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House of Commons

Monday 9 July 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Heavy Lift Aircraft

1. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If he will make a statement on the availability of heavy lift aircraft for the European rapid reaction force. [1183]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): There is no standing European rapid reaction force. European Union member states have nominated those elements of their own national forces that they believe could contribute to the requirements of the headline goal, including existing transport aircraft where appropriate, which could be assembled case by case to meet particular contingencies.

At the Paris air show on 19 June, I signed a memorandum of understanding with other partner nations committing the United Kingdom to purchase 25 of the new A400M aircraft. We have also leased four American C17 aircraft to provide a new outsize strategic lift capability until the A400M enters service. Two have been delivered, ahead of schedule, and I expect the remaining two to be delivered next month.

Our aircraft will be available for operations under either NATO or the EU, as well as for national operations.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful answer. Does the memorandum of understanding to which he referred go as far as a contract? Does it mean that a contract will be signed this year for the A400M or does he share the concern of Conservative Members that defence cuts in Germany will result in the 180 A400Ms not being produced and the Airbus Industrie target therefore not being reached? Will a contract be signed this year?

Mr. Hoon: A memorandum of understanding is a memorandum of understanding. It is not a contract, as the hon. Gentleman so perceptively noticed in following up my earlier answer. I am optimistic about the prospect of a contract being signed this year, and I am confident that the German Government will be part of that contract.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend will understand that many Labour Members

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are pleased that he was able to sign the memorandum at the Paris air show, but can he confirm that, in procurement of this or any other aircraft, the Department will always take account of the opinions of aircrew and ground crew in particular? That will ensure that we have a sustainable, well maintained product that will do what this country needs it to do—provide adequate defence.

Mr. Hoon: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. In coming to what were difficult decisions about the right choice of heavy lift aircraft for the Royal Air Force, we took account of the views of the RAF, those who are responsible for servicing those aircraft and, crucially, the military leadership, which required us to make available a strategic heavy lift capability.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Can the Secretary of State assure the House that, notwithstanding the undoubted political, industrial and, ultimately, operational benefits of bringing the A400M into service, the RAF will still need genuine heavy lift aircraft such as the C17s, which have been leased? When the A400M enters squadron service, will he ensure either that the C17s are run on or that Antonovs are available on lease from Air Foyle or Heavy Lift Cargo Airlines?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right in his analysis of the need to have heavy lift capability available. That is precisely why we have chosen to lease C17s immediately, to fill the gap until the A400M becomes available. I can give him the assurance that he seeks: those C17s will remain with the RAF unless and until the A400M is available.

National Missile Defence

2. Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): What discussions he has had with his European counterparts about US proposals for a national missile defence system. [1184]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I continue to have regular bilateral discussions on missile defence with NATO allies, European partners and others.

Mr. Lloyd: Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is sufficient uncertainty in the technology in the programme to make it difficult for us to draw definitive conclusions—certainly those that would allow us to go ahead and support the scheme—and, in particular, that that uncertainty, coupled with a lack of proper negotiation with the Russians, is itself problematic for Europeans? If the Americans were to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty and if Russia then stepped back and put its own missiles on hair-trigger alert, this uncertain long-term technology would simply not be worth the massive increase in insecurity in Europe.

Mr. Hoon: That is precisely why the Government have not yet taken any decision on whether to use assets in the United Kingdom for those purposes and why it makes sense for us to await any decision by the United States, which must be taken in the light of the available technology. I accept my hon. Friend's assertion that there

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is little purpose in going to the trouble of taking such a decision unless and until the United States has a system that it is confident will work.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that Menwith Hill in my constituency performs a vital role in collecting intelligence that protects the lives of British service men serving abroad in peacekeeping operations? Does he equally accept that Menwith Hill is well respected and well integrated in the local community?

In deciding how to deal with the recent incursions by clowns in costumes, will the right hon. Gentleman bear it in mind that we do not want to turn Menwith Hill into a prison camp, but that the operational area of the base should be properly defended? The section of the base that is a local community living in North Yorkshire should be enabled to continue to integrate as successfully as it has up to now.

