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12 Mar 2007 : Column WS45

Written Statements

Monday 12 March 2007

Armed Forces: Attack Helicopters

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Following the review of the attack helicopter (AH) fielding plan, which sets out how the aircraft and its aircrew are organised and made ready for operations, to determine how best to deliver the Apache attack helicopter capability to the front line, within existing resources, I can today confirm our plans to locate all front-line Apache attack helicopters at Wattisham.

Currently, the front-line Apache regiments are based at Dishforth in Yorkshire and Wattisham in Suffolk, where the depth maintenance for all Apaches is undertaken. It has been identified that instead of the front-line Apache squadrons being based at two different locations, it would be more effective and efficient to co-locate all front-line Apaches at Wattisham. This will be achieved by swapping two Apache squadrons from Dishforth (656 Squadron and 664 Squadron Army Air Corps) with two Lynx helicopter squadrons from Wattisham (659 Squadron and 669 Squadron Army Air Corps). The move is expected to occur between June and September 2007.

Collocation of all front-line AH at Wattisham will enable the technical expertise, logistic supply and maintenance of the aircraft to be managed more effectively, thereby improving aircraft availability. This, in turn, will lead to improvements in delivering AH capability to the front line. Collocation of three Lynx squadrons at Dishforth will yield similar benefits.

Dishforth will revert to a similar disposition of aircraft that it possessed prior to the introduction of Apache. It is not thought that the exchange of squadrons will materially change the environmental impact of training at Wattisham or Dishforth. It will also have no impact on civilian jobs. The existing infrastructure support arrangements at both sites will remain as they are now.

The move will affect military personnel to the extent that those posts currently located within the affected squadrons will be relocated. This means that some personnel will transfer between the two sites, although there will be no material impact on overall service personnel numbers at either site. The interest of our military personnel and their families are very important to us and as such, the moves will be managed to ensure minimal impact on them. Most of the relocation process will take place within the normal cycle of postings. All affected personnel are being kept fully informed of the move.

I have written to the MPs in whose constituency the move will impact.

Finally, we are reviewing, under Programme Belvedere, our long-term requirements for military helicopter bases in the UK. No decisions have yet been made on this. Further announcements will be made to the House once the programme concludes, to inform on its findings.

Armed Forces: Kirkcudbright Training Area

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Ministry of Defence regularly conducts environmental surveys at the Kirkcudbright training area in order to assess the impact of depleted uranium test firings on the terrestrial and marine environments and has been under remit to place copies of the annual survey reports in the Library of the House. Unfortunately, due to an administrative error, this was not done. This error has now been rectified and the reports have been placed in the Library of the House.

Defence Select Committee

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have reproduced below the text of my letter to the chairman of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. I have also placed a copy of the letter and annex in the Library of the House and copies are also available in the Vote Office. The letter and annex form the Government's initial response to the committee’s report on the deterrent White Paper.

I was very grateful that your Committee was able to publish its report on the recent White Paper on the Future of the UK's Nuclear Deterrent in good time before the debate and vote on 14 March. This will be of great benefit to MPs as they consider the issues in the coming week. With your agreement, I am also making this letter public prior to the debate by means of a Written Ministerial Statement. We will of course respond fully to the report in the usual way in due course but I aim to address here the majority of issues raised in the Committee's report and to clarify some minor points.

First, the table of future decision-making at para 184 broadly accords with our assessment, although we would not be so definitive on the year in which the contract to build the first new SSBN would be placed. Also, and as set out in the exchange of letters between the US President and the Prime Minister, we would not at this stage wish to rule out that the Trident D5 missile might be further extended, beyond the early 2040s. Finally, Table 4 states that France maintains three deterrent systems, whereas in fact they only retain two: submarine launched ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles.

I would also wish to register three detailed points:

i. It would be helpful to clarify Table 8 on costs and funding. The entries under “Decommissioning costs” are included elsewhere within the estimates: they are not in addition to the other figures.

ii. There is an inaccuracy in Table 1 which is repeated in the second bullet of paragraph 9. We have said that the one submarine normally on deterrent patrol carries up to 48 warheads. We have also said that the number of missiles on that submarine is up to 16. But the 1998 Strategic Defence Review did not limit the number of warheads to be carried per missile to three and neither is that constraint imposed now.

iii. Paragraphs 89 and 90 imply that NATO has a policy of first use of nuclear weapons. This is not true. As for the UK, NATO's policy is to maintain ambiguity by not ruling in or ruling out the first use of nuclear weapons.

More detailed responses to your conclusions and recommendations are set out in the attached Annex.

