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Aircraft Rewiring

9. Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): What steps his Department has taken to check the wiring of military aircraft following recent crashes; and how many military aircraft have been rewired as a result. [100961]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): As a result of damaged, mishandled or misrouted wires, instances of electrical fires caused two Harrier aircraft accidents in 1991. As a result of those accidents, remedial action was taken and there is no evidence that any recent crashes were caused by problems with electrical wiring. The safety of electrical wiring in UK military aircraft is reviewed continuously. Wiring is inspected whenever maintenance activity takes place on an aircraft. We work closely with the British Standards Institution to ensure that aircraft wiring meets the highest standards of safety and installation.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That all sounds very comforting, and I am happy to hear it, but my hon. Friend will be aware that the length of life of some of the aircraft in the list that he was kind enough to give me is way beyond what was originally envisaged for them by the builders. There is a real worry that wiring faults, in military and civil aircraft, may be a contributory cause of major crashes and it is difficult to inspect all the systems when looking at the wiring of an aircraft during maintenance. Will my hon. Friend please give me a guarantee that--despite his

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confidence in the efficiency of aircraft--he will look carefully in the immediate future at the type of wiring used and at any dangers that may arise from that?

Mr. Spellar: It is not unusual for military aircraft--so long as there is sufficient assurance about their safety--to run over the life that was originally predicted by either the purchasers or the manufacturers. A number of aircraft are updated with newer equipment, but the basic frame may stay the same. When we undertake routine wiring maintenance, wiring is often replaced and newer materials introduced, but there is also stringent and rigorous inspection and attention is paid to possible mechanical treatment of wiring. Often, the combination of the chemical qualities of the insulation and the mechanical treatment causes arcing and fires. As I said in my original answer, we have not had any evidence of that problem since 1991, but our engineering departments are alert to keeping a look out for it.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): What study has the Minister made himself of Kapton wiring and what conclusion has he reached?

Mr. Spellar: I am Spellar, PPE Oxford not MSc Eng.Chem. The hon. Gentleman points to the reasons why we have such extremely fine service engineers, on both the fitting and the technical and engineering side, who give us excellent advice. That is borne out by the fact that no fires have caused crashes since 1991, and I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman should cast such a slur on the excellent technical personnel in the Royal Air Force.

European Defence Co-operation

10. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What representations he has received from his French counterparts regarding European defence co-operation. [100962]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): At St. Malo in December 1998, the United Kingdom and France launched a major initiative aimed at building European security and defence. Since then, we have continued to work closely with our French defence counterparts, culminating in the joint declaration made at our London summit on 25 November. That declaration called on European nations to strengthen their military capabilities and was an important stepping stone towards the Helsinki European Council.

Dr. Lewis: Despite their many other virtues, have not our French allies for more than 40 years weakened the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation by staying outside its integrated military structure? Has not their main reason for that been pride, and resentment of America's role in defending Europe? By playing dangerous games with the formation of a Euro-army, are not the Labour Government undermining the prospects for our future conventional defence, just as they tried to undermine our prospects for successful nuclear deterrence in the 1980s?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman goes to the Library, he will be able to find a copy of the Helsinki summit conclusions, which state that it has been agreed by the United Kingdom and the French Government, as well as

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every other Government of the European Union, that the initiative is not leading to the creation of a European army.

As for defence co-operation with the French, the hon. Gentleman should consider these words:


Those are excellent words. They are not my words, but the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary after St. Malo. Yet as soon as we try to do something together--remember: the shadow Foreign Secretary said that we need to do things together--the shadow Defence Secretary accuses us of trying to create a single European army and a vast European super-state. What is clearly required on the Conservative Benches is a little joined-up opposition.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): My right hon. Friend is confident that the common defence policy will not affect our relationship with the United States, but does he agree that the forces of isolationism are always just below the surface in the United States, and is he not concerned that these initiatives might give succour to people in the United States who want to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty, with all the consequences of that?

Mr. Hoon: Clearly, there are concerns in the United States. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] In a vigorous democracy it is inevitable that some people will take a particular view of a particular problem. However, there are no difficulties with the Administration and majority opinion on the Hill: they recognise that, by strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we are strengthening NATO as a whole.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford): Can the increased defence capability as proposed at the Helsinki Council be provided by the United Kingdom and France alone, or is it a non-runner unless there is greater public expenditure on defence by other European Union countries?

