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House of Commons

Monday 21 July 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

British Forces (Attacks)

1. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of Iranian military involvement in attacks on British forces overseas. [219807]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Elements of the Iranian regime provide munitions and training to Shi’a militia in Iraq and arms and funding to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In addition, they fund and assist armed groups in the Lebanon and in the occupied Palestinian territories. That not only poses a threat to British forces serving in operations but destabilises the security of the region. Iran can either act responsibly, cease support for terrorism and play a constructive role in Iraq or Afghanistan or face the consequences of not doing so—and it must be clear that that will mean increasing isolation.

Mr. Hands: It appears that Iranian involvement in the insurgency in Iraq is, thankfully, diminishing after the recent effort of Iraqi forces supported by US ground troops, but has the Secretary of State seen any evidence of a change in tactics by Tehran and an increase in Iranian involvement in attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: There is no evidence of such a change having taken place. The hon. Gentleman is right to recall that there has been a decrease in Iran’s apparent interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, which is a consequence of a number of things, including the effectiveness of Iraqi security forces against those agents and others involved in activity in southern Iraq and the growing strength of the Iraqi Government and their direct involvement with the Iranians, helping to change their behaviour. We of course keep the situation in Afghanistan under constant review, but there is no evidence of increasing interference.

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Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend completely satisfied that British naval forces carrying out legitimate boarding operations within the Gulf are prepared for aggressive attacks by Iranian forces?

Des Browne: I think that my hon. Friend might have had an opportunity to ask that question directly when members of the Select Committee recently visited that part of the world and spoke to our forces there. I am sure that the answer he would have received is that steps put in place significantly to increase the protection of our sailors in that part of the Gulf—after the regrettable incident when sailors were taken captive—are proving increasingly effective.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): What assessment does the Secretary of State make of the linkage between Iranian military and Iraqi militia groups, which have been trained—by the allied forces, of course—armed and put on the street to help the security forces?

Des Browne: There were at one stage some concerns that militia had infiltrated Iraqi security forces. The hon. Gentleman and others will know that when General Mohan was in charge of troops in Basra, steps were taken to ensure that the majority of recruits to the 14th division, which grew out of the 10th division of the Iraqi army, did not come from the Basra area. The fact that the troops could not be intimidated may well account for the dramatic effect of the deployment of the 14th division to Basra.


2. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the availability of helicopters for deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. [219808]

7. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will increase the number of helicopters available for the use of UK troops in Afghanistan. [219813]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): In my written statement on 20 May, I set out in great detail the considerable efforts we are making on this issue. We have increased helicopter flying hours in Afghanistan by over a third since March last year, including uplifts to Chinook and Apache hours; we have deployed upgraded Sea King helicopters there as well, and we are converting eight Chinook helicopters to a support role. The Merlin helicopter is deployed to Iraq; the six additional Merlin aircraft that we procured from Denmark will augment our fleet by 25 per cent.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Helicopters are essential for our hugely important operations in Afghanistan, and there is a shortage of them. I recognise that some eight Chinooks, six Danish Merlins and the upgraded Sea Kings with Carson blades are on track to Afghanistan, but has the Ministry of Defence indicated to any of our armed services its willingness to procure light helicopters on their behalf? If so, what response has it had?

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Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will know that over and above the specific steps that we are taking in this coalition operation, others among our allies are taking steps. For completeness, the House should know that to support operations in Afghanistan, the Canadians—I spoke to their Defence Minister recently—have bought six additional Chinooks and eight Griffin helicopters. In the interim, while fitting out those Chinooks for deployment, they are leasing eight Mi-17s. Therefore, the number of frames, and consequently the hours available, will be subject to a significant uplift in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman is right that light helicopters play an important operational role, particularly for surveillance purposes, although they can be used for other purposes. The helicopter that we currently use is known as the Lynx helicopter, and he will know that that does not perform most efficiently in the environment of Afghanistan. We look to our allies for such support, but for that surveillance role we also use the heavier Sea King helicopter, which, when rebladed, performs well in that environment.

Andrew Selous: Will the Secretary of State tell the House what lessons the Government have learned from their decision in 2004 to cut £1.4 billion from the helicopter budget, so that Parliament is never again asked to send British troops into combat without the necessary helicopter support? Will the situation get better across all three services over the next three years?

