House of Commons
Monday 17 June 2013
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of potential military threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defensive capability to address any such threats. There is no current evidence of the intent, or indeed capability, to launch a credible military threat to the south Atlantic. However, we remain vigilant and committed to the protection of the Falkland islanders.
Personally, I have had no such discussions with our allies in Latin America, but we are very engaged with the region—rather more so than other recent Governments. Indeed, in the past six months ministerial colleagues have made nine visits to Latin America, and there have been a similar number of inward visits from the region, and of course we continue to encourage them to support us. I was particularly pleased that Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, last week singled out the Falkland Islands. [Interruption.] He is from north America—well spotted.
What assurances can the Minister give the House that the Falkland Islands will remain as well defended after the comprehensive spending review, following the comments of generals and others in the military over the weekend about the potential pressures on the defence budget in future?
I think I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the islands will remain well defended. I spent four months of my life in the Falklands Islands back in 1989 and know the strategic situation there. I know that the British Government, like previous Governments, are determined that the Falkland Islands will remain British for as long as the Falkland islanders wish them to be so.
As we discovered in 1982, the defence of the Falklands ultimately depends on the skill and resources of our armed forces. When the head of the Army warns that further cuts would run the risk of “damaging the professional competence” of our armed forces, surely it is time for us all to sit up and take notice.
We are assured that there will be no decline in the US commitment to NATO and its members. The collective benefits of NATO membership, however, come with a collective responsibility to share the burden of the alliance’s roles and missions and to pull their weight. We are discussing how all allies can contribute more to our collective security, including through the NATO defence planning process, as discussed most recently at the NATO defence ministerial meeting early this month.
First, it is important to say that the Government welcome the rebalancing of US forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, which is very much in line with our assessment and renewed engagement in the area. It is hoped that partner nations will make similar determinations, noting of course the US’s continuing strong engagement in Europe and the MENA—middle east and north Africa—region, with UK encouragement, and approaching collective security and defence with renewed vigour against a very unfavourable economic backdrop.
Does my hon. Friend agree that America’s understandable decision to shift its focus towards the Pacific puts all the more responsibility on countries such as Britain, which after all are much closer to the potential threats than America is, to keep up our armed forces despite the economic situation?
Clearly we cannot ignore the economic situation, because it poses a clear and present danger to this country and others. I think that it means that we will have to renew our efforts with our friends and allies to ensure that they, too, spend significant sums of money on defence, but I should emphasise that the US is quite clear about its continuing commitment to Europe and the MENA region, and I think we should take some comfort from that.
NATO’s defence capability includes the protection of the nuclear umbrella. Does the Minister find it incongruous in respect of NATO membership to have, on the one hand, a policy of unilateral disarmament and, on the other, to seek the protection of that nuclear umbrella? That is the policy of the SNP.
National Memorial Arboretum
May I start by thanking the Royal British Legion for its custodianship of the National Memorial Arboretum and the trustees of the Armed Forces Memorial for its upkeep? As my hon. Friend will recall—we were there together—I visited the arboretum and laid a wreath at the Armed Forces Memorial on 11 November last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence also visited in November last year and my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will attend the annual ceremony to unveil the new names on the memorial next month.
The National Memorial Arboretum, which is in my constituency, receives more than 300,000 visitors a year and is a real testament to those who died before the second world war and, with the Armed Forces Memorial, those who have perished since that war. What plans does the Minister have for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first world war? Will anything be done at the National Memorial Arboretum then?
My hon. Friend takes a close interest in the National Memorial Arboretum and the Armed Forces Memorial, so he knows well that they were established primarily to commemorate the fallen from 1 January 1948. He will also know that I am the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the great war. In that capacity, I am well aware of a number of projects that will involve the National Memorial Arboretum. As my hon. Friend takes such a close interest in both the arboretum and the memorial, I am sure that he will be intimately involved with them.
I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting the National Memorial Arboretum, although I hope to in the near future.
I will be attending the memorials for Armed Forces day on 22 June in Penarth in my constituency. What assessment has the Minister made of the scale and support of memorials on Armed Forces day this year? I assume and hope that they are growing.
On Armed Forces day at the National Memorial Arboretum and around the country, I hope that hon. Members will join me in remembering Lance Corporal James Ashworth, who was recently posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery in Afghanistan; he is only its 14th recipient since the second world war. The commitment of our troops in the field in Afghanistan lends itself to a proper recognition at the National Memorial Arboretum.
Joint Strike Fighter
Development of the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter aircraft is progressing well. I saw for myself our third aircraft, of which we have now taken receipt, when I visited Lockheed Martin’s facility in Forth Worth in April, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also witnessed an F-35B demonstrating its hover capability at Pax River last month.
The STOVL variant, the mainstay of the US Marine Corps, has conducted nearly 3,000 flight hours to date, including vertical landings and short take-offs from the USS Wasp. The US, Italy and the UK are the three nations currently committed to procuring the STOVL variant. The UK is working with all joint strike fighter European partner nations to determine the most cost-effective support solution across Europe.
As my hon. Friend knows, the aircraft will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. The precise mix of aircraft embarked will depend on the mission, but the carrier will routinely have 12 fast jets embarked for operations whenever she sails outside of home waters, while retaining the capacity to deploy up to the 36 previously planned, providing combat and intelligence capability much greater than legacy systems. The aircraft carrier will also be able to carry a wide range of helicopters, including up to 12 Chinook or Merlin transports and eight Apache attack helicopters.
Moog aviation based in my constituency will be a major supplier of components to the new short take-off and vertical landing engine fitted on the joint strike fighter. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will do all he can to promote the export opportunities for the JSF, which will act as an enormous boost to many aerospace component manufacturers in the west midlands?
The UK is the only tier 1 partner in the joint strike fighter partner programme, which is the largest defence programme in the world. UK industry will provide approximately 15% by value of each JSF to be built, which will secure aerospace industry jobs in this country for decades. Five hundred British companies are already involved in the programme through fair and open competition. Indeed, the UK’s decision to revert to the STOVL variant has increased orders for Rolls-Royce lift system engines for STOVL aircraft, from which the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit. The British defence industry is exceptionally well placed to benefit from any future export opportunities for this fifth-generation aircraft.
Will the Secretary of State and his team listen to those of us, on both sides of the House, who believe that if we can persuade more of our European partners to switch to the B variant, it will provide a perfect example of how European nations can stand together?
As the hon. Gentleman will know from his work on the Defence Committee, the orders for the aircraft will depend on the capability requirements of the customer nations. Italy is the European nation that is already procuring the same variant as we are; other nations that have declared an interest thus far have different capability requirements.
Reservists (Employers Compensation)
Reservists’ employers are key partners in mobilisation and the Ministry of Defence recognises that they may incur additional costs when their reservist employee is mobilised. The reservist and their employer have the legal right to apply for financial assistance.
Under the terms of the Reserve Forces (Call-out and Recall) (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2005, an employer can claim the amount by which the replacement costs incurred exceed the relevant earnings of the reservist, subject to a cap of £110 per day. In addition, employers may claim for certain non-recurring costs that they incur in replacing the reservist, including agency fees and advertising costs. An employer may also claim the cost of retraining the reservist following their return to work.
I am grateful for that encouraging response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that service in the Territorial Army gives men and women alike invaluable life skills, and does he share my belief that, given youth unemployment levels, there are real opportunities to help young people get into the TA through events such as my recent jobs fair in Gloucester? Will he say a little more about the promotion of such opportunities in the TA?
I absolutely agree that service in either the regular armed forces or, indeed, the reserve forces offers a great deal of training in life skills, basic values and behaviour, and that that is of value to employers. I would encourage anybody to join the Territorial Army or the reserve forces, and I think that those who join and experience the reserve forces often find that they are much more suited to joining the world of civilian work than they might have been beforehand.
There is solid support across the House for the TA and the reserve forces. I know that the Government are undertaking a review and looking at their recruitment targets. However, there is uncertainty about the future of key regiments. When will the Minister make an announcement, and will he ensure that we protect the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry?
Already, reservists are paid the same or very much the same as regular service personnel. We are looking at all aspects of this subject. Again, I am afraid that my hon. Friend must wait for the White Paper on reserves. I am relatively confident that enough people will come forward to join the reserves and that we can look forward to having a vibrant reserve Army.
Tomorrow, the Government will announce the next round of Army redundancies, which will be painful for everyone who is affected. To fill that gap, it is crucial that the reservists plan is a success. There may well be a problem of reservists losing out in job interviews, as some employers worry about a prospective employee being away for prolonged periods. Does the Minister accept that it is crucial to consult on new rights at work to protect our reservists, who do much to protect our country?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, about which we are very well apprised. When the White Paper comes out, he will find much that satisfies him. He will know that the Secretary of State has said that we are considering financial incentivisation for employers, and for small employers in particular, who suffer disproportionately. If one person out of a work force in single figures leaves, it has much more impact than one person deploying out of a thousand people from a large employer.
