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House of Commons

Monday 24 July 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—

Yorkshire Regiment

1. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the role of the Yorkshire Regiment. [87183]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Yorkshire Regiment is an infantry regiment consisting of three regular battalions and one Territorial Army battalion. The 1st and 2nd Battalions fulfil the light infantry role, and the 3rd Battalion fulfils the armoured infantry role. The role of the Territorial Army battalion is to provide a contingent component to support the three regular battalions and to act as a civilian contingency reaction force for 15 Brigade. The battalion was formed on 6 June 2006 with formation parades in York, Catterick, Warminster and the Balkans.

Hugh Bayley: Will my right hon. Friend pass on the congratulations and best wishes of the Government and the House to the newly formed Yorkshire Regiment, and especially to the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion currently serving in Kosovo and the 1st Battalion soldiers, who will soon be deployed to Iraq? The Yorkshire Regiment is the only county regiment in the British Army. Does he agree that it is important to build links between the regiment and the people of Yorkshire, and for local government to do its bit by transferring the freedom of the city, which was awarded to predecessor regiments, to the new Yorkshire Regiment?

Mr. Ingram: I am only too happy to pass on those warm thoughts from my hon. Friend. He raises an important point about links between the local community and the newly formed regiment, and the need to ensure that those links have the same strength and depth as links with the former regiments. He asked whether I would support that, and I would. He asked whether I would support the granting of the freedom of the city to the new regiment. The answer is yes. I am conscious of the fact that HMS York, which has done such wonderful work recently in Lebanon, has the
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freedom of the city. I am sure that those two complementary parts of the armed forces would work well together.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Minister has already mentioned the Territorial Army battalion. A number of soldiers from the Scarborough TA centre have served with distinction in a number of theatres. Sadly, the staffing has already been cut from six to three, with an NCO in charge. We are told that further cuts will mean that there will be no full-time staff. Can the Minister reassure me that the writing is not on the wall for the Scarborough TA centre?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot off the top of my head. I will write to the hon. Gentleman. TA rebalancing involves a complex picture. It would be wrong for me to try to remember every town and every element of it. I can tell him that we have put additional full-time resources into serving the Territorial Army for the prime purpose of making sure that there is depth to what it seeks to do in individual communities. I will write to him about Scarborough. I am sorry that I do not have a detailed answer today.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Of course we all wish the men and women of the Yorkshire Regiment well, but does the Minister understand that many people in Yorkshire mourn the loss of the regiments that the Yorkshire Regiment replaced? Will he assure the House that the Government will not dismantle any more regimental history and tradition?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman may wish to look at the history of regimental change over the decades and perhaps even the centuries. The one thing that the British Army has always been able to do is try to predict its future needs and what its shape should be, and organise things accordingly. He should also be aware that the recommendations for the new infantry structure and the whole Army structure were promulgated by the chiefs of staff. They did not come from any other drive. They were based on a number of factors, not least of which was the important change in Northern Ireland. The future Army structure and infantry structure will mean that we have more of the Regular Army available for operational requirements and duty than has applied hitherto. That must be to the benefit of our serving soldiers. There are other positive aspects. If the hon. Gentleman looks back at the statements made in the House, he may get a better understanding of the matter.

Defence Industrial Strategy

2. Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): What contribution the defence industrial strategy will make to supporting British armed forces and securing British jobs. [87184]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The aim of the defence industrial strategy is to ensure that the Ministry of Defence and industry work together to provide the best possible capability for our armed forces. It seeks to provide greater visibility of the Department’s forward planning
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so that industry’s planning can be better informed, and to identify the national industrial capabilities that we need to sustain on-shore. The strategy therefore offers the best basis for providing our forces with the equipment that they need and at the same time allowing our national defence industry to sustain significant levels of employment and core capabilities over time.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I met the commander of Portsmouth naval base and the managing director of Fleet Support Ltd this morning. We discussed the unique one-stop-shop service for ships at Portsmouth naval base, where concept, design, build, launch, support, upgrade and eventual disposal are offered. That is made possible by a partnership between industry and the Royal Navy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the only such service in the UK and that Portsmouth naval base, with its consolidation and co-location of industry and the Royal Navy, is a unique example of best practice in delivering the objectives of the defence industrial strategy?

