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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 525: debated on Monday 14 March 2011

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

1. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (45696)

The whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on 9 March. The House will want to join me in paying tribute also to the station commander of RAF Northolt, Group Captain Tom Barrett, who was killed in a road traffic accident on the evening of Thursday 10 March. Many members of the current and former Governments will have known him well. Both men served their country with honour and distinction, and our thoughts and prayers are with their friends, colleagues and families at this very difficult time.

The security situation in Afghanistan varies significantly across the country. About 64% of violent incidents take place in just three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar, which have about 11% of the total population. The insurgency’s heartland remains in the south. The increases in the international security assistance force and Afghan national security force have helped us to make real progress over the winter in all aspects of our counter-insurgency operations: security, governance, and development.

I join the Secretary of State in his tributes to our fallen soldiers.

The security situation in Afghanistan may have a permanent impact on service personnel after the conflict. Taking into account valuable lessons learned from previous conflicts, such as the Falklands, whereby more servicemen took their own lives afterwards than died during fighting, what measures are in place to support servicemen and women who experience mental health or social problems either during or after the conflict?

My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. It is all too easy to see the physical scars of war; it is much more difficult to see the mental scars of war. It is because of the importance given to the matter by the Government that, cross-departmentally, we are making more funding available to mental health projects for our armed forces. We are looking at the scientific evidence available to see whether we can better target that help, but the measures that we are putting in place include the new phone line for service personnel.

The Secretary of State will recall that on 14 February he made a moderate and encouraging statement to the House, saying that he thought that the second half of this year would be a good time to make a political push towards a settlement. He also said that we would pay a heavy price if we failed to take the opportunity that would then occur. He has since no doubt seen the Defence Committee’s report, which says that at the moment the Americans seem disinclined to pursue a political settlement. Can he assure the House that he will use his best endeavours to encourage the Americans to take the course that he has recommended?

I am not sure that I am required to make efforts to get the Americans to make such a change in their posture, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. In fact, I spoke to Secretary Gates at the ISAF meeting in Brussels at the weekend, and it is very clear that we are all now moving together. The process of transition, including which parts of Afghanistan will undertake that transition, will be announced by President Karzai on 21 March.

The Defence Secretary brings a welcome dose of realism to his post, but given that counter-insurgency operations in the past, such as in Malaya, suggest that not one of the pre-conditions for success exists in Afghanistan today, why does he think this is going to be different, and why does he think that we are going to beat the Taliban?

Our aim in Afghanistan has been to create a stable enough Afghanistan so that it is able to manage its own internal and external security without the need to rely on the international community. We have put in place improvements in governance, as well as an improvement in the security position. We have seen a big increase in the size and capability of the Afghan national security force, which should enable Afghanistan to maintain that position when the international community leaves in an active role.

North Africa

The Government keep plans for the use of our armed forces under constant review, and planning with our NATO partners is also ongoing. A number of contingency plans with respect to Libya are being considered by NATO, including further humanitarian assistance, enforcing an arms embargo and the implementation of a no-fly zone. No decisions have yet been taken and no assets have yet been committed.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, prior to any no-fly zone in Libya being undertaken, he will get the support of the United Nations and the Arab League to achieve that objective? Will he also look at the resources in the strategic defence review to ensure that our troops and our aircraft have the support of air force personnel and aircraft to meet those objectives?

The Government have made it clear, alongside our NATO allies, that in relation to a no-fly zone, three criteria have to be met: there has to be a demonstrable need; there has to be a clear legal basis; and there has to be involvement of the countries in the region. Clearly, we would not be planning if we did not have the assets readily available for the task.

On Friday, the BBC carried a report that two Nimrod R1 aircraft, which had been due to come out of service at the end of this month, had been reprieved, at least until June. Was it true? Are there any other recent decisions that are being reconsidered or perhaps should be reconsidered as events in the Arab world unfold?

As I have just said, we always ensure that the assets are available. I asked the armed forces to look at whether we could have a temporary extension for the R1 until we were sure that we had sufficient alternative assets to be able to provide us with the same capability. That work is being undertaken at the moment.

We all pay tribute to the work that our forces are carrying out in and around Libya at the moment, and we support the Government’s work in attempting to achieve a no-fly zone. However, there remain serious issues about earlier decisions, not least on HMS Cumberland, which has done so much off Benghazi, but whose next journey will be to be decommissioned. Also, some Nimrod aircraft that were previously bound for scrap may have won a temporary reprieve. Given that the National Audit Office report says that the RAF currently has only

“eight pilots who are capable of undertaking ground attack missions on Typhoon”,

and that that will not be sufficient in future, why does the Secretary of State think it is right to sack almost 200 trainee pilots?

As I have said repeatedly in the House, we have had to reduce the number of aircraft available for the future as part of the strategic defence and security review, not least because of the budgetary position that we inherited. It does no good whatsoever to the credibility of the Opposition to complain about reductions made as a result of their budgetary incompetence when they will not tell us what their budget would be or what cuts they would support or not support.

