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10. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): What his most recent estimate is of the cost of the replacement of the Trident nuclear warhead system. [267184]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): We published our initial estimate of the costs for the possible refurbishment or replacement of the warhead for our future nuclear deterrent capability in the December 2006 nuclear White Paper. This is in the range of £2 billion to £3 billion at 2006-07 prices. We have not yet made a decision to develop a new UK nuclear warhead. However, work is being undertaken to inform decisions, likely to be taken in the next Parliament, on whether and how we might need to refurbish or replace our current warhead.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be no expenditure on developing a new warhead without the specific approval of the House of Commons, and that he is satisfied that the development of a whole new warhead system is legal within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which comes up for review in 2010?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I believe that it certainly would be within the framework of the non-proliferation treaty. The NPT did not require unilateral disarmament on the part of the United Kingdom, and we are able to maintain very properly within the terms of the NPT our minimum nuclear deterrent; and, yes, I believe that there should be a vote in this House before such a decision was taken.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The opposition of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to this policy is well known. The Secretary of State has made it very clear that renewing our current system is within the terms of the NPT, and that we are able to do that. He, like us, supports a multilateral disarmament approach. Can he give the House any idea about the time scales, not only for the development of the submarines, but about how well they are meshed in with the development of the warhead system?

Mr. Hutton: We have made it clear that we believe that the replacements for the Vanguard class submarines would be needed for 2024. An extensive time is needed to design, construct, build, test and operate the new submarines, which potentially will be very capable, and I think that that will take us up to 2024. As I said in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), a decision to renew the warhead will have to be taken by the House of Commons during
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the next Parliament. I believe that the programme that we set out in the 2006 White Paper is coherent and joined up.

Military Covenant (Mental Health Services)

11. Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the military covenant’s provisions relating to the mental health of serving and former service personnel. [267185]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The MOD has a number of programmes to support our people—those in service and veterans. These include, for veterans, six mental health pilot projects and the medical assessment project run at St. Thomas’s hospital by Dr. Ian Palmer. For service personnel in theatre, we have dedicated mental health teams of doctors and nurses who are all trained to spot the signs of mental health difficulties. In the UK, South Staffordshire and Shropshire is leading a consortium of seven NHS mental health trusts to provide in-patient care for service personnel. The Healthcare Commission assessed the MOD’s department of community mental health as part of its review of the Defence Medical Services clinical governance process, which was published earlier this month.

Mr. Benyon: In a recent Royal British Legion survey, it was discovered that of 500 GPs in England and Wales, 85 per cent. knew nothing about the reservists mental health project and 71 per cent. knew nothing about the MOD’s medical assessment programme. What are the Government going to do better to inform GPs, as well as reservists, about these programmes?

Mr. Jones: Two things. First, I am considering a system whereby when people, including reservists, leave the armed forces, that can be flagged up on their NHS medical records, which will give individuals who have had military service broader visibility to GPs. Secondly, there is an onus on us all to promote the six continuing mental health pilots and the project at St. Thomas’s hospital. For the information of Members, anyone who wants to go to the Jubilee Room this afternoon will find that the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency is holding an open day to explain the services it provides for veterans in the UK.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): During last Thursday’s debate, my hon. Friend the Minister indicated that the Department is

Will he expand on that statement, particularly in respect of the work being undertaken in different parts of the country?

Mr. Jones: I initiated the welfare pathway to ensure that we not only support our men and women when they are in service, but look after them in transition, and through life. I am working with other Departments, the Ministry of Defence and service charities; I have a meeting next week, and scoping work is going on. I hope to pull all the work together and announce the final piece of work in July.

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Persian Gulf

12. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the capacity of the Royal Navy presence in the Persian gulf to counter seaborne threats. [267186]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Royal Navy currently contributes vessels to maritime taskforces in the Persian gulf as part of Operation Telic. The Royal Navy’s capacity in the Persian gulf is appropriate to the threat, but kept under constant review.

