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House of Commons

Monday 14 March 2011

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [45696]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): The whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, from 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on 9 March. The House will want to join me in paying tribute also to the station commander of RAF Northolt, Group Captain Tom Barrett, who was killed in a road traffic accident on the evening of Thursday 10 March. Many members of the current and former Governments will have known him well. Both men served their country with honour and distinction, and our thoughts and prayers are with their friends, colleagues and families at this very difficult time.

The security situation in Afghanistan varies significantly across the country. About 64% of violent incidents take place in just three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, Helmand, Kandahar and Kunar, which have about 11% of the total population. The insurgency’s heartland remains in the south. The increases in the international security assistance force and Afghan national security force have helped us to make real progress over the winter in all aspects of our counter-insurgency operations: security, governance, and development.

Tom Brake: I join the Secretary of State in his tributes to our fallen soldiers.

The security situation in Afghanistan may have a permanent impact on service personnel after the conflict. Taking into account valuable lessons learned from previous conflicts, such as the Falklands, whereby more servicemen took their own lives afterwards than died during fighting, what measures are in place to support servicemen and women who experience mental health or social problems either during or after the conflict?

Dr Fox: My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point. It is all too easy to see the physical scars of war; it is much more difficult to see the mental scars of war. It is because of the importance given to the matter by the Government that, cross-departmentally, we are making more funding available to mental health projects for our armed forces. We are looking at the scientific evidence available to see whether we can better target that help, but the measures that we are putting in place include the new phone line for service personnel.

Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry North West) (Lab): The Secretary of State will recall that on 14 February he made a moderate and encouraging statement to the House, saying that he thought that the second half of this year would be a good time to make a political push towards a settlement. He also said that we would pay a heavy price if we failed to take the opportunity that would then occur. He has since no doubt seen the Defence Committee’s report, which says that at the moment the Americans seem disinclined to pursue a

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political settlement. Can he assure the House that he will use his best endeavours to encourage the Americans to take the course that he has recommended?

Dr Fox: I am not sure that I am required to make efforts to get the Americans to make such a change in their posture, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. In fact, I spoke to Secretary Gates at the ISAF meeting in Brussels at the weekend, and it is very clear that we are all now moving together. The process of transition, including which parts of Afghanistan will undertake that transition, will be announced by President Karzai on 21 March.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): The Defence Secretary brings a welcome dose of realism to his post, but given that counter-insurgency operations in the past, such as in Malaya, suggest that not one of the pre-conditions for success exists in Afghanistan today, why does he think this is going to be different, and why does he think that we are going to beat the Taliban?

Dr Fox: Our aim in Afghanistan has been to create a stable enough Afghanistan so that it is able to manage its own internal and external security without the need to rely on the international community. We have put in place improvements in governance, as well as an improvement in the security position. We have seen a big increase in the size and capability of the Afghan national security force, which should enable Afghanistan to maintain that position when the international community leaves in an active role.

North Africa

2. Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the potential role of UK armed forces in north Africa. [45697]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): The Government keep plans for the use of our armed forces under constant review, and planning with our NATO partners is also ongoing. A number of contingency plans with respect to Libya are being considered by NATO, including further humanitarian assistance, enforcing an arms embargo and the implementation of a no-fly zone. No decisions have yet been taken and no assets have yet been committed.

Mr Hanson: Will the Secretary of State confirm that, prior to any no-fly zone in Libya being undertaken, he will get the support of the United Nations and the Arab League to achieve that objective? Will he also look at the resources in the strategic defence review to ensure that our troops and our aircraft have the support of air force personnel and aircraft to meet those objectives?

Dr Fox: The Government have made it clear, alongside our NATO allies, that in relation to a no-fly zone, three criteria have to be met: there has to be a demonstrable need; there has to be a clear legal basis; and there has to be involvement of the countries in the region. Clearly, we would not be planning if we did not have the assets readily available for the task.

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Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): On Friday, the BBC carried a report that two Nimrod R1 aircraft, which had been due to come out of service at the end of this month, had been reprieved, at least until June. Was it true? Are there any other recent decisions that are being reconsidered or perhaps should be reconsidered as events in the Arab world unfold?

Dr Fox: As I have just said, we always ensure that the assets are available. I asked the armed forces to look at whether we could have a temporary extension for the R1 until we were sure that we had sufficient alternative assets to be able to provide us with the same capability. That work is being undertaken at the moment.

Mr Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire) (Lab): We all pay tribute to the work that our forces are carrying out in and around Libya at the moment, and we support the Government’s work in attempting to achieve a no-fly zone. However, there remain serious issues about earlier decisions, not least on HMS Cumberland, which has done so much off Benghazi, but whose next journey will be to be decommissioned. Also, some Nimrod aircraft that were previously bound for scrap may have won a temporary reprieve. Given that the National Audit Office report says that the RAF currently has only

“eight pilots who are capable of undertaking ground attack missions on Typhoon”,

and that that will not be sufficient in future, why does the Secretary of State think it is right to sack almost 200 trainee pilots?

Dr Fox: As I have said repeatedly in the House, we have had to reduce the number of aircraft available for the future as part of the strategic defence and security review, not least because of the budgetary position that we inherited. It does no good whatsoever to the credibility of the Opposition to complain about reductions made as a result of their budgetary incompetence when they will not tell us what their budget would be or what cuts they would support or not support.

Mr Murphy: The Secretary of State should spare us the lecture. This from a Government who allow soldiers to be sacked by e-mail, whose actions mean that this week, for the first time in decades, we do not have the ability to put an aircraft carrier to sea, and who will not guarantee that anyone currently serving in Afghanistan will be exempt from being sacked. The defence review was rushed; it has not survived the first contact with world events. Three words missing from it were Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many experts are worried about new gaps in capability. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no future cuts in military capability in the lifetime of this Parliament?

Dr Fox: The word missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s comments was “sorry”—sorry for the position in which he left our armed forces, with an MOD budget massively over-committed at £158 billion. What Labour Members still have not recognised is that their own economic incompetence is a liability for this country’s national security in the long term. We are taking the measures to put this country back on a firm footing in a way that they never could and never had the courage to do.

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Industrial, Security and Technology Policy

3. Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys) (Con): What recent progress his Department has made on its consultation on the defence industrial, security and technology policy Green Paper. [45698]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): Our Green Paper, “Equipment, Support, and Technology for UK Defence and Security: A Consultation Paper”, was published on 20 December 2010, and progress on the consultation is encouraging. Ministers have engaged extensively with a wide range of interested parties, including right hon. and hon. Members of this House and of the House of Lords. Last week, a consultation conference took place at which over 200 people from industry, academia, service providers, trade bodies and the public discussed the Green Paper issues with Ministers and senior officials. I encourage anyone interested to send in their views on the issues outlined in the Green Paper before the consultation period ends on 31 March 2011.

Paul Maynard: Can the Minister give me an assurance that he will give due weight to the need to have a steady and constant stream of graduates in the complex scientific disciplines that underpin the research and development work on which the future of our defence industry rests?

Peter Luff: I am delighted to give my hon. Friend precisely that assurance. I am constantly amazed and delighted by the excellent work done by our scientists. I am in regular discussions with my colleagues in other Departments to ensure precisely that outcome, and he is right to highlight its importance.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): Does the Minister share with his colleagues in industry his plans to cut the science and technology budget by £80 million? Will he tell the House how much impact that will have on our future ability to develop military capability?

Peter Luff: It grieves me that the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in considerable regard and esteem, should ask such a question after the monstrous slashing of the science budget under the previous Government. Last year alone, £100 million was taken from the science budget by his party and his Government. I am glad to tell him that the science budget has been largely protected—[ Interruption. ] It has been largely protected from the massive problems that we inherited from him and his colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench. The budget will rise in cash terms over the spending round period. That is a remarkably successful outcome, and I am delighted by and proud of it.

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): Is the Minister in a position to update the House on the Government’s proposals to support the unmanned aerial vehicles programme, because that has a direct link to the skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) spoke about?

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of protecting skills in the fixed-wing sector in general. I cannot give him that update at present, but

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good work is proceeding in this area and there are some very interesting things that I hope to report to the House in the relatively near future.

Michael Dugher (Barnsley East) (Lab): At last week’s consultation conference on the Government’s Green Paper, which was hosted by the Minister, Mr Neil Stansfield, the head of security and counter-terrorism, science and technology at the Home Office, warned the Government of the dangers of taking equipment “capability holidays”, and argued that it is not possible to dip in and dip out. In light of that, do the Government think that it is wise to take a nine-year capability holiday in carrier strike, a decision that the noble Lord Ashdown described at the weekend as “illogical”?

Peter Luff: They just don’t get it, do they? We do not wish to have that capability gap, but were forced to take additional risks in the defence budget because of the mess we inherited from the Labour party. I regret that and do not welcome it, but it is a risk that we have to take.

International Arms Trade

4. Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of proposals for further regulation of the international trade in arms; and if he will make a statement. [45699]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): We strongly support proposals for an arms trade treaty. It should reduce the proliferation of conventional weapons and technology in unstable regions. By agreeing and implementing criteria that set high standards for the export of conventional weapons and technology, the Government maintain a rigorous and transparent arms export control system, whereby all export licence applications are assessed case by case against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria. The arms trade treaty will better regulate the international trade in conventional weapons and contribute towards preventing conflict, which is a key interest for the Department.

Dr Huppert: Our Government should be congratulated on their strong role in the international arms trade treaty talks in New York last week, which will lead to a great improvement around the world. However, does the Minister accept that sales of British defence and security equipment, licensed under this Government and the previous Government, to countries such as Libya and Bahrain show that we need to take a far more careful look at our exports, as well as advising the rest of the world?

Nick Harvey: I agree with my hon. Friend that the progress towards an arms trade treaty is encouraging. The recent preparatory committee meeting certainly went well. As I have said, the UK maintains rigorous controls. Clearly, the changing political situation means that we will have to monitor sales to various countries far more closely. When considering future export licensing applications, we will follow the terms of the newly agreed UN arms embargo in the case of Libya. In terms of other countries, such sales have been going on for

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some time, as my hon. Friend said, but I am pleased to say that there have been no recent sales to Bahrain, for example.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): We should all welcome the advances towards an international treaty. However, I urge the Minister to point out to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) the huge importance of the British aerospace industry to the economy not only of the country, but of the regions where it employs many thousands of skilled workers. In that context, the criteria for deciding to whom we sell should be current criteria. For example, we should consider the huge advances made in Indonesia under President Yudhoyono, not only in its economy, but in human rights and democracy in that country. Will there be an up-to-date assessment of which countries are appropriate?

