? Why is there a delay in the announcement in the first place, given that the RAF made its basing recommendation at the end of last year?

We have some evidence, but not the final submission, on that. Of course, we are also awaiting from the Army the elements of rebasing that may be part of the issue relating to the return of British troops from Germany.

I fully understand that many have an increased level of anxiety because of the time taken to make those decisions. But they are not single decisions; they are interrelated decisions. Although I do understand, I am afraid that we have to ensure that we make the right decision, not just a quick decision.

T8. Shortly after the formation of the coalition, Lord Levene and others were appointed to review defence procurement. Some of us hoped that that might mean a radical reform of protectionist procurement. What progress can the Minister report on Lord Levene’s review and any recommendations that may be forthcoming? (36767)

Before the general election, we set out four aims for procurement: that it would give our armed forces what they need when they need it, at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer; underpin our strategic relationships; give greater stability for planning; and increase exportability. Those are all still aims that we are hoping to achieve. The review is well under way. The Defence Reform Unit has considered a number of these issues. Together with the appointment of the new Chief of Defence Materiel, I can assure my hon. Friend that, if anything, we will be at the radical end of reform.

I know that Ministers touched on this issue earlier, but air-sea rescue is of enormous interest, not only to me but to the nation. I have attempted to get the answer to this question, so can he tell me whether the lead Department is the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Transport? When can we expect a statement in the House about this issue?

Both Departments are involved, but the lead Department is the Department for Transport, and any statement to the House will come from Transport Ministers. We hope that that will happen as soon as possible but, as I think the hon. Gentleman will understand, legal complexities are at play. The key thing is to decide how we are going to take forward search and rescue facilities, and I hope that the Department for Transport will be in a position to make a statement to the House very soon.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the importance of the contribution of smaller countries to our mission in Helmand province, and, in particular, the very gallant and disproportionate contribution made by Estonia and Denmark? (36768)

Few things give me greater pleasure in this House than to acknowledge the sacrifices made in Afghanistan by some of the smaller countries, two of the most important of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend. I hope to make a visit to Afghanistan with Defence Ministers from some of those countries. The whole House will want to place on record our solidarity not only with the families in Denmark and Estonia who have suffered loss, as have families in the United Kingdom, but with the outstanding military contribution that they have made, which is perhaps, in many ways, a good example to some of the sleeping giants in NATO.

The Government have pledged 12 new Chinooks, which are crucial for the UK defence industry capacity and for national security because of their role in Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have signed the contracts for these new helicopters? If not, can he explain what that means for the British defence industry, when he expects the contracts to be signed, and when these much-needed Chinooks will enter theatre?

I counted about four questions there, but the Minister is a specialist in pithy responses, and we will hear him.

I can confirm the answer to that question when the current planning round is settled, but I assure the hon. Lady that we understand the importance of these helicopters for the mission in Afghanistan.

A key player in the security situation in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which, in the war on terror, has seen more of its civilians and security and military personnel killed than any other country. Last week, I was part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the Government and people of Pakistan for their efforts to date and encourage them to maintain that level so that our forces in Afghanistan are supported?

What we are attempting to deliver in Afghanistan will not be possible without the support of the Government of Pakistan. Perhaps a good note for all of us to have would be one that reminds us to thank the Government of Pakistan when they do what is helpful to the mission rather than criticise them when the opposite is true. It is also of great importance that we in the United Kingdom, and our allies, make it clear that we have a post-Afghanistan strategy for Pakistan and that we intend to have a long-term programme of help and encouragement.

The Health Protection Agency has said that servicemen present during atomic bomb tests more than 50 years ago have since been plagued with cancers and rare medical conditions. Did the Minister see reports in the media yesterday that the MOD has ignored urgent calls for research into the health of nuclear test veterans, and will he agree to have the DNA of test veterans studied as a matter of urgency?

There have been many studies into the health of those who witnessed the explosions on Christmas Island, and they have concluded that those who witnessed the explosions have not suffered greater health problems than others. I stand by the clinical and legal position on that, as did the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman would presumably like to say he supports.

Has the Secretary of State assessed the state of rehabilitation services for members of the armed forces who have received trauma care, and who are living with complex, life-changing injuries? Will he accept representations from me on behalf of a constituent?

I would be happy to accept representations. The trauma care given by the medical services in the armed forces is excellent. There is a 25% chance of survival, whereas there is only a 6% chance of survival in the national health service. The Secretary of State for Health and I went to Birmingham 10 days ago for the opening of the new Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology research centre at the Queen Elizabeth hospital. That is an excellent facility that leads the way in trauma care in this country.

Given that the Department is currently holding a consultation on how to decommission nuclear submarines, will the Secretary of State give my constituents a cast-iron guarantee that not a single bolt will be taken out of those submarines until a waste route has been identified and, crucially, established?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance on the dismantling of nuclear submarines. That is not only the MOD view and Government policy, but a regulatory requirement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that avoiding nuclear arms proliferation, wherever it comes from, is a key objective of his Department? Will he update the House on what he is doing to pursue that objective?

As I mentioned earlier, the House will be aware that there is one great threat to global non-proliferation: the ambitions of Iran. There is no more important policy for long-term security and for the maintenance of the non-proliferation treaty than ensuring that Iran, although it may have access to civil nuclear capabilities, does not become a nuclear weapons state. I do not think that I could have ended on a clearer note.

Why, when the Prime Minister said there would be no cuts in infantry capability while we were on a combat mission in Afghanistan, is the strength of the Royal Marines being cut?

There is a very small headcount reduction in the Royal Marines—the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. However, those units were not going to be deployed to Afghanistan and, in consequence, this will not undermine the effort in that country.

(Leeds North West) (LD): The city of Leeds has very close connections with HMS Ark Royal, following the remarkable fundraising campaign by local people and the adoption of the ship in 1941. On 12 February, the crew of HMS Ark Royal will be given the freedom of the city of Leeds and will take part in a parade. Will the Secretary of State join me in saying what a wonderful event that will be? Does he agree that there should be a permanent commemoration of this link?

This is a commendable link. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the city of Leeds. Whenever there is an example of civic life recognising the sacrifices of our armed forces, both are enriched.