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House of Commons

Monday 22 February 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

1. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): What support the Government are giving to the development of unmanned aerial vehicles. [317436]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): In addition to procuring a number of unmanned aerial vehicles and related systems for Afghanistan, we are making several longer term investments in research in this area and supporting two technology demonstrators-Taranis, an unmanned combat air system project, and Mantis, an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance asset. Both contracts have been placed with BAE Systems.

Mr. Evans: That is excellent news as UAVs have proved very successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the Minister continue to support research, development and production in this country? Will he also consider deployment of UAVs in the Falkland Islands, which would send a strong message to the Kirchners and the Government of Argentina that we are determined that while the Falkland islanders wish the Falkland Islands to remain under British sovereignty, they will so remain, come what may?

Mr. Davies: In answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point, we remain committed to continuing to ensure that this country remains at the cutting edge of these important technologies for the future. The second question is an operational issue, rather than an issue of equipment for me, but I am certain that commanders in that theatre or any other will call on whatever assets are most appropriate for the tasks in hand.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please will the Minister update us on the Watchkeeper UAV programme that is based at Boscombe Down in my constituency?

Mr. Davies: This is a very important programme that will succeed the Hermes 450, which has been doing sterling work in Afghanistan. The Watchkeeper programme has a number of significant advantages over the Hermes 450, although I will not go into those in public. We are procuring 54 of those vehicles for the foreseeable future, and I am assured that delivery will take place before the end of this year.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Given that Britain and France both have a requirement for a medium altitude long endurance UAV, and in the light of the recent improved attitude by the French towards joint procurement, will the Minister consider the possibilities of joint procurement with the French and possibly even the Italians? Might not we all benefit from establishing a European platform in UAVs?

Mr. Davies: That is certainly a pertinent and well informed question, and I discussed precisely those matters with my French counterpart, the head of the DGA, last week in Paris. I have also discussed them with my Italian opposite number. However, I am not in a position to make any concrete announcement today on the subject.

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Defence Equipment Budget (Cost Overruns)

2. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What his most recent estimate is of the level of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget; and if he will make a statement. [317437]

7. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): What assessment he has made of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget; and if he will make a statement. [317443]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): The most recent audited estimate of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget is a forecast increase of £1.242 billion in the financial year 2008-09, as reported in the 2008-09 annual report and accounts. These cost increases were virtually entirely attributable to two projects-the A400M aircraft and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. I have no reason to suppose that this year there will be any such serious cost overruns. Nearly 90 per cent. of projects in the past two years have been delivered to cost.

Mr. Carswell: In evidence to the Defence Committee, the Minister confirmed that at the start of the 2009 planning round the deficit in the equipment budget was £21 billion, and that at the start of the 2010 round it was £6 billion. What is the present value of the deficit and how does he explain the £15 billion reduction?

Mr. Davies: Those are two separate questions. We are not in a position to go beyond the £6 billion figure at the moment, but we are working on the figures as part of the present planning round at the end of the financial year. This is a netting exercise as the hon. Gentleman will understand. There may be some projects for which we have over-provided and will be able to write back some provision, and some projects will be descoped for operational or other reasons, or cancelled for non-performance. It is therefore impossible to predict the exact position at the end of the financial year.

As for the reduction in the forward projected deficit of £21 billion last year to £6 billion, that £15 billion was accounted for by several factors. In some cases, projects were repositioned in the pipeline until some later date, forgoing that capability for the time being. In the majority of cases, the reduction was because of the descoping of the programmes that we were undertaking anyway or an agreement to reduce the capability that we intended to order-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the Minister, but I think that we have the thrust of his reply.

Mr. Jenkin: If I may be allowed a word in edgeways, it was not until recently that Ministers admitted to the Select Committee on Defence that there was any deficit. Indeed, it was only a short time ago-less than a year- that the Minister for defence equipment and support, addressing a conference called "Punching Above the Budget: A Prospect seminar", said, "There is no...deficit." So why have the Government now admitted that there is a deficit? It has been common knowledge among everybody who knows anything about defence that the Government have a programme far too large for their budget, so why did they not admit that years and years ago?

