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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Amphibious and littoral capability continue to be key elements of our force structure, as reflected in our major investment in amphibious shipping in recent years and by the contribution of our brave Royal Marine Commandos to operations in Afghanistan.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that last week the amphibious task group Taurus 09 set sail for the far east, led by the Plymouth-based ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Ocean. Does he agree that that kind of shipping, coupled with our highly trained marines, for whom we have such high regard, is at the centre of defence capability for meeting the challenges of an uncertain future? Could he tell me what the prospects are for Devonport being involved in the support of such capability?
Mr. Ainsworth: The Taurus 09 exercise gives our forces an opportunity to practise in the amphibious arena in challenging environments in various parts of the world. It is an important exercise, and I think that HMS Bulwark sailed from Plymouth last Wednesday to participate in it. Devonport will be the centre of excellence for amphibious operations, as well as conducting the depth maintenance that is needed on the submarine fleet and on the surface fleet, so Plymouth will continue to provide the support that it has provided to our forces historically.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The defence of our coastline has never been more important, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Mumbai, yet in recent evidence to the Defence Committee, the noble Lord West, referring to those defence arrangements, said:
It is not what I would call, ultimately, satisfactory.
Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know in exactly what circumstances the phrase ultimately, satisfactory was used, but plans are in place to provide the necessary capability to counteract a terrorist attack in our country. We believe that they are perfectly adequate, although they obviously have to be kept under review. In the light of circumstances such as those in Mumbai, that is vital, as every Member of the House can see.
Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): An important part of any amphibious or littoral force is the capability supplied by the aircraft carriers. There was great concern in West Fife recently when the decision was made to delay the aircraft carriers, but there was little talk about the impact of that decision on the Navys aircraft capability in the longer term. What will happen to the Navys aircraft capability between now and when the aircraft carriers come into service? What will be the impact of the decision on the costs, not only of construction but of any elongation of the aircraft carriers service?
Mr. Ainsworth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have our current aircraft carriers, but we also have the real capability provided by HMS Ocean. There will be no gap in capability. The new carriers will come into force as soon as possible. Yes, there has been some delay to the original in-service dates, but that will be adequately filled by our current force.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I visited Fort Worth for discussions on this programme with Lockheed Martin about 10 days ago, and the programme is proceeding very satisfactorily. I am sure that this is a capability that our country needs, and I hope that we will be able to make an important announcement about it over the next few weeks.
Bill Wiggin: Can the Minister use this opportunity to confirm that the delays to the future carrier programme announced last December are in no way connected with potential delays to the joint strike fighter programme?
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op):
The ability of senior MOD civil servants to deliver major capital projects on time and within budget is not something that automatically springs to mind when one reflects on their abilities. The defence information infrastructure IT project was costed at £2.3 billion. It is now running at £5.8 billion, even though it was not reported to Parliament, and its projected cost is now £7.1 billion. Will the Minister reassure the House that that £5 billion overspend will not inhibit our ability to finance the project that the hon. Member for Leominster
(Bill Wiggin) has asked about? When are we going to get a grip on some of the major projects for which the Ministry of Defence is responsible?
Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of bringing up a subject to which I know he is very committed. I can give him the assurance that we are making progressalbeit with a delay, sadly, as he rightly said, in respect of the defence information infrastructure programme. The latest figures I have seen show that we have managed to install some 62,000 computer terminals and we hope to complete another 100,000 by the end of the year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the problems with this particular project will have no consequences at all for the joint strike fighter programme.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The joint combat aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth, where a good deal of work has already been done on the transition from Tornadoes to the JCA. Is the Ministry of Defence content with those preparations and is it confident that the changes will go to time?
Mr. Davies: I have not looked at those particular preparations in detail, as it is still some time before we take delivery of those aircraft, but the hon. Gentleman can be certain that we are watching that matter very closely indeed. We do not intend to invest in this programme, with all the enormous importance it has for the future of the nations defence capability, without ensuring that proper support mechanisms are in place for it.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): We are widely informed that the development of the joint strike fighter has led to a two-year delay in the aircraft carrier project. Will the Minister confirm that there has been no official announcement that work that has been destined for the Tyne for more than 12 months now on the aircraft carrier has been transferred to Scotland? Will he meet me and a number of other Members from the north-east, along with the trade union leaders, to discuss the matter further?
Mr. Davies: I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman [Interruption.] I mean my hon. Friend. I would be more than happy to meet him. I have already given the House the assurance that the reprofiling of the carrier programme was in no sense due to any delays in the JSF programme, and we have made that clear from the outset. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with that. So far as the distribution of work on the carrier is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, we have a contract with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and it is up to the alliance to decide where it would be most efficient and most appropriate to locate the work that needs to be undertaken. It is not for us to designate particular sites.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Typically, the Minister piled confusion upon confusion. He has just told the House that there is no connection between the delay in the aircraft carriers and the acquisition of the joint combat aircraft or joint strike fighter. I point out to him that his own Secretary of State made a statement to the House on 11 Decembera statement that we have previously had no opportunity to discuss. In that statement he said:
We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service
date of the new carriers by one to two years.[ Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]
Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me and has got it exactly the wrong way round. It was put to me this afternoon that the reason for reprofiling the dates of the manufacture and delivery of the carriers was the delay in the JSF programme. I have explained that there was no delay and that that is not therefore the reason for reprofiling the carriers. The reason for doing so was, quite simply, that it made no sense to spend money much earlier than required to no possible benefit when we could not advance the date of JSF delivery even if we wanted to. We have made that very clear. It is exactly the other way round. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has completely failed to understand the situation.
