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House of Commons

Monday 4 November 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—

RAF Fairford

1. Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): If he will make a statement on flights over Gloucester by military aircraft from RAF Fairford. [76685]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Military aircraft using RAF Fairford would not normally fly over Gloucester.

Mr. Dhanda : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reassurance on that matter. He may be aware of correspondence that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on 29 August that said that the military flights over Gloucester spotted by some of my constituents may have been connected to the royal international air tattoo held between 19 and 21 July this year. Will my right hon. Friend prevail on the authorities at RAF Fairford, RAF Brize Norton and

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other air bases to ensure that hon. Members are informed when there is a possibility of flights over their constituencies as a result of air shows or tattoos?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I am sorry if such notification was not given on that occasion. It is not always RAF Fairford that is affected; Brize Norton can also be involved, as he rightly said. I assure him that we shall seek to notify hon. Members in the circumstances that he set out.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister will be aware that many of the aircraft that participate in the RAF Fairford tattoo also take part in the Farnborough air show, which employs many of my constituents—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Shipping Security

2. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): What plans he has to increase Royal Navy safeguards for British shipping; and if he will make a statement. [76694]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Ministry of Defence works closely with other Government Departments on the protection of merchant shipping. The Royal Navy's worldwide maritime trade operations—known as MTO arrangements—enable it to offer a number of options to support merchant shipping. They range from the provision of routine advice and guidance to naval supervision of merchant vessels. Decisions about the timing and type of support offered are informed by the potential threat in any given region or area. For example, MTO arrangements in the Gulf have been enhanced since October last year. The threat to

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merchant shipping is kept under constant review. If necessary, additional maritime trade operations measures can be implemented very quickly.

Mr. O'Brien : I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that shipping could be a soft target for terrorists in certain areas? The recent attack on the French tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen was identified as a terrorist attack. Such incidents show the need for Royal Navy protection for British merchant ships in high-risk areas. He is aware that, following the new tax laws for British shipping, there has been a significant increase in British-registered merchant ships—more than 60 per cent. in the past few months—and a substantial increase in British operational interests. The need for the protection of the red ensign is, therefore, of paramount importance at all times. What protection, other than what he outlined in his reply, is the Royal Navy giving to our merchant shipping?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern on this important subject. I agree that we must keep the threat to shipping under close review. I am sure that he and other hon. Members will understand why I will not go into precise detail about that, but the MTO arrangements allow us to make a graduated response, giving the possibility of an appropriate and considered reaction to any increased threat. As I said earlier, the security arrangements for the Gulf region have been enhanced. Maritime trade operations remain under routine daily review by the Ministry of Defence, and can be changed very quickly in response to variations in the assessed threat level.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Secretary of State tell us how many naval vessels are not currently operational and on duty, and what action he is taking urgently to bring more ships back into use?

Mr. Hoon: What I can tell the House is that the Royal Navy is in a position to carry out all the operations that it is required to, and to carry out the medium-scale war-fighting capability required under the defence planning assumptions. The right hon. Gentleman might like to know that Royal Navy vessels and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service are currently deployed in the Caribbean, the Gulf, the far east, the Mediterranean and the south Atlantic. In addition, they continue to undertake operational training.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): According to The Telegraph, the journal of the Merchant Navy officers' union NUMAST—the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers—there have been some 2,300 terrorist or pirate attacks on merchant ships over the past 10 years, in which 280 seafarers have been killed and more than 270 seriously injured. Taking into account this worldwide issue, and the fact that companies are cutting crews, will my right hon. Friend speak to his colleagues in other Departments about the whole issue of safe manning levels and the ability to mount safe patrols on the ships?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I know how conscientiously he pursues merchant shipping matters. I assure him, as I assured the

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House a few minutes ago, that the Ministry of Defence takes considerable interest in the matter, and we are in regular contact with other Departments to respond to any enhanced threat to merchant shipping, wherever it is in the world.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): But why would not the Secretary of State answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)? In the light of the recent threat to a Royal Navy ship in the straits of Gibraltar and the attack on a French tanker lying off Yemen mentioned by the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), are not the Government gambling with Britain's maritime security by allowing half the fleet to remain out of action? Can the Secretary of State confirm weekend press reports that at least two front-line RAF Tornado interceptor squadrons are similarly out of action? Does not all that graphically show that there is no spare capacity and that the Government are simply not prepared for the unexpected?

