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29 Mar 2010 : Column 495

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot go as far as that. The aim of our defence industrial strategy is to ensure that elements of defence supply are secured in this country when we consider that to be important to the maintaining of our sovereign capability, and to ensure that we are able to continue to produce those elements. What I will not do is sacrifice, on a wider basis, capability and value for money when to do so is not appropriate, and is not justified by a clear need for that sovereignty.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On 17 March, the Prime Minister said that UK defence spending had fallen in real terms on one or two occasions. I think that "once or twice" was the term that he used. According to everyone else, it has certainly fallen twice, and has possibly fallen three or four times. Was what the Prime Minister said about its having fallen "once" true?

Mr. Ainsworth: Defence spending has risen substantially during the present Government's time in office. It has risen in real terms by 10 per cent.-just short of £1 billion a year, on average-which contrasts markedly with the massive reductions that took place during the last two years of Conservative government.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): In the light of the agreement between Russia and the United States last weekend as part of the strategic arms reduction treaty, would this not be an appropriate time at which to reconsider the strategy of replacing the Trident nuclear missile system, which would both contribute to nuclear disarmament and save us all a great deal of money?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend and I disagree in one fundamental respect. I believe in multilateral nuclear disarmament: I think that we should make every possible effort to bring about the reduction and, hopefully, the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals throughout the world. I do not, however, believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament, and I do not believe that if we did as my hon. Friend suggests, we would add greatly to efforts to reduce nuclear armaments at this time.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Last week the Chancellor committed more than £4 billion from the Treasury reserve for operations in Afghanistan. Given the increasing number of urgent operational requirements driving equipment spending to its highest level yet, what discussions has the Ministry had with the Treasury about eventual recovery of UOR funding, and what effect will that have on the longer-term defence budget?

Mr. Ainsworth: We have not had to repay moneys granted to us for urgent operational requirements. [Interruption.] We have not had to do that in any year. The full costs of operations-not just urgent operational requirements-are paid from Treasury reserves which are in addition to our budget.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a contradiction between the arguments of those who say that not enough money is being spent on defence while also saying that the break clauses in the contract for the aircraft carriers must be examined? [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I note that my view is supported by Opposition Members.


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May I also ask whether the Secretary of State has received any communications from either of the main Opposition parties stating whether they will support the Government's proposal to proceed with the next stage of the Type 26 shipping order, and whether he thinks that the placing of that order was excellent, very excellent, or simply magnificent?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is clear that there are dilemmas in the Conservative ranks, and that they run wider than just the carriers and naval capability. Conservative Members say on the one hand that we are behaving in a profligate manner and signing contracts unreasonably, and, on the other, say that we are underfunding defence. They cannot have their cake and eat it; they must come clean about their policies and proposals.

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I very gently say to the Secretary of State that we must, of course, stick to the subject of Government policy?

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On 15 March the Secretary of State told the House that £5 billion was earmarked for Afghanistan next year, but on Budget day the Chancellor said that there was £4 billion from next year's reserve to fund operations in Afghanistan. Why the difference?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is £5 billion potentially from the reserve next year.

Service Personnel (Welfare)

7. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent progress has been made by his Department on improving the welfare of service personnel. [324452]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The Ministry of Defence has robust welfare provision that is kept under continual review to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. We have a responsibility to our service personnel, their families and veterans, and we take it very seriously. Recent improvements include the provision of extra facilities in Afghanistan to help service personnel keep in touch with their families, the creation of the Army recovery capability, and the review of the armed forces compensation scheme. We also published the service Command Paper on the nation's commitment to the armed forces, their families and veterans.

John Howell: At a recent surgery I held at RAF Benson there was a stream of criticisms of the MOD and MODern Housing Solutions, ranging from a family with a small child being left without hot water, serious gas leaks to walls running with mould. Given that in a written answer to me on 25 March the Minister admitted that there is not even a breakdown of complaints by location to better manage such problems, is this not symptomatic of the shameful disdain with which the Government treat the issue of service housing?

