Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Speaker: Order. Thirty-two right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As the House knows, there is another statement to follow. I should
15 Dec 2009 : Column 807
like, as usual, to accommodate as many Members as possible but, to do so, short questions and-I gently say to the Secretary of State-short answers will be required.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I listened to my right hon. Friend's statement with interest, and I require reassurance on two quick points. First, will he reassure me that the cut to the minesweeper and survey vessel will not impact on Plymouth and the work carried out there? Secondly, when looking at the defence estate, will he, as I assume that he will, do everything he can to speed up the sale of significant parcels of land that have been hanging around for some time and need to be moved on?

Mr. Ainsworth: The detail of my proposals has to be worked through, but I will talk to my hon. Friend and any other constituency Member about the consequences of the withdrawal of the minesweeper and the survey vessel. Of course, if there are opportunities to release capital receipts by disposing of land that is not required, we will try to do that as quickly as possible. I know that the city of Plymouth wants us to do that so that reshaping can happen and people can get on with their development plans for the city.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Several of the announcements will be very welcome-not least the wonderful announcement on Chinook, which will fly into and out of the equally wonderful RAF Odiham, which is in my constituency-but others will be less so. Precisely what aspects of Army training will be reduced, and by how much?

Mr. Ainsworth: We will prioritise the training that is required for current operations. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a big shift towards using facilities in Kenya, which are very suitable for current operations. However, we must consider other aspects of Army training, for example regarding Challenger 2 tanks. We will not require the Challenger in Afghanistan because it is not suitable for that theatre. There are therefore reductions that we can make so that we can focus and improve our concentration on, and support for, current operations.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to continue building two aircraft carriers? Furthermore, will he confirm that it is in fact only the Government who are committed to building carriers at all?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are committed to the carriers. Nothing that I have said today affects the carrier programme in any way. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend, however, that that does not mean that we can provide the three or four carriers that he has on occasion asked for.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Secretary of State begin to understand the very dangerous precedent that he has created by giving in to the Treasury demand that Afghan expenditure should be funded from the core defence budget and not from the contingency fund? Does he not understand that there is hardly an example in living memory of that being done? How will he resist future demands from the
15 Dec 2009 : Column 808
Treasury-and they will come-that Afghan expenditure should be at the expense of the core defence budget itself?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is right and proper-and the principle remains in place-that the additional costs of our operations in Afghanistan will be paid for out of the reserve and not the core budget. Everything, from the bullets and bombs that are used through to the additional allowances paid to our troops, comes from that source, and will continue to do so. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman seriously suggesting that we should not be interested in using the core defence budget on major upgrades, such as a whole new fleet of helicopters? Is he saying that we should not buy anything that is relevant to our current operations out of that budget, but that we should expect the Treasury to buy anything and everything that is usable in theatre in Afghanistan? That really is unsustainable, and I think that he knows it.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): This time last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I had just returned from Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend's announcement today of enhanced capabilities for our troops in Afghanistan includes many of the things that they were asking for, but I want to ask particularly about close combat. Is he listening to what the front-line troops are saying about how we need to evolve our close-combat gear to give them additional agility and to improve their effectiveness?

Mr. Ainsworth: Absolutely. I have had, as my hon. Friend will have had, repeated requests from troops. We know that there have been considerable improvements in personal kit and equipment for our operations in theatre, but we want to train as we will be expected to fight. We have enough close-combat equipment to provide for our troops in theatre, and overwhelmingly for their pre-deployment training before they go into theatre, but this package will allow people to get the kit and equipment that they will be using in pre-deployment training and in theatre before they begin their pre-deployment training. They will therefore be able to train with it for longer, and thus be more familiar with it and more capable as a result.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of RAF recruits going through basic training at Halton is due to fall next year, compared with this? Does that imply that the Government expect the RAF to become smaller in size over the next few years?

Mr. Ainsworth: Our recruitment to all our armed forces has been very effective in the last couple of years, to the point that the Army is now fully manned. The detail of the impact on personnel is yet to be worked out, but I do not envisage the kind of effects that the hon. Gentleman talks about.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I welcome the measures announced by my right hon. Friend, but does he not think that it is time to reflect on whether we can avoid a reduction in non-operational training, for example, by determining whether we will get good value for money from the replacement of Trident?

