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4 Nov 2002 : Column 11continued
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The decision we reach will be based on ensuring the best capability for our armed forces at the best value for money, for defence and the British taxpayer. We will use a range of criteria to reach the decision for contract award, which will include technical and commercial compliance, through-life support and industrial participation.
Mrs. Campbell : When my right hon. Friend considers the award of that contract, will he take into account superior British technology, long experience in serving the MOD and excellent British workmanship? All are available from Marshall Aerospace in my constituency.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The SA80 modification programme has significantly improved the reliability and performance of the weapon. Extensive trials were carried out across all climatic conditions before the modified weapon was introduced. More recent trials and demonstrations in Afghanistan and Oman have established beyond doubt that the weapon is reliable and accurate and can be maintained in an operational environment.
Phil Sawford : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. With much talk of a possible war with Iraq, many people, including my constituents, would wish to be reassured that our armed forces have reliable weapons, but will he tell the House who, if anyone, has accepted responsibility for the problems experienced with the SA80? Will he also tell the House who has paid the #80 million cost of the modifications to 300,000 rifles?
Mr. Ingram: Well, the taxpayer pays for the modifications. As for who takes responsibility, when we modified the weapon, we put it through an intensive trial period and, because of some issues relating to the maintenance regime, it was discovered that it was not always functioning in the way that had been anticipated. That is why we then put it back through an even more detailed set of conditions in very extreme circumstances. An important key to this, of course, was that the actual practitionersnot officials and certainly not Ministersdecided whether the weapon was reliable, but I suppose that Ministers ultimately take responsibility for decisions.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am delighted that the problems with at least one piece of equipment seem to be on the way to being solved, but would the Minister care to comment on replacing the British Army's combat helmet, which provides 40 per cent. less protection than any other helmet in NATO?
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom currently contributes about 400 British troops to the international security assistance force, based in Kabul. I have regular discussions with international colleagues about ISAF, including on the continuing need for such a force after the expiry of its current United Nations authorisation on 20 December this year.
Mr. Mullin : My I put it to my right hon. Friend that the situation in Afghanistan remains on a knife edge and that, unless ISAF's mandate is extended, there is a danger that Afghanistan will slide back into the sort of chaos that brought the Taliban to power in the first place? What discussions has he had with our allies about extending the mandate as a matter of urgency?
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to praise the role of the British armed forces in Afghanistan under extremely difficult circumstances, but may I return the Secretary of State to the phrase Xdefence assumptions", which he used in answer to questions from my hon. Friend the Members for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)? The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) made the very important point that the situation in Afghanistan is very delicate indeed. Can the right hon. Gentleman perhaps tell the House what contingency plans the Ministry of Defence has to reinforce British troops in Afghanistan if, unfortunately, the situation deteriorates, and whether that will have an adverse impact on the other preparations that the MOD is now making in relation to possible UN or other operations against Iraq?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations about British forces in Afghanistan, but it is only right that we should acknowledge the very considerable contribution made by other allies as well. Clearly, it is not simply for the United Kingdom to respond to any significant deterioration in the situation in Afghanistan. That would involve an effort by the international community, which is very well represented in Kabul and, indeed, in other operations in that country, so were there to be such a situation, we clearly have plans available that would allow the United
David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that it is estimated that this year's poppy harvest in Afghanistan is something like 10 times larger than the harvest in the last year of the Taliban? Even if it is not larger to that degree but has none the less increased, will he assure me that the allied armed forces in Afghanistan are not in any way turning a blind eye to the cultivation of this crop as a quid pro quo for keeping warring factions together? He knows as well as I do that the crop will inevitably find its way on to the streets of his constituency and mine as heroin.
Mr. Hoon: I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern about the poppy harvest. I am not an expert on poppy cultivation, but I anticipate that he is rather ahead of things as regards the harvest. I am aware of speculation about the prospects for this year's production, and I assure him that we and other members of the international community keep that under review and are discussing urgently the steps that can be taken to limit the amount that is produced in Afghanistan.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that last December he gave me a categorical assurance that British troops would only be stationed in Afghanistan for a very short period? When I expressed scepticism about that, and predicted that they would remain for a very much longer period, he was firm in telling me that I was wrong. Why has the policy been changed?
Mr. Hoon: There has been no change in the policy. As I recall, the hon. Gentleman asked me about the duration of war-fighting operations, and I was able to tell him that those forces will be there for as long as necessary. We do not have significant numbers of British troops on the ground involved in war-fighting operations, and our contribution to the international security assistance force, as I explained to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, is significantly lower numerically than that of several other countries. That is why it is important that we recognise the contribution made by allies.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the United States has just withdrawn reconstruction aid from Masar-e-Sharif because it considers it too dangerous to allow its personnel to operate in that area? In view of that, can he explain to me what the coalition means by saying that it wishes to extend the ISAF effect outside Kabul?
Mr. Hoon: That is simply shorthand for the kinds of discussions that I indicated are taking place, involving the United Kingdom and other allies, about how best to secure other parts of Afghanistan away from Kabul. The idea is to find means of working with the
Bob Spink (Castle Point): May I take the Secretary of State back four questions, and confirm that the Opposition support the operations in Afghanistan? We believe that there should be more NATO involvement in the ISAF operations. What action is he taking to ensure greater involvement of NATO?
Mr. Hoon: ISAF is a UN peacekeeping operation, and, for the moment, I do not anticipate that there need be NATO involvement. The countries that supply troops to the ISAF operation are, by and large, members of NATO, although not exclusively so. Provided that there is sufficient support from the international community to maintain ISAF in its present form up to 20 Decemberand beyond, should the UN consider it necessaryI am content that we would not need NATO support for that particular operation.