Des Browne: I am pleased to tell the House that over the next 10 years the Ministry of Defence intends to invest some £6 billion to replace and enhance our helicopters. Over the same period, we will also try to reduce the maintenance burden. That is a significant investment, which addresses directly the hon. Gentleman’s point.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): In 2004, the Public Accounts Committee described the acquisition of the eight Chinook mark 3 helicopters for £259 million as one of the worst examples of equipment procurement it had ever seen. Since then, we have seen the reversion project and the night enhancement package, which will push the total cost well above £500 million. Will the Secretary of State tell us what lessons have been learned from the whole saga? When will we see the eight Chinook mark 3 helicopters fully operational in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Des Browne: The work done on the Chinook helicopters is on track and on budget. The work having been completed, it is intended that the first helicopter will be released early in 2009, and the rest will become available progressively thereafter. They will enhance our existing fleet of Chinook helicopters, and my written statement to the House on 20 May set out the detail of how we intend to deploy them.

My hon. Friend asks what lessons have been learned. The lesson that should be learned is not to overcomplicate our procurement. We did not order the helicopters, but when they were delivered they were of such complexity that they could not be certificated as safe to fly under the then regulations. After valiant attempts to overcome that, when I became Secretary of State I took the
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decision that they would be better converted to mark 2 Chinooks. That was the right decision, as subsequent reports have confirmed.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, does the Secretary of State think that it was wise to award a £1 billion contract to build the Future Lynx helicopters at twice the cost of the alternatives—and they will not be ready for years—and without a full competitive tender process?

Des Browne: I was not involved in the detail of the awarding of that contract, so I am not in a position to respond to him on the detail of the negotiations in that regard. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) mentioned the importance of light helicopters in the battlefield, and the answer lies in our need for proper surveillance of battlefield circumstances. As in every aspect of the equipment that we use, our experience in the battlefield environment teaches us all sorts of lessons, and we have learned a lot in Afghanistan, particularly about the use of other forms of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. The challenges increase as the technology improves.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for meeting me two weeks ago to discuss the Future Lynx order. He will be aware of the concern of many of my constituents about the media speculation surrounding the order. In the light of that, will he be in a position to give a clear green light to the order, which was signed two years ago, before the August holiday period begins?

Des Browne: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. I understand his constituency interest in the matter, as well as his broader interest. As he knows, the affordability of our forward programme is being examined in the context of equipment. On many other occasions at the Dispatch Box I have turned down invitations to salami-slice every element, and I do not intend to do otherwise today. When I am ready to make any announcements, I will make them.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Has the right hon. Gentleman given any thought to the substitution of civilian helicopters to carry out conventional logistics tasks, so that more military helicopters can be freed up to go to Afghanistan?

Des Browne: I have done just that. As I believe the hon. Gentleman knows, we have entered into a contract in Afghanistan with a civilian supplier. As a result we are on track to move some 300 metric tonnes of supplies around Afghanistan, thus freeing up Chinook time, and time for the necessary deployment of attack helicopters to support the Chinooks. The arrangement has been very successful, and I am sure that we can build on it.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Given the shortage of military helicopters, why have the Government decided to withdraw the Gazelle helicopter from service some nine years before its planned out-of-service date in 2018? According to answers that the Secretary of State has given me within the past few months, it has clearly proved the most reliable of all our military helicopters.
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In view of the essential part that it plays in our national security strategy, is there not a danger that more pressure will be put on the helicopters that we need in Afghanistan and Iraq—although the Gazelle has not been used in Iraq since the early days? Will not its withdrawal leave a gap in our helicopter capacity, and how will the Secretary of State fill that gap without putting more pressure on our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Des Browne: Thankfully, the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s lengthy question is quite short. According to military advice, which I have accepted, the Gazelle is not deployable in either of those theatres.

Nick Harvey: I never said it was.

Des Browne: The fact that we cannot deploy it explains why it would not address our shortage in those theatres.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Lynx helicopters that are in service with the Army and the Royal Navy are pretty well at the end of their viable lives, much like the Prime Minister’s own political position. When will the Prime Minister note the anger of people such as Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Tootal, who recently resigned from the Army after commanding the Paras in Helmand? When will the Prime Minister stop dithering, and authorise the Secretary of State to make a decision on the 70 Future Lynx aircraft which could make a real difference to our hard-pressed troops? Will the Secretary of State confirm that if they are not ordered, he will find himself with 150 Army helicopters going out of service in 2012 and nothing with which to replace them? What will he say to people who are trying to take up the role vacated by Stuart Tootal?

