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AWE Aldermaston

8. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): What plans he has to extend the existing contractual arrangements at AWE until the DTI report on BNFL has been published. [113695]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): As I informed the House on 1 March, existing contract arrangements could be extended or direct MOD management imposed if, for whatever reason, we judge

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that AWE ML is unable to take over responsibility for the management and operation of the atomic weapons establishment as scheduled on 1 April.

Mr. Rendel: Does not the Minister recognise that employees at Aldermaston and residents in the surrounding area are deeply upset at the delays in coming to a final conclusion? Would not it be far better at least to announce today that the new contract has been postponed until the review of BNFL is published in mid April, to put those residents and employees out of their misery? Would not it be better still to announce that the new contract has been cancelled, given the grossly irresponsible attitude to safety of both BNFL and Lockheed Martin, the two main parties to that contract?

Mr. Spellar: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes the attitude of sentence first and trial afterwards. As he is fully aware--he alluded to it in his question--an inquiry is taking place. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe has tasked the chairman of BNFL to undertake a thorough review of the company's affairs leading up to its recent difficulties. It would be quite inappropriate to pre-empt the inquiry by making a firm and final decision. That is why, as I said in the House on 1 March, we are keeping our options open--but, unfortunately, we are unable at this stage to announce to the House the outcome of the discussions and inquiries. We must wait until the full evidence is available.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Is my hon. Friend aware that only this morning the company currently managing AWE Aldermaston, Hunting-BRAE Ltd., launched what it believed would be its final annual report on its seven years in charge of the atomic weapons establishment? Does he accept that the continuing uncertainty regarding the future of the establishment and its management regime is damaging confidence in the establishment as a whole? Does he further accept that, in view of the fact that the Department of Trade and Industry report into the disgraceful behaviour of BNFL is not due out until 15 April and the new management arrangements at AWE Aldermaston are due to kick in on 1 April, it is time that the Government made their intentions crystal clear?

Mr. Spellar: First, I fully understand the concerns of those who work in Aldermaston or live in the surrounding area, represented by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and by my hon. Friend. I fear, though, that my hon. Friend is falling into the same trap as the hon. Gentleman in wishing to predict the outcome of the inquiry into BNFL. We are considering the options. Unfortunately, we have not been able to come to a conclusion before Defence questions today, but by definition there is a requirement to make a decision in the very near future because of the 1 April starting date of the new contract. We are fully aware of that, as well as of the skills and qualities of the work force who will be overwhelmingly the same work force, irrespective of who is managing the contract. As I said, we have a range of options, but we have not yet been able to decide which will be appropriate.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): To what extent are the future contractual arrangements for AWE and its sister

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scientific organisation, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, being influenced by pressure from the Treasury? Given that both organisations are critical to our procurement process and command enormous respect in their co-operative work with the Americans, should not their futures be determined on their merits alone, and not by factors such as a promised £250 million refund to the Treasury?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is tying up two different, although tenuously related, issues. We have to make a decision on the effective management of AWE, and--as he rightly identified--we have considerable links with the United States of America on that. We have also asked for a report from the US on the accident at Oak Ridge and its assessment and evaluation of that. That issue is separate from the public-private partnership with DERA. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have taken strongly into account the effective and mutually beneficial links between DERA and the various Government scientific laboratories in the US. They are very important and a significant part of the special defence relationship between ourselves and the US.

Other issues need to be explored in connection with the public-private partnership, especially the need to sustain a defence research base in the light of the considerable developments that are taking place in science outside defence establishments. In many cases, defence needs to capture scientific advances from outside defence, whereas previously it was the other way around. We also need to maintain the science base within the defence budget. Those issues are being actively pursued by my noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement, Baroness Symons, and we are working closely with the Americans to ensure the best deal for DERA and to maintain the proper scientific relationship.