Mr. Hoon: As I said earlier, precise expenditure by other European Union countries is a matter for them. By agreeing to a capability assessment and to deploying specific forces to meet that assessment, European nations are saying that we will spend what is necessary to reach that conclusion. By specifying what forces and equipment are needed to reach that rapid reaction capability, we are specifying precisely what we need to do as European nations. We are improving the European pillar of NATO in a practical way. Those countries will have to decide how they should spend the money to achieve those ends. Having agreed the ends, we have achieved a practical conclusion that strengthens Europe inside NATO.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): Would my right hon. Friend confirm that Britain and France enjoy a close relationship on nuclear matters? My memory tells me that. Would he also confirm my recollection that the policy was put together by the Conservative party, which now doubts anything and everything French?

Mr. Hoon: I can recall an occasion in the 1980s on which the Government under Lady Thatcher were keen on closer Anglo-French co-operation--indeed, her major

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foreign policy adviser wrote about that recently. Perhaps Conservative Members should consider a little more carefully the history of these matters, especially the conclusion of the Berlin summit and the text of the Maastricht treaty, which show that they were in favour of European defence co-operation in the relatively recent past. They have now abandoned that view because of the obsessive anti-Europeanism that now infects the entire Conservative party.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with those who say that membership of the euro--the single currency--is essential to the success of a European defence force?

Mr. Hoon: No.

Kosovo

11. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): What discussions he has had with his United States counterpart about that country's use of cluster bombs in Kosovo; what representations his Department has received on the use of cluster bombs; and if he will make a statement on his Department's policy on the future role of cluster bombs. [100963]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I have had no discussions with the United States Defence Secretary on this subject.

The Ministry of Defence has received a number of inquiries from members of the public, as well as from hon. Members on both sides of the House, about the use of cluster bombs during the campaign over Kosovo. Within our international obligations, the United Kingdom's armed forces retain the right to use the most effective weapons systems available. Consequently, should there be a proven need to use cluster bombs in the future, we would do so. Denying ourselves the most appropriate weapons would not help to end conflicts quickly; it could also put our armed forces at greater risk of harm.

Mr. Cohen: Is the Secretary of State aware that cluster bombs used during the Kosovo conflict were dropped from a height of 15,000 ft, although they had been designed to be dropped from a much lower level? Did that not increase the number of bomblets that did not explode on hitting the ground, jeopardising the local population and, in effect, becoming land mines? Many hon. Members, including me, felt that military action over Kosovo was justified, but surely the use of cluster bombs in that way has put the allied forces on very shaky moral ground internationally. Will the Secretary of State reconsider the use of such weapons in all future conflicts, and discuss it with all our NATO allies--including the United States--so that cluster bombs are not used in the same way again?

Mr. Hoon: I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern, but, in a previous ministerial capacity, I examined the Ottawa convention very carefully, and there is no doubt that, as a matter of international law, a cluster bomb cannot be defined as a land mine in either the spirit or the letter of the convention. Given that there is no international pressure for the expansion of the convention to cover

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cluster bombs, or to change the definition of a land mine to include them, I cannot accept my hon. Friend's argument.

Let me emphasise that KFOR and, significantly, British forces have been extensively engaged in clearing some 7,400 unexploded cluster-bomb munitions, as well as more than 6,100 Serbian anti-personnel mines and more than 3,400 Serbian anti-tank mines. British forces and KFOR are working hard to ensure that Kosovo is safe for its citizens.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the realities on the ground? The failure rate of cluster bombs is some 5 to 10 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of finding effective weapons systems; this weapons system is clearly failing, and is endangering the lives of those whom it was designed to protect. Surely, in such circumstances, the right hon. Gentleman can start thinking along the lines of an ethical defence policy.

Mr. Hoon: In fact, the failure rate is around 5 per cent.

As I said in my answer to the original question, we must ensure that we use effective munitions, not only to shorten conflicts but, crucially, to prevent our forces that are engaged in international humanitarian peacekeeping acts from being put at greater risk than they would be otherwise. That is why we must use the most effective weapons available to us, within our international obligations.


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