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7. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): What plans his Department has to build new warships. [116796]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Over the next 20 years we currently expect to contract or build more than 20 major warships, including nuclear attack submarines, new aircraft carriers and more air defence destroyers,
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and to begin a new class of fleet escorts. Numerous support ships will also come into service over this period.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can he say what the increases in the budget will be over the next 10 years to meet the requirements of that programme?

Mr. Ingram: When I answered earlier questions, I gave an indication of what the current build programme is, and it is worth while reflecting that since 1997 one submarine and 28 ships have entered the Royal Navy service. As I have said, we have the largest warship building programme for 20 years. The planned spend for the next 10 years is in the order of £14 billion.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Does the Minister understand the anxiety felt in Rosyth over the failure of the Government to award it the contract for the two new aircraft carriers? Will he also reassure me that that is not a cack-handed attempt to exploit some political capital for the Scottish parliamentary elections?

Mr. Ingram: I have said before to the hon. Gentleman that he should perhaps talk to his defence spokesperson in the Lords, who claims to be a defence specialist and who said that, given the capacity of the United States to build these carriers, they should be built there. I have not heard the hon. Gentleman repudiate that. Is it still his party’s policy? We have made it clear that we are committed to these aircraft carriers. We have to get the programme and the relationship with the new integrated company right, and progress is being made in that regard. The decision will be taken on the basis of what the Royal Navy needs, not the needs of a particular shipyard.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we move to procure complete capability, through-life support and efficient support facilities such as those at DML and at the naval base in Devonport are of vital importance?

Mr. Ingram: Yes they are, which is why we are looking at what could be defined as the present overcapacity in the naval bases. It is right that we conduct the current review, to make sure that we have the best fit for the Navy of the future and that we spend appropriately on that vital element of support for the Royal Navy. It will not be an easy task and it raises a number of fundamental questions, but again, we will do what is right to maintain the very powerful new Royal Navy that is being built.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): After the last round of cuts was announced in July 2004, the First Sea Lord said:

Whatever the increased capability of our ships, they can only be in one place at one time. We cannot see the scrapping of ships on the water, to be replaced with ships on paper. I have a simple question for the Minister: can he make a simple pledge to the House
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today and tell us that there will be no further reduction in the size of the current surface fleet of 25 frigates and destroyers?

Mr. Ingram: At least that is not based on some of the misinformation that the hon. Gentleman has been peddling up to now. The new Type 45 destroyers are a substantially new type of ship, and we are bringing the aircraft carriers into being. Our analysis of the size and shape of the Royal Navy will be dependent on the advice that we receive from the chiefs of staff, including the current First Sea Lord and the chiefs of staff who work alongside him. These are important issues and we have to make sure that we get the best size and shape for the Royal Navy to meet the contingent demands that we face, and those that can be predicted for the future. Again, these are not straightforward equations, and we must ensure that what we are building meets that need. Just for once, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the big catch-up is now taking place, that a massive warship building programme is under way, and that 28 ships and one submarine have been put into service since 1997. That is not turning our back on the Royal Navy, but recognising the important role that it has to play.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend calculated the number of jobs in Scotland that are directly and indirectly part of this massive shipbuilding scheme, and would they be lost if Scotland were independent?

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not for the Minister to answer that.


8. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security of UK armed forces operating in Iraq. [116797]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): We take the security of our armed forces—in all theatres—very seriously indeed, and we do everything possible to protect our personnel. We have considerable operational experience to draw on, which ensures that UK training, tactics and personal protection are among the best in the world.

Ann Winterton: In the light of the tragic incident at Basra palace camp last Thursday in which six soldiers were injured, one seriously, will the Secretary of State reconsider evaluation of the C-RAM anti-mortar system and counter-battery radar, in order to give our bases in Iraq considerably better protection and a retaliatory response, given that existing, so-called “layered” protection methods are clearly not working?

Des Browne: I give the hon. Lady my reassurance that we keep everything under review. I know that the commanding officer in Basra keeps the issue of force protection constantly under review, and I will specifically ask him to advise me again on the capability that she asks about. However, I do not want to leave the House with the impression that there is no capability to counteract the indirect fire threat. There is
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indeed a very specific capability, but I shall not go into detail at the Dispatch Box, because that would reduce—

Ann Winterton: Americans and Canadians.

