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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 515: debated on Monday 13 September 2010

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

NATO Responsibilities

NATO’s responsibility is to provide for the collective security of its allies against an increasingly diverse range of security challenges, both within the north Atlantic area and beyond. This is being reflected in work on the alliance’s new strategic concept, on which I look forward to further discussions with the Secretary-General and fellow NATO Defence Ministers at our next meeting in October.

There is growing concern off the coast of Somalia, where cargo ships and holiday craft are regularly challenged by pirates seeking ransom from western Governments. With 90% of EU imports arriving by sea, is NATO doing enough to ensure safe passage through the Arabian sea and the Indian ocean?

My hon. Friend is quite right. For a nation such as the United Kingdom, where 92% of all our trade is by sea, the security of the high seas is vital. We contribute in a number of ways: through the NATO mission and through the EU’s Operation Atalanta, which we command and to which we make a military contribution. It is also worth pointing out that there are contributions from other countries, which are increasingly recognising that the security of the high seas goes a lot wider than any of the alliances I have mentioned—particularly given the importance of trade—and is in fact a global security responsibility.

Britain’s contribution to NATO, after the United States and along with France, is by far the most important, because we spend a good chunk of our GDP on defence. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is doing everything to ensure that we spend more than 2% of GDP on defence in the coming review, and that if we fall below 2%—to the level of the runtish, anaemic armies of some of our European allies—he will not stay in the Cabinet, but resign and protest against such an attack on our status as a world armed power?

We are subjected to quite a lot of humbug in the Chamber, but that takes the biscuit. This Government are committed to the security of the United Kingdom, but we will have to deal with defence expenditure in the light of the huge economic disaster that we inherited from the outgoing Labour Government, and of the fact that we have a massively overspent and overcommitted defence programme, for which the previous Government never bothered to put any money into the budget.

NATO Reform

As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary made clear at the meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in June, reform of NATO is a key priority for the UK. Defence Ministers will have further discussions on reform at their next meeting in October. We also have frequent bilateral discussions with fellow NATO Ministers and the Secretary-General on the importance of both ensuring that the alliance has the right capabilities and structures to carry out its missions, and on making better use of resources by making it a leaner, more efficient and more effective organisation.

In the coming months three major developments will have a profound impact on Britain’s foreign and defence policy in the medium term: the comprehensive spending review, the strategic defence review and the NATO summit. Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it goes without saying that NATO should be effective and efficient, it must also be flexible? Will he focus on flexibility in his pursuit of the reforms that NATO needs?

May I take this opportunity from the Dispatch Box to congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs? As a result, the Committee is in very safe hands indeed, and the House should be grateful for that. He is absolutely right: we do need to be flexible, and we do need to make NATO much leaner and more able to react to circumstances as they arise. However, he is also right to point out the pressures under which we are all labouring at the moment. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we have inherited no money in the kitty with which to defend the country.

NATO’s new draft strategic concept—to be discussed at the NATO summit—suggests that participation in missile defence is open to all allies. What conclusions has the Minister drawn regarding Britain’s involvement in new missile defence systems?

As the hon. Gentleman knows well, the strategic concept will be discussed at the Lisbon summit, but as yet the Secretary-General’s paper on it has not been seen. However, I understand that missile defence is a matter of interest, and I know that, as a former member of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in such matters. Indeed, when he and I were on the Committee, we both looked at missile defence. This is an important area that NATO needs to address, and I hope it will be addressed squarely in the context of the strategic concept.

My hon. Friend knows of my long-standing interest in the kingdom of Morocco. What future does he think NATO’s European Mediterranean dialogue has? In particular, what future does NATO’s relationship with Morocco have, in the light of Morocco’s participation in the Mediterranean dialogue since 1995, its assistance in the Balkans and its activities in Operation Active Endeavour? Does he agree that Morocco, as one of our oldest allies, has a strong part to play in future NATO operations?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in Morocco; indeed, he is the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Morocco. He has rightly pointed out that that country is part of Operation Active Endeavour, although I understand that certain technical difficulties currently preclude it from contributing to naval shipping. I must also point out to him that Morocco is not involved in Afghanistan. However, we welcome support from wherever we can obtain it, and I hope he will be able to use his good offices to that effect.

Army Recovery Capability

3. What plans he has for the future of the Army recovery capability; and if he will make a statement. (14519)

The coalition Government are fully committed to supporting injured servicemen and women who have sacrificed so much for our country’s security. We are therefore proceeding with the delivery of the Army recovery capability, which was announced by the previous Administration in February this year, in partnership with Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion. This extremely laudable initiative will make a real difference to the support that the sick and wounded receive during and after the excellent clinical care from which they already benefit. Last Wednesday, I met the future Chief of the General Staff to discuss progress with the delivery of this capability, and to consider what more can be done to support these individuals as they return to duty or make the transition to civilian life.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will the Government confirm that the three new personnel recovery centres are on track to open according to the time scale set up by Labour?