The Secretary of State should spare us the lecture. This from a Government who allow soldiers to be sacked by e-mail, whose actions mean that this week, for the first time in decades, we do not have the ability to put an aircraft carrier to sea, and who will not guarantee that anyone currently serving in Afghanistan will be exempt from being sacked. The defence review was rushed; it has not survived the first contact with world events. Three words missing from it were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many experts are worried about new gaps in capability. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no future cuts in military capability in the lifetime of this Parliament?

The word missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s comments was “sorry”—sorry for the position in which he left our armed forces, with an MOD budget massively over-committed at £158 billion. What Labour Members still have not recognised is that their own economic incompetence is a liability for this country’s national security in the long term. We are taking the measures to put this country back on a firm footing in a way that they never could and never had the courage to do.

Industrial, Security and Technology Policy

3. What recent progress his Department has made on its consultation on the defence industrial, security and technology policy Green Paper. (45698)

Our Green Paper, “Equipment, Support, and Technology for UK Defence and Security: A Consultation Paper”, was published on 20 December 2010, and progress on the consultation is encouraging. Ministers have engaged extensively with a wide range of interested parties, including right hon. and hon. Members of this House and of the House of Lords. Last week, a consultation conference took place at which over 200 people from industry, academia, service providers, trade bodies and the public discussed the Green Paper issues with Ministers and senior officials. I encourage anyone interested to send in their views on the issues outlined in the Green Paper before the consultation period ends on 31 March 2011.

Can the Minister give me an assurance that he will give due weight to the need to have a steady and constant stream of graduates in the complex scientific disciplines that underpin the research and development work on which the future of our defence industry rests?

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend precisely that assurance. I am constantly amazed and delighted by the excellent work done by our scientists. I am in regular discussions with my colleagues in other Departments to ensure precisely that outcome, and he is right to highlight its importance.

Does the Minister share with his colleagues in industry his plans to cut the science and technology budget by £80 million? Will he tell the House how much impact that will have on our future ability to develop military capability?

It grieves me that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in considerable regard and esteem, should ask such a question after the monstrous slashing of the science budget under the previous Government. Last year alone, £100 million was taken from the science budget by his party and his Government. I am glad to tell him that the science budget has been largely protected—[Interruption.] It has been largely protected from the massive problems that we inherited from him and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench. The budget will rise in cash terms over the spending round period. That is a remarkably successful outcome, and I am delighted by and proud of it.

Is the Minister in a position to update the House on the Government’s proposals to support the unmanned aerial vehicles programme, because that has a direct link to the skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke about?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of protecting skills in the fixed-wing sector in general. I cannot give him that update at present, but good work is proceeding in this area and there are some very interesting things that I hope to report to the House in the relatively near future.

At last week’s consultation conference on the Government’s Green Paper, which was hosted by the Minister, Mr Neil Stansfield, the head of security and counter-terrorism, science and technology at the Home Office, warned the Government of the dangers of taking equipment “capability holidays”, and argued that it is not possible to dip in and dip out. In light of that, do the Government think that it is wise to take a nine-year capability holiday in carrier strike, a decision that the noble Lord Ashdown described at the weekend as “illogical”?

They just don’t get it, do they? We do not wish to have that capability gap, but were forced to take additional risks in the defence budget because of the mess we inherited from the Labour party. I regret that and do not welcome it, but it is a risk that we have to take.

International Arms Trade

4. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of proposals for further regulation of the international trade in arms; and if he will make a statement. (45699)

We strongly support proposals for an arms trade treaty. It should reduce the proliferation of conventional weapons and technology in unstable regions. By agreeing and implementing criteria that set high standards for the export of conventional weapons and technology, the Government maintain a rigorous and transparent arms export control system, whereby all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The arms trade treaty will better regulate the international trade in conventional weapons and contribute towards preventing conflict, which is a key interest for the Department.

Our Government should be congratulated on their strong role in the international arms trade treaty talks in New York last week, which will lead to a great improvement around the world. However, does the Minister accept that sales of British defence and security equipment, licensed under this Government and the previous Government, to countries such as Libya and Bahrain show that we need to take a far more careful look at our exports, as well as advising the rest of the world?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the progress towards an arms trade treaty is encouraging. The recent preparatory committee meeting certainly went well. As I have said, the UK maintains rigorous controls. Clearly, the changing political situation means that we will have to monitor sales to various countries far more closely. When considering future export licensing applications, we will follow the terms of the newly agreed UN arms embargo in the case of Libya. In terms of other countries, such sales have been going on for some time, as my hon. Friend said, but I am pleased to say that there have been no recent sales to Bahrain, for example.