There have been no recent ministerial discussions with representatives of former Gurkhas. However, the Government place great value on the contribution of Gurkhas, past and present. I am aware of recent approaches by representatives of ex-Gurkhas to other right hon. and hon. Members on a number of issues, including the possibility of ex-Gurkhas joining the reserves.
Given the Government’s ambition and determination to create a large, integrated and fully trained reserve force, would it not be a powerful reinforcement of that strategy to give automatic reserve liability to Gurkhas, who have residency rights and, as the Minister rightly said, are famous for their contribution and military skills?
The fighting spirit of the Gurkhas has never been in doubt. They serve in the Territorial Army and all ex-Gurkhas who are living in the UK can apply to join the reserves. The recently launched TA Live campaign encourages all ex-regulars, including Gurkhas, to join. We hope that as many of them as possible will do so.
When he was Leader of the Opposition in 2009, the Prime Minister said of the Gurkhas:
“They are the bravest of the brave…they have fought and died for this country in some of its toughest battles. We owe them a huge debt. We need to treat them properly in return.”
In the light of those comments, can I take it that there will be no announcement tomorrow about redundancies for the Gurkhas?
Everyone in this House is a total supporter of the Gurkha regiment and former Gurkhas. However, now that the Gurkha regiment costs roughly the same as an English regiment, how can it be that we will scrap four infantry battalions in the next 18 months, some two years at least before the reserve Army comes into full being? That seems crazy to me. I am referring in particular to the 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, the Staffords.
I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his military background of which the House is well aware, is as proud as any Member of the House of the service record of the Gurkhas for this country. As he is aware, we have a particular arrangement with the Sultan of Brunei regarding one of the two Gurkha battalions, which helps to defray part of the cost of their service to the country. That arrangement is likely to continue and our decisions are partly based on that. I reiterate our great pride at having Gurkhas in the British Army. That is something that we wish to continue.
NATO Defence Ministers’ Meeting
The key outcomes of the recent NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting included allied endorsement of the concept of operations for NATO’s post-2014 “Train, Advise, Assist” mission in Afghanistan; agreement to national capability targets apportioned to allies as part of the NATO defence planning process; and a commitment to conduct follow-on work on how NATO might prevent, respond to and recover from a cyber-attack against systems of critical importance to the alliance.
The UK is one of a small number of alliance members that spend 2% or more of their national income on defence. Was the need to raise defence expenditures by those countries that do not meet the 2% threshold raised at the meeting, and what is the Secretary of State doing to try to ensure that other countries in the alliance share the burden with us?
The adequate resourcing of European NATO members’ defence budgets was raised, but—as I have already said in the House—we must also be realistic about the situation that most European countries are facing in their public finances. The more fruitful vein for the next few years will be to ensure that we get true deliverable military capability with the budgets that countries already spend.
I know my right hon. Friend believes that NATO’s output is more important than the 2% target of defence spending, but does he accept that if we abandon that 2% target, we will reduce the pressure on improving the output from NATO?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I think both issues are important. It is important to be clear that in the medium to long term we must expect NATO members who want to benefit from the advantages of membership to pay the subscription price, as it were, in the form of adequately resourced defence budgets. In the shorter term, reality dictates that we focus on turning the budgets we already have into real, deliverable military capability. There is enormous headroom between what is delivered now with the £200-odd billion of NATO European defence expenditure, and what could be achieved if it were properly organised.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that northern European NATO allies such as Denmark, Norway and Iceland believe that the challenges of the Arctic and the high north are extremely important? Will he also confirm whether the Ministry of Defence has any plans to take part in air policing for NATO from Reykjavik?
We have no plans at the moment to take part in air policing operations from Reykjavik, but we recognise the importance of the high north, not least because such a large proportion of Britain’s primary energy resources now come from the Norwegian sector of the North sea. The MOD is currently undertaking a review of the strategic significance of the polar regions, both north and south, and that will be part of the evidence that informs the 2015 strategic defence and security review.
One of the lessons from Libya showed that the European members of NATO lack sufficient ISTAR— intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and air-to-air fuel capability. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress European allies are making in bringing forward that capability?
Both areas mentioned by my hon. Friend are identified gaps in European NATO capability. Once again, I made it clear at the NATO ministerial meeting that the UK will have surplus capacity in air-to-air refuelling once our new Voyager fleet is fully delivered, and that we are more than willing to share that capacity with other NATO allies in the spirit of pooling and sharing.
The Government and other NATO members have our support in difficult circumstances in trying to end the bloodshed in Syria. As the UK and some other NATO nations consider arming the rebels, will the Secretary of State say what successful precedent there is for the UK arming an opposition force and using a vetting process to ensure that weapons provided are quarantined so that they do not fall into the possession of those whose aims we do not share?
I think there is a hypothetical hidden premise in the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The UK has made no decision to arm the rebels in Syria and we maintain our focus on achieving a political solution, in particular at the Geneva II peace conference, and that will be a central theme of the discussions going on right now in Lough Erne. We must, of course, leave all options on the table while the terrible attrition of the Syrian population continues at the hands of the Assad regime.
Defence Facilities (East Midlands)
I believe I can be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his army basing plan announcement on 5 March, Cottesmore and North Luffenham will be the focus of one of the seven areas in the UK around which the Army will become increasingly consolidated. The major site for development in the east midlands is Kendrew barracks at Cottesmore, which will be expanded to accommodate an additional unit. North Luffenham will see some minor development and a logistics unit will move into Grantham. The written ministerial statement on 25 March confirmed the vacation of RAF Kirton in Lindsey and the disposal of the former airfield and technical facilities at the site.
It was an honour to sit behind the veterans of the Dambusters raid at its 70th anniversary at RAF Scampton in my constituency. Beside the courage of those men, hon. Members’ efforts in the House look very puny indeed. In the light of the glorious history of RAF Scampton, will the Minister reassure me that the base continues to have a bright operational future?
I am glad to say that I can reassure my hon. Friend. Both the Red Arrows, the RAF aerobatic team, and the air surveillance control system will be retained at the station until at least the end of the decade, although I cannot vouch for whatever happens afterwards, because I will probably have left this place. [Interruption.] It wasn’t that—I was just thinking that, by that time, I will be getting on a bit.
Claro Barracks (Ripon)
Following the Army basing plan announcement of the 5 March 2013, which confirmed the closure of Claro barracks, Ripon, a meeting was held on 28 March with my hon. Friend and officials from North Yorkshire county council, Harrogate district council and Ripon city council. A further meeting was held on 7 May, at which the Department undertook to maintain contact with local authorities and agencies to keep our key stakeholders informed of developments as closure plans proceed.
My hon. Friend and I met and discussed that last month. As he knows, I am keen to see the site for myself. We have a use for a training camp in that area, and wish to retain the training area adjacent to both barracks. From what I understand, the Claro site is a better, more modern site, and the Deverell site might be more suitable for redevelopment. However, we will work through that with my hon. Friend and the local authority.
As a fellow north Yorkshire MP, I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) with regard to Ripon, but will the Minister shed light on the future of the RAF Church Fenton site, which is to close by the end of this year? Are there plans to sell the site off or to use it for other military purposes? If so, what is the likely time scale?
As my hon. Friend knows—he is a keen student of the Typhoon programme—there is great scope to enhance the capabilities of that already powerful aircraft, in particular when compared with mature platforms, which have less scope to enhance their capabilities. Tranche 3 aircraft are being delivered from the Warton plant near his constituency with improved multi-role, and ISTAR capabilities.
I believe the constituency boundary with Ribble Valley passes through the site, so I may have to stand corrected on which bit of the site they are made. The development upgrades and improved ISTAR to which my hon. Friend refers will provide the RAF, and the other six air forces that have already committed to the aircraft, with battle-winning performance, as was demonstrated in the Libya campaign. We are actively engaged with existing and potential partners and customers on the scope for collaborating on the development of further capability. We are also supporting industry in a number of export campaigns, and are hopeful that other allies and partner nations will join the family of users of this outstanding aircraft.
European Defence Agency
The European Defence Agency has achieved some initial success in delivering improvements to the capabilities of European nations, but we believe that it could do a great deal better. That is why the Ministry of Defence concluded earlier this year that although we should maintain our subscription to the agency, our continuing membership is to be reviewed again in late 2013 in the light of progress made during the year.