May I first, unusually, pay tribute to the previous Administration? The Army recovery capability represents a really positive, sensible move forward. They committed resources to it, and we shall continue to do so. Yes, at the moment, we are definitely on track for the opening times. I visited the current centre at the Erskine homes in Edinburgh three weeks ago and saw the work that has been going on there. That is improving the whole time. I should say that this is a new development, and things will evolve as we move forward.

One of the centres will be in Bulford and Tidworth, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), and it will open in 2012. Does the Minister agree that, as well as looking after the injured servicemen, there are two elements that we must not lose sight of? The first is to look after their families, who often suffer greatly. The second is to find really practical ways of giving these people jobs and putting them in touch with employers, so that they can be employed for many years to come.

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Families play a hugely important role in that regard. Indeed, I regularly meet members of the families federations of the Army and the other forces, and I can assure him that they let me know their views in no uncertain terms. Regarding his second point, the Army recovery capability is working on ensuring that, whatever the future of the personnel it is treating, they have a future either in the armed forces or in civilian life.

I am sure that the Minister has seen in The Sun newspaper this morning the proposal to throw out of the armed forces those who have been severely wounded on active service. I note that the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State are citing the introduction of manning control points as a justification for that. When I was the Minister responsible for these matters, I resisted the introduction of manning control points, and it was only after intense pressure from the head of the Army, General Sir David Richards, and the Army Board that they were introduced. What was clear, however, was that they would not be used as a way of getting rid of brave servicemen and women injured in the defence of this country—a position that was underlined when General Richards and I launched the Army recovery capability in February. At the time, General Richards said that he expected

“that no soldier who thinks it is in his interests to stay will be forced out.”

May I ask the Minister whether that has now changed? Is it now the intention of the Ministry of Defence, under pressure from the Treasury, to use manning control points to force out those injured in the line of duty? If it is, it will be a moral betrayal and run contrary to all the rhetoric—

Order. We have got the thrust of the question, and I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). A brief reply from the Minister, please.

I hate to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I think it would be a moral outrage if we were to throw people out through manning control points after they had been injured on active service. As he will know, if people have been treated through the Army recovery capability, they will be going down an entirely different route and no manning control point will be used at the time. I counsel the hon. Gentleman against believing everything he reads in The Sun or any other newspaper.

Gulf Region Security

4. What his most recent assessment is of the security situation in the Gulf region; and if he will make a statement. (14520)

The security situation in the Gulf remains delicately balanced, with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Arab-Israel relations and the risk of Yemen becoming a failed state being the most destabilising factors. We are working closely with our allies in the region as well as key partners such as the US to find a diplomatic solution to all these issues, but it is clear that they will not be resolved quickly. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s Gulf initiative, which recognises increased engagement in the region as a key foreign policy priority. It makes it clear that there are significant economic as well as national security interests in the Gulf, and that the presence of UK forces there is vital in order to reassure our allies and act as a stabilising influence.

My hon. Friend will share my concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme. What action is being taken to ensure that the UN sanctions are enforced effectively to deter Iran from future developments?

I certainly do share my hon. Friend’s concern, as I am sure do all Members. The Government of Iran are facing increasing economic and political pressure as a direct result of their failure to address international concerns about their nuclear programme. Alongside sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council resolutions, Iran has also faced autonomous sanctions from the EU, the US, Canada, Australia and Norway. Others will follow soon, and many major companies have decided to stop business with Iran. Iran has much to gain from taking the necessary steps to restore international confidence in its nuclear intentions and will face tougher and tougher sanctions if it fails to do so.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Will he comment further on the Iran Government’s increasingly provocative approach in their military and nuclear programme and their apparent disregard for international opinion, which has been evidenced in recent times?

There is no doubt that Iran is behaving provocatively. Our policy towards Iran remains that we wish to address a broad range of concerns, of which nuclear proliferation is undoubtedly the foremost. Iran’s support for terrorism, its negative role in the wider middle east region and its record on human rights all remain matters of serious concern. We remain committed to diplomacy, dialogue and engagement, but that does not prevent us or the international community from maintaining pressure about legitimate concerns. A positive future for Iran is possible, based on its leadership recognising its obligations to its own people, neighbours and the international community. That is the future we want to see Iran turning to, in order to gain the respect it seems so greatly to crave.

Has the Minister made any assessment of when, at the current rate of uranium enrichment, there is likely to be a breakout capability? In those circumstances, how optimistic is he that sanctions will be effective in stopping the seemingly relentless drive by the Iranian regime towards having a nuclear weapon?

A whole range of time scales is being looked at, although I cannot say that anything is precisely clear in that respect. The situation is monitored very closely by the international community, ourselves included. If there is any sign of development of the sort the hon. Gentleman describes, we will undoubtedly ramp up our response accordingly.

