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Philip Davies: What effect does the Minister believe cuts in university training programmes and cuts in the training of those already serving in the armed forces will have on the long-term skills and capability of our men and women who serve in uniform? Is not the fact that the Government have brought these proposals forward another damning indictment of their mismanagement of the defence budget and the impact it has on the armed forces?
Mr. Jones: The decision to reduce or take away pay in the OTCs was taken on the recommendation from the head of the Army to make in-year savings. Costs are involved in supporting undergraduate schemes across the three armed forces, so if we are to ensure that we have a balanced defence budget and a balanced defence force, all factors need to be taken into consideration. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that money goes directly into university schemes, I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say, first, where it will come from and, secondly, whether it will affect other parts of the defence budget?
Mr. Dunne: As a member of the university air squadron when I was an undergraduate, I am well aware of the vital role that these schemes play in recruiting for our armed services. The Minister has just told us that the head of the Army proposed cuts in the training budget, so what assessment has he or his Department made of the impact it will have on the number of recruits coming through these schemes, and what cost will fall on the Army if such recruitment no longer takes place?
Mr. Jones: As I have said, this is a recommendation for in-year savings this year. Again, I will challenge the hon. Gentleman: if a future Conservative Government wish to ring-fence this area, they can, but they will have to say what would give in the defence budget. In terms of the strength of the UOTCs, the establishment for 2009 was 2,946 and the establishment at the moment is 3,500.
John Howell: While I welcome the Minister's support for university training units, I am none the wiser after the last three answers as to how that valuing of them will be turned into real action or which of the unique training opportunities that those units provide will be preserved and which the Minister thinks can simply be dispensed with.
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman has to realise that the concentration is on current operations in Afghanistan. In November last year, the head of the Army instigated a review of the UOTCs. The reference group that he has set up includes the chair of the Council of Military Education Committees of Universities of the UK. It is important that, under its terms of reference, the steering group looks at everything that the UOTCs do to ensure that they are effective for the Army and provide value for the taxpayer.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con):
The memo from HQ Land dated 12 October, which leaked in-year cuts to the OTC, warned of downstream implications for officer recruitment. Ominously, it went on to say that because money was so tight, there may be further cuts in the pipeline to be discussed with Ministers.
Given that the MOD's financial position since October cannot be said to have improved, will the Minister say what further discussion he has had on cuts to cadet forces, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), would probably call "descoping"? Given that the nature of recent conflict requires us to have more able people in military leadership roles than ever before, may I press the Minister for a proper assessment of not only the likely damage to recruitment numbers but also the military effect of his gross budgetary short-termism?
Mr. Jones: I assume from what the hon. Gentleman suggests that this is yet another uncosted commitment from the Conservatives. The proposal was put forward by the head of the Army. The head of regional forces has set up a study into the OTCs, which will report by June this year. It includes not only the financial implications, but how the OTCs are structured and how they will go forward. A similar exercise is being done for the Royal Navy and the RAF. That is a proper way of listening to our military commanders' advice about what is fit for purpose in the long term, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to state today that a future Conservative Government will ring-fence money for the UOTCs, he will need to tell taxpayers and voters come the election where else in the defence budget money will come from.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): UK armed forces continue to play an integral role in the command and control of EU, NATO and coalition counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.
Mr. Cunningham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he tell me how and when he will implement the Djibouti code to deal with piracy in the Indian ocean and the gulf of Aden, particularly in relation to kidnappings?
Bill Rammell: We strongly welcome the commitment from the Government of the Seychelles, which was encapsulated in the Djibouti announcement, to consider hosting a regional counter-piracy chamber to prosecute pirates within their national jurisdiction. One of the key challenges that we face is ensuring that prosecutions can take place locally and regionally, and we will continue to press partners in that direction.
"We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost"?
Bill Rammell: I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. While I understand where people who desire the payment of ransoms are coming from, in the longer run it would simply lead to greater problems and more kidnappings-it would store up problems for the future. The Government are therefore right to resist the payment of ransoms.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Along with some colleagues, I was out in the Gulf in the summer recess, and I encourage my hon. Friend and Opposition spokespersons to do the following. When the Labour party is returned to government after the next election, there will be hundreds of new MPs, and I ask that every Front-Bench spokesman writes to every new Member suggesting that they join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is important to do that, because the scheme is about not only front-line services but what the armed forces do for this country.
Bill Rammell: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I know many colleagues on both sides of the House who have taken part in that scheme. Indeed, there is a dinner this evening, hosted by Mr. Speaker, that both the Secretary of State and I will attend. It is a genuinely worthwhile scheme that brings home very practically to Members across the House the reality of life in the armed forces.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I heartily endorse what has been said about the armed forces parliamentary scheme, even though some of my Liberal Democrat opponents do not. Returning to the subject of piracy, however, the Minister spoke about playing a part, but since the policy of releasing pirates after simply confiscating the equipment with which they were proposing to commit piracy has been so widely practised, what are we doing, other than playing a part, to deter piracy? Can the Minister confirm that the new proposals he has mentioned will mean an end to the policy of stopping pirates and then releasing them unharmed and able to carry on with their mischief?