Nick Harvey: We keep under constant review the progress made in different parts of the world, and apply that against the criteria. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government recognise the significance of defence exports and the rigorous controls that are in place. Exports bring great value to the economy, industry and defence. They contribute not only to our defence diplomacy, but to the interoperability of our systems with those of our allies around the world.

Nuclear Deterrent

5. Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): How much of the sum allocated by his Department to the Trident replacement concept phase has been transferred from its budget for the assessment phase. [45700]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): The concept phase for the programme to replace the Vanguard submarine was extended to allow potential designs to be developed more fully, and to allow the value for money of the programme to be reviewed. The previous Government approved a sum of about £255 million for that extension, and this January the coalition Government authorised an additional sum of about £25 million.

Julie Hilling: On 19 October last year, the Prime Minister said that

“a proper full replacement of Trident is the right option for the future.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 805.]

However, on 10 March, the Liberal Democrat chairman, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), said:

“I’m pretty confident there will not be a full replacement.”

Will the Minister please tell us what the formal, agreed coalition Government policy is on Trident replacement?

Peter Luff: The coalition Government are committed to the replacement of the Trident submarine, but our Liberal Democrat colleagues have the right to argue another position.

Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): Can my hon. Friend assure the House that the decision set out in the strategic defence and security review will not alter the

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nature or credibility of our nuclear deterrent, and that it will ensure that we maintain Britain’s ultimate insurance policy?

Peter Luff: I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that categorical reassurance.

Means of Identification (Licensing)

6. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the acceptance by licensed premises of his Department’s form 90 as a means of identification. [45701]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Since this Government came into office, the Ministry of Defence has received a number of letters from Members of Parliament, including my hon. Friend, and from the public concerning the use of MOD form 90 as a means of identification for non-official purposes. I am delighted to confirm that we have now agreed to a change in policy, allowing service personnel to use their service identity card as proof of age, and have written to the relevant trade associations encouraging their members to accept it.

David Mowat: I thank the Minister for the answer and for the support that he has given my constituent, ex-Coldstream Guard Lance Reah, in his campaign on the matter over the past year. Does my hon. Friend agree that the change will have a big impact on the morale of our soldiers, and that the fact that the Opposition failed to make any progress on the matter in 13 years demonstrates that their actions do not match their words?

Mr Robathan: I can confirm to my hon. Friend that when I was serving in the Coldstream Guards it was a matter of some upset when young-looking soldiers who were prepared to lay their lives on the line were denied entry to pubs. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his campaign, and I am particularly pleased to see that I am on the front of “Warrington Matters” in connection with it. I do not think the photograph of me is very flattering, though.

Trident Replacement Programme

7. Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): What progress he has made on the implementation of the Trident replacement programme. [45702]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): The programme to replace the Vanguard submarine completed the initial concept studies, and we expect an announcement on initial gate approval in the coming weeks. There remain ongoing discussions, which have simply taken longer than it was anticipated a few months ago. It is important, given the size of the project, that we get the decision right.

Dr Lewis: At a press conference organised by the anti-nuclear deterrent front organisation, the British American Security Information Council, a Liberal Democrat Defence Minister stated that a very thin paper trail had led to the last Government’s decision to renew Trident. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the

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White Paper produced by his Department and the last Government was actually a first-class piece of work, was recognised as such by my right hon. Friend who is now Prime Minister and gave every good argument for why we went into the Division Lobby with the Labour Government to support that renewal?

Dr Fox: The White Paper was a thorough piece of work. It was the basis on which the House made a considered decision on the issue, and I still believe that for the long-term well-being and security of the United Kingdom, a continuous at-sea, submarine-based, minimum-credible nuclear deterrent in the form of the replacement for the Trident programme is the best way forward.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): There seems to be a non-sequitur on the funding of the construction of this new weapon of mass destruction. In answers to me, the Secretary of State has pointed out that £300 million has been spent on advance orders for new steel and other things. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) a few moments ago, however, the Government talked of a figure of £25 million. Where exactly has the authority come from, other than the honeyed words “custom and practice”, for the expenditure of apparently up to £1 billion on preparation for the development of this new weapons system?

Dr Fox: On the broad picture, if we choose to go ahead on the dates set out since the White Paper—we have changed them slightly since coming into government —long-lead items need to be ordered. The Government have set out clearly that we believe that that is the best course for the UK. The main gate decision will be taken some time after 2015.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Will the Secretary of State confirm whether UK nuclear submarines rely on back-up power supplies to run their coolant pumps, just like Japanese nuclear power stations? Is that why Commodore MacFarlane, the defence nuclear safety regulator, recently said that UK submarine reactor safety falls

“significantly short of benchmarked…good practice”?

Dr Fox: One decision in the Trident replacement will be whether we move to pressurised water reactor 3 for improved nuclear safety. The Government’s view is that that is the preferred option, because those reactors give us a better safety outlook. That is a debate on both sides of the Atlantic, but we believe that in terms of safety, the case is very clear-cut.

NATO Reform

8. Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of progress in the reform of NATO. [45703]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Gerald Howarth): The UK is a leading proponent of reform in NATO. Encouraging progress has been made over the past year, with agreement on streamlining NATO’s command structure and supporting agencies and improvements to its financial management. However,

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swift implementation of the reforms will be key, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear at the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers last week.

Harriett Baldwin: In addition to those reforms, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has the capacity to help with democratic institution-building in countries such as those in north Africa which we hope are emerging into stronger parliamentary democracies. Did the Minister’s discussions with NATO involve those capabilities?

Mr Howarth: I pay tribute to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—indeed, I was speaking earlier to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) who leads for the UK on that, and I would very much like to meet other Assembly representatives. However, I ought to point out that NATO is principally a military alliance. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made clear last week, three principles will guide any intervention in Libya: demonstrable need, a clear legal mandate, and solid support from the region. That is the policy that NATO has adopted.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that NATO reform would be pretty meaningless unless we can convince our fellow NATO members to step up to the plate and spend 2% of gross domestic product on defence?

Mr Howarth: I have to agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Lady. That point has been made by the NATO Secretary-General to those recalcitrants, and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his counterparts. She is absolutely right and I am very pleased to support her.


9. Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What his policy is on cyber-security in the defence estate; and if he will make a statement. [45704]

12. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): What his policy is on cyber-security in the defence estate; and if he will make a statement. [45707]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): As we set out in the strategic defence and security review, we attach a high priority to the cyber-defence of our systems. Since I last updated the House in December, we have made considerable progress in this area. Our new global operations and security control centre is now up and running, and we have commissioned a new monitoring system to detect cyber-attacks against our defence systems. We have also appointed a very senior military officer to lead a defence cyber-security programme to transform our approach over the next four years and to meet our SDSR commitments. The House will understand if I do not comment further on the detail of the measures we take to protect our systems, but we are not complacent—we must outmatch a rapidly changing threat.

Robert Halfon: Is the Minister aware of the concerns expressed by Dr Kim Howells, former Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, regarding the close links between BT and the Chinese telecoms firm, Huawei,

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which has close links to the red army? Does the Minister agree that that could make us more vulnerable to cyber-attack from China, and what steps can he take to reduce that risk?

Nick Harvey: The recent Green Paper on equipment, support and technology identified cyberspace as both one of the benefits and one of the risks of the modern world. We are developing a joint approach with industry because of our mutual reliance on networks, which gives us the opportunity to discuss with BT and others both those benefits and the risks to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Given that the important threat from cyberspace affects both the private and public sectors, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to encourage innovative solutions from the private sector to help the public sector?

Nick Harvey: We have started a relationship with the private sector, and there has been an initial meeting with private sector leaders at Downing street. It is essential that we have the maximum co-operation between the private and public sectors, because many of the networks on which public services depend are managed under contract by the private sector. It is also essential that there is good international engagement with our allies, and there will be new memorandums of understanding with some of them shortly.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): In the light of allegations that I gather will be made tonight on the “Panorama” programme that the News of the World was hacking into mobile phones and computers used by the Army in Northern Ireland, will the Minister ensure that the security of mobile telephones used by the Army will be protected from newspapers as well as from other agents?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and we will do everything we can to ensure the maximum security of all our communication methods.

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): With the reporting of an ever increasing number of cyber-attacks and the increasing costs of such attacks, will the Minister confirm that the £650 million announced in the SDSR for cyber-security has been ring-fenced for new capabilities? Will he also confirm the time scale for full delivery of those capabilities?

Nick Harvey: The money to which the hon. Gentleman alludes covers the whole SDSR period. It is new money intended to help prime the efforts of both the public and private sectors, as I said a moment ago, to ensure that the nation as a whole has in place the maximum possible defences over the next few years. It is a fast-changing scene, and it is essential that we keep up with the ever changing threat.

Harmonisation Project

10. Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): What progress his Department has made on the joint search and rescue harmonisation project; and if he will make a statement. [45705]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced the cancellation of the previous procurement process on 8 February. The Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence are now considering the potential procurement options to meet the future requirements for search and rescue helicopters in the United Kingdom. We will make a further announcement once a way forward has been agreed.

Mr Ruffley: I know that the Minister is aware of the great concern in the search and rescue service, particularly at Wattisham in my constituency. Does he agree that a private finance initiative route might not necessarily be the most cost-effective way forward in reforming such services?

Peter Luff: I am delighted to pay tribute to the strong and close interest that my hon. Friend has taken in this issue, not least because of his close constituency interest. I can confirm that we are beginning again with a blank sheet of paper. We have learned the lessons from the previous process, which has been so unfortunately terminated, and will look again at what is the correct procurement route. That will include a thorough review of whether PFI is right for this particular procurement.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What is the mechanism for making the decision? Would it not make more sense if the Department for Transport acted as the purchaser and the MOD put forward a bid to continue the involvement of the RAF and the Navy in the provision of the service?

Peter Luff: I understand the interesting point that my right hon. Friend makes. The present intention is that current procurement arrangements should be stuck to, and I have every confidence that the defence, equipment and support organisation at Abbey Wood can do an excellent job of it this time.