Combat Stress (Retired Service Personnel)

5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on provision of facilities for retired service personnel diagnosed with combat stress. (14522)

The Ministry of Defence works closely with the Department of Health on issues relating to support for former service personnel with mental health needs, in particular through the Partnership Board, which brings together the MOD and the four UK Departments of Health.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has produced a report on combat stress, and I wonder whether the Minister knows when it might be published. Both the Combat Stress charity and the Plymouth and district branch of Mind are interested, and they would like to read it sooner rather than later.

May I first pay tribute to Combat Stress—an excellent organisation—and its current chief executive Dave Hill, whom I understand is retiring shortly to Northumberland, where he lives? It does excellent work among ex-service personnel. As to the date of publication, there is an old parliamentary procedure: it will be published shortly.

It is an admirable aspiration for veterans to get priority in receiving NHS treatment. Will the Minister update us on how former veterans will be identified, and what progress he is making with the Department of Health on achieving that?

People who have served in the armed forces need to declare that they have done so, but under the previous Government much work was done to ensure that as people leave the armed forces, they are identified by GPs as former service personnel, and that is how we are progressing. The report that will be produced shortly by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) will deal with this issue. I pay tribute to him for his work, and thank him on behalf of the House and the Government.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a serious condition, and the lack of diagnosis has led to significant compensation claims. Considering that in the UK health is generally devolved to the various Parliaments and Assemblies, what action is the Minister taking to ensure a consistent response and to address the issue of compensation payments?

PTSD is indeed a serious condition and should not in any way be treated lightly. It is certain that some people returning from combat do suffer from PTSD. The King’s Centre for Military Health Research, led by Professor Simon Wessely, has done a lot of work looking at the condition and what further we can do. I do not have an immediate answer to the question of how we can have settled compensation, except that under the armed forces compensation scheme each person with some form of health problem has a particular tariff, which might apply to PTSD too.

Sharing Military Equipment

6. What recent discussions he has had with Ministerial colleagues on the sharing of military equipment with other countries. (14523)

On operations, we will always try to share equipment with our partners to best effect, for example with the pooling of helicopters in Afghanistan. More broadly—I imagine this might be what the hon. Lady has in mind—the strategic defence and security review is considering options for closer bilateral co-operation with key nations, but NATO will remain the cornerstone of our defence.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. There has been a great deal of speculation over the summer, and while there is no problem with joint procurement, the operational problems are potentially huge if we end up purchasing our Tornadoes on some sort of time-share or hire-purchase arrangement with another nation. Will he reassure the House that any decisions he makes will be driven by the operational requirements of the armed forces? Will he also bear it in mind that if one buys cheap, one often pays twice?

There are two issues. First, why would we want to get involved in further joint co-operation? Clearly, economy of scale needs to be taken into account in the difficult budgetary environment. Secondly, who would the key partners be? In looking at key partners, we certainly consider operational effectiveness and those countries that are likely to deploy and to spend on the research necessary to get the capability we would want. Clearly, for such partnerships, the two front-runners are the United States and France.

Does the Secretary of State accept that there may be circumstances in which it is more effective to share responsibilities rather than equipment? Will he tell the House whether, as a result of his meeting in Paris last week, there was any discussion of the possibility of sharing responsibility for nuclear deterrence?

We have repeatedly made it clear that we believe that having an independent nuclear deterrent is a vital part of the United Kingdom’s sovereign capability, and we intend to keep it that way. Where we can co-operate on technical matters with the French, without interfering with our sovereign capability in any way, it would make sense to do so.

On press reports about the sharing of aircraft carriers, may I say that, despite having 500 constituents who work in the upper Clyde shipyards, I have always seen the matter as a strategic, not primarily industrial, question? In that context, does the Secretary of State agree that having one aircraft carrier would be a strategic nonsense, and that not having any of our own would be a major breach of the nation’s sea-based defence posture, which goes back not just decades but centuries?

I am the first to defend, as I have regularly, the concept of sea-borne air-power projection, especially for a maritime nation such as the United Kingdom. However, the hon. Gentleman’s question is an eloquent and crafty try at tempting me into commenting on the current SDSR discussions, which I will be happy to share with the House at the appropriate time.

Defence Industrial Strategy (SMEs)

7. What assessment he has made of the potential benefit to small and medium-sized enterprises of the new Defence Industrial Strategy. (14524)

The Government are committed to enhancing the role of small and medium-sized enterprises, both as a vital part of the United Kingdom’s economy and as suppliers to the Ministry of Defence. In December we will publish a Green Paper on our defence industrial and technology policy, which will include proposals for better support for small and medium-sized enterprises. It will be followed by a White Paper. In parallel, we propose to work with industry to review the representation of small and medium-sized enterprises on the National Defence Industries Council to ensure that their voice is properly heard.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but will he agree to meet me at his earliest convenience to discuss the legitimate concerns of companies in my constituency about tendering for MOD contracts?

