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8. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): When he will sign a contract for the procurement of A400M aircraft for the Royal Air Force; how many aircraft will be ordered; and to what delivery time scale. [24469]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The A400M contract was signed on 18 December by the Organisation for Joint Armaments Co-operation, on behalf of the partner nations, and by the contractor Airbus Military. It provides for the development and manufacture of 196 aircraft in a single launch order, of which the UK's share is 25 aircraft. The contract will enter into force once final Bundestag approval has been given for the German commitment. Our in-service date is 2010 and we expect the last aircraft to be in service by 2014.

Mr. Wilkinson: Notwithstanding the fact that the Royal Air Force's transport capability is to be much enhanced by the welcome acquisition of four C17s and by the modernisation of half the Hercules fleet with C130Js, will the Minister tell the House what the likely cost of the A400M to the Royal Air Force will be? Would that cost

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be greatly increased, were the Bundestag not to approve the second tranche of aeroplanes on which it has as yet deferred its decision?

Dr. Moonie: I am afraid that the exact price ofthe contract is commercially confidential, but our commitment in the memorandum of understanding is for funding totalling approximately 3 billion euros—that is approximately £2 billion, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman—covering development, production and initial in-service costs.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I know that my hon. Friend is aware that many jobs in the north-west and other parts of the country depend on the A400M. Will he use his good offices to get an early signature from the Bundestag to ensure that this project goes ahead?

Dr. Moonie: Confident though I am of my abilities in this field, I do not know whether I would have much influence on that decision. I can say that we fully expect the relevant committee to sign up to this at the end of this month, and that there should therefore be no delay in proceeding with the contract.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): The Minister will be aware of the importance of aircraft orders to many hon. Members' constituencies, particularly in the light of the announcement last week of 950 job losses at Westland in the south-west. I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing to see me in the near future to discuss future orders relating to Westland. Will the Minister confirm that his Department will take every possible action to ensure that aircraft orders are brought forward in a timely way, in the interests not only of our constituents but of the effectiveness of our armed forces?

Dr. Moonie: We sympathise greatly with those affected when redundancies such as these occur. However, decisions on the size of the work force must primarily be a commercial matter for the company. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Apache helicopter contract has peaked, and the last machines are now being delivered. We therefore have no current need for any further work from the company. I cannot say at present, as any other helicopters that we may intend to buy are still at the concept planning stage, whether there is any possibility of bringing anything forward.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Further considering the question of aircraft contracts, is the Minister able to comment on Saturday's press reports that the Secretary of State for Defence is active in an intensive campaign to boost arms sales to India, in particular to promote a contract for the sale of 60 Hawk jets? In the light of the current—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady's question is not relevant to the question before us. She must sit down.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am sure that the Minister is aware of the substantial lobby of Parliament today by the work force of BAE Systems, not least the 1,000 members of staff at Woodford in my constituency who have been made redundant because the RJX civil aircraft programme has been phased out. Does he accept that if the contract for the A400M project goes

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ahead, Airbus properly allocating work from other factories to Woodford, which is one of the most modern production plants in the aerospace industry, would be appropriate so that those heavy redundancies might be offset?

Dr. Moonie: The A400M contract will support thousands of jobs in this country, but I am afraid that where those jobs are is a matter for the company, not Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister well knows that I hope that the A400M will be based at RAF Lyneham, in my constituency, to replace the ageing C130K Hercules fleet, but will he confirm that only four of the 51 Hercules available at Lyneham are properly equipped to be used in international security and assistance force tasks in Afghanistan? Is that not worrying for the nation? How does he intend to get 2,100 troops to Afghanistan—he said that 600 have been taken so far—if he has only four operative planes? Is not that another case of doing too much with too little?

Dr. Moonie: No, it is not. We are having no difficulty at all in deploying our people to Afghanistan. The deployment is building up and will continue to do so until the end of the month when we reach the numbers forecast. We are well aware that we need to provide enhanced defensive aid suites for more of our aircraft, and we are doing just that.

Racial Equality

10. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What recent steps the armed forces have taken to promote racial equality in the services. [24471]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The armed forces have done much in recent years to promote racial equality and create an environment free from harassment and unlawful discrimination. That includes establishing confidential advice and support helplines; a network of equal opportunities advisers; equality training, focus groups and surveys; monitoring and evaluating ethnic minority recruitment, progression and retention; and a vigorous recruiting and outreach programme to encourage more people from ethnic minorities to join the armed forces.