The EDA spends €30.5 million a year, which is a great deal of money in the current circumstances. I think the House will agree that it would be perverse if we were forced to make cutbacks in defence at home while voting through increases at a European level. I am therefore pleased to say that in November last year I again vetoed the increase in the EDA budget. The UK was the only country to exercise its vote in that way. For as long as the EDA fails to cut the mustard, we will continue to do just that.
I have frequent conversations with my Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of Government business. The current spending review will set departmental funding limits for financial year 2015-16 and is due to report on 26 June. My officials have been working closely and collaboratively with the Treasury and Cabinet Office colleagues to identify areas where further efficiencies in defence spending can be achieved.
I am sure the whole House agrees that we live in dangerous and difficult times. Does the Secretary of State not agree with me, and, more importantly, the Chief of the General Staff over the weekend, that any further cuts in defence spending would seriously risk undermining our capability to defend our realm and to project power overseas?
As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister and the Treasury have already confirmed that the equipment plan will increase in real terms plus 1% in the period from 2015 to 2020, and we are not looking at changes that will reduce military manpower. However, I have to say to him and to the House that efficiencies can always be found in any budget, and we will search for all the efficiencies that we can reasonably find and deliver.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State highlight the importance of efficiencies in considering the spending review. Will he meet me to discuss the deep concerns of Joseph Gleave & Son, which has been a long-standing supplier to the Ministry of Defence and employs approximately 80 people in my constituency, regarding inefficiencies in procurement following the shift to the Government Procurement Service and the establishment of Defence Equipment and Support operations?
I recognise that there may be a tension between our determination to drive more efficient procurement and some suppliers finding that to be a difficult experience, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence equipment support and technology, would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.
Has the Secretary of State thought of giving Treasury officials and Ministers an idiot’s guide to what Her Majesty’s armed forces are all about, because some of the comments over the weekend about army horses and tanks showed a degree of ignorance?
I will probably not share with my hon. Friend all the thoughts that I would like to offer to the Treasury and some of my colleagues, but I will say this: while it is easy to draw attention to such things as the number of horses in the army, the moral component of our armed forces—that which links it to the great tradition of military service in this country—is a very important part of delivering military capability and is money well spent.
Included in those discussions will be the projected savings from the proposed changes to Defence Equipment and Support announced in last week’s White Paper. For the benefit of the House, will the Secretary of State set out what specific flexibilities he has won from the Treasury—one assumes he got its agreement before publishing the White Paper—so that the DE&S-plus model can compete openly and fairly with the Government-owned, contractor-operated option during the assessment phase?
We try to be responsive and innovative in thinking about how we repay the debt we owe to our veterans. An example is the recently revamped defence discount service, which covers discounted holidays and travel. Other direct support includes reduced rate air travel, via the South Atlantic air bridge, for Falkland Islands veterans.
I am sure the whole House supports the need to do more to give our armed services personnel and veterans the ability to travel. It is commonplace in America for US personnel to get priority boarding at their airports. Would the Minister support a similar scheme here and encourage British airlines to offer Her Majesty’s armed services personnel priority boarding rights in British airports?
As someone who flew Ryanair from Stansted over the bank holiday weekend recently, I am in favour in principle of just about anything that gets people on to aircraft more efficiently. The hon. Gentleman’s idea could be worth looking at, but he and the House might be interested to know that the MOD has been having much broader discussions with business and industry about how they can do a range of things for the armed forces community under the auspices of the armed forces covenant, and we hope to have something to say about that in the relatively near future.
Last week, I visited the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC and picked up a copy of a book, “Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependants and Survivors”. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet me to discuss producing a similar directory and potentially a website?
I, too, have been to the States and met people in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is important to remember that the Americans have a different way of doing it from us, because they do not have a national health service model. Nevertheless, the VA has a high profile in the United States—higher than the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency has in the United Kingdom. I would like to raise the latter’s profile so that more veterans and members of the public know what we do for the veterans’ community, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about precisely that.
At-sea Nuclear Deterrent
The 2006 White Paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, stated that the minimum number of Vanguard class submarines required to maintain a continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent was four. The number of submarines required to deliver CASD into the future will be determined in the main gate investment decision for the successor replacement for the Vanguard class, which is expected in 2016. This is a technical, rather than a policy, question.
Has my right hon. Friend seen recent media reports that the Liberal Democrats might be proposing a reduction to just two nuclear submarines? Does he agree that it would be impossible to maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrent, which is the hallmark of national security?
I have learned not to read too much into newspaper reports. The main gate decision in 2016, which will define the number of submarines required to maintain CASD, will consider the case for four or three submarines, but I can say without equivocation that there is no possibility of maintaining CASD with two submarines.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Simply reducing the fleet, even if that were possible while maintaining CASD, would not generate proportionate savings. Many of the costs are fixed—the costs of development and maintaining industrial capability, not merely at Barrow-in-Furness for submarine building, but in the nuclear propulsion industry. No one in this House should ever forget either that these high-end, high-technology platforms support the very top end of British manufacturing industry—the high-precision, high-technology engineering industry on which the revival of manufacturing depends.
In January, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told The Guardian newspaper that the coalition review of Trident would compile a “compelling” list of alternatives. It was suggested in the Financial Times recently that the review will come down on the side of a submarine-based ballistic missile system. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State tell the House when the review will be published, and if it comes down on the side of a submarine-based system, will the Government consider bringing forward the main gate decision into this Parliament?
I cannot comment on the findings of the review, which is not yet concluded and has not yet reported to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no need to bring forward the 2016 main gate decision point. That decision will be made in 2016, in order to deliver the new submarines into service from 2028, when they are required.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State has responded to Rear-Admiral Patrick Middleton, who wrote in The Times on 7 May:
“With the latest developments in defence technology, the argument for Trident as a deterrent is rapidly becoming a losing one”.
I am afraid I do not agree with him. I suspect this is a retired rear admiral—well, I know it is; and if it isn’t, he soon will be—to whom the hon. Lady refers. We are clear that the retention of the continuous-at-sea deterrent is vital to ensure Britain’s national security and is the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty.
I very much look forward to welcoming the Minister for defence equipment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), and the shadow Secretary of State to my parliamentary reception on 1 July about the high-end manufacturing jobs that the submarine supply chain produces. The durability of the submarine hulls is critical to the decisions and the timing of renewal. Will the Secretary of State give the House an update on his Department’s assessment of extending the hull life to 35 years, as is currently the case, and any possible decision to extend it further in future?
First, I will check my diary. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is asking if we have considered whether it is possible to extend further the life of the existing submarines or to design the successor class with a longer in-service life. On the first question, he will know that we have already extended the life of the Vanguard class once, and it is not judged possible or safe to extend it further. On the second question, we will of course be looking to design the successor class with the longest possible in-service life.
My right hon. Friend is clearly very robust on this issue, but may I urge him to consider deeply the suggestion of the shadow Armed Forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? If those on both Front Benches agree on the need to renew Trident and to keep continuous-at-sea deterrence, why should they not agree before the general election to make this irreversible, so that Trident cannot again become a political football, as it unfortunately did between my party and the Liberal Democrats in 2010?
I have to say to my hon. Friend—who is a great expert on this subject and has been one for longer than I can remember—that the essence of our strategy for defence procurement, which is at the heart of our determination to maintain a balanced budget, is that we do not make contractual commitments until we need to for the delivery of equipment in a timely fashion, when we need it. Locking in decisions before they need to be made merely reduces flexibility and, as the previous Government found out, drives cost into the programme if changes have to be made.
My priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the sustainable transformation of the Ministry of Defence, to maintain budgets in balance and to deliver equipment programmes so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.
A number of us on the Conservative Benches have reservations about the Government’s reservist policy, including its cost-effectiveness. Given that the MOD’s figures show that the Territorial Army’s mobilisation rate is 40%, which suggests we need 50,000 reservists not 30,000, and that rates of pay for ex-reservists will beat those of a serving brigadier, how confident is the Secretary of State that the £1.8 billion will cover the policy?
As in many areas, we have to work within the financial constraints presented to us, and we are currently tailoring a package of support for the reserve forces that can be accommodated within the £1.8 billion. I am quite confident that we can do so.
I would like to correct a possible misunderstanding. The top-up to rates of civilian pay has always been available in the system and our proposal is to limit that so that we make sure that we pay only people who have specialist skills what are sometimes very large amounts of money.
Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, as far too many of my constituents know. Will the Government take the opportunity to back amendments to the Mesothelioma Bill—or indeed table their own amendments—so that veterans who were exposed to asbestos prior to 1987 while they were employed by the Ministry of Defence, and their families, are able to get compensation?
