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Mr. Ingram: We are back to the old conundrum of plan A and plan B. We have made it very clear to the United States that we want to be part of the JSF programme, that that technology transfer is needed, and that we must have sovereignty on that aircraft. If that does not happen, we have plan B.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): But if the United States forced us to take the route of putting the Eurofighter Typhoon on our aircraft carriers, how many more of those aircraft would we have to build, and would that be affected by the Government’s recent decision on unmanned aerial vehicles? Should we not suggest to the Americans that they ought to listen very carefully indeed?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know the answer to that, because we are not at that stage of examination. That is something that will happen when we reach that point, then we must decide the number that we require. Of course, that will be based on defence planning assumptions. Once that matter is addressed, it will help to determine the final decision. We are not yet at that stage, but clearly we will require a particular type of aircraft to fly off those aircraft carriers. That is what we have told the United States, and that is why we want the JSF. It is also why we are saying that if we do not get it, we have plan B.

St. Malo Agreement

9. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): When he next expects to meet the French Defence Minister to discuss the St. Malo agreement. [105380]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I meet the French Defence Minister on a regular basis, including at meetings of EU Defence Ministers where, collectively, Ministers take forward work on the European security and defence policy consistent with the 1998 St. Malo declaration.

Keith Vaz: St. Malo was important because, for the first time, British and French Governments agreed to work together to improve the capabilities that are available not just for Britain in Europe but for the specific relationship with other EU countries. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied with the progress that has been made in implementing the principles of St. Malo, bearing in mind that there seems to have been a difference of opinion between him and the French Defence Minister over the funding of the European research initiative?

Des Browne: I can assure my right hon. Friend that from the outset the United Kingdom has consistently provided leadership to drive forward the capability development agenda, and we have been successful in ensuring that the ESDP develops in a way such as to be both supportive of and supported by NATO’s crisis management activities. Of course this is not a zero-sum game, given that the European Union allies are 19 of the 26 NATO allies. My right hon. Friend refers to a discussion that took place at the last meeting on the budget of the European Defence Agency. We do not
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have any dispute of principle with anyone else on the matter, but we do have a debate on the detail of how the principles are to be achieved, and in particular, on the operational budget that should be allocated. That does not reflect any lack of support from the UK for the agency—on the contrary, it shows our desire to see our scarce resources spent to best advantage.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will the Secretary of State recommit himself to NATO, as opposed to the growing EU force that some countries are talking about? St. Malo and the Berlin-plus talks mean that many people based in Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe headquarters are double-hatting. An increasing emphasis is being placed on the EU to create its own military force. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm to the House that we will stand by NATO and not see an EU force develop?

Des Browne: I have no difficulty in giving the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he needs about us standing by NATO. However, we should recognise that there are areas in which the European Union can complement the work that NATO does, and we should examine these on a case-by-case basis, but we should take advantage of the opportunity that the ESDP provides to help improve the overall capability of all the members of the European Union, given that 19 of them are also members of NATO.

EU Defence Technological and Industrial Base

10. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the merits of a European Union defence technological and industrial base. [105381]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We continually assess the merits of the European Union defence technology and industrial base against our specific requirements for the development, acquisition and support of defence equipment capability. Significant technology and industrial capability resides within a number of EU member states.

Jim Cousins: The European Commission has said that it intends to safeguard Europe’s technological and industrial base. It has made it clear that it intends to end the practice right across the European Union of trying to save defence jobs in the short term by exporting know-how and jobs in the longer term through so-called offset deals. What is my right hon. Friend’s position on that?

Mr. Ingram: My position is clear, and it is consistent with my answers to earlier questions. We must ensure at all times that we have a strong, secure manufacturing and defence industry in this country. We have defined what we propose to do through the defence industrial strategy and the maritime industrial strategy. We have set a clear objective not just in the MOD, but alongside industry and with the support of the trade unions and the work force. But there is overcapacity in the EU and that must be addressed as well. We must move forward to make sure that we have a strong base both in the UK and in Europe because—let us be clear—other nations are beginning to strengthen their capabilities. To be able to compete, we need to be strong.