Mr. Jones: I am sorry, but I am not going to take any lessons from the Conservatives about investment in armed forces housing. At RAF Benson, 99 per cent. of the accommodation is either in grade 1 or grade 2 standard condition, which means that it either exceeds
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or meets the Government's decent homes standard. In respect of MHS, I have put in place people who act as equivalents to estate managers, who do a very good job of dealing with individual problems. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular problem relating to the work of Defence Estates at Benson, or that of MHS, he should get in touch with me.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The Public Accounts Committee report, "Treating Injury and Illness Arising on Military Operations", concluded that although the MOD's care of the seriously injured had to date been highly effective, there were concerns about whether it could cope with a significant increase in the number of casualties. What steps will the Minister take to formalise the current voluntary arrangements with the NHS to handle overflow military patients, and how might he ensure that there is a suitable environment for military personnel in civilian hospitals?

Mr. Jones: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the care our servicemen and women are getting at Selly Oak and Headley Court is second to none, and may I put on record our thanks to the dedicated staff that do that job? The NHS and Defence Medical Services put in place robust handling arrangements to deal with our surge of last summer, and we also put in place similar arrangements this year, although, thankfully, they were not needed. In April, health services will move to the new hospital at Selly Oak in April, which will have a state-of-the-art, military-dedicated ward for our servicemen and women who are injured on operations.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): On leave back home during their deployment in Afghanistan, a growing number of service personnel have been refused entry to pubs and clubs because some local authorities refuse to accept military identity cards, which have date-of-birth details, as proof as age. It is scandalous that our troops can die in Helmand but be refused a pint in their local. The Government have known about this problem for some time, so why has nothing been done? Will they now, in their last days, do something about it?

Mr. Jones: That is an issue for local authorities, but may I say that a number of public houses and businesses not only welcome our servicemen and women, but give them discounts and support the production of the military ID card? I would like the hon. Gentleman to let me know of any specific examples that he may have of where people have been turned away, because I agree that this is not an acceptable way to treat these brave servicemen and women.

Iran

8. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security threat posed by Iran. [324453]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): We keep the security threat posed by Iran under continual review. Iran possesses conventional military capability that is both defensive and offensive in nature. We also remain concerned about Iran's intentions with regard to its nuclear programme. Iran should be under no illusion that without progress in addressing the international community's concerns tougher sanctions will be imposed.


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Mr. Jackson: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he believe that the Iranian Government are serious in their undertaking in respect of uranium enrichment abroad or does he believe that they are just playing for time?

Bill Rammell: A substantive offer of engagement has been made by the international community, which has been led, in particular, by the President of the United States. I regret that Iran has failed yet to embrace that offer of engagement. Iran needs to be in doubt that this is a matter of serious and real concern for the international community and that if there is not movement and engagement on the part of Iran, there will be-we will argue for and achieve this-much tougher sanctions.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Do the Government agree with the statement made at the weekend by the NATO Secretary-General, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that Europe now needs to develop a missile shield system to protect against a future Iranian missile-one with or without nuclear warheads?

Bill Rammell: There is a strong case for the missile shield, which is why the Government have supported the technology; the threat that the Secretary-General outlined, and to which my right hon. Friend refers, is one of the reasons for that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): With Iran undertaking a major submarine-building programme, which military experts say could cause havoc in the Gulf, and Russia continuing its incursions into United Kingdom waters, why have the Government decided this week to scrap the Nimrod long-range maritime patrol aircraft? Who will provide the long-range search and rescue capability so lost from this week and who will protect our ships-at home and in the Gulf-now rendered vulnerable by Labour's cavalier approach to the defence of these islands?

Bill Rammell: On long-range search and rescue, the introduction of the MRA4 means that there will be substantially more capable aircraft than the MR2 in the RAF's fleet. In the period of transition until the MRA4 enters service we intend to use other assets, as available, in a long-range search and rescue role. The reason we take the decisions that we do is because we are responsible for these budgets and for prioritising Afghanistan as our main effort. As we have repeatedly made clear, the Conservative party is not committed to spending one penny more on defence than this Government are-in fact, the reverse is true because the Conservatives are not even prepared to commit to next year's spending. Until they do so, their words are simply hollow.

