The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Speaker, and to other Members of the House, for the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence. I know that he set off to get here, but he has not yet arrived.
As at 16 October, a total of 197 jobs had been lost at the Atomic Weapons Establishment since 1 April under the voluntary redundancy scheme introduced by the new management contractor and approval has been given to a further 34 applications.
Mr. Rendel: I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen the recent report by the Environment Agency, which raised the concern that the company could not maintain proper environmental and safety standards. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm, should the redundancy programme go ahead, that he has taken measures to ensure that redundancies will not cause environmental or safety concerns?
Mr. Hoon: I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comment. During the past three months, positive reports were published by Her Majesty's inspector of nuclear installations and the Environment Agency for England and Wales. The Environment Agency said:
Mr. Hoon: With regard to that operation, safety is absolutely paramount. I assure my hon. Friend that the contractor's obligations include the need to satisfy the Ministry of Defence and independent regulators about safety considerations and that that will remain the case. I give him the assurance that he seeks.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I have invited the Russian Defence Minister to visit the United Kingdom in early December. I would expect discussions to address a range of issues, certainly including events in the Balkans.
Mr. Brazier: Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the role of the Russians in securing the ceasing of hostilities in Kosovo? There is now a democratically elected Government in Yugoslavia, who are calling on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to accept their terms, which were that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia and that some of their troops should be allowed to return to the region. In that delicate, difficult and dangerous situation, the role and the good will of the Russians will be crucial in the attempt to find a peaceful way forward.
Mr. Hoon: I agree--unusually, if I may say so--with the hon. Gentleman, who rightly praised the Russians for their contribution and emphasised the role that they can play in determining the necessary constitutional arrangements in Serbia.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Will my right hon. Friend share with the House information on some of the events that followed the sinking of the submarine Kursk? Many of us followed those tragic events during the summer with increasing horror. What part has the Royal Navy played, and what part will it play in the effort to recover bodies from the submarine?
Mr. Hoon: I make it clear that we are not playing a part in the recovery of bodies. As soon as we became aware of the problem, we offered to help. Early preparations were undertaken in advance of a specific request from the Russian authorities for assistance so that we should be able to respond as quickly as possible. Having made those contingency arrangements, we were able to move as quickly as possible to the scene of the tragedy.
Mr. Hoon: I recognise that the world is an increasingly dangerous place and that recently British forces have played a significant part around the world addressing those dangers. This time last year, at about the time that I assumed my present ministerial position, overstretch was a problem in the British armed forces. We immediately examined ways in which to reduce that and to significantly reduce the numbers on operation in the Balkans. That significantly reduced the level of activity. However, the hon. Gentleman is right--we continue to look carefully at the engagements in which we should become involved and ensure that overstretch is at the top of the list of considerations that we take into account.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Since 28 July, the United Kingdom armed forces have continued their operational deployments in support of international efforts in Bosnia, Kosovo and the Gulf. On 10 October, the UK also announced an enhancement to our deployment in support of the Government of Sierra Leone.
As well as a number of short-term deployments worldwide on exercises and other routine military activity, the UK continues to contribute military personnel to United Nations operations in Cyprus, Georgia, Sierra Leone, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and on the Iraq-Kuwait border.
Will the Minister now make a definitive statement? We have a right to know, and a duty to ask, what were the circumstances relating to the taking of soldiers in the Royal Irish Regiment as hostages in Sierra Leone. It resulted in a skilful, professional and brave rescue attempt, which, tragically, involved the loss of British soldiers' lives.
We note that Major Alan Marshall is not to be court-martialled. That may be correct, if he is innocent; if, on the other hand, he is guilty of mistakes, perhaps he should be court-martialled. It is certainly wrong for him to be produced if he was, in fact, following orders.
There was no breach of military law, and therefore no requirement for a court martial. There was an error of judgment; on the other hand, following the capture Major Marshall behaved superbly, with great care and concern not only for his own men but for the other, Sierra Leonean hostages. I think that the balance was right, and that this is appropriately a judgment for the Army military authorities.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): How many British troops have been deployed on courses training them to drive fuel tankers since 28 July? Is this the best use of military personnel? Is it not the kind of sabre-rattling that is likely to inflame industrial relations, rather than calming them down?
Mr. Spellar: I am interested to learn that a Conservative Member believes that a Government should not make appropriate contingency arrangements to secure and safeguard vital supplies to maintain the country.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): Has my hon. Friend heard the statements from those on the Opposition Front Bench hinting that we should not be in Sierra Leone, but should leave the people there to their fate, and hinting that we should not have gone into Kosovo to get rid of Milosevic? Is it not a fact that, in regard to overseas deployment, the Conservative party is now the most isolationist party in Europe?
Mr. MacShane: Would the Minister agree--in condemning, in passing, the isolationism of the Conservative party--with the American Defence Secretary's statement fully supporting, ungrudgingly and wholeheartedly, the European defence initiative led by this country and opposed by the isolationists on the Opposition Benches?
Mr. Spellar: Obviously, I find myself in some degree of agreement with my hon. Friend. He is right to draw attention to the current Conservative party's tendency--perhaps acquired from some of the ultra wings of opinion in the United States--towards isolationism rather than constructive engagement with the world. I am afraid that that tendency is symptomatic of a deeper development in the Conservative party, which will ensure that it stays on the Opposition Benches for a very long time.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Can we get back to the facts? Will the Minister confirm whether 1,000 troops have been deployed for training to drive oil tankers and whether the Government have ordered the stockpiling of fuel in military depots? Are those men volunteers and on what legal basis has the action been carried out: is it under the Emergency Powers Acts, or under military aid to the civil community; and, if the latter, who made the request?
Mr. Spellar: I should have thought--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] It is much easier to answer when Opposition Members are not shouting. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is absolutely prudent and right to make contingency plans for circumstances in which the civil authorities request the military forces to