As the hon. Lady knows, issues of Crown immunity relate to the period before 1987. As she also knows, it is not this Department that leads on this particular issue. I cannot guarantee her that there will be a change in the position, but her comments are noted and I will make sure that they are passed on to those who are dealing with Bill.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence places great emphasis on trying to improve access for small and medium-sized enterprises into the procurement chain. As far as Gloucester is concerned, my hon. Friend may not know that next week, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), I will attend a meeting of defence contractors for the whole of Gloucestershire.
T6. Given that so many experts, leading generals and admirals think that we no longer have defence forces that are capable of defending this country, will the Secretary of State look at his Department’s spending over the last five years of £34 million on G4S, which did such a good job on the Olympics? (159665)
We are looking at all areas of spending other than those that support military personnel numbers. Some of the hon. Gentleman’s examples and many others that people have quoted at me are, in fact, examples of the Department having historically made efficiencies by civilianising or contractorising parts of the service. We will continue to do that where it makes sense to do so.
T3. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to small and medium-sized businesses such as Armadillo Merino in my Mid Derbyshire constituency, which wants to apply to the approved MOD procurement list? It has socks that stop trench foot and undergarments that will stop people burning, keeping their lives safer for longer. (159662)
The Ministry of Defence takes the clothing of our personnel exceptionally seriously. We have a dedicated defence clothing team in DE&S, which last year placed £80 million-worth of contracts. We have some 30 companies engaged in clothing contracts, 90% of which are UK based. My hon. Friend has written to me about the sock and undergarment manufacturer in her constituency, and I look forward to responding to her in writing very shortly.
Given that Russia’s latest statement of its military doctrine states that the greatest threat to Russian security is the existence of NATO, and given that Russia has significant naval and military investment in Syria, is it not the height of irresponsibility for the Government constantly to ramp up talk of putting more arms into Syria?
As I have already said once today, the Government have made no decision to supply any arms to anyone in Syria. As for the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about Russia, in the context of the debate that we have just had about the nuclear deterrent, it is important to note that the Russians are committed to spending $146 billion over the next 10 years on modernising their forces, including parts of their nuclear forces that had been mothballed over the last few years.
T4. Eighteen-year-old Private Thomas Wroe from Meltham, in my constituency, was serving in the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment when he was killed by a rogue Afghan policeman last September. Next Thursday, Helme Hall care home will open the Tom Wroe complex care facility, a specialised unit for adults with complex care needs. Tom’s mother, Claire, is a manager at the home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the initiative of dedicating care homes, parks and streets after our brave soldiers is a fitting tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country? (159663)
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Private Thomas Wroe of the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who gave his life in the service of his country. I am very pleased to hear about the opening of the Tom Wroe complex care facility, which I am sure will serve as a fitting tribute to his memory.
There may indeed be merit in my hon. Friend’s proposal, but I think that such decisions are best made by local communities, in which, in a sense, these matters will resonate the most. On behalf of—I am sure—the whole House, I wish the new facility the best of luck in the future.
Government guidelines that were supposed to exempt the families of members of the armed forces from the bedroom tax require a letter to be sent by those in the chain of command to confirm the deployment of the soldiers in question on the front line in Afghanistan. Can the Minister tell me how many armed forces families are in rent arrears as a result—I have heard that it is a large number—and will he meet me to resolve the problem as soon as possible?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me in the House before. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced on 12 March that adults who were in the armed forces but continued to live with their parents would be treated as continuing to live at home, even when deployed on operations. I cannot give a specific answer to his numerical question off the top of my head, but I assure him that I will look into it and write to him promptly.
We greatly value the training facilities in Kenya, and are determined to maintain them. We continue to have good relations with the Kenyan Government. I think that the country benefits from our presence, and we certainly benefit from the training. I cannot tell my hon. Friend exactly what plans we have for further investment, but I will let him know by letter.
May I return to the subject of protective clothing for our armed forces personnel? The Minister may recall that I wrote to him recently asking him to look sympathetically at Remploy in my constituency, which has successfully manufactured such clothing for many years. Why have we offered the contract to a firm in north Africa, thus pushing the Dundee factory nearer to closure? Is it right to save money at the cost of British jobs?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have adopted a policy of open competition when it comes to, in particular, commodity equipment such as clothing. I am afraid that if the business in his constituency was unable to bid competitively, that is the consequence.
Figures produced two years ago showed that four out of 100 homeless people in London had spent some time in the armed services. The Government have taken welcome initiatives in regulation, legislation and policy, but can the Minister update us on what further progress is being made, given that there are likely to be more redundancies in the armed services, and given that Armed Forces day will be celebrated at the end of the month?
I take a close personal interest in the issue of veterans’ housing. In March I met Hugh Milroy of Veterans Aid, and I subsequently visited New Belvedere house, a hostel for homeless veterans in Limehouse, east London. Last month I visited a community self-build project for veterans in Bedminster in Bristol. The Government have asked the community to show their commitment to the services and the veterans of our country, in some cases via local authorities, and I am pleased to say that 331 councils, including all those in Scotland, have signed a community covenant. I am sure that that will help our service personnel when they become veterans and seek housing in the future.
I am not sure from the hon. Lady’s question, but she might be referring to one case that has achieved prominence in the media this morning regarding a member of the Parachute Regiment. If she is referring to that case, my private office is already looking into the issue and I hope there might be some way in which we can help.
T8. My constituent Sergeant Andrew Askew is shortly to be discharged from the Army having completed 13 years’ service. Six months ago he was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he is yet to receive any support or treatment. Can the Minister advise me on what steps have been taken to assess the effectiveness of the personnel recovery units and aftercare programmes that are in place to support soldiers, such as Andrew Askew, who have been diagnosed with PTSD? (159667)
It is very important to me that every member of the armed forces needing medical care receives the very best treatment available. I am pleased that research by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research confirms a low incidence rate of PTSD for UK armed forces. For those who do require help, however, the NHS, in conjunction with the MOD and some superb charities, are providing excellent mental health care for both serving personnel and veterans. This includes wider awareness of the symptoms, early intervention on deployment, greater access to mental health care for up to six months after discharge, an increase in the number of veterans’ mental health professionals, a 24-hour helpline in partnership with Combat Stress, and an online mental health support and advice website provided by the Big White Wall—and I am due to meet my opposite number in the Department of Health, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), very shortly, where we will discuss this matter further to see if there is even more that we can do.
I say to the hon. Lady that we have had to make some very difficult decisions in relation to the structure of the Army as we draw down its size to match our ambitions to our budgets. In doing that we have had to make sure we maximise the military capability. That means structuring the Army to deliver most efficiently the military capability that we need. I know that has meant painful decisions in a number of cases, but I am afraid we have to put the priority on delivering military effect.
T10. I greatly welcome the recent contract signed by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) on behalf of the MOD for the sensor support optimisation project with my constituency company of Thales UK. Can he say a little more about how this sonar technology will help the resilience of our fleet? (159669)
I greatly enjoyed visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency at the end of last month to sign that contract. It is a £600 million contract, which will ensure that the very sophisticated sonar and avionics systems—I mean periscopes—in our fleets are supported for the next 10 years, and it should save the Exchequer some £140 million over that period.
In the last Session of Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill which would have made attacks on members of the armed services a hate crime. In the light of tragic recent events, will the Minister meet me urgently to discuss how that issue can now be taken forward?
The hon. Gentleman will remember that when we had what I thought was a very well-conducted and good-humoured debate on that serious subject, I undertook to him that we would keep this under review and would have more to say in the armed forces covenant report 2013. That remains the Department’s position, but perhaps we can have a discussion after questions today so I can update him if he needs further information.
Falmouth is hosting Armed Forces day on Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those people from all walks of life who come together to make it such an exciting day that really pays tribute to our armed forces?
I congratulate the people of Iran on their participation in Friday’s elections and Dr Rouhani on the result. He made some positive remarks during his election campaign about the need to improve economic and political conditions for the Iranian people and to resolve the nuclear issue. The Iranian people will, no doubt, look to their new President to make good on those promises.
The United Kingdom’s policy on Iran has been consistent under this Government and the last. We share international concern, documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran’s nuclear programme is not for purely peaceful purposes, and we deplore Iran’s failure to co-operate fully with the IAEA, to uphold its responsibilities under the non-proliferation treaty and to meet the demands placed on it by UN Security Council resolutions. The Government hope that, following Dr Rouhani’s election, the Iranian Government will take up the opportunity of a new relationship with the international community by making every effort to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. If Iran is prepared to make that choice, we are ready to respond in good faith; our commitment to seeking a peaceful diplomatic settlement of this dispute is sincere. So I urge Iran to engage seriously with the E3 plus 3 and urgently to take concrete steps to address international concerns. Iran should not doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation in the middle east and to increase the pressure, through international sanctions, should its leaders choose not to take this path.
