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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Secretary of State will, I know, agree that a central part of the reconstruction of southern Iraq, as well as our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is provided by the Hercules based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency? There are currently two problems. First, there are not nearly enough Hercules, despite the extra one that he has deployed to Afghanistan. Of the 47 in
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the fleet, only 20 are available for purpose at any one moment—five have been deployed in the relief of Lebanon. Secondly, the fleet is at full stretch. Is it not time to consider the provision of extra heavy lift capability, perhaps by chartering a C-17 or an extra Hercules?

Des Browne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at additional air support and airlift. However, I am satisfied that we have responded to requests from theatre and provided the assets requested by those in theatre. In my view, that is an appropriate assessment of our capability, and we have not yet found ourselves with insufficient resources.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Last week, Premier Koizumi from Japan completed the transfer of the last of the Japanese contingent of 600 ground self-defence forces who have been based in southern Iraq in the city of Samawa and the area around it, notionally charged with humanitarian and reconstruction objectives. Does the Secretary of State feel that our own forces will have to pick up that role and therefore become even more seriously overstretched?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend could not, with respect, be further from the truth. The Japanese, who made a significant contribution in al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq, were able not only to stand their troops down from where they were positioned in al-Muthanna but to send them home because they had achieved their objective. My hon. Friend will have noticed that coincidentally with the Japanese Government’s announcement of a drawdown, there was an announcement of provincial Iraqi control—that is, with Iraqis themselves taking over responsibility for security and for the governance of al-Muthanna province. There is no need for any troops from outside Iraq to provide that in al-Muthanna, and that will increasingly be the case across Iraq.

6. Michael Gove (Surrey Heath) (Con): What funding allocations have been made for the financing of military operations in Iraq; and if he will make a statement. [87189]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): There is no set budget for the future cost of operations in Iraq as costs vary with the tempo of the operation. In his recent Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside £800 million from within existing public spending plans for 2006-07 to meet the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan and other international commitments. Urgent funding requirements arising from operations are met from the reserve.

If I may be permitted, Mr. Speaker, in that regard I can announce today the conclusions of an urgent review into protected vehicles for operations, particularly in Iraq. We have identified three complementary ways forward, two of which build on and accelerate work that is ongoing, and the third is new. They will be funded from an acceleration of existing funding and, in part, from substantial new funding from the Treasury for Iraq and Afghanistan. I have set out the details in a written statement. Briefly,
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we are ordering 100 new Vector vehicles, 70 FV430 vehicles beyond the 54 already ordered, and about 100 new Cougar wheeled armoured vehicles for both theatres.

Michael Gove: The Prime Minister recently underlined the threat to our troops in Iraq from Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-supplied weapons. I am delighted that the Minister has today announced that we are going to upgrade the armoured vehicle fleet available to our troops to protect them from that threat. However, the wheeled armoured vehicles that he has ordered will not be ready for deployment until the end of this year. What consideration was given to the procurement of battle-ready RG31 protected patrol vehicles?

Des Browne: We gave serious consideration to all the vehicles that were available. Thanks to the work that we were able to do with the Americans, and thanks particularly to significant work that my hon. Friend Lord Drayson was able to perform, we were able to identify about 100 Cougar vehicles to which the Americans were prepared to allow us to have access. We chose those because up-armoured, with electronic counter-measures added and with Bowman radios fitted, we believe that they would be the best protected mid-range vehicles in theatre. We made an objective decision to choose them instead of the RG31s. Had we chosen the RG31s, we would have had to fit ECMs and Bowman to them and possibly to up-armour them. In any event, the earliest possible time that we can get them into theatre is in the context of the six-month period of the next two roulements for Iraq and for Afghanistan. It physically could not be done any more quickly with any vehicle.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Government have seen fit to finance a reserve battalion for Iraq stationed in Cyprus. The Secretary of State mentioned an unprecedented level of violence, which would seem to suggest that those reserves could be needed at any moment. Almost half the combat power of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has been sent to Afghanistan, not Iraq. Have we run out of money or run out of soldiers?

Des Browne: We have not run out of either money or soldiers. My announcement today, coupled with others that I have made about urgent operational requirements for both our theatres, show that, when resources are necessary, we will find them.