EU: 50th Anniversary

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My right honourable friend the Minister for Europe (Geoff Hoon) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 25 March, the European Union celebrates the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome. This is an important opportunity to mark the achievements of the EU. It is also a key moment to look ahead to the new challenges and opportunities of the global age and how the EU can deliver for its citizens in the next 50 years. On major cross-border challenges such as terrorism, climate change, energy security, economic competition, migration or organised crime, the EU plays a vital role. These are the issues that the Government put to the top of the EU's agenda during our presidency in 2005 and on which we are working successfully with partners to drive forward results. In this 50th anniversary year, the Government will therefore continue to support a range of activities to raise awareness and engage the public in debate on key challenges and the EU's role in helping to address them.

As part of our celebrations to mark this significant anniversary, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the British Council will launch later this month a major year-long initiative called Learning Together to promote partnerships between UK schools and schools in other EU countries. Information will be made available to all schools across the UK about the range of opportunities available for schools to develop learning partnerships with European counterparts, including through EU programmes such as Comenius and e-Twinning. The initiative will ensure that relevant information and materials are made easily available to teachers. It will assist teachers and heads already in school partnerships to share their experience with other schools. This will help schools that have not previously taken part in international activities to get involved.

International partnerships and exchanges offer young people exciting opportunities and can introduce international elements into a wide range of relevant curriculum subjects. Learning Together will also contribute to the Government's goal, outlined in the 2004 DfES international strategy Putting the World into World-Class Education, of enabling every English school and college to establish a sustainable partnership with an international partner.

A wide range of other events will be taking place in the UK for the 50th anniversary. For example, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Manchester United and the European Commission have organised a charity friendly football match between Manchester United and a Europe XI team. The “50 years in Europe and 50 years of Europe” match on 13 March will celebrate both the 50th anniversary of the EU and the 50th anniversary of Manchester United's participation as the first English team to play in UEFA's European club competition. The University Association for Contemporary European Studies will host a conference at the FCO, entitled “Reflections on European Integration—50 Years of the Treaty of Rome” on 23-24 March. And the European Movement in association with the Federal Trust and Chatham House will host a conference “Europe, the next 50 years” on 22 March.

At EU level, heads of state and government will mark the anniversary at an informal meeting in Berlin on 25 March, and there will be an accompanying political declaration. Other EU-level events over the anniversary weekend include a programme of cultural festivities in Berlin being organised by the German presidency, cultural events and a symposium in Brussels, and a Youth Summit in Rome.

EU: General Affairs and External Relations Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My right honourable friend the Minister for Europe (Geoff Hoon) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett), Sir John Grant (UK Permanent Representative to the EU) and I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs

Preparation of the European Council: The Council discussed the European Council agenda, focusing on energy and climate policy, the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs and the EU’s “better regulation” initiative.

There was broad support in the Council for an ambitious approach on climate and energy at the European Council. The Government believe that this is an important opportunity for the EU to take action on climate and energy security and expect the European Council to send a clear signal of EU leadership including on carbon capture and storage, internal liberalisation, and use of renewable energy sources.

External Relations

Uzbekistan: The presidency briefed the Council on negotiations with Uzbekistan on a human rights dialogue. The Government support the presidency’s attempts to engage the Uzbek Government in constructive discussion of human rights issues focused on results and underpinned by the EU’s human rights principles.

There was consensus in the Council reflected in the conclusions, which acknowledge Uzbekistan’s readiness to hold a further round of expert talks; stress the need for an early, meaningful and regular human rights dialogue; and urge Uzbekistan to fully implement its international human rights obligations.

Western Balkans: Discussion focused on Bosnia. The High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, briefed the Council on the decision by the Bosnian Peace Implementation Council, of which the UK is a member, to extend the term of the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and to reduce the EU peacekeeping force in Bosnia from 6000 to around 2500 in response to the improved security situation. A number of speakers underlined the importance of Bosnian progress on the conditions set out by the Council in December 2005 which would allow negotiation on a stabilisation and association agreement with the EU to be concluded.

The Council conclusions welcomed the formation of a new government in Bosnia and Herzegovina and encouraged the new authorities to ensure a swift and effective implementation of those conditions. The conclusions also took note of the Peace and Implementation Council’s decision to extend the term of the Office of the High Representative and confirmed the EU’s decision to reduce the troop numbers of the peacekeeping force in Bosnia (EUFOR).

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) made a Statement to the House of 1 March (Official Report, cols. 1083-94) welcoming the drawdown in EUFOR numbers and announcing the UK’s consequent decision to withdraw the majority of its 600 troops.

