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Topical Questions

Volume 518: debated on Monday 8 November 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.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable concern expressed by a number of commentators about the capability that will be lost to the Royal Air Force with the cancellation of the Nimrod MRA4 programme. Will he tell the House what steps will be taken to ensure that that loss of capability does not adversely affect our national security?

I must honestly say to the House that this was one of the most difficult decisions we were forced to take as a result of the mess in the national finances and the grossly overheated MOD budget that we inherited. Since the withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 in March, the Ministry of Defence has mitigated the gap in capability through the use of other military assets, including Type 23 frigates, Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters and Hercules C-130 aircraft, and by relying, where appropriate, on assistance from allies and partners. That was originally assumed to be a short-term measure. We are now developing a longer-term plan to mitigate the impact of cancellation on our continuing military tasks and capabilities.

Regardless of what side of the House we are on, we are all very concerned about this weekend’s reports of the smuggling of highly enriched uranium in Georgia and other parts of the Soviet Union—[Interruption.] I mean the former Soviet Union. We know there is sometimes only one step between organised criminals and global terrorists. In the light of those reports, can the Secretary of State guarantee that any UK-funded projects to combat the proliferation of, or trade in, chemical, biological and nuclear material will have their funding protected through this spending review period?

I could not be in greater agreement with the right hon. Gentleman. It is easy to forget that there has been a great deal of nuclear material out there. Not only does that still pose a threat to global security, but the development of new nuclear weapons by countries such as North Korea and, soon, Iran, which is attempting a programme, presents us with a massive threat. It is essential that programmes that give this country protection are themselves protected.

T3. The Government are right to focus on the cyber-threat facing our nation. Fortunately, in Britain, we have many home-grown technology companies, including in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that, in the interests of our national security and our national economy, we should prioritise the use of these domestic companies to the fullest extent? (22188)

I am delighted to agree with my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour. The strategic defence and security review identified cyber-risks as one of the four tier 1 risks to national security, pledged additional funding for investment in this area of capability and said that partnership with industry will be key to ensuring value for money. It is also a theme that we are exploring in the Green Paper on defence industry and technology policy, which has been extended to include security, and I would be delighted to visit the companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Bromsgrove at some stage in the future, if he would find that helpful.

T2. More than two thirds of defence experts think that the defence review was a lost opportunity. Does that not prove that the review lacks strategy and was rushed to fit the needs of the spending review, rather than the needs of the armed forces? (22187)

The defence review was carried out after the National Security Council decided upon an adaptive posture. However, we inherited budgetary constraints that we would rather not have had, and had the Labour party not left us with a toxic economic legacy as well as an overspent MOD budget, we might take some lessons from Labour Members.

T6. In the light of the forthcoming NATO summit in Lisbon, can my right hon. Friend update the House on what proposals we will be putting forward to ensure that NATO is modern and fit for purpose? (22191)

As my hon. Friend would expect, given that the United Kingdom is being rigorous in making every penny count in our own defence budget, we will ensure that NATO’s coat is cut according to its cloth, and we are expecting it to do that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been at the forefront of the campaign to reduce the number of people in NATO to about 9,000, and we hope very much that we can reduce the number of joint force command headquarters from nine to two, thereby saving money and making NATO more efficient.

T4. This morning, I dedicated a bench in a park to Trooper Ashley Smith of the Royal Dragoon Guards, who died in Afghanistan in June. He was a brave and selfless young man, and a good soldier, and I know that the Secretary of State and his Ministers will join me in offering their condolences to his family. I would like to pass on two things that his family said to me this morning: first, despite their grief, they think about the soldiers still in Afghanistan and want to ensure that they get all the equipment they need, and secondly they support the Government in their strategy to create conditions so that, within the life of this Parliament, our troops can be brought home. (22189)

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the points that he has made, and I am glad to echo the tribute to Trooper Ashley Smith. I am also grateful for the sentiments expressed by his family.

As the whole country heads towards Remembrance Sunday, this is an opportunity to remember that it is not just the sacrifices of the past that we are commemorating, but the sacrifices being made today. It is essential not only that this country supports our troops, but that we support their mission, because that is what they are asking us to do. It is important for the morale of those serving that we do so, but it is also important for the peace of mind of the families who have lost loved ones to know that their sacrifices were not in vain.

T7. I would like to thank the Secretary of State for including a UCAV programme—a programme for unmanned combat aerial vehicles—in the SDSR, which is important for jobs in my constituency. Will he say when he will be in a position to give the House more details on the UCAV programme? (22192)

There are two aspects to this. First, there is the future of the fixed-wing sector strategy, which we will be consulting on as part of the Green Paper and White Paper process. There is also the question of UK-French collaboration on unmanned combat aerial systems of the kind that my hon. Friend talks about. The declaration that accompanied the Anglo-French summit last week made it clear that we would establish a joint assessment of

“requirements and options for the next generation,”

which are expected from about 2030 onwards.

T5. Could the Secretary of State share with us his assessment of the impact of service personnel reductions on the UK’s military capability? (22190)

We have specifically tasked the armed forces with ensuring that the reductions in military numbers that we have required of them, as a result of the defence review and the budgetary pressures on us, do not impact on Britain’s military capabilities.

T8. As we approach Armistice day and pay tribute to all those who gave their lives for this country, let me say that I will be attending the opening of the redeveloped Chiswick memorial homes. What message can I give our veterans about what this Government will do for them? (22193)

It is indeed Armistice day on Thursday, and the plethora of poppies around this Chamber are not just for window-dressing, but show that people in this Chamber care about Armistice day and the sacrifice that past generations have made. The message that I would give to veterans is that we will certainly look after our ex-service personnel as best we can. We are pledged to reinvigorate the military covenant, and if my hon. Friend watches this space, as it were, she will see that happening pretty soon. Finally, I understand that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) will be attending the event in Chiswick, and I hope that it goes extremely well.

