1. Mr. Chidgey: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will consider allowing all shipyards to compete for naval refits by ensuring that whole classes of vessels are not put within predetermined refit programmes. 
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): All shipyards are able to compete for a wide range of naval refits within the unallocated programme. An increasing volume of work will be put to competition as the number of refits in the allocated programme reduces. Eventually, the whole of the surface ship refitting programme will be available for competition.
Mr. Chidgey: The Minister has already informed the House that he is considering deferring the ending of nuclear work at Rosyth. Is he therefore also considering reviewing the allocation, and the consequences of his action on the allocation, of refit work for surface ships? If he is considering that review, will he give the House an undertaking that he will also consider the allocation of refit work for mine warfare ships--a particular concern to Vosper Thornycroft in my constituency?
Mr. Freeman: We are discussing with both the managements at Rosyth and Devonport any amendments that need to be made to the allocation of work. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the allocation to Rosyth assumed the end of refitting to strategic nuclear submarines in about two to three year's time. We need to run on strategic nuclear submarine refits at Rosyth and therefore we will reconsider the allocation programme, but I hold out no immediate hope to the hon. Gentleman that we shall reconsider assigning whole classes of ships to Devonport.
Mr. Colvin: Without inviting tenders from others, how certain can my right hon. Friend be that the price that he receives for the refit work at Rosyth, which I acknowledge will have allocated work, is competitive? Is it not unfair that Vosper Thornycroft, which built most of the smaller warships that are being allocated to Rosyth, is not being allowed to bid for the tender for their refits? None the
Column 126less, will he also take this opportunity just to tell us what the Government's position is with regard to the bids for the new type 23 frigates?
Mr. Freeman: I confirm to my hon. Friend that we expect Vosper to bid. My understanding is that it has bid for the type 23 frigates. I have a high regard for the company. I have confirmed that the yard is capable of a new build of a modern warship. On refitting, my hon. Friend is right, but to ensure that the price is competitive, we use estimates of what we believe the work of comparable ship refitting has been in the United Kingdom. We have refined our techniques for ensuring that the taxpayer gets value for money, but I look forward to the day when all ship refitting is available for competition--that should be from about 2005, and Vosper will be able to bid for all classes of refitting then.
Mr. Denham: How can Vosper Thornycroft be excluded, as the Government are currently planning, from bidding for Hunt and Sandown minehunter work until 2005? Is the Minister not aware that a shipyard such as Vosper is constantly improving its productivity and lowering its cost structures? How can his Department really know what a competitive price for that work would be unless Vosper is able to bid for at least part of the work load that has been allocated elsewhere?
Mr. Freeman: I understand the strength of that argument, but I should set against that the fact that we wish the Rosyth shipyard, in due course, to concentrate only on surface ship refitting. It is important that Rosyth should be viable. It is important that it should make a full transition from nuclear work to surface ship work. Therefore, the Ministry of Defence has an obligation to Rosyth as well as an obligation to ensure that there is as much competition as possible. I remind the House that we welcome competition for the unallocated programme of refitting work, especially for frigate work and that, by 2005, all new build yards and refitting yards will be able to compete for the work.
Mr. Gallie: I commend my right hon. Friend for sticking to the commitments that he gave to Rosyth about two years ago--commitments that were sought from both sides of the House. Is it not disgraceful that Opposition Members seem now to be trying to persuade my right hon. Friend to turn against those commitments, which he gave so readily only a year or two ago?
Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that support. I can confirm our clear determination to ensure that there is a proper allocation of balanced work, not only for Rosyth but for Devonport. We shall not revisit our decision to allocate Trident submarine refitting work to Plymouth, Devonport, but we intend to ensure that Rosyth has enough viable work to ensure continued employment well into the next century.
Column 127the humanitarian effort and the international peace process, and would lead to the withdrawal of UNPROFOR.
Mr. Home Robertson: Has the Secretary of State yet managed to convey to the United States Congress that lifting the arms embargo at this stage would certainly lead to pre-emptive strikes by those who have heavy weapons --not only the Bosnian Serbs, but the Croatian forces? As we are in a position now where the Bosnian Serb army has been blocking and attacking humanitarian aid convoys in Sarajevo and other enclaves for several months, how soon will it be before the new United Nations rapid reaction force is in a position to intervene to protect those convoys?