We are well aware that SMEs can suffer particular challenges as a result of excessive delays, frequent changes and complexity in the procurement process. We intend to take full account of those concerns during our development of the Green and White Papers. However, I should welcome an opportunity to discuss the issues with my hon. Friend in my office at an early date, and I look forward to seeing him with his constituents.

When the Government purchase from small and medium-sized companies, those companies’ ability to deliver must be taken into account in the procurement process. Given that the Minister has not yet signed the contract for the light protected patrol vehicle, can he assure us that in that instance, ability to deliver—and in a timely way—will be fully evaluated? The vehicle really is needed in Afghanistan without delay, and that must surely be the Minister’s priority.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s close personal and constituency interest in this procurement. I entirely agree with what he has said, and I can give him an absolute assurance that the ability to build the vehicle on time will be a key part of our decision. As he has pointed out, it is very important to the protection of our troops in Afghanistan.

Kabul International Conference

8. What assessment he has made of the implications of the outcomes of the recent Kabul international conference of British troops in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (14525)

The importance of a co-ordinated civilian, political and military strategy was agreed by the Afghan Government and the international community at the Kabul conference. It includes a phased approach to the security-led transition of Afghan provinces from the control of the international security assistance force to that of the Afghan National Security Force, with the aim of ensuring that the Afghan forces are leading military operations across Afghanistan by the end of 2014. United Kingdom personnel are working closely with the ANSF to help it to build its capacity and capability and enable it to achieve that aim.

It is clear that one of the success stories of the Afghanistan situation is the growth and increasing competence of the Afghan security forces. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we will hand over areas of control to Afghan forces well before 2015, and that it will be a process rather than a single event?

This is an important issue for the international community as well as the United Kingdom. It is important that, as we achieve transition in Afghanistan, we maintain the cohesion of the alliance and the international coalition as a whole. The process must therefore involve phasing out, not walking out. It is to the advantage of the entire coalition that the countries whose transition takes place in some of the easiest parts of Afghanistan find an alternative role to augment what the international coalition is doing until we are all ready to transfer fully to Afghan authority.

A quarter of the Afghan national mercenary army desert every year. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether, in the last six months, the number of new recruits has been exceeded by the number of deserters?

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the total target set by the Afghan Government for the Afghan national security forces has been exceeded, that the number of recruits to the Afghan national army is more than two months ahead of schedule, and that the number of people entering the Afghan national police is increasing.

I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a particularly positive trend in the Afghan national police as a result of a change of policy in Kabul. The pay for those entering the national police is now the same as the amount paid to the army, which has helped to increase recruitment. Moreover, literacy lessons are now provided for those joining the Afghan national police. In a country in which literacy levels are barely above 20%, that makes a major difference to recruitment to the security forces.

Why did British Ministers choose to ignore the advice given to them on Afghanistan by our exceptionally distinguished former ambassador to Kabul, as a result of which he has asked to be transferred to other duties?

The Government take advice from a wide range of sources; we are not in Afghanistan on a unilateral basis, but as part of an international coalition. Decisions are taken jointly with those in the international community. We listen to a wide range of experience but are not always able to satisfy every opinion.

British Troops Under US Command (Helmand)

There are no British troops under US national command. The majority of British forces in Helmand, around 6,500, are assigned to the International Security Assistance Force mission, under the command of Commander Regional Command (South West), who is currently a US Marine Corps general. The remainder of UK Forces in Helmand fall under UK national command.

There are elements on the Opposition Benches and in some parts of the media who seem to suggest that coalition warfare never involves, or should not involve, one nation subordinating its troops to another. British troops have been under American command since at least 1917 and vice versa. The system has worked well. Will the Minister give the lie to the nonsense that such things actually impede our sovereignty rather than help it?

I readily agree with my hon. Friend that that must indeed be the case. I must also point out that it has been agreed that the UK will take command of Regional Command (South West) on a rotational basis in Afghanistan. More to the point, we should remember that, as part of the ISAF mission, a UK general currently commands Regional Command (South), which includes troops from the US, Canada, Australia and Romania among others. It works both ways and we are all the stronger together for it.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

We are in the final stages of the Strategic Defence and Security Review. The Department has concluded its detailed policy and capability studies and concluded the force testing process. No decisions have yet been taken by the National Security Council.

I wish my right hon. Friend well in dealing with the numerous problems left by the previous Government. Does he agree that, despite the need for greater co-operation with our allies on procurement and acquisition, we still need to maintain our own world-beating design and manufacturing base if we are to have true operational sovereignty?

It is vital for the UK clearly to identify our sovereign capability requirements and to pursue them rigorously. That is why we will publish a consultation document later in the year, asking for full consultation on the process to ensure that we have the industrial capability, skills base and regulatory framework to ensure that what my hon. Friend has outlined is made possible.