We should all welcome the advances towards an international treaty. However, I urge the Minister to point out to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) the huge importance of the British aerospace industry to the economy not only of the country, but of the regions where it employs many thousands of skilled workers. In that context, the criteria for deciding to whom we sell should be current criteria. For example, we should consider the huge advances made in Indonesia under President Yudhoyono, not only in its economy, but in human rights and democracy in that country. Will there be an up-to-date assessment of which countries are appropriate?

We keep under constant review the progress made in different parts of the world, and apply that against the criteria. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise the significance of defence exports and the rigorous controls that are in place. Exports bring great value to the economy, industry and defence. They contribute not only to our defence diplomacy, but to the interoperability of our systems with those of our allies around the world.

Nuclear Deterrent

5. How much of the sum allocated by his Department to the Trident replacement concept phase has been transferred from its budget for the assessment phase. (45700)

The concept phase for the programme to replace the Vanguard submarine was extended to allow potential designs to be developed more fully, and to allow the value for money of the programme to be reviewed. The previous Government approved a sum of about £255 million for that extension, and this January the coalition Government authorised an additional sum of about £25 million.

On 19 October last year, the Prime Minister said that

“a proper full replacement of Trident is the right option for the future.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 805.]

However, on 10 March, the Liberal Democrat chairman, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), said:

“I’m pretty confident there will not be a full replacement.”

Will the Minister please tell us what the formal, agreed coalition Government policy is on Trident replacement?

The coalition Government are committed to the replacement of the Trident submarine, but our Liberal Democrat colleagues have the right to argue another position.

Can my hon. Friend assure the House that the decision set out in the strategic defence and security review will not alter the nature or credibility of our nuclear deterrent, and that it will ensure that we maintain Britain’s ultimate insurance policy?

Means of Identification (Licensing)

6. What recent representations he has received on the acceptance by licensed premises of his Department’s form 90 as a means of identification. (45701)

Since this Government came into office, the Ministry of Defence has received a number of letters from Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friend, and from the public concerning the use of MOD form 90 as a means of identification for non-official purposes. I am delighted to confirm that we have now agreed to a change in policy, allowing service personnel to use their service identity card as proof of age, and have written to the relevant trade associations encouraging their members to accept it.

I thank the Minister for the answer and for the support that he has given my constituent, ex-Coldstream Guard Lance Reah, in his campaign on the matter over the past year. Does my hon. Friend agree that the change will have a big impact on the morale of our soldiers, and that the fact that the Opposition failed to make any progress on the matter in 13 years demonstrates that their actions do not match their words?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that when I was serving in the Coldstream Guards it was a matter of some upset when young-looking soldiers who were prepared to lay their lives on the line were denied entry to pubs. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaign, and I am particularly pleased to see that I am on the front of “Warrington Matters” in connection with it. I do not think the photograph of me is very flattering, though.

Trident Replacement Programme

The programme to replace the Vanguard submarine completed the initial concept studies, and we expect an announcement on initial gate approval in the coming weeks. There remain ongoing discussions, which have simply taken longer than it was anticipated a few months ago. It is important, given the size of the project, that we get the decision right.

At a press conference organised by the anti-nuclear deterrent front organisation, the British American Security Information Council, a Liberal Democrat Defence Minister stated that a very thin paper trail had led to the last Government’s decision to renew Trident. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the White Paper produced by his Department and the last Government was actually a first-class piece of work, was recognised as such by my right hon. Friend who is now Prime Minister and gave every good argument for why we went into the Division Lobby with the Labour Government to support that renewal?

The White Paper was a thorough piece of work. It was the basis on which the House made a considered decision on the issue, and I still believe that for the long-term well-being and security of the United Kingdom, a continuous at-sea, submarine-based, minimum-credible nuclear deterrent in the form of the replacement for the Trident programme is the best way forward.

There seems to be a non-sequitur on the funding of the construction of this new weapon of mass destruction. In answers to me, the Secretary of State has pointed out that £300 million has been spent on advance orders for new steel and other things. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) a few moments ago, however, the Government talked of a figure of £25 million. Where exactly has the authority come from, other than the honeyed words “custom and practice”, for the expenditure of apparently up to £1 billion on preparation for the development of this new weapons system?

On the broad picture, if we choose to go ahead on the dates set out since the White Paper—we have changed them slightly since coming into government —long-lead items need to be ordered. The Government have set out clearly that we believe that that is the best course for the UK. The main gate decision will be taken some time after 2015.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether UK nuclear submarines rely on back-up power supplies to run their coolant pumps, just like Japanese nuclear power stations? Is that why Commodore MacFarlane, the defence nuclear safety regulator, recently said that UK submarine reactor safety falls

“significantly short of benchmarked…good practice”?

One decision in the Trident replacement will be whether we move to pressurised water reactor 3 for improved nuclear safety. The Government’s view is that that is the preferred option, because those reactors give us a better safety outlook. That is a debate on both sides of the Atlantic, but we believe that in terms of safety, the case is very clear-cut.