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Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the quotation that he has attributed to me was in relation to the last financial year, when there was not a significant deficit. The point that I have just made about the long-term deficit, as opposed to- [ Interruption. ] He obviously cannot understand the difference between a long-term deficit, going out to 10 years, and a current deficit, in the course of one year. If he cannot understand that, he will have to ask one of his hon. Friends to explain it to him.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): One of the affected programmes is the Nimrod MR2 programme, which has been withdrawn and replaced by the Nimrod MRA4. There is now a gap between the two that will impact on search and rescue capability. When will the Ministry of Defence update the House on which fixed-wing aircraft will perform that task for long-range cover capability, and say what its range, radar and communication capability will be?

Mr. Davies: The answer is that a number of assets, not all of them fixed wing-some may be helicopters-will fill that gap.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The £1.2 billion cost overrun to which the Minister has referred constitutes yet another damning indictment of this Government's pathetic stewardship of defence procurement throughout their time in office. It is interesting how little support he has from his own Back Benchers today. Where are they all? Does the Minister not accept that it is utterly irresponsible for the Government's lamentable performance to be compounded by rushing through major project decisions in the dying days of this decaying Government? Does he not realise that although he might think he can buy votes in marginal seats by promising kit that he will not have to pay for, he will be bitterly disappointed when we win the next election?

Mr. Davies: All that electoral rhetoric is completely at odds with the facts. I have already explained that the deficit was due to two things, one of which is the A400M programme. That was the result of technical problems on the part of the supplier; it had nothing to do with the competence or otherwise of this Government. That is one of those things that, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know-and he does know, of course-invariably happens with new generations of military aircraft. As for the carriers, we made a deliberate decision not to bring forward that capability earlier than we needed it. By doing that we released quite a lot of current cash, which we needed to spend on more urgent items. That was good management; it was none of the things that the hon. Gentleman described it as being.


3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What priorities his Department has set for responding to the insurgency in Afghanistan. [317438]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The UK armed forces are operating in Afghanistan as part of the 43-nation international security assistance force. ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country in support of the
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Afghan Government. We are supporting the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces. Our armed forces, alongside our ISAF partners, also play an important role in facilitating and protecting improvements in governance and socio-economic development.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I cannot get to a higher class than to have the Secretary of State reply to my question. Can he give me and the House an update on the deployment of mine detection and improvised explosive device-clearance systems, and on the Talisman project, which I understand was scheduled for initial fielding in late 2009?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am aware of how important the class of the people whom he mingles with is to the hon. Gentleman. We have stepped up our efforts on countering IEDs over a long period, as the Taliban have increasingly relied on that capability to attack our forces. We have doubled the counter-IED force in theatre, and we have tried to get various new pieces of kit and equipment, including Talisman, which is operating in Afghanistan, into theatre. However, the big thing that we need to do is tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is there to be a full inquiry into the NATO airstrike on Sunday that resulted in many civilian deaths-more than 30-following other civilian deaths? Is that the way to win hearts and minds? Increasingly, one understands the decision taken by the Government of Holland.

Mr. Ainsworth: The recent incident took place in Oruzgan province, as my hon. Friend knows. He also knows-or should know-that the ISAF commander has apologised for those deaths. Every time I hear General McChrystal speaking, particularly to his own forces, he is really hard on this issue. Every civilian death is one too many, and he tries to hammer that through at every level and on every occasion. If we are to win this campaign, we have to win it in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and making every effort to reduce civilian deaths is his absolute priority. I believe that that is the right priority for him to have.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Given that stability has slipped significantly in previously secure areas such as Kunduz and Herat, and that there are Taliban shadow governments in every Afghan province, what is the coalition's strategy for decreasing the strength of the insurgency across the country as a whole, beyond the southern area that is the focus of the current military operation?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the insurgency has looked to increase its capability throughout the country, and that it has enjoyed some success in certain areas. The feeling is that the insurgency has to be confronted in its heartland, and that the main effort therefore has to be made in the central Helmand valley. That is currently taking place through Operation Moshtarak, which is progressing fairly well in terms of taking the areas concerned away from Taliban control. The commander of the ISAF has
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also said that his other priorities are to clear the routes to enable people to travel freely on the main routes in Afghanistan, and to tackle the insurgency in Kandahar, which he will probably move on to soon.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): On the transition of lead security responsibility to the Afghan Government, can my right hon. Friend provide us with the anticipated timetable for such action within each district and across the nation as a whole?