RAF Machrihanish

11. Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): What plans he has for the future of RAF Machrihanish; and if he will make a statement. [45706]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): The disposal of RAF Machrihanish was announced in October 2008, and it will be sold as soon as possible. We are currently committed to working with the local community body to achieve a sale under Scottish community right to buy legislation. A final decision from the Scottish Executive on whether the community can proceed is awaited.

Mr Reid: As the Minister will know, the main problem is the age and condition of the water supply system. I hope that the MOD will continue to work with the Scottish Government, the local council and the Machrihanish airbase community company to ensure that it will be viable for the community company to buy the base and use the facilities to regenerate the local economy. This is an ideal big society project. Will he meet me to discuss the matter further?

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Mr Robathan: I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right. For more than two years, the MOD has been trying to dispose of this site, and the sooner we can do so the better for all concerned.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): The Minister will know that Machrihanish is not the only Royal Air Force base in Scotland facing uncertainty. Is he aware that aircraft have yet again had to be scrambled from RAF Leuchars to protect our airspace from unwelcome intrusion? Will he therefore ignore the siren voices apparently emanating from the Treasury which would put both the base and that capability at risk?

Mr Speaker: Order. I know that the Minister will want to focus his answer on the question on the Order Paper, while skilfully referring to the concerns expressed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr Robathan: I will concentrate on the disposal of Machrihanish, but also say—if I may, Mr Speaker—that the future of bases in Scotland, about which the right hon. and learned Gentleman is rightly concerned, is being looked at carefully, and announcements will be made soon.

Strategic Planning

13. Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): What resources his Department has allocated to strategic planning in 2010-11. [45708]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): At departmental level, strategic planning is overseen by the director general, strategy. He has 51 military and 75 civilian staff, and an overall budget for 2010-11 of some £12 million. If my hon. Friend is interested, I recommend that she should read the excellent report by the Select Committee on Administration.

Laura Sandys: I have certainly read the executive summary. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should continue to maintain a focus on building our risk assessment strategic planning and scenario capacity, to ensure that we can anticipate the future in a changing environment and the threats to our national interest?

Dr Fox: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and that is why in the strategic defence and security review we chose an adaptable posture for the UK’s defence and security. We specifically rejected the concepts of fortress Britain or an over-committed Britain, which would result in a lack of agility. The events of recent days have shown how unpredictable the external environment can be. That is why we were correct to maintain that flexibility and agility in our armed forces.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): A week ago 50 senior military figures called for the SDSR to be reopened. They signed a letter saying that the SDSR

“seems to have been driven by financial rather than military considerations”.

However, when the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee last week, he refused to deny reports that the Ministry of Defence was facing another £1 billion of cuts. Is it not becoming clear that it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is in the driving seat in the MOD, not the Secretary of State?

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Dr Fox: If we have financial difficulties in the MOD or elsewhere in the Government, we know where they came from. When we look across what we do in the Ministry of Defence—and, indeed, in the rest of Government —we look to see what risks the UK may face and how we might best mitigate them. We have decided that the United Kingdom needs an adaptable posture, and we have therefore decided to build flexibility into the programmes leading to Future Force 2020, which I believe provides the best security for this country.

Defence Equipment

14. Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): If he will assess the merits of placing currently unrequired defence equipment in reserve. [45709]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): A wide range of options are routinely considered for all defence equipment that is not required for operational use. They include extended readiness, long-term preservation, sale and disposal. In relation to preservation, we take into account factors such as the threats against which regeneration of the capability would be predicated; the cost and practicality of preservation arrangements, which may be significant; and the lead time and costs for ensuring that suitably trained personnel could be made available to operate the equipment.

Gordon Henderson: I welcome the Minister’s answer, but I am a bit concerned about cost. The shipping industry often lays up ships at minimal cost for a number of years, using small maintenance teams and dehumidifiers. Given recent events in north Africa, does my hon. Friend agree that keeping Britain’s reserve defences strong enough to meet unexpected challenges ought to be a priority, especially if it can be done at minimal cost to the taxpayer?

Peter Luff: Nothing would give me and my ministerial colleagues more pleasure than to be able to keep all decommissioned equipment in storage, but we can do so only when it makes sense financially and strategically. Sadly, it is not as simple as switching off the engine and placing the kit in an air-conditioned environment. We need to be able to maintain the equipment, retain and maintain stores, have personnel trained to use it and—something my hon. Friend may not be aware of—pay the cost of capital needed to hold it in reserve. Sadly, it is more complicated in the MOD than it is in the private sector.


15. Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s contribution to the operation to evacuate UK nationals from Libya; and if he will make a statement. [45710]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have already paid tribute to the members of the armed forces and the diplomatic service and all those who put themselves in harm’s way to help our people to leave safely. I would like to add my thanks to all those involved, in particular the members of the

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armed forces and civilian personnel, who demonstrated courage and professionalism in the co-ordinated effort to rescue British and other nationals from the crisis. The Ministry of Defence utilised a range of assets to support the Foreign Office-led operation to recover UK and other citizens from Libya. We successfully transported 926 entitled persons, of whom 286 were British nationals.

Toby Perkins: I would like to associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on the work done by our armed forces in Libya. Will he tell the House who in the Ministry of Defence authorised the use of special forces in the operation that started on 2 March, and what advice led to that decision?

Dr Fox: The Foreign Secretary has already set out the circumstances in which—[ Interruption. ] I have no intention of commenting further on special forces. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has joined me in thanking those who took part in that work. I visited HMS Cumberland in Malta at the weekend to thank on behalf of the Government and the House of Commons the crew for their tremendous work. The fact that we were able to take 926 citizens, of whom only 286 were British, shows just how far we were ahead of the curve and doing our utmost to help those of other nations as well.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the successful evacuation of several hundred of our own nationals, together with large numbers of overseas nationals, with not a single casualty among those people or our armed services, should be an occasion for rejoicing and congratulation, rather than for the negative party politicking that we have heard from the Opposition?

Dr Fox: It is interesting to compare the coverage that the operations led by the United Kingdom, including the command and control organisation in Malta, gets in the United Kingdom with the coverage that we get in other countries in Europe and beyond, where there cannot be high enough praise for our armed forces and for the organisation put forward by the United Kingdom. Perhaps this is a time to praise our people rather than to condemn them.

HMS Illustrious

18. Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the likely date for HMS Illustrious to return to service; and if he will make a statement. [45713]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Peter Luff): HMS Illustrious is scheduled to return to operational service, to assume her new landing platform helicopter role, in spring 2012. I should add that she has had 180 days’ notice to move, and that that period can be reduced, should the need arise. She will be supplementing the capability provided by HMS Ocean.

Thomas Docherty: I am sure the House will agree that the fact that HMS Illustrious is coming back into service ahead of schedule is a testament to the professionalism of the work force and the management, led by Mike Pettigrew. Will the Minister find the time to come to the dockyard to see HMS Illustrious before she

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sets sail, so that he can see yet again why the best place for the refit and refurbishment of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers is Scotland, rather than France?

Peter Luff: Although it is far too early to decide where that work will be conducted, I would be delighted to try to accommodate such a visit in my diary, if that proves possible. The hon. Gentleman’s constituents have certainly done a first-rate job.

Middle East and North Africa

19. Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the security situation in the middle east and north Africa. [45714]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): In response to the changing security situation in the middle east and north Africa, work is under way to understand the implications that the changing environment will have on our policies in the wider region.

Stuart Andrew: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he give an assurance that our regional basing and overflight rights will ensure that we can effectively deploy ground attack aircraft in the region if necessary?

Dr Fox: The assumption that we made in the SDSR was that we had sufficient basing and overflight rights to be able to project air power where required. Nothing has happened in recent days to change that assumption.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Secretary of State has rightly focused on Libya and the excellence of our operations there, but can he assure the House that his policies, in regard to resource and planning, are also focused on what might happen in other north African countries if evacuations or operations were required there?

Dr Fox: My hon. Friend is of course correct. We are looking not only at what is happening in Libya but at other countries in the region where there has been instability in recent times. They include countries such as Yemen, where we already have forward positioning of assets, should we be required to evacuate any British nationals.

Strategic Defence and Security Review (Airfields)

20. Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What recent representations he has received on the implications for airfields on the defence estate of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review; and if he will make a statement. [45715]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): I have received a considerable number of representations from hon. Members, Ministers and Members of the devolved Administrations, as well as from members of the public. I have regular discussions with Government colleagues and I will make an announcement as soon as I am in a position to do so.

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Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister accept another representation from me about the excellence of public service shown by RAF Linton at times of public tragedy, in respect of floods on a number of occasions and the Selby rail crash in particular? Will he give an assurance that the future of RAF Linton will be secure, in training RAF pilots in the future?

Nick Harvey: The strategic defence and security review said that RAF Kinloss and two other RAF bases would close. We are in the middle of a comprehensive basing study, covering the needs not only of the RAF but of the Army in the future. It is a complex piece of work. As soon as we are able to balance all those competing requirements, we will make a full statement to the House.

Topical Questions

T1. [45721] Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks, and that we honour the armed forces covenant.

Jack Dromey: Will the Secretary of State explain in detail and publish in full his views on the unfunded liability—supposedly left by the last Labour Government —on equipment, procurement and support programmes over the next 10 years?

Dr Fox: I will not be the only one to set out that information, as I am sure the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee as well as the Select Committee on Defence will want to make it perfectly clear. I have made it clear, including in the evidence I gave to the Select Committee last week, that I would like to see greater transparency in how the Department makes its information available. As for the unfunded liability we inherited from the previous Government and the damage it has done to our ability to plan for the future—

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Where has the £38 billion gone?

Dr Fox: The hon. Gentleman asks where the £38 billion has gone; he should know; he left it behind. It was his Government who were responsible for it. We shall diminish that unfunded liability and put the Department back on a sound footing—something that Labour Members were incapable of doing.

T2. [45722] Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The United Nations Secretary-General’s special representative on children and armed conflict recently reported on the Afghan national police’s recruitment of children to fight and on the sexual exploitation of young boys by Afghan police and military commanders. Given this disturbing evidence, will the Secretary of State explain

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what guidance is given to British military and police trainers when they encounter children in the Afghan national security forces?

