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House of Commons

Monday 22 May 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Basra. [72194]

6. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Iraq; and if he will make a statement. [72200]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending condolences to the families of Private Joseva Lewaicei and Private Adam Morris, who were killed on Saturday 13 May north of Basra city. Our thoughts are also with the soldier injured in that incident, with the two soldiers who were injured in the incident at the weekend in Basra, and with their families.

Although insurgents continue to pursue a policy of violence and intimidation with the aim of disrupting the political process in Iraq, the majority of attacks are confined to four of the 18 provinces. However, their efforts have not precluded the formation of a new Government of national unity in Iraq. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said this morning, that is a huge step forward which deserves international support. In Basra, and across Multi-National Division (South-East), despite recent tragic events the security situation remains relatively calm.

David Taylor: As my right hon. Friend said, Adam Morris, a 19-year-old soldier from Hugglescote in north-west Leicestershire, was killed by a roadside bomb near Basra nine days ago along with a colleague from the Royal Anglian Regiment as they travelled in a Land Rover protected only by composite fibreglass. As well as extending deep condolences to Adam’s family and friends, the House will endorse the Leicester Mercury letter-writing campaign to boost the regiment’s morale. Does the Secretary of State agree that a large majority in both the United Kingdom and Iraq want an early withdrawal of foreign troops? Does
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he think that partition is necessary to prevent the country from descending further into an anarchistic hell-hole?

Des Browne: May I first commend my hon. Friend for his support not only for his constituent’s family, but for the Royal Anglian Regiment? I met members of the regiment in Basra last week, and I can reassure him, his constituents and, indeed, his local newspaper, that the morale of those soldiers was very high. In my short time in this job I have been struck by how often our forces meet our expectation, whatever adversity they face, that they will maintain the highest standards not only of morale but of discipline, application and duty. On the meat of his question, it is of course our ambition and intention to remove our troops from Iraq, but we shall do so in the proper context, which has been set out on numerous occasions at the Dispatch Box and involves the nature of the threat, the capacity of Iraqi forces to provide security for their own people, the capacity of their Government both at national and provincial level to govern, and our own ability to respond to support the Iraqi Government’s ambitions. I can say no more than that in support of our position in Iraq.

Andrew Selous: Does the Ministry of Defence believe that the missile that downed our Lynx in Basra on6 May was sold by Russia to Iran, and has the Army asked for any extra resources to deal with the current attacks against it?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will know—I made my position clear in my statement to the House after the Lynx helicopter crash—that I will not speculate on any aspect of that crash, as a board of inquiry and an investigation are under way. Given the nature of that investigation, it would not be helpful to speculate at the Dispatch Box about the way in which the helicopter was brought down until it is concluded. That is my position, and it would not be helpful to be drawn into further speculation.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever views one took about the original invasion, there should be total condemnation of the so-called insurgents who carry out, day after day, the most horrifying crimes against the Iraqi people? Should not the newly elected Government in Iraq accept the fact that our troops cannot remain there indefinitely? They should concentrate on the task before them, bearing in mind, as I have said, the fact that there will come a time when our troops must leave?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend would do well to reflect on the words of the new Prime Minister of Iraq, who spelled out clearly the priorities of his Government for the economy, security, militia and the provision of governance, at both national and provincial level, for the people of Iraq. It is politics that will resolve the issues that face the people of Iraq. My hon. Friend is right that whatever the motives of those who seek to use violence—whether they are insurgents or, as I was advised in the south-east, those who, in the absence of a central Government, are positioning themselves
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economically or politically to take advantage of that situation—there is now a Government of national unity in Iraq, and in the words of others who have spoken on that today, there is no reason now for those insurgencies to continue. The destiny of the people of Iraq is in their own hands. We are all working towards a situation where, in terms of security and governance, the Iraqi Government will be able to look after their own people and there will be no need for the continued support of multinational forces. Until that time comes, we have a duty to continue to support that Government.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the Prime Minister’s words this morning about an exit strategy for our troops in Iraq. Can he give the House some detail—for instance, about the length of time it might take for our troops to finish training the Iraqi security forces, so that they can then be brought home?

