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James Arbuthnot MP Defence Questions came around again yesterday. Conservative members dominated the session and exhibited excellent technical knowledge.

James Arbuthnot (MP for North-East Hampshire) chairs the Defence Select Committee. He asked about Pakistan:

"Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part."

Former Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind was also concerned:

"Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?

Mr. Hutton: I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said."

Patrick Mercer, MP for Newark, asked about air trooping arrangements:

"The Secretary of State will be aware that a fortnight ago I was with my old battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, as it deployed to Afghanistan. The worries of the families clearly revolved around the possible death or injury of their husbands, boyfriends and so on, but, above and beyond that, on the regiment’s previous tour they deeply resented the delays caused to rest and recuperation flights back from Afghanistan and to the final trooping flight when the battalion returned from there. I cannot overestimate the resentment that this caused, so will the Secretary of State assure me that will not happen again to the battalion?

Mr. Hutton: Sadly I cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance. When there are interruptions in the air trooping arrangements, the mistake that many people make is to assume that they are because the aircraft are not capable of flying, or there is some other problem, when the problems are often to do with the operational effectiveness of the defensive aid suites that are fitted to the aircraft. They are complicated systems and we will not compromise on safety. If something is not functioning in the defensive aid suites, the flights will be delayed until that can be rectified. I fully acknowledge the frustration that that causes for servicemen and women and their families, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we do everything that we possibly can to minimise disruptions. But we will not compromise on safety."

Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox went on the same issue:

"Is not the truth that the main problem is simply that the TriStars we are using are clapped out, with only 44 per cent. of the fleet fit for purpose? The future strategic tanker aircraft, which is the replacement aircraft for both troop transport and the re-fuelling tanker, was supposed to be in service in 2007 initially: we are now told that it will be at least 2011. On top of the Nimrod delay of 92 months, the Astute submarine delay of 47 months and the Type 45 destroyer delay of 42 months, is not defence procurement another fine mess Labour has got us into?

Mr. Hutton: No, and the hon. Gentleman should be very careful citing those examples, because those were all contracts let by the former Government. They were not let on proper terms, and that is especially true for the Astute contract—and he should know that. We do supplement with commercial scheduled flights where we can, and that has taken some of the pressure off the air bridge, but we continue to look very carefully at ways in which we can improve the service that we provide to our servicemen and women.

Dr. Fox: Is not the prevarication that we have seen exactly what we are now seeing with the A400M military transport fiasco? If that project is cancelled, and we are the last to pull out, we may be at the end of the queue to buy the necessary alternative capabilities—losers yet again. Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, said:

    “It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end.”

Leaving aside the obvious political parallels with this Government, when will Ministers make a decision?

Mr. Hutton: We will come to a decision on the A400M in July."

Fylde MP Michael Jack asked about the joint strike fighter programme:

"What steps his Department has taken to increase the UK’s involvement in the joint strike fighter programme; and if he will make a statement. [267176]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The UK remains fully committed to the joint strike fighter programme. Two weeks ago I announced that the UK would procure three instrumented test aircraft and associated support equipment to enable UK participation in the operational test and evaluation of the joint strike fighter air system.

Mr. Jack: While I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming the purchase of three aircraft, his answer was bereft of any mention of the question of operational sovereignty. Is it wise to have bought three aircraft at this stage without having a cast-iron agreement with the United States that the UK will have operational sovereignty for the aircraft both now and in the future?

Mr. Hutton: I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters. He will be aware of the memorandum of understanding that we have with the US. The whole point of the procurement of the aircraft is to ensure UK operational sovereignty and, without the purchase of the three test aircraft, that would not be possible."

Mr Jack revisited the point in the topical questions section, and remained unconvinced on operational sovereignty:

"May I take the Secretary of State back to his earlier answer to my question on the joint strike fighter? Having read the published version of the memorandum of understanding laid in the Library, I could find no reference to operational sovereignty. That is because the Secretary of State knows that such matters will be dealt with in a side letter between the two Governments. Will he give the House an assurance that no further purchase of joint strike fighter aircraft will be made until he has made a statement to this House that operational sovereignty, in the fullest sense of the term, has been achieved to cover the operation of those aircraft?

Mr. Hutton: I think that the memorandum of understanding deals with the substance of operational sovereignty.

Mr. Jack indicated dissent.

Mr. Hutton: That is the case, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman. The purchase of the three aircraft is designed to ensure UK operational sovereignty. Without our involvement in the testing and evaluation stage, I doubt whether that could be achieved. We currently have no further procurement plans. We are obviously committed to introducing the joint strike fighter into service as soon as possible, but the fundamental purpose and rationale behind our participation at this early stage is to ensure UK operational sovereignty."

Shadow Defence Minister Gerald Howarth talked about overstretch:

"Given his Department’s acceptance that Britain’s armed forces are

    “continuing to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations which they are resourced and structured to sustain over time”,

where does Secretary of State expect to find the troops for any increase in Britain’s presence in Afghanistan if that is what he decides to do? Pursuant to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), will the Secretary of State give the House an unequivocal undertaking that any such increase will be fully funded in year by the Treasury?

