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North Africa

Volume 525: debated on Monday 14 March 2011

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.