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Nick Harvey): Afghan civilians must be 18 or above to join either the Afghan national police or the army. That is checked as rigorously as possible through the much-improving recruitment process. If there is any allegation of wrongdoing brought to the attention of the British forces, it will be taken extremely seriously and reported to the Afghan commanders. We would unreservedly condemn any act of abuse or brutality. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior addresses children’s rights issues and certainly recognises 18 as the age of majority. If there are any specific allegations, he should—

Mr Speaker: We are most grateful to the Minister.

T3. [45723] Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): I am not sure that the Secretary of State’s earlier answer was entirely clear, so perhaps he will try again. Will he tell us who specifically in his Department authorised the involvement of special forces in Libya on 2 March?

Dr Fox: I have already made it clear that the Foreign Secretary set out the exact details, as far as we are able to disclose them, on that particular operation. When force protection is to be offered to the sort of diplomatic mission that was undertaken, it is quite usual for the Ministry of Defence to be asked and to agree to do it.

T5. [45725] Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Secretary of State and his Department regularly meet the Royal British Legion and other veterans organisations. At those meetings, how much emphasis is placed on the fact that the military covenant is enshrined in law and, critically, on determining in what form and when that military covenant will be met?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): I last met the director general of the Royal British Legion last Monday to discuss this very matter. There are many organisations involved and they all have their views to put forward. I think that the covenant is proceeding well. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has been written into law in the Armed Forces Bill and I hope that he will speak further about it on Report and Third Reading when they happen, shortly.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Ministry of Defence police do an essential and difficult job with a great deal of professionalism and expertise, but they face a potential cut of one third in their numbers. That would mean more than 1,000 officers losing their jobs. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of such a drastic reduction in the number of MOD police officers on the protection of military bases?

Mr Robathan: I pay tribute to the work done by the MOD police, and the protection of military bases is of course essential. However, we are constrained by the lack of funds left behind by the last Government. [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members

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grimacing; it is true. For that reason, we are having to consider savings in all areas, and I am afraid that everyone must play their part.

T6. [45726] Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): As well as supporting the movement opposing Gaddafi in Libya, what steps can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State take to support the democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen, especially in view of the events of recent days?

Dr Fox: I think there is a difference between the two cases that my hon. Friend has cited. There is great concern about the possibility that the collapse of the Yemeni state would lead to an increase in the influence of al-Qaeda. It is therefore of great importance to the United Kingdom’s national security that we do what we can to stabilise the situation, while ensuring that we can evacuate United Kingdom citizens safely if the regime cannot hold.

T4. [45724] Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Given that Wales contains a fifth of the United Kingdom’s population but 8% of its military population, does the Secretary of State accept that the consequences of cuts that come too fast and go too deep will affect Wales disproportionately? What will he do to ensure that loyalty is repaid not with penalties but with respect?

Dr Fox: Decisions on the footprint of the United Kingdom’s armed forces are made primarily on the basis of military effectiveness. However, notwithstanding the level of cuts that must be made in order to balance the books, I personally ascribe great importance to maintaining a footprint throughout the Union. [Interruption.] What we are hearing is a very boring record. The difference between the main parties and the nationalists in the House is that we believe in maintaining a footprint throughout the Union, whereas they do not believe in having UK armed forces at all.

T10. [45730] Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con): I am sure that the Minister will agree that while our British forces are in Afghanistan, it is important for them to contribute to the development of a strong humanitarian legacy of basic health care, education and clean drinking water for the people of Afghanistan. What steps is his Department taking, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, to help to secure that legacy?

Dr Fox: We work very closely with DFID on all those issues. As my hon. Friend correctly implies, if we are to have a sustainable legacy in Afghanistan, it cannot simply involve the strength of the armed forces or the police; there must also be strong governance and a strong infrastructure.

T9. [45729] Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Given the consideration in recent weeks of no-fly zones over Libya, do the Government still intend to make 170 trainee pilots redundant?

Dr Fox: The number of trainee pilots is designed to mirror the number of airframes that we intend to be able to fly in future. That was set out in the SDSR. As I

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remind hon. Members on every occasion, one of the reasons that we are having to make reductions in the budget is the £158 billion deficit left behind by the Labour Government, on which the interest payments alone are greater than next year’s defence, Foreign Office and aid budgets put together.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The House rightly pays tribute to our military personnel who are serving in Afghanistan. On Friday the Minister for the Armed Forces visited the Colchester garrison, where he will have seen on one side of the road former Army housing that is now social housing, on which millions of pounds are being spent by one arm of Government. Can the Minister explain why the same amount cannot be spent on housing on the other side of the road, where the fathers and husbands of military personnel in Afghanistan live?

Mr Robathan: My hon. Friend has rightly taken up this cause. We want to see all service personnel, whether single or married, in good-quality accommodation. As he will know, there is a huge backlog but we are working on it, although our work is constrained by the £38 billion deficit with which we were left. I hope very much that we shall be able to continue that work, particularly in the Colchester garrison.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The Minister will be aware of the widespread concern at Defence Support Group in Sealand about ongoing job losses—and, indeed, the Government’s proposals to find a buyer for the business. Why, therefore, has he barred me from visiting the site?

Dr Fox: I am not aware of any such condition, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to come and see me about it, I will be very happy to discuss it with him.

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): Given that the Batch 3 Type 22s have recently proved their value in both evacuating British nationals and vital intelligence gathering, and that no other platforms have such persistence, would it not be prudent to keep them intact during the current uncertain times in the world?

Dr Fox: It would be very attractive to be able to maintain a great deal of capability but, sadly, we are unable to do so because of financial constraints. It would be wonderful in a perfect world for us to be able not only to retain these assets but to invest in future assets as well, but if we are to be able to make investments in the future to deal with the threats we may face, we have to disinvest from some of the capabilities of the past, albeit with regret.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know of the commitment of the people of Plymouth to keeping the Royal Navy at sea, using all the skills we have in Plymouth. However, we need to know what is going to happen with regard to the Type 23s and the replacement for Endurance. What is the time scale for telling the people of Plymouth whether or not any of those ships will be base-ported in our city?

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Dr Fox: It gives me great pleasure to be able to commend the people of Plymouth for the great commitment they have made over many years. We will have announcements to make in the very near future on some of the issues the hon. Lady mentions, and I will ensure she is made aware of them before we make them available to others.

Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): Given the unique relationship between the sovereign and members of the armed forces, will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department intends to do to commemorate next year’s diamond jubilee?

Dr Fox: The Government will cross-departmentally set out their proposals on the diamond jubilee in the near future. The House will be informed in the usual way.

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), exactly how are the public supposed to maintain confidence in our programme to replace the Trident deterrent when the president of one of the governing parties is apparently given carte blanche to cheer up his battered activists by telling them it probably will not go ahead at all?

Dr Fox: The coalition agreement made it very clear that the Liberal Democrats within the coalition would be free to advocate alternatives to the replacement programme. The overall Government policy remains the replacement of the Trident programme however, and, as I said earlier today, the best solution for the United Kingdom is a submarine-based, continuously-at-sea, minimum-credible nuclear deterrent that protects the UK while contributing to overall reductions in international nuclear arsenals.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): It is a sorry state of affairs when calls for a no-fly zone from the interim national Libyan council are endorsed by the Arab League but the European Union fails to back them. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the security risk of inaction, should the international community fail to take responsibility to protect the Libyan people from Gaddafi?

Dr Fox: My hon. Friend makes a useful point. The Government’s aim is very clear: we want to see the isolation of, and a diminution in the size and effectiveness of, the regime in Libya, which we believe has lost legitimacy. The aim is for the international community to speak with a single voice, and the more we are united, the more we send a signal to Colonel Gaddafi that the game is up and he has no friends and no future in Libya or beyond.

John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State now answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn): how much has so far been spent on the Trident replacement?

Dr Fox: I have set out on a number of occasions the different areas in which we spend. We have to spend in advance because there are long-lead items that need to

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be spent on in order to make sure we are able to take the decisions at the points we have set in initial gate, and main gate when we get to 2015.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con): Last week, we saw evidence that Iran continues to supply the Taliban with weaponry. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with our allies to ensure that weapons intended for the Taliban are being actively intercepted?

Dr Fox: At the weekend’s NATO summit in Brussels and at the subsequent international security assistance force meeting we raised with our allies our concerns about the arming of the Taliban by Iran. This is a clear example, if we needed any, of the potentially malign influence that Iran can have in the region and it should be a warning to us all about its potential intent.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I recently visited the Merseyside garrison headquarters, where I met Territorial Army soldiers. Does the Secretary of State share their concerns that changes to the home-to-duty travel allowance will mean that by 2013 a TA soldier who lives 9 miles or more from their TA centre will receive £4 less every time they attend their place of duty for training?

Dr Fox: It is with a great deal of regret that one of the savings we are having to make in the Ministry of Defence is in the level of allowances available to service personnel. However, I must say to the hon. Lady that financial remuneration and allowances will be part of the picture of the wider review being undertaken of the Territorials and the reserves. We will want to look at that in the totality of the review of the reserves to make sure we get better value for money and more effective reserves.

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): As my right hon. Friend concludes his consultation on the security and technology Green Paper, will he ensure that he does not make the previous Government’s mistake of allowing MOD prime contractors to obstruct small and medium-sized enterprises in getting their fair share of the defence procurement pie?

Dr Fox: It has been an aim of the Government from the outset when looking at defence technology and the procurement process to ensure that SMEs are given more than a fair crack of the whip. For too long, this has been about the prime contractors, with too little consideration given to the SMEs, which represent in this country not only vibrancy in technology and innovation but a major source of employment.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): On the arms trade, does the Secretary of State agree with Mr Tom Porteous of UK Human Rights Watch that our country is being made to “look stupid” because of the conduct of our special trade representative? Should we not be employing trade representatives on the basis of their knowledge of industry, ethics and human rights, rather than on the hereditary principle?

Dr Fox: Mr Speaker, you made it very clear last time that because members of the royal family cannot answer back we should be very careful what we say in this House about them. It is fair to say that not only do we

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follow the legislation set down by the previous Government, but we have some of the tightest regulations on arms trading in the world.

Mr Speaker: Last but not least, Henry Smith.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): We are entering a time of increasing geomagnetic solar flare activity. Will the

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Secretary of State say what mitigating effects are being considered to protect military communications?

Dr Fox: This issue is being looked at globally. I may have responsibility for many things, but solar activity is not one of them.

