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House of Commons

Monday 26 March 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Manning Levels

1. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What assessment he has made of the references in the report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to the adequacy of manning levels in respect of operational commitments. [129295]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Mr. Speaker, with the leave of the House, let me begin by saying that I know that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to the 15 members of HMS Cornwall currently detained by Iran. Our thoughts go out to their friends in theatre and to their families back here in the UK. I do not intend to comment further on the issue, other than to say that we are doing everything possible to secure their release. At an appropriate time in the near future, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will inform the House of the diplomatic efforts that are being pursued.

We welcome the 2007 independent report by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and acknowledge the issue that it raises about manning levels. On 1 March, I announced that the Government had accepted the report’s recommendations and would implement them in full without delay. As a result, all service personnel will receive at least a 3.3 per cent. pay increase, with the 13,000 lowest paid receiving 9.2 per cent. In total, about £350 million more a year will go into pay and allowances. I also announced that we are committing £17 million to financial retention initiatives in areas where we face particular manning challenges, including the infantry and the marines—an approach endorsed by the AFPRB and the National Audit Office. We are doing all that we can to sustain manning levels for our operational commitments, and I and the chiefs of staff continue to judge that current commitments are manageable.

Tony Baldry: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of every Member will be with those illegally detained by the Iranian Government, and with their friends and families.

The Secretary of State will know that the AFPRB’s report described manning levels in the armed forces as critical and fragile. Recruitment and retention in the armed forces rely on trust, but how can people trust what the Government say about forces’ funding? Last
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week in the Budget, the Chancellor sought to give the impression that there is an extra £400 million for forces’ funding, but it turns out to be nothing of the sort: it is operational costs, which will be paid out of the Treasury reserve next year in the usual way. So how can men and women in the armed forces trust what the Government say, when even on something as fundamental as forces’ funding the Chancellor of the Exchequer is playing smoke and mirrors?

Des Browne: There can be no criticism of the Treasury’s support for the armed forces in the form of resources not just for pay and operational allowances—we have been able to announce the operational bonus in recent months—but for other areas. It would be much easier to conduct this debate about funding, including what comes from the reserve and what comes from the core Ministry of Defence budget, if other hon. Members—I excuse the hon. Gentleman from this—did not seek to give the impression that operational costs come from the MOD’s core budget. It is well known that in every Budget and pre-Budget report, the Chancellor refers to the access to the reserve for supporting operations.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I join the Secretary of State in his comments; our thoughts go out to the families of the 15 members of HMS Cornwall, which is of course a Plymouth-based ship.

The 9.2 per cent. pay increase for the lowest paid personnel is welcome, and is not the real message from the pay review board that one can do a great deal about retention and recruitment by targeting money? I also thank my right hon. Friend for the money that was spent on rewarding medical service personnel.

Des Browne: I am very grateful to the AFPRB and to the National Audit Office for pointing out in their respective reports the way in which targeted incentives or financial help can assist in meeting the challenge of recruitment and retention. This year, we intended that the armed forces’ settlement would help particularly the least well off—the worst paid among our troops. That was exactly what the AFPRB recommended, and I was very pleased to be able to accept that recommendation.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State accept my congratulations on the pay settlement? Is he able to tell us what the consequences of the Budget tax changes will be, and how they will affect the lowest paid in the armed forces?

Des Browne: I accept with alacrity the right hon. Gentleman’s congratulations on the armed forces pay review settlement. The Budget’s impact is different for different people; for example, single-earner couples with children on a private’s salary will gain from the package by more than £300 a year, and I could give more examples. He asked specifically about the lowest paid. He will know that their salary will go up to £15,677, ignoring the operational bonus. The strict effect of the Budget is that those who are single and in receipt of that amount of money will be worse off by the equivalent of about £1 per week, but one has to take into account the fact that almost all of them are likely to attract the operational bonus, so that must be factored in, too.

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Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Harmony guidelines have been consistently broken, planning assumptions breached, readiness targets not met and essential training requirements not fulfilled. Even the Chief of the Defence Staff says that the armed forces are very stretched, so just what does it take for the Defence Secretary to admit that we are asking too much of our armed forces?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman sought to get the Chief of the Defence Staff to agree at the Defence Committee evidence session that we were asking too much of the armed forces, but he would not agree. It takes exactly the same for me, as for the Chief of the Defence Staff, to admit to that, which is not correct. We are not asking too much of our armed forces; we are operating at levels that are higher than the assumptions that informed our operational planning. If that is not addressed, we know what the long-term consequences will be; but the hon. Gentleman was told by the Chief of the Defence Staff during the evidence session that we are already taking steps to address those issues. As the Chief of the Defence Staff said, the screw is being somewhat loosened by the decisions that have already been made in relation to the tightened circumstances of the armed forces..