May I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement and associate myself with the congratulations, in which we would all share, to the Iranian people and to Dr Rouhani on his election? May I tell the Foreign Secretary that in my many dealings with Dr Rouhani when he was head of the Iranian national security council under President Khatami, I found him courteous, engaged and straightforward to deal with?
Does the Foreign Secretary accept that although Dr Rouhani will seek strongly to represent his country’s interests and its faith, his Government could, if given the space, be a positive force in respect of its neighbours in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq? Does he also accept that Dr Rouhani has made it clear that he wants a fresh start on the nuclear file, but that negotiations that aim at stopping Iran’s entire civil nuclear programme, as Israel seems to want, are bound to fail, whereas negotiations aimed at ensuring that there are clear safeguards against a break-out to a military programme, with a phase-down of sanctions, do have a good chance of success? Does he agree that, as soon as possible, the E3 plus 3 should broker some confidence-building measures with the new Government?
Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that in aiming to improve relations with Iran, we should show an understanding of the hostile and humiliating way in which that ancient nation feels it has been treated in decades past by the west, especially by the United Kingdom? Will he also acknowledge that we should not expect too much, too soon from the new President, who will not be taking office for two months and will face his own challenges from within a complex, complicated governmental system?
Lastly, although I fully understand why the Foreign Secretary had to close our embassy in Tehran, may I ask what active steps he will now be taking to reopen it and to re-establish full diplomatic relations?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and questions, and indeed I pay tribute to the work he did, particularly between 2003 and 2005, seeking to improve relations with Iran and to address the nuclear issue, including working with Dr Rouhani.
On all the matters that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it will be important for us to have an open mind but to judge Iran on its actions. There have been positive words during the election campaign, but it will, of course, be the actions we judge, including on the potential to adopt a more constructive position when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which he mentioned. The opportunity is there through the E3 plus 3 negotiations to make constructive progress on the nuclear issue on the basis that he describes. The E3 plus 3 have made it clear since February that we are open about the long-term benefits to Iran of reaching a comprehensive agreement. We have been open to Iran that if it could react in a constructive way to the offer we have put on the table, that would open the door to the normalisation of political and economic relations with the international community. We have proposed a balanced and credible offer, to which Iran has not yet made a sufficiently constructive response. The opportunity is there.
We should always try to understand how other countries feel about events in history—that is part of good and effective diplomacy all over the world—just as they should appreciate our concerns. The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the President-elect does not immediately take office, but the IAEA has stressed the urgency of the nuclear issue and it is important that that is borne in mind.
Finally, we had no wish to close our embassy, as the right hon. Gentleman understands. Our embassy compounds were invaded in a way that could only have been state-sponsored in some way, at great danger to our staff and with the destruction of their personal possessions. It is not possible to operate an embassy in that environment, so although we maintain diplomatic relations with Iran and have no policy against opening an embassy, we would need to be sure about the safety of our staff and that the embassy could fulfil the normal functions of an embassy.
Everyone will hope that this election result will lead to better days for the Iranian people, but would my right hon. Friend agree that it is important not to go along with the lazy labelling of Dr Rouhani but to listen very carefully to what comes out of Iran and, as my right hon. Friend has said, to judge him entirely by what happens?
Yes, absolutely. I think that that is a good phrase to remember: no lazy labelling. This is a very complex political system in which, we must remember, 678 candidates for the presidential election were disqualified, including all 30 of the women who attempted to stand; the political system is rather different from ours and is one in which human rights abuses are very serious. We should not have lazy labelling but should be open to improvements in relations and ready to reciprocate if the opportunity is there.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for securing this urgent question at a very important time, and for the time that he has spent discussing the important subject of Iran with me.
Hassan Rouhani has secured more than 50% of the popular vote in Iran. This is a time of great opportunity, but also uncertainty. Hopes are high among the Iranian people and we know that Hassan Rouhani has expressed a desire to end the international sanctions relating to Iran’s development of a nuclear programme.
This is an important time, but the power structures in Iran mean that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still in charge of many matters, including foreign policy. Iran is a significant actor throughout the middle east and has the capacity to change the situation on the ground for good or for ill, including for foreign policy matters. In the light of that, I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a number of specific questions.
First, has the Foreign Secretary had the opportunity yet to discuss matters with the EU commissioner for external relations, particularly the election results and their possible impact on talks? Will he meet those who have expressed continuing concern about Iran’s intentions on nuclear policy, even after the presidential election? It is very important that we continue to listen to those concerns and are cautious in our approach.
Given the present state of UK-Iran relations, what specific contacts has the Foreign Secretary had with the Iranian Government? He mentioned that we continue to have diplomatic relations. What discussions have taken place with the Iranian Government? In the months and years ahead, the Iranian people will judge the new President by his actions, not his words. It is vital, however, that at this important time we are open and receptive. I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary could please indicate whether that has extended thus far to contact.
I think the same message is coming from all parts of the House on this subject—that is, that it is good to have that unity in our message. The hon. Gentleman is right. Not only is the political spectrum in Iran complex to interpret from outside, but so is the power structure. We should not assume that the President has the absolute power by any means on the subjects about which we are most concerned. Most observers would consider that the presidency overall is perhaps a weaker institution than it was eight years ago when President Ahmadinejad first took office. The hon. Gentleman is right that Iran has an immense capacity to act for good or ill in the region, and on a very important global issue, the nuclear file.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about the E3 plus 3 negotiations and the role of the EU High Representative, our offer has been clear since February and that offer remains. That will continue to be the approach of the High Representative and of the E3 plus 3. We have regular meetings about all these issues. I regularly meet the director general of the IAEA to discuss in detail all the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.
We have some contacts and conversations with Iran. As I mentioned before, we have not broken off diplomatic relations. Our embassy became impossible to operate and as a result I required the closure of the Iranian embassy in London, but we have had conversations since that time. I have had conversations myself with the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mr Salehi, and we have conversations in the margins of the United Nations and other international forums. We have not, of course, had any contact yet with the President-elect, Mr Rouhani, who is some way from taking office. Decisions about that are for the future.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the best thing has happened that we could have hoped for—the Iranian people have once again reaffirmed their support for engagement with the western world and cynicism about the grabbing of nuclear capability—the worst thing the west could do is raise excessive expectations about how much could be achieved under the new leader in too short a time? Yet the urgency is on to contain the nuclear threat, with Iran possibly acquiring weapons-grade plutonium by the end of this year, and Iran is one of the powers fomenting the civil war in Syria. May I suggest urgent engagement on these matters, but as firmly and as diplomatically as possible?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We should hesitate before trying to interpret the results of elections in other countries. Sometimes we have enough trouble interpreting election results in our own country, so we should not rush too excitedly into that, but we should take full note of what has happened and what Mr Rouhani said during the election campaign and be ready to respond in good faith in the way that I outlined in my initial statement, and we will stick to that over the coming weeks. My hon. Friend is right about the urgency of the issue. Iran is acting in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions and of successive resolutions of the IAEA board, and addressing the nuclear issue has become very urgent indeed.
I welcome the general tone of the Foreign Secretary’s comments, but is it not time to stop treating Iran as a pariah state and to treat it instead as a proud nation which plays a key role, if a nefarious one, in so many middle east conflicts? Should he not press for direct engagement with Iran on Syria and on Israel-Palestine? Now that its people have voted directly to engage with the west on the basis of respect, even if their Government have policies with which we bitterly disagree, it is surely essential to press that engagement. Unless we do, I see no prospect of the middle east, which is in one of its most unstable and dangerous situations ever, stabilising. Iran holds the key to that.
It has to be recognised that Iran has brought its isolation and economic sanctions upon itself, through its own actions. However, the British people have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our dispute is over Iran’s nuclear programme. It will be difficult to create the atmosphere to address constructively with Iran all the other issues in the middle east that the right hon. Gentleman has quite legitimately mentioned without settling the nuclear issue. That is the central point. That is not just the view of the UK; we must remember that the E3 plus 3 include China and Russia, and our negotiating position is agreed with them. We are all agreed that the Iranian response has not been adequate or realistic so far. A change in that situation would unlock the opportunity for us to work together on other issues, and for Iran to be treated with the respect that the world would owe it as a major nation in its region. That is all there for the taking if we can resolve the nuclear issue.
It is generally accepted that both sides have made mistakes in regard to this relationship, and that no one’s hands are clean. Given that the election of President Rouhani offers a chink of light, what confidence-building measures is the Foreign Secretary considering? For example, will the Foreign Office seek the necessary assurances in relation to our embassy, in the hope that one day we will be able to reopen it? If not, what other measures is he considering?
