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House of Commons

Monday 11 December 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Export Control Organisation

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the future of the Export Control Organisation; and if he will make a statement. [105372]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Government considered whether to outsource export licensing activities last year. The outcome was a decision not to proceed with outsourcing, which was reflected in an announcement in the House on 21 July 2005. There have been no other ministerial discussions on the future of the Export Control Organisation.

David Taylor: Despite our Government’s stated intent not to sell arms in conflict zones, to regimes that abuse human rights, or to the poorest countries on the planet, the Defence Export Services Organisation is still dealing with Sri Lanka and Uganda in the first category, Israel and Indonesia in the second, and Nigeria and Pakistan in the third. Does the Minister agree that we should launch a coup against DESO and install the Export Control Organisation in the Ministry of Defence so that we can start to build, at last, an ethical defence and foreign policy?

Mr. Ingram: I do not agree with my hon. Friend. We apply the most rigorous criteria for all countries involved in that environment. I can tell my hon. Friend that all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. If an export is considered inconsistent with the criteria, a licence will not be issued. The criteria are robust and we apply them rigorously.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): When the Government responded in October to the report on strategic export controls published by the Quadripartite Committee, Ministers emphasised that


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With those words ringing in his ears, will the Minister reassure the House that the Serious Fraud Office will be given every encouragement to continue its work investigating the deals between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, and that when it has done so and proper process has been followed, its report will be made available to the House?

Mr. Ingram: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman was aware that that is not a matter for me and also that he was fully aware that it is inappropriate to discuss an ongoing police investigation or any other matter in the judicial process. However, I note the direction from which the hon. Gentleman is coming—it is another attack on British industry. I am conscious of the fact that one of his party’s senior defence spokespeople said that aircraft carriers would be better built in the United States—yet another instance of the Liberals not wanting British industry to succeed.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concerns that, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk from Bristol to Lancashire, whether at Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems or Thornycroft, the bottom line is that we have to ensure that the SFO completes its investigations. After two and a half years, we need early completion to ensure that those jobs are not lost or put at risk. Will my right hon. Friend give some support to British industry and ensure that, while we recognise export credit controls, British interests are kept alive?

Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend is a strong advocate of those industries both in his own constituency and more widely in the United Kingdom. He constantly raises legitimate matters of concern. He is also a strong supporter of our defence industrial strategy, and the Government are determined to make sure that both our manufacturing base and our defence sector are strong. Those who say that we should not be exporting are arguing against that principle, and I know that my hon. Friend does not share that point of view.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the right hon. Gentleman’s Ministry will need to take particular care where there is a risk of execution, torture or cruel or degrading treatment, will the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether, if there were a proposed export to Sudan either of a piece of defence equipment, or indeed of a pair of handcuffs, it would be resisted?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman details about that, because we have to look at the issues on a case-by-case basis. However, I would say instinctively that if approval was being sought in a case where the use was for torture or for malign ends, it would not get through our strict criteria. If the hon. Gentleman has examples of that, will he please write to me and I will give him a more considered answer?

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Although not everyone supports arms exports, does my right hon. Friend agree that they secure many highly skilled jobs in the UK, and that as a result of the Export Control Act 2002, introduced by the Labour Government, we have one of the most comprehensive export control systems anywhere in the world?


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Mr. Ingram: I agree entirely and I tried to set that out in my earlier answers. I think that we can hold our heads high in respect of the way we approach this matter. It is correct that what we do is always under scrutiny on a case-by-case basis within Departments and we have to take into the balance the impact on employment and this country’s manufacturing base. These are not easy judgments to make and there are occasions on which applications are refused. We try to help the industry by providing an early answer. We will continue to apply the rigorous provisions that I set out earlier.

Munitions Supplies

2. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What arrangements are in place to ensure the availability of adequate quantities of high quality munitions for the armed forces. [105373]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): There are sufficient quantities of high-quality ammunition to meet operational requirements in all theatres. Ammunition is accepted into service with UK armed forces only after it has passed an extensive qualification programme addressing both performance and safety. Careful stock-pile management then ensures that the right quantities of the right types of ammunition are available to meet operational needs. That is achieved through a combination of extensive forward planning, close liaison with operational force commanders and detailed analysis of historic usage.

Mr. Crabb: I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that for his Department to have justified sending to our troops in Afghanistan a batch of ammunition that was known to have a potentially lethal fault, on the grounds that it would have been irresponsible to hold it back owing to insufficient stocks of properly functioning ammunition, demonstrates yet again the unacceptable risks that our troops are exposed to as a result of inadequate resources, complacency and incompetence on the part of Ministers?

Mr. Ingram: If that were the case, I would stand here guilty, but it is not. The hon. Gentleman should listen to explanations that have been given by the Ministry of Defence, not to what has been said in the press. What we are saying does not accord with his analysis.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Do Defence Ministers feel any scintilla of embarrassment at the fact that four former Chiefs of the General Staff, as well as the present incumbent, have publicly and strongly damned every aspect of MOD policies in respect of arms supplies, general administration and armaments—the policies of a Department over which those Ministers are supposed to preside?

Mr. Ingram: We have very good and honest relations with current Chiefs of Staff and we keep in close liaison with previous ones, all of whom have the freedom to express a point of view, but all of whom were part of the planning process that I set out in my earlier answer.


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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I listened to the Minister’s earlier answer with great interest. The fact remains that troops on operations have found that their weapons have jammed because the quality of the ammunition provided was simply not good enough. Has the Minister any idea what it is like to fire a weapon and find that it jams in his hands? If he has not, I have.