Kevin Brennan: My right hon. Friend is aware of some pretty dreadful cases, such as that of the son of my constituent, who was racially abused and bullied in the Army. The perpetrators went unpunished while he was court-martialled for going AWOL. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that racial abuse will not be tolerated under this Government? We criticised the previous Government for not doing enough to recruit ethnic minorities to the Army, so what steps is he taking to ensure that we meet our targets to recruit ethnic minorities and, indeed, retain them in the armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: Racial harassment should not happen and we shall take every possible step to ensure that it does not happen. That is the message that should go out firmly from everyone who can bring influence to bear.

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My hon. Friend asks a specific question about what we are doing. All three services have established ethnic minority recruiting teams, which have engaged in numerous initiatives to encourage more ethnic minorities to join the armed forces, and those efforts are beginning to pay off. There has been a steady year-on-year increase in the number of ethnic minority recruits and the annual percentage has more than doubled, reaching 2.9 per cent. by April 2001. In the first five months of 2001–02,3.8 per cent. of recruits came from ethnic minorities and the Army exceeded its 5 per cent. goal for the first time. We have achieved a lot, but clearly there is much more to do.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the Minister tell the House what feedback the Government have had about their equal opportunities corporate approach document? Will he give me a personal commitment that he would investigate to the best of his ability if any of us brought evidence either of a racial or of a sexual discrimination case in the armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: Those issues should be properly dealt with through appropriate procedures to establish the facts of the matter, but my door would never be closed to representations from right hon. or hon. Members if they were concerned about the way in which a particular case was being dealt with. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), we must address this issue robustly and aggressively to ensure that if there is a problem, we eliminate it as quickly as possible.

Special Forces

12. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): If he will make a statement on the role of special forces in countering terrorism since 11 September. [24473]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom's special forces have a key role to play in countering terrorism: a responsibility they have had for many years. As a result of the events of11 September, we are considering the capabilities, including those of Britain's special forces, that we need to deal with the challenges posed by international terrorism. That is being taken forward as part of our work on a new chapter for the strategic defence review.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, which was rather fuller than I expected, and I am grateful for just that. Does the Secretary of State have a view about the amount of information that can be given about the role of special forces? He will be aware that, in the past, special forces have felt that all their activities should be kept secret, whereas those in the United States are given, if not full, then at least some, publicity. Has the Secretary of State considered giving slightly more publicity to the role of our special forces than it has previously had?

Mr. Hoon: The view of the Secretary of State is that the disclosure that we currently allow is exactly the right amount. There are a number of reasons for that policy, which have pertained for a long time. First, further disclosure would forfeit the element of surprise, which is

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essential for the operational effectiveness of UK special forces. Secondly, it is vital to protect the identities of special forces personnel. They are a key element of our anti-terrorism capability, and are significant targets for terrorists. Disclosure of identities and capabilities would have severe consequences for the effectiveness of our special forces and the safety and morale of personnel.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Given the need for an international response to international terrorism, does my right hon. Friend envisage a role for NATO in developing a military anti-terrorist capability?

Mr. Hoon: NATO is examining the implications of the events of 11 September for its military responsiveness. I am sure that that will be one of the debates in NATO, but that work is far from concluded, and I anticipate that it will be informed by the work being conducted in the United Kingdom on the extra chapter to the strategic defence review.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I appreciate the reasons for the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), but does the Secretary of State accept that the most important consideration is the security of our special forces, and that the less we know about what they are doing, the better?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is the reason for the present disclosure policy.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): There remains concern about the killing of the Mazar-i-Sharif prisoners during their apparent uprising. Some members of the special forces were present at that event. Will the Secretary of State arrange for their reports on the matter to be published, so that we can clear up some of the fears and concerns that people have expressed?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend talks about an apparent uprising. I can confirm to him that there was an uprising, when prisoners tried to take control of the armoury and obtained various weapons, which were then used not only against coalition but against Afghan forces in the area.I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that, for reasons of operational security, I shall not go into specific details about the involvement of any British troops in that incident. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that British troops went to the aid of their US colleagues, and under heavy fire attempted to recover two US personnel who had apparently been captured by Taliban fighters. Their involvement was a perfectly proper response to the attack on their fellow coalition members, and they showed great bravery in their efforts to secure their release.

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