Mr. Crabb: Alongside an extensive range of other commitments in the region, the Royal Navy has done some important work with the transition team alongside the Iraqi navy, which is in the middle of an ambitious programme to expand in size by 2010. How will the draw-down of British forces in Iraq affect that naval team, and will the Royal Navy be able to continue working with the Iraqi navy for the duration of the programme?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are discussing with the Iraqi Government what they would like us to do as part of our ongoing relationship since the combat mission of Operation Telic began in 2003. Although the talks have not concluded yet, the continued training of the Iraqi navy will be an important part of the process. That idea is certainly on the table and is being actively discussed, and we will make an announcement to the House as soon as we reach a conclusion with the Iraqi Government.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Will the Minister continue to bear it in mind that the main threat in the Persian gulf is that from land-based Iranian rockets, which are capable of threatening the passage of ships through the strait of Hormuz?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have to be mindful of the threat, no matter where it comes from. We have more available than just our forces at the top end of the Persian gulf. There is an existing and long-standing mine threat to international shipping, so the threat in the Persian gulf is complex and we must be mindful of it, no matter where it may come from.

Topical Questions

T1. [267200] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): My departmental responsibility is to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged, either at home or abroad.

David Taylor: The original hope was that the A400M would replace the C-130 and C-160 aircraft, and its initial brief was to operate in many configurations, including cargo transport, troop transport, medevac, aerial refuelling and electronic surveillance. Given today’s reports that the German Government intend to pull out
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of the consortium because of cost and delivery overruns, how does the Secretary of State respond to the charge that this programme has become a show horse for experimental new technologies, which has led to it being exorbitantly expensive, utterly unreliable and lamentably late?

Mr. Hutton: There is truth in a lot of what my hon. Friend says. We are discussing all those issues with our partner nations in the A400M contract, and, as I said earlier, with Airbus Military. I hope that those discussions will conclude by July, and that we will be able to make a decision about the right course of action to take. As I have said many times, in this House and on other occasions, this delay is unacceptable. It poses a threat to the sustainability of our logistical operations, which is not acceptable, and we must make an important decision during the next three months about how, and in what way, we can proceed with this important contract.

T2. [267201] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): You, Mr. Speaker, will remember that during Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday I asked why our service personnel did not know what pay they would be getting as from this coming Wednesday. The Leader of the House mentioned, at column 302, that she thought that the Minister of State would address that matter during the defence debate the following day. I therefore attended that debate and raised the point, but I regret to say that the Minister declined to respond. I urge the Secretary of State here and now to tell the House, and the thousands of service personnel who are listening outside, what they will be paid from Wednesday.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We will be making an announcement on service pay, as on other matters, in the very near future.

T3. [267202] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): The cut and sew contract that has come up for tender should have been announced by now. It is four years since it was given to China. I would have thought that we wanted fair competition, not unfair competition from state-owned factories in China. What can the Minister do to ensure that British jobs are used and that British uniforms are made by British companies?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I believe that my hon. Friend knows that we will re-let the cut and sew contract over the course of the next few months. I think that the target date for us to sign a new contract is September—I do not yet know whether we can do it a little earlier in practice. In response to his point about the source of suppliers we are not, and under EU law are unable to be, protectionist. We have to get the best deal for the taxpayer. He understands these matters, and I will be very happy to meet him again if he wishes to go into them in greater detail.

T9. [267209] David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence admitted that the Nimrod that crashed, killing 14, was not airworthy as a result of systemic or design failures. That is not the first fatal catastrophe that has occurred as a result of such failures, and it is not the first when experts and independent spokesmen had pointed out
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the failures in advance of the fatalities. What will the Secretary of State do to get his Ministry to shape up, listen to criticisms and prevent another Nimrod?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Yesterday was not the first time that we have acknowledged responsibility for the fatal crash of the Nimrod XV230—the previous Secretary of State did so in the House a long time ago. That, of course, was repeated in court as we had made a commitment to the families that we would not resist the matter of responsibility.

