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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Monday 5 July 2010

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks, and that we honour the military covenant.

Only last August, a top military adviser stated publicly that it would take between 30 and 40 years for us to nation-build in Afghanistan under the present strategy and that there was no question of NATO pulling out. Within the last few days, the same top military adviser has stated that the time has begun for talks with the Taliban and that we could indeed have resolved our mission within the next four years. What does this conflicting advice say about the quality, the coherence and the consistency of the strategy which our Government have inherited in Afghanistan?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will probably remember a former Prime Minister saying that advisers advise and Ministers decide. For the benefit of newer Members, let me say that she was absolutely correct to do so. The Government decide the strategy in Afghanistan. We believe that we are there for reasons of national security, and we believe that we will have succeeded in our mission in Afghanistan when it is a stable enough state to manage its own internal and external security without reference to outside powers.

T6. On reflection, does the Secretary of State think that the best way to advise of the retirement of the Chief of the Defence Staff is through the pages of The Sunday Times even before the Prime Minister has been consulted or before the Queen has been provided with that information? (5390)

T2. With defence exports being of critical importance to the economy in Fylde and jobs in the north-west, can the Secretary of State update me and the House on efforts made to drive the export potential of the Typhoon Eurofighter? (5385)

I can tell my hon. Friend that the good news is that the Typhoon aircraft, a formidable piece of kit, is in demand across the world, and there are a number of countries that have expressed serious interest in the Typhoon. I can also tell him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had a number of discussions with a number of interested parties, and that we shall arrange some cross-departmental ministerial visits to promote this very important aspect of our policy.

T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely essential that the training of the three armed forces should be integrated into one site? (5393)

As I said in the earlier part of questions, it remains our intention to proceed as planned, but this, of course, like everything else, is part of the strategic defence review.

My hon. Friend will have observed that the Secretary of State declined an opportunity to state that he would publish the results of the Trident value for money review. May I urge him to publish the foreign policy baseline, which is the starting point of the defence review, so that the House can have the opportunity to debate the Government’s foreign policy objectives before we are presented with a fait accompli in the defence review itself?

During the debate on the strategic defence and security review, I set out the foreign policy baseline, as I have on previous occasions, and as the Foreign Secretary also has. It will be considered as part of the debate inside the National Security Council as part of cross-departmental security reviews.

The Veterans Minister just said that he was redoubling efforts to honour the military covenant and he praised the Prime Minister for doubling the operational allowance, yet he also admitted that he was cutting accommodation, freezing Army pay and making service personnel pay more for their pensions. Will he therefore explain what he means in practical terms by “redoubling” the effort?

I have always maintained that the hon. Gentleman is much nicer than his reputation. However, I have not said that we are cutting accommodation. As he knows, the whole country is faced with the appalling economic and financial situation that was left by the previous Government. We are considering all ways of saving money, including a pay freeze across the public sector. However, the spine increases for armed forces personnel will continue.

T3. The Prime Minister’s announcement last month of £67 million to deal with the threat faced by our troops from improvised explosive devices was most welcome. Will my hon. Friend say what part of that will be for training, which is an integral part of the deal? In particular, will he note the excellent service provided by the International School for Security and Explosives Education in Chilmark in my constituency, which I visited on Friday? (5387)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is no doubt whatever that high-threat counter-IED operations in Afghanistan are the most dangerous activity undertaken by members of the armed forces. The Prime Minister’s announcement of a further £67 million included £40 million for protected vehicles for use by CIED teams in Afghanistan and £11 million for remote control vehicles. The remaining funds will be used to enhance other critical capabilities in the counter-IED campaign, including enhancements to our military working-dog capability. There are problems with training, which we are doing our best to address. One problem is the inherited shortfall in counter-IED experts, which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.

Ministers will be aware that the Royal Irish Regiment is to deploy to Afghanistan later this year and that our armed forces personnel from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales make a major contribution to operational deployment on a continuous basis. Is it not therefore incumbent on the Secretary of State in his review to look again at the distribution of defence expenditure on a more equitable basis across the United Kingdom?

The allocation of defence spending across the United Kingdom will be determined in the light of what we think are the best decisions for the defence of the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman is correct, however, about the contributions made by our armed forces from different parts of the United Kingdom. They are United Kingdom armed forces. When I meet troops in Afghanistan, they do not ask one another whether they came from Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh or London. They are forces under the Crown and proud of it.

T4. On the eve of the Turkish Foreign Minister’s visit to London, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that Turkey is one of our foremost allies in a most volatile region. What steps can his military take to increase our strategic co-operation with Turkey? (5388)

My hon. Friend is entirely correct: Turkey is a very important strategic partner for the United Kingdom, not only because of its geographic location and the countries that border it, but because of other issues such as energy security. I had a long discussion with the Turkish Defence Minister at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, and I intend to see him again in London next week. We intend to continue to discuss issues such as joint exercising, joint training and potentially joint procurement. It is enormously to this country’s advantage to have Turkey onside and looking westwards rather than in any other direction.