15 Dec 2009 : Column 809

Mr. Ainsworth: The Government's position on the nuclear deterrent is clear. We consulted widely on the White Paper that we published in 2006, and our view has not changed. I do not think that any sensible person would say that we should not prioritise the kind of training needed for the current operations at the expense of lower priorities at this time. We have 9,500 people in theatre and, as we have sadly found out, it is a very dangerous theatre of operation. That has to be our main priority and our main effort.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that, while the deployment of the 22 Chinooks in Afghanistan is much to be welcomed, many of us believe that they should have been ordered many months ago? Does he understand that that omission was culpable and negligent, and that men have died needlessly as a consequence?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he stands as a member of a party that supported our operations, yet does not offer and has not offered a single penny more for defence. He has to square that with the kind of comments that he has just made.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend be absolutely confident that there will be no capability gap between our existing aircraft carriers and the deployment of our new carriers as a result of any slippage in the carrier programme?

Mr. Ainsworth: I know why my hon. Friend asks that question. A statement was made in his Committee this morning. That was an erroneous statement. There is not a problem of a gap. There is an issue of training that we need to look at and of which we are fully aware. We are examining it and mitigating it. There is no gap in the programme between the existing carriers and the future carriers.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): Does the Secretary of State understand that many of us believe that he is a victim of the serious misjudgment of the military action against Iraq, compounded by the parsimony of the Treasury? What are the foreign policy and military implications of such a substantial reduction in the offensive capability of the Royal Air Force in advance of a defence review?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is some £3.5 billion from the Treasury reserve this year-the figure has gone up from £700-odd million in 2006-so if that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls parsimony, they are pretty big figures and they have covered the additional costs of our operations in Afghanistan. When he talks about the effects on the RAF, to some extent the future of the RAF lies with unmanned aerial vehicles, and there is a proposal for a very substantial increase in unmanned aerial vehicles in the package that I am announcing today.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): In August two lightly damaged Chinooks-one of them damaged by small arms fire-were destroyed by our own forces because the security situation is so dire that we could not guard them for the 36 hours that it would have taken to lift them to a place of safety. Because of the deteriorating security situation, is it sensible to order more Chinooks that are vulnerable to small arms fire and to surface-to-air missiles?

15 Dec 2009 : Column 810

Mr. Ainsworth: The Chinook is far, far from a vulnerable aircraft. Those two will be replaced, and the replacements for the two that were damaged in theatre will be paid for by the reserve in line with the principles that underpin what should be paid for by the Treasury reserve and what should come from the core defence budget.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): What plans does the Secretary of State have to explain to the British people and to his colleagues in Government the direct relationship between the excellence of Her Majesty's forces, which comes at a price, the security of this nation in terms of energy, food, water, all the goods that they buy to fill their kitchens and their fridges, their cars and their computers, and the ability of Her Majesty's forces to have global reach to protect this country, all of which comes at a price worth paying?

Mr. Ainsworth: The principal vehicle for doing that is the Green Paper that we will publish in the new year, which will raise all those questions, and I hope inform the debate about the future of defence. We have co-operation from all the parties that are part of the defence advisory board that is looking at the Green Paper and should provide a good intellectual underpinning for the strategic defence review that will be necessary and come after the general election.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The whole country will agree that my right hon. Friend has taken the right decision in focusing entirely on the important activity in Afghanistan. He referred to a survey vessel. Will he ensure that in working through the details of the withdrawal of that vessel, there is close integration and discussion with the broader scientific community to make sure that the valuable work that that vessel has done is not lost?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have to try to maintain oceanic survey capability to the maximum degree that we can, but we have to prioritise our current operation, so the answer to my hon. Friend is yes-of course we will try to look at the detail and make sure that we still have the necessary minimum capability.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that the chief of defence materials told the Defence Committee this morning that he is willing to consider building the Chinooks through AgustaWestland under the existing licensing agreement with Boeing. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will instruct his officials actively to explore that option, if it can be done on time and on budget?

Mr. Ainsworth: I would not turn my back on that option in principle, but, on the costs and the time frame, I do not believe that we will be able to get the Chinook capability via that route. If somebody were able to convince me otherwise, that would be absolutely fine. I can say, though, that in our remodelled helicopter fleet, AgustaWestland will have a very important role. It will still provide two of the four helicopter platforms that we plan to continue into the future-the Merlin and the Lynx Wildcat.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State explain why the statement did not include anything about Britain's nuclear weapons? Would it not have been a good opportunity to announce the cancellation of the Trident replacement programme, thus saving a great deal of money?