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with the families of those taken illegally by the Iranians in the past few days. Because we are aware of the diplomatic sensitivity, we shall not press the Government on the issue today, but we obviously want Parliament to have a chance to discuss it as soon as possible. I am sure that the House would also like to send condolences to the families of the submariners of HMS Tireless who were killed on active service—another example that shows how much they risk in our name.

On the question of overstretch in the armed forces, the basic problem is that the Government produced the strategic defence review, defence planning assumptions came from that and a budget was designed to suit it. The Government then exceeded those defence planning assumptions in the past five years. At the same time, they are cutting the size of the Navy, the Army and the RAF, yet they are increasing expectations and activity levels. When will it dawn on them that with defence spending of only 2.2 per cent. of GDP, the lowest since 1930, they cannot conduct wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with peacetime resources, because the people who will ultimately suffer are those in our armed forces, with the inevitable consequences for recruitment and retention that we are now beginning to see.

Des Browne: I assure the hon. Gentleman that a statement will be made to the House as soon as appropriate, which will be in the near future. I join him in his condolences to the families and comrades of those who lost their lives on HMS Tireless and, indeed to the submariner who was injured in that incident.

The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged views a number of times at the Dispatch Box about how properly to interpret the investment that we are making in our armed forces year on year. I see now that he has moved on from the criticism he used to level at us, and
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now says that we are cutting the amount of money that we spend on the armed forces as a percentage of GDP. The fact is that we spend £32 billion a year on the defence budget. That, of course, as we have already discussed at Question Times, is supplemented by access to the special reserve in relation to operations. The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to indicate whether, if his party comes into government, he will increase that amount of money, or not increase—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for Question Time.

RAF Innsworth

2. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What consideration he is giving to the ongoing use of the RAF Innsworth site; and if he will make a statement. [129296]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): There is no further Royal Air Force requirement for the Innsworth site beyond 2008. As is normal practice, we are now assessing whether there is any other military use for the site. It is too early to make any firm commitments, but one option being considered is that it should house British forces returning from Germany in the 2008-12 time frame.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the Minister for the response and the letter that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on 13 March regarding that possible transfer. Innsworth is quite a deprived area and the armed forces provide the life blood of it, so it came as a body blow to the area when the announcement was made to close the site as an RAF site. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to moving another operation to the area, to make that decision as soon as possible, and to make the transfer, should it be to Innsworth, as soon as possible, because we do not want too long a gap between the two.

Mr. Ingram: I share the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman about the impact on local communities when such a closure takes place, but I am sure that he will appreciate that what we are seeking to do by co-locating the two main RAF headquarters on one site makes sense in defence terms, for a whole lot of good value-for-money reasons, as well as people reasons. In terms of the future use, my view is that we should be looking, as progressively as we can, to move forward the timetables. I would not like to see a major planning blight descending on that site for any length of time, if at all. It is an important site. That is why we have designated it as a potential—probable—site for other military use. If that does not happen, we should make our decisions quickly so that alternatives uses can be found.

Ballistic Missiles

3. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What preliminary proposals for ballistic missile defence installations in the United Kingdom have been discussed with the United States. [129297]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The UK makes a valuable contribution to the US ballistic missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and our well established technical co-operation programmes. We regularly discuss with the United States our ongoing support and, as I and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have said on many occasions, we will inform the House of any change to the current position.

Bill Wiggin: Will the Secretary of State update the House on the position of NATO’s missile defence programmes?

Des Browne: The position in relation to NATO is that there was a process of assessment as to whether the ballistic missile defence would make a contribution to NATO defence. That process reported, indicating that such a contribution could be made, following the completion of the feasibility study. NATO continues to examine the options for and the implications of territorial missile defence, but it has no plans, nor has it set a timetable for any specific decision.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): What part will RAF Fylingdales and the US base at Menwith Hill play in any negotiations with the US on missile defence? Will there be a full and public discussion of any developments at those sites?

