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Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the
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right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Secretary of State acknowledged that it is a porous border. It is also a very contested border. The long-term solution will involve strengthening the capabilities of Afghan forces. To what extent is he working more with the Afghan army, which is making good progress, but also with the Afghan police, where I gather that progress is less satisfactory than with the army?

Mr. Hutton: We have made some significant progress in training the Afghan army. There are now nearly 70,000 trained personnel in the Afghan forces, but that simply is not enough; significant further increases are needed. However, there is a lot more work to be done in training the Afghan police, who are simply not in a proper state, I am afraid, at the moment to contribute to dealing with the problems on the border. We are working with the Afghan security forces, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, to improve capabilities there. The recent announcement of very significant additional US forces, with a specific training and mentoring role, will again offer prospects in the year ahead, so that we can make significant further progress, but this remains a fundamental concern. There is a weakness in the quality and capabilities of Afghan security forces, and it must be addressed.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): There are persistent reports that the Treasury would veto any attempt to deploy further British troops to Afghanistan. Can it possibly be the case that the strategy of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department is being determined by the Treasury?

Mr. Hutton: I think that the facts speak for themselves— [ Interruption ]although perhaps not in the way that Opposition Members think. If one looks at the facts, we see that the British mission in Afghanistan has increased significantly in the past three years—from an initial deployment of 2,000 or 3,000, up now nearly to 8,500 and beyond—and that has been properly and fully resourced by the Treasury. So there is no substance in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentions that the coalition of forces provides security in the region. Will he comment on the contribution made by the smaller nations within NATO—countries such as Estonia, with a population of just over 1 million, which supplies 150 troops at present in Afghanistan? Would he like to send a message to those countries?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I certainly would. The Estonian contingent in Helmand has done an absolutely superb job, and many hon. Members will have seen those troops serving alongside British soldiers; they are literally shoulder to shoulder. They are superb fighters, and they have done a fantastic job. I was in Copenhagen last week to express on behalf, I hope, of the whole House our respect and admiration for the Danish forces that are also fighting in Gereshk in central Helmand. Those
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forces, too, have done an absolutely superb job. We are lucky and fortunate to have those allies in Helmand, but we could do with more.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Given his Department’s acceptance that Britain’s armed forces are

where does Secretary of State expect to find the troops for any increase in Britain’s presence in Afghanistan if that is what he decides to do? Pursuant to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), will the Secretary of State give the House an unequivocal undertaking that any such increase will be fully funded in year by the Treasury?

Mr. Hutton: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I do not want to identify particular units or do anything like that today—that would be wrong—but the draw-down in Operation Telic will create an operational breathing space, and it might be possible to find additional resources in that way if a decision was made to deploy additional forces. That is at least a partial answer to his question.

On the money issue, as I have said, the Treasury has always supported to the full our contingent operations in Afghanistan, and that will continue to be the case.

Warship Construction Programme

4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent progress has been made on the warship construction programme; and if he will make a statement. [267178]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): This is an historic and momentous programme, and it continues to make progress. It involves the new Type 45 destroyers, the Astute class submarine, the two new carriers and, following on from them, the future surface combatant. The result of the programme will be that in decades to come, the Royal Navy will continue to be one of the world’s most powerful maritime forces.

Mr. Amess: I am not sure what progress has been made, because the Government’s 1998 strategic defence review stated that the Royal Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers to meet our national security objectives. Astonishingly, there are only 22. Will the Minister explain to the House what has happened to the overall objectives of that review? Have they been abandoned? If not, how will the Government meet them?

Mr. Davies: The answer lies partially in changes to the threat in the world, and partially in the increased capability of the ships that we are building. The Type 45 destroyer, for example, is vastly more capable than the Type 42 that she is replacing.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): As that programme is clearly not wholly affordable, what steps does the hon. Gentleman intend to take to bring it into a more affordable position? In addition, none of the warships will be able to operate without a new fleet
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support operation. On what date will the new MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability fleet—concept come into full operation?