We do have conversations with the Iranians, and we will of course be very much open to conversations with the new President and his team. As has been mentioned, they are still some way from taking office, and we do not know who the other Ministers in the new Government will be, but, yes, we will be open to conversations with them. Those conversations can and should include the circumstances in which embassies can be reopened, but after what happened last time, we would need to be very confident of any assurances before we were able to reopen our embassy in the short term. There is an offer on the table from the E3 plus 3 on the nuclear issue, and it will remain on the table over the coming weeks.
Should we not bear in mind that the previous regime, the Shah’s regime, was put in place and maintained for a long time by Britain, the United States and other western powers? That has not been forgotten by the Iranian people, but if conditions can be normalised, as we all hope will be the case, will that not put pressure on the present regime to end the abuses of human rights in Iran?
Yes, of course people have strong views about history, but as I have pointed out, the negotiations on the nuclear issue are not just with the UK. They involve all the other members of the E3 plus 3, including China and Russia. So historical feelings about the UK cannot be a barrier to resolving those issues. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to human rights in Iran; its human rights record is truly appalling. There are more journalists in prison in Iran than in any other country in the world, 350 executions were carried out last year, opposition leaders have been detained for over two years, and there are continued arrests of human rights defenders and minorities. It is high time that that record was improved, and that the nuclear issue was resolved.
Let us hope that the new President of Iran is not a holocaust denier who wants to wipe a member state of the United Nations from the face of the map. Does the Foreign Secretary see any role for Iran in trying to bring about a ceasefire in Syria—I stress the word “ceasefire”—to stop the killing, whether or not it leads to a political transition?
A constructive role for Iran in Syria would be very welcome, and there is the opportunity for that. Iran’s policy on Syria at the moment is the exact opposite, as there is an abundance of evidence of Iranian participation in the murder, torture and abuse committed by the Assad regime, so as things stand today Iran is a long way from playing a helpful diplomatic or restraining role, highly desirable though that would be.
May I press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of the embassy? Since it closed in November 2011, it has been very difficult for people to get visas to come here—it is a long and tortuous process. Given what has happened, he might not want to open an all-singing, all-dancing embassy, but at the very least giving people the opportunity to make applications to visit relatives in this country would be greatly appreciated.
It is a great shame that the closure of embassies makes it more difficult for people to travel. That was not something we desired, and the reopening of embassies is not something to which we are on any principle opposed, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that, given what happened, which was against every provision of the Vienna convention and every principle of civilised behaviour regarding the treatment of diplomats anywhere in the world, we would have to be very confident of a change in the approach to our embassy before being able to reopen it.
Dr Rouhani himself has described his victory as a victory for moderation over extremism. Would it not be an early reward and encouragement to such moderation, in action as well as words, to include Iran in the planned talks on the future of Syria?
Dr Rouhani has said good words about moderation. During his campaign he said:
“What I truly wish is for moderation to return to the country. This is my only wish. Extremism pains me greatly. We have suffered many blows as a result of extremism.”
Those are the sorts of positive remarks to which I referred during the election campaign. On the question of Iran’s participation in future talks on Syria, which of course we are trying to arrange and which the Prime Minister is discussing further today at the G8 summit, we will proceed on the basis that a second Geneva conference must proceed from what we agreed in Geneva last year: the creation of a transitional Government in Syria, formed from the regime and the opposition, with full executive authority, and by mutual consent. We have seen no evidence to date that the Iranians accept that basic premise of the Geneva conference and of holding another Geneva conference, which of course greatly complicates the question of their attendance.
The Foreign Secretary will recognise that, despite Iran’s appalling human rights record and very strange electoral system, there has nevertheless been huge participation in the election, which demonstrates a thirst to get away from the human rights abuses of the past and have a better engagement with the rest of the world. Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and holding a conference on a middle east nuclear weapons-free zone is still on the table—it was not held in Helsinki last year but is still due to be held. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that he is redoubling his efforts to ensure that that conference is held, at which Iran would be present, and that it could be part of an ongoing engagement and debate to try to bring about that dream?
We support a middle east nuclear weapons conference, as we accepted at the review conference of the NPT in 2010. We have been trying to bring that about. There is a Finnish facilitator for the conference who has been doing good work, and we have been supporting him in that work, so the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the British Government are arguing in that direction.
That would be a good thing to know. As I remarked earlier, we must be careful about how we interpret election results in other countries. There is no doubt that sanctions on Iran are having a major impact on the country, and that that is felt in the country, so I want to make it clear again that if we cannot resolve the nuclear issue, sanctions will be intensified. Iran faces a choice on this. I cannot divine the exact feelings of the Iranian people, but I know that they would be much better off if they resolved the nuclear issue.
The Iranian people are overwhelmingly young and want to engage with the rest of the world. They are controlled by a conservative theocratic group. The President who has just been elected comes from that conservative group, but he has been chosen because the young people want change. How can we get across, to the young people of Iran in particular, that we are not the enemy and that we also want change in Iran?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran and we are not their enemy. We do try to get that message across.
Of course, it is not easy to broadcast into Iran but we make every effort to do so. The BBC makes very good efforts to do so; I have done a number of interviews on BBC Persian that directly address the issues, so that the people of Iran can hear what we say and how we argue about those issues.
It is possible, in a world much more connected and with so many social media, to convey the messages in many new ways. We are taking every opportunity to do that, and for private individuals to do that is extremely healthy. We can get the messages across. Perhaps—without, as I say, over-analysing the result—we are seeing a wish among the young people of Iran to have better relations with the rest of the world.
Further to the last question, Iran is a key regional player yet is intransigent on Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and nuclear capability. Is my right hon. Friend not concerned that, although the new President is perhaps a moderate, he will be dictated to by the religious establishment in Iran?
As we were saying a few moments ago, the power structure in Iran is complex and enormous authority resides in the Supreme Leader—there is a big clue in the title—in particular over the nuclear issue. We cannot assume that a newly elected President, whatever his intentions—and we cannot yet be sure of those—would be able to execute all the policies that he would like to see.
We will take the issue step by step. We will respond in good faith to efforts to improve relations, but we will judge Iran on actions rather than words.
It is too early to bring out the bunting, although it is good that once the authorities had banned most of the candidates from standing, at least they did not rig the election this time, as they did last time.
May I impress on the Foreign Secretary two elements of the human rights record that he did not explicitly refer to, the first of which is the execution of children? Iran is a signatory to all the international treaties in relation to that, and it should stop. Secondly, there is the treatment of the Ahwazi Arabs, many of whom are still on hunger strike. They have been hideously oppressed and their peaceful activists have been thrown into prison without trial for far too long.
I absolutely agree. We do our utmost to hold Iran to account on human rights issues. We have designated under EU sanctions more than 80 Iranians as responsible for human rights violations. We have helped to establish a UN special rapporteur on human rights and we will continue to raise those issues.
I warmly welcome the approach that my right hon. Friend has taken and what he has just said about human rights abuses in Iran. To those can be added the question of the persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. Will he join me in expressing the hope that there will be a reduction in the amount of persecution? That was such a feature of the time in office of the outgoing President, about whose departure few tears can be shed.
Yes, absolutely. In addition to my other remarks about the human rights record, I deplore the persecution of Christians and the long string of anti-Semitic remarks made by the incumbent President. I think that people across the world will be hoping that these things will change.
Could we not prove our even-handedness and reduce tensions if we appealed to the only known nuclear state in the region to end its 20-year breach of international agreements and invite the inspectors in? Would it not be best for Israel to declare its own nuclear stockpile in order to persuade Iran to follow suit?
We urge Israel to join the non-proliferation treaty—that is the long-established position of the United Kingdom. However, those who ask Israel to address nuclear issues have to recognise that one way that would make it impossible for it to ever do that would be for Iran to develop a nuclear capability. That would be the end of any hope for a middle east free of nuclear weapons. The settling of this Iranian nuclear issue is very important to going on to any other issues.
We never would have had a British empire if our diplomats had been worried about health and safety at work. Given that the new President-elect has said that he would like to reopen our embassy and that we have not broken off diplomatic relations, is it not perhaps time for us to try to reopen our embassy in Tehran and demonstrate that trust is built in small steps? Being absent from the discussion will not help us at all.
First of all, we are not absent from the discussion; we are part of the E3 plus 3, so we have direct discussions with Iran on the nuclear issue. Nor have we broken diplomatic relations with Iran. I must say to my hon. Friend that the danger in which our staff were placed was sufficiently great and the destruction of their possessions and the invasion of the embassy sufficiently unacceptable that I find describing it as a health and safety issue inappropriate.
