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22 Jun 2006 : Column 1499

I turn now to another key part of our defence policy: the defence industrial strategy. The strategy is more than just a policy document: it is a framework for action, so that both the MOD and the UK defence industry can develop and implement the changes that both need to make. The Government’s commitment to defence should not be in doubt. We are working on some massive programmes: future aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers, new armoured fighting vehicles, Typhoon and the new joint strike fighter, to name but a few. These and other platforms will have long lives. In the unpredictable future that we face—of uncertain threats and new requirements—we are looking at new ways of delivering support to the front line, and at doing so in partnership with industry.

The defence industrial strategy is designed to match this new environment. It provides greater transparency in respect of our defence requirements, and sets out the industrial capacity that we need in the United Kingdom to meet them. Its overall aim is to ensure that, in future, we can provide our armed forces with the equipment that they require. We are delivering the DIS. We announced today in a written ministerial statement the signature of a strategic partnering arrangement and a business transformation incentivisation agreement with AgustaWestland—an arrangement that balances opportunity and challenge to create precisely the demanding partner relationship envisaged by the DIS. I am also delighted to say that we have placed an order for 70 Future Lynx helicopters with AugustaWestland. That fulfils another DIS commitment, and will help to sustain critical skills onshore and provide vital major equipment for our armed forces.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I am interested in what the Minister is saying, not least because I know of his commitment to the armed forces. But there was a report in the Evening Standard—of course, it is only a newspaper and I do not always believe newspapers—on 12 June entitled, “Huge cuts to the defence industry”. It alleges that the Chancellor wishes to take £1 billion out of the defence budget per year and to devote it to homeland security. It then suggests that one major procurement project—the Minister has just been discussing those projects—could be scrapped, such as the aircraft carriers. Can the Minister please categorically deny that?

Mr. Ingram: I learned a long time ago never to believe what I read in the newspapers, when it is under a glaring headline and the context in which it is written is not based on any identifiable or authoritative source. I have just mentioned the aircraft carriers, our procurement programme and the major development of the rotary wing fleet, and more will follow on the back of that. Today’s announcement is worth 1 billion, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would thank us for that, rather than trying to find some windmill to tilt at.

Ann Winterton rose—

Mr. Ingram: The question of the way in which the overall budget will be developed is part of current discussions. Let us look at what we are doing and delivering, which is very substantial.

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Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: If it is on AugustaWestland.

Mr. Howarth: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He referred to the written statement that he made today, which is indeed largely welcome. Can he explain why the new Lynx helicopters will not be available until 2014 and 2015, given that the Lynx currently operated by the Royal Navy are absolutely knackered—for want of a better word—and say what the division is between the number of helicopters for the Royal Navy and for the Army?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman specifics on the latter point. He should have read the written statement in the round, because it does mention the new partnering arrangement. A dismissive reference has been made to that arrangement, but it is a new arrangement not just with AugustaWestland but across industry, the purpose of which is to incentivise the industry and ensure that it delivers on its commitments to the existing fleet. We are looking at new ways of ensuring greater availability of existing platforms, and of perhaps extending their life, to ensure that the spares required to sustain those fleets are provided at the right time and in the right volume. Of course, part of the overall package that we have delivered for AugustaWestland is a future procurement stream, but it must also deliver on the existing stream. Industry understands this—we are adopting this approach with Boeing, Rolls-Royce and BA Systems. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has detailed knowledge of these issues, would do well to spend some time studying our efforts in this regard. If he does, he will find that there is full, not just partial, support for what we are doing.

I need hardly remind the House that we face decisions on the future of our Trident nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding the House—

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ingram: Although I want to make progress, I appreciate the importance of the opinion of my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Defence Committee, so I will give way.