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Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Can the Minister guarantee that all future defence systems that may emerge from European collaborative projects will be compatible with parallel defence systems deployed by the United States and other NATO allies?

Mr. Ingram: I would like to think so, because that is the way we are going. I am surprised that hon. Gentleman asks that question, given the intensive effort that has gone into ensuring interoperability and compatibility between systems. I draw his attention to what we are seeking to do with the United States on the joint strike fighter, which is a good example of our joining the United States in taking on an advanced aircraft. This is not just about fixed-wing aircraft—it is happening across a whole range of platforms to ensure that we have such interoperability; otherwise NATO cannot effectively deliver the resources that it seeks to, and needs to, in many areas of the world.

Iraq

11. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): What recent reports he has received from the chiefs of staff on the security situation in Iraq. [105382]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As I have made clear in this House and publicly on many occasions, the security situation in Iraq remains difficult and challenging. However, many parts of the country are relatively stable, with the Iraqi security forces increasingly taking the lead. Sectarian violence remains the key challenge to security, but that is at the top of Prime Minister Maliki’s priorities, and the coalition continues to support him. The successful actions of UK forces in Basra this weekend demonstrate our resolve to help the Iraqi Government to confront sectarian groups and to create the space for the reconciliation process to work. This assessment of the security situation is consistent with the Iraq study group’s assessment as set out on pages 3 to 6 of its report.

Mr. Baron: Given the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the comments by General Dannatt to the effect that the presence of UK troops in certain parts of the country is exacerbating the security situation, can the Secretary of State tell the House, without giving inappropriate details, if these deployments are continuing, and if so, why?

Des Browne: As General Dannatt made clear in subsequent interviews, his remarks concerned the position of our troops in Maysan province at a particular time when they were subject to a particular type of attack. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that we were in the process of redeploying those troops. They are still in Maysan province in significant numbers, but they are not the tethered goat that some people suggested that they were when they were in a fixed position—they are moving around the province and working more on the border. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s qualifying his question by not inviting me to explain how we might redeploy other troops in future, but he can rest assured that the particular difficulty that we face in fixed positions in Iraq is uppermost in the minds of the commanding officers and of those at the MOD.


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Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I say at the outset that many of us believe that the Prime Minister should be in the House today making a statement on the Iraq study group? What is good enough for press conferences in the White House and Whitehall should be good enough for the House of Commons.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor said on Iraq:

Does he agree that while everyone wants our troops to come home as soon as possible, an explicit timetable, as suggested by the Iraq study group, risks being seen as a green light by insurgents, risks our being blown off course by events, and risks creating more instability in Iraq, not less?

Des Browne: I agree that if we set ourselves a fixed timetable for the removal of our troops from Iraq, we will potentially hand a victory to those who seek to attack our troops in Iraq, and give them a timetable to work to. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the condition-based approach that we have taken to the withdrawal and subsequent draw-down of our troops in Iraq. I am also grateful for the comments made by the Leader of the Opposition, especially in a newspaper article that he wrote after his visit to Iraq. We should stick to the strategic approach that we have always taken to the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq—that is, that it should reflect conditions on the ground.

Dr. Fox: I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that it would not be in Britain’s national interest to leave behind a destabilised Iraq, teetering on the brink of civil war and potentially drawing in neighbouring states. Does he again agree with his predecessor, who said:

Is that still the case? Would not creating a false prospectus to leave Iraq be no more honourable than establishing a false prospectus to go into Iraq?

Des Browne: In a speech that I made last month, I outlined the three elements of our strategy. On security, we will build up the army and the police. That includes dealing with police corruption, and that is exactly what we are doing in Operation Sinbad in Basra. We will hand over security province by province, which is exactly what we have been doing in MND South-East. We will move to maintain an overwatch, standing by if we are needed to help the Iraqi forces. As for politics, we will support the democratically elected Government of Iraq, especially their reconciliation programme. In economics, we will help develop basic services, jobs and long-term projects. If that amounts to what the hon. Gentleman described in other words, I agree with him.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does the Secretary of State believe that there are circumstances in which the American military could stay in Iraq but the British could leave? If so, what are they?