NATO Reform

The UK is a leading proponent of reform in NATO. Encouraging progress has been made over the past year, with agreement on streamlining NATO’s command structure and supporting agencies and improvements to its financial management. However, swift implementation of the reforms will be key, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear at the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers last week.

In addition to those reforms, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has the capacity to help with democratic institution-building in countries such as those in north Africa which we hope are emerging into stronger parliamentary democracies. Did the Minister’s discussions with NATO involve those capabilities?

I pay tribute to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—indeed, I was speaking earlier to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) who leads for the UK on that, and I would very much like to meet other Assembly representatives. However, I ought to point out that NATO is principally a military alliance. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear last week, three principles will guide any intervention in Libya: demonstrable need, a clear legal mandate, and solid support from the region. That is the policy that NATO has adopted.

Does the Minister agree that NATO reform would be pretty meaningless unless we can convince our fellow NATO members to step up to the plate and spend 2% of gross domestic product on defence?

I have to agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. That point has been made by the NATO Secretary-General to those recalcitrants, and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his counterparts. She is absolutely right and I am very pleased to support her.

Cyber-security

As we set out in the strategic defence and security review, we attach a high priority to the cyber-defence of our systems. Since I last updated the House in December, we have made considerable progress in this area. Our new global operations and security control centre is now up and running, and we have commissioned a new monitoring system to detect cyber-attacks against our defence systems. We have also appointed a very senior military officer to lead a defence cyber-security programme to transform our approach over the next four years and to meet our SDSR commitments. The House will understand if I do not comment further on the detail of the measures we take to protect our systems, but we are not complacent—we must outmatch a rapidly changing threat.

Is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed by Dr Kim Howells, former Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, regarding the close links between BT and the Chinese telecoms firm, Huawei, which has close links to the red army? Does the Minister agree that that could make us more vulnerable to cyber-attack from China, and what steps can he take to reduce that risk?

The recent Green Paper on equipment, support and technology identified cyberspace as both one of the benefits and one of the risks of the modern world. We are developing a joint approach with industry because of our mutual reliance on networks, which gives us the opportunity to discuss with BT and others both those benefits and the risks to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

Given that the important threat from cyberspace affects both the private and public sectors, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage innovative solutions from the private sector to help the public sector?

We have started a relationship with the private sector, and there has been an initial meeting with private sector leaders at Downing street. It is essential that we have the maximum co-operation between the private and public sectors, because many of the networks on which public services depend are managed under contract by the private sector. It is also essential that there is good international engagement with our allies, and there will be new memorandums of understanding with some of them shortly.

In the light of allegations that I gather will be made tonight on the “Panorama” programme that the News of the World was hacking into mobile phones and computers used by the Army in Northern Ireland, will the Minister ensure that the security of mobile telephones used by the Army will be protected from newspapers as well as from other agents?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and we will do everything we can to ensure the maximum security of all our communication methods.

With the reporting of an ever increasing number of cyber-attacks and the increasing costs of such attacks, will the Minister confirm that the £650 million announced in the SDSR for cyber-security has been ring-fenced for new capabilities? Will he also confirm the time scale for full delivery of those capabilities?

The money to which the hon. Gentleman alludes covers the whole SDSR period. It is new money intended to help prime the efforts of both the public and private sectors, as I said a moment ago, to ensure that the nation as a whole has in place the maximum possible defences over the next few years. It is a fast-changing scene, and it is essential that we keep up with the ever changing threat.

Harmonisation Project

10. What progress his Department has made on the joint search and rescue harmonisation project; and if he will make a statement. (45705)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the cancellation of the previous procurement process on 8 February. The Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence are now considering the potential procurement options to meet the future requirements for search and rescue helicopters in the United Kingdom. We will make a further announcement once a way forward has been agreed.

I know that the Minister is aware of the great concern in the search and rescue service, particularly at Wattisham in my constituency. Does he agree that a private finance initiative route might not necessarily be the most cost-effective way forward in reforming such services?

I am delighted to pay tribute to the strong and close interest that my hon. Friend has taken in this issue, not least because of his close constituency interest. I can confirm that we are beginning again with a blank sheet of paper. We have learned the lessons from the previous process, which has been so unfortunately terminated, and will look again at what is the correct procurement route. That will include a thorough review of whether PFI is right for this particular procurement.

What is the mechanism for making the decision? Would it not make more sense if the Department for Transport acted as the purchaser and the MOD put forward a bid to continue the involvement of the RAF and the Navy in the provision of the service?

I understand the interesting point that my right hon. Friend makes. The present intention is that current procurement arrangements should be stuck to, and I have every confidence that the defence, equipment and support organisation at Abbey Wood can do an excellent job of it this time.