Mr. Jenkins: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. The defence industrial strategy is long overdue and very welcome, but can he assure me that it will not lead to a level of protectionism? Do we recognise that we still have to access the best equipment anywhere in the world for our forces, and to look for value for money? We must work with our European partners to provide Europe, as well as Britain, with resources.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has good knowledge of the subject and raises an issue of concern over whether we have monopolistic suppliers and what the implications would be. The DIS is very much designed to ensure that we keep in this country what core competences we can. We have to recognise that increasingly there will be joint
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ventures; indeed, the joint strike fighter is a joint venture with the United States. The purpose of the European Defence Agency is to begin to look at where the shortfalls are in European capabilities and to grow from that a greater willingness within Europe to supply to meet the shortfalls.

We have a comprehensive approach, but it is early days and it has not been fully tested. We have to be careful not to find ourselves becoming reliant, as has happened in the past, on a procurement stream that neither delivers on time or on cost, or to the quality that we require.

Ann Winterton: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Lady keeps wanting to intervene and will get very angry if I do not give way. I will, but I do so reluctantly because I have a lot of issues to cover.

Ann Winterton: I could never be angry with the Secretary of State and am grateful to him for giving way. Before he moves on, I have a question about equipment connected with Afghanistan. As our forces appear to be winning the firefights in Afghanistan, does he expect those who oppose our troops there and in other theatres to revert to the use of improvised explosive devices? If so, what vehicles are our forces to be equipped with to counter the threat?

Mr. Ingram: I am glad I gave way to the hon. Lady, because she promoted me to Secretary of State. I will keep giving way if that is how she opens her interventions.

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman will be Home Secretary next.

Mr. Ingram: I am not bidding for that.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) raises an important issue. We have been very effective in Afghanistan. We have a potent force in the Apache attack helicopters. We are up against intelligent and capable enemies, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and we know that they will continue to look for ways to attack land-based vehicles or air-based platforms. We have a lot of measures in place. The hon. Lady will understand that it is not appropriate to discuss all the detail, but where we identify a threat—be it a new or technological threat—we identify a quick way to deal with it. Sometimes that takes time as we come to understand the threat before developing the technical response. Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel, whether it involves fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, land-based systems or maritime systems.

I want to deal with the future of our Trident nuclear deterrent. It is worth reminding the House that when the Government came to power we initiated a range of changes to our nuclear weapons profile. The UK has an excellent record in meeting our international legal obligations. We have withdrawn and dismantled the RAF's air-launched WE177 nuclear bomb without replacement, so that Trident is our only nuclear weapons system. We have dismantled all our remaining Chevaline
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Polaris warheads, demonstrating our commitment to irreversible reductions in the UK's nuclear weapons. We have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads—a 70 per cent. reduction in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war. We have reduced the readiness of our nuclear forces: only one Trident submarine at a time is on deterrent patrol, carrying 48 warheads, compared with a previously planned total of 96, on several days' "notice to fire", and its missiles are de-targeted. We have signed and ratified the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. We have also continued to press for negotiations without preconditions, to begin at the conference on disarmament in Geneva, of a fissile material cut-off treaty.

At the last election, we stood on a manifesto commitment clearly stating that we intended to retain this country's current independent nuclear deterrent. That commitment remains. We sent an initial memorandum to the Defence Committee on these issues, which was published in January.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No. I shall set out the whole of our policy and take it from there.

We currently have no requirement for a new nuclear warhead, nor do we have a programme in place to develop a new nuclear warhead. We did, however, announce last July additional funding for the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the purpose of which was to put in place a programme to ensure that our current Trident warhead remains both safe and reliable.

We have made it clear that decisions on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent are necessary in the current Parliament. As a consequence, work is under way by officials on risks, threats, options and costs in order to prepare the ground for eventual decisions to be taken by Ministers. It remains the case that no decisions have yet been taken in principle or detail on any replacement for Trident. I stress that any decisions that may be taken on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent will be fully consistent with our international legal obligations, including those under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

On the role of Parliament in this process, the Prime Minister has repeatedly promised—most recently yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time—that there will be the fullest possible parliamentary debate on the issue. He has also indicated that the timetable on the way forward should be clearer around the end of the year.