Mr. Davies: The programme is indeed affordable, and we recently confirmed that in the equipment examination that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in a statement in this House in December. As for the MARS programme, we are focused on it and will make announcements in due course.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): If this programme is so affordable, why have the Government been forced to extend the life of the Type 23 frigates, so that they will be the oldest frigates in service in the Royal Navy since the days of sail?

Mr. Davies: I do not know whether the latter point is correct, but I am quite convinced that the Type 23 frigates will continue to be able to meet their current out-of-service dates. They will be replaced, in due course, by the future surface combatant; it is my intention that they should begin being built in the yards as soon as the second carrier has been launched.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On 12 January, the Secretary of State said in an oral answer:

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), said in a written answer on the same day:

Given that over the past 11 years, the frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 23, or possibly 22, the attack submarine fleet from 12 to eight—it is heading for seven—and the new destroyer building programme from 12 to only six, and that the start date for the two carriers has been delayed, and whereas in the 11 years to 1939 we constructed six aircraft carriers, five battleships, 54 submarines—

Mr. Speaker: Order. As a former metalworker, I am always happy to hear about the construction of ships, but the question is too long.

Dr. Lewis: Then I will bring the question to its conclusion, if I may. Given the vast number of ships constructed over a similar period up to 1939, including 117 destroyers, how can the Minister justify the statements that were made on 12 January?

Mr. Davies: First, I think that the hon. Gentleman may have prepared his extremely long question before he heard the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the present programme. If I may respectfully say so, the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) also confuses the issue of current numbers and the issue of the current construction programme. I repeat that the current construction programme is the largest that we have engaged in, in terms of capability and tonnage; the 65,000-tonne carriers will be the largest ships ever built by the Royal Navy in her history. The hon. Gentleman
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would do well to reflect on that, and to consider the fact that that is a decision taken by this Government. I shudder to think what might happen under a future Conservative Government, if there were one, to our naval shipbuilding programme, or to our procurement programme, because the Conservatives still have not told us how they would finance the three new battalions.

Vanguard Class Nuclear Submarine Reactors

5. Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): What work is being carried out on Vanguard class nuclear submarine reactors at Devonport dockyard; and if he will make a statement. [267179]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): We announced on 2 March the award of a contract to Babcock Marine to complete the overhaul of HMS Vigilant. This is the third of four planned overhauls, following the completion of those for HMS Vanguard and HMS Victorious. The overhaul for HMS Vengeance will follow HMS Vigilant’s.

Mr. Breed: The question concerned reactors, and I heard nothing about reactors in that answer. The Minister will know that there was a fairly large public consultation on the storage of old reactors from the T-class submarines, but that did not include the Vanguard class. There is concern that that plant will also be stored in Devonport, which is wholly against the purpose of the public consultation. It was about the temporary storage of T-class submarine reactors. It did not include the storage of any Vanguard reactors, which will now, apparently, take place.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the current overhaul includes refuelling the reactor with a new core, core H, which will fuel her for the remainder of her operational life. On the storage of reactors, it has always been our policy to store reactors in situ, in this case in Devonport, until the ISOLUS—interim storage of laid-up submarines—programme comes into force, under which we will put forward a new policy for dealing with the long-term future of these nuclear reactors. We will make an announcement on that subject next year, after the strategic environmental assessment, which will take place later this year.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Can my hon. Friend confirm that the work referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) has been accepted by the Environment Agency as in line with the licence that was granted when the work was extended to those submarines? Can he also confirm that the skilled work involved in the submarines is the anchor for ensuring that Plymouth will remain an important centre of naval engineering excellence in the future?

Mr. Davies: I can confirm my hon. Friend’s suppositions on both fronts. It is right that all the work we do on nuclear reactors in Devonport is under the regulation of the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and our own defence nuclear regulator, so she can be reassured about that. The future of Devonport is bright, and I cannot conceive of any scenario in which her assumptions would not be correct.

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NATO Military Structure (France)

8. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with his French counterpart on France rejoining the military structure of NATO. [267182]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has had a number of discussions with the French Defence Minister in recent months. These discussions covered a range of issues, including NATO, and more specifically, the French return to the military structure of NATO.