RAF Machrihanish

The disposal of RAF Machrihanish was announced in October 2008, and it will be sold as soon as possible. We are currently committed to working with the local community body to achieve a sale under Scottish community right to buy legislation. A final decision from the Scottish Executive on whether the community can proceed is awaited.

As the Minister will know, the main problem is the age and condition of the water supply system. I hope that the MOD will continue to work with the Scottish Government, the local council and the Machrihanish airbase community company to ensure that it will be viable for the community company to buy the base and use the facilities to regenerate the local economy. This is an ideal big society project. Will he meet me to discuss the matter further?

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right. For more than two years, the MOD has been trying to dispose of this site, and the sooner we can do so the better for all concerned.

The Minister will know that Machrihanish is not the only Royal Air Force base in Scotland facing uncertainty. Is he aware that aircraft have yet again had to be scrambled from RAF Leuchars to protect our airspace from unwelcome intrusion? Will he therefore ignore the siren voices apparently emanating from the Treasury which would put both the base and that capability at risk?

Order. I know that the Minister will want to focus his answer on the question on the Order Paper, while skilfully referring to the concerns expressed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

I will concentrate on the disposal of Machrihanish, but also say—if I may, Mr Speaker—that the future of bases in Scotland, about which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is rightly concerned, is being looked at carefully, and announcements will be made soon.

Strategic Planning

At departmental level, strategic planning is overseen by the director general, strategy. He has 51 military and 75 civilian staff, and an overall budget for 2010-11 of some £12 million. If my hon. Friend is interested, I recommend that she should read the excellent report by the Select Committee on Administration.

I have certainly read the executive summary. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should continue to maintain a focus on building our risk assessment strategic planning and scenario capacity, to ensure that we can anticipate the future in a changing environment and the threats to our national interest?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and that is why in the strategic defence and security review we chose an adaptable posture for the UK’s defence and security. We specifically rejected the concepts of fortress Britain or an over-committed Britain, which would result in a lack of agility. The events of recent days have shown how unpredictable the external environment can be. That is why we were correct to maintain that flexibility and agility in our armed forces.

A week ago 50 senior military figures called for the SDSR to be reopened. They signed a letter saying that the SDSR

“seems to have been driven by financial rather than military considerations”.

However, when the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee last week, he refused to deny reports that the Ministry of Defence was facing another £1 billion of cuts. Is it not becoming clear that it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is in the driving seat in the MOD, not the Secretary of State?

If we have financial difficulties in the MOD or elsewhere in the Government, we know where they came from. When we look across what we do in the Ministry of Defence—and, indeed, in the rest of Government —we look to see what risks the UK may face and how we might best mitigate them. We have decided that the United Kingdom needs an adaptable posture, and we have therefore decided to build flexibility into the programmes leading to Future Force 2020, which I believe provides the best security for this country.

Defence Equipment

A wide range of options are routinely considered for all defence equipment that is not required for operational use. They include extended readiness, long-term preservation, sale and disposal. In relation to preservation, we take into account factors such as the threats against which regeneration of the capability would be predicated; the cost and practicality of preservation arrangements, which may be significant; and the lead time and costs for ensuring that suitably trained personnel could be made available to operate the equipment.

I welcome the Minister’s answer, but I am a bit concerned about cost. The shipping industry often lays up ships at minimal cost for a number of years, using small maintenance teams and dehumidifiers. Given recent events in north Africa, does my hon. Friend agree that keeping Britain’s reserve defences strong enough to meet unexpected challenges ought to be a priority, especially if it can be done at minimal cost to the taxpayer?

Nothing would give me and my ministerial colleagues more pleasure than to be able to keep all decommissioned equipment in storage, but we can do so only when it makes sense financially and strategically. Sadly, it is not as simple as switching off the engine and placing the kit in an air-conditioned environment. We need to be able to maintain the equipment, retain and maintain stores, have personnel trained to use it and—something my hon. Friend may not be aware of—pay the cost of capital needed to hold it in reserve. Sadly, it is more complicated in the MOD than it is in the private sector.

Libya

15. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s contribution to the operation to evacuate UK nationals from Libya; and if he will make a statement. (45710)

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have already paid tribute to the members of the armed forces and the diplomatic service and all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people to leave safely. I would like to add my thanks to all those involved, in particular the members of the armed forces and civilian personnel, who demonstrated courage and professionalism in the co-ordinated effort to rescue British and other nationals from the crisis. The Ministry of Defence utilised a range of assets to support the Foreign Office-led operation to recover UK and other citizens from Libya. We successfully transported 926 entitled persons, of whom 286 were British nationals.

I would like to associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on the work done by our armed forces in Libya. Will he tell the House who in the Ministry of Defence authorised the use of special forces in the operation that started on 2 March, and what advice led to that decision?