The deployment of individual soldiers is a matter for the Army. Identifying the appropriate troops, from whatever service, is entirely a matter for the services.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Given the tempo of operations in Afghanistan and the necessary cost that that implies, and given that the Secretary of State has confirmed that, before next year’s comprehensive spending review, no strategic defence review or review of defence planning assumptions will take place, is he confident that the Chancellor will continue to fund the current or possibly increased tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from a special reserve, or will the costs fall on the regular defence budget?

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Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has no reason to believe that the Treasury will not respond to the requests for additional resources for theatre and give access to the special reserve appropriately for them. There has been no occasion on which the Treasury has denied that access and there is no reason for the hon. Gentleman to start baseless speculation that that is likely to happen in future.

Nuclear Deterrent

7. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Whether the House will have an opportunity to vote on the replacement of the UK’s strategic nuclear deterrent. [87190]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The answer is yes.

Danny Alexander: I welcome the decision to allow Parliament a vote. I hope that its timing will allow for not only a full and informed debate in Parliament but proper public consultation. Given that a vote solely on options for a nuclear deterrent would be inadequate, will the Secretary of State clarify whether it will be on the substantive question of whether the UK retains a nuclear deterrent?

Des Browne: I can give the hon. Gentleman a specific and clear answer: there will be a vote. I have not at this stage determined the question. I will not be in a position to help him until the threats, risks, options and costs are worked out and the Government reach a view to inform the debate that is already taking place.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not join all the other people who suggest that the Government should not reach a view and that we will have a remarkable debate in this country in which Ministers or the Government are the only ones who are not allowed a view. Every time one expresses anything that approximates a view, everybody suggests that the debate has been closed down. There will be a debate—indeed, it is already taking place—the question will emerge, and there will be a vote on it.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right that we should have a vote following a debate. However, the debate should be informed. He has been asked once what estimates he will contribute to the debate. Although he may not have them now, what is his prediction for the month when we will get estimates that allow us all to take part in an informed debate?

Des Browne: A substantial amount of information about the current position is in the public domain. Almost every day, I answer a raft of questions that are designed to tease out individual pieces of information that can inform the debate. The Government’s position could not be clearer. We have set a timetable for around the end of the year and we will have an open and transparent debate. The Government have said that we will publish a White Paper to inform the debate. In my view, it must contain the components to answer all the questions, but only once the risks, threats, options and
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costs have been worked out. What is the point of my standing here speculating until those matters are worked out?

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I do not want to be too helpful to the Secretary of State but it is obvious to me that the Government will be in favour of a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, that the Conservative Opposition will support the new generation of weapons of mass destruction and that the Scottish National party will oppose them. Would not it be helpful to know the Liberal Democrats’ position?

Des Browne: I cannot answer for the Liberal Democrats—they can answer for themselves when the time comes. It comes as no surprise that the Scottish National party is opposed to continuing—if it comes to that—with a nuclear deterrent. The SNP is opposed to NATO. Its defence policy is not clear apart from complaining about British soldiers, whom it does not intend to support in future.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to holding a vote on this extremely important issue; they are not being given sufficient credit for that, just as they were not given sufficient credit for holding a vote on the war in Iraq. We need an informed debate, however, and one of its most important aspects will be the nature of the security threat that this country will face, which will be very different from those that we have faced in the past. What information will Back Benchers be given to enable them to make the correct decisions?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend can look forward to having the opportunity to consider the available evidence on the nature of the risks and threats to our defence and security that we might face over the next 20 to 50 years. It will be the Government’s duty to reflect on the full range of threats to the security of the nation, so as to inform the nation and its parliamentarians about the decision that they will need to make on how we configure our defence for that very uncertain future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): There is consensus between the Government and the Opposition—it probably does not include the majority of Labour Back Benchers or the smaller parties in the House—on the need for a new deterrent, but it will be essential to our debate that we understand the alternatives between what might be described as an expensive option and the cheaper options. Some of the options might have been discarded by the Government when they made their proposals. Will they make it clear to the House what those discarded proposals are, so that we have the opportunity to debate them as well?