15 Dec 2009 : Column 811

Mr. Ainsworth: The answer to that is: I do not believe that it would be a good idea to make such an announcement, because I do not agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Most of the capabilities that the Secretary of State has today announced will be sent to Afghanistan have been flagged up over the past year by the military in Afghanistan, as many hon. Members have said. Why has it taken so long for those capabilities actually to come into play? Is it because the Treasury and the Prime Minister delayed them?

Mr. Ainsworth: It has not taken so long, and the hon. Gentleman knows that we have made repeated announcements of capability uplifts in all kinds of areas. I heard some so-called expert on the television today say, "Why are we only getting IED capability now when we have been in Afghanistan for eight years?" Well, we have not been in Helmand for eight years, and the threat changed. If we care to remember, a couple of years ago the big problem was head-on assaults, small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): There is an overwhelmingly responsibility on any British Government to protect and support British manufacturing and British jobs. Following the question from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), could I, as joint chair of the Unite parliamentary group, ask what discussions my right hon. Friend has had with AgustaWestland, as part of its strategic defence agreement with the MOD, to build the Chinook helicopter under the existing licence agreement? Will he consider-even at this late stage-a British bid and meet Unite representatives so that they can put forward their case?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have said that I would not rule out in principle such an option, but in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, where budgets are tight and we need to have that capability as quickly as possible, I am not prepared to enter into an arrangement that delays and increases the cost of those aircraft. I want those Chinooks; I want them as quickly as I can get them; and I want them at an affordable price. I do not think that we are breaking our long-term relationship with AgustaWestland, which will continue to be a major supplier of helicopter capability to us.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned the cost growth in equipment programmes, and we understand from this morning's report that the Government delay in pursuing the carrier contracts has caused an uplift in the price of more than £600 million and had knock-on effects on the work forces of Rosyth and Devonport. How is that value for money?

Mr. Ainsworth: Look, difficult decisions have to be taken in order to prioritise the equipment programme. I heard a Conservative spokesman today describe how things might be different, but the Conservatives would have ordered the carrier, wouldn't they? They would also surely-or would they?-have prioritised the things that we have prioritised, so if they are going to make the allegation that we did something wrong, they have to be prepared to spell out what they would have done differently, and they have singularly failed to do that.

15 Dec 2009 : Column 812

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My friend said a few moments ago that Government policy on Trident had not changed since 2006, but that is incorrect; the Prime Minister has floated the possibility of going down from four boats to three boats. If that were to happen, how much would be saved?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend needs to look at the White Paper, because the possibility of going down from four boats to three boats was floated at the time. I have to say to him that that would not save money in any near year because, as I am sure that he will appreciate, all the costs of the fourth boat come pretty late in the programme.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Given that the Tornado force is being reduced, RAF Marham in my constituency will be affected. The Secretary of State will appreciate that it is an extremely busy base that could not function without its dedicated local staff. What impact assessment have the Government undertaken to assess the effect that the cuts will have on local unemployment and unemployment as a whole?

Mr. Ainsworth: We will obviously have to look at that. The operation at Marham is particularly impressive-I have been there myself-and we do not want to do anything to undermine the good work that is being done there. However, we have to prioritise the kinds of kit and equipment that are needed for our current operations, and that will lead to a reduction in the number of fast jets that we have. The decision on the breakdown between Harrier and Tornado will have to be taken as part of a strategic defence review. Considerations of the kind that the hon. Gentleman is talking about will of course be part of that evaluation.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The counties of Rutland and Leicestershire will be alarmed at the proposed closure of RAF Cottesmore, which is, inter alia, a significant contributor to the local economy. Will the Secretary of State, as a well-regarded trade unionist in a former life, indicate to the House what plans he has to consult the local work force and, indeed, the wider local community about the impact of this suggested closure?

Mr. Ainsworth: We will be consulting them through the chain of command, and helping them in any and every way that we can. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that if we are to pay for the kind of enhancements that we need, and that are and should be our priority, there has to be something on the other side of the balance. We will try to help the people affected.

Next Section Index Home Page