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House of Commons

Monday 9 December 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


NATO Capabilities

1. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): What progress has been made to improve defence capabilities among NATO countries. [83956]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): NATO's defence capabilities initiative, launched at the Washington summit in 1999, has made good progress in a number of areas. To continue this progress, a new initiative—the Prague capabilities commitment, or PCC—was launched at the Prague summit on 21 and 22 November, focusing on improvements in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence, information superiority, combat-effectiveness, and deployability and sustainability. Allies have made firm political commitments to improve their capabilities in each of those areas.

Mr. Jenkins : I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, particularly the part about the expansion of the capabilities of our NATO allies, but we have heard all of it before. We heard it at the end of the Washington summit. What is the vital difference between the

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Washington proposals and the Prague proposals, and can my right hon. Friend assure us that the capabilities and capacities of our NATO allies will match our record?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Hoon: I am pleased to see my hon. Friend receiving so much support.

The Washington defence capabilities initiative was an important step in the transformation of NATO, but I agree that, with hindsight, it could be considered too broad a programme. In the run-up to Prague, therefore, the United Kingdom argued consistently that any successor initiative should have a narrow focus with clear objectives, backed by high-level ownership. The Prague capabilities commitment is a good package that will focus nations on providing the capabilities necessary for the alliance to perform the full range of its missions.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Given that Germany's Social Democratic Government have completely lost control of the economy, what message does the Secretary of State have for his counterpart in that Government about the defence cuts that they have just announced?

Mr. Hoon: I have had some excellent conversations with my German counterpart. No doubt the Ministry of Defence was able to draw on its experience under Conservative control, when defence budgets were cut successively. Given the healthy economic circumstances enjoyed in the United Kingdom, I was able to make it clear to my German counterpart that extra resources were available for defence in the UK, and he looked forward to the day when that would be the case in Germany as well.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the conditions imposed by the

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economic stability pact may make it more difficult for NATO countries that are also members of the European Union's single currency to increase their defence expenditure and thus improve their defence capability?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer that question at Treasury questions, but I think it would be much more sensible of me to avoid answering it.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): After an entertaining start, may I press the Secretary of State on the subject of one capability that all NATO countries need to improve—preparedness for a major terrorist attack at home? There is clear evidence of a threat, and leaked documents from the Government seem to admit that civil defence Xeffectively no longer exists". What has the Secretary of State achieved in his Department in regard to civil defence since 11 September last year?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that civil defence is primarily the responsibility of the United Kingdom's civil authorities, certainly in respect of protection of its territory and jurisdiction on land. He and other Members will know of the significant changes proposed by the Ministry of Defence in the new chapter—the policy document supplement—to the existing strategic defence review. As for threats from the air and at sea, the Ministry of Defence remains responsible. We have ensured that our defences are commensurate with the nature of the threat that we face, particularly since the appalling events of 11 September.

Mr. Jenkin: I presume that the Secretary of State is referring to the document that I have here, XThe Role of the Reserves in Home Defence and Security", which was produced nine months after 11 September. Is he aware of the answers that his right hon. Friend the Minister of State has been giving about the civil contingency reaction forces? On 25 November, he stated

Is the issue being treated with the urgency that it seriously deserves?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that no civil contingency plans existed before the appalling events of 11 September. Clearly there were such plans. What we seek to do is upgrade and improve those preparations, specifically in the light of what took place on that date.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What has been done in the past couple of months to deal with talcum-like sand penetrating into the sophisticated mechanical systems and instrumentation of Challenger 2 tanks?

Mr. Hoon: As I said to the House a couple of weeks ago, a contract has been let for the desertification of the Challenger 2 tank and that work is proceeding at some speed.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On the subject of capabilities, will the Secretary of State confirm that,

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even after the various financial changes that he has mentioned, the percentage of GDP that this country will spend on defence next year will be significantly lower than it was when the Government took office, despite 11 September?

Mr. Hoon: Thanks to questions asked by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who speaks for the Conservative party on the Front Bench, I examined carefully a number of statistics relating to the amount of expenditure. There were periods during the Conservatives' control of defence when the percentage was higher, but equally there were periods when it was lower.