Mr. Ingram: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not a military man, but I have fired rifles and I have been a Minister long enough to have been through all the testing that we had to do to improve the SA80. The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, as, indeed, did the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). The jamming of machine guns was not the result of the ammunition, but because of a fault in a particular part of the equipment, which has now been rectified. When we discover that a piece of equipment is not functioning, it is immediately replaced with new equipment. It has not happened in the way that Conservative Members have set out. I must also say that all the ammunition that we buy has been consistently up to NATO standards. Of the particular type of ammunition mentioned, 680,000 rounds have been fired in both operational and training terms.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): We all saw the video on You Tube and know what position those two soldiers were in with their malfunctioning bullets or weapons. Last week, the former Chief of the General Staff said:

Does the Minister agree that that includes giving our soldiers bullets and guns that work?

Mr. Ingram: I am really surprised at this line of approach. I have already answered the question twice and said that it did not happen in the way in which it was set out in the media, so there is no point in continuing running this theme. A soldier who used that equipment could, on listening to our debate, become convinced that there was a fault with the ammunition. There is not. It is up to NATO standards. A fault was discovered with the machine gun, but it was rectified. Where such a fault manifests itself, the actual piece of equipment is then replaced. I ask Opposition Members, who are asking extensive questions about this, actually to read the answers that we give them.

Territorial Army

3. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What steps he has taken to increase recruitment to the Territorial Army. [105374]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The number of new recruits into the Territorial Army remains relatively high, but we are not complacent and we continue to focus our efforts on improving TA manning, which is a key priority for the commander of regional forces. A number of key initiatives have been and are being introduced to improve recruitment and retention,
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including project one Army recruiting, which is designed to provide greater integration and coherence between the TA and the Regular Army recruiting offices and which will begin in April 2007; future marketing campaigns that specifically target the TA; and more fundamentally, the changes introduced to the TA structures, which are already having a positive impact on TA manning levels.

Mr. Jones: Does the Minister acknowledge that recruitment to the TA is increasingly hampered by the fact that employers are reluctant to take on TA soldiers, who may be called upon to undertake long tours of duty overseas? What steps are the Government taking to protect the employment prospects of those brave men and women, who are serving their country?

Derek Twigg: I recently met a group of east midlands employers at a reception in the Ministry of Defence and had a good talk to them about the various issues. They represented both the private and public sector, and all of them were very positive. Of course, it is very important that employers continue to support our reservists and TA, and we continue to be in dialogue with them. Very few people have a real problem with their future employment; but clearly, we monitor the issue regularly.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I tell the Minister that, this weekend, I spent some time with the former Gurkhas who have come to live in Thurrock—and very welcome they are, too? They tell me that the prospect of their joining the TA after retiring as regulars has never been offered to them, and it occurs to me—I put it to the Minister—first, that Gurkhas should be so invited and, secondly, that there must be a big reservoir of former regulars who are not formally approached about rejoining through the TA. They could produce a cadre of well trained, highly professional and motivated skilled soldiers. I particularly commend the Gurkhas to him. We could have Gurkha territorial companies or have them in the mainstream Army.

Derek Twigg: I join my hon. Friend in praising the work, professionalism and courage of the Gurkhas in the British Army, in which, of course, they have a long history. He may be confused about the issue of nationality and when people become eligible, so I am happy to write to him to give him some more detail.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I remind the House of my interest. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 gives some protection to TA soldiers who are on mobilised service to go back to their jobs, but it does not give any guarantee of promotion. Some TA soldiers are now coming back from their second or third operational tour and facing a decision about sacrificing their primary career to continue with their secondary career. Given that fact, does not the Minister feel that the current level of TA mobilised service is simply unsustainable?

Derek Twigg: I obviously recognise the service that the hon. Gentleman has given and place that fact on record. Currently, about 1,300 reservists are
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mobilised—about 3.7 per cent. of the strength—but I recognise the important point that he makes. Last week, when I visited Germany, I talked to reservists about some of the employment issues that they may face. Of course, that is something that we continue to work on. As I told the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), most employers are very good and very supportive. Of course, when the reservists and TA go back, they take with them a lot of good skills and experience that can be used in the world of commerce and business, and so on. We should obviously praise that and highlight it. I obviously take account of what the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) says, and we continue to do such things when we are in dialogue with employers.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The TA in my constituency has, as my hon. Friend knows, provided front-line medical support to operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a wonderful credit not only to the TA but to its relationship with the national health service, from which many of those people come. Will my hon. Friend come to meet those people in Ellesmere Port? Many more people in the NHS could be persuaded to join the TA, and a visit from him could encourage them to do so.

Derek Twigg: The simple answer is yes. I place on record my praise and thanks for the work that those people have been doing.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does the Minister accept that there would be less pressure on recruiting people to the Territorial Army if more was done to retain those already in the TA? What are the Government doing about that?

Derek Twigg: There are a lot of initiatives in terms of retention and recruitment. As of 1 September 2006, the strength of the TA was 1.6 per cent. higher than it had been; we have seen an increase of about 500 people in the TA in the last 12 months. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the report from the National Audit Office which was produced earlier this year, he will find that there is quite a lot of enthusiasm for staying in the TA. Some of those people have decided to join the regulars.

Kosovo

4. Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on future troop deployment to Kosovo. [105375]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The UK contingent in Kosovo amounts to a total of 175 personnel, as part of NATO’s overall force of about 16,500. We intend to keep that level of commitment in place until the Kosovo settlement process has run its course and the security situation is considered to be stable and self-sustaining. Our next force level review is likely to take place in summer 2007, when it is anticipated that NATO will confirm its intentions for Kosovo.


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