The Foreign Secretary has already set out the circumstances in which—[Interruption.] I have no intention of commenting further on special forces. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has joined me in thanking those who took part in that work. I visited HMS Cumberland in Malta at the weekend to thank on behalf of the Government and the House of Commons the crew for their tremendous work. The fact that we were able to take 926 citizens, of whom only 286 were British, shows just how far we were ahead of the curve and doing our utmost to help those of other nations as well.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the successful evacuation of several hundred of our own nationals, together with large numbers of overseas nationals, with not a single casualty among those people or our armed services, should be an occasion for rejoicing and congratulation, rather than for the negative party politicking that we have heard from the Opposition?

It is interesting to compare the coverage that the operations led by the United Kingdom, including the command and control organisation in Malta, gets in the United Kingdom with the coverage that we get in other countries in Europe and beyond, where there cannot be high enough praise for our armed forces and for the organisation put forward by the United Kingdom. Perhaps this is a time to praise our people rather than to condemn them.

HMS Illustrious

18. What assessment he has made of the likely date for HMS Illustrious to return to service; and if he will make a statement. (45713)

HMS Illustrious is scheduled to return to operational service, to assume her new landing platform helicopter role, in spring 2012. I should add that she has had 180 days’ notice to move, and that that period can be reduced, should the need arise. She will be supplementing the capability provided by HMS Ocean.

I am sure the House will agree that the fact that HMS Illustrious is coming back into service ahead of schedule is a testament to the professionalism of the work force and the management, led by Mike Pettigrew. Will the Minister find the time to come to the dockyard to see HMS Illustrious before she sets sail, so that he can see yet again why the best place for the refit and refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers is Scotland, rather than France?

Although it is far too early to decide where that work will be conducted, I would be delighted to try to accommodate such a visit in my diary, if that proves possible. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents have certainly done a first-rate job.

Middle East and North Africa

19. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the security situation in the middle east and north Africa. (45714)

In response to the changing security situation in the middle east and north Africa, work is under way to understand the implications that the changing environment will have on our policies in the wider region.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he give an assurance that our regional basing and overflight rights will ensure that we can effectively deploy ground attack aircraft in the region if necessary?

The assumption that we made in the SDSR was that we had sufficient basing and overflight rights to be able to project air power where required. Nothing has happened in recent days to change that assumption.

The Secretary of State has rightly focused on Libya and the excellence of our operations there, but can he assure the House that his policies, in regard to resource and planning, are also focused on what might happen in other north African countries if evacuations or operations were required there?

My hon. Friend is of course correct. We are looking not only at what is happening in Libya but at other countries in the region where there has been instability in recent times. They include countries such as Yemen, where we already have forward positioning of assets, should we be required to evacuate any British nationals.

Strategic Defence and Security Review (Airfields)

20. What recent representations he has received on the implications for airfields on the defence estate of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review; and if he will make a statement. (45715)

I have received a considerable number of representations from hon. Members, Ministers and Members of the devolved Administrations, as well as from members of the public. I have regular discussions with Government colleagues and I will make an announcement as soon as I am in a position to do so.

Will the Minister accept another representation from me about the excellence of public service shown by RAF Linton at times of public tragedy, in respect of floods on a number of occasions and the Selby rail crash in particular? Will he give an assurance that the future of RAF Linton will be secure, in training RAF pilots in the future?

The strategic defence and security review said that RAF Kinloss and two other RAF bases would close. We are in the middle of a comprehensive basing study, covering the needs not only of the RAF but of the Army in the future. It is a complex piece of work. As soon as we are able to balance all those competing requirements, we will make a full statement to the House.

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 the military tasks, and that we honour the armed forces covenant.

Will the Secretary of State explain in detail and publish in full his views on the unfunded liability—supposedly left by the last Labour Government —on equipment, procurement and support programmes over the next 10 years?

I will not be the only one to set out that information, as I am sure the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Select Committee on Defence will want to make it perfectly clear. I have made it clear, including in the evidence I gave to the Select Committee last week, that I would like to see greater transparency in how the Department makes its information available. As for the unfunded liability we inherited from the previous Government and the damage it has done to our ability to plan for the future—

The hon. Gentleman asks where the £38 billion has gone; he should know; he left it behind. It was his Government who were responsible for it. We shall diminish that unfunded liability and put the Department back on a sound footing—something that Labour Members were incapable of doing.