BAE Systems

2. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What discussions his Department has had with BAE Systems about the maintenance of (a) aerostructure and (b) other manufacturing business in the UK. [83925]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): BAE Systems is the Ministry of Defence's single largest supplier. Both the MOD and the Department of Trade and Industry have frequent dialogue with the company concerning existing and future programmes as well as the company's strategic plans.

Mr. Marsden : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he understand the concern of my constituents and others who work for BAE Systems in the north-west that its proposed sell-off of the aerostructures division will mean the loss of a pool of some 400 skilled workers, who are potentially key to the defence business in terms of flexibility and extra capacity? Does he recognise that a company that has benefited from some hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money for orders needs to have a clearer focus on what its future core structure of business will be and what its strategy is? Many of us believe that it is becoming rather woolly.

Dr. Moonie: I am well aware of the change in the company's strategy. Its aerostructures business is successful and viable; it has a substantial order book. To divest the aerostructures business was a commercial decision for the company to make, and it has said that there are no current plans to fragment the business. Any discussions with interested parties will consider the business as a whole. I assure my hon. Friend that we will be keeping a very close eye on what is happening.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In the light of the current uncertainties in BAE, the biggest employer in my constituency, can the Minister confirm that, notwithstanding the sad loss of DA6, one of the pre-production prototypes of Eurofighter, the Government remain utterly, totally and completely committed to what is a vital source of manufacturing work, and that they will buy all 232 of those aircraft? What work is he doing to ensure that BAE benefits from further export orders for the Hawk aircraft?

Dr. Moonie: On the latter point, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, we are working hard, as we have

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done continuously, to try to help the company to secure orders for Hawk abroad. We are also working with it on the development of a new variant of the aircraft, potentially for our own future training requirement. With regard to Typhoon, I repeat the assurances that have been repeatedly given in the House. The order currently stands at the number that the right hon. Gentleman has quoted and will remain so. The crash of the prototype was most unfortunate, but the aircraft remains on course to come into service when we expect it to.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): The Minister is rightly spelling out commitments to BAE Systems and to the north-west. Within that, can we ensure that the advanced jet trainer will come on stream and that that contract will be let to BAE Systems? Obviously, the aerostructures business is very important. Will the hon. Gentleman ensure that he continues the dialogue to ensure that those jobs remain in the north-west and are not transferred?

Dr. Moonie: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are continuing to discuss our future training requirements closely with British Aerospace. The contract will have to be competed for but we hope that the company will carry on doing sterling work for us. Again, we will be keeping a very close eye on what is going on in the business to ensure that our interests in the north-west are not adversely affected.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Can the Minister tell the House whether he has had a discussion with British Aerospace, as a partner in the Airbus consortium, on the effect of the German Government's announcement that they are to reduce their intended order from 73 airframes to 60? Will that significantly increase the price to the Royal Air Force, which Her Majesty's Government have decided should order some 25 airframes?

Dr. Moonie: We are continuing to discuss the implications of the German decision on the contract, but our current expectation is that there will be no major changes in the unit price for us.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): My hon. Friend mentioned the new arrangements for the Hawk, which his Department and BAE Systems are discussing. There will be 450 redundancies on the north and south banks of the Humber as a result of dithering in the swapping of information, either by his Department or by BAE Systems management. Can he tell the House when he hopes those discussions will conclude; whether he will maintain the Government's intention to purchase this aircraft, and in the numbers that he said; and what steps he and his Department will take to try to alleviate the Christmas misery of 450 families on Humberside?

Dr. Moonie: I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is for BAE Systems to determine its staffing levels. The job losses that he describes result from its failure to secure a number of orders—not just from the MOD—in what is a highly competitive market. I know that the claim has been made that the MOD is taking too long to reach a decision on the Hawk 128. Choosing an advanced jet

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training aircraft that will probably remain in service for at least 25 years is not a simple matter. The decision will be made at the earliest practicable moment, but it should not—and will not—be taken lightly. We need to be sure that the aircraft that we choose is the best available platform on which to train the pilots of a highly sophisticated new generation of combat aircraft that has yet to come into service.

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