Des Browne: When I visited Maysan province and in particular Camp Sparrowhawk last week, I was struck by the level of competence of the 4th brigade of the 10th division of the Iraqi army. That is my only personal experience of their competence, ability and determination to take command of the security situation, but even that observation was informed by other, more experienced military people who were in my company, who were able to point out to me what I ought to be looking for in relation to that competence. I am not able at this stage to say when those forces—army and police—will be capable of looking after their own security, but very experienced military personnel who serve in our forces in the south-east of Iraq tell me that they have made significant progress towards that objective over the past year or so. They also tell me that in three out of the four provinces for which we have responsibility in south-east Iraq, progress in governance and security is well advanced.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I take the Secretary of State back to the carefully crafted reply that he gave a few moments ago to the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the inquiry that is to be held into the loss of our troops as a result of a missile? Will he assure the House that the inquiry will cover the source of that missile, rather than just the incident itself? That is what I felt the Minister—unintentionally, of course—tried to avoid. We want an assurance that if intelligence and information are available they will be disclosed at the inquiry and subsequently made public, and that the inquiry’s remit will cover that.

Des Browne: I did not seek even to confirm in the House that the helicopter had been brought down by a missile. If anything I said may have inadvertently led people to believe that I was imparting that information to the House, I did so in error, but I do not believe that I did. As I told the House when I made my statement last Monday, when the investigation is concluded the board of inquiry report will be published, to the extent that it can be. Until then, I will not be drawn into any speculation on any aspect of the investigation. I, as the Secretary of State for Defence, do not direct the
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investigation. It is conducted according to a set of rules that apply and have applied for a significant time. It will be conducted independently of any direction by Ministers, it will be conducted appropriately, and it will report on the issues that it thinks are relevant to the matters before it.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I associate the Opposition with the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families of those who lost their lives on active service in Iraq?

Does the Secretary of State accept that, time after time at the Dispatch Box, his predecessor stated that it would be absolute folly to say anything about timetables for withdrawal other than when the job is done? Does he endorse that sentiment, and, if so, will he use his best endeavours in the Cabinet to put an end to the stream of articles and leaks that imply that withdrawal is on the cards, so that the Prime Minister can leave a legacy as a peacemaker? We do not want the Prime Minister to leave a legacy as a lethal version of the grand old duke of York.

Des Browne: When history considers the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to conflict resolution in a number of theatres around the world, it will significantly record that he has made a major contribution to peace in a number of parts of the world. I am not aware of any leaking of articles or briefing about a timetable. What I have sought to do, as indeed did my predecessor, is to give some clarity to the conditions that will need to be fulfilled before it will be appropriate for our forces to withdraw, first part of the way, and then fully, from Iraq. Like my predecessor, I have sought not to put a timetable on that, because I do not think that that would be in the interests of either the people of Iraq or the security of our own forces who are serving in Iraq, often in dangerous circumstances.

I fully agree that there needs to be some clarity in the description of the process, and I think that that is clear and that most people understand what the conditions need to be, but it is appropriate, when there is progress along that direction of travel, for that to be reported to the House. During my visit to Iraq, those whom we charge with the responsibility of making such assessments on the ground indicated that in a substantial part of Iraq for which we have responsibility, significant progress has been made.

Defence Sector (West Midlands)

2. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): If he will estimate the number of defence sector jobs in the west midlands region. [72196]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Ministry of Defence employs some 5,600 military and some 6,000 civilian staff in the west midlands. It is estimated that a further 6,500 people are directly employed in defence-related industries in the region.

David Wright: Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the people of Shropshire for the outstanding
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service that they have given to the Ministry of Defence during the past few decades? Does he agree that we have an opportunity to develop a defence employment hub in Shropshire, with the retention of jobs at Sapphire House in Telford, the expansion of jobs at Donnington in The Wrekin and the awarding of the defence training review to Cosford?

Mr. Ingram: As well as paying tribute to the people of Shropshire, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been fully determined in pursuing a range of issues, some of which have played to his advantage, although not completely in the way that he sought. He listed a range of events. If on assessment they remain or are built on, that will be good news. If we have to make a decision that, in the interests of defence, we co-locate headquarters or rationalise to ensure that we make best use of resources, I am sorry but I will have to give him bad news—but I will do that when I make my decision.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given the skills, dedication and commitment of Defence Logistics Organisation workers in Shropshire and the potential co-location to the south-west, is it not incumbent on the Ministry of Defence to have an open, transparent and fair consultation process? If so, why has the Ministry already purchased the building in Bristol that is being investigated by the Auditor General?

Mr. Ingram: Just because it is being investigated does not mean that it is wrong, and the hon. Gentleman should not prejudge. As has been explained before, the property was purchased as a piece of developmental work, looking at possibilities for the co-location of headquarters. Had we delayed purchasing the property when we had the opportunity to do so and then decided to so co-locate, it would have cost us more money. This is a judicious piece of positioning. It does not mean that that will be the final conclusion. I take exception to the hon. Gentleman’s approach on openness and transparency. I have met him and others, and I will continue to do so. We operate openly and transparently in arriving at decisions and explain them afterwards in consultation with the trade unions and staff interests. I am sorry that he takes a different view, but I would not have thought that that was based on his experience.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): It is not only west midlands defence sector jobs but aerospace engineering and training excellence that make the case for locating the defence training contract at Cosford so strong. The region’s universities are intrinsically involved in Cosford’s work, and there are fantastic transport links, including the M54 and a direct rail service. I invite the Minister to visit the west midlands to see at first hand the fantastic opportunities that Cosford offers the MOD.