Des Browne: I come to the Dispatch Box every week in the hope that the jokes will get better, but they do not improve.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue: how can we provide the level of surveillance that we will need for the operational environment in the future? I have already said that helicopters have a role to play, but there are other ways of providing that surveillance, of which the hon. Gentleman is aware. Indeed, we have discussed them before.

I heard Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal speaking on the radio this morning, and read with care the interview with him that was published over the weekend. He was deployed in Afghanistan and performed a very professional and worthwhile job there with 3 Para, which he commanded. They were very brave, and had a significant effect on the Taliban. However, as Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal was the first to recognise this morning, that was in 2006. There has been considerable investment since then, particularly in helicopters. Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal recognised that; it is a pity that the hon. Gentleman does not.

Defence Technical Academy

3. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): What progress is being made on the defence technical academy, St. Athan; and if he will make a statement. [219809]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Department continues to work constructively with the Metrix consortium on a range of issues on defence training review package 1 to achieve an affordable, value-for-money, acceptable and deliverable project. Negotiations with Metrix are continuing and both parties are working hard to drive down costs and obtain maximum value for money for the taxpayer.

John Smith: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Will he take this opportunity to pay tribute to the integrated project team, Metrix and the Welsh Assembly Government for the way in which they are progressing this £12 billion private finance initiative, and especially their involvement of the local community in the planning and design stage, which has already resulted in a number of major improvements? Does he agree that, with a project of the scale, complexity and importance to the armed forces of this technical academy, it is important that we get it right and do not rush it?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. As part of the planning process, we and Metrix are committed to an ongoing programme of consultation with the local community in Wales. We have involved the community in the redevelopment of St. Athan. That is a priority, and local comments will have a direct impact on how the details of any plans evolve. Public consultation exhibitions will take place—and, as my hon. Friend is aware, some are taking place at present.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): But while it is important not to rush it, as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) says, the defence training review does seem to be taking longer to come to signature than everybody had thought. In Bordon in my constituency, this is a very important matter because the regeneration of the town depends on everybody having a clear idea of the Ministry of Defence’s intentions. Are there any problems with the sale of MOD land that we need to be aware of? What is going on?

Mr. Ainsworth: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this is taking longer than is ideal. The financial appraisals have thrown up some difficult issues, and we are working them through with a view to taking a decision before the end of the year.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Minister will know that there is a warm welcome for this project not only in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), but across the whole of south Wales. There are people in my constituency who formerly worked at St. Athan and who are looking forward to the prospect of working there again in the near future, and many of them have important skills. Will the Minister confirm that none of the delay that has so far occurred has been because any of the services is reluctant to work with the other services, because where all the services work together in providing training they can significantly add value?

Mr. Ainsworth: The St. Athan proposal added significant value to training in the whole area that was covered by package 1, and that was why it was considered to be value for money. That is not the reason for any hold-up.
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We are getting total co-operation from within the services, and also from the local community in Wales. There are affordability issues, however, which we are trying to work through with Metrix. That has caused some delay, but we are still doing our best to bring this to a good conclusion.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): This project was announced with considerable fanfare in the run-up to the Assembly elections, but, 18 months on, there is still no signed contract. We already have one empty aircraft hangar in the area that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) serves as a result of a previous MOD U-turn. Does the Minister understand that there is fear in the community that the Government may be backtracking on the scale of the project, and can he reassure it that there is no truth in that?

Mr. Ainsworth: All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that he and his nationalist colleagues ought to reflect upon the size of the defence training capability in Scotland and Wales were they to get their way and form Governments in either of those places.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): There are obviously serious difficulties with package 1, and it is clear that package 2 will never get off the ground. Does that not challenge the financial viability of the whole scheme, and has the Minister considered looking again at some of the investment the MOD has already made in my constituency at Blandford in the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems—more than £100 million over the past eight years—and at not sticking with the original defence training review plan, which was to locate communications and information systems training at Blandford?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have announced a change in policy on package 2. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the synergies and, thus, the advantages in bringing people together, in the package 2 area were never as strong as those in package 1, so we are examining alternative solutions in those areas. Package 1 remains the best way of enhancing defence training, and we are committed to working through these problems and trying to deliver the proposal for St. Athan.

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