Mr. Rifkind: There has been some progress in convoys getting through to Sarajevo and Gorazde, but I agree that the position remains serious. A significant part of the new rapid deployment force is already in Bosnia and is available to the theatre commander. We would expect further reinforcement of that force to be able to be sent out in the near future.
Mr. Key: Has my right hon. and learned Friend discussed the effects of lifting the embargo with our French allies? Without divulging any details, can he assure the House that he has discussed, and is familiar with, the French rules of engagement and that they are the same as ours?
Mr. Rifkind: I met my colleague the new French Minister of Defence last week, and I can assure my hon. Friend that both France and the United Kingdom believe that it is necessary to have robust rules of engagement to ensure the full protection of our forces in Bosnia, who will have the full freedom to use the force that they believe is necessary to defend their lives and to perform the duties that they are entrusted to carry out.
Dr. David Clark: If the arms embargo were to be lifted, as the Secretary of State implies, we would have to evacuate the UNPROFOR forces. That would mean that 24 airmobile brigade would have to go in. Has the Secretary of State heard from the Bosnian and the Croatian Governments at this stage as to whether they are prepared to allow 24 airmobile to go in?
Mr. Rifkind: We are at the moment discussing with the Croatian Government the use of the port of Ploce as an initial base for 24 airmobile brigade. I hope that that matter will be resolved in the very near future. Of course a substantial part of the British reinforcements is already in Bosnia--almost 1,000 extra men--and we would expect the advance party of about 400 of 24 airmobile to set out for Bosnia as soon as we can reach agreement with the Croatian Government on the lines that I set out a few moments ago.
Column 128Air Force personnel are deployed on out-of- area operational tasks in the former Yugoslavia, the middle east and elsewhere.
Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend would no doubt agree that RAF personnel provide a first-class service in whichever arena they serve. Will he in particular praise the Jaguar wing from RAF Coltishall, which has been on almost permanent deployment for the past five years, first in the Gulf war, then in Turkey protecting the Kurds and latterly, since July 1993, providing close air support for UNPROFOR over Bosnia from Gioia del Colle? It is soon to be replaced by Harrier GR7s from RAF Laarbruch in Germany. Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to acknowledge the special role that the Jag wing has played and to wish the GR7 team well?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Before I address her question, I congratulate her on being the only Member of Parliament on the armed forces parliamentary scheme to have flown in the Tornado, the Jaguar and the Harrier. I understand that she acquitted herself on all three missions with great distinction and without being in any way untidy.
I wholly endorse my hon. Friend's words about the Jaguar wing, which has achieved an exceptionally high strike rate over the past few years. It has done a very distinguished job in its recent deployment and will continue to do so until its end. I have no doubt that the Harriers will also acquit themselves well. I am also grateful for my hon. Friend's excellent support of the Royal Air Force.
Mr. Martlew: That is all very well but, since 1990, there have been cuts in RAF personnel of 13,000. During that time, the RAF has become involved in defence projects in Iraq and Bosnia. In this year's defence estimates, it is stated that the RAF is going to lose another 11,000 jobs. There is severe overstretch in the RAF. When are the Government going to decide either to cut their defence commitments or to stop sacking RAF personnel?
Mr. Soames: My right hon. Friends and I understand that it is the Labour party that wants to cut the Royal Air Force, not our party. I know that it will come as a terrible shock to the hon. Gentleman, but the Royal Air Force relishes the opportunity of flying operations and achieving exactly the exceptional results that it does. It is working hard. It is very busy. That is what it is there for, and it does it very well.
Mr. Wilkinson: Is it not the case that most of the Royal Air Force's overseas operations in recent years have been outside the NATO area-- Turkey, Iraq and now Bosnia? What is the sense of stationing so many Royal Air Force personnel in Germany, to the benefit of the local German economy? Should they not be brought back to this country to benefit our economy when so many proud bases, such as Scampton and Finningley, have closed?
Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend, as a former Royal Air Force officer, is extremely knowledgeable in these matters. He knows well that our commitment to air defence in Germany at Laarbruch and Bruggen is extremely important. It is an essential part of our commitment to the defence of western Europe. That is why we are there and that is why we will stay there.
Mr. Gerrard: Has the Minister made clear to the French the outrage felt by many people in this country at the resumption of nuclear weapons tests? Will he impress upon France, the US and other nuclear weapons states the need for a comprehensive test ban treaty, as was agreed at the non- proliferation treaty conference, with no loopholes to allow any continuation of underground tests? Will he give a commitment that this country will in no circumstances resume nuclear weapons testing?
