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I have been referred by the Prime Minister in written answers to questions that were not reached on a Wednesday, both yesterday and last month, to each of those answers, so I should be very grateful indeed if the Minister would give us the reason why the aircraft carrier programme was delayed. It has not been made clear yet.

5.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): As usual, the debate has been wide ranging. The contributions were not only well informed but covered interesting subjects.

Today, on the Conservative Front Bench we saw the neo-cons versus the Cameroons. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is a strong advocate for the nuclear deterrent—I would recommend to anyone his pamphlet arguing the case for it. It would be interesting if there were a Conservative Government—I shall not say that I look forward to the day—and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the hon. Member for New Forest, East at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, with the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) running some bit of Government equivalent to a Siberian power station.

Today, the Conservatives have set out clearly that the nuclear deterrent is not up for negotiation. The reason that clarity is important is that sad anoraks, such as me, who read conservativehome can see that the central hierarchy of the party are trying to test the water—to find out whether negotiation would be possible. The clarity we have heard today is very important.

The hon. Member for Woodspring made an interesting speech and, in his usual way, covered a large number of subjects. He seems to think that the Navy is separate from the rest of the defence budget. He talked about the Navy being betrayed. I want to reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. We have the largest building programme ever for the Royal Navy—£14 billion over the next 10 years. That is a clear commitment from the Government to the Navy. It is important to ensure not only that we equip the Navy with the ships it requires but that we have the skills to produce those ships in UK yards.

Resources were mentioned. I look forward to hearing debates on the issue as the election gets closer. The hon. Member for Aldershot is clear about his position; he said on “Newsnight” on 6 September 2007 that it was absolutely crystal clear that if his party came into office on the next day, they would spend more money on defence. Clearly, that line has now changed. I think that when it comes to the defence budget, we will see more confusion of the sort that we saw on tax policy this week in the Conservative party.

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Dr. Fox rose—

Mr. Jones: I will not give way; I do not have time.

I think that the three hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Front Bench argue their point of view quite sincerely, because all three are strong advocates of the armed forces and supporters of the defence sector, but they will come up against a lot of Cameroons and others in their party who will not want to commit to defence.

The hon. Member for Woodspring mentioned Russia; I know that he raised the issue on another occasion, too. He asked whether there had been increased submarine activity. There has not been any increase in the usual levels of activity. There has been an increase in surface activity, but I think he will appreciate that I do not want to go into too much detail about that. Cyber-security needs to be taken seriously not only by the Ministry of Defence, but across Government. It is a new field that will increasingly play an important part in any type of attack in future.

The hon. Member for Woodspring rightly referred to the increased body armour provided in armed vehicles. More armed forces men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq are now surviving attacks, not just because of the skill of our medical staff but because of the protection they get. That leaves issues to do with rehabilitation, and I am certainly committed to ensuring that those concerned get support.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones: I will not.

The hon. Member for Woodspring touched on the subject of mental health, which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). The hon. Member for Woodspring asked whether the issue was at the centre of the Ministry of Defence’s concerns. I am determined to make it so, not just for the ministerial team, but within the chain of command, because all the evidence is there. We have to be careful not to use intemperate language when talking about the numbers. The numbers are quite small, but that does not detract from the fact that if just one single person suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, it is a personal tragedy for that individual and their family. We must do our utmost to protect them. I am working with service charities and other sectors on the welfare pathway, which will be announced later this year. It will look at the support that we give to our men and women not only when in service, but once they leave service.

Mr. Baron: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, but I will not.

The hon. Member for Woodspring raised the issue of decompression. Every time I have been to theatre, I have asked about the issue. I was in Afghanistan a few weeks ago and asked again whether the decompression period was long enough. It is 48 hours in Cyprus. Every single time, both commanders and normal soldiers tell me that that is long enough. I have said this to the hon. Gentleman before: I ask him not to denigrate in any way the role of our civil servants serving overseas. I do not think that he did so intentionally. Those staff are volunteers, and many are doing dangerous jobs in dangerous situations. We should thank them for the role they play.

