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House of Commons

Monday 27 March 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.




Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Joint Strike Fighter

2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What progress has been made in discussions with the United States about the joint strike fighter. [60957]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We continue to make good progress with the US to ensure that the UK's military and industrial requirements for the joint strike fighter programme will be met. In the past 10 days, there have been no fewer than three meetings on those very issues with the Senate Committee on Armed Services, involving the Secretary of State and my noble Friend Lord Drayson, the Minister for Defence Procurement; one took place in Washington and two in London. Following those discussions, we remain optimistic that we will be in a position to sign a production, sustainment and follow-on development memorandum of understanding in December, as planned.

Mr. Bone: Does the Minister really believe that the joint strike fighter will ever enter service? If so, when will it do so, and by how much will it be over budget?

Mr. Ingram: Yes, I do, and it will be on programme.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Of course my right hon. Friend is aware of the need to ensure that the contract goes ahead, but as part of that contract we need to see final assembly for the north-west and full heavy
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maintenance in the United Kingdom. Those are the reassurances that we need, as well as the hope of a short take-off and vertical landing version of the joint strike fighter. Can my right hon. Friend enlighten the House on what progress has been made?

Mr. Ingram: I would love to be able to enlighten my hon. Friend, but no final decisions have yet been made on the points that he raises.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): On the basis of a briefing that I received from our embassy in Washington, may I record my appreciation for what Lord Drayson has done by way of representation on Capitol Hill?

While the Minister pursues his objective of ensuring that the memorandum of understanding is signed in November, what steps are being taken to bring the armed forces committee and the House of Representatives on side? They appear still to be the ultimate logjam.

Mr. Ingram: I know that the right hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in the matter, and that senior members of his party were present during the representations made in Washington. All the representations are being made as strenuously, as pointedly and, I believe, as constructively as we can make them. Every effort will be made to ensure that that continues, and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to express his view to those in Washington with whom he is in contact.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the decision by the United States to cancel the development and construction of the second engine, apart from delivering a blow to British jobs, was shortsighted? In creating competition by developing two engines, we could have driven down costs in the whole project and secured a better engine design.

Mr. Ingram: That was an important part of our earlier approach, and we still believe that it would confer added enhancement and benefits to the programme. We will continue to make that view known. It was raised when my noble Friend Lord Drayson met the US Senate Committee on Armed Services about 10 days ago, and we continue to raise it, along with all the other representations that we make about the need for transfer of the technology.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I commend the robust attitude that Ministers are taking on the issue of technology transfer, but may I ask how much money has been spent on the programme so far, and what conditions were established at the outset in relation to technology transfer? Clearly we are talking about huge sums, and I presume that the Government must have included some guarantees in the original agreement that they negotiated.

Mr. Ingram: I do not have the precise figure to date, but I can say from memory that it is about $1 billion. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with a more up-to-date figure.
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The other issue that has been raised is "Government to Government". We have very good relations with the United States Administration, although obviously we have differences with them as well, and express ourselves forcefully when those differences arise. When agreements are reached, they are reached by two mutual and close partners. I do not see the worries that the hon. Gentleman is trying to raise. I know that there is a bit of anti-Americanism in certain parts of politics today; I think that that is to be regretted, and that it detracts from what we are seeking to do.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I am sure that the Minister would agree that the JSF is the best aircraft for the roles that are currently envisaged, and that defence technology transfer should not be an issue, given the    intelligence co-operation and nuclear weapon technology exchange between the UK and the US. Does he also agree that failure could drive the UK into further European procurement that is not, in this instance, in the strategic interests of either the UK or the United States?

Does the Minister understand the fears of the United States about the leakage of defence technology? Would he care to reflect on the damage done by today's news that 41 German companies are being investigated over sales of equipment and technology to Iran for potential use in its nuclear programme, and the impact that that will have on Capitol Hill?

Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his efforts, particularly during his visit to Washington, in trying to ensure that we do what is required to take this programme forward. We have made it clear that we want to win the contract on the proposed basis and we are making every effort to achieve that. The US Administration—and, indeed, beyond that—well understand the strength of our case, but it does not help to point out that other nations are allegedly involved in things that they should not be doing, as such a claim has been the basis of press reports. Clearly, there are some concerns within the US about this matter. As I said in my earlier answer to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), the issue will be settled on the basis of the good relationship that exists between very close allies and partners. If we strike the deal that we want, I am sure that every aspect will be honoured on both sides of the relationship.

Veterans Badge

3. Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): What progress he has made with his plans for the veterans badge now that the one year trial period has come to an end. [60958]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): I can confirm that, following the trial, which proved its popularity, we will continue to issue the veterans badge to service leavers. I can also tell the House that more than 200,000 badges have been issued to date and eligibility to apply will be extended to all qualifying veterans as soon as it is practicable to do so, so that all generations can have the privilege and honour of wearing it.
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Mr. Wright: Of all the issues that I have dealt with during my time in the House the veterans badge has had the greatest impact in respect of take-up among constituents—and rightly so. Will the Minister expand on his answer and tell us what plans he has to extend the scope of the badge to other campaigns—perhaps to include widows of veterans, too?

Mr. Touhig: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on 13 February that we will extend eligibility to veterans who served in our forces up to 31 December 1959. They are now able to apply for the veterans badge. I can tell my hon. Friend that those eligible to apply for it are members of the armed forces, the merchant navy, the Home Guard, the Polish forces and the UK command in the Cyprus Regiment. The badge can also be awarded posthumously to widows who are in receipt of a service pension. I have letters almost every day from people across the country who are hugely grateful for the opportunity to wear the badge. It was a fantastic idea that has been a huge success and it demonstrates how much the whole House and the whole nation value our veterans.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): While I recognise that, is not the present position unfair to people who served the country during the last war, but who were precluded from joining the armed forces because they had to work in reserved industries and other such areas? If it is inappropriate to give them a veterans badge, does not the Minister believe that something should be done to reward people who served their country well, but not necessarily in the armed forces?

Mr. Touhig: Our success in prosecuting and winning the last war was the result of the whole nation's efforts, and I am sure that the whole House recognises that. Our responsibilities, however, relate to those who served in His Majesty's armed forces at the time. That is why the veterans badge is awarded in the way that it is. I am aware of the contribution of the Bevin boys, the land army and others and I understand that some people believe that they should also qualify—a matter for my ministerial colleagues in other Departments as well as me—but I certainly share the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman's point.

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