Mr. Rifkind: The French Government have made it clear that their objective is to conclude a comprehensive test ban treaty. What they do at this moment is a matter for the French Government. I believe that they will work together with the United Kingdom and other countries towards such a test ban treaty. If the proper safeguards can be achieved, I look forward to the successful completion of the current negotiations.
Mr. John Marshall: Is not the real trouble in the House with regard to nuclear test bans that the official Opposition are stuffed full of one- sided disarmers who want to throw away our nuclear deterrent and who have taken the lead from the Leader of the Opposition who was a supporter of one -sided disarmament in the 1980s?
Mr. Rifkind: I have to say that the Opposition's policy is bizarre, to say the least. They were against Britain's possession of the nuclear deterrent at the height of the cold war and, once the cold war was over, they would have the British people believe that they have suddenly been converted to it. It is an incredible policy, to say the least.
Dr. David Clark: Does the Secretary of State recall that, as recently as 16 May, the Foreign Secretary told the House that there was no longer any need for the Government to undertake nuclear tests? Is that still the Government's view? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will not follow the French example and resume nuclear testing?
Mr. Rifkind: We have said that we have no intention of carrying out any further nuclear tests and, of course, the United States, which provides the testing ground, has a similar policy. The policy of the two Governments remains the same with regard to this matter.
Column 130work this afternoon. Bearing in mind the fact that NATO has ensured peace and stability in Europe since the second world war, is not partnership for peace the most effective route towards enlargement of NATO by the eastern European countries? Will my right hon. and learned Friend report on the progress that has been made with the documents setting out the criteria for joining NATO in the future?
Mr. Rifkind: Partnership for peace provides not only the best basis for progress for those countries interested in joining but a framework for bilateral co-operation for countries such as Russia, Ukraine and others which are unlikely to be candidates for membership of the alliance. It enables us to develop security relationships with all those countries and that, I believe, is in the interests of our own national defence.
Dr. Reid: The Secretary of State may know that we have long held the view that partnership for peace is one of the essential elements of the new European defence structures, along with an enlargement of NATO and with NATO-Russian bilateral arrangements. Will he therefore join us in welcoming the more co-operative approach that Russia has adopted towards partnership for peace and particularly its intention, as we understand it, to join in the joint co-ordination cells?
Mr. Rifkind: Yes, we welcome the decision of the Russian Government to sign the two framework documents relating to their co-operation with NATO. I believe that it is crucial that, as the process of European security is taken forward, we develop a strategic relationship with Russia, because its co-operation would be a vital asset in ensuring peace throughout Europe, for the well-being of this country and western Europe as a whole.
Mr. Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should be proud of their commitment to promoting British defence exports which, from the figures that I have, could be worth as much as £7 billion annually, providing and guaranteeing some 500,000 jobs? Does he also agree that the longer and larger production runs are beneficial in saving money? In connection with the order that the Ministry of Defence is about to place for the attack helicopter, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the Tiger, Tigrat, Euro-tiger team with which British Aerospace is involved, and which could add to the great assets that I have outlined?
Mr. Freeman: I find myself in complete agreement with my hon. Friend. Conservative Members are all proud of Britain's defence export record, which is second to none in Europe. I agree with what he said about the value of defence exports to domestic procurement prices. Because of the volume of defence exports, we can reduce the cost of domestic procurement by about £300 million a year.
Column 131As for the attack helicopter, I know that my hon. Friend has a constituency interest. We hope to announce a decision as soon as possible. I must say that we have been very thorough in our analysis and we shall be purchasing an attack helicopter in the best interests of the British Army, based on cost and operational effectiveness.
Mr. Fatchett: Is the right hon. Gentleman not scoring something of an own goal for the Government when he draws attention to the Government's record on defence exports? Is not the real issue the Government's covert and illegal support of arms sales to Iran and Iraq? Given the scandal that surrounds the Government's breach of their own regulations on Iran and Iraq, and the controversy surrounding BMARC and the role of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is it not true that, whatever happens in the vote on the leader of the Conservative party in Committee Room 12 today, the Government will always be remembered for sleaze, corruption and deceit of the House of Commons when it comes to exports to Iran and Iraq?