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I do not know whether anyone here has seen the film “Groundhog Day”, but the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) perhaps reminded a lot of us of it. He is a great, strong advocate for St. Athan. A lot of Members have asked where the new facility is, and I had to think very hard about whether it actually was in his constituency. I pay tribute, as he did, to the brigadier and the project team who are delivering that facility. It is a challenging and complex project that will not only deliver the training we need, but, as he rightly highlighted, have an economic impact on his constituency and part of Wales; that should not be underestimated.

The hon. Member for North Devon spoke of the number of people who have, sadly, been wounded or died in Afghanistan. May I join him in paying tribute not just to the men and women who have lost their lives, but their families, and to the medical staff, to whom he drew attention? I will not repeat the arguments on the timetable for withdrawal—it is one occasion on which I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for New Forest, East.

As for the larger issue of where we are, we are making changes, and there is new thinking on how we deal with, for example, the arms plot to provide more settled lives. The regional forces review will address some of the issues that, particularly in the Army, have not been previously addressed. I am not a great supporter of a defence review, because I fear that it would take a lot of time and effort, and detract from the immediate task at hand, which is not just supporting our service men and women but looking at their operational commitments.

Turning to the contribution from the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), may I say that, yes, it is a great honour to be a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. Anyone who has that privilege, as he did, knows that we deal with some remarkable men and women in a great Department. I was a little concerned, because I know that he is a former Foreign Secretary, that he used the words, “wars of choice”. I am worried that that may be interpreted as our being able to pick and choose the conflicts in which we become involved. I accept that he is not an isolationist who thinks that England can somehow divorce itself from the rest of world. However—and he knows this from his experience in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence—one of those Departments may not think about the implications for others of its decisions. Having been on both sides, seeing that must have been difficult for him.

I do not agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s perception of why and how reservists are used. The position has changed. I never cease to be impressed when I go to theatre by the dedication of the men and women I meet. In some cases, certainly in reconstruction projects both in Afghanistan and Iraq, their civilian skills serve a useful purpose.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) raised the issue of Belvedere. May I tell him and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has got the message? We need to move on this, and my right hon. Friend agrees that the delay and uncertainty are not helping. The right hon. Member for North-East
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Hampshire raised the issue of JPA—the organisation that procured it is based in his constituency. May I say—and I have said this before—that it is a standing issue when I meet the head of defence personnel? There have been problems, but it is a remarkably successful IT project compared with those in other Government Departments. The important point about JPA, which I want to push, is how we achieve increased access to it. Internet access is the way forward. There are some security issues, but we are addressing them.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) raised the issue of nuclear deterrence. As the hon. Member for New Forest, East said, it is nice to see that the unilateralist flame still burns in our party—although that is not something that I ever supported, I hasten to add. My hon. Friend mentioned the DSDA, and I will take that message back to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies).

I have a lot of time and affection for the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), but I thought she was occasionally a little intemperate in her speech. She takes a close interest in protected vehicles, and in a previous debate expressed thanks and recognised the advances that had been made. She asked for numbers, but I do not want to give the number of individual vehicles for operational reasons. Great advances have been made. When I was in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I saw not only how they saved people’s lives but the adaptations that had been made in theatre. We can rightly be proud of that.

The hon. Lady spoke about Merlin. The reason for the upgrade is that it is not a simple matter to move an aircraft from a peacetime role in the UK to an operational role. The issue was not that the helicopters could not fly without their rotor blades, but the need to increase efficiency. As a result, the number of flying hours that we are getting out of helicopters in Afghanistan has substantially increased.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) paid tribute to 22 Signals and thanked the people of Stafford for their support for the armed forces, particularly for the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas are within my area of responsibility, so I know that they will warmly welcome the support they are getting locally.

