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House of Commons

Monday 18 March 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Procurement (North-West)

1. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): If he will make a statement on the impact on the north-west of planned MOD procurement projects. [40897]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The north-west was successful in winning defence business worth about£1.2 billion in 1998–99—some 14.5 per cent. of total defence equipment expenditure—sustaining in the process an estimated 11,000 jobs. The current equipment programme offers significant opportunities, such as the joint strike fighter and the future carrier, for companies in the north-west to compete to sustain that level of business.

Mr. Hoyle: I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. What consideration is he giving to the important contract for which Leyland Trucks is tendering, involving an important part of supply to the armed forces? The

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company has held the contract in the past and it is coming up for renewal. What support can he offer for the thousands of jobs that depend on it?

Dr. Moonie: I am well aware that Leyland Trucks Ltd. is one of five companies invited to tender for the role of prime contractor for the supply of approximately 8,500 support vehicles over a 10-year period that is planned to start in late 2004. It is too early to give an indication of the specific industrial implications of the planned programme, but there will certainly be opportunities for subcontractors at least in the north-west.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): May I point out to the Minister the cuts in defence announced by the Government since the last defence questions? They scrapped HMS Fearless nearly nine months early, so there will be no assault ship in the British Navy until the end of 2003. They scrapped HMS Sheffield, which was due to remain in service until 2012. They scrapped the Navy's Sea Harriers, which were due to remain in service until 2015. Those announcements followed the decision to scrap 5 Squadron—the Tornado fighters due to remain in service until the deployment of the Eurofighter.

The Government have delayed, cut or cancelled the Tracer ground reconnaissance vehicle, the future offensive aircraft system, the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, Brimstone—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Some of those delays or cancellations should have taken place in the north-west.

Mr. Jenkin: I regret that the list is long, Mr. Speaker, but how can the Minister give any assurances to manufacturers in the north-west until he has the money that the Treasury has so far refused him? Or is it to be cuts, cuts and more cuts in defence under this Government?

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Dr. Moonie: I suppose that I should have started by requesting your permission to make a statement,Mr. Speaker. However, I shall attempt to make my answer rather shorter.

I do not recall that any of those points had much to do with the north-west. However, on HMS Fearless in particular, while the ship has given sterling service, it is not considered financially worth while to spend more money on maintaining her in service for the short time that she will be needed. We have adequate assault capability through HMS Ocean and other ships at our disposal. It is not true to say that the early scrapping of HMS Fearless will have any constructive effect on our ability to deploy.

Russia-NATO Relations

2. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): If he will make a statement on steps to improve the relationship between Russia and NATO. [40898]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom has taken a leading role in encouraging a step change in NATO's relationship with Russia. A confident and co-operative partnership between the allies and Russia, based on shared democratic values and the shared commitment to a stable, peaceful and undivided Europe is essential for stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area. The alliance and Russia are working towards the creation of a new NATO-Russia council to identify and pursue opportunities for joint action at 20. NATO will maintain its prerogative of independent decision and action at 19 on the alliance's fundamental objectives.

Dr. Starkey: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he outline some of the more practical measures to encourage joint working between Russia and NATO on issues of mutual interest?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her interest in this important subject. We are keen to develop the relationship with Russia as an essential further element of building stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area. The practical measures that we have in mind include co-operation against terrorism, dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, peace support operations and new threats. Those are areas where NATO can seek to deepen its involvement with Russia immediately.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): My question relates to the NATO-Russian council. Given the sensitivity of new members from eastern Europe that are now part of the alliance, will the Secretary of State confirm that he sees no danger of possible conflict between the existing North Atlantic Council and the NATO-Russian council? What is the Government's position on the council's remit?

Mr. Hoon: There cannot be a conflict because the existing council will have to agree to any areas of deeper consultation with Russia.

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Having recently met my Czech counterpart both in Prague and in the United Kingdom, I certainly recognise that there are different perspectives on this important issue, which is, welcomed by countries such as the Czech Republic as a means of ensuring closer contact and deeper consultation with Russia.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply and the fact that NATO and Russia will work much more closely together, but can he assure the House that that closer relationship will not have any bearing whatever on the decision to enlarge NATO at the Prague summit?

Mr. Hoon: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Having recently visited three of the candidate countries where that issue is obviously extremely important and sensitive, I assure him and the House that there will be no relationship between the two issues.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I, too, welcome what the Secretary of State has said about improved relations between NATO and Russia, but, following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), can he tell the House whether that improvement is, in effect, dependent on the expansion of NATO? What happens at Prague will be an important test for NATO's relationship with Russia, so does he agree that any proposed enlargement of NATO presents no threat to Russia? Are Her Majesty's Government supporting all the applicant countries, especially the three Baltic states?

Mr. Hoon: Working backwards on those questions, no decision has yet been taken by Her Majesty's Government on which of the candidates should be offered an invitation. As I have said already, there is no relationship between this issue and enlargement. Although this is clearly also subject to the views of allies, it is certainly the preferred view of Her Majesty's Government that this matter should proceed quickly—that is, before enlargement is resolved.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the bodies working for a closer understanding between NATO and Russia is the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? Indeed, the largest-ever conference and seminar between NATO parliamentarians and Russian elected representatives will take place in Moscow later this week. Does he agree that Russia is apparently growing towards a feeling that it is in its own interest to be surrounded by prosperous and democratic countries and that, if the Baltic states wish to join NATO and that wish is accepted, NATO could even play some part in improving the situation in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad?

Mr. Hoon: I pay tribute to the work conducted by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. It is important to have a range of contacts at every level between the democratic elements of Russia and allies in NATO, and I am delighted that that process continues. Having recently visited the Baltic states, and having discussed Kaliningrad at length, I recognise that there are issues, but that they can be resolved—if the House accepts this—not necessarily in the context of NATO, but certainly in that of the European Union and the free movement that the

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EU requires of member states. However, I was assured that that issue was being regularly discussed and that it presented no difficulty whatever to the accession of the Baltic states to NATO or, indeed, the EU.

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