With regard to some of the criticisms that we have had from coroners, not only about Nimrod but about other matters, we have to keep on working as hard as we can to make certain that the systems that we have in the MOD are as complete as they need to be, so that we can learn all the lessons from the various bits of information that come from a very complicated organisation. We can then minimise the threats and danger to our people. There is commitment from the military, civil service and political heads of the MOD to do precisely that over time.

T4. [267203] Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be well aware that there is enormous opposition and concern in Russia about the USA’s national missile defence system, and that last week the political classes in the Czech Republic rejected NMD in its entirety. Does he not think it is time that Britain also reviewed our participation in this provocative system that is being put forward by the USA?

Mr. Hutton: It is not a provocative system, it is a self-defence system, so I reject the argument that it is a provocation. Discussions are going on among the various interested parties, and we should let them unfold.

T5. [267205] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): May I take the Secretary of State back to his earlier answer to my question on the joint strike fighter? Having read the published version of the memorandum of understanding laid in the Library, I could find no reference to operational sovereignty. That is because the Secretary of State knows that such matters will be dealt with in a side letter between the two Governments. Will he give the House an assurance that no further purchase of joint strike fighter aircraft will be made until he has made a statement to this House that operational sovereignty, in the fullest sense of the term, has been achieved to cover the operation of those aircraft?

Mr. Hutton: I think that the memorandum of understanding deals with the substance of operational sovereignty.

Mr. Jack indicated dissent.

Mr. Hutton: That is the case, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman. The purchase of the three aircraft is designed to ensure UK operational sovereignty. Without our involvement in the testing and evaluation stage, I doubt whether that could be achieved. We currently have no further procurement plans. We are obviously committed to introducing the joint strike fighter into service as soon as possible, but the fundamental purpose and rationale behind our participation at this early stage is to ensure UK operational sovereignty.

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T6. [267206] John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the work to secure shipbuilding on the Clyde, especially in my Scotstoun shipyard. We are grateful for the 15 years’ guarantee, plus the 15 level years of employment, but when capital projects are coming forward, is not it time to consider military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—to get more work done and, at a time of high unemployment, get more people in employment in the yards, where the work is abundant at the moment?

Mr. Quentin Davies: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s acknowledgement of the value of the maritime new build strategy—that is important for us as the customer, as it is for suppliers and employment. As I said in answer to an earlier question, our priority when the carriers have been launched will be to start construction of the future surface combatant—which must be built in this country.

T7. [267207] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does the Minister for the Armed Forces recall saying the other day that inquests are,

Bearing that in mind, why has the Ministry of Defence spent more than £1 million on legal representation inquests in the past six years, when the families invariably cannot get legal aid? Has he spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice)? In Committee the other day, she said that,What will the right hon. Gentleman do about that? When will he speak to his ministerial counterpart?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I spoke to my ministerial counterpart about the Coroners and Justice Bill before it was introduced and since it has been progressing through the House. Some of what the hon. Gentleman says is not true. Many families get support.

Mr. Bellingham indicated dissent.

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman wants to look at the record, he will find that many families in inquests on military deaths get support. We are supported in only a minority of cases. There is a serious issue that affects not only the Ministry of Defence but the whole Government: do we want to change the nature of the coroners’ courts? If we accept that everybody should be legally represented in every single instance—that does not currently happen now—we will do precisely that. Today, I met a couple of coroners who would be worried if we went in that direction.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Members of all parties will have read remarkable reports of sporting activity and adventure training, including skiing, to help maximise the recovery of service personnel who have been injured on and off the battlefield. Will my hon. Friends join me in congratulating those in the triservice Battle Back and in the Navy’s Project Fortitude on their amazing work?

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I congratulate both organisations. Having met some of the individuals who are taking part—some are members of my hon. Friend’s constituency—I know that they are remarkable individuals. We should give full support to not only individuals but the two organisations and other service charities that also hope to get amputees and those injured in Afghanistan and Iraq involved in competitive sport.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I revert to NATO and Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State agree that, unless NATO deploys in much larger numbers and in a combat role, its authority and the support for it, and our prospects for success in Afghanistan will be much diminished? What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage NATO allies, other than the United States, Canada and so on, to produce more troops in a combat role?

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