As I indicated to the House earlier, we are currently looking at the full implications of bringing the Army back from Germany. There will undoubtedly be some up-front costs, depending on the pace of those forces coming back, but there will be considerable savings, to be set out over the longer period. We will set those out when we conclude the basing review in six months.

T9. I thought that the Minister’s response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) was lacking in political direction and conviction. Bearing in mind that Her Majesty the Queen, as the Head of State of both Australia and New Zealand, has graciously authorised the award of a national defence medal, can we not have that in the United Kingdom for those who have served? (22194)

We are certainly never lacking in direction. What I would say is that when the Queen is dealing with matters in New Zealand and Australia, she is the Queen of New Zealand and Australia, and that does not necessarily mean that we will follow exactly what happens in New Zealand and Australia. We are reviewing matters, but as I said before, campaign medals are awarded for the deprivations of campaigns and the extra need to recognise people for their hard work on campaigns. That is not to denigrate service in barracks, but it is a very different thing, if I might say so.

The Secretary of State has talked about the difficult decisions that he has to make on cutting civilian and military jobs in his Department. In that light, can he give an assurance to the House that he has no intention of employing a photographer, stylist or personal film-maker?

T10. Aid agencies in Afghanistan have expressed concern that offering cash rewards in exchange for information puts Afghans, their families and their communities at risk from anti-Government groups. Can the Minister assure me that this practice is not being followed by British commanders? (22195)

In operations in the environment of Afghanistan, our forces must of course work in co-operation with both Afghan authorities and local people to obtain information that is essential to the security of our personnel and others working in the international security assistance force. I am aware that any form of co-operation with ISAF may put people in danger of reprisals, but clearly we rely heavily on such information.

During the second world war, many thousands of young women were conscripted into service in royal ordnance factories. There were 45 throughout the United Kingdom, and many in Scotland, the north-east of England and Wales. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a small delegation of MPs to discuss appropriate recognition of those young women, many of whom lost their lives or suffered grievous injuries when filling explosives?

I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the ministerial team will undertake such a meeting. His point is important. In any conflict in which this country finds itself, it is not only those in the military who make sacrifices, but often those in the civilian population. In Afghanistan today, we are seeing probably the highest level of civilian support for the military that we have ever seen in any conflict. I pay tribute to all those civilians who add to the national security of this country, and to their sacrifices in its name.

I have the privilege of representing RAF Honington, which is home to the RAF Regiment, and Wattisham, which is home to the Army Air Corps. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that more mental health provision is directed to areas of this country where the highest proportion of servicemen and women and their families live?

As part of the comprehensive spending review, we had a financial deal with the NHS to transfer NHS funding to the MOD for precisely that reason. As I told the House earlier, one of the ways that we must measure how civilised and decent a society we are is how we deal with those with mental illness, whether in the armed forces or outside. As a society, we have a lot to do to remove some of the taboos surrounding that, but if we can make a start in the armed forces, that would be great. Indeed, were we to get to the end of this Parliament and those in the NHS were crying out for the same quality of mental health care as those in the armed forces, that would indeed be a triumph.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment has been made of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review on companies and organisations that are dependent on MOD contracts? I am thinking of Remploy, but I need not go into the history of its origins. A Remploy factory in my constituency depends almost entirely on MOD contracts, and its employees have made representations to me. What assurances can he give my constituents?

I am extremely aware of the dependence of a large part of the economy on the MOD’s budget. Precisely because we are so aware of that, we will produce a consultation document in the near future, which will look at the supply chain as it relates to the MOD and its budget. The Government’s aim is that small and medium-sized enterprises are given every opportunity to help us to shape the regulatory framework and the skills base required so that we can ensure that they are given every possible help to remain in business.

From 13 December Camelot intends to change its rules, which will prevent many members of our armed forces who are serving overseas from playing the national lottery. It is a simple pleasure, and as they remain UK taxpayers, will the Secretary of State look into the matter and attempt to persuade Camelot to change its mind?

This is news to us. I assure my hon. and gallant Friend that I will certainly look into it and let him have a proper answer when I have done so.

The Secretary of State will be in Oslo this week for meetings with Nordic Defence Ministers. How will he convince them that he is serious when he has just scrapped the UK’s maritime reconnaissance fleet, is thinking of moving the joint combat aircraft away from the north of Scotland, and is considering closing both airbases closest to Norway?

I shall point out our commitment to the submarine programme and to the aircraft carrier programme, and explain how we intend to ensure that across the range of capabilities the United Kingdom is a sound and secure NATO partner. The purpose of the meeting in Norway is to ensure that we deepen our bilateral relationship with Norway, that we create a NATO entity that Finland and Sweden feel a little more comfortable with, that we give further security to article 5 in the Baltic states by being a nuclear power as part of that grouping, and that as a NATO grouping we are better able to deal with regional disputes with Russia.

The Secretary of State acknowledges that civilian redundancies might impact on personnel in Corsham in my constituency. Given their deep expertise in defence communications technology, will he consider opportunities for their redeployment as part of the Government’s programme for cyber-security?

We are indeed looking at all opportunities to improve our arrangements for cyber-security. We have for the first time created a cross-departmental cyber-budget, for example. We will be looking inside the Ministry of Defence to see how we can better prepare ourselves not for the threats of the future but for the threats that we already face, given the level of cyber-attacks already occurring in this country and in those of our allies.