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House of Commons

Monday 30 March 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Trooping Arrangements

1. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the capacity and reliability of air trooping arrangements. [267175]

6. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the capacity and reliability of air trooping arrangements. [267180]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The capacity and reliability of our air trooping arrangements are kept under constant review. Our capacity is sufficient to support the force levels currently committed to operational deployments. Some 92 per cent. of all UK trooping aircraft to and from Iraq and Afghanistan now arrive within six hours of their scheduled time.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Despite having committed us to two wars, the Government have failed miserably to ensure that our troops have proper aircraft to be able to do their jobs safely and efficiently. Will he kindly inform the House what plans he has to rectify the failing?

Mr. Hutton: I do not accept the premise on which the hon. Gentleman’s question rests. We have made significant investment: last year, we purchased two new C-17 aircraft to support these arrangements, and we have plans for significant additional procurement of aircraft to sustain them into the future. Given that we are fighting on two fronts, it is obviously important to have sufficient capacity to support troops who are fighting in our name in those two theatres—and we do. The draw-down of forces in Iraq, along with other measures that we are taking, will also significantly contribute to easing the pressure on the air bridge.

Mr. Bone: Members of the armed forces would be very surprised at the Secretary of State’s response so far. It is a fact that other parts of the armed forces blame the Royal Air Force for delays and breakdowns in the air bridge, but is not the real truth of the matter
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that it is the Government’s fault for not providing sufficient modern aircraft? Would he like to take this opportunity to apologise to the brave men and women of the RAF for the Government’s incompetence?

Mr. Hutton: Once again, I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. It is quite unfair for blame to be attached to the Royal Air Force, which does an outstanding job in supplying our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the kit and capabilities that they need to do their job properly. We have made a very significant investment in new aircraft, and we are committed to making further substantial improvements to ensure that we have the aircraft, and therefore the supply lines into Iraq and Afghanistan, that our troops need.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): NATO’s 60th anniversary summit will take place in Strasbourg this week, and it seems probable that President Obama may ask Britain to participate in his planned surge by allocating a further 2,000 troops, thus taking our number to 10,000. How convinced is the Secretary of State that the present trooping arrangements are sufficiently robust, flexible and reliable to handle any such request in a smooth and effective fashion?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We do keep force levels in Afghanistan under careful review. We have not yet received any request from anyone to supplement existing levels of UK forces in Afghanistan but, as I have said, we keep an open mind about all these matters.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Some real problems have been faced by returning service personnel who have had long onward journeys home from recent visits to Iraq and Afghanistan—constituents of mine from Buckie, Elgin and Forres have all said that this is a live issue. Will the Ministry of Defence look closely at the problems faced by returning service personnel who have long onward journeys and at the subsequent loss of their home leave? That leave is obviously very precious.

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we will obviously do that. I am not standing here to say that there are no improvements that can be made—of course, there are some. We work very closely with the services to try to ensure that we make improvements where we can. I accept absolutely the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised—we are alert and alive to them, and we are trying to work our way through those problems.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Given the reported four-year delay in the delivery of the A400M, is now not the time to start rethinking our entire policy on transport aircraft? We could extend the life of the C-130Ks, we could buy some more C-17s and, above all, we could keep them at RAF Lyneham.

Mr. Hutton: Again, I think that we need to keep all the options open. The delay in the A400M is a matter of extreme regret and it poses very serious questions about the sustainability of our air logistics services—we will not compromise on those. We are having discussions with the partner nations to the A400M contract and with Airbus Military. We have to find a pretty rapid solution to the problem that has presented itself to us, but one thing I can say to the House is that we will not be content with a gap in capabilities.

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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware that a fortnight ago I was with my old battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, as it deployed to Afghanistan. The worries of the families clearly revolved around the possible death or injury of their husbands, boyfriends and so on, but, above and beyond that, on the regiment’s previous tour they deeply resented the delays caused to rest and recuperation flights back from Afghanistan and to the final trooping flight when the battalion returned from there. I cannot overestimate the resentment that this caused, so will the Secretary of State assure me that will not happen again to the battalion?

Mr. Hutton: Sadly I cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance. When there are interruptions in the air trooping arrangements, the mistake that many people make is to assume that they are because the aircraft are not capable of flying, or there is some other problem, when the problems are often to do with the operational effectiveness of the defensive aid suites that are fitted to the aircraft. They are complicated systems and we will not compromise on safety. If something is not functioning in the defensive aid suites, the flights will be delayed until that can be rectified. I fully acknowledge the frustration that that causes for servicemen and women and their families, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we do everything that we possibly can to minimise disruptions. But we will not compromise on safety.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): I went to Afghanistan in February, courtesy of the MOD, and I thank the Secretary of State for an interesting and valuable—albeit short—visit. In my experience—borne out when we went to Afghanistan—the RAF air bridge does not work well. The delay was not important for Members of Parliament, but for the soldiers, some of whom we met at Brize Norton and who had been waiting for three days. Part of the problem was aircraft and part of it was weather, but overall it was poor organisation—and the Secretary of State should look into that.