At the risk of lazy labelling, before the election we were told that six hardliners had been vetted to go on the ballot paper, but now we are told that a moderate slipped through the net and is President. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the new President, Dr Rouhani, and what are his hopes for improvements in UK-Iranian relations?
Yes, this can demonstrate the dangers of vetting a list of candidates, a practice that might be well known to many political parties in this House, although I am not pointing in any particular direction. I do not want to give too detailed an assessment, because the politics of Iran are very complex, as hon. Members from all parties have pointed out. I also do not want to make our job in improving relations with Iran more difficult by giving an initial assessment that may turn out to be wrong. Nor do I want to make the new President’s job more difficult; it will be immensely difficult for him to govern Iran and do what he says he wants to do, namely improve the condition of his people. We will let our analysis take shape over time and judge by actions, not words.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, notwithstanding the outcome of the election, this is not the time for us to become dewy-eyed about the Iranian regime, which has a long track record of internal brutality, as well as of being prepared to arm its proxies in countries such as Lebanon in order to threaten Israel, and is complicit in the brutality of the Assad regime in Syria?
My hon. Friend is right to remind the House of all those things. We have discussed the opportunity for Iran to play a constructive role. Let us be absolutely clear that it does not do so at the moment in regional relations or in many of the conflicts around the middle east, most spectacularly of all in the case of Syria, where Iran is actively fuelling the oppression of the Syrian people. My hon. Friend’s words are wise and should be heeded.
Will the Foreign Secretary say a bit about Iran’s relationship with its eastern neighbour, Afghanistan? As our troops leave Afghanistan over the next 18 months or so, stability in that country will depend on its having good relations with all its neighbours. Both Iran and Afghanistan would gain from better bilateral relations. What can the UK do to make that happen?
That is a very important point. There are reasonably good relations between the Governments of Afghanistan and Iran. I hope that any new Government in Iran would want to build on that. Those relations are important given their common border and their common interest in counter-narcotics. It is important that they are able to work together. The United Kingdom does nothing to obstruct that, despite all our difficulties with Iran. We will continue to believe that they ought to have good, constructive relations.
Earlier today, Mr Rouhani vowed to ensure that there is greater transparency with respect to Iran’s nuclear programme. Given that Iran has been deemed a dangerous rogue nation for more than 30 years, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the new President must demonstrate positive deeds, not just words, if he is to be taken seriously?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. There are many ways in which greater transparency can be demonstrated. The International Atomic Energy Agency has pointed to Iran’s failure to provide design information on the heavy water research reactor at Arak and its failure to provide substantive answers to the agency’s detailed questions on the activities undertaken at Parchin. Iran needs urgently to provide the agency with access to all the sites, equipment, persons and documents requested by the agency. There is therefore a good deal of scope for increased transparency.
The flickering prospect delivered by this result comes from the Iranian people. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that they deserve to understand that our concern to safeguard their human rights is not merely secondary to our nuclear and regional concerns? Given the abuse of the opposition and religious minorities to which he has referred, will he provide an assurance that the current circumstances will not be used by this or any other Government as an excuse to return people who have escaped from Iran and sought refugee status to a place of risk?
The last point is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but clearly our policy can change only if the circumstances change. The fact that there has been a certain election result does not mean that we can judge immediately that everything has changed. The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the importance of the human rights issues. The fact that we designate individuals for human rights violations under our sanctions legislation shows how seriously we take such matters. I stress that the main issue of contention in international relations between ourselves and Iran, and between most other countries in the world and Iran, is the nuclear issue. If we could solve that, there would be many new ways in which we could work together. That does not mean that we would stop deploring human rights violations in Iran or in any other country, but solving that issue would be a major diplomatic breakthrough.
My right hon. Friend will have gathered that the mood of the House is one of hope and expectation at the election of President-elect Rouhani. I urge my right hon. Friend, through his good offices, to take the next couple of months until Mr Rouhani comes to power to assess all the offers to Iran that have been on the table. The Iranian people have voted for change and hope. It was notable in the election that no matter how hard-line a presidential candidate was, most of them were talking about the economic failure of the last eight years. The Iranian people obviously want to change that economic failure. That provides a glint of light and suggests a way in which we might be able to tempt the new President. I urge my right hon. Friend to spend the next two months considering whether there is a chink of light that we can exploit when Mr Rouhani comes to power.
Yes, and that takes us back to the nuclear issue. We have made a clear offer to Iran that in return for its suspending enrichment above 5% and addressing concerns about its stockpile of uranium and its enrichment capacity, we would commit ourselves to lifting some sanctions. The opportunity to improve the economic situation is there.
We all welcome the election of a so-called moderate President-elect, but is my right hon. Friend aware that less than an hour ago in Tehran President Rouhani said that under no circumstances will the enrichment of uranium stop? Will he comment on reports emanating from the United States that Iran is preparing to send 4,000 troops to intervene in Syria?
The President-elect gave a news conference today and said a number of things, including about improving relations with all countries Iran recognises— which includes the UK—and we are responding in the way we are today in this House. As well as commenting on the nuclear programme in the way my hon. Friend described, the President-elect also said that the primary objective of the next Government should be to build confidence and trust with the international community, and resolve the domestic, economic crisis. The only way to do that will be to address the nuclear issue successfully. I am not in a position to confirm any military movements by the United States.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the positions taken by former Presidents Hathmi and Rafsanjani. They were both regarded as moderates, yet under their terms nuclear capabilities were increased in Iran. Despite the prospect of a moderate President, one must compare that with previous moderate Presidents in Iran and look at the policies implemented, whether in nuclear enrichment, Syria, Bahrain, or Lebanon and then linked to Syria. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the latest statement made by the President-elect when he said that his position on Syria will be the same as that of Russia?
Yes, all those things show that we are right to emphasise—I think this is common ground across the House—that actions and policies over time will either allow for an improvement in relations, or not. We will see what happens on all those things, but the opportunity is there. Let me say again that we will respond in good faith to changes in policies by Iran if they happen, but the cautionary note sounded by my hon. Friend is entirely valid.
The hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) rightly pointed out the importance of Iran’s relationship to the east with Afghanistan, but we must also bear in mind the importance of Iran’s relationship with the west and south, and with Iraq and the Persian gulf states. May I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend that the British Government will continue closely to monitor that situation, which is crucial to peace in the middle east?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that and the relationship of Iran with those states is of huge importance to confidence in peace and security in the region, and we will watch closely. Iran’s relations with those countries, and how it approaches them, will be very much among the actions that we will judge over time.
Common Fisheries Policy
On 14 June EU member states signalled their agreement to a deal on reform of the common fisheries policy. After more than three years of difficult and protracted negotiations, the agreement confirms that EU member states can support the deal brokered among EU institutions. All that remains is for the European Parliament to give its approval, which we expect in the coming months, and then the new CFP will be put into law.
I am delighted to report that my fellow fisheries Ministers, and EU institutions, have risen to the challenge of agreeing an ambitious reform of this broken policy. The CFP has become a totemic example of failure at EU level. Centralised micro-management and fudged objectives have left us with fish stocks and fishing businesses that are nowhere near as healthy as they could be. The public are rightly disgusted by the spectacle of edible fish being thrown back into the sea.
I have reported back to the House several times on the progress we were making in addressing those failings through the reform negotiations, but despite support for a series of positive commitments, through some difficult Councils and late-night drafting discussions, the robustness of that reform could not be assured until we secured detailed text that addressed the UK’s priorities. Subject to those last processes to translate and ratify the regulation formally, we now have that text agreed.
Perhaps the most tangible leap forward comes through the agreement of provisions to eliminate discarding. The reformed CFP includes a discard ban starting in 2015 for pelagic fish, which will be rolled out to other fisheries from 2016. Importantly, that is supported by the practical provisions to make the ban operational. The provisions recognise the complex causes of discarding and address them, rather than simply ban the practice on paper and consider that sufficient.
I do not underestimate the challenges fishermen will face as we adapt to the new provisions, but we are already working with the industry in the UK to ensure we can make the system work effectively in practice. A key element of that will be working with the industry to develop effective management rules. It has always been a top priority for the UK to achieve a genuine regionalised process through reform to replace the centralised one-size-fits-all approach. The UK led the way on that, building support to move decision making closer to fisheries, with a process that works within the existing treaty framework. The provisions allow us to work together regionally, to agree the measures appropriate to our fisheries with other member states, and to give them legal effect through EU law or national measures.
I am pleased to report that we achieved provisions to put fishing on a sustainable footing. For the first time, we have a legally binding commitment to set fishing levels sustainably, eliminating over-fishing so that we can increase biomass in the sea and improve fishing yields in the long term. That could have a huge positive impact, not just on stock levels and the marine ecosystem, but on the bottom line for UK fishing businesses.