Mr. Freeman: I think that we would all agree that that was utter claptrap, and I choose my words carefully. The policy of the United Kingdom Government in the 1980s was not to supply any lethal equipment to Iran or Iraq. The record of China, Russia and other major European countries is such that our modest contribution of non-lethal equipment to those two countries pales into
Mr. Soames: On 1 April 1995, the total trained strength of the infantry was about 27,000; on 1 April 1990 it was about 35,900. These figures exclude 2,000 Gurkhas, 2,000 Royal Marines and 1,250 soldiers from all other arms deployed in the infantry role.
Mr. Pawsey: My hon. Friend has a distinguished service record in a distinguished regiment, and is therefore knowledgeable in these matters. Does he really believe that the infantry strength announced to the House today is enough to ensure the security of the United Kingdom and to enable us, at the same time, to discharge our international obligations?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said. Over the past two years, he has rightly taken a close interest in these matters. We believe that the Army is large enough to meet its commitments. The numerical strength of the Army should not be regarded as the primary measure of front-line strength. Its operational capability is of prime importance. It has never been better equipped, motivated or trained. I am wholly confident that it can undertake all the tasks to which it is assigned. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support.
Mr. Simpson: Does the Minister agree that it is in our national interests to equip our infantry with our own equipment? Is he aware that the royal ordnance factory in Nottingham is now the only small arms manufacturer and developer in the UK, increasingly dependent on how the Government decide to allocate their procurement policies? Does he accept that it is in our national interest to ensure
Column 132that our infantry is equipped on a strategic basis rather than by the equivalent of a pick `n' mix counter at Woolworth's?
Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman grossly over-exaggerates to make a point. I pay tribute to the Royal Ordnance company, a subsidiary of British Aerospace, which does a remarkable job in providing excellent equipment for our forces. I reiterate that our forces have never been better equipped. I am quite satisfied that they have everything that they need. Of course my right hon. and learned Friend will ensure that, whatever they can buy plainly from British suppliers which is cost-competitive and exactly meets their needs, will be bought.
Sir Michael Neubert: What effect does my hon. Friend think it would have on the strength of our front-line infantry if, as reported, homosexuals were to be admitted to Her Majesty's armed forces? Is there any truth in the front-page story in yesterday's edition of The Daily Telegraph ?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised that matter. I believe that the effect on our armed forces would be extremely serious. I want to take this opportunity to say that the reports in yesterday's press that Ministers had decided to review the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces were wholly inaccurate. There has been no such decision.
Mr. Sutcliffe: I thank the Minister for that answer and I am reassured by what he said. China has a continuing record of human rights violations. The markets within China are opening up and it is now selling arms around the world. Will the Minister and the Foreign Secretary use their offices to ensure that other countries considering arms sales to China, such as Israel and Russia, are aware of the arms embargo?
Mr. Rifkind: China gets about 90 per cent. of its arms supplies from Russia, so it is clear that it is Russian Government policy that will determine whether China obtains access to the sort of equipment covered by the embargo.
Column 133and economic co-operation. Will the Minister say something about Britain's attitude to the gross provocation by France of resuming nuclear tests in the Pacific? Will he send a message of solidarity to the peoples and the Governments of Australia and New Zealand? Does he agree that, for the time being, we should be boycotting Renault and Peugeot cars? If, as Labour Members hope, the Prime Minister is soon confirmed in his post, we will toast that victory in Australian, not French champagne.
Mr. Soames: That would be going a bit too far. The hon. Gentleman tempts us down a very unwise path. Indeed, I am surprised that he has asked such a question because he is a scholar and an aficionado of all things French. He knows that the decision on testing is a matter for the French. For us, the principal objective is an early conclusion to the comprehensive test ban treaty, and the French commitment to that has been reaffirmed. As for sending a message of solidarity to the countries that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is the French who should do that.
Mr. Soames: I am happy to endorse the work of the WEU. As my hon. Friend knows from his distinguished work with that body--I had the honour to serve under him for a time--the WEU continues to be developed as the European pillar of NATO and a defence arm of the European Union in a way that is complementary to the alliance. It is important that we do not forget that the bedrock of the defence of Europe is NATO. That remains our first and prime charge.
Mr. Freeman: The Trident works programme is expected to exceed the 1984 baseline estimate of £1.1 billion at current prices by some £800 million. The Trident programme overall is expected to cost £11.7 billion, representing a saving of £3.7 billion over the original estimate.
