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Topical Questions

Volume 522: debated on Monday 31 January 2011

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 armed forces covenant.

In terms of the Department’s major projects, how much does the Minister think it can save through contract renegotiation, as announced in the SDSR?

There can be some savings on contract renegotiation, and they are currently being discussed, but in the very near future I shall set out a new set of rules for the management of financial projects, which I hope will ensure that we get real-terms control over budgets. Far too often, we have been looking at post-mortems by the National Audit Office, and in my previous profession I did not regard post-mortems as a satisfactory outcome.

T2. As my right hon. Friend seeks to build the armed forces covenant, will he pay close attention to the Strachan report and, in particular, those recommendations to offer enhanced accommodation allowances, expand the pilot shared equity scheme and encourage banks to offer forces-friendly mortgages, so that members of our armed services get a firmer foot on the property ladder? (36760)

It was, indeed, a valuable set of recommendations, and we are going through them one at a time at the moment. I am instinctively very much in favour of all the elements that my hon. Friend sets out, and in the very near future we shall in fact produce some further projects, which I hope will provide considerable enhancements to some elements of the covenant not previously covered—and at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

The Secretary of State wrote to the Prime Minister on 27 September saying that scrapping Nimrod would

“limit our ability to deploy maritime forces rapidly…increase the risk to the Deterrent, compromise maritime counter terrorism, remove long range search and rescue, and delete one element of our Falklands reinforcement plan.”

Given the sight of Nimrod being broken up last week at Woodford, can he tell the House whether that decision was taken for defence reasons or because he lost his battle with the Prime Minister?

Here is the extent of the humbug. The previous Government, in March 2010, actually took the Nimrod MR2 out of service, so there was already a capability gap by the time this Government came to office. First, we looked at the strategic environment, and the service chiefs and the intelligence services advised us that the gap that would be left could be managed with the assets that were already being used to fill the gap that the previous Government left when the MR2 was withdrawn. Secondly, the financial project itself was too long over time, and too far over budget—it was not able to fly and carry out the tasks that were asked of it. It should have been cancelled years ago. This Government had the nerve to do it; the previous Government did not.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend explain the steps that he is taking to ensure that in future the defence budget is put on a sustainable footing, so that future incoming Governments do not have to cancel capabilities such as the Nimrod MRA4 because of the reckless spending of their predecessors? (36761)

None of us wanted to see reductions in the defence budget for their own sake. What the House and the country need to understand is that the size of our national deficit is a national security problem. Next year, this country will be paying £46 billion in debt interest against a defence budget of only £37 billion. Even if the current Government eliminate the deficit within five years, that debt interest will rise. That is money being paid for nothing because the last Government were unable to contain their urge to spend, spend, spend.

T4. Can the House be assured that the pace of submarine production at the Barrow shipyard is sufficient to retain the skills that will deliver an independent, British-made successor to the Vanguard submarine? (36762)

Yes. In the SDSR, we are committed to the seventh Astute submarine, partly to ensure that the skills base was there as we went through to the successor programme. We regard the ability to build and maintain our nuclear deterrent successor programme as part of our sovereign capability.

T6. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that British small businesses get a greater share of defence contracts, in terms not only of volume, but of value? (36764)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that very important plank of our policy towards the defence industries. At present, we are consulting through the Green Paper and I urge him to respond to that consultation. There are 18 separate questions on what we can do to improve the relationship between small and medium-sized enterprises and the MOD.

I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the outstanding work of the Centre for Defence Enterprise, which is bringing innovative SMEs into the defence market for the very first time, and is very much welcomed by those SMEs.

T5. The Big Lottery Fund has recently extended the deadline for the excellent Heroes Return 2 scheme, administered from Newcastle, that provides funding to help veterans and their families take part in commemorative visits, either in the UK or abroad. Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have been encouraging my constituents to take advantage of the scheme. Will the Minister outline what support he and his colleagues are providing to encourage uptake of that funding? (36763)

We certainly support the scheme, which I understand is largely run by the Royal British Legion, although I do not have the details at my fingertips. It is an excellent scheme. We support the national lottery, the Royal British Legion and the whole programme.

T7. Given the Government’s desire to improve armed forces accommodation and obtain greater value for money for the taxpayer, does the Minister accept that useful lessons can be learned from the Canadian Government’s example of outsourcing the management of armed forces housing, a policy that produced savings and improvements to accommodation facilities? (36765)

My hon. Friend is right. We are looking at every option as to how we can make housing for our troops more efficient. We shall certainly look at what my hon. Friend has mentioned as well; if he wants to make a submission, he is very welcome so to do.

The Ministry of Defence is aware that Moray is the most defence-dependent community in the UK and uniquely faces the threat of a double RAF base closure. Does the Secretary of State understand the damage that the delayed basing announcement is having on the economy of the north of Scotland? Why is there a delay in the announcement in the first place, given that the RAF made its basing recommendation at the end of last year?

We have some evidence, but not the final submission, on that. Of course, we are also awaiting from the Army the elements of rebasing that may be part of the issue relating to the return of British troops from Germany.

I fully understand that many have an increased level of anxiety because of the time taken to make those decisions. But they are not single decisions; they are interrelated decisions. Although I do understand, I am afraid that we have to ensure that we make the right decision, not just a quick decision.