Since the last strategic defence review, more than 10,000 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland. Bases have been closed and regiments amalgamated, and there has been a mammoth defence underspend of £5.6 billion. Will the Secretary of State tell us how the Ministry of Defence will take these facts into account and ensure that consideration and fairness is given to defence spending in all the nations and regions of the UK?

The priority in the defence review is to ensure that the UK has at its disposal what it needs for its wider national security and that the industrial implications of that are taken into account. I intend to have discussions with the devolved Administrations over the coming weeks to be fully apprised of their concerns about the industrial implications of the SDSR. Ultimately, in a constrained financial environment the No. 1 procurement priority is to ensure that the armed forces have what they need when they need it at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.

Given the highly specialised tasks involved in defending our airspace for the indefinite future, does the Secretary of State agree that it would not, in any way, compromise the integrity of the strategic defence and security review if he were to state today, in the week in which we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the climax of the battle of Britain, that he will give no time to the strategically illiterate suggestion that the Royal Air Force should be abolished and absorbed into the other two services?

In general it would be wrong of me to pre-empt the SDSR, but I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that the Royal Air Force will continue.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the leaders of industry, as well as the trade unions, are enormously worried that adequate evaluation of the industrial ramifications is not taking place ahead of the main decisions of the SDSR? He cannot do this in sequence without taking huge risks. Will he ensure that the industrial consequences of the review are fully evaluated—or is the timetable being dictated by the Treasury?

The biggest risk that we face in our security is that we have a muddled and incoherent defence programme left over from the previous Government. Before the Labour party lectures the coalition Government about the financial implications that we face, it might want to remember that with a defence budget of some £35 billion a year, it has left behind an overspend in the equipment programme of £38 billion by 2020, with which we are going to have to deal.

Equipment Funding

13. What recent representations he has received on funding for equipment for UK troops in combat operations. (14531)

The coalition Government are absolutely committed to funding equipment required for UK troops on operations. In June, the Prime Minister announced uplifts totalling £256 million for equipment for Afghanistan and, on top of that, the MOD and the Treasury continue to approve new urgent operational requirements—more than £95 million since June. I am also delighted to be able to tell the House that the latest armoured all-terrain vehicle, Warthog, arrived in Afghanistan on Friday.

I thank the Minister for his response. Given that improvised explosives devices are now the favourite weapon of the Taliban in Helmand province and are causing more of our troops to be killed and injured, will the Secretary of State tell us what he is doing to ensure that our brave soldiers have the necessary equipment to counter this deadly threat?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to emphasise this very serious threat to our forces. We recognise fully the rapidly evolving threat of IEDs and take all possible measures to combat them. While visiting our troops in Afghanistan on 10 June, the Prime Minister announced an additional £67 million for the counter-IED campaign; this will include specialist dogs, bespoke counter-IED Mastiff vehicles, remote-controlled vehicles, and equipment to neutralise and analyse IEDs. In addition, the MOD and the Treasury continue to approve new equipment to counter the impact of IEDs through the urgent operational requirements process. Since June, an additional £50 million of new counter-IED UORs have been approved, including sophisticated detection equipment, new personal protective clothing and the new counter-IED collective training capability—it is a pretty good story.

May I ask the Minister to try to answer this question, rather than to rant in the way that the Secretary of State did in response to my previous question? Can the Minister tell us why the Government have delayed the deployment of the new Chinook helicopters ordered last December?

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman wants to make mischief on this particular issue, but he is confusing two separate issues. Commanders on the ground will always welcome enhanced helicopter capability—of course they will—and we will do what we can to deliver it. However, military commanders have confirmed that they have the helicopters they need to carry out the tasks that they have been given. Since November 2006, helicopter availability has increased considerably— by 140%—and more Chinook mark 3s will be available for deployment in the months ahead. These kinds of criticisms from those on the Labour Benches would be better made if they had not left us with this wretched £38 billion overspend.

The House will have noticed a certain role reversal just then. On helicopters in Afghanistan, may I urge my hon. Friend to look hard at the practice of the Americans, nearly half of whose combat helicopters are piloted by reservists? Such an approach would make a huge saving to the taxpayer and guarantee a large number of flying hours on the part of those operating them.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, and I am aware that he has made it on a number of occasions. Of course we benefit from the activities of American pilots in Afghanistan and I assure him that we will continue to do so.

Mental Health Care

14. What recent assessment he has made of the provision of mental health care for members of the armed forces and for veterans. (14532)

The Ministry of Defence has a wide range of measures in place to monitor and manage the mental health of serving personnel, and has been exploring with the NHS to ensure ex-service personnel get the care they require. The current strategic defence and security review will include consideration of possible enhancements to medical care, including improved mental health care. As I said in answer to an earlier question, the Prime Minister has asked my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) to conduct an independent study of the provision of support and services to the armed forces and ex-service personnel and to make recommendations for improvement, particularly in the area of mental health.

I thank the Minister for that response. Given that he implied on the BBC’s “File on 4” in June that he does not believe people should be screened for mental health problems, will he give an assurance that the Government are still committed to a compulsory mental health check for people on discharge from the services?