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Will the Minister assure me that Britain will have complete autonomy in its use of the joint strike fighter? Is he absolutely certain that we will be able to fly it to its full potential, maintain and upgrade it without the support of American personnel?
Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend has put his finger on a number of important points, and I can assure him that we are confident of meeting those objectives. It is a central priority in our programme to do so.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): We routinely assess the military capabilities of other nations armed forces, including those of Iran. Iran is attempting to improve its ballistic missile capabilities; we continue to monitor these developments very carefully indeed.
Angela Watkinson: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but how worried are the Government about the potential supply of Fajr-2 missiles from Iran to Hamas and what would be the implications for regional security, including the safety of our own troops?
Mr. Hutton: Iran should stop meddling in the affairs of the middle east. That is what it should do. The supply of armaments to Hamas in Gaza is profoundly unwelcome and must stop. We have made an offer to try to help the interdiction of those missile supplies and we stand ready to do that. We have no information to suggest that the capabilities that the Iranians are seeking to acquire pose a threat to UK forces, but Irans growing interest in developing ballistic missile technology goes far beyond what is and can ever be justified in terms of Iranian self-defence, so we are entitled, along with our allies, to keep a very close eye on the continuing malign influence that Iran is playing in the middle east.
Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): What attempts have the Government made to speak with Iran about the possibility of its signing, or at least seeing the value of, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?
Mr. Hutton: We should certainly continue to discuss those matters with Iran. It is quite clear that Iran is continuing to take steps to seek to acquire a nuclear weapons programme. We must do everything we possibly can, with our international allies, to ensure that that never happens.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of possible Russian involvement in arming Iran, in particular the stories that the Russians might be providing the Iranians with anti-missile missiles?
Mr. Hutton: We do have concerns about the suggestion that Russian ground-to-air missiles might be provided to the Iranians. As part of trying to secure the defence of Iranian nuclear installations, that would certainly be a very unwelcome development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had discussions with Russia about those matters, and continue to do so.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Within the last few days, it has been revealed by the British ambassador to the United Nations that in 2005 the Iranians offered the British a deal whereby they said:
We stop killing you in Iraq...you allow us to carry on with our
That deal was rightly rejected. This is, I believe, the first time that a senior British official has spoken about an Iranian admission of direct involvement in killing British service personnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is also his understanding of that situation?
Mr. Hutton: I do not think that there is any doubt that, in recent years, the Iranians have been assisting various groups in Iraq to attack British forces. That is totally unacceptable. Iran should keep its nose out of Iraq and other countries. Iran has a legitimate set of interests in the middle east, but it has no right whatever to involve itself in the internal security situation of other countries. Its role in assisting those groups to kill British forces is one that we will never forget.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Four super garrisons will be established in Aldershot, the east of England, Yorkshire and Salisbury plain. Those will all form by April 2009, and the Northern Ireland super garrison by April 2010.
All those phase 1 super garrisons have been subject to major rebuild programmes, but their development goes beyond infrastructure. They will provide a sustainable
military community better integrated with the local civilian community and the local civilian authorities. These will be places where people will want to work and to live.
Tony Baldry: I thank the Minister for that answer. We have quite a large military footprint in OxfordshireBicester, Benson, Abingdonand it would be fair to say that Oxford would very much welcome, in due course, being considered for super garrison status, but those things require planning and lead-in time. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be long discussions and lead-in time with local authorities to make quite sure that we can get the best out of the potential for super garrisons for the military and for communities such as Oxfordshire?
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of the garrison at Bicester for a long time. While I do not think that there is the potential for a super garrison in that location, there are possible synergies in respect of other defence capability moving into the area; of course, we will be considering that. Should we consider it further, there will be full consultation not only with him, but with the relevant local authorities in so doing.
Mr. Ainsworth: It can never do that in its entirety. The garrison in this country reflects historic decisions that have been made and facilities that have been located in different parts of the country. Of course it would be sensible, to the degree that it is practical, to align the garrison of the Army in Great Britain with the locations in which its members are recruited, and we should try to do that. However, we cannot simply change our footprint and an extensive estate that has existed for a long time.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for writing to invite me to see progress at Andover in relation to the proposed transfer of UK Land Command to the site. He will, however, be aware of the enormous changes and pressures affecting the community in south Wiltshire as a result of the super-garrison proposals, and also the quite proper expansion of the work being done in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Can he assure me that planning will take place in close association with the new Wiltshire council, which will come into being shortly, and that in implementing this enormous investment programme, he will not neglect the existing married quarters, which remain sub-standard for so many of our military personnel and their dependants?
Mr. Ainsworth: I am told that there is a good relationship with the local authority, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary I shall be only too happy to listen to him and ensure that we put things right. He has expressed his concern about some of the changes for some time, and I should also be more than happy to talk to him privately, as well as in the Chamber, about those issues.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Governments super-garrison initiative offers them an opportunity to do something about the shameful accommodation that many of our troops have had to put up with for far too long. However, servicemen and women will note that defence is conspicuously absent from the Governments programme for bringing forward capital expenditure and that defence projects are being delayed or cancelled, and they will draw their own conclusions on where they lie in the Governments scheme of priorities. Why have Ministers decided not to follow the example of other countries that are including defence projects in their fiscal stimulus packages?
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has raised these issues in a manner that is not acceptable. There has been substantial investment in the estate over a long period, and the legacy that we were left by the Government whom he supported was truly outrageous. He needs to remember the Annington Homes deal, which left us with a legacy on family living accommodation that was an absolute scandal before the 1997 election. None of that can be solved immediately; it has to be solved over time, and it is being solved. Many thousands of homes have been brought up to standard, including both service family and single accommodation.
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