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Viscount Brookeborough: My Lords, as a member of the National Employer Advisory Board, I visited reservists in Basra about five weeks ago. I was surprised by what appeared to be a very low number of helicopters, especially in light of the fact that we had 72 helicopters at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland. How many helicopters are in Iraq? Recent newspaper articles suggested that helicopters were lying unserviceable in this country due to supplying spares to Iraq. How many such helicopters are there?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, the total number of helicopters in Iraq is two Chinooks, eight Sea Kings, seven Merlins, five Pumas and six Lynx. I do not accept that we do not have sufficient helicopters in Iraq or Afghanistan. Having looked into this in some detail, I am confident that we have sufficient helicopters for operations. We need more helicopters, and we need to improve the availability of helicopters in the existing fleet. That involves improving the productivity of helicopters by taking a number of initiatives in conjunction with industry and looking at the total number in the fleet.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will the Minister answer the part of the previous question that he did not answer? Are all the helicopters in the possession of the Royal Air Force fully serviceable and able to operate? I do not mean on a day-to-day basis. The Minister need not
 
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look puzzled. He must know that it has been alleged that there are Chinook helicopters in this country that are not operational. Is that so? Will the Minister also make it clear—I am not sure that I understood him—that all the helicopters in Iraq are equipped with the foam device for the sealing of fuel tanks?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for pointing out that I did not answer the second part of the question—he is absolutely right. Serviceability is running at about 78 per cent of aircraft on operations and at 59 per cent of total aircraft in the fleet, including those at home and on operations. The noble Lord was correct: we have eight Chinook helicopters in this country that are not available for use. That is due to a long-standing problem with the flight control system and the validation of those aircraft. I am confident that we have sufficient aircraft available for operations.

The noble Lord asked me specifically about explosion-suppressant foam. That technique is not used on helicopters because they are fitted with self-sealing fuel tanks. Therefore, we are confident that all the helicopters in our fleet have the necessary protections against small-arms fire.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, perhaps I may offer my noble friend a small solution to the problem of lack of helicopters. Is he aware that the Royal Family, excluding the Queen and Prince Philip, undertook 400 journeys by helicopter last year, including such onerous journeys as those between Highgrove and Gloucester, and London and Portsmouth? Will he suggest to the Royal Family that it hands over some of those helicopters to the hard-pressed services and travels by train or car instead?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, that has no effect whatever on the availability of our helicopters either for operations or other military uses.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Astor spoke earlier about the obligation that the Government have to ensure that our Armed Forces in conflict zones are fully equipped with the best equipment. Will the Minister assure us that all British units serving in Afghanistan are equipped with the Bowman system and that no Clansmen there are leaking?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I assure the House that the Government are committed to supplying our Armed Forces with the kit that they need, without exception.

Lord Elton: My Lords, is it correct that the Government have withdrawn helicopters from air-sea rescue in order to thicken up our defences?

Lord Drayson: My Lords, no, that is not correct. No decision has been taken on air-sea rescue. It is not relevant to helicopter availability on military operations.
 
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Water Supply: Thames Water

3 pm

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will make representations to Thames Water on the action required to meet the current shortage of water.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Bach): My Lords, it is for Thames Water to take the actions that it believes necessary to meet its duties to supply water in times of a shortage of rainfall. Those actions set out in its drought plan may include application to the Secretary of State for drought orders. Although the company has had discussions with the department, it has not yet applied for a drought order, as it currently believes that it is able to meet demand.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. As the owners of Thames Water are involved in talks about a takeover bid, is he satisfied that their attention is properly directed towards the leaks and the inadequacy of supply that we are suffering? Are the Government really bereft of any means of attending to the obvious water shortage in the south-east of England?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are aware that the RWE group is considering the sale of Thames Water. However, Thames Water has a statutory duty on water supply—indeed, a number of duties. They continue during any period of sale and would transfer to any new owner. Water companies have changed ownership in the past. The economic regulator, Ofwat, ensures that any transfer of ownership does not prejudice the interests of customers.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, provided special arrangements are made for the poor when they have large families, there is growing public acceptance of the view that compulsory water meters would be an essential part of dealing with the problems that exist?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we certainly believe that metering has an important part to play in dealing with the issues, but it is not clear that compulsory metering is necessarily the appropriate answer. The water resources arguments for metering are not equally strong in different parts of the country. They do not themselves justify universal national metering, imposed on all households by the Government. Not every customer welcomes or saves money from having a meter. I can help my noble friend to this degree: we have adopted a fairly cautious approach, by allowing people to opt for meters for a trial year. After the end of that year, there is no right to change metered houses back to unmetered.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, how much money—to the nearest £10 billion or so—have we
 
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spent so far on the pointless EU water directives, bearing in mind that there was nothing wrong with our water before? Would the Government agree that the problems of our water infrastructure and supply could easily have been solved with a fraction of whatever that colossal figure turns out to be?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am not in the habit of saying this, but that question has nothing to do with the Question originally asked.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, how recently has the Minister driven down the embankment and seen the number of burst water mains apparently being totally unattended to? That surely constitutes a great waste of water. Also, during the weekend, I watched water coming from the roof of the block of flats that I live in and simply pouring down a pipe into the waste. Is it not possible to do something about the amount of rainwater wasted?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as always, the noble Baroness asks an excellent question. Significant progress has been made in reducing leakages since the peak in 1994. Most water companies are now at their economic level of leakage, which is the level of leakage at which it would cost more to make further reductions in leakage than to produce the water from another source. The noble Baroness may be talking about Thames Water more than any other company. It has apparently reduced its total leakage for the first time in four years. However, she will not be surprised to hear that we believe that it still has considerable work to do.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I shall follow on from the question of the noble Baroness. Is my noble friend aware that, when leakages are reported to Thames Water, it claims that if those leakages are occurring on private land—even if the water is gushing into the street—it has no powers to go in and stop the flow? There are examples of leaks taking place week after week, with nothing being done about them.


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