Bill Rammell: I do not want to intrude on the private grief between the hon. Gentleman's party and the Liberal Democrats-and, in any case, I am unsure of its provenance. In respect of piracy, where there is credible evidence, we seek to move towards prosecutions, but where such evidence does not exist, we have to act differently. However, we are giving a wide range of assistance to maritime shipping passing through the gulf of Aden, and it is important to make it clear that since December 2008 only one merchant vessel that was registered with the Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) and that was operating in accordance with best practice has been seized by pirates. That is the result of the actions that we and other partners are taking to tackle this problem.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a connection between piracy and the funding of terrorism, and also that piracy off the horn of Africa is one of a lengthening list of defence issues in Africa? Therefore, is it not now time that NATO developed a policy towards Africa, by bringing all those matter together within a formal relationship with the African Union?
Bill Rammell: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a link between the piracy challenge and the military challenges we face, but there is also the issue of the appalling human rights situation and lack of government in Somalia, and we therefore need to work across Government Departments and with our international partners to tackle the problem at source. Yes, there is a military component to this, and we are enforcing that very effectively, but there need to be political changes in the region as well.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The UK, alongside the rest of the international community, supports the Afghan Government in their plans to reintegrate disaffected Afghans into mainstream society, providing that they pursue their goals peacefully, within the constitutional framework, and have no ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
John Hemming: I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees with me that, in dealing with conflicts, one can learn a lot from history. What historical precedents are the Government using to guide their strategy in Afghanistan, and how do those precedents serve to lead the Government to their conclusions?
Mr. Ainsworth: In operations such as that in which we are involved in Afghanistan, reintegration of at least parts of the insurgency is a legitimate and appropriate way to proceed. It is not only a case of building up the Afghan national capability so that the Afghans are able to protect their own country from the insurgency. There are also parts of that insurgency that do not share all the goals of some of the leadership, and we ought to recognise that and work to peel off those people where that is appropriate, such as where they are involved in their activities for money or because of local grievances. We therefore encourage the Afghan Government to do precisely that.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will realise that the one big difficulty that former farmers who became Taliban fighters would have is that if they were to go back over to the side of the Afghan Government, they would want assurances that the Afghan forces will guarantee their safety and that of their family, and that the Taliban will not return and take retribution. Does he understand that that is the crucial part in building confidence among the Afghan people?
Mr. Ainsworth: Providing safety for insurgents who are prepared to lay down their weapons and behave peacefully is an important part of reintegration. If that is what they are prepared to do, this is about providing safety from our own forces in terms of giving them reassurance, and being able to protect them from insurgents who continue to present a problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that will be a key concern of anybody who is preparing to turn away from the Taliban insurgency.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): One of the contributions of the Dutch in Afghanistan has been working effectively with civilians in the areas in which they have been operating. If the Dutch pull out of Afghanistan, how will that work be compensated for? What are the Government doing to ensure that there are no further pull-outs from the NATO coalition, as they would be so damaging to the prospects in Afghanistan?
Mr. Ainsworth: We need to see this issue in the light of the overall picture. Some 43 nations are now involved in the coalition, so it has widened over the years. Separate from the American uplift announced in response to General McChrystal's report, we have managed to secure 9,000 non-American additional forces. So there have been moves in the right direction on the international effort in Afghanistan, but we will need to replace the Dutch leadership in Uruzgan province if the Dutch go ahead with their pull-out from Afghanistan.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): But does the Secretary of State not accept that this is a matter not just of numbers, but of the quality of commitment and effectiveness, and that in those regards the Dutch forces have been exemplary? If they pull out, that will inevitably have a consequence for the overall capability of NATO in Afghanistan.
Mr. Ainsworth: The Dutch forces have been superb in terms of both numbers and capability over a period of time. We have done everything we can to encourage the Dutch to continue to make whatever contribution they are prepared to make. However, their commitment was time-limited and we have seen what has happened in terms of Dutch political decisions. I can only repeat that while we have seen these decisions being taken, other nations have been prepared to increase their contributions and new nations have joined the international security assistance force. We need to have balance in our views on this, because there has been a huge increase in troop commitments across the board.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): The Royal Navy continues to meet all its operational tasking and remains extremely busy in support of current operations and standing commitments. The Royal Navy remains flexible and dynamic in its ability to respond to unforeseen events and emergent tasking.
Angela Watkinson: I thank the Minister for his response, but will he make a statement on the future role of equipment in the Royal Navy, including HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth? How will they fit into the United Kingdom's future national security interests?
Bill Rammell: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we remain determined that the wishes of the Falkland islanders should be paramount? We have transformed our military presence since 1982 and we maintain an appropriate deterrence force on the island and in the south Atlantic, comprising a range of land, air and maritime assets. Of course, we keep our military presence under constant review to ensure that the islands are properly protected.
Andrew Rosindell: In view of what the Minister has just said, will he confirm not only that the Government are paying attention to the interests of the Falkland Islands and the south Atlantic but that the Royal Navy has the ability to protect all 16 of our British overseas territories, wherever they might be throughout the world?
Bill Rammell: We do everything in our power and I am confident of our ability and capability to defend not only the Falkland Islands but all our overseas territories, in which I know the hon. Gentleman takes an interest.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister tell the House what the role of the future surface combatant will be in contributing to capability, and update the House on plans for the procurement of such vessels?
Bill Rammell: I know that my hon. Friend has taken a real interest in these issues. Indeed, we discussed them when I visited Plymouth, Devonport a couple of weeks ago. The future surface combatant is expected to build on the capabilities of the existing Type 22 and Type 23 multi-purpose frigates that it will replace. It is an integral part of the balanced fleet required to support the UK's future defence commitments, and we will be making an announcement on the issues very shortly.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Will the Minister say more about the anti-piracy work going on within the Royal Navy to ensure that our ships can protect not only our citizens but others off the coast in areas such as Somalia?
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