If I might say so, the hon. Gentleman misquotes what I said on “File on 4”. We take mental health very seriously; for instance, as I said in answer to an earlier question, we are looking into post-traumatic stress disorder and, indeed, I will visit the King’s Centre for Military Health Research next month to discuss that matter with Professor Wessely. It is very important that we take mental health seriously, and we are looking at how we can identify mental health problems, but I am not a clinician—I am not aware whether the hon. Gentleman is—so I cannot do other than take the advice of mental health professionals who say it is very difficult to screen people correctly and accurately for mental health problems until they present themselves with those problems.

May I ask the Minister to continue to recognise the wider impact of combat stress, particularly on Army families? As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) said, and as we discussed when I went to the launch of a new charity in Tidworth, combat stress has a huge impact on the wives, children and husbands of serving armed forces members. Please will the Minister also confirm that other measures, such as our educational premium for Army children and scholarships for the children of the fallen, will survive the spending review, as they are critical to bolstering the military covenant?

My hon. Friend has put her finger on exactly the right spot: we are looking at the military covenant and how we may enhance the relationship between the Government and people of this country and the armed forces and the work they do. We are looking very closely at some of the issues my hon. Friend mentioned. As she will know, one or two of them are covered in the coalition agreement for government document and I think it highly unlikely that any Minister would dare renege on that programme for Government.

First, may I say that I agree totally with the Minister’s opposition to screening for mental health? He is right on that. Contrary to the rhetoric before the last general election, as a member of the last Labour Government I was pleased to be part of an Administration who delivered the seven mental health pilots and the partnership agreement between Combat Stress and the Ministry of Defence and who funded the research at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research. Can the Minister give an assurance that those mental health pilots will be rolled out and that he will fight hard to ensure that not only are the lessons learned but the money is there to support them?

I am glad that we are agreeing about so much today, but I am afraid that I cannot prejudge the SDSR in any way, shape or form, as that is more than my job is worth. However, I will say this: I think it highly unlikely that we will reduce the mental health services provided for our serving and ex-service personnel because, frankly, we have made commitments on that and we cannot possibly renege on them.

Cyber-Security

Cyber-security is an important element of the SDSR and has already had considerable consideration. Decisions on enhancing our capabilities will form part of the review, which we will announce to the House later this autumn.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how much interdepartmental co-operation there is on these issues, which remain a very serious, if invisible, threat to the United Kingdom, and one that the MOD should not have to shoulder on its own?

I entirely agree with the sentiments at the end of my hon. Friend’s question. Indeed, this is a cross-governmental problem, and it is one of the matters in which there is a huge advantage from dealing with it under the National Security Council because that means we are able to consider it in a cross-governmental manner. It would be quite wrong if the enhancements to cyber-security that protected all of government were to fall only on parts of it. It therefore makes sense to look at the concept of how we approach it both on a budgetary and a functional basis.

If we are to develop an effective cyber-security policy and to think forward, we must also invest in research and development. Will the Minister give a commitment to ensuring that as part of the defence and security review there will be sufficient capacity for research and development, particularly on cyber-security?

Investing in better cyber-security will not be an “option” for the United Kingdom. What is being considered under the National Security Council as part of the SDSR is how that occurs. We will face increasing threats in cyberspace in the years ahead—the question is how we identify the weakest areas, which need to be looked at first, and how we develop the technologies so that, as the other technologies that might affect us continue to evolve, we are best protected. That will require us to look at research across the board.

Defence Export Sales (Taiwan)

16. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on support for defence export sales to Taiwan. (14534)

Defence Ministers have had no engagement with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on support for defence export sales to Taiwan.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Given that a fundamental plank of our procurement policy is exportability and in light of the fact that the Secretary of State’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills historically has a lukewarm attitude to our aerospace industry, will the Minister make it absolutely clear that there is no official or unofficial policy on the part of this Government to oppose or block arms sales to Taiwan—a friend in that part of the world and somewhere with which British industry can do business?

First, may I confirm to my hon. Friend and to the House that the Government attach the highest priority to defence exports? The procurement decisions that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), will be making as Minister for procurement will be based on considering exportability as a key factor. As for Taiwan, I can confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) that there is, as I understand it, no reason why defence exports should not be made to Taiwan. He will understand the sensitivities involved, and that although the licensing of defence exports is primarily a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, that Department nevertheless consults both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and that that is the right way to proceed. I take note of my hon. Friend’s invitation to explore another market where we might make some progress.

Topical Questions

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.

On Saturday I visited Euravia, a company that repairs and overhauls aircraft engines, which is located in Kelbrook in my constituency, for the presentation of the Queen’s award for enterprise in the international trade category. Does the Secretary of State agree that high-tech manufacturing jobs play a vital role in our economy?