Other reforms will ensure that the same principles of sustainability apply to EU vessels fishing outside Europe. Fishing agreements with non-EU countries must be based on sound science and monitoring, with clauses on respect for human rights. Under the common market organisation of the CFP, we have secured sensible labelling rules and a strengthened role for producer organisations to support growth in the sector and add value. Reforms to the structural fund element of the CFP are being discussed on a slightly slower time scale, with further negotiations expected in the autumn.
We should not underestimate the significant opposition we have faced in achieving that momentous deal, or the rollercoaster of protracted and detailed institutional discussions involved. The UK has been in the vanguard of fundamental reform since the Commission published its green paper in 2009. We have drawn support from member states and MEPs across Europe, helped in no small part by grass-roots campaigns that have generated public enthusiasm for reform. Devolved Ministers have played a strong part in the UK delegation to help us to face down those who would prefer to keep the status quo, and to make the case for the practical detail needed to make the reform workable in the diverse fisheries that exist around the UK.
The result demonstrates the leadership role the UK has played in Europe, and the resulting text shows how European legislation can and should be drafted. It shifts responsibility away from Brussels to those who understand and manage specific sea basins. We have responded to the calls from European citizens to end the practice of discarding.
I should like to put on record my thanks to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their support in our pursuit of fundamental reform. I was able to draw strength from that support during some of the darker moments of the negotiations. I also register my thanks to the fishing industry, which has actively and positively engaged in the process, and with which we will work to make the reform work in practice. Finally, I thank members of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team for all their efforts. They have worked tirelessly over the past three years and have made a significant contribution to the shape of the final text.
There is still plenty of work ahead, but the agreement gives us the tools to turn a broken policy around. The agreement is good for the sustainability of the fish in our seas, good for the sustainability of our fishing industry, and good for the sustainability of our coastal communities. I am sure the whole House will welcome this significant development.
Before I begin, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating the shadow environment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), and his wife Lucy. He celebrated his first father’s day yesterday with the arrival of a beautiful baby daughter.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and congratulate him on his real achievement in reforming the common fisheries policy, 2014 to 2020. The deal was the culmination of three years of difficult negotiation and I congratulate him on surviving what he calls the “darker moments” of that process. We on the Opposition Benches have consistently called for ambitious reform of the CFP. These reforms are a good start. They end the disgraceful practice of discards, they decentralise and regionalise the CFP and allow member states to support small-scale fisheries, such as those in Devon and Cornwall, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk; and they take a scientific approach to setting sustainable fishing levels away from the discredited system of total allowable catch with a transfer to maximum sustainable yield by 2020.
We welcome the time scale for banning discards starting with pelagic fish on 1 January 2015, but the package still allows for exemptions to the discard ban of up to 5% in certain circumstances. How does the Minister see the discard ban working in practice? We also welcome a firm time scale to implement maximum sustainable yields by 2020 at the latest, and by 2015 “where possible”. Will he assure the House that the UK will adopt the earliest possible implementation date, and when will that be?
We welcome the requirement for the Commission to report annually to the Council of Ministers and European Parliament on progress towards delivery of maximum sustainable yield. Given past criticisms of the CFP, transparency is important.
The reforms acknowledge the need for further work on marine protected areas, particularly in biologically important areas. The final document states:
“In order to facilitate the designation process, Member States should identify suitable areas, including areas that form part of a coherent network, and, where appropriate, they should cooperate with one another, preparing and sending joint recommendations to the Commission.”
Has the Minister had any contact with any other EU member state on a joint marine conservation zone? If he has not, does he anticipate co-operation with any other member state on such a zone to ensure maximum ecological benefit for both countries from the designation? Will he tell the House what contact he or his officials have had with the Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries on the establishment of the UK’s marine conservation zones?
The reforms contain provisions to support small-scale and artisanal fisheries—a measure that he and my Labour colleagues in the European Parliament lobbied hard for. Small-scale fishing vessels make up 77% of boats in UK waters, but they have access to only 4% of the quota. What changes will the reforms bring to those small-scale fleets and their communities? Will they help to achieve smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and contribute to direct and indirect job creation in our coastal areas?
In a Westminster Hall debate in December 2012, the Minister assured Members that he would publish the details of who owns the UK’s fishing quota. When will the list be published? What steps does he envisage the EU taking to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing to ensure a level playing field between the EU and third countries?
This is a good day for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, campaigning groups and the 860,000 people who signed up to Channel 4’s Fish Fight campaign. I again congratulate the Minister and his team, and devolved Ministers, on the long hours they put in. I congratulate the fishing industry on its co-operation. After three years of negotiation, we look forward to these good reforms being implemented at last.
I thank the hon. Lady for her congratulations. I would also like to pass on my congratulations, and those of everyone in the House, to the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) on his happy event.
On exemptions to the discard ban, we believe that the maximum 5% de minimis contains so many caveats that it will be used only in exceptional circumstances: where the discard plans are part of a multi-annual plan; where they are co-decided; and where there is scientific evidence to support them.
In certain fisheries, changes in behaviour can be driven only through a land-all policy, and we were absolutely determined about that: it is the right approach and one that has proved to be a driver for change in other areas. It should not take away, however, from the fact that the industry has made huge strides in reducing discards. Around the coast in all parts of the United Kingdom, there are wonderful stories of leadership from the industry. I want to build on that.
The hon. Lady asked about a maximum sustainable yield. We have committed to imposing one by 2015, where possible, and by 2020 in any event, and I will be very open with the House about our progress on that, but she will understand that it will have to be on an almost annual basis, as we announce our fishing opportunities each year. There is now a firm driver and legally binding commitment to achieve such a yield.
The hon. Lady also talked about marine conservation, which is an absolute priority for us. We have had conversations with France, through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, because we do not want to look at this issue through the myopia of an English or UK solution; our approach has to be ecologically coherent, which means talking to countries such as France, Ireland and others. A provision in the text allows us to ensure that any conservation measures we introduce beyond the six-nautical-mile limit will have to be obeyed by fishermen from all countries in the EU. That is a big win.
The hon. Lady talked about the needs of the inshore fisheries sector. She will be aware that we have taken steps to improve the fishing opportunity for this sector, and we will continue to do so, although I am wary about this question of 96% and 4%, because the inshore fleet would not be able to access many of the 96% of quotas held by the larger fishing vessels. She is right that there is a disparity, however, and we are trying to address it. I can also provide confirmation about our plans to publish a register of who owns quota and has access to fishing opportunities in this country—I must correct that: they do not own the quota; the country owns the quota. This is a national resource. However, the register of who holds quota will be published by the end of the year.
I entirely agree about the importance of bearing down on illegal, unreported and unregistered fishing. It is vital that we use every tool in the box to stop people fishing illegally. They are stealing fish from legitimate, law-abiding fishermen. Technology is working in our favour, however: through vessel monitoring systems, e-logbooks and a range of other enforcement measures, we can protect honest fishermen and catch and prosecute those who break the law.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all he has achieved and on the news that the register of quota will be published by the end of the year, which will help under-10s and others in coastal areas. Alarm bells started ringing when he said that legal effect would be given through either European law or national measures. Can he assure the House that where a regional agreement is reached, the Commission will no longer intervene?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point about regionalisation—and one that detained us a long time as we tried to find a solution. Under the Commission’s original text, which could have had a centralising effect, if the countries around a sea basin—the North sea, for example—failed to agree, the power to decide on the technical measures would have been taken by the Commission. We thought that that was wrong, so we developed—under the leadership of my Department, I have to say—an idea that found its way into the text. Under this provision, a measure becomes law where there is agreement among all the countries fishing a particular sea basin, and where they cannot agree, the matter is determined by co-decision. That is a much better way forward. Throughout these discussions, I have always said, “I would never start from here”. We are trying to improve something that is very, very wrong. We are going to make it halfway right, however, and there is still much more work to do.
Things will improve on the wider scale because the commitment to maximum sustainable yield, fishing sustainably and more sensible management will lead to increased biomass in the sea, so there will be more fish for the small-scale fishing fleet to catch. However, the one thing I find as I go round the coast—the hon. Gentleman will know about this from when he was the shadow spokesman—is how remote the decision-making process is. I have sat up in the small hours of the morning discussing mesh sizes for fishing nets that will be used off the north-west coast of Scotland, 1,000 miles from where I was sitting. I am not an expert and nor was the Commission official who was having the discussion with me, but the fishermen who fish there are. They will now be part of that decision-making process. They will be able to drive those technical details in an effective way, not one that is so remote from how they fish.