Dr. Lewis: The Minister made much of the commitment in Labour’s manifesto to retain our independent nuclear deterrent. I do not think that there has ever been any question of a Government policy to abandon the existing Trident system. The question is not whether they intend to retain it, but whether they intend to replace it. Last night, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would support the retention of our independent deterrent in the long-term. That has been interpreted as meaning replacement, which is why it is on the front pages of the press. Have the Government decided to replace the nuclear deterrent? If they have not, does he think that the Chancellor was talking about retention or replacement?

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Mr. Ingram: I do not think that my statement could be any clearer, which is why I wanted to set out the policy in detail. The Chancellor said that he pledged to demonstrate the strength of national purpose in protecting our security in this parliament and in the long-term. He said that we would be

Let me also quote the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). He said that last night’s speech was just more spin designed to cast the Chancellor as a statesman. Well, the Chancellor is a statesman. He represents this country at the very highest levels of international negotiations, and he does it exceptionally well. He is not the political pygmy; he is a world statesman. The hon. Gentleman also said that the Chancellor was “reheating” an old pledge to retain the current deterrent, but not committing to replacing the independent nuclear deterrent when it reaches the end of its current life.

Dr. Fox indicated dissent.

Mr. Ingram: Well, it seems to me that the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is asking me something he should ask of his hon. Friend, who has clearly made his mind up on the interpretation of what the Chancellor said.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am disappointed that instead of answering the perfectly reasonable question about the Government’s intentions put by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), the Minister chose to hand responsibility back, implying somehow that the Conservative party’s views on these matters are more important than those of the Labour Government.

Leaving that aside, however, will the Minister tell us one thing? I thought that I heard him say that the Government had not yet decided on the principle of replacing the nuclear deterrent. Will he confirm that they have not decided on that principle? He also said that he would consult the House as widely as possible. Will he confirm whether the Government intend to give a vote to Members of the House of Commons on whether that principle should be endorsed?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that it is not in my gift to offer the House a vote; there are procedures that apply.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ingram: I realise that my hon. Friend wants to be helpful—at least I hope that he does—but he must let me reply—[ Interruption.] I assume that Members on the Labour Benches are rising to be helpful because we made a manifesto commitment to retain the independent nuclear deterrent, so I can only assume that they want to say why they support that commitment and why they were proud to be elected Labour MPs on that platform at the last election.

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Dr. Fox: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Ingram: Let me first answer the question put by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I have set out the process and I cannot do so in any other way. Officials are looking at the range of things that have to be done so that they can report to Ministers. Ministers at a senior level in Cabinet will then make the decision. Once a Cabinet decision has been taken it will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was asking for any other process and the one that we have established is clear.

Mr. Flello: As my right hon. Friend has recalled our manifesto commitment, perhaps it would be helpful to remind the House of what it said, to contrast it with what the Opposition’s manifesto said on that point.

Mr. Ingram: I knew that my hon. Friend would be an honourable friend because, like me, he was pleased to be elected a Labour Member at the last election on that manifesto commitment about the retention of our independent nuclear deterrent. The programme has an extensive life span, which is why we have invested to ensure its long-term safety and reliability.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I can answer only one question at a time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) asked whether I had a view about what was in the Conservative manifesto. It is not really for me to say, but I do not think that they even mentioned the matter. We took a brave political decision—they just seem to disappear when things get tough.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the Minister for giving way. In his remarks about a possible replacement for Trident, or a new generation of weapons, he said that everything would be done consistent with international treaty obligations, including the non-proliferation treaty. That treaty, signed in 1970, includes a commitment by the five declared powers to long-term disarmament. Can he explain which part of the treaty would be broken if we developed a new generation of nuclear weapons in contravention of it?

Mr. Ingram: I was hoping that my hon. Friend would say that he, like me, was proud to stand as a Labour candidate at the last election on our manifesto commitment—I do not think that he resiled from it then. On our international treaty obligations, I have set out what we have done since coming to power in 1997, and made it clear that at all times we take the lead in trying to push forward multilateral discussions on the NPT and elsewhere. I wish that my hon. Friend could take some pride in what the Government have achieved, instead of constantly trying to undermine us and giving us the benefit of his—although I hesitate to say it—wisdom by explaining the meaning of the treaty. The Government know what the treaty means and we are standing by it.

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