Mr. Hoon: It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman believes everything he reads in the weekend newspapers and, moreover, comes to the House with that material and chooses to run down the capability of the armed forces. Had he listened to my answer to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) more carefully than he apparently did, he would have noticed that the operational responsibilities of the Royal Navy remain unaffected. It is capable of carrying out the range of activities according to the defence planning assumptions. Therefore, the number is not strictly relevant at this stage. Provided that it can carry out the range of its requirements under the assumptions that are set down, that should be an end of the matter. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who claims to take an interest in matters military and the armed forces, should come to the House and run down this country's military capabilities.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Has my right hon. Friend called for an assessment of the implications for the safety of British shipping caused by the delay in getting the Nimrod aircraft back in service? When does he expect it to return to service?

Mr. Hoon: Obviously, there are concerns about the availability of Nimrod. That matter is, for the moment at any rate, the responsibility of BAE Systems. We have a very clear contract with it for the delivery of those aircraft. Obviously, this is a matter that we keep under constant review. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no extra threat to the safety and security of our shipping, because the protection afforded by existing aircraft is quite sufficient for the moment.

Reservists (Call-up)

4. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): What call-up of reservists he has (a) made recently and (b) plans to make and for what reasons; and if he will make a statement. [76696]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): A call-out order was made on 14 October 2002 in support of operations in Afghanistan and related operations against international terrorism. This was purely for the continuation of existing operations. In line with our policy since the strategic defence review, any substantial new operation would require support from reservists. That would be the subject of a separate call-out order at the appropriate time.

Harry Cohen : Would not such a separate call-out order suggest that the Government are prepared to go on with a war against Iraq with little regard for international law or the United Nations process? Is not The Daily Telegraph correct today in saying that such a call-out is likely to be done by Queen's order, which was last used in the Korean war and would criminalise those who do not want to volunteer for such a call-out? Is the advice given by officials to my right hon. Friend, as quoted in The Daily Telegraph, correct—that there would not be sufficient volunteers if the call-up were voluntary? Would not such a call-up have a draconian effect on the national health service and on businesses and employers?

Mr. Hoon: I have just warned Conservative Members about the dangers of believing what they read in the newspapers. According to this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph, I am supposedly announcing the mobilisation of reserves today. I can tell the House, and The Daily Telegraph, if any of its correspondents have chosen to be here, that that is not true. No such order is being made today. Military action against Iraq is neither imminent nor inevitable. In those circumstances, I can reassure my hon. Friend, I hope, that if it is necessary to call out reserves, the House will be the first to know.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I am grateful for the Secretary of State's final remarks, because I am sure that he agrees that such speculation affects the individuals concerned and their families. The best way to ensure that there is no such speculation is for him to reassure the House of Commons, as he has just done, that there will be a full statement or a full debate in the House before any reservists are called up, so that the announcement is made here, not in the press.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that that is absolutely right. The subject of the question was the call-out of reservists and the procedures that would be necessary. Obviously a call-out order would be necessary, and would have to be laid before the House in the normal way.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Did my right hon. Friend notice that, according to The Daily Telegraph, certain Labour Members were primed to ask this question? Had that been so, would he have chosen as his conduits my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) for Question 4 and me for Question 17?

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If my right hon. Friend is going to do this, should it really be done through the royal prerogative? Perhaps the royal prerogative is not the right way in which to do it.

Mr. Hoon: Let me come to the rescue of my hon. Friend's reputation, and indeed that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen). Neither would be regarded as the usual suspects in connection with the tabling of the sort of question on which The Daily Telegraph speculated—wrongly—this morning.