Mr. Ingram: I have visited Cosford and I am only too well aware of the situation. My hon. Friend knows that the matter is being judged on what is best for defence and for the defence training review. It so happens that I am not the Minister who is directly responsible for the matter, although I have an interest in the outputs.
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However, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), has heard what my hon. Friend has said, and he will take it into account.

Heavy Lift Capability

3. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the heavy lift capability of the Royal Air Force. [72197]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The heavy lift capability of the Royal Air Force is provided by the C-17, and both the TriStar and the VC10 offer some lift capability as a secondary role. We keep our airlift capability under review to ensure that we have access to sufficient capacity to support operations.

Mr. Goodwill: If, as expected, Ministers decide to take our ageing, slow and vulnerable fleet of Sea King helicopters out of mothballs—many of those aircraft are as much as 35 years old—to ferry our brave lads and lasses around Iraq and Afghanistan, can we also expect to see Ministers being ferried around Whitehall in Austin Allegros and Ford Cortinas?

Mr. Ingram: I will not dignify the hon. Gentleman’s question with a response, given the subject matter. He is asking about rotary lift, which has nothing to do with heavy lift. We plan to hold a competition to find a new medium-lift helicopter to meet our medium-term needs, and it will proceed in due course. In the meantime, we must examine our capacity and capabilities on rotary lift, and we are considering whether Puma and Sea King helicopters can be modified or refurbished for short-term use. We are also exploring how we can get more out of existing Merlin and Chinook helicopters and the feasibility of leasing aircraft. We are aware of the issues that must be addressed: there may well be a short-term solution, but there will be medium-term and long-term solutions, too, which means significant investment in our air capacity in this country.

Mr. Bill Olner (Nuneaton) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of last week’s successful flight over London and into Heathrow by the A380 Airbus, which is powered by Rolls-Royce aero-engines. Has that made it more relevant that there will be a military version of that aircraft powered by those engines?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend knows that we have leased four C-17s, and we want to buy out that lease and to purchase another C-17. The A400M is the new generation of heavy lift, and it is due to enter service in 2012. It has been long awaited, and I have no doubt that when it comes into service it will prove to be a very capable aircraft. No doubt my hon. Friend hopes that it will have Rolls-Royce engines—if that is not the case, I will look forward to receiving further representations on the matter.

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Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): By world standards, the Royal Air Force has no heavy lift capability. Our four C-17s—there are soon to be five—are incapable of sustaining one brigade deployed overseas. When will the RAF get a genuine heavy lift capability?

Mr. Ingram: The C-17s were intended to plug a gap arising from a previous procurement hiatus with the A400M, when we realised that we needed that heavy lift capability. The A400M has been long awaited. I will not remind the hon. Gentleman of when it was first procured, nor do we necessarily need to rehearse the delays associated with it under previous Administrations. Let me just say that we identified the shortfall. We have leased four C-17s, which we will buy out, and we are looking to purchase another one. We await the 25 A400Ms for which we are under contract.


4. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the role of British troops in supporting the development and training of Iraqi security forces. [72198]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I can confirm that British troops continue to make progress with the training and development of the Iraqi security forces in Multi-National Division (South-East). We have a number of initiatives under way, all of which are designed to enable the Iraqis progressively to take on responsibility for their own security—for example, by training the Iraqi police service and training and sustaining the 10th division of the Iraqi army.

Derek Wyatt: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Is he in a position to comment on the bravery of the Iraqi security guards in helping when our Lynx helicopter was shot down 16 days ago? My real question is this: when we have left, what will be the long-term legacy with the Iraqi security forces? Will they be allowed to come to Sandhurst, will we have intelligence sharing with the Met police, and so on?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is right to point out—as does General Cooper, who commands our forces in south-east Iraq—the contribution that the Iraqi security forces and police made to the calming of the situation after the Lynx crash. There had been other evidence of the improving capability of the Iraqi forces in their contribution to the referendum and to the security of the general election in December last year. From our point of view as a Government, we will continue to offer the Iraqi Government support on a bilateral basis, but it will of course be for them to decide what continuing relationship they want with us. As they have only today formed the first democratically elected Government, it might be a bit premature for me to describe from the Dispatch Box what our continuing relationship with them will be.

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