Des Browne: When the decision was made to incorporate RAF Fylingdales into the US missile defence system, there was a full debate in the House in relation to the role that it would play. That role— [ Interruption. ] I am not going to go into the detail of that. There was a full debate. An important contribution is made, in radar terms, to the system. No decisions have been taken in relation to any other facility or site. The discussions are ongoing and, as I told the House when I answered questions on the matter last month, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to explore, both through the United States and our NATO allies, the implications that any system of this nature might offer for the security of the UK. That is the stage that we are at. That is what we are currently doing. When there is anything further to report, we will of course report to the House.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I know that the Secretary of State is aware that the Polish newspaper, Trybuna, on 7 October last year published an article that stated:

The Secretary of State was good enough to tell me in a telephone conversation last October that that was not the case. Will he confirm that denial today and will he also confirm that neither Orkney, nor for that matter Shetland, is being considered by the United Kingdom Government in relation to an installation of this nature?

Des Browne: I know of no change in the information that I gave the hon. Gentleman when he last spoke to me in relation to this matter. As I have told the House,
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no sites are being considered in our very preliminary discussions in relation to the siting of any missile defence.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): But the Government have taken a decision in principle to support missile defence as something that the Americans may wish to deploy. We know that from the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, who wrote of the toothpaste summit when the Prime Minister first met President Bush in Washington, back in President Bush’s first year of office. We have had a tremendous debate about nuclear weapons in this country. When are we going to have a proper debate in the House about the principle of missile defence? That issue is dividing NATO and destabilising relations with Russia.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that the United Kingdom already makes a contribution to the US missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and that there is other co-operation through technical programmes. All that is entirely consistent with the issue of principle. The House also knows that the Government’s position—I think that most hon. Members share this view—is that it would be irresponsible not to explore with the US and its NATO allies the possible implications of the system for the security of the UK —[ Interruption. ] I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when there is something to report to the House, a report will be made. However, no decisions have been taken at this stage, and there are no developments that require the matter to be reported to, and debated in, the House.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Given the ever-increasing prospect of rogue states, including perhaps Iran, acquiring a ballistic missile capability, does not the Secretary of State understand that it is his duty to engage in public debate, not to hide behind spurious claims that he needs to protect international relations? As far as the Fylingdales upgrade is concerned, may I remind him that there was so little debate that the Defence Committee issued a report in January 2003 that said:

Why cannot the Secretary of State share with us the assessment that he has made of the risk, and of the benefits or drawbacks, that might result from the UK’s participation in positioning ground-based interceptors on our soil? Alternatively, as was the case with the Fylingdales experience, are we once again to be bounced into a decision without the House or the public being engaged?

Des Browne: I know of the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party for engagement in ballistic missile defence. As he says, there are developments throughout the world that suggest that ballistic missile defence will make a significant contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom. This is a US system, and, currently, the US has not asked to examine any UK sites—for example, regarding any element of its missile defence system. I am reporting to the House the current state of our relations with the United States on
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this issue. I have given hon. Members an undertaking that when the situation moves beyond that, I will report to the House.

Red Arrows

4. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What changes are proposed to be made to the Red Arrows’ budget over the next three years. [129298]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): There are no plans to change the funding for the Red Arrows.

Mr. Ellwood: I am delighted to hear that answer. However, there is concern about the future of RAF Scampton, the base at which the Red Arrows are located. There have been rumours in the press that the Government’s penny-pinching on the defence budget means that the colours of smoke used in the displays are under threat. Will the Minister give a commitment that no aspect of the Red Arrows will change and that they will remain at the forefront of display teams in the UK?

Mr. Ingram: Well, I have not heard about the colours of smoke, but I will certainly look into that—

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Smoke and mirrors!

Mr. Ingram: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I will certainly examine the matter because we take great pride in what the Red Arrows do, not only in this country, but internationally.

Mr. Ellwood: What about RAF Scampton?

Mr. Ingram: I will come to RAF Scampton in a moment. I am trying to pay tribute to the Red Arrows, which I thought that the hon. Gentleman would want me to do. The Red Arrows make a major contribution in many ways. They fly the flag for this country and help recruitment to the RAF.

RAF Scampton, like several RAF airfields, is under review because we need to find the optimal basing for all our RAF assets. We have already taken some decisions on the Nimrod MRA4 and on future basing for the joint combat aircraft and Typhoon. We will continue to examine what the best lay-down will be and announcements will be made in due course.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his straightforward answer. However, may I press him a little further and suggest that he should increase the budget of the Red Arrows? As we know, all young people, such as Chorley air cadets, aspire to join the RAF and especially want to join the Red Arrows. Will he ensure that we will have the fine aircraft and the fine personnel that keep them flying, and that there is a bonus for BAE workers in Lancashire, which is why I am pressing him to increase the funding?

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