Mr. Ingram: It would be easy to say yes to that, but I would not want to give an impression that we do not have to examine all that we are delivering through work on the maritime infrastructure project. Of course, where we have excellence in companies—my hon. Friend mentioned one in her constituency, which has unquestionably given us tremendous service over the years—it is important that we consider how we can best ensure that we have the right capacity to meet our needs. The work to identify that will take some time. I have no doubt at all that those with particular excellence in this field will play a strong card, and my hon. Friend is a strong card on behalf of both her constituency and the company.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), I met the base commander and the company concerned last week, when they raised the same important issue. Are the Government prepared to ensure the stability of all three naval yards—Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth—so that there is a fair weighting of maintenance work? Will the Government also ensure that they rightly recognise the loyalty of the work force by giving them continuous support for their actions over the past 100 years or more?

Mr. Ingram: I would be the first to congratulate the work force on all the work that they do. However, we must realise that change is under way, which is why we are working with all companies at all naval bases to determine the best configuration to meet the needs of the country not in the past century, but in the decades ahead. I do not think that that will be easy. We must realise that the number of ships that require maintenance now and the capacity in those bases will mean that there is change. We must be realistic, not romantic, which means that we need to look to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend comment on developments on the
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joint strike fighter, which is a crucial project for our defence industry and our military? Will he comment on the progress that is being made on the transfer of intellectual property with the Americans and on the prospects for manufacturing facilities being located in the UK—and more particularly in Lancashire?

Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend had a benefit last week that I did not have, because he visited the Farnborough air show. I was due to visit it, but unfortunately the events in Lebanon demanded my time. I would have liked to be there because I would have seen tremendous excellence from the British aerospace sector across the board, as he did. We are continuing to work very hard to deliver the joint intent of President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the UK’s operational sovereignty for the joint strike fighter. The matter is at the highest level of consideration. We have made good progress and have set a framework for further discussions over the next few months in even greater detail. We believe that these are important steps towards the signing of the memorandum of understanding towards the end of the year. There is still work to be done, although great progress has been made. As long as my hon. Friend continues to represent his constituency—both at air shows and in the House—I am sure that all that good work will be properly recognised.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister ensure that the defence industrial strategy pays proper attention to the defence nuclear industry in terms of both science, technology and engineering, and, of course, the read-across to the civilian nuclear industry, because we will otherwise lose tens of thousands of highly skilled people? Their jobs would not be replaced in this country, so we would lose their expertise to foreign countries.

Mr. Ingram: That is a critical part of the key manufacturing, scientific and technological strengths of this country, and too many people who are opposed to the nuclear industry, whether in the civil or defence sector, seem to forget that. Such a thing would rip the heart out of large parts of our science and technology base. We must ensure that we give those who wish to take up such aspects of a university and graduate career, or those who work in the technical side, a long-term future, because that is good for the economy and also the defence of the country.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). Is he satisfied that industry is playing its full role in consolidating the submarine industry in a way that will allow those key skills to be kept together?

Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend keeps a close eye on this subject, and I do not know how best to interpret the question. She knows that a major procurement programme is under way in terms of the Astute submarines, and the basing of that has been determined. There will be a long-term use of that particular capability. As we look towards future capabilities, we have set out what we intend to do about the replacement for Trident, if she was directing her
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question at that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that she was. I am giving a longer answer because there are bigger aspects to consider. There is more than just one element to the debate, which is why I mentioned the Astute programme. In terms of how we look forward, that will all be part of the national debate. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will make a major contribution to that debate.


3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What his latest assessment is of the security situation in Afghanistan. [87185]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is stable, but fragile in places, including Helmand and the rest of the south of Afghanistan, where the rule of law has yet to be established fully.