Mr. Ainsworth: The last thing we want to do is to peg people to a timetable in that regard. Our handing over security control to the Afghans in any district or province has to be based on capability, and on their ability not only to take the lead in security in the first instance but successfully to prosecute that lead thereafter. The last thing we want to do is to hand over any district or province prematurely, as that could set the Afghans up for a setback. Capability has to be the key concern. Of course we want to make progress, and we need to be able to show progress in this next year, but we do not want to impose an artificial timetable in any particular area.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Public support at home for our armed forces in Afghanistan is vital for our long-term success, which is why we must give constant reassurance that NATO seeks at all times to minimise civilian casualties-which we do. However, with 80 per cent. of civilian deaths due to direct Taliban activity, with clear successes in recent operations, and with international co-operation resulting in a substantial reduction in al-Qaeda and Taliban capability in Afghanistan and Pakistan-including the loss of many of their military chiefs-why are the Government still failing to get a more positive and balanced message across to the British public? The British people need to see more than just casualties on our side if we are to keep them with us supporting our troops in their mission. What do the Government intend to do to win hearts and minds in Britain, too?

Mr. Ainsworth: I genuinely do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We have made great strides recently, and to some effect, in terms of reassuring people about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, and about the success that we are having. There has been some excellent reporting of the recent Operation Moshtarak in central Helmand. Yes, of course, there has been some misleading reporting -as ever-but the majority of it has been first class, and people have been able to see what we have done and how we have done it, and the degree of success that our people have had.

In the Ministry of Defence, we have recently employed General Messenger, who has commanded in Afghanistan, as a spokesperson who can contact the media on a regular basis and provide in-depth briefings-both on and off the record-on how we are conducting our operations in Afghanistan.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is wrong: the Dutch Government have taken no decision on Afghanistan; they have simply collapsed on account of Afghanistan. Does that not send out a slight warning
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signal that we perhaps need a little less military confrontation, with all its collateral damage that does so much harm to our good name in Afghanistan, and much more political and diplomatic containment?

Mr. Ainsworth: We need political progress in Afghanistan, which is vital, and we need to deliver it through the Afghan Government. However, the last thing that we want is to provide anything other than reintegration, reconciliation and political progress, but we will not achieve it from a position of weakness. The Afghan Government still depend on ISAF for their basic position, and they will do so for some time while we grow the capability of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. Of course we should emphasise the political and development side of these operations, as they are vital at the end of the day.

University Training Units

4. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): What plans he has for the future role of university training units. [317440]

6. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What plans he has for the future role of university training units. [317442]

9. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What plans he has for the future role of university training units. [317445]

10. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What plans he has for the future of university training units. [317447]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The Government fully recognise the value of the university royal naval units, the officer training corps, the university air squadrons and the defence training undergraduate scheme, which allow individuals to develop skills that are extremely valuable in future careers either within or without the armed forces. There are currently no plans to change the role of the university training units.

Mr. Lancaster: I remind the House of my interest. Just one month before the start of the new training year, OTCs and Territorial Army units are yet to have next year's training budget confirmed. That forms a major problem for the commanding officers of those units, and it is a problem that the Armed Forces Minister recognised on 26 October, when he said that

Four months on, we still do not know, so will the Minister simply confirm that all budgets will be in place before 1 April?

Mr. Jones: The reductions in university OTCs-on training, for example-were made on the recommendation of the head of the Army in order to make in-year savings. I accept that they have caused some problems for individual units. We reinstated the moneys for the trainers, but decisions on this year's budget are ongoing within the MOD and will be announced in due course.

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