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Japan and the Middle East

3.33 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): Before I turn to discussions at last week’s European Council, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the Japanese people following the earthquake and tsunami that struck their country on Friday. We are all deeply shocked and saddened by the devastation that we have seen, and by the loss of life, the full scale of which will take many days, and possibly weeks, to comprehend. I am sure that the thoughts of everyone in this House, and indeed of everyone in our country, are with the Japanese people—we stand with you at this time.

As yet, there are no confirmed British fatalities, but we have severe concerns about a number of British nationals. I have spoken with our ambassador in Japan, who was one of the first to get to the affected region, and his team are working around the clock to help British nationals. Over the weekend we have had three rapid deployment teams of staff operating in the worst-affected areas, and they will be augmented by a further team that will be arriving in Tokyo this afternoon and advancing to the north-east of the country tomorrow. They will help to find out information for the families who are rightly very worried about relatives potentially caught up in this tragedy. We have set up a helpline for these families. It has taken several thousand calls and we are following up each lead. We have, of course, offered humanitarian assistance to the Japanese Government and we stand ready to assist in any way that we can. At their request, a 63-strong UK search and rescue team, which includes medical personnel, has already been deployed and it arrived in Japan yesterday morning.

The whole House will have been concerned at the worrying situation at the nuclear power station at Fukushima. The Japanese Government have said that the emergency cooling systems at three reactors at the plant have failed because of the tsunami and there have been explosions due to the release of hydrogen gas at both the Fukushima 1 and Fukushima 3 reactors. This is clearly a very fast-moving and rapidly changing picture and the Japanese Government are doing everything they can to manage the situation they face. We will keep the House updated. We are in close touch with the Japanese authorities and have offered our nuclear expertise if we can help to manage this very serious incident.

The Energy Secretary has asked our chief nuclear inspector, Dr. Mike Weightman, for a thorough report on the implications of the situation in Japan. The UK does not have reactors of the design of those in Fukushima and neither does it plan any; nor, obviously, are we in a seismically sensitive zone. But if there are lessons to learn, we must learn them.

Cobra has met several times over the weekend and again this morning, and we will keep our response to this tragedy and our support for Japan and the wider Pacific region under close and continuous review. Of course, that goes for our travel advice as well.

The devastation we are witnessing in Japan is of truly colossal proportions. It has been heartbreaking to listen to people who have had all their relatives, their friends, their possessions and their homes simply washed away. Those who have survived will not recognise the place

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where their homes once stood. We do not yet know the full and dreadful death toll, nor can anyone truly understand the impact that these events will have, but Japan and the Japanese people are a resilient and resourceful nation. Britain and the British people are your friends and we have no doubt you will recover.

Let me turn to Friday’s special European Council and north Africa. The reason for having this Council was twofold: first, to make sure Europe seizes the moment of opportunity to support the Arab people in north Africa and across the middle east in realising their aspirations for a more open and democratic form of government; and, secondly, to address the difficult situation in Libya. The Council addressed both issues and I will be frank with the House about where progress has been made and where more needs to be done.

First, on supporting the building blocks of democracy in the Arab world, the aim should be a big bold offer to those countries in our southern neighbourhood that want to move towards being more open societies. There was some real success on this point. The Council declaration talks of a “new partnership” founded on

“broader market access and political cooperation”

with an approach that gears support to those countries where progress is being made in meeting their citizens’ aspirations. That could be so much better than the failed approach of the past, but now Europe needs to follow through on its declaration with a real and credible offer to those countries. In my view, it must be based on the prospects of deeper economic and trade integration with the EU and free movement of goods, services and investment.

Turning to Libya, it was right for the EU to meet and discuss how we can work together to deal with the crisis. There has been considerable international co-operation on evacuation and I will bring the House up to date on the figures. We now have got more than 600 British nationals out and assisted more than 30 other nationalities. About 220 British nationals remain in Libya. The overwhelming majority of these are long-term residents and many, of course, are dual nationals or spouses of Libyan nationals. Many of that group have told us that they wish to remain in Libya, but a number of other British nationals are now contacting us for the first time. We will stay in contact with these people and continue to assist those who wish to leave.

We have also been at the forefront of the response to the humanitarian situation in Libya and on its borders. We remain deeply concerned by the situation for people inside Libya caught up in fierce fighting and the Development Secretary has repeatedly called for the protection of civilians and for unfettered humanitarian access to those in need.

On the subject of further isolating the Gaddafi regime, the European Council also made some progress. Two weeks ago, we put in place a tough United Nations Security Council resolution and agreed in record time asset freezes, travel bans and an arms embargo, as well as referral to the International Criminal Court. At this European Council, all leaders were united, categorical and crystal clear that Gaddafi must “relinquish power immediately.” We widened the restrictive measures against individuals close to Gaddafi and strengthened the financial sanctions on the regime, adding the Libyan Central Bank and the Libyan Investment Authority to the EU asset-freezing list. In doing so, the UK has increased the total of frozen Libyan assets in this country from

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£2 billion to £12 billion. We now need to make clear the next measures in terms of putting further pressure on the regime and planning for what other steps may be necessary.

Two weeks ago, I told the House that I believed contingency planning should be done, including plans for a military no-fly zone. NATO is carrying out that work. As we have said before, a no-fly zone would need international support based on three clear conditions: demonstrable need, regional support and a clear legal basis. In recent days, first the Gulf Co-operation Council and now the Arab League have called for a no-fly zone. In terms of the European Council, of course, the EU is not a military alliance and there is always a hesitation about discussing military options, but the Council expressed its

“deep concern about attacks against civilians, including from the air”

and agreed that all member states should examine “all necessary options” for protecting the civilian population, provided there was a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region. That was some progress, especially compared with where Europe was in advance of Friday’s Council, but we need to continue to win the argument for a strong response in the international community—Europe included. Along with others in the United Nations Security Council, the UK is following up urgently the lead given by the Arab League by drafting a resolution that sets out the next measures that need to be taken, including the option of a no-fly zone. Included in the resolution, in our view, should be much tougher measures against mercenaries and the states from which they come, as well as against others who are attempting to breach the sanctions and assist Gaddafi.

Every day, Gaddafi is brutalising his own people. Time is of the essence and there should be no let-up in the pressure we put on this regime. I am clear where the British national interest lies. It is in our interest to see the growth of open societies and the building blocks of democracy in north Africa and the middle east. When it comes to Libya, we should be clear about what is happening. We have seen the uprising of a people against a brutal dictator and it will send a dreadful signal if their legitimate aspirations are crushed, not least to others striving for democracy across the region. To those who say it is nothing to do with us, I would simply respond, “Do we want a situation where a failed pariah state festers on Europe’s southern border, potentially threatening our security, pushing people across the Mediterranean and creating a more dangerous and uncertain world for Britain and for all our allies as well as for the people of Libya?” Of course we do not want that, and that is why Britain is and will remain at the forefront of the response to this crisis. I commend this statement to the House.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab): May I start by associating myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami? The tragedy that has hit that country is of almost unimaginable horror and scale, as all of us will have felt after seeing the pictures on our television screens over the weekend. We fully support the Government in their efforts to help the Government of Japan in their hour of need and, indeed, to help Japan’s people.

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This is clearly an anxious time for the friends and family of UK nationals and I thank the Prime Minister for what he said about our consular activity. I am sure that consular staff will be working around the clock to deal with the inquiries that they receive. Let me also associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks about the work of British search and rescue teams.

On nuclear power, we should clearly see if there are lessons to be learned, but should avoid a rush to judgment given that we have a good safety record in this country. It is important not to lose sight of that.

Turning to the European Council, I want to focus on three issues: the military options available to the international community regarding Libya, the wider response to the Libyan crisis and the need to re-energise the middle east peace process. Let me take each issue in turn.

First, I welcome the clear and unequivocal statement in the Council declaration that the Libyan regime should relinquish power immediately. As the Prime Minister made clear in his statement, the situation in Libya is grave and pressing. I said, when the Prime Minister first publicly floated the idea of a no-fly zone two weeks ago, that we welcomed the possibility. It is disappointing that Friday’s communiqué did not mention it, although it is, as he has said, encouraging that the Arab League has expressed support for it. In view of the gravity and urgency of the situation, and to win greater support for the idea, it seems to us that the priority must be to translate the no-fly zone phrase into a practical plan. To that end, may I ask what progress has been made since he asked the Ministry of Defence to draw up such a plan two weeks ago? Specifically, was such a plan presented by the UK at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting last Thursday or by him at the European Council?

On the European Council, may I ask whether the ambivalence among our EU partners is based on opposition to a no-fly zone in principle or is because of practical doubts about the workability of such a proposal? Can he give us a clearer picture, because that is necessary to win broader support, of what he believes the no-fly zone would involve and, furthermore, whether it is contingent on the US Government’s participation, given that some parts of the Administration have expressed reservations about the idea?

On timing, I note that the Prime Minister repeated his statement of last week that the UK is now working on a new Security Council resolution, which I welcome. Given the urgency of the situation, to which he rightly drew attention, what is his best judgment about when such a resolution will be tabled? Above all, may I emphasise to him the importance of matching what is said in public with the diplomatic spadework needed to win international support for a practical and legal plan?

I have one more question on the military options that are available. Given the position expressed this morning by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), on providing arms to some of the rebels against Colonel Gaddafi, what is the Government’s position on the legality and wisdom of that idea?

Secondly, let me turn to the other actions that we can take. I welcome what the Prime Minister said about asset freezes and sanctions. May I make a further

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suggestion? To maximise pressure on the regime, have the Government made any formal communication to the International Criminal Court to impress on Libyan leaders and commanders the importance of individual accountability for the commissioning and carrying out of crimes against humanity? If he has not done so—and I believe that it is open to individual countries to do this—may I suggest that he looks into the UK Government doing so?

On the humanitarian crisis, to which the Prime Minister referred, may I ask him whether the Department for International Development is planning to provide additional support to other multilateral organisations such as the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees?

Thirdly and finally, may I discuss briefly the middle east peace process? He and I both had the chance last week to meet President Abbas during his visit to London. May I reiterate to the Prime Minister something with which I know he agrees—the central importance of not losing sight of that issue as other, more immediate crises face us. Will the Prime Minister therefore tell us what discussions took place at the European Council about how the EU can help to get the peace process back on track? In particular, what representations have been made to the United States following its recent veto of the UN resolution on settlements?