Des Browne: That is not correct. We use our forces and our capability to do it—but it is much better not to stand at the Dispatch Box and go into the detail of what we do, because that would reduce the security of our forces. The hon. Lady asked a specific question and I will ensure that I am given a view on that in the light of the event that she mentioned, and I will write to her.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Most will be supportive of the recent risky operation to turn out the police who were alleged to be a death squad. Will my right hon. Friend tell us for how long that squad operated and what the trial arrangements will be? Will the UK forces hand over evidence for that trial, and what is being done to put a non-murderous police squad in place?

Des Browne: I think that my hon. Friend is referring to the clearing out and destruction of the al-Jameat police station, which was the home of the serious crime unit, on Christmas day. I am normally very careful about the assertions that I make at the Dispatch Box, but I have not yet heard anybody describe that particular unit as an “alleged” murder squad. I have never seen the adjective “alleged” used about that by anybody—and that includes many Iraqi politicians. Our forces are to be congratulated on the brave way in which they conducted that operation. The fact that they physically destroyed that police station was iconic to the people of Basra, many of whom celebrated the fact that that nest of vipers had been removed. As I understand it, the warrants have been issued for the members of the serious crime unit. They have not been enforced, because that is the responsibility of the Iraqis, but that will happen in due course, in my view, and the people will appear before the court and be prosecuted appropriately.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): When the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary appeared before the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee, we gained the impression that the British Government were planning to reduce the British armed forces commitment in Basra and southern Iraq alongside the increase in the American commitment. However, when I met Deputy President al-Hashimi last week, he described it as a redeployment within Iraq, rather than a reduction in commitment. Could the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s policy for the benefit of the House?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to clarify our position again. Our position is that we intend, as I have explained repeatedly, to redeploy our troops in Multi-National Division (South-East), but as a consequence of that redeployment we will be able to reduce their number significantly. As that process goes forward, we will be able to redeploy troops, and for the very reason that that redeployment will mean that we will not need to protect physically the number of bases that we do at
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present, we will be able to draw down the troops. That is why I told the Committee, and tell the House, that the redeployment will not reduce our capability in terms of being able to project force.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On the security of our forces, can my right hon. Friend share with the House any feedback that he has received about the new vehicles—the Bulldog in Iraq and the Viking in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: I am grateful for the opportunity to do that, because those who have been responsible for achieving what many said was impossible—the accelerated deployment of Bulldog and Mastiff capability and, in due course, Vector, and of Viking in Afghanistan—are to be congratulated. To the extent that I have any feedback, I am told that the troops think that the Bulldog has added significantly to their capability and are highly complimentary about it. It gives them both space and a feeling of safety. As for the Viking, I could paper the walls with the Marines’ eulogies about that vehicle. They talk about it in such terms as would be embarrassing for those who build the vehicle to hear.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential impact on the security of our troops in southern Iraq of the proposed American surge in Baghdad, especially if it succeeds in disturbing and displacing the militias? Also, what will be the impact on our troops in Afghanistan? The right hon. Gentleman will have seen suggestions that the American troop deployments in Baghdad may happen at the expense of proposed deployments in Afghanistan. Did he read General Richards this morning warning of the need for more NATO troops in that country? What assurance can he give that President Bush’s latest ploy will not undermine the security of our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

Des Browne: I did read what General Richards said, and I have been in communication with him over the months that he has been in post. I note his opinion, and share his view that some countries in NATO should respond more positively to requests to send more troops to Afghanistan. However, the most important part of the hon. Gentleman’s question has to do with whether our strategic planning takes enough account of the possible effect that changes by our allies may have on the areas for which we are responsible. The Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee asked me the same question, and my reply today is the same as it was then—that our planning has considered that effect continually and consistently. It would be a dereliction of duty on our part if we did not take account of the fact that we are in a coalition, and that the behaviour of our allies might have an effect on what we do. The hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I do not answer every question that asks for an assessment by describing exactly what we think might happen, as any worst-case scenario that I set out could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I assure him that we do plan for every eventuality.

9. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): If he will make a statement on recent developments in the security situation in Iraq. [116798]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): In some parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad, the security situation is serious, driven by death squads and bomb attacks by insurgent and terrorist groups. Today’s attacks are another tragic example of that, but we should not forget that part of the motive of those who carry out the attacks is precisely to derail progress—to provoke sectarian reaction and undermine the elected Iraqi Government, or to force the coalition out before the right time. So we should always strive to look beyond the attacks, however tragic they are, and see the situation overall. I make no apology for reminding the House, as I have done consistently, that 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces are relatively peaceful, and that 80 per cent. of the violence occurs within 30 miles of Baghdad.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: We have had enough misleading and mischievous statements about Iraq—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Not from this Minister.

Mr. Speaker: Or from any Minister. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not referring to any Member of the House.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I was referring to the press. I have made no reference to the Government.

Mr. Speaker: That is fine, then.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: There have been misleading statements about the causes and course of the Iraq war, and that emphasises the need for plain speaking from the Government about intended British force levels for the remainder of the year. Is it the Secretary of State’s intention to maintain our present capability in Iraq, or to reduce British force levels later this year?

Des Browne: I have made no bones about my views in respect of the strategic direction of our policy in relation to MND(SE) and its likely consequences. I have gone to great lengths—both in this House and in the opportunities that I have had outside the House to speak for longer about this matter—to explain our intention to be in a position to draw down our troops from MND(SE), depending on the conditions as matters progress. At the moment, we are coming to the end of an operation in Basra that has had a very positive effect on the city. Our ability—and especially that of the Iraqi forces—to maintain that improvement will be the principal condition that determines whether we can proceed in the way that we have planned. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that it is our intention to draw down our troops, and I have made no bones about that. Although any withdrawal will depend on conditions, I have no reason to believe that those conditions are not being achieved.

Armed Forces (Overstretch)

10. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of levels of overstretch of the armed forces. [116799]

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We keep the demands placed on our armed forces under constant review. It is recognised that because of the continuing high operational tempo, our guidelines for the harmony of our personnel are being exceeded in a number of areas across the armed forces. Although the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force are largely within the harmony guidelines, they are being broken across 14 per cent. of the Army. Within those general figures there are some particular pinch points. We have developed a range of recruitment and retention measures to address the issues, as well as longer-term work to rebalance force structures.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister’s detailed answer. Following the reminder given by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) of what General Richards said this morning about the need for more troops, the finding of the National Audit Office in November that we are about 5,000 under full strength, and the Prime Minister’s Plymouth speech, in which he committed our defence expenditure for equipment, personnel and conditions to rise not just in the short term but in the long run, what comfort can Ministers give our troops, their families and the country, not for the time after the comprehensive spending review—that is, in 15 months—but for the coming financial year, that there will be troops and support for them, especially to do the job in Afghanistan that the commanding officer says we need to do?

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Mr. Ingram: We have given quite detailed answers about the commitments faced by our personnel in both Afghanistan and Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rebutted some of the allegations that are around in the media and among Opposition Front-Bench Members about equipment shortfalls—that is not what the brigadier said. The hon. Gentleman asked about immediate support. That is why Ministers and chiefs of staff visit both the major theatres regularly to find out about the mood of personnel. I made such a visit recently, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) is also due to visit. When we identify anything that needs to be addressed, that is done as quickly as possible, assuming that if the need is industry-based, there is capacity to meet it and the industry can deliver.

The hon. Gentleman heard the response about urgent operational requirements and the rebuttal of all the allegations about them. I think that about £600 billion has been spent to date on meeting UORs. As the threat changes, and the requirement changes, we rapidly move to fill the gap. I am not saying that our armed forces personnel are without complaints—they are not—but as they express to me—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must stop the Minister. Perhaps he could write to the hon. Gentleman.

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Point of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 23 October, I sought your advice about how I could pursue some unanswered questions to the Secretary of State for Defence, dated in October, on pay and allowances for our troops. You said that I should table more parliamentary questions, Mr. Speaker, so since then I have tabled six questions chasing up the fact that my questions remains unanswered. I realise that it is very embarrassing for the Secretary of State that at the same time as he announces pay increases for our troops he is taking away their allowances, but is it right that my questions should go unanswered?

Mr. Speaker: The Secretary of State for Defence is in the Chamber and will have taken note of what the hon. Gentleman said.

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