Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 515: debated on Monday 13 September 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.

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.