On the Borona project, I was in Germany on Tuesday and was briefed about the process. There is work to be done on sites and time scales, but I assure my hon. Friend that the project is still on schedule and under active consideration. It is important that where we site super-garrisons we have good working relationships in advance with local authorities, and I am sure he will play his role in that.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made a passionate and well-argued speech. He is a great advocate for the reserve forces. I, too, congratulate the Argylls in his constituency. We should not forget the reservists who have been wounded or killed in action, especially members of the special forces. We should ensure that they get recognition. I am sure that when the review document is published, the hon. Gentleman will be pleasantly surprised by much of it.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) is my former colleague on the Defence Committee. I think I have been to Salisbury more times in the past few
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months than I had ever been in my life, and it is a wonderful city. He spoke about the role of the Navy and he is right. When I go to Kandahar or Camp Bastion, there seem to be more submariners there than anywhere else. They are playing a key role. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Help for Heroes, which has raised not only money but the profile and support for our troops, which is welcome.

One of the privileges of my job is to work with armed forces charities, which do a fantastic job. I am not one who thinks that Government can do everything. The charities have an important role. I hope that many people take part in armed forces day on 27 June and give the recognition and support that our troops deserve.

We heard a fascinating contribution from the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), which showed the tensions in the Conservative party on Europe. I am glad that he and the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) are now in the ascendancy again in the party. The hon. Gentleman’s speech was well argued. Britain cannot do anything alone. Working with European partners and NATO is important. We need to explain that and fight back against little Englanders such as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. I wish the hon. Member for North Dorset well in his campaign to educate the more recalcitrant members of the Conservative party about the benefits of the European Community.

I have already mentioned Project Belvedere, which was also raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. I understand the frustration. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: a decision needs to be taken so that we can move on and get the necessary involvement.

In closing, it is always important for us to say a big thank you to our men and women in the armed forces. Whenever I meet them, whether in this country or abroad, I realise that they are young men and women carrying huge burdens of responsibility. In my first contribution to one of these debates, I said that I would like to continue the bipartisan approach in the House, which we certainly had in the Defence Committee, so that we are united in thanking and supporting the members of our armed forces who are doing very difficult jobs on our behalf.

Question put and agreed to.


26 Mar 2009 : Column 546

Public Houses

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Helen Goodman.)

6 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I thank Mr. Speaker for awarding me this debate and the Minister for staying behind to reply to it. I say affectionately to the Minister that the pub industry and certain products in which it deals are close to his heart, as they are to mine. We share a number of interests, including horse racing and the odd social half hour in the bar downstairs. I am delighted that this Minister is replying to the debate. I am also grateful to the British Beer and Pub Association and the all-party beer group. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), a member of the group, is here today to take part in the debate. I should also thank my local landlord, Mr. David Baker of the Village Inn in Twyning, for advice, facts and figures.

Obviously, pubs are historic institutions and go back many centuries. The Royal Hop Pole in my constituency was mentioned by Charles Dickens in “The Pickwick Papers”. Pubs represent a big industry; there are more than 62,000 in Great Britain today and 84 per cent. of them are family-run businesses, which adds a certain importance to them. I notice that the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), chairman of the all-party beer group, is here; I paid tribute to it a moment ago.

Pubs are extremely valuable to communities; they act as meeting places and many friendships are formed in them. Many groups are set up through pubs—pub football teams and golf societies, for example. Fairly recently I managed to win the tournament put on by my local golf society. I was very proud of that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Did anybody else enter?

Mr. Robertson: I can tell my hon. Friend that, yes, others did enter.

Pubs play host to skittles matches, card games, dominos, darts and pool, as well as many other activities. They are headquarters for various societies, and—even more so these days—provide meals for families and individuals. In fact, almost 40 per cent. of pubs’ turnover comes from food sales. People watch sports in pubs and pubs provide supervised drinking, an important point to which I will return in a minute. Some provide wonderful examples of fine architecture and many raise money for charities. Furthermore, they are particularly, although not exclusively, important in rural areas. They have been described as a uniquely British institution.

Pubs also make an important economic contribution, particularly through tax; according to the House of Commons Library, the drinks industry alone contributes £14.79 billion a year. Each pub contributes an average of about £90,000 in taxes, which is an awful lot of money. When we next go to our local pub, we should think about the £90,000 contributed just by that pub; we will then realise pubs’ economic value to the country as well as to the community. At a time when people who enjoy a social drink are under pressure because of the misuse of alcohol by the few, we should remember how much money people who enjoy a drink contribute to the Exchequer.

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