It is difficult not to agree with that very important statement. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Of course, defence manufacturing jobs play a particularly important part in the high-tech end of manufacturing. We will bring forward a defence industrial and technology policy Green Paper later this year, which I hope will underline the importance of that issue.

In May, the Secretary of State said that

“there is no lack of clarity in the Government’s policy: we believe in a continuous, at-sea, minimum, credible, nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident missile system. I hope that that is explicit enough”.—[Official Report, 26 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 272.]

Will the Secretary of State repeat that?

T2. Given the importance of stability in Pakistan to this country’s security, will my right hon. Friend say what assistance this country’s armed forces are giving to the armed forces of Pakistan at the moment? (14543)

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that Pakistan is a very important security partner if the gains that we have made in Afghanistan are to be maintained in the longer term. We must help with the technical capability of the Pakistani security forces in policing and with their wider military capabilities and we must also encourage the Pakistani Government to maintain the necessary political drive behind the process. In particular, it is vital that the Pakistani Government recognise that it is their duty to deal with the Afghan Taliban and not just with the Pakistan Taliban if we are to get security in the longer term.

T4. The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent reports on the failure of UN forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to prevent the horrific scale of rapes and violent attacks against women. Will he confirm what priority he and this Government will be taking in promoting UN security resolution 1325 and in tackling violence against women in conflict areas? (14545)

We take this responsibility extremely seriously. In conjunction with my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary we will continue to push to ensure that the rights of women in those areas are fully protected because what we have seen in recent years, particularly the use of rape as a weapon of war, is utterly disgusting to any civilised part of the world.

T3. The bodies of five people working for the Afghan woman MP Fauzia Gailani were recently found after having been abducted by the Taliban. Their hands had been tied and they had been shot in the head. With the elections this Saturday, many candidates and their staff, especially women, fear for their safety. What are the Government doing to ensure that the integrity of the elections is not compromised by the security threat posed by the Taliban? (14544)

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s abhorrence of what has happened and I am sure that everyone in the House would condemn those appalling murders outright. We are working with the Government of Afghanistan and with international partners to ensure that female candidates and voters have an increased level of support, but the Afghan national army and national police have the lead throughout Afghanistan in providing security for the elections as they did successfully during the presidential elections last year. On the ground, ISAF forces, including UK forces in Helmand, will provide support such as ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—to assist the Afghans, and partnered UK-Afghan combined forces will stand ready to provide any further assistance that may be required.

Tomorrow in St John the Baptist church in Cudworth in my constituency there will be a memorial service and dedication to the memory of Captain Martin Driver of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, who died earlier this year. Will the Government join me in paying tribute to that truly outstanding individual and in sending condolences to his family and friends?

I have the greatest pleasure in doing so. It is always worth our remembering that we are extremely fortunate in this democratic country to have people who volunteer to put life and limb at risk for the security of their fellow citizens. We should remember the heroic sacrifices that they make at every opportunity. When there are those who, as we have seen in recent times, protest against what our armed forces do, the correct answer is not to restrict what they get to say but for more of us to get on to the streets in every possible way, including at the sort of ceremony that the hon. Gentleman mentions, to show our support for our armed forces.

T5. Last Thursday, the House debated for the first time a substantive motion on the war in Afghanistan. Fifty-one Members spoke, many more attended and the Government’s policy was supported overwhelmingly. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in future, progress on the war will be reported to the House and that, in particular, any change in policy will be announced in the House first rather than to the media? (14546)

May I begin by reiterating what I said in that debate, which is that for the House to have more control over its time is a positive step and that for it to have chosen Afghanistan as the subject for one of its first debates was an extremely positive development? We are committed to keeping Members of the House and of the other place fully informed about what is happening in operations. There is a further briefing by General Messenger this evening in the House. On the very first occasion that I was at this Dispatch Box as the Secretary of State I said that it was our intention to keep the House updated quarterly on Afghanistan: that will be undertaken by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and me.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that his Department is having discussions with other Departments, including the Treasury, about the impact that the SDSR proposals will have, linked to the comprehensive spending review, on the skills base in places such as Plymouth? We in Plymouth, in the dockyard and the naval base, depend on those jobs; we are 309th out of 324 authorities in terms of being dependent on the public sector, so any loss of jobs or in the skills base will impact seriously on our local economy and on the Treasury.

The hon. Lady raises an important question. In the deliberations we have had in the House on the defence industry and defence capabilities, I am not sure that the skills base has always been given the priority it ought to have. That is why as part of the consultation that I outlined earlier we will be specifically looking at the skills base, because if we are to look at the contribution to the defence industry, for example, of our small and medium-sized enterprises, the skills base, as well as the regulatory and fiscal frameworks, is key. Of course, as the hon. Lady knows, I cannot pre-empt the SDSR but these things are a very important part of the Government’s wider defence industrial strategy, which we shall outline and welcome consultation on, in the months ahead.