T2. The United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative on children and armed conflict recently reported on the Afghan national police’s recruitment of children to fight and on the sexual exploitation of young boys by Afghan police and military commanders. Given this disturbing evidence, will the Secretary of State explain what guidance is given to British military and police trainers when they encounter children in the Afghan national security forces? (45722)

Afghan civilians must be 18 or above to join either the Afghan national police or the army. That is checked as rigorously as possible through the much-improving recruitment process. If there is any allegation of wrongdoing brought to the attention of the British forces, it will be taken extremely seriously and reported to the Afghan commanders. We would unreservedly condemn any act of abuse or brutality. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior addresses children’s rights issues and certainly recognises 18 as the age of majority. If there are any specific allegations, he should—

T3. I am not sure that the Secretary of State’s earlier answer was entirely clear, so perhaps he will try again. Will he tell us who specifically in his Department authorised the involvement of special forces in Libya on 2 March? (45723)

I have already made it clear that the Foreign Secretary set out the exact details, as far as we are able to disclose them, on that particular operation. When force protection is to be offered to the sort of diplomatic mission that was undertaken, it is quite usual for the Ministry of Defence to be asked and to agree to do it.

T5. The Secretary of State and his Department regularly meet the Royal British Legion and other veterans organisations. At those meetings, how much emphasis is placed on the fact that the military covenant is enshrined in law and, critically, on determining in what form and when that military covenant will be met? (45725)

I last met the director general of the Royal British Legion last Monday to discuss this very matter. There are many organisations involved and they all have their views to put forward. I think that the covenant is proceeding well. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has been written into law in the Armed Forces Bill and I hope that he will speak further about it on Report and Third Reading when they happen, shortly.

Ministry of Defence police do an essential and difficult job with a great deal of professionalism and expertise, but they face a potential cut of one third in their numbers. That would mean more than 1,000 officers losing their jobs. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of such a drastic reduction in the number of MOD police officers on the protection of military bases?

I pay tribute to the work done by the MOD police, and the protection of military bases is of course essential. However, we are constrained by the lack of funds left behind by the last Government. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members grimacing; it is true. For that reason, we are having to consider savings in all areas, and I am afraid that everyone must play their part.

T6. As well as supporting the movement opposing Gaddafi in Libya, what steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take to support the democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen, especially in view of the events of recent days? (45726)

I think there is a difference between the two cases that my hon. Friend has cited. There is great concern about the possibility that the collapse of the Yemeni state would lead to an increase in the influence of al-Qaeda. It is therefore of great importance to the United Kingdom’s national security that we do what we can to stabilise the situation, while ensuring that we can evacuate United Kingdom citizens safely if the regime cannot hold.

T4. Given that Wales contains a fifth of the United Kingdom’s population but 8% of its military population, does the Secretary of State accept that the consequences of cuts that come too fast and go too deep will affect Wales disproportionately? What will he do to ensure that loyalty is repaid not with penalties but with respect? (45724)

Decisions on the footprint of the United Kingdom’s armed forces are made primarily on the basis of military effectiveness. However, notwithstanding the level of cuts that must be made in order to balance the books, I personally ascribe great importance to maintaining a footprint throughout the Union. [Interruption.] What we are hearing is a very boring record. The difference between the main parties and the nationalists in the House is that we believe in maintaining a footprint throughout the Union, whereas they do not believe in having UK armed forces at all.

T10. I am sure that the Minister will agree that while our British forces are in Afghanistan, it is important for them to contribute to the development of a strong humanitarian legacy of basic health care, education and clean drinking water for the people of Afghanistan. What steps is his Department taking, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, to help to secure that legacy? (45730)

We work very closely with DFID on all those issues. As my hon. Friend correctly implies, if we are to have a sustainable legacy in Afghanistan, it cannot simply involve the strength of the armed forces or the police; there must also be strong governance and a strong infrastructure.

T9. Given the consideration in recent weeks of no-fly zones over Libya, do the Government still intend to make 170 trainee pilots redundant? (45729)

The number of trainee pilots is designed to mirror the number of airframes that we intend to be able to fly in future. That was set out in the SDSR. As I remind hon. Members on every occasion, one of the reasons that we are having to make reductions in the budget is the £158 billion deficit left behind by the Labour Government, on which the interest payments alone are greater than next year’s defence, Foreign Office and aid budgets put together.

The House rightly pays tribute to our military personnel who are serving in Afghanistan. On Friday the Minister for the Armed Forces visited the Colchester garrison, where he will have seen on one side of the road former Army housing that is now social housing, on which millions of pounds are being spent by one arm of Government. Can the Minister explain why the same amount cannot be spent on housing on the other side of the road, where the fathers and husbands of military personnel in Afghanistan live?

My hon. Friend has rightly taken up this cause. We want to see all service personnel, whether single or married, in good-quality accommodation. As he will know, there is a huge backlog but we are working on it, although our work is constrained by the £38 billion deficit with which we were left. I hope very much that we shall be able to continue that work, particularly in the Colchester garrison.

The Minister will be aware of the widespread concern at Defence Support Group in Sealand about ongoing job losses—and, indeed, the Government’s proposals to find a buyer for the business. Why, therefore, has he barred me from visiting the site?

I am not aware of any such condition, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to come and see me about it, I will be very happy to discuss it with him.

Given that the Batch 3 Type 22s have recently proved their value in both evacuating British nationals and vital intelligence gathering, and that no other platforms have such persistence, would it not be prudent to keep them intact during the current uncertain times in the world?

