The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): Two contenders for the light protected patrol vehicle requirement are being assessed as part of the concept vehicle evaluation trial. It is expected that the trial will be completed in April.
Ann Winterton: In evaluating the two contenders for the new light protected patrol vehicle that will replace the Snatch Land Rover and, I hope, the Pinzgauer Vector, will the Minister ensure that, as well as having in-built blast deflection, it will retain the most valued attribute of the Snatch-enabling soldiers to exit quickly from the rear of the vehicle to defend and counter-attack with maximum cover?
Mr. Davies: I assure the hon. Lady that the tests to which the two contenders are being subjected are very thorough. They certainly involve blast protection and blast deflection and, indeed, rapid exit from and entry to the vehicle. She has put her finger on two absolutely vital points in the characteristic way that she does when she talks about military equipment.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): UK forces continue to work hand in hand with Afghan national security forces to build and maintain security in Helmand province. Progress on Operation Moshtarak grows, with insurgents being displaced from key district centres. Stabilisation activity continues apace, and increasing freedom of movement on key routes is aiding economic development. As I announced on 11 March, security responsibility for Musa Qala is transferring to US forces. This enables the redeployment of UK troops to the heavily populated areas of central Helmand, where the majority of UK troops are operating.
Mr. Swayne: The population of Helmand is overwhelmingly-indeed, almost exclusively-Pashtun, but the Afghan army, with which we want ultimately to replace British forces, is overwhelmingly made up of the Tajik minority. Is that a problem?
Mr. Ainsworth: It is one that President Karzai and his Ministers are seeking to address. Training has been stepped up quite considerably in terms of numbers, but he has to do everything, both in the police service and in the army, to get a representation of the whole country.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth):
The total Ministry of Defence near cash budget was £26.8 billion in 2002-03 and £27.9 billion in 2003-04-an increase of more than £1 billion. Those are the only
directly comparable figures, because the MOD did not have a non-cash Treasury departmental expenditure limit in 2002-03.
Robert Key: Does the Secretary of State agree that it is always a case of lies, damn lies and statistics, and that it is a matter of great regret that, since the Prime Minister lost his way on defence statistics, it has done nobody any good that we cannot trust the Government on their defence statistics? Does the Secretary of State agree that we really have to stop that, and that we have to have a perfectly straightforward, simple way, on which everyone can agree, of deciding exactly how much a Department is spending?
Mr. Ainsworth: I do agree, but I do not believe that it helps when issues are blown out of all proportion, sometimes deliberately, to disguise the overall situation. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman, knowing him as I do, would sit there and deny that there has been a substantial increase in the defence budget throughout the life of the Labour Government. He knows that to be true, and I do not think that he should try to suggest that the case is otherwise.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I have no plans to visit BAE Systems in Samlesbury; the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), did so on 24 February 2010.
Mr. Evans: I am glad to hear that. I am sure that while the Minister was there, he would have seen more than 5,000 people working in one of the top-class work forces of the world. Given that BAE Systems in Samlesbury works as a magnet for more than 6,500 other jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises, does the Secretary of State agree that when we are procuring, we ought to procure from the very best, which happens to be in the United Kingdom?
Mr. Ainsworth: Often that is so, and the north-west region, never mind the hon. Gentleman's constituency, plays an important part in our defence capability. We need to ensure that we maintain such capability in vital areas. If we are going to provide capability for our armed forces in the long term, we cannot afford to take short-term and short-sighted decisions. Sometimes we need to ensure that industrial capability remains in place, and that is what the defence industrial strategy is designed to do-I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports it.
Tony Baldry: The Secretary of State might be aware that Lord Guthrie has recently observed that, because of the Prime Minister's attitude when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the military wanted to do many things but was unable properly to fund the 1998 strategic defence review, which the Cabinet had approved. Does the Secretary of State think that Lord Guthrie's comments are fair criticism?
Mr. Ainsworth: No, I do not, and I refer to the substance of the answer by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Chilcot inquiry-no one has been able to say otherwise. Every request that was made in regard to urgent operational requirements was met, and in every spending round while my right hon. Friend was Chancellor of the Exchequer, there was a real-terms increase in the defence budget. When those things are taken together, they add up to almost £1 billion a year.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): If our troops had as much armour on their vehicles as the Secretary of State has in his defence of indefensible statistics, they would be very safe indeed. However, even if we include the money from the Treasury reserve, is it not a fact that, as a proportion of gross domestic product, defence expenditure has declined over the lifetime of this Government?
This is the last question that Opposition Front Benchers will be asking of Defence Ministers, so may I point out that, during this sitting, there have been twice as many Conservative Members present as Government Members, with a solitary three Lib Dems? Does not that show how the different parties rate the importance of defence?
Mr. Ainsworth: I say to the hon. Gentleman quite genuinely that I am not dead certain about whether, after taking the urgent operational requirements into account, the fact that he cites is correct. The only thing that I would say to him is that, because of a Labour Government, the time that he mentions has been a period of unprecedented growth in GDP. [ Interruption. ]
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My Department's responsibilities are 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.
Pursuant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), what will the arrangements be to report changes in
deployments in Helmand, now that the Secretary of State has confirmed that such deployments are in flux and under discussion?
Mr. Ainsworth: I want to keep the House as informed as I can about any developments but, fundamentally, these are military decisions. We have to try to ensure that we have the appropriate force density in the British area of operations, as we should in the American area, so that our troops and theirs have a good chance of success. I think that we now have the troop levels in Helmand province with which we can make real progress, and we have seen real progress under Operation Moshtarak. General Carter, who is in charge of not only Helmand province but the whole of the south, is of course always looking at how he deploys the forces available to him.