Real IRA

12. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If he will make a statement on the Army's state of readiness in Northern Ireland in relation to the threat posed by the Real IRA. [113699]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland keep the security situation under constant review. We remain alert to the threat posed by dissident republicans and changes to the security profile are made as and when appropriate. The recently announced withdrawal of about 500 soldiers from Belfast to a rear base in Great Britain is one such adjustment. I would like to take this opportunity to commend, once again, all those who serve in Northern Ireland for their excellent performance in a most demanding role in support of the police.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Did he note that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland evaded answering my question on Wednesday, when I asked him about the Real IRA's acquisition of shoulder-held rocket launchers--just as, incidentally, he managed to evade apologising to the Household Division? What steps is the Secretary of State for Defence taking to protect our service men in Northern

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Ireland, given that the Real IRA is acquiring weapons from the Balkans, including portable rocket launchers, and given that we now learn that people who have been released early from prison in Northern Ireland are joining the Real IRA?

Mr. Hoon: I have already made it clear that we regard the security situation in Northern Ireland to be of paramount importance. On the hon. Gentleman's specific observation, we obviously do all that we can to block the illegal import of weapons from whatever source and we work closely with the police in achieving that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): While reviewing the overall security situation in Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State take particular care when considering proposals for withdrawal of the Royal Navy Northern Ireland patrol vessels, which I understand have not yet been discussed with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider carefully the ability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Customs and Excise to replicate the valuable work that those patrol vessels currently do?

Mr. Hoon: Again, we consider any proposals that might affect the security of Northern Ireland very carefully. However, I emphasise that it is ultimately the responsibility of the Chief Constable to determine the level of security that is required. He acts in consultation with the General Officer Commanding and makes appropriate recommendations.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): As the Secretary of State started, quite rightly, with fulsome praise for members of our armed forces who have served in Northern Ireland, will he tell us whether, when he heard the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about chinless wonders serving in the Household Division, he contacted him and told him to apologise unequivocally? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has done so in his letter to the Major-General?

Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, conversations between Cabinet Ministers on a private matter should remain private. As he also knows, my right hon. Friend wrote an apology to the General Officer Commanding, London district of the Household Cavalry, and also expressed his regret publicly in the House.

Learning Forces Initiative

13. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): If he will make a statement on the recent progress of the Government's learning forces initiative. [113701]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): We are making good progress with our learning forces initiative, which introduced a series of measures to enhance opportunities for education and personal self-development of armed forces personnel. Our forces are widely dispersed across the globe, so by using modern information technology-based learning facilities we are

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bringing access to training and education to service people's workplaces, as far as possible regardless of geographical location.

Ms Keeble: I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments. Will the scheme be extended to give service personnel more general training in areas such as housing and finance, bearing in mind that ex-service personnel are among the groups most likely to end up homeless and sleeping rough on the streets of our towns and cities?

Mr. Spellar: The actual figures for the number of personnel who are homeless may well be skewed, particularly in the older age group, by the fact that the majority of them will have undertaken national service. However, we recognise that there are some difficulties and we are in discussions with other Departments to deal with that.

I take my hon. Friend's point on improving basic skills--that is part of the programme. It is a flexible programme, enabling individuals to develop their skills and, equally importantly, to acquire the certification that gives them portable skills to take back into civilian life after they have finished serving with our armed forces.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Minister accept that retention is a problem for the armed forces, and that the learning forces initiative can have a positive part to play? Will the Government consider extending NVQ2 to the forces network under this scheme?

Mr. Spellar: We are looking, in as many cases as possible, at extending certification and proper levels of qualification. That gives objectives for individuals to aim for and provides a discipline within the framework of education. Equally importantly, it provides a benchmark and portable, recognised qualifications that individuals can take with them when they go back to their civilian careers, enabling them to have on-going careers, not just in the armed forces. As the hon. Lady rightly says, that is an important part not only of work within the forces but of retention. My experience and the experience of colleagues in visiting various bases has been that people undertake this enthusiastically, not just in this country but, through the use of modern information technology, at our bases in many areas around the world, even in some that we hope will be temporary.

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