As for the royal prerogative and the substance of my hon. Friend's question, as he knows much better than I—given his much longer experience of this place—that is the way in which these things are done in the United Kingdom. That has always been the case, and I anticipate that it always will be.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the most overstretched, vulnerable and important parts of the reserve forces is the medical reserves—not least because many of them are extremely vulnerable in their civilian jobs, which are mostly in the national health service? What inquiry has been made into the recent disastrous decision to mobilise a large number of them compulsorily, and send them home shortly afterwards having found that they were not needed?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that our medical reserves are overstretched, but I certainly accept that, as a result of the disastrous decisions of the last Government about medical support for our armed forces—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are gesticulating wildly, and one says, XFive years". I suggest that he ring his local medical school and find out how long it takes to train a doctor. He will find that it takes rather longer than five years, which is why direct responsibility for the shortage of doctors and other trained medical staff lies with the last Conservative Government, who affected the way in which we support our armed forces so disastrously.

I am not at all content with the number of doctors and other medical support staff. We are taking urgent action to deal with that.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I recall that during the defence reviews of the 1990s, the Labour party complained that we had not cut enough. I should remind the Secretary of State of that.

The right hon. Gentleman's body language suggests that nothing could be further from his mind than the suggestion that there might be a substantial call-out of reservists and the Territorial Army over the next few months. We all know that that likelihood must in fact be at the front of his mind. We have no doubt that the armed forces, the Territorials and the reserves will do all that they can to deliver a professional and excellent service to this country if such a call arises; but the impression that we continue to receive from the right hon. Gentleman's Department is that he is unprepared for the unexpected.

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We already have reservists spread across the world, from Northern Ireland to the Balkans and Afghanistan. The strategic defence review went much further, cutting the core element of the reserve forces, the Territorial Army. Will the Secretary of State now admit that that was a mistake; and has he set a new, increased target for the TA?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman had to ramble through a series of observations before asking a specific question, but I will do my best to deal with his apparently unconnected remarks.

Military action against Iraq is neither imminent nor inevitable. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as any other Member that any substantial military operation nowadays would require support from reservists, and our planning processes take that into account. As I have said, there has been no decision on that, and as soon as a decision is made the House will of course be informed in the normal way, following a call-out order.

We have debated here, on a number of occasions, the appropriate number of reservists who might be required. He knows as well as the House does—it was set out in a White Paper and the House has debated the new chapter of the strategic defence review—that we propose adjustments in the number and organisation of our reservists. That will not come as any great surprise to him or any other Member.

Mr. Jenkin: The answer is that the Secretary of State is still thinking about it and he has not got a policy. Does he recall the difficulties faced by his Department when it was suggested that we might have to mobilise reservists for the Kosovo conflict? The Select Committee report on the strategic defence review and the reserve forces stated:

The deputy inspector general of the Territorial Army is quoted as saying:

Have we learned the lessons of the Kosovo conflict or, if it becomes necessary to have such a call-out again, will we face the same problems?

Mr. Hoon: I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman should choose Kosovo as an example. The British forces' action in Kosovo in the spring and summer of 1999 was a remarkable and successful operation. Given the date and circumstances of the operation, it is a dangerous example for a Front-Bench spokesman of the Conservative party to use, given that it was responsible for the organisation of reservists in 1997. I am sorry if he has to go back that far for his illustration. The reality is that we have a clear policy on reservists, which was set out in the strategic defence review and repeated again in the new chapter to that review. Both have been thoroughly and fully debated in the House.

Mr. Jenkin: I simply asked what lessons have been learned from the preparations for a mobilisation four years ago. The Secretary of State did not suggest a single

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one. I remind him that it took six months to mobilise the 3rd Military Intelligence Battalion before a single reservist was deployed on operations in the past 12 months. It is interesting that the Prime Minister said that the only orders laid have been routine ones, and brushed aside any suggestion of a call-up in the near future. Is the Secretary of State ruling out a major call-up of the reserves in the next few months? How much warning will reservists get? Preparations by the United States are already much in advance of ours.

Mr. Hoon: Again, on both counts, the hon. Gentleman should look more carefully before he asks such questions. The United States has arrangements for the call-out of reservists very similar to ours. If he checked before asking those rather foolish questions, he would find that the United States has not taken any decision on reserves either. I answered his question a few moments ago when I said that any substantial military operation requires support from reservists, and all our planning processes take that into account. If it is necessary to call out reservists, we will do so.

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