Finally, let me tell the Prime Minister that he and I are united in the view that this must be a moment when the European Union and the international community show they are more than the sum of their parts, whether it is on Libya specifically, north Africa or the middle east peace process. I hope that he and other leaders will do all they can over the coming days and weeks to put in the hard work and diplomacy that can make that happen.

The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, and I particularly welcome what he said about Japan and the common ground there. On nuclear, he is absolutely right that we should not rush to judgment, but we should, as we have done, ask our experts where there are lessons to learn.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions about Libya, and let me try to take all of them. On the issue of no-fly zones, he said what support the Arab League had given, but the Secretary-General of the Arab League said very clearly:

“It is for the Security Council to take decisions as it sees fit. What we did in the Arab League is make an official request to impose a no-fly zone on military activities against the Libyan people.”

I think that that is a significant step forward. The right hon. Gentleman asked what work has been done. Obviously, work has been done in the UK to look at options on how that could be done but, crucially, the work is now being done in NATO, which is right. He asked a question about what it would involve. I am afraid that the answer is that that would depend on exactly how large the no-fly zone was, whether it was operating round the clock, which parts of the country it covered and so forth. However, it is perfectly practical and deliverable. Obviously, if it were to happen, if it is judged to have passed the milestones that we have set, it would be best if it were as widely supported as possible. It is something that no one country can do alone.

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The right hon. Gentleman asked why some EU countries were more sceptical than others, and why they opposed the proposal. As he knows, 21 of the 27 are members of the NATO, which made it clear that this should be looked at. Many in Europe, as elsewhere, have made it clear that we must make sure that we learn lessons from Iraq. My argument is that no two situations are the same. We can listen to any number of experts who will warn about what happened in different places in different times, but what we are seeing in Libya is different. It is an uprising of a people against a leader, and it is quite different. No one is talking about invasions, boots on the ground and the rest of it. When a resolution should be put forward will depend on the support that can be guaranteed for such a resolution in the UN, but what has happened with the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council is very encouraging.

On the question raised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary, about arming the rebels, I repeat what the Foreign Secretary said this morning. We should not exclude various possibilities, and there is an argument to be made, but there are important legal, practical and other issues that would have to be resolved, including the UN arms embargo. We should also be clear that there is no single answer to speeding up the process of removing Gaddafi. That is why we should urgently be pursuing a broad range of options through the UN.

On the other actions that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned—the International Criminal Court—I will certainly look at the idea of contacting the court directly. It seems most important to me that we make the point publicly over and over again to all those people around Gaddafi, working for Gaddafi, and in his army, that they are being watched by the International Criminal Court. That is a message that we should do everything we can to get across.

DFID has responded very quickly, both bilaterally and multilaterally. We should be proud of the fact that it was Britain which flew so many Egyptians on the Tunisian border back to Egypt and helped many hundreds of Bangladeshis as well.

On the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the middle east peace process, that was discussed by the EU Council. We have made strong representations to other EU countries and also to the US that we must get that back on track. As the right hon. Gentleman said, both of us met the Palestinian President when he came to London recently. I was struck by something that one of his advisers said—that if we really want great progress and victory in combating terrorism and Islamic extremism, growth of democracy in the middle east, plus a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, would be the two things that could bring that victory together.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): Does the Prime Minister agree that the Gaddafi regime has already internationalised the conflict in Libya by bringing in many hundreds of mercenaries, which is helping to put pressure on the insurgents? Against that background, is it not imperative that the international community should be able to provide military supplies to the insurgents? Of course, we must recognise the legality of the arms embargo, but does the Prime Minister agree also that

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the terms of the arms embargo resolution prevent arms from being supplied to what is called the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya—in other words, to the Gaddafi regime—and that it is perfectly possible to supply arms or other equipment to those who are fighting that regime, especially as the resolution itself, through the appointment of a sanctions committee, allows that sanctions committee to provide arms sales to other groups in Libya if it thinks that appropriate?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend made a strong and persuasive argument in his newspaper article this morning. I make three points. First, on the issue of mercenaries, what is happening is unacceptable. We should be sending the clearest possible message to those in Mali, Chad and elsewhere who are thinking of volunteering as mercenaries, and we should put into the next UN resolution the strongest possible language about mercenaries. Secondly, the same should apply to policing the arms embargo against the Gaddafi regime, because there are signs that he is seeking additional armaments right now. Thirdly, I hear clearly the argument —it is an ingenious argument that only a lawyer of my right hon. and learned Friend’s brilliance could make—about the specific way the arms embargo was termed towards the country that Gaddafi effectively renamed, but I am not sure it is an opinion that is shared by all other lawyers.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): I was going to ask the Prime Minister about the nature of the duties on the Security Council. Five years ago, a high level working group established by the then Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, recommended that the responsibilities—the duties—of the Security Council should be broadened from protecting international peace and security to a “responsibility to protect” populations from internal humanitarian disaster, even where that did not directly pose a threat across the borders of those countries. Does the Prime Minister agree that as well as the commendable action that the British Government are taking to push the international community to deal with the immediate problem of Libya, we need to use this terrible example to press our partners internationally to broaden the remit of the Security Council so that we never get another Bosnia or Rwanda or, maybe tragically, another Libya?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise on this issue. The responsibility to protect has been pushed forward and debated, and I remember asking questions in opposition, at the time of problems in Burma and elsewhere, on whether it should be invoked. What the lawyers will advise, quite rightly, is that things have moved on and changed since Bosnia. It seems to me that one of the things we are trying to do here is learn the lessons of Iraq and the lessons of Bosnia, where the international community was neither fast enough, nor indeed decisive enough in responding.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I very much agree with the Prime Minister’s proposals to make the countries of the middle east bigger and more open societies, but those of us with reservations about the no-fly zone are concerned about where it will lead.

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Given that the last two no-fly zones, in Bosnia and Iraq, both needed troops on the ground to follow behind them, what does he envisage will happen if a no-fly zone is unsuccessful and Gaddafi remains in place?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, a lot has been written and said about this issue, and I totally understand the argument, but if we face a situation where there is a real danger of Gaddafi continuing to inflict devastation on his people, and if the conditions set out have been met, which are that there is a demonstrable need, regional support and a clear legal basis, it seems to me that this is the right sort of step to consider. Of course, it is not a solution to the problem, but I believe that it would have an effect on the ground. It might not be a decisive effect, but I think that there are strong arguments for taking steps that further put pressure on Gaddafi, and I think that this is a step that we should consider. We have already taken a number of diplomatic and sanction steps. I think that this is an additional step that could make a difference.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. Approximately 50 Members are still seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate them, so brevity is of the essence.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister referred to learning the lessons from Iraq. He also said that time is of the essence. Does he agree that John Major, as Prime Minister, was right to introduce a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds and that, as a result, for 12 years Saddam was unable to attack them even though he remained in power in Baghdad? Is there not an argument today for the international community, either collectively or only some of them, to protect the people of Benghazi?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I think that John Major was right, and I discussed this specific case with him over the past few days to make sure that we learn the lessons from that. That also relates to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). The point is this: we cannot do everything, but that does not mean that we should not do anything. That is the key, and we have to work out where to draw the line. I am very clear that a no-fly zone is something that we should consider, because it may help to stop atrocities being committed against people who want a more democratic future.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): May I associate all my party colleagues with the condolences and sympathy expressed by the Prime Minister for the people of Japan and with the support expressed for all those coming to their aid?

On Libya, in addition to the sense of urgency that the Prime Minister has expressed on the no-fly zone, is he willing to pursue, as the crisis group in Brussels has recommended, a possible initiative for a ceasefire on the ground in Libya so that a post-Gaddafi representative and an appropriate regime could be discussed as urgently as possible, as well as military action taken elsewhere?

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The Prime Minister: We will of course listen and respond to all suggestions. It seems to me that the first thing that needs to happen is for Gaddafi to cease what he is doing and go. That is the only way Libya can have a secure future and that is what needs to happen. We should be asking ourselves, with our allies, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council, what more we can do to tighten the noose around Gaddafi and turn up the pressure to ensure that he feels it as strongly as possible.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central) (Lab): The Prime Minister is right that the logic of a no-fly zone is to prevent aggression by Gaddafi against innocent people in Benghazi or elsewhere. Is that not exactly the same logic, though, of providing arms to those in opposition to Gaddafi—that it gives them the capacity to defend themselves against such aggression? What assessment does the Prime Minister make of the urgency with which the international community will now deal with the legal issue?

The Prime Minister: First, to deal with the issue of urgency, there is a range of opinions on what is happening on the ground in Libya, but it does seem as if the rebels have had some serious setbacks, so time could be relatively short. The international community, therefore, needs to step up and quicken the pace of its response along the lines of some of the things that we have been suggesting.

In terms of whether a no-fly zone is better than other options, I think we should pursue a range of options. I put a no-fly zone on the table early on, because it takes planning and time to prepare for such a contingency. As I said in relation to arming the rebels, and as the Foreign Secretary said, we should not rule things out, but there is a range of practical and legal difficulties, so the steps that we are pushing for at the UN, which involve not just a no-fly zone, but a range of other, diplomatic steps and pressures, including what I have said about mercenaries, are the right approach.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I welcome the Prime Minister’s analysis, and his tying down of the conditions to proceed, but does he nevertheless agree that, welcome though the Arab League’s support is, there will be a requirement on it to provide some of its considerable air assets for a no-fly zone if the project is to have the wholehearted capability that it should?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Everyone will have seen the words of the Arab League and of the Gulf Co-operation Council, which are welcome, and it is—to some—an unexpected step that they are being so forthright in asking for a no-fly zone, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: were that to happen, it should go ahead on the basis of the broadest amount of international support and participation, and crucially that should include participation by Arab states themselves, which do have the assets to bring to bear.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): First and foremost, our thoughts are with the people of Japan at this terrible time, and whatever our own views on nuclear power we fervently hope that their engineers are able to bring under control the situation at Fukushima.

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The Prime Minister made some perfectly valid points about the differences between the UK and Japan, but the fact remains that their reactors are specifically designed for Japanese, known seismic risk. Should that not give us pause for thought about our own nuclear plans?