Afghanistan (Poppy Cultivation)

10. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): If he will make it his policy for UK forces to encourage the replacement of poppy cultivation by the growing of pomegranates in Afghanistan. [324455]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): The UK is supporting alternative livelihoods programmes in Afghanistan, which provide practical advice and support to farmers, to enable them to move away from
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poppy cultivation. In Helmand, we are supporting Governor Mangal's counter-narcotics plan, which distributes wheat seed, fertiliser, saplings and seeds for summer crops, and the establishment of an agricultural school. Pomegranates are one option available to Afghan farmers.

Bob Russell: I thank the Minister for that response. I think there is agreement across the House that the solution will not just be a military one; it must be political and economic. On that basis, will his Department try to support the British charity POM354, which believes that the growing of pomegranates is more profitable for Afghan farmers than the growing of either wheat or opium poppies?

Bill Rammell: I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a real interest in this issue and I agree with him that there cannot be an exclusively military solution in Afghanistan-there has to be a political one, too.

In respect of the particular proposal to which he is referring, James Brett, the founder of the charity POM354, met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development. At that meeting, it was recommended that Mr. Brett should produce a detailed business plan that will not only help to maximise the programme's chances of success but help conversations with potential donors. I reiterate that advice and DFID officials are willing to provide advice on such a plan.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I welcome the proposals to support the growing of pomegranates, wheat, raisins and alternative crops that have been proposed by Afghan farmers over many years, but does the Minister understand that for them the key issue is not what they will be encouraged to grow but who will be a secure buyer of what they grow? Has the Minister any plans to step in and at least recognise that the starting point for what they grow at the moment is the poppy crop and that we ought to be looking at ways in which that can legitimately be used for the production of diamorphine?

Bill Rammell: I genuinely disagree with my hon. Friend. I think that if we followed the path that he is advocating, in circumstances in which it is not possible to provide security across the board, we would simply be creating a second market for poppy cultivation. That is why-across government, with our international partners and supporting the Afghan Government-we must create an environment in which it is possible for alternative crops to be produced. I genuinely do not believe that the course set out by my hon. Friend would help us to achieve that.

QinetiQ

11. Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): If he will visit Kyle of Lochalsh and Raasay before resubmission of proposals on the future of QinetiQ operations to discuss the effects of those operations on that area; and if he will make a statement. [324456]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I would be delighted to visit Kyle of Lochalsh and the Raasay ranges. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the proposals put forward by QinetiQ to rationalise those ranges have now been
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withdrawn. If in the future those proposals are resubmitted or if other proposals are made, I shall certainly visit the ranges before taking any decisions-as I did, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, in the case of the Hebrides ranges last year.

Mr. Kennedy: I thank the Minister for that characteristically courteous reply and for his earlier letter to me on the matter, which will cause a good deal of reassurance locally. I hope that when a new report comes forward, if any does-it is rumoured that that might happen in the autumn, and perhaps he could give us an indication on that point-any such visit would involve all relevant community groups and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Mr. Davies: I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any indication of any timing or, indeed, predict any particular proposals that might come forward in the next few months, but I repeat my offer.

Defence Spending (Commitments)

12. Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. [324457]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): For some reason that I do not fully understand, the hon. Gentleman has asked exactly the same question as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and I refer him to the answer to that question.

Mr. Heald: It is an important question. The Secretary of State will know that in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007 the defence budget fell in real terms. As for the following years, in Kosovo, our boys had to go out and buy mobile phones because the radios did not work; in Iraq, the boots melted and their equipment and clothing were not right for those conditions, so they had to go and buy their own clothing; and in Afghanistan, there have not been enough helicopters, there have not been the right personnel vehicles and there have not been enough spares, so they have had to cannibalise equipment all over the world, causing chaos. Does not the Secretary of State accept that it is time, first, to admit that this system of logistics and procurement has been hopeless and secondly, to apologise for putting lives at risk?

Mr. Ainsworth: It is a travesty that the hon. Gentleman should so describe the situation that is faced by this country's very capable armed forces-one of the most capable armed forces in the world. I would say to him that we spend above average on defence, that there has been a substantial continuing increase in spending on defence and that we, in marked contrast to the party that he supports, guarantee that there will be an increase next year. I do not know what he intends to do about that, if he holds the views that he does.


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