Mr. Hoon: As the right hon. Gentleman will know, I visited Menwith Hill last Thursday, and I agree about the importance of that facility to Britain's armed forces, and, equally, to the local community. While the present security arrangements are far from satisfactory, and will be reviewed, I accept the importance of ensuring that the people who live at Menwith Hill do so in tolerable circumstances.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Does the Secretary of State accept that it is time for Britain to convey to the United States the clear message that the promotion of national missile defence—the whole star wars experiment—fundamentally undermines the nuclear disarmament process, would undermine all the treaties that have been so carefully and painstakingly negotiated over the past 40 years, and constitutes a massive escalation of nuclear firepower around the world? Our job is not to be a broker between the United States and the rest of the world but to say bluntly, "We want to live in a nuclear-free world, and it is time you did the same."

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that at all. The reason why I do not accept it is that my hon. Friend—I think deliberately—confuses two separate approaches to the problem of nuclear proliferation. He keeps talking about star wars, awakening echoes of President Reagan's programme to develop a comprehensive anti-missile system, rather than examining the specific proposals developed by the last US Administration to deal with a modest number of missiles fired by states of concern. That is the position that the present Administration seek to address.

It would help my hon. Friend, when he talks about this important subject, if he concentrated on what is being suggested rather than harking back to bygone days.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Government want to have it both ways. The Secretary of State is busy trying to slap down his colleague, while at the same time saying that the Government have not taken a view.

The reality is that the Government are in a complete mess over this issue. Before the general election, the Prime Minister was publicly saying that they did not have a

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position, but behind the scenes his own briefer, Mr. Campbell, was busily telling the press that they were in favour of the American position, and had reached a conclusion. Then, in their party manifesto, the Government came up with what is probably one of the most pathetic phrases ever seen in any manifesto. They said:

That was powerful language, but has the Secretary of State missed the point? A week and a half ago, the President of the United States came round and did his consulting.

Just exactly what is the Government's position? Are they in favour of this, or are they opposed to it?

Mr. Hoon: I want to demonstrate that I am entirely even-handed in the way in which I deal with these matters. Talking of harking back to bygone days, the hon. Gentleman really ought to look carefully at the proposals that the present Administration are examining. They are not examining President Clinton's proposals for national missile defence; they are examining a range of different systems that they might decide to deploy.

The hon. Gentleman's problem—and, indeed, his party's problem—is that the Conservatives have already said what kind of system they would like, without having the funds, or any of the other resources, to deploy it. They are telling the United States what sort of system they believe that it should deploy. We do not consider that right, which is why it is entirely sensible for us to say what we are saying. Unless and until the United States comes forward with a specific proposal—we do not know what that proposal is yet, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that in the consultations the US Administration have not made clear what specific proposal they will present—the position of Her Majesty's Government is wholly consistent and wholly straightforward.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Secretary of State is simply not telling the truth. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must withdraw that remark.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I withdraw it, Mr. Speaker.

The Secretary of State is avoiding reaching a conclusion. He is doing so because almost 200 Labour Members have signed an early-day motion that utterly opposes such a system. The French utterly oppose such a system.

The Secretary of State is privately telling the Americans that the Government are in favour of the system, but he cannot make that statement publicly because he is scared stiff of his Back Benchers and of some of his European counterparts. Has he not left it to countries such as Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland to say that they are in favour of the system while we fail to give leadership? The Government are no longer sitting on the fence, they are impaled on it.

Mr. Hoon: A cursory examination of the countries that the hon. Gentleman mentioned would show him that a vigorous debate is taking place right across Europe. In France, which he mentioned, there are those who are in

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favour of such a system and those who are against it. Equally, if he checks, he will find that in the United States Congress, there are those who are in favour as there are those who are against. It is important that we should have a debate and that these sensitive matters, following consultation by the United States, should be considered carefully. Unfortunately, in terms of debate and careful consideration, the hon. Gentleman fails on both counts.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): Last week, in a written answer, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the conference on disarmament was the right place to discuss the military use of space and that he wanted a committee of that conference to discuss the prevention of an arms race in space. Is it correct, therefore, that the British Government's policy is that there can be no question of the United Kingdom participating directly or indirectly in the weaponisation of space until an international agreement for that exists?

Mr. Hoon: That is not quite the Government's position—[Laughter.] I am sorry that Opposition Members find this entertaining. There are circumstances in which it would be necessary for us to use space for technology that allows us to protect British forces deployed in theatre. It is important that we should continue to do that while at the same time examining ways of restricting the proliferation of weapons in space and finding international agreement to that. Certainly we would want to reserve the position on the use of space to protect deployed British forces.

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