The Prime Minister: We have an excellent nuclear safety record in this country, but we should never be complacent. When any nuclear incident happens anywhere else in the world, we should immediately examine it and ask ourselves, “Does this have any implications for what we do in the UK?” There are some important scientific points to take into account, including the different reactors and seismic conditions that we have here, but nevertheless we will make sure that the gentleman I mentioned in my statement does the work properly.

Mr Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): My right hon. Friend has commendably promoted action rather than words. In remembering the lessons of Iraq, should we not remember also the lessons of Budapest in 1956 and the Prague spring? Is it not a fact that, when the western free world fails to act, defining moments are lost and tyrants survive?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks with great passion about these issues. The point I would make about the lessons of Iraq, which a lot of people mention, is that no one here is talking about, and the Libyan opposition are not asking for, ground troops, invasions or anything like that; they are asking for a no-fly zone. But I think there is a lesson from Iraq, and it is this: if you talk to a lot of people in the Gulf, they will say, “If you don’t actually show your support for the Libyan people and for democracy at this time, in a way you’re saying you will intervene when it is only about your security, but you won’t help when it is about our democracy,” We need to bear that in mind in drawing the lessons, as people say, from Iraq.

Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Was there any discussion at the European Council about the desirability of EU nations now recognising the opposition as a legitimate power in Libya?

The Prime Minister: There was a discussion about that, and the Council’s conclusions talk about the Benghazi council being a legitimate political interlocutor, which is important. The French have obviously formally recognised that organisation. As for Britain’s position, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we recognise countries rather than Governments, but we want a dialogue and to have contact with the Libyan opposition, so we will be going ahead with that. We do, however, have a different legal position of recognising countries, not Governments.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Do President Obama and Chancellor Merkel support the idea of an intervention in another Islamic state?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend, who speaks with great passion about these things, puts it in a very particular way. I have spoken with President Obama; he said, very clearly, that he wants Gaddafi to go. Chancellor Merkel signed up to a European Council statement that Gaddafi should go. When we are talking about intervention here, we are talking about the world coming together,

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having tough UN sanctions, putting in place a resolution, turning up the pressure, and looking at possibilities like a no-fly zone that could help to protect the Libyan people. As I said in my statement, it is not in our interests that we end up with Gaddafi still in power, in charge of what will become a pariah rogue state on the borders of Europe causing huge amounts of difficulty for everyone else. This is in our interests; it is not some great adventure that is being planned, if I may reassure my hon. Friend.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The United Nations Security Council is the right way to pursue this matter. Was there any explanation at the European Council meeting of the bombs, the torpedoes, the rockets and the missiles that have been sold to the Libyan regime by France, Italy and Germany—that is apart from what we have been selling up until the past few weeks? What on earth did the Governments believe those arms would be used against?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is extremely consistent in his line of questioning about this issue, and he is right to raise these questions. I think that all Governments and all countries are going to have to ask themselves some quite searching questions about things that were sold and training that was given, and all the rest of it, and I will make sure that those questions are asked and answered here. But to be fair to the last Government, I can understand absolutely why relations were formed with Gaddafi after he gave up the weapons of mass destruction, although tragically not all of them have been destroyed or disposed of. The question is whether we then went into a relationship that was too blind and unthinking, and there are some serious questions to ask about that.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I really think that my right hon. Friend deserves congratulations on the fact that a fortnight ago he was virtually a lone voice in floating the idea of a no-fly zone, and now he has the support of the Arab League and France. What exactly went on at the European Council? Whom was Baroness Ashton speaking for? What mandate does she have to give her opinions? Should she not serve the member states of the European Union rather than pretending to lead them?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and the temptation to be pulled down a particular path about Baroness Ashton, who I think does a good job. The point that I would make is this: what happened on Friday, I think, is that there was a rogue briefing by one of her spokespeople that she was extremely embarrassed about and, to be fair to her, did everything she possibly could to try to put right. But as the old saying goes, a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): In several questions the Prime Minister has reinforced the point he made in his statement that much tougher measures should be taken against mercenaries and states from which they come. What sort of measures is he thinking of?

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The Prime Minister: There is now an arms embargo that should be policed. As many hon. Members will know, sometimes the problem with UN resolutions is that we pass the resolution but we do not necessarily put in place the machinery to follow it up properly. There is more that can be done through the UN on mercenaries, but there is also more that can be done on a bilateral basis whereby countries such as Britain, and perhaps particularly France, because of its relations with some of these countries, can make it absolutely clear how unacceptable it is to supply mercenaries. The message should go out to all those thinking about it that the world is watching, the International Criminal Court is watching, and that if you take part in war crimes, wherever you are, you can still be caught and punished.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Does the Prime Minister share my concern at the arrival of Saudi troops in Bahrain following the protests demanding democratic reforms, which have already been met by tear gas and rubber bullets? Does he agree that those desiring democracy in Bahrain should have as much right to peaceful protest as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, regardless of whether Saudi Arabia approves?

The Prime Minister: Of course, everyone should have the right to peaceful protest. In Bahrain, the King and the Crown Prince have been making efforts to try to have movement towards a more open and democratic society. Of course people will have debates about whether they are going far enough or fast enough, but they have made that effort. Bahrain obviously has the difficulty of quite a severe divide between some Sunni and Shi’a, which can make the situation more difficult, but I hope that they keep going down that path of reform, and not repression, which is the right track for these countries to take.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning utterly the barbaric slaughter inflicted on the Fogel family in a west bank settlement over the weekend? Does he agree that no response to that savagery could be more futile than the building of further settlements, and that the only way to stop this useless slaughter of innocent people—both Jews and Palestinians—is for Israel to sit down and talk?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Like others, I read about that case over the weekend and found what happened extremely disturbing. Anyone who has been to Jerusalem and seen the settlement building, particularly around east Jerusalem, can understand why the Palestinians feel so strongly about building on their land. There is a danger of the two-state solution being built away if we are not careful. That is why this Government have always taken a strong view about the settlements.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Is not one of the lessons of Afghanistan that arming insurgents against a regime that we do not like can have incalculable consequences? Is not the problem with the proposal to do so, and with a no-fly zone, that we could end up with a prolonged civil war in which there would be mounting moral pressure for us to send in ground troops? Will the

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Prime Minister reassure the British people categorically that there is no question of our being dragged into another war of attrition in the middle east?

The Prime Minister: Let me try to reassure my hon. Friend, and through him people who are concerned about this matter. There is no intention to get involved in another war or to see an invasion or massive amounts of ground troops. That is not what is being looked at. What is being looked at is how we can tighten the pressure on an unacceptable, illegitimate regime to give that country some chance of peaceful transition. We would let down ourselves and the Libyan people if we did nothing and said that it was all too difficult. My hon. Friend’s point about Afghanistan is a good one, but I would argue that the real lesson is that the mistake of the west was to forget about Afghanistan and take its eyes off that country, rather than building and investing there when it was making progress. Instead we left it alone, and we have since suffered the consequences.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): Was there any discussion at the European Council about the situation in Yemen? The Prime Minister will know that the situation has deteriorated badly, with violence spreading to many cities. It is surely not in anyone’s interests, apart from al-Qaeda, for Yemen to drift into civil war. What can we do to help the Yemeni Government to stabilise the situation, but to continue with the reforms?

The Prime Minister: We did discuss the wider region. The country that is probably of the most concern at the moment is Yemen, which the right hon. Gentleman often raises in this House. Again, it is clearly in our interests that the Yemeni Government respond with reform rather than repression. Yemen is a particularly special case because of the great presence of al-Qaeda and our need to encourage its Government to take on the terrorism in their country. The situation is obviously extremely difficult and we keep it under permanent review, not least to ensure that we keep safe the British citizens who are there.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the Prime Minister think there is a danger that by the time the international community agrees to a no-fly zone, there will be no purpose for one?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a good point—the clock is ticking. There is a strong case for saying that time could get very short. I am not arguing, and do not think that anyone should argue, that a no-fly zone is the silver bullet that will solve the whole problem. It is just one of the many options that we should look at to increase pressure on the regime and to help people on the ground. I raised it two weeks ago because a lot of contingency planning is needed. I hope that that planning can now be sped up. That is why we are pushing for it, including through the UN. Clearly, we have to make and win some arguments on the UN Security Council, where some will be very sceptical about the idea.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Will the Prime Minister explain exactly what are his principles on condemnation and potential military intervention? He has described his views on Libya. What is his view

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on the Saudi forces who are firing on protesters on the streets of Saudi Arabia, who have travelled over the border into Yemen in the past, and who today are occupying parts of Bahrain in support of the Bahraini Government against their own protesters? Where is the condemnation of Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses and for its arrogance in its treatment of dissidents?

The Prime Minister: I do not believe that the Government are being inconsistent. We have said throughout this that the response of Governments to aspirations for greater freedom and democracy—what we call the building blocks of democracy—should be reform and not repression. That applies right across the region. What is special about Libya right now is that, as I have said, there is an uprising of people against a brutal dictator who is brutalising the people. In the international community, we should be asking ourselves, “What can we do?” We do not have a perfect answer, because there are red lines that we are not prepared to cross, but in my view that is not an argument for doing nothing.

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): While welcoming the consensus on both sides of the House that we need a coalition and cannot freelance this, may I ask the Prime Minister what steps are being taken to bring Brazil, India, South Africa and other new members of the Security Council on side with the no-fly zone?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend asks an extremely good question. Those discussions are actually ongoing, and the UN Security Council is meeting as we speak. I think that those who have been sceptical about needing to take further action will be struck by what the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council have said, and by what the Libyan opposition themselves have said. If we were having this argument and the Arab League was saying, “No, stay out, don’t help”, that would be a different situation, but that is not the case. I hope that the Brazilians and others will look at what the Arab League is saying and say, “Actually, this is a different situation and we need to give our support.”

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I know that the Prime Minister recognises the fact that the no-fly zone is not an easy option. In light of that, will he promise the House that if Britain decides to join in the imposition of a no-fly zone, the matter will be debated and voted on in the House?