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Des Browne: I do not think that it would be helpful at this stage to speculate on the circumstances that may exist in the coming months or years. We will continue to work with our coalition partners, especially the United States of America, to ensure that we have a common approach to what we are doing, recognising that we have responsibility for different parts of Iraq, where the conditions may be different from one place to another. However, we must also take into account not only the ability of the Iraqi Government and their security forces, but the Iraqi Government’s wishes.

Reserves

12. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the role of reserve forces. [105383]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The reserve forces have three primary roles: to augment the regular forces for enduring operations, to provide additional capability for large-scale operations, and to provide specialist capability. Given that the voluntary reserve forces are based at nearly 400 locations throughout the UK, they are ideally placed to fulfil two other important roles: to provide a civil contingency reaction capability for crises in the UK and to maintain links between the military and civilian communities.

Martin Linton: Does my hon. Friend not also think that reserve forces, because of their greater age and maturity, and better reflection of the diversity of the population, are often better equipped to deal with civilian populations? Will he pay special tribute to the London Regiment, which is based in my constituency and has had two companies in Basra, to great effect?

Derek Twigg: I pay tribute to the reserves, including those based in London, for the tremendous job that they do in working with and supporting our regular forces. They do an important job, and as my hon. Friend said, they bring additional skills and qualities, good use of which is made in operational theatre. Their experience will be built on, thus bringing even more quality and success to our operations in future.

Iraq

13. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): How many service personnel are serving in Iraq. [105384]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Some 7,100 members of the UK armed forces are serving on operations in Iraq.

Bob Spink: I am grateful for that answer. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that sufficient progress is being made in training Iraqi security forces? Does he agree that it is essential for the UK to put maximum pressure on the Iraqi Government to improve their capabilities, so that we can withdraw British troops when that is consistent with not creating a less stable situation in Iraq?


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Des Browne: I am satisfied that progress has been made. It would be complacent to suggest from the Dispatch Box that we could not do better in training Iraqi forces, because I believe that we could. However, the forces whom we have dedicated to the role do a magnificent job in training Iraqi forces and also in improving the Iraqi police service, especially as we move through Basra city in Operation Sinbad, as we have done in past months and as we will do in future months. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle the security of that country is key to our ability to draw down. That is not lost on anybody with an understanding of Iraq.

Drug Interdiction (Caribbean)

15. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the interdiction of narcotics by the Royal Navy in the Caribbean. [105387]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Navy makes a significant contribution to international counter-drugs operations in the Caribbean. During 2005-06, Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Caribbean were involved in the seizure of more than 14 tonnes of cocaine with a UK street value of approximately £1 billion. Royal Fleet Auxiliary Wave Ruler has been responsible for our most recent successes, seizing 2.9 tonnes of cocaine on 23 November, bringing the total haul of drugs that she has seized or destroyed over the past three months to 11 tonnes.


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Mr. Blizzard: I congratulate the Royal Navy on that vital work. I have met a number of people involved in drug interdiction work in Latin America and the Caribbean, including our overseas drug liaison officers, who work closely with local authorities in those countries. There is no doubt that that work represents huge value in preventing drugs from arriving here. We could, however, do more. Will he urge our right hon. Friends the Home Secretary—who, I notice, is now in his place—and the Chancellor of the Exchequer to consider providing even more resources for those overseas drug liaison officers, as I believe that that would result in more intelligence and more success for the Royal Navy in interdicting drugs?

Mr. Ingram: As my hon. Friend knows, the Government always try to have a comprehensive approach to this matter, whether it is the Royal Navy, the Serious Organised Crime Agency or the drug liaison officers in the countries that are usually the source of cocaine—or part of the food chain for it—that are involved. We take the matter extremely seriously, and I think that that is why we are having more success. The figures that I gave represent about 20 per cent. of the cocaine that would be expected to arrive on Britain’s streets. That is a tremendous achievement, not just for the Royal Navy but for others. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is on the Treasury Bench now, he will have heard my hon. Friend’s question—and like all Ministers at the time of a spending review, we are always looking for ways to encourage those who have the money to be a bit more forthcoming.


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