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House of Commons

Monday 29 November 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Scottish Regiments (Iraq)

1. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): If he will make a statement on the role of the Scottish regiments in Iraq. [199353]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Scottish regiments, along with other United Kingdom and multinational forces, have played and continue to play a valuable role in providing security to help build a free, stable and secure Iraq. I pay tribute to the contribution of the Black Watch, which is currently serving with distinction in Iraq, continuing its operations in Babil province in support of the wider Iraqi security force and coalition operations south and west of Baghdad.

John Barrett: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but given that the Scottish regiments deserve the same loyalty from the Government as they are showing on the front line, is it not crass insensitivity, at a time when our soldiers are risking their lives in Iraq, for the Government to sacrifice the heritage of Scottish or any other regiments?

Mr. Hoon: On the contrary, it would be crass and insensitive if we did not take the necessary decisions to ensure that Britain's armed forces and Britain's Army were organised to face the challenges of the 21st century, recognising, as we do, the importance of preserving identity, heritage and tradition in the way that previous reorganisations of our armed forces have done.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): Is not the thing that really undermines our troops in Iraq the fact that the reorganisation of the regiments is being used for cynical, party political purposes by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists, and even by some Tories who ought to know better?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. This is not the first time that such reorganisation has faced
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someone in my position, or indeed the position of one of my predecessors. I quote Henry Childers, Secretary of State for War in 1881, who said:

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the whole House will concur with his view about the distinguished history of the Scottish regiments and their current effectiveness, but that there is understandable and genuine concern that the proposals he is considering, to affect not only the Scottish regiments but the whole British infantry, will have a severe impact on training opportunities, especially on overstretch, which causes added strain to families and to capacity? We ask a lot of those people and they give us a lot, but I wonder whether the Secretary of State is behind them as much as he claims.

Mr. Hoon: I have set out only the principles that will govern any decisions taken in that area and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman approaches the principles in that way. If he looks carefully at the statement that I made last July, he will see, for example, that one of the underlying purposes is to end the arms plot, whereby at any given time we have as many as seven or eight battalions that are not available for operational deployment, which means that the proposals, if carried through, will increase the number of forces available for operations and, therefore, reduce the level of stretch on our infantry battalions.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that emotions are running high in Scotland over the role of Scottish regiments in Iraq, so does he agree that it is highly irresponsible for political parties, such as the Scottish National party, to describe, as it does, the British flag as the butcher's apron, thereby implying that our soldiers are butchers? Does he agree that an apology should be forthcoming from the leadership of the Scottish National party?

Mr. Hoon: I have made the point to the House before that it is astonishing that Scottish nationalists should make such representations about the United Kingdom's armed forces, not least because in the unlikely event of their ever achieving power anywhere in the UK we should not have those armed forces to rely on.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): What guidance has been issued to Scottish troops serving in Iraq about publicly expressing their opinions on the plans to amalgamate or disband all the Scottish infantry regiments?

Mr. Hoon: I am content to rely on the observations made by the current commanding officer of the Black Watch, serving in Iraq, who has expressed pretty forcefully his views about the criticisms that have been made, and indeed was speaking on behalf of the entire battalion deployed.
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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Ministers will shortly be announcing which Scottish regiment is to be disbanded, or which two will be amalgamated. Obviously, that could affect either the Black Watch, currently serving in Iraq, or other Scottish regiments that will be deployed there. Ministers have emphasised that one of the main reasons behind the cuts is to free up manpower from the infantry to provide for more logisticians and engineers. Given the obvious importance of that factor, can the Secretary of State tell the House what surveys have been carried out among the soldiers of the Black Watch and other Scottish infantry regiments to identify who are qualified and willing to transfer and become logisticians and engineers? If that has not been done, why not, as it may undercut the whole process?

Mr. Hoon: I had understood that the hon. Gentleman has spent some time studying the armed forces, in which case he would have seen that, if those proposals are accepted, they would be put into practice over a number of years to allow the adjustments to which he refers to take place.

Defence Procurement

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received on his defence procurement policies. [199354]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): It is our policy to seek value for money in all our acquisitions. We engage in frequent discussions on our procurement policy with many interested parties and are constantly looking for ways in which we can improve our business.

Miss McIntosh: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his defence procurement programme does not live up to the name of smart acquisition and smart procurement? The Eurofighter programme alone was £1 billion over budget and 60 months late.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): The Tories were responsible.