The Prime Minister: I made a statement two weeks ago and I am making a statement today. We will have a further debate later this week, and I want the House of Commons to be regularly updated and to have every opportunity to discuss, debate and, if it wants, vote on the matter. I do not think we are there yet, but we now have the excellent Backbench Business Committee, which can arrange for days of debate and substantive motions, so if the Government are not fast enough for the hon. Lady, there are other options.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a solution can be found before time runs out only if it has an Arab face on it? Does he agree that the two ways in which it can have that are,

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first, if weapons and ammunition are fairly rapidly allowed to reach the rebels, who face an extremely well-armed enemy, and secondly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) suggested, if the Egyptian and Saudi air forces are brought very much into the frame for any possible no-fly zone?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend speaks with great expertise about these matters. There is an Arab face on this already because of what the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council have said, and that makes a big difference. When we speak to Arab leaders in the Gulf, they are very clear—unanimous, even—that Gaddafi has to go, the regime cannot continue, it is not legitimate and the situation is bad for the region. I think there would be support were a no-fly zone to happen—not only verbal support but, I hope, military support as well.

I cannot be specific about the two countries that my hon. Friend mentions. Obviously Egypt has all sorts of challenges in front of it at the moment, but I have had personal strong support from other Gulf leaders on this issue.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The fact that arms that could have been sold by this country and many other western countries are being used against the people fighting for freedom in Libya highlights the unacceptable nature of the arms trade. Were there any discussions at the European Union about the possibility of international agreement about who we should deal with regarding arms in the future, to prevent such circumstances from coming about?

The Prime Minister: There was not that discussion at the European Council on Friday, because we were really talking about the two issues of the immediate situation in Libya and the neighbourhood policy that Europe should have towards north Africa and countries that are yearning for democracy.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have to consider such issues closely. I do not believe that the arms trade is always and everywhere a bad thing, because small countries have a right to defend themselves. A responsible trade, properly regulated, is acceptable, but although we have some of the toughest rules, we have to ask ourselves, “Are they working, and how can we improve on them?”

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Prime Minister will understand if I tell him that I was a little troubled to hear him say that we would police the arms embargo. Should we not use political will rather than legal ingenuity to ensure that arms go to help those who are resisting that dreadful tyrant?

The Prime Minister: As I have said in answer to several hon. Members, we do not rule those things out. We will look closely at the arguments, but clearly, when a UN arms embargo is in place, there are legal and practical problems with going down a different track. We should focus on the pressures that we can put on the Gaddafi regime. We should not rule out other possibilities —we can discuss those with allies—but they are not immediately on the table.

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Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the question from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), has the Prime Minister assessed—or is he aware of any such assessment—how soon a no-fly zone must be implemented for it not only to save civilians on the ground, but to change the course of events there?

The Prime Minister: That is a very good question. The point is that a no-fly zone may not make a decisive military difference, but it could make a difference. Clearly, the sooner it is put in place, the more difference it could make. However, the British Government are extremely clear that the three conditions must be in place—there must be a legal basis, regional support and a demonstrable need. Clearly, if those three conditions are met and if international partners want to go ahead, the sooner the better, because the effect, which people can debate, will be that much the greater.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May I offer the Prime Minister my full support and congratulate him on his leadership? What more can be done by the international community, preferably through Arab countries, to ensure that Libyan opposition forces deliver a self-help no-fly zone by the provision of, and the giving of access to, their own portable, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles? That would provide a Libyan solution to what is primarily a Libyan problem, in addition to any future UN no-fly zone.

The Prime Minister: Clearly, while some of the military has remained loyal to Gaddafi, a lot of the military supports the rebels. Both sides in the conflict have a number of armaments, as my hon. Friend will have seen from the evidence. There are problems with arming the rebels. I mentioned the legal situation in respect of the arms embargo, but there are practical problems and questions about how quickly arming rebels would lead to any material effect. We can look at that, and we do not rule it out, but we should focus our efforts on the diplomatic efforts—the isolation of Libya—and on the contingency plans, such as a no-fly zone.

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I thank the Prime Minister for his comments on settlement building, but what are the Government doing to assist the people of Egypt? Egypt is still a military-run state. We should not sell it arms, but assist it to build civil society, political parties and the rule of law. How can the Government assist in those aims?

The Prime Minister: We are assisting the Egyptian people at this time—we hope—of transition. When I went to Cairo, I met Field Marshal Tantawi, the interim leader of that country. While we obviously want to see civilian democratic rule, and while there is at least the chance of a transition, which we are doing everything we can to help, one should not be too unfair about the Egyptian military’s role in ensuring that Mubarak left office. I have spoken to the new Prime Minister in Egypt. Our embassy, which is very well staffed and organised, is arranging a number of political contacts to ensure that we do everything to help that country with its growth towards democracy.

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Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): Regional support has now been given, and the need is demonstrated. Five years ago, Heads of State at the UN General Assembly agreed that they

“are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council…should…national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.”

Is it not time that the Security Council acted collectively to protect the people of Libya?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman puts his point very strongly. We hope that the Security Council takes such action. There is now a discussion in the Security Council, and clearly, we must make the arguments as best we can. We can make points about the conditions that must be fulfilled before a no-fly zone comes into operation, but we should put forward other proposals, such as sanctions, asset bans and all the rest of it, that can add to pressure on the regime. We should not see one thing as a silver bullet, because there is no silver bullet—it is about ramping up the pressure.

Chris Leslie (Nottingham East) (Lab/Co-op): There are many dimensions to the tragedy in Japan, but on the lessons to be learned for emergency planning, surely one of the issues that is starting to become clear in terms of nuclear facilities is the inability of back-up systems adequately to pump around coolant when the primary systems fail. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Health and Safety Executive properly stress tests our current and planned nuclear facilities?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am sure that the head of the nuclear inspectorate, who is doing this report for us, will look at this issue. As I understand it, it was a legitimate issue in Japan, where the combination of the earthquake and the tsunami meant that the systems were so severely tested. We have to stress test all our arrangements—although obviously in different circumstances on the ground—as toughly as we can.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend that sooner or later Gaddafi and those closest to him who are most responsible for attacks on civilians and crimes against humanity will be held to account by the International Criminal Court?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I can certainly make that point. It is a very strong point. We talk about pressurising the regime, but we also want to isolate it. Anyone around or thinking of supporting Gaddafi should be thinking about the long arm of the law, its long reach and its long memory, and I think that the International Criminal Court is very helpful in that regard.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Learning from previous no-fly zones, will the Prime Minister confirm that with hindsight it was wrong in Bosnia to have insisted on an equality of sanctions and to have put in place rules of engagement that were not specific enough about helicopters and trade planes?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady makes a point. There are many lessons to learn from all stages of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, perhaps Bosnia in

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particular. One can make all sorts of arguments about whether the arms embargo should have been lifted, or whether there should have been tougher action earlier against the Serbs, but the most important lesson was that the international community has to be engaged and decisive at an earlier stage. That is the lesson that we should learn.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): In welcoming my right hon. Friend’s stance in leading the international community in taking difficult decisions against Gaddafi, will he remind it that Gaddafi has form? He launched a brutal military takeover in 1968 and became the leader of a pariah state that tried to acquire nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s. Is it not imperative that the international community takes action now?

The Prime Minister: This is an important point for people who are traditionally sceptical about these sorts of measures. We should consider what life could be like with a Gaddafi in charge of a pariah Libyan state, with all the oil money it would have and all the ability it would have to wreak havoc internationally. We know what this man is capable of, because we have seen it in the past with Lockerbie and all the other problems, not least his funding of the IRA.

Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): On the one hand, the Prime Minister has been urged to take action as soon as possible, because of the urgency of the situation; on the other, he has been asked to follow the UN track. He has indicated that the Arab League and, as far as we can judge, internal opinion in Libya support a no-fly zone. Will he recommit himself to ensuring that we get the legitimacy of a UN Security Council resolution before action is taken?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, we want to have the widest possible international support. Also, we should not proceed without a proper legal basis. The hon. Gentleman mentions the Libyan opposition. They have made it absolutely clear in what they said that they want a no-fly zone and to have this sort of international support.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does not the welcome support of the Arab League for a no-fly zone show that the Prime Minister was both forward thinking and right when he proposed it two weeks ago? Does not his stance on this issue contrast enormously with the Leader of the Opposition, who appears to have flip-flopped in a way reminiscent of his predecessor?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. The point I made two weeks ago was not that we should introduce a no-fly zone immediately, but that with such a situation we have to plan in advance for contingencies that may become necessary. I believe that the time is coming when it will be necessary for the international community to step forward and make this decision. However, I do not pretend for a minute that it is a one-shot wonder that will deal with the situation—it is not—but it could help.

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Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Regarding the no-fly zone, the National Audit Office says we have just eight Typhoon pilots trained for ground attack. The lives of two Nimrods planned for early retirement have been extended. Will the Prime Minister look again at the decision to retire our Harrier fleet?

The Prime Minister: The aeroplane that is not being used at all in Afghanistan is the highly capable Typhoon, in which this country has invested an enormous amount of money and which is now proving to be an extremely good, well-performing aircraft. In our defence review we are thinking exactly about situations such as these, where we need highly flexible, well-trained armed forces, with investment in special forces, helicopters and transport planes such as the A400M. That is exactly the situation that we are envisaging.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Having served in Operation Warden in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s, I echo the Prime Minister’s comments about how it is possible to have a successful no-fly zone without committing ground troops. What does he think of the suggestion made by one of my constituents—a member of the Stop the War Coalition who e-mailed this lunchtime—of using financial funds seized from the Gaddafi regime to buy arms for the rebels?

The Prime Minister: I did not know about my hon. Friend’s brave record in flying for the Air Force in a no-fly zone. He brings great personal expertise, so it is good to have his backing. The frozen resources belong to the Libyan people, and we should bear that in mind when we start thinking of different and ingenious ways of spending their money.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Should we not avoid a rush to complacency on nuclear safety? The pictures from Fukushima have already churned up people’s deep-seated fears of a nuclear catastrophe and reduced the acceptability of nuclear installations, which are uniquely dangerous in cases of human error, terrorist attack or natural disaster. Should we not look again at our rush to nuclear?

The Prime Minister: We have to put aside our personal preferences and prejudices about nuclear power and ask some tough scientific questions about what recent events demonstrate and what we should learn. There are big differences between Japan and Britain. We do not yet know the full extent of what has happened at the reactors, and, as the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party said, we should not rush to judgment in considering these issues.

David Rutley (Macclesfield) (Con): I welcome the Prime Minister’s efforts to engage the international community in developing a robust response to the barbaric acts of Colonel Gaddafi. What steps are being taken to provide humanitarian aid to displaced people in Libya, especially in the increasingly isolated town of Misurata in the west?