Mr. Kirkwood: Is not a 72 per cent. overspend an absolute disgrace? Will the Minister confirm that there have been examples of some of the construction on some of the projects involved at Faslane starting before the design work had been completed? Will he confirm that £360 million has been paid to more than 1,000 consultants who variously have been employed on the project? Will he further confirm that 50 per cent. of that £800 million overspend has been siphoned off from budgets for other projects?
Will the Minister assure the House that, after the Public Accounts Committee has properly investigated the overspend, any senior officials and Ministers responsible for that strategic gross failure will be asked to reconsider their positions?
Column 134Trident programme overall has come in substantially under budget. Some £3.7 billion was not required for the completion of submarines, missile systems and the works programmes, so there has been no adverse effect on the rest of the defence programme. I seek to make no apologies for the significant overrun, and I am pleased that the Trident programme was completed within 10 years. When the Public Accounts Committee has reported, we will consider its recommendations seriously and we will respond properly.
Sir Michael Shersby: What were the principal reasons for the cost overrun on the Trident project? To what extent was the overrun caused by the earthquake in Scotland, which resulted in the need to redesign certain facilities at Faslane?
Mr. Freeman: My hon. Friend will understand two of the principal reasons. The first is that the organisation of the contract resulted in PSA being in the lead for the construction of the Trident works programme, which was not completed either on budget or as expeditiously as we would have liked. We have learnt from that. Secondly, the nuclear standards that had to be met for the completion of the shiplift and the weapons facility at Coulport and other buildings were very onerous, and they changed during the 10 years of planning and construction. I undertake that when we have read the Public Accounts Committee report we will seek to give as much information that is not already contained in the report as possible.
Dr. Godman: Is the budget overspend provoking management at Coulport and Faslane into introducing tough employment practices and procedures? A number of young men who are completing their apprenticeships are being told that they will be dismissed from employment when their apprenticeships are completed. Why at the very least cannot they be given short-term contracts of employment as journeymen?
Mr. Freeman: I do not believe that current employment levels have anything to do with the Trident works overrun. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I agree that the number of apprentices trained by the Army, Navy and Air Force makes a valuable contribution to society. I shall look into the point and write to him.
Mr. Soames: We have received a number of comments and questions from interested parties both inside and outside the armed forces. As we have said previously, we shall be giving the most careful and detailed consideration to all the report's recommendations before reaching any decisions.
Mr. Brandreth: In the light of the report and the consideration that my hon. Friend said the Government will give, will he consider putting a halt to the development of Kentigern house in Glasgow as simply an Army pay and personnel centre, and consider the
Column 135establishment of a tri-service pay and personnel centre--possibly in a great historic city such as Chester, which has a proud services tradition?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend--as his constituents will be--for his vigorous lobbying on behalf of his constituents, but the establishment of the APPC in Glasgow will proceed as planned. Any decision to set up a defence agency, as presaged in the Bett report, would not in any way be adversely affected by the decision to go ahead. It is not inconsistent with that decision, and we must proceed if the Army's requirements are to be met on time.
Mr. Mackinlay: What representations has the Minister received about the privileged position enjoyed by the officers of our armed forces and their families--as distinct from the ordinary soldiers and service men and women--who enjoy the enormous benefit of having their children's boarding school fees paid to an extent in excess of £100 million a year? Is that not unfair to our other service men and women? Would it not be better for that money to be channelled into our state education system and to ensure that state schools in garrison towns had the benefit of that resource?
Mr. Freeman: In the absence of underground nuclear weapon testing, we intend to develop further a range of experimental techniques and facilities for the stewardship of our nuclear weapon stockpile, including above-ground, non-nuclear experiments, lasers and computer simulation.
Mr. Luff: Following that welcome confirmation that the Government do not intend to return to nuclear testing, will my right hon. Friend nevertheless assure me that it is our absolute priority to maintain the effectiveness of the Trident nuclear defence? Does he understand that this is a matter on which Conservatives are entirely united, in contrast to the Labour party, whose members have always accorded a shamefully low priority to the protection of this country?
Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and can assure him that the safety of our nuclear weapons will be paramount in our programme. He is right: not only did 58 Labour Members sign the early-day motion to scrap Trident, but in May 1986 the shadow defence spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), and the leader of the Labour party were both members of parliamentary CND and both put their name to a statement supporting the removal of all nuclear weapons from British territory. That is the policy of the shadow defence spokesman.
Column 136answering the question. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence indicated our support, the United States' support and the French Government's support for full implementation of the comprehensive test ban treaty at the end of 1996.