T6. The circumstances of the death of former Ministry of Defence employee, Dr David Kelly, continue to leave many people feeling profoundly uneasy. Are those concerns shared within the Ministry of Defence and, if so, will the Minister be pushing other Departments to come up with a full, open and transparent investigation as soon as possible? (14547)

This matter is predominantly the responsibility of the Attorney-General. I am pleased that he has indicated that if any new evidence is put before him that would flesh out the concerns that have been expressed about the circumstances of Dr David Kelly’s death, he would be willing to instruct that a fresh inquest should take place.

Many former British military personnel are working in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq on UK and US Government security contracts. What steps are the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State taking to ensure that when former British military personnel lay their lives on the line, like their currently serving colleagues, the terms, conditions and welfare of those very brave men and women are looked into and they are looked after and taken care of?

The hon. Gentleman asks a very interesting question. Of course, people who go out to Afghanistan for commercial organisations are usually paid a great deal more than our service personnel, which is often why they have left the Army, for instance, to work for security companies. I pay tribute to their bravery in Iraq, now and in the past, and in Afghanistan, but I am not sure it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence to compensate them should they be injured while on a commercial contract with a commercial company.

Order. If we are to make serious progress, we need rather pithier questions and answers from now on.

T7. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the benefit of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary cluster contract in reducing costs and improving efficiency? (14548)

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that her constituency is playing a major part in ensuring that those contracts are delivering, as it were, more for less, with much greater capability compared to previous contracting arrangements, at lower cost. I congratulate her constituents in Falmouth for the part they are playing.

In the light of the strategic defence and security review, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the coalition Government will maintain our forces’ capability to protect UK interests across the world?

In adopting the so-called adaptive posture the National Security Council specifically said that because we are unable to predict the exact nature of future conflict it was essential to maintain generic and flexible defence capabilities that can adapt to the sort of threats that may emerge in the future. That of course came on top of the Foreign Secretary’s clearly stated aims that in a genuinely globalised economy where our economic interests are so widespread the United Kingdom cannot afford strategic shrinkage.

T8. The Minister has the unenviable task of running a Defence Department in a difficult financial climate. Does he agree that this makes it all the more vital that we get maximum value from our defence budget? Could we not achieve that if we bought more kit generically off the shelf, rather than through a protectionist defence industrial strategy? (14549)

Obviously, the prime duty of Ministers in the Ministry of Defence is to ensure that our troops have battle-winning military superiority, but I agree with my hon. Friend that that can often be done by buying off the shelf. Strangely, in a fast-moving technological world, that can often mean superior products with lower operational risk, which brings double benefits. As I have emphasised, there are many areas in which sovereign capability is absolutely vital, and cannot be prejudiced—for example, in cryptography.

The Secretary of State rightly mentioned the importance of skills to our armed personnel. Will he take the opportunity to reaffirm the previous Government’s commitment to the building of a new defence training college at St Athan in south Wales?

The whole training defence review and its consequences, including St Athan, will be looked at as part of the wider strategic defence review.

T9. I declare an interest as a serving Territorial Army officer. In considering the defence review, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the important role of reservists in recent military conflict, and the potentially more important role that they might play in future conflicts? (14550)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. [Hon. Members: “Gallant.”] Indeed; my hon. and gallant Friend, if hon. Members like, because he certainly is. I pay tribute to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), as they have both served in operational theatres, gaining invaluable experience, which they bring to the House to provide knowledge for those debates from which it may conceivably be lacking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), and to the reservists. He is absolutely right: historically, for instance in both the first and second world wars, it was the Territorial Army, the yeomanry and so on who made up the bulk of our forces who defeated our enemies.

As well as being a world leader in weather forecasting, the Met Office is playing an increasingly important role in accurately monitoring climate change. What discussions has the Secretary of State had regarding its privatisation?

I have not been involved in any specific discussions so far, but we will certainly look at all the assets owned by the Ministry of Defence to determine whether they offer value for money or whether, in the current fiscal climate, we need to be able to realise the value of some of our assets.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating cadet forces in the year in which they celebrate 150 years of activity in the UK? What assurances can he offer the combined cadet forces so that they can play their part in the big society following the strategic defence review? (14551)

Well, they keep digging. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the role of the cadets, who play an important part as a bridge between society as a whole and the armed forces. They are greatly to be encouraged, and we are looking at ways in which we can make them more effective as part of the SDSR.

When the Secretary of State was in opposition, he repeatedly and convincingly made the case that delays to projects ended up costing the UK taxpayer more and put at risk our prized skills base. Will he rule out any such delay in the Trident successor programme or anything else in the strategic defence review?

I would love to be able to give just such an assurance, but as I pointed out earlier, with a defence budget of £35 billion or so a year, we inherited an overspent equipment programme of £38 billion. The Opposition may not regard that as a priority, but dealing with it is a priority for the coalition Government if we are to put our armed forces and our defence industry on a sound, stable and predictable footing for the future.