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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom's armed forces continue to contribute to the establishment of a stable, free and democratic Iraq through the provision of security, the development and training of Iraq's security forces, and support to the Iraqi Government. UK forces remain in Iraq under the UN mandate set out in United Nations Security Council resolution 1546, which states that the presence of the multinational force is to be reviewed at the request of the Government of Iraq or 12 months from the date of the resolution. The mandate will expire upon the completion of the political process, and will be terminated earlier if requested by the Government of Iraq.
Mr. Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who seek a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq do those troops a disservice? Is not their task to finish the job in hand, building on the success of the elections and training Iraqis to take over? Is it not irresponsible to talk of timetables in a situation in which there are so many imponderables; and would it not give the terrorists and those who oppose democracy and freedom in Iraq an opportunity to hinder that fixed timetable and to profit from it?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right. A fixed timetable would simply provide comfort to the terrorists. It would give them a target against which to aim and would be extremely damaging to the job that British and other coalition forces are doing in Iraq. Let me emphasise that British forces will not stay in Iraq for a day longer than is necessary, but they will stay to complete the job.
Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): But does the Secretary of State agree that from a soldier's point of view, there is no greater threat to the status of UK forces in Iraq than the decision to prosecute through the civil courts a soldier whose case had been dismissed under military law by his own commanding officer? As the Secretary of State must realise, that crucially undermines the whole system of military justice, so what steps is the Ministry of Defence taking to ensure that that will never happen again?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes that view. The truth of the matter is that these issues are
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in the hands of an independent prosecuting authority, and decisions are taken objectively in accordance with the law. One thing that I know about Britain's armed forces is that they want to be governed by the rule of lawthat is the example that they set to the world. It is right that these matters should be dealt with entirely independently of the political process.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am pleased to confirm the selection of Kellogg Brown and Root Ltd. as the preferred physical integrator for the future aircraft carrier project. Further discussions will take place with all alliance participants, including the Ministry of Defence, building on progress to date and to develop the build strategy for the carriers. I have today written to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) explaining that in detail and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library.
Dr. Cable: I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his announcement. However, is not it the case that KBR's parent company, Halliburton, has an abysmal track record of cost overruns on British naval contracts, notably the Devonport shipyards; is being investigated for corruption in several countries, including Iraq; has spent the past year in chapter XI bankruptcy, and has a chief executive who is trying to sell it to an unknown purchaser? Does not giving responsibility for such a key contract to a company with that sort of track record suggest a lack of wisdom?
Mr. Hoon: The contract has been given to KBR. Perhaps I can assist the hon. Gentleman in his deliberations on that company by suggesting that he raises it with several Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament, who repeatedly write or attend my office to urge me to give it more work.
Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): The Secretary of State knows that there is considerable disquiet about BAE Systems' posturing about the choice of company to act as the physical integrator. Will the introduction of the physical integrator and that company increase or delay the chances of the ships' being built on time?
Mr. Hoon: It is important that all those with an interest in the future carriers work co-operatively and effectively. I pay tribute to those who worked long and hard through the weekend to reach an agreement that allows me to make the announcement today.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
(Con): Will the Secretary of State accept that the unseemly wrangling of recent months that has characterised the Government's management of the project has done nothing to instil confidence in the prospect of the critically important contract's being completed to the Government's stated
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time scale? In the panel of four, who will take charge of contractThales, BAE, KBR or the Ministry of Defence? Who is ultimately accountable for managing the project? Have Ministers kept a veto on the location for the final assembly of the carriers as a pre-electionitis bung for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose constituency adjoins the possible site and who has been no friend of Her Majesty's armed forces?
Mr. Hoon: I am accountable for the management of the project to the House, as I am for all Ministry of Defence expenditure. I could not help but notice the hon. Gentleman's solution to the problem over the weekend. It was back to the futureback to the way in which previous Conservative Governments presided over massive cost overruns in major defence expenditure. That appears to be the hon. Gentleman's solutionto spend more and more public money and get less and less for it.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Government have been and remain fully engaged in bilateral and multilateral discussions in support of the common aim to establish a more effective and competitive European defence equipment market. Those discussions involve member states of the European Union, the recently created European defence agency, the European Commission and industry and have included discussions on the European Commission's Green Paper on defence procurement. However, policy for defence equipment procurement rests nationally with individual member states, with any contribution from the Commission's being in support of initiatives developed by national Governments.
Mr. Tynan: I thank my right hon. Friend for his comprehensive response. The Commission's current proposal is obviously for a European defence agency, which would be responsible for, for example, defence capabilities, research, acquisition and armaments. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to establish discussion on the European defence equipment market with a view to securing openness and transparency in the market's allocation of defence projects and strengthening its competitiveness when it comes about?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has alighted on an important subject. We have to tackle the structure of the European defence market. We must consider how to improve it and make it more responsive to capability needs. As he said, a European defence agency deals with precisely that, and examines the key matters that must be tackled. We are at the beginning of the upward curve and we must first analyse and ascertain where we are and examine the way forward to ensure that we have that capable European defence market. We have given it impetus and the European Commission's Green Paper is an added spur to all that progress.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
(Con): If we are to go down the path of a European defence policy, will
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the Minister confirm that we shall do so on the basis of fit for purpose, and not just value for money? Will he also confirm that, in the spirit of competitiveness, our companies will be able to apply for the EU budget line, allowing them to extend export credit guarantees from the EU budget?
Mr. Ingram: We are addressing precisely those parameters. This is about the opening up and the transparency of the European market, as the hon. Lady knows only too well. We have an open market here, and we believe that that has benefited our defence budget. We get not only value for money but quality, and we hope that, in future, deliveries will also be made on time, although historically the industry has not been good at that. We have to take all those factors into consideration, and there are signs of growing awareness of this issue. This is about lifting the capabilities of our European allies as well as our own, and ensuring that the potential exists in the manufacturing sector to deal with the changes that have taken place. Great opportunities will come out of this for the UK and European defence industries.
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