Paul Rowen: Now that France has taken the historic step of joining the NATO command structure, what are the Government doing to ensure that the wider concerns shared by our Government, France and our allies in the EU, such as Cyprus/Turkey, security on our eastern Mediterranean border and our commitments in Afghanistan, are met?

Mr. Ainsworth: We try to co-operate in every way we can to assist the French. We welcome their return to the NATO command structure. That in itself will not sort out long-standing problems such as Cyprus, which are a huge challenge to co-operation between the European Union and NATO, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We are hopeful that the process of reconciliation in Cyprus will go forward. There are optimistic signs, although the problem has gone on for a long time, and nobody can bank on an early solution. The French will now join in the planning of arrangements for the security of other NATO countries and our operations in Afghanistan.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): When the Secretary of State meets his French counterpart later this week, will he take him to one side and tell him that it is vital that the larger nations of NATO, among which France is extremely crucial, play a full and fuller part in Afghanistan? Perhaps the Secretary of State could take the French Secretary of State along to congratulate the Estonians.

Mr. Ainsworth: My right hon. Friend will speak to his French counterpart later today, although I do not know what the subject of the conversation will be.

Burden sharing in Afghanistan is of course important, and we raise the issue all the time, but let us not write off the contributions that other nations make. The French have about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. If they could make a bigger contribution we would welcome that. We encourage all our NATO allies, large and small, to participate in the burden sharing necessary to ensure that NATO tasks in Afghanistan and elsewhere are carried out equitably.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Given the challenges facing the defence budget in the coming years, what further plans do Ministers have for increasing co-operation with the French? Does the Minister agree with the late and much-missed Lord Garden that the question is not so much about politics as arithmetic? Without compromising sovereignty over core defence roles, what potential does the Minister see for sharing our research
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and development work, co-ordinating our procurement timetables and possibly even considering more joint defence roles in future?

Mr. Ainsworth: Co-operation and interoperability are vital. Equally, sovereign control over our armed forces and their deployment is vital and will be maintained. The only thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman about pressures on the defence budget is that they would not be any less if his party were in government; actually, they would probably be a darn sight worse.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Will the Minister resist the Euro-zealotry of the Liberal Democrats and welcome the long-overdue repositioning of France away from a creeping EU defence identity towards its natural home, NATO? Will he take the opportunity next week in Strasbourg to discuss with France the delineation of security responsibility between NATO and the EU in accordance with Madeleine Albright’s “three D” doctrine: no duplication, no disengagement from north America and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members—particularly Turkey, given current French antipathy?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman’s antipathy to the European Union in all its forms is pretty well known. Clearly, he has not listened to the French President’s pronouncements on the issue of late; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s prejudice has stood in the way of that. The French President has said, in terms, that the EU and NATO should be complementary to each other and not duplicate each other’s efforts and capability.

Normandy Veterans

9. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What his Department’s policy is on the provision of assistance to Normandy veterans to enable attendance at events to mark the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings. [267183]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): It has been the policy of successive Governments that special commemorations are initiated by the Ministry of Defence only for key anniversaries and centennials of events of the greatest national significance; other anniversaries do not receive MOD sponsorship at public expense.

On 26 March, I met representatives of the Normandy Veterans Association to discuss the support that the MOD might offer with the 65th anniversary. It was agreed that the MOD would assist the association with specific administrative tasks, including applying to the Big Lottery Fund for financial support to attend commemorative events in the UK and overseas, and that it would explore the possibility of a church service on 21 June 2009.

James Duddridge: May I ask the Minister to look again at this issue? It is outrageous that 500 people who fought for us in Normandy may not, for financial reasons, be able to go to the 65th anniversary celebration—the last celebration. It is no good the Government funding a 100th anniversary celebration—the veterans will all be dead by then. Let us look at this issue now. It is very important, and the general public and veterans are angry that the Government are not doing more.

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Mr. Jones: Every year, the MOD puts substantial support into events on the Normandy beaches. On the last significant occasion—the 60th anniversary in 2004—large sums were given, and the Normandy Veterans Association formally announced that that would be last time it would parade. Since last year, there has been support—some £178,000—from the national lottery. Let me reiterate that the significance of these events was supported by the previous Conservative Government as well.

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