Middle East Peace Process: The Council discussed developments on the formation of a national unity government (NUG) following the Fatah-Hamas agreement in Mecca on 8 February. The Council agreed to reserve judgment until a NUG was formed and the full details of its platform are known.

The Council looked forward to further work by the quartet, including in co-operation with Arab partners and was briefed by External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on Commission work on capacity-building support and co-ordination of assistance to the Palestinians, which the Government strongly support. The Council did not issue conclusions.

Iran: The presidency briefed the Council on behalf of the E3 (Germany, France, UK) on discussion of next steps following Iran’s failure to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1737. A number of partners underlined the need for a firm international response while keeping open the door to further dialogue with Iran in line with the EU’s agreed twin-track approach.

Following discussion the Council adopted conclusions deploring Iran’s non-compliance with Security Council Resolution 1737, underlining support for further measures by the United Nations Security Council and reiterating EU support for a robust international response while calling on Iran to open the way for a negotiated solution.

Sudan: My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to her counterparts prior to the Council, underlining the seriousness of the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur and calling for clear EU support for urgent Security Council consideration of further measures against those responsible for the violence in Darfur. She also made clear the Government's support for the presidency’s work to secure more funding for the African Union mission in Sudan.

The Council discussed the situation in Darfur and adopted conclusions expressing concern at the deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur, urging all parties to respect their ceasefire commitments and underlining support for consideration by the Security Council for further measures against those impeding the peace process. The conclusions also acknowledge the need urgently to address the funding of the African Union mission in Sudan and urged contributions from international partners. A number of member states, led by the presidency, indicated that they would provide, or were considering providing, additional financial support to the African Union mission.

Fire and Rescue Service: FiReControl

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

A Written Statement on 7 March 2007 (Official Report, col. WS 24) contained a clerical error with regard to the identity of the preferred bidder. I apologise for any confusion this may have caused. The correct Statement is as follows.

I am pleased to announce that following an open competition and an extensive evaluation process undertaken by Communities and Local Government, members of the fire and rescue service, LGA and CFOA, EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd has been selected as the supplier for the FiReControl infrastructure services (technology). The contract, worth an estimated £200 million over eight years, underlines the Government’s commitment to invest in the nation’s resilience and supports a modern fire and rescue service which is equipped to deal with incidents of every size. Contract signature is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

At the heart of this project is the ability for the control centres to back each other up and to provide information direct to the Fire and Rescue Service, which some of the present systems cannot do. The choice of the right supplier for this project's IT requirements is therefore vital.

EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd will be responsible for developing and running the IT systems that will deliver control services to the fire service—giving firefighters as much information as possible to help them tackle the incident they are attending—and ultimately aiming further to reduce deaths in fires. They and their partners have an excellent reputation for delivery and we are confident that they will provide a high quality solution for the fire and rescue services. Many elements of the proposed IT solution are already being used in a range of applications in the UK and elsewhere. A phased transition to the new system will ensure that the FRS will continue to provide a high quality service throughout.

Northern Ireland: Independent Monitoring Commission

Lord Rooker: My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Peter Hain) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I have received the fourteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). This report was made under Article 5(l) of the international agreement which established the commission, and is its third of four reports on the security normalisation programme. I have considered the content of the report and am today bringing it before Parliament. I have placed copies in the Library of the House.

I am pleased to inform the House that the commission assesses that the commitments made by the Government in the security normalisation programme have been met. Commitments made in the areas of military support to the police, the police estate, police patrolling, and the repeal of counter-terrorist legislation particular to Northern Ireland have all been met thus far.

I am satisfied that the security normalisation programme remains appropriate and manageable.

I am also encouraged that the IMC remains of the view that PIRA is firmly committed to the political path and that the organisation does not pose a threat relevant to security normalisation. The IMC has concluded that the organisation is not engaged in terrorist activity and the leadership continues to encourage members to undertake political or community activity. There have been further positive changes in the security context in Northern Ireland resulting from the developments at the Sinn Fein ard fheis on 28 January 2007 which pledged support for policing and the rule of law. This is the eighth IMC report since the IRA announced its armed campaign had ended in July 2005, each one progressively confirming delivery of commitment promised then, including driving criminality out of the organisation.

Conversely, dissident republicans remain committed to terrorism and continue to engage in terrorist activity. The IMC has reported that although dissident republican organisations do not have the capacity to mount a serious and sustained campaign, they pose a continuing threat to both the security forces and the wider community.

In terms of loyalist paramilitaries, the IMC concludes that although they are actively engaged in violence and other forms of serious crime, they do not pose a problem for security normalisation. There is evidence of senior figures seeking to lead the organisation away from crime. This is to be welcomed, but there is more to be done.

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