Mr. Hutton: I understand that the problem with the hon. Gentleman’s flight was weather, and it was delayed for several hours. I referred in my original answer to the figures on punctuality, and I accept that punctuality is an important issue. We all understand the consequences of serious delay, and the effect that it can have on morale and families. We do everything that we can to minimise that. Sometimes, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, there will be delays, but 92 per cent. of flights arrive within six hours of their scheduled arrival time.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Is not the truth that the main problem is simply that the TriStars we are using are clapped out, with only 44 per cent. of the fleet fit for purpose? The future strategic tanker aircraft, which is the replacement aircraft for both troop transport and the re-fuelling tanker, was supposed to be in service in 2007 initially: we are now told that it will be at least 2011. On top of the Nimrod delay of 92 months, the Astute submarine delay of 47 months and the Type 45 destroyer delay of 42 months, is not defence procurement another fine mess Labour has got us into?

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Mr. Hutton: No, and the hon. Gentleman should be very careful citing those examples, because those were all contracts let by the former Government. They were not let on proper terms, and that is especially true for the Astute contract—and he should know that. We do supplement with commercial scheduled flights where we can, and that has taken some of the pressure off the air bridge, but we continue to look very carefully at ways in which we can improve the service that we provide to our servicemen and women.

Dr. Fox: Is not the prevarication that we have seen exactly what we are now seeing with the A400M military transport fiasco? If that project is cancelled, and we are the last to pull out, we may be at the end of the queue to buy the necessary alternative capabilities—losers yet again. Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, said:

Leaving aside the obvious political parallels with this Government, when will Ministers make a decision?

Mr. Hutton: We will come to a decision on the A400M in July.

Joint Strike Fighter

2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): What steps his Department has taken to increase the UK’s involvement in the joint strike fighter programme; and if he will make a statement. [267176]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The UK remains fully committed to the joint strike fighter programme. Two weeks ago I announced that the UK would procure three instrumented test aircraft and associated support equipment to enable UK participation in the operational test and evaluation of the joint strike fighter air system.

Mr. Jack: While I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming the purchase of three aircraft, his answer was bereft of any mention of the question of operational sovereignty. Is it wise to have bought three aircraft at this stage without having a cast-iron agreement with the United States that the UK will have operational sovereignty for the aircraft both now and in the future?

Mr. Hutton: I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters. He will be aware of the memorandum of understanding that we have with the US. The whole point of the procurement of the aircraft is to ensure UK operational sovereignty and, without the purchase of the three test aircraft, that would not be possible.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The technology transfer is, of course, very important to the future of the aircraft. Can we ensure that those negotiations will continue; that we will have the capability of assembly and full maintenance; and that the research and developments jobs in the north-west will continue and we will not lose those skills, because they are second to none?

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Mr. Hutton: I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Up to 100 British companies stand to gain from the joint strike fighter aircraft and that fact is a very important part of our considerations as we take the project forward.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): How serious are the remaining delays caused by arguments about intellectual property rights and the Export Control Act 2002 in this programme?

Mr. Hutton: I do not think they are very serious.

Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

3. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. [267177]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a major concern. The UK, along with our coalition partners, is working closely with the authorities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to achieve the necessary improvements in security.

Willie Rennie: The porous border has been an issue for a number of years, as the border people in that area do not even recognise the border. For some time, too, there has been a shortage of troops to secure the area. What assurances and commitments have we had from our NATO allies to commit more troops to the region, and when will we commit troops ourselves?

Mr. Hutton: We have not yet had any commitments from European Union or NATO forces. We are looking at our own force levels, as I said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). The United States has decided to deploy significant additional forces to the south and east of Afghanistan, which I hope will contribute to greater security on the Afghan side of the border. There need to be improvements in security on the Pakistan side, too. We have had a number of discussions with senior military figures in Pakistan and we continue to work with the Pakistan military to improve their capabilities and capacity to improve border security on their side of the Durand line. I do not envisage that there will be any instantaneous improvement in border security. It will take us time to achieve that, but the UK is working very closely with Pakistan to improve its capabilities.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will not withdraw from our relationship with Pakistan at this very difficult time? There are people who argue that we should withdraw diplomatic relations. It should be remembered that Pakistan is losing far more troops than anyone else in trying to secure that border, so will he give assurances that he will maintain that relationship?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we will certainly do that. Pakistan is not the culprit but the victim of this type of violent extremism. The Pakistani security forces up in the federally administered tribal areas, down in Waziristan and along the border have fought long and hard against the extremists,
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who are a real threat to the democracy of Pakistan, too. We will continue to work with Pakistan. They are our friends and allies and share a common assessment of the menace posed by such extremism.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that our relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is in good enough shape to ensure that we deliver effective operations on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Mr. Hutton: No, not entirely. We continue to exert whatever positive influence that we can, but the situation is very complicated. I cannot really confirm or deny very much about the nature of some of the more recent stories in the newspapers, but we know that there is a problem and it has to be addressed. Efforts are being made to address the problem, but we cannot have covert support being given either to al-Qaeda or to the Taliban in Pakistan. Not only is that a risk to our troops, whom we protect absolutely as a premium, but it is a direct threat to the stability of Pakistan.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?

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