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House of Commons

Monday 2 November 1998

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Redundant Land

1. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): If he will make a statement on the disposal of redundant MOD land (a) generally and (b) with specific regard to HMS Osprey on Portland. [55877]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): My Department keeps the size of the defence estate under continual review. Any property that is declared surplus to operational requirements is sold, as soon as possible, on the open market, with the benefit of planning permission.

My Department is considering alternative uses to which the HMS Osprey site may be put. Our title to part of the land at HMS Osprey allows prescriptive rights of purchase to the Crown Estate, to which it originally belonged. A disposal strategy for those parts of the site that are not subject to these prescriptive rights is in progress. No final decisions have yet been taken.

Mr. Bruce: I thank the Minister for his visit to Portland and his attention to the problem. As he knows, I wrote to him as soon as he took office to ask whether it was necessary to close the air station and whether the site could be put to an alternative use. I was told that there was no alternative use. At least three companies are willing to buy the site and create jobs, but they have been told that they cannot even talk about making a bid until March next year. I would be happy if the Minister came forward with an alternative MOD use, but it is not good enough that, at this late stage, the Ministry is halting all its negotiations with the Crown Estate, among others.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that he has raised the issue with me, as has the local council. I thank him for his kind comments on my visit to Weymouth and Portland, where I had an excellent meeting with the local council, chaired by Councillor Kay Wilcox. I fully understand the concerns that have been expressed, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that we have to explore every other possible defence use for the site. Given the concern expressed by the community, which has rendered enormous service to the Ministry of

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Defence and the armed forces for many years--indeed, centuries--I have asked the Department to try to speed up the process to ensure that the site is returned to productive use, in one way or another, as soon as possible.

Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): May I refer the Minister to the site of Trecwn in my constituency, which was declared redundant by the previous Government, and sold earlier this year? Have any discussions taken place between the Ministry of Defence and any company or individual about the possible storage of nuclear waste, including decommissioned nuclear submarines, at the site?

Mr. Spellar: We are aware that the company that bought the site has submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology some proposals for the management of radioactive waste. However, the Committee is not due to report for 12 months, when we will publish a White Paper proposing a national strategy. After that, local council planning permission would have to be obtained. My hon. Friend will know that Pembrokeshire county council has revealed that it is implacably opposed to any proposals to store nuclear waste of any type at Trecwn. The matter is no longer in our hands, as the previous owner, but is in the hands of the various radiological regulation agencies and the local council. Both the local council and the local Member of Parliament have made their views clear.


2. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What is the estimated interval between the entry into operational squadron service with the Royal Air Force of the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft and its equipping with beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. [55878]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): Eurofighter will enter service armed with the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile--AMRAAM--AIM-120B as its beyond visual range air-to-air missile. A competition is being run for the development and production of a next-generation beyond visual range air-to-air missile, but that will not enter service until a few years after Eurofighter.

Mr. Wilkinson: Will the Secretary of State ensure that there is no hiatus between the entry into service of Eurofighter and its equipping with a genuine beyond visual range air-to-air missile, such as that provided by Raytheon, the American competitor, or by Meteor, the European solution? If an interval is caused by Treasury parsimony or a German defence review, can it be filled by an extended range version of AMRAAM, so that the Royal Air Force squadrons do not suffer a lack of capability?

Mr. Robertson: Obviously, we would not want any gap in capability, but it has long been recognised that there will be a gap between the first delivery of Eurofighter in 2002 and the BVRAAM currently being examined. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one bid, but there are two, and each is being assessed in the normal way. The implications of using one system rather than the

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other will be examined carefully. We intend to maximise the value of Eurofighter when it comes into service, and its weaponry is therefore of acute importance.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Is the Secretary of State aware that there is some sense of a stitch-up over BVRAAM, and that it is suggested that political expediency, rather than strategic merit, is governing his Department's thinking? Will he assure competing bidders that their competing merits will be the sole criterion in determining the BVRAAM programme?

Mr. Robertson: Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There is no question of a stitch-up. Two bids have been made, and they will be assessed in the normal way. The only criterion that matters is the equipping of the Eurofighter with the best possible weaponry.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): Notwithstanding the Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), he will acknowledge that the final bids are between a British BVRAAM and an American BVRAAM. Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, if the Ministry of Defence decided in favour of the American product, it would be possible for the United States of America to block the sale of the Eurofighter--the Typhoon--to third countries under certain circumstances, and that that would be damaging to British industrial and security interests?

Mr. Robertson: I wish to make it clear that one bid is European, from Matra BAe, and the other is American. We are assessing both bids using the usual criteria. We hope to announce the outcome of the competition in 1999. All the factors mentioned by the hon. Gentleman and the previous questioners will be taken into account.

British Beef

4. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): If he will make a statement on his Department's policy in respect of the supply of British beef for the United Kingdom's armed forces. [55880]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): I am pleased to advise the House that our food supply contractor, Booker Foodservice, is buying from British sources 100 per cent. of beef for consumption by our forces based in the United Kingdom. That follows agreement by the European Commission to proposals from me and my colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to allow access to intervention stocks of high-quality British beef at competitive prices. We are unable to use British beef for our forces overseas at the moment because of the continuing ban on the export of British beef.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my right hon. Friend for that news, which was even better than I had expected. It will be welcomed by all farmers, especially those in the two branches of the National Farmers Union in my constituency. On their behalf, and in view of my right hon. Friend's emphasis on the quality of British products, may I push the boat out by asking whether he can achieve the same for British lamb for the British armed forces?

Mr. Robertson: I wish that we could do so. British lamb is the best in the world. I used to help to rear it, and

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I want British troops to eat it. I hope that the industry will compete to get it on troop canteen plates. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who has spent a lot of time and energy on this matter. An attempt was made to procure a substantial forward buy of British lamb, but that was not successful as the industry was not capable of coming forward with it. Urgent discussions continue with the farming industry and the Meat and Livestock Commission. We shall ensure that we use every effort to put the maximum amount of British lamb on British forces' plates.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Of course that is good news and we welcome it, but why has it taken so long? It was first negotiated with the commission back in February and an agreement was announced in the House in June. Six months on, fresh beef is still not to be used; the meat is out of the intervention stocks. What about getting on with British lamb? The Meat and Livestock Commission, the National Farmers Union and the contractor are willing to vary contracts and do their best with lamb. What is holding up the sale of British lamb, because at present none is used by British forces?

Mr. Robertson: I know that the public get a bit tired of being reminded that a Conservative Government were in power 18 months ago, but that Government put in place the procedures that we are having to use. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has used his energy and ingenuity to make substantial strides, despite the straitjacket that he inherited. At the start of October, the intervention stocks were released and now 100 per cent. of British troops are being supplied with British beef.

The discussions on British lamb continue, but we are up against the fact that the bulk of British lamb in this country is provided fresh or chilled while the Ministry's requirement is for frozen lamb. We are discussing with the contractor and the industry the best way to get the maximum amount of British lamb on to British forces' plates.

My hon. Friend's efforts in other areas have been particularly successful: 100 per cent. of the pork and 50 per cent. of the bacon used by British forces is British. We are trying to ensure that, within the constraints of value for money for the British taxpayer, we do the best for British farming we can.

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