Des Browne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no hiding, discarding or non-publishing of information. The Government want the fullest possible informed debate on this issue. When options are considered and discarded, I will accept the responsibility for explaining why that has happened, if indeed it comes to that. The problem with hon. Members asking such questions at this stage is that I
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always have to qualify my answers by saying that the risks, threats, options and costs have not yet been assessed, and that no recommendations have been made to any member of the Government. I am therefore not in a position to explain to the hon. Gentleman what the shape of the White Paper will be. However, it seems to me that it ought to take into account the geopolitical side as well as the military issues.

Non-proliferation Treaty

8. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent steps he has taken to meet commitments under article VI of the non-proliferation treaty. [87191]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The United Kingdom has a proud record on fulfilling its disarmament obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which remains the cornerstone of this country’s nuclear non-proliferation policy. Since 1998, we have withdrawn and dismantled the WE177 nuclear bomb and all of our remaining Chevaline warheads. As a result, Trident is now our only nuclear weapons system, and we are the only recognised nuclear weapons state to have reduced to a single platform. These steps have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads, which represents a reduction of more than 70 per cent. in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and full answer. Following the exchanges between my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) and the Secretary of State, and given the principle of irreversibility agreed at the nuclear proliferation treaty conference in 2000, will the Minister tell us whether any increase in the United Kingdom’s nuclear capacity would be compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to which he has just referred?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for thanking me for my full answer. He should understand that that full answer means that we will be fully compliant with our international obligations under that treaty. This is why we have been so supportive of the United States’ statement on the draft fissile material cut-off treaty, which represented a way forward on these issues. We are leading the way, and seeking new ways to achieve disarmament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that and congratulate the Government on all that we have done, and on all that we will do in the future.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): On the important matter of the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, will the Minister pay tribute to the work carried out by the thousands of people who work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston? In the context of the wider debate, will he also pay tribute to them not only for the work that they are doing today
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but for the work that they have done in the past and the work that they will do in the future to protect this country’s security?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I sought to answer in an earlier response. This work not only plays an important part in the defence of this country, in our role in NATO and in trying to maintain peace and stability in a troubled globe, but makes a major contribution to the science and technology base of this country. We need only consider the thousands of scientists and technicians who have been through not just AWE but other support elements of the defence industry in this country to recognise the quality and worth of their contribution. They defend us, but they also strengthen our economic and manufacturing base.


9. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): From what sources additional military helicopters for Afghanistan will be drawn. [87192]

10. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Pursuant to his oral statement of 10 July 2006, Official Report, columns 1132-35, on troop levels in Afghanistan, from what sources additional equipment needs in Afghanistan will be met. [87193]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): We will provide two additional CH47 helicopters, one in September and one in October. One will be drawn from the Falklands, and might be replaced by a commercial contract. The other will be drawn from the Chinook-47 deployable pool. Those changes, coupled with recently announced increases in helicopter hours, will give us the flexibility required to meet the demand. Helicopter force levels will remain under constant review.

Tim Loughton: My constituent has just received an e-mail from her brother, who is serving in Afghanistan, which ends:

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that the lives of those brave British Tommys taking part in this vital mission should not be put at risk due to poor availability or poor positioning of essential kit, including helicopters? In that respect, how many helicopters are currently fit for purpose? What is he doing to reduce the number that are currently out of service?

Des Browne: The force that we have deployed in Afghanistan, and the additional forces that I announced to be deployed there, were designed by the commanders and approved by the chiefs of staff. I have not, and nor have any of my predecessors, refused to provide anything that has been requested for our operations in Afghanistan. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have provided additional support for the helicopter fleet in particular.

Mr. Turner: The mere fact that we are replacing helicopters elsewhere with contractors suggests that there is a shortage of helicopters. I, too, am receiving communications from relatives of people deployed in Afghanistan who are concerned about the level of support. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many other countries in NATO are deploying helicopters in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: If the hon. Gentleman receives such communication, he should pass it on to me immediately, and I will deal with it. I look forward to receiving from him tomorrow the communication that he has received in relation to those matters. The conclusion that he draws about the deployment of those two helicopters is incorrect. The fact that we are deploying helicopters from the Falklands suggests that the military are doing what they do. If resource can be deployed from somewhere else to do that work, that seems to me to be appropriate. Again, if the hon. Gentleman has concerns that come to him from constituents, he should pass them on to me and I will deal with them.

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