Mr. Hutton: On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I do not want to identify particular units or do anything like that today—that would be wrong—but the draw-down in Operation Telic will create an operational breathing space, and it might be possible to find additional resources in that way if a decision was made to deploy additional forces. That is at least a partial answer to his question.

On the money issue, as I have said, the Treasury has always supported to the full our contingent operations in Afghanistan, and that will continue to be the case."

Southend West MP David Amess wanted to know about the warship construction programme:

"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): This is an historic and momentous programme, and it continues to make progress. It involves the new Type 45 destroyers, the Astute class submarine, the two new carriers and, following on from them, the future surface combatant. The result of the programme will be that in decades to come, the Royal Navy will continue to be one of the world’s most powerful maritime forces.

Mr. Amess: I am not sure what progress has been made, because the Government’s 1998 strategic defence review stated that the Royal Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers to meet our national security objectives. Astonishingly, there are only 22. Will the Minister explain to the House what has happened to the overall objectives of that review? Have they been abandoned? If not, how will the Government meet them?

Mr. Davies: The answer lies partially in changes to the threat in the world, and partially in the increased capability of the ships that we are building. The Type 45 destroyer, for example, is vastly more capable than the Type 42 that she is replacing."

Another Shadow Defence Minister, Andrew Murrison, asked about the relationship between the EU and NATO:

"Will the Minister resist the Euro-zealotry of the Liberal Democrats and welcome the long-overdue repositioning of France away from a creeping EU defence identity towards its natural home, NATO? Will he take the opportunity next week in Strasbourg to discuss with France the delineation of security responsibility between NATO and the EU in accordance with Madeleine Albright’s “three D” doctrine: no duplication, no disengagement from north America and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members—particularly Turkey, given current French antipathy?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman’s antipathy to the European Union in all its forms is pretty well known. Clearly, he has not listened to the French President’s pronouncements on the issue of late; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s prejudice has stood in the way of that. The French President has said, in terms, that the EU and NATO should be complementary to each other and not duplicate each other’s efforts and capability."

Rochford & Southend East MP James Duddridge raised a worry about the marking of the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings:

"The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): It has been the policy of successive Governments that special commemorations are initiated by the Ministry of Defence only for key anniversaries and centennials of events of the greatest national significance; other anniversaries do not receive MOD sponsorship at public expense.

On 26 March, I met representatives of the Normandy Veterans Association to discuss the support that the MOD might offer with the 65th anniversary. It was agreed that the MOD would assist the association with specific administrative tasks, including applying to the Big Lottery Fund for financial support to attend commemorative events in the UK and overseas, and that it would explore the possibility of a church service on 21 June 2009.

James Duddridge: May I ask the Minister to look again at this issue? It is outrageous that 500 people who fought for us in Normandy may not, for financial reasons, be able to go to the 65th anniversary celebration—the last celebration. It is no good the Government funding a 100th anniversary celebration—the veterans will all be dead by then. Let us look at this issue now. It is very important, and the general public and veterans are angry that the Government are not doing more.

Mr. Jones: Every year, the MOD puts substantial support into events on the Normandy beaches. On the last significant occasion—the 60th anniversary in 2004—large sums were given, and the Normandy Veterans Association formally announced that that would be last time it would parade. Since last year, there has been support—some £178,000—from the national lottery. Let me reiterate that the significance of these events was supported by the previous Conservative Government as well."

Opposition Whip Stephen Crabb asked about the Royal Navy's capability:

"Alongside an extensive range of other commitments in the region, the Royal Navy has done some important work with the transition team alongside the Iraqi navy, which is in the middle of an ambitious programme to expand in size by 2010. How will the drawdown of British forces in Iraq affect that naval team, and will the Royal Navy be able to continue working with the Iraqi navy for the duration of the programme?

Mr. Ainsworth: We are discussing with the Iraqi Government what they would like us to do as part of our ongoing relationship since the combat mission of Operation Telic began in 2003. Although the talks have not concluded yet, the continued training of the Iraqi navy will be an important part of the process. That idea is certainly on the table and is being actively discussed, and we will make an announcement to the House as soon as we reach a conclusion with the Iraqi Government."

Ludlow MP Philip Dunne is to be commended for pursuing the matter of service pay:

"You, Mr. Speaker, will remember that during Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday I asked why our service personnel did not know what pay they would be getting as from this coming Wednesday. The Leader of the House mentioned, at column 302, that she thought that the Minister of State would address that matter during the defence debate the following day. I therefore attended that debate and raised the point, but I regret to say that the Minister declined to respond. I urge the Secretary of State here and now to tell the House, and the thousands of service personnel who are listening outside, what they will be paid from Wednesday.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We will be making an announcement on service pay, as on other matters, in the very near future."

Sleaford and North Hykeham's Douglas Hogg suggested our allies could be more help in Afghanistan:

"May I revert to NATO and Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State agree that, unless NATO deploys in much larger numbers and in a combat role, its authority and the support for it, and our prospects for success in Afghanistan will be much diminished? What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage NATO allies, other than the United States, Canada and so on, to produce more troops in a combat role?

Mr. Hutton: I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it would be very helpful if there were such additional forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the strong argument that we have had over a number of years with our allies in NATO has been about making those sorts of deployments. It is not fair for the burden to fall on a few when there are many others who are capable of shouldering it. I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that those discussions are continuing."

Tom Greeves

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