It would be very attractive to be able to maintain a great deal of capability but, sadly, we are unable to do so because of financial constraints. It would be wonderful in a perfect world for us to be able not only to retain these assets but to invest in future assets as well, but if we are to be able to make investments in the future to deal with the threats we may face, we have to disinvest from some of the capabilities of the past, albeit with regret.

The Secretary of State will know of the commitment of the people of Plymouth to keeping the Royal Navy at sea, using all the skills we have in Plymouth. However, we need to know what is going to happen with regard to the Type 23s and the replacement for Endurance. What is the time scale for telling the people of Plymouth whether or not any of those ships will be base-ported in our city?

It gives me great pleasure to be able to commend the people of Plymouth for the great commitment they have made over many years. We will have announcements to make in the very near future on some of the issues the hon. Lady mentions, and I will ensure she is made aware of them before we make them available to others.

Given the unique relationship between the sovereign and members of the armed forces, will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department intends to do to commemorate next year’s diamond jubilee?

The Government will cross-departmentally set out their proposals on the diamond jubilee in the near future. The House will be informed in the usual way.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), exactly how are the public supposed to maintain confidence in our programme to replace the Trident deterrent when the president of one of the governing parties is apparently given carte blanche to cheer up his battered activists by telling them it probably will not go ahead at all?

The coalition agreement made it very clear that the Liberal Democrats within the coalition would be free to advocate alternatives to the replacement programme. The overall Government policy remains the replacement of the Trident programme however, and, as I said earlier today, the best solution for the United Kingdom is a submarine-based, continuously-at-sea, minimum-credible nuclear deterrent that protects the UK while contributing to overall reductions in international nuclear arsenals.

It is a sorry state of affairs when calls for a no-fly zone from the interim national Libyan council are endorsed by the Arab League but the European Union fails to back them. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the security risk of inaction, should the international community fail to take responsibility to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi?

My hon. Friend makes a useful point. The Government’s aim is very clear: we want to see the isolation of, and a diminution in the size and effectiveness of, the regime in Libya, which we believe has lost legitimacy. The aim is for the international community to speak with a single voice, and the more we are united, the more we send a signal to Colonel Gaddafi that the game is up and he has no friends and no future in Libya or beyond.

Will the Secretary of State now answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): how much has so far been spent on the Trident replacement?

I have set out on a number of occasions the different areas in which we spend. We have to spend in advance because there are long-lead items that need to be spent on in order to make sure we are able to take the decisions at the points we have set in initial gate, and main gate when we get to 2015.

Last week, we saw evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with our allies to ensure that weapons intended for the Taliban are being actively intercepted?

At the weekend’s NATO summit in Brussels and at the subsequent international security assistance force meeting we raised with our allies our concerns about the arming of the Taliban by Iran. This is a clear example, if we needed any, of the potentially malign influence that Iran can have in the region and it should be a warning to us all about its potential intent.

I recently visited the Merseyside garrison headquarters, where I met Territorial Army soldiers. Does the Secretary of State share their concerns that changes to the home-to-duty travel allowance will mean that by 2013 a TA soldier who lives 9 miles or more from their TA centre will receive £4 less every time they attend their place of duty for training?

It is with a great deal of regret that one of the savings we are having to make in the Ministry of Defence is in the level of allowances available to service personnel. However, I must say to the hon. Lady that financial remuneration and allowances will be part of the picture of the wider review being undertaken of the Territorials and the reserves. We will want to look at that in the totality of the review of the reserves to make sure we get better value for money and more effective reserves.

As my right hon. Friend concludes his consultation on the security and technology Green Paper, will he ensure that he does not make the previous Government’s mistake of allowing MOD prime contractors to obstruct small and medium-sized enterprises in getting their fair share of the defence procurement pie?

It has been an aim of the Government from the outset when looking at defence technology and the procurement process to ensure that SMEs are given more than a fair crack of the whip. For too long, this has been about the prime contractors, with too little consideration given to the SMEs, which represent in this country not only vibrancy in technology and innovation but a major source of employment.

On the arms trade, does the Secretary of State agree with Mr Tom Porteous of UK Human Rights Watch that our country is being made to “look stupid” because of the conduct of our special trade representative? Should we not be employing trade representatives on the basis of their knowledge of industry, ethics and human rights, rather than on the hereditary principle?

Mr Speaker, you made it very clear last time that because members of the royal family cannot answer back we should be very careful what we say in this House about them. It is fair to say that not only do we follow the legislation set down by the previous Government, but we have some of the tightest regulations on arms trading in the world.

We are entering a time of increasing geomagnetic solar flare activity. Will the Secretary of State say what mitigating effects are being considered to protect military communications?

This issue is being looked at globally. I may have responsibility for many things, but solar activity is not one of them.