My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Lieutenant Andrew Chesterman of 3rd Battalion The Rifles, Lance Corporal Matthew Smith of 26 Engineer Regiment, Guardsman Jamie Shadrake of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Guardsman Karl Whittle of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Sergeant Lee Davidson of The Light Dragoons, Lance Corporal Duane Groom of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Sergeant Gareth Thursby of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Private Thomas Wroe of 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Sergeant Jonathan Kups of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Captain James Townley of the Corps of Royal Engineers and Captain Carl Manley of the Royal Marines who died on operations in Afghanistan recently.
My thoughts are also with the wounded, and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation. Once again, we are reminded of the immense danger that our Armed Forces operate in to uphold our safety and security. Their families and the whole country should rightly be proud of their heroic service and we shall always remember them.
Turning to the Question, Ministers are still considering the case for UK membership of the European Defence Agency with the aim of announcing the outcome of the review before the end of the autumn. As part of that review, we are looking at the activities of the agency’s four main directorates of capability, research and technology, industry and markets and armaments to assess the benefits received by our membership, including on our international relationships and what improvements there have been in the agency since 2010.
My Lords, we all join the Minister in those condolences and tributes to our brave soldiers.
The two-year period of review has now passed with no outcome. Does that mean there is some rift within the coalition? Will the Government now recognise, as indeed EU Sub-Committee C recognised, that we benefit from the pooling and sharing within the agency and that the agency does valuable work in niche areas such as counter-IED, medical support, helicopters and cyber warfare? Further, if there were not a positive response, there would be an almighty row with our French partners.
My Lords, there are no rifts and there is no hidden agenda. We said that we would review our membership after two years. We will then provide an Explanatory Memorandum and notify both Houses in the normal way as soon as possible. I am aware of the benefits that the EDA has delivered, but we need to review the full benefits and improvement goals that it has set for itself. In an age of financial austerity, we must ensure that every pound of taxpayers’ money counts for defence.
My Lords, did the Minister see the recent report of the same sub-committee which the noble Lord just referred to? The committee’s report said that given that the EDA,
“is deemed to be well directed under its current management, it should be given the proper tools and commitment to do a proper job. The UK and France should take the lead”.
Will the Government take that opinion into account in coming to a decision?
My Lords, does the Minister accept that, in the age of financial austerity that he referred to, there is a very strong case for common defence procurement if it can be done economically within Europe, and that potentially the agency has a huge role to play in making that work much better than it has in the past?
My Lords, first I wish to identify these Benches with the sad condolences expressed by the Minister. Does my noble friend agree that some of the successful examples of European Defence Agency initiatives are both the air-to-air refuelling and the helicopter training exercises which have been completed this week? Could he detail any other recent achievements of the EDA?
My Lords, the EDA has seen significant success in a number of capability areas; for example, as my noble friend said, helicopter training which has directly increased the number of pilots available for operations in Afghanistan. By enhancing the capabilities of smaller member states, we receive an indirect benefit through better burden-sharing in operations. I understand that 114 crews—that is 1,300 personnel—have been trained, of which 63 have been deployed to Afghanistan. My noble friend mentioned the air-to-air refuelling initiative. As part of pooling and sharing, the EDA is taking a lead in facilitating European capability development in this area. This has not yet delivered results but the initiative is at an early stage. This issue was highlighted in operations over Libya where the US provided the vast majority of air-to-air refuelling capability. If I may, I will write to my noble friend on the other achievements—European military air-worthiness, the requirements initiative, industry and markets, and the capability development plan.
My Lords, I went up to RAF Waddington a couple of weeks ago and saw for myself what the noble Lord has talked about. I cannot answer from the Dispatch Box whether the French will be involved in that. As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box on many occasions, I welcome as much co-operation with the French as possible. We are working with them in a lot of areas. Noble Lords may have seen in the Daily Telegraph today the photograph of our Royal Marines training off Corsica with the French marines.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that there would have been some benefits from the two companies joining up. However, having said that, I think that BAE will continue to thrive on its own. It has some wonderful products and Ministers in the Ministry of Defence do their very best to help BAE sell them.
My Lords, if the Minister and the Government had to choose between a row with our French partners and the lasting disengagement of the United States of America, which would they choose? When the Minister writes to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, listing all the glorious achievements of this agency, will he commit to putting a copy of the letter in your Lordships’ Library?