Mr. Bellingham: With the Prime Minister advocating a NATO force of 20,000 for south Lebanon, and with real uncertainty over the US draw-down from Operation Enduring Freedom, is the Secretary of State concerned that we may end up with too few troops in Afghanistan, without the right equipment and without enough lift capability? What discussions has he had with Secretary Rumsfeld, and what is his assessment of the chances of other countries joining the international effort in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, 37 other countries are involved in Afghanistan. One would be hard-pressed to find countries that are not. I have spoken to Secretary Rumsfeld about continued support from the United States and the transfer of authority at the end of this month. The United States will continue to be a member of NATO and to provide significant support. Indeed, in the south it will continue to provide a bridge in relation to the air support that is necessary. Having spoken recently to General Richards, who will be responsible for that, I am satisfied that there are sufficient forces and assets to maintain the operations that we are setting out to achieve.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend heard the “Today” programme a week or two ago, when the Taliban spokesman excused the bombing of schools by saying, “Oh well, actually we don’t bomb schools. We only bomb girls’ schools.” Is any special protection being afforded to such schools?

Des Browne: I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House after her recent illness and hope that she keeps well.

I did indeed hear that interview. The House should celebrate the fact that of the 5 million additional children who are now in school in Afghanistan, one third are girls, whereas no girls were educated at all under the Taliban regime.

In relation to Helmand province in particular, my hon. Friend may be aware that in the village of Nawzad, where our troops are providing a degree of security, the Taliban had not only closed the school,
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but taken it over and were using it as mortar base plate location. Delivering security is exactly the sort of activity that we have been conducting in those communities which will allow those schools to reopen. We will provide protection for the teachers and encourage the children, including the girls, to attend school.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The Secretary of State announced today that he will be sending two extra Chinook helicopters to Afghanistan. That is unreservedly to be welcomed. I congratulate him on making an announcement that brings forward things that will cost extra money. Does he accept, however, that that needs to be far from the end of the story? An extra two helicopters may well not be enough, given the importance and difficulty of the essential job that we are carrying out in Afghanistan.

Des Browne: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, which I welcome. He will know that that was part of a statement that I made; I have no doubt that we will get to the other parts later in these questions. He will know, too, that those two Chinook helicopters were requested by commanders on the ground and staffed up to me by the chiefs of staff who approved that request, and I acceded to it. When I made the announcement about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I gave a figure to the House that included the anticipated cost of the additional helicopter support. The right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that in the same statement I said that we would keep helicopter and air support provision under review, and we will do just that.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the role of the RAF will be absolutely fundamental in Afghanistan. Is he therefore absolutely satisfied that there is sufficient security for our air personnel, even with the assistance of the RAF regiment, to protect them from constant incoming attack?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the RAF is providing significant support in Afghanistan, not only for our troops in the south but for other troops deployed in that part, particularly from the Kandahar air base where our Harriers are based. We have made the decision to continue to base the RAF there for some time into the future. She ought to recollect that not long after I was appointed to this job I made an announcement that we were deploying additional troops to the Kandahar air base to provide full security. Consequently, having made that decision and having deployed those troops from the RAF regiment, I am satisfied that security is sufficient for the RAF.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): Why are the few helicopters that we have in Afghanistan based in Kandahar where our troops are not, rather than in Helmand where they are?

Des Browne: The reason our helicopters are based in Kandahar, which is a comparatively short distance from our troops in Helmand—

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Mr. Ancram indicated dissent.

Des Browne: The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. I have the advantage of having been there, seen the distance and indeed travelled in a helicopter from Kandahar to where we are based. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the helicopters are there because we believe that at present we can provide the level of support and in particular the security better at Kandahar than at Camp Bastion. At some time in the future we may well be able to provide that security at Camp Bastion, but that will be a matter for commanders on the ground and not for me.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What progress has been made in training Afghanistan security forces in peacekeeping measures?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have managed to train 28,000 soldiers and in excess of 30,000 police officers in Afghanistan—but we are not finished there. Not only are we training Afghanistan forces, but in Helmand province we are working with them very closely. In fact, we have deployed trainers and mentors who are working, living and eating with Afghan Kandaks and, as the commanding officer on the ground says, are prepared to die with them if necessary. That is having a significant effect on their ability to deliver security for their own people.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The whole House appreciates the excellent work that the British forces are doing in Afghanistan. As far as Helmand province is concerned, Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, is reported in the Colchester Evening Gazette only today as saying that morale is exceptionally high. The mission in Afghanistan is of enormous importance and UK troops are performing a vital role, but how do the Government reconcile the comments reported in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian made by General David Richards, head of the NATO international security assistance force, who says that Afghanistan is “close to anarchy”, with their own assurances that

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