Miss McIntosh: In the case of Multidrive, the process was not transparent; it was long, complicated and expensive for the participating companies, and all the jobs have gone to countries outside the UK. How can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the smart acquisition programme will live up to its name?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know what point the hon. Lady is making. If she is saying that there is a delay in the programme, that is unquestionably the case. That cannot be denied and it is a matter of regret, but we are strenuously working to deal with it. There is a variety of reasons for all that, but given the sedentary comment made by my right hon. Friend, I hope that the hon. Lady understands the history of that project and how far back it goes. Smart acquisition has not always been in place, and perhaps if we had smarter procurement policies at the beginning, we would not be dealing with the problems that we now face.
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Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): One of the six major themes of defence industrial policy is to maximise the economic benefit to the UK from defence expenditure, so has the Defence Procurement Agency's recent review of smart acquisition taken that fully into account and what changes have been put in place as a result?

Mr. Ingram: Of course, we have taken all that into account, and we must seek to ensure at all times that we have a strong, effective manufacturing base in this country. As has been said from the Dispatch Box before, there would not be a shipbuilding industry in this country, by and large, if it was not for defence procurement, and large parts of our aerospace sector would also be under threat. So at all times, we seek to ensure that we have a strong manufacturing base by using a range of initiatives such as improved relationships with the companies involved, including demonstrator programmes and research programmes, to try to give real substance and a real grounding to that approach. My hon. Friend is right: that is one of our key elements, and we will continue to push on with it.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Could the Minister give me an assurance? He has just mentioned the importance of manufacturing to this country, and I entirely share that view. Will he therefore indicate for the benefit of my constituents and those in Greater Manchester who are deeply concerned about the Nimrod MRA4, when that project will be given the go-ahead? It is vital to the future of the BAE Systems site at Woodford, which is one of the most modern aerospace manufacturing facilities in the world.

Mr. Ingram: I agree with the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's observations; but, of course, in any procurement stream, we must ensure that we have a mature design, that we get the product or platform that we seek and that we are doing so at the right price. That process is currently under way. We have one aircraft under test. I understand that that is, of course, a very significant event, but we must get to that mature design and we must get the right price in our negotiations with the company. However, I recognise the importance of that project.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the good job that we have done on procurement, but let us not tarnish our good record by allowing our camouflage uniforms to be made in China in a subsidised People's Liberation Army factory. Does he agree that that is unacceptable? The same support as that given to aerospace should be given to the textile industry in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw).

Mr. Ingram: I understand my hon. Friend's concern and perhaps even anger, but is he really saying that we should not procure from abroad?

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The uniforms are substandard.

Mr. Ingram: If hon. Members are suggesting that we should only procure from within Britain, we would then
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not be able to sell or export. I suggest to my hon. Friend that he perhaps question some of the other bidders for the contract that he mentions because a large part of their business would have been placed outside the UK as well.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): According to the winter supplementary estimates published two weeks ago, the Secretary of State has cut front-line funding by more than £1 billion in order to fund a two thirds increase in the running costs of the Defence Procurement Agency. Is this not yet another example of how this Government have lost their grip on the procurement process? Is it not appalling that at a time when Her Majesty's armed forces are under such strain, the Ministry of Defence is having to plunder the front line to cover the endemic cost overruns and delays of the Defence Procurement Agency?

Mr. Ingram: We have announced another increase in the defence budget of £3.7 billion and there will be seven years of real-terms growth in the budget—the first time that has happened for 20 years. I am not going to start trading policies with the hon. Gentleman, but I suggest that he asks the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) how he proposes to cut another £1.6 billion from the defence budget. We have asked for details, but the Conservatives cannot give us them.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm again that he and the Government will source our two new aircraft carriers in British shipyards using overwhelmingly British labour and that he will reject the advice of those, such as the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, who strongly advocate that these new aircraft carriers be brought in cheaply from America?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has referred to a matter that has already been alluded to in this place. There has been no rebuttal from the Liberals, but perhaps we will get one today. A senior adviser to the Liberals, who also serves their interests in the House of Lords, gave the clear indication that that was their preferred option, because the Americans have the capacity so that might be the best place to build the carriers. If that is not Liberal policy, it would be nice to hear that. I am also conscious of the fact that the Liberals want to close the Defence Export Services Organisation and have said that Ministers should not be involved in defence diplomacy when it involves trying to sell equipment abroad. It really is lunacy to go down that route. We have not heard repudiation on either of those two points.

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