T4.  Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's decision to award the specialist vehicle contract to General Dynamics -a British company-is most welcome, as it will help to preserve 10,000 jobs across the United Kingdom and will create 200 new jobs in my constituency. Does the Minister believe that that is a perfect example of a Labour Government working to protect our troops, and to safeguard and defend British jobs?
T2.  Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): For a while, it was said that the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency was going to lose its agency status, and thus its chief executive. I now understand that it is to keep its agency status, and thus its chief executive. Which is it, because local staff are getting a bit confused? It is a bit like the hokey cokey. What do Ministers intend to do with the DSDA?
Mr. Davies: I have asked the chief executive of the DSDA, in conjunction and in consultation with his work force and the trade unions, to produce a five-year plan. I originally expected that at the end of March; I have been assured that it is coming by the middle of April. I will take decisions in the light of that.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): May I welcome the signing of the terms of business agreement with Babcock Marine last week, which confirms Devonport as the lead dockyard for warship maintenance? Given that role, will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the sooner the carriers start to be assembled the better, not just for Devonport, so that it can receive further streams of warship maintenance work, but for the royal naval capability that it represents?
Mr. Davies: I can assure my hon. Friend that under a Labour Government, the carrier programme is going full steam ahead. We are already working in five yards; work will start soon in the sixth and final yard in Birkenhead. We have made something like £1.2 billion-worth of subcontracts. The only thing that would endanger the carrier programme is the Tories, with the Notting Hill set at their head, who do not care at all about defence or anything about it, taking over the government of this country after the election.
T3.  Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): In 2004, the then Chancellor slashed the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. The Government recognised that that was a mistake, and ordered an additional 22 Chinooks. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give that we will not have a repeat of the delays suffered in the Chinook Mk 3 programme, and that the Chinooks will get full release to service by 2013?
Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I just remind the hon. Gentleman that the mark 3 programme Chinooks were ordered under a Conservative Government. That was a disastrous procurement, and it took an awfully long time to sort it out. We are trying to make absolutely certain that we do not repeat the appalling mistakes of what is probably the worst ever defence procurement.
T9.  Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): In the light of difficult projections for spending on defence, will my hon. Friend ensure that companies such as Thales, which have consistently stepped up to the plate and made sure that we procure the best equipment for our armed forces, are remembered, even in the face of what may be difficult decisions?
Mr. Quentin Davies: I agree totally with what my hon. Friend says about Thales, and that goes for all our major defence suppliers, on which we depend as a nation for our defence capability; we are extremely grateful for their efforts. As a matter of fact, I am visiting Thales on Wednesday.
T5.  Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): One of the flashpoints in the middle east is Iran's desire to have its own nuclear capability. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we encourage the Gulf states to use pressure and their influence to dissuade Iran from that ambition?
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): I agree with that assessment. We are in regular discussion with partners in the Gulf states, and I think that there is a strong degree of consensus. We need fundamentally to understand that if Iran were able to go ahead and develop nuclear capability, it would inevitably invite a response from other countries in the region, and the last thing we need in the middle east is a nuclear arms race.
Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): As we approach the general election, what provisions is the Ministry of Defence making to allow every single serviceman to have a vote that will be cast and counted?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): We have had an ongoing campaign to ensure that people register for service votes, and the figure is now at 67 per cent. We have also put in arrangements to ensure that, where possible, postal voters' ballots are returned as speedily as possible. But overall, and for the longer term, I have had discussions with the Electoral Commission about possibly trialling e-voting.
T6.  Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):
I believe that it was a triumph for parliamentary democracy when Members from all parts of the House came together and backed the Liberal Democrat motion on
the Gurkhas. Would the Minister care to reflect on and clarify the criticisms that have been levelled recently? In particular, will he withdraw, and apologise to Joanna Lumley for, the comments that he made?
Mr. Jones: I already have, and any such comments were unintended. On the vote that took place last May, the Government have now put in place very robust procedures in Kathmandu to ensure that those Gurkhas who wish to settle here can do so free of charge-without being charged in any way. However, I would like to put on the record my wholehearted condemnation of those middlemen and unscrupulous operators who are charging Gurkhas. If the hon. Gentleman, like me, had visited Aldershot last week, as I know the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) did, in order to see Gurkhas-many of them more than 60 years old-who have come here with expectations that, frankly, will never be realised, he would be rightly angry. I certainly am on that point.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I ask the Secretary of State about an Unprinted Paper deposited in the Library by Group 4 Securicor, which calls it a "concept paper"? The firm invites the Government to outsource comprehensively the
"Training Support and Regular Army Assistance Table"
and the function that armed forces carry out in lieu of fire services when there is a pandemic-a term that is used in the paper-or industrial action. Will he repudiate that paper, say that it is a non-runner and confirm that this Labour Government will simply not entertain what it outlines? It would be a bridge too far.
Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I have not read the paper, and I am not aware of the detail. I know that my hon. Friend has asked me a couple of questions, and, if he wants me to, I shall happily meet him so that he can expand on his concerns.
T7.  David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): We have learned that generals will now be forced to travel second class, along with MPs-for whom I fully agree with the proposal. But, will Defence Ministers and senior Ministry of Defence staff also be forced to travel second class, or will it just be the men and women who do the fighting?
Mr. Kevan Jones: That is part of a review within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that, in terms of our travel, we get best value for money. For example, last week I travelled second class on two occasions. Clearly, there are reasons, such as security, why others have to travel first class, but we are looking throughout the Department at how we can get the best value for money not only out of rail travel- [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members say "Ministers", but I have travelled with easyJet on a number of occasions to ensure cost-effectiveness. The important point is that we ensure that we get value for money out of every defence pound that we put forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not object to that.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell us when his Department plans to come to the House to seek spending authority for the replacement of the nuclear missiles in the Trident missile fleet, and how much has already been spent on preparatory work for the creation of a new missile system?