Will Ministers tell me how effective they consider Vector Aerospace, in Almondbank in my constituency, to be in keeping the UK’s armed forces’ front lines effective?

I am delighted to pay tribute to the many defence companies that make such a valuable contribution to the work of our armed services, and I would be delighted to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about the company in his constituency. I know that its work is very valued.

T5. In view of the constraints on military spending, both financially and in terms of personnel, what help has the Ministry of Defence been asked to give the Home Office in providing security for the Olympic games? (5389)

My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. In the National Security Council, we are committed to a cross-departmental defence of the United Kingdom and defence review. As part of our ongoing discussions, we will continue to discuss arrangements for the Olympics. The Security Minister and I have had a number of discussions on that subject.

There is a growing public perception that the Trident replacement is being insulated from any kind of scrutiny—including the defence review—while the Government continue to tear conventional forces to bits. I am thinking particularly of the cuts in aircraft, which have already been mentioned. How long will the Secretary of State be happy with that situation?

There will be no plans for any part of the defence of the United Kingdom until the defence review is completed in the autumn. We will, of course, face a very adverse financial position because of the utter financial incompetence of the outgoing Labour Government, who have left the country with record debts, and, sadly, we will have to make decisions about defence and other Government budgets in that light.

What steps will the Secretary of State take to reduce homelessness among former members of the armed services? Will he promise to take steps to provide support in regard to mental health and tenancies, and to support those who turn to drugs and alcohol after their time in the armed services?

We are certainly concerned about any ex-service personnel who are homeless, but I do not think that we should overstate the case. According to the most recent review, conducted by the previous Government, only 3% of homeless people served in the armed forces, and three quarters of those were over the age of 45. That is not to say that we are not concerned about people over 45, or people under 45.

We will examine the issue as part of the military covenant. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is examining mental health issues, which do indeed take a long time to come to the fore—typically, about 14 years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be an extremely retrograde step for the cuts in Government spending to sacrifice the new coastguard search and rescue helicopters that are such an important part of front-line rescue services in our country? They would be 30% faster than the Sea Kings, they are fitted with forward-looking infra-red, and they are good at low-flying night-time search and rescue. Surely there cannot be any more front-line expenditure than that.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of the services to which he refers. They are currently under review, as part of the defence review and our ongoing discussions with the Treasury. However, it does not come well from any member of the former Government to lecture anyone about public finances when we are having to make decisions on public spending against a more adverse financial backdrop than any Government have faced at least since the second world war.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the anger in my constituency because the reverse bidding for the contract for the supply of socks did not work effectively? Does he understand that HJ Hall, which has supplied socks for three generations, lost the contract because it could not make its bids within the existing system, and will he please look into the issue?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his vigorous defence of his constituents. I agree that the matter is important, and I should like to discuss it with him further.

When personnel tragically lose their lives on active service, is there a time limit by which their families must vacate service accommodation? If so, what is the time limit, and what assistance are those families given to find alternative accommodation?

I should make it clear that I was not warned of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I understand that there is no such time limit. However, it is obviously in the interests of families—apart from any other considerations—to move out of service accommodation at some stage. We are examining all these issues because we are convinced of the need to support, especially, the families of brave young men cut down in their prime, and also those who have been injured. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will provide that support.

Is the Minister aware that the previous Government shut down the Harlow Territorial Army centre? What plans has he to restore Territorial Army morale in Harlow and elsewhere in the country?

The role of the Territorial Army has been greatly undervalued too often in the past. I pay tribute, on behalf of the Government, to the role that it plays in the security of our country. The specific future role of the Territorial Army, along with the roles of all sections of our armed forces, will be considered as part of the ongoing defence review.

I am most concerned by what I read in the newspapers about the Taliban’s reaction to the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. What implications does that have in respect of the issue of the Taliban in Pakistan, and has the Secretary of State had conversations with the Pakistan Government, given the crossover and the sensitivity between the two?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has recently been in Pakistan and has had discussions with the security services there about the importance of the Pakistani Government dealing not only with the Pakistani Taliban but the Afghan Taliban. Unless we see these as a continuum in terms of security, we will not be able to make the progress we want and to achieve the security on the Afghan-Pakistan border that is vital for the security of the people of both countries.

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), what decisions, if any, have been made about putting money into home-grown defence projects, especially in the Lancashire region?

The Government intend to look at the value of home-grown defence projects in further consultations about the role of small and medium-sized businesses in the defence industry and the issue of sovereign capability for the United Kingdom. I look forward to my hon. Friend making some very full contributions to that debate when it takes place.