T8. Shortly after the formation of the coalition, Lord Levene and others were appointed to review defence procurement. Some of us hoped that that might mean a radical reform of protectionist procurement. What progress can the Minister report on Lord Levene’s review and any recommendations that may be forthcoming? (36767)

Before the general election, we set out four aims for procurement: that it would give our armed forces what they need when they need it, at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer; underpin our strategic relationships; give greater stability for planning; and increase exportability. Those are all still aims that we are hoping to achieve. The review is well under way. The Defence Reform Unit has considered a number of these issues. Together with the appointment of the new Chief of Defence Materiel, I can assure my hon. Friend that, if anything, we will be at the radical end of reform.

I know that Ministers touched on this issue earlier, but air-sea rescue is of enormous interest, not only to me but to the nation. I have attempted to get the answer to this question, so can he tell me whether the lead Department is the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Transport? When can we expect a statement in the House about this issue?

Both Departments are involved, but the lead Department is the Department for Transport, and any statement to the House will come from Transport Ministers. We hope that that will happen as soon as possible but, as I think the hon. Gentleman will understand, legal complexities are at play. The key thing is to decide how we are going to take forward search and rescue facilities, and I hope that the Department for Transport will be in a position to make a statement to the House very soon.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the importance of the contribution of smaller countries to our mission in Helmand province, and, in particular, the very gallant and disproportionate contribution made by Estonia and Denmark? (36768)

Few things give me greater pleasure in this House than to acknowledge the sacrifices made in Afghanistan by some of the smaller countries, two of the most important of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend. I hope to make a visit to Afghanistan with Defence Ministers from some of those countries. The whole House will want to place on record our solidarity not only with the families in Denmark and Estonia who have suffered loss, as have families in the United Kingdom, but with the outstanding military contribution that they have made, which is perhaps, in many ways, a good example to some of the sleeping giants in NATO.

The Government have pledged 12 new Chinooks, which are crucial for the UK defence industry capacity and for national security because of their role in Afghanistan. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have signed the contracts for these new helicopters? If not, can he explain what that means for the British defence industry, when he expects the contracts to be signed, and when these much-needed Chinooks will enter theatre?

I counted about four questions there, but the Minister is a specialist in pithy responses, and we will hear him.

I can confirm the answer to that question when the current planning round is settled, but I assure the hon. Lady that we understand the importance of these helicopters for the mission in Afghanistan.

A key player in the security situation in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which, in the war on terror, has seen more of its civilians and security and military personnel killed than any other country. Last week, I was part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation to Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the Government and people of Pakistan for their efforts to date and encourage them to maintain that level so that our forces in Afghanistan are supported?

What we are attempting to deliver in Afghanistan will not be possible without the support of the Government of Pakistan. Perhaps a good note for all of us to have would be one that reminds us to thank the Government of Pakistan when they do what is helpful to the mission rather than criticise them when the opposite is true. It is also of great importance that we in the United Kingdom, and our allies, make it clear that we have a post-Afghanistan strategy for Pakistan and that we intend to have a long-term programme of help and encouragement.

The Health Protection Agency has said that servicemen present during atomic bomb tests more than 50 years ago have since been plagued with cancers and rare medical conditions. Did the Minister see reports in the media yesterday that the MOD has ignored urgent calls for research into the health of nuclear test veterans, and will he agree to have the DNA of test veterans studied as a matter of urgency?

There have been many studies into the health of those who witnessed the explosions on Christmas Island, and they have concluded that those who witnessed the explosions have not suffered greater health problems than others. I stand by the clinical and legal position on that, as did the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman would presumably like to say he supports.

Has the Secretary of State assessed the state of rehabilitation services for members of the armed forces who have received trauma care, and who are living with complex, life-changing injuries? Will he accept representations from me on behalf of a constituent?

I would be happy to accept representations. The trauma care given by the medical services in the armed forces is excellent. There is a 25% chance of survival, whereas there is only a 6% chance of survival in the national health service. The Secretary of State for Health and I went to Birmingham 10 days ago for the opening of the new Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology research centre at the Queen Elizabeth hospital. That is an excellent facility that leads the way in trauma care in this country.

Given that the Department is currently holding a consultation on how to decommission nuclear submarines, will the Secretary of State give my constituents a cast-iron guarantee that not a single bolt will be taken out of those submarines until a waste route has been identified and, crucially, established?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance on the dismantling of nuclear submarines. That is not only the MOD view and Government policy, but a regulatory requirement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that avoiding nuclear arms proliferation, wherever it comes from, is a key objective of his Department? Will he update the House on what he is doing to pursue that objective?

As I mentioned earlier, the House will be aware that there is one great threat to global non-proliferation: the ambitions of Iran. There is no more important policy for long-term security and for the maintenance of the non-proliferation treaty than ensuring that Iran, although it may have access to civil nuclear capabilities, does not become a nuclear weapons state. I do not think that I could have ended on a clearer note.

Why, when the Prime Minister said there would be no cuts in infantry capability while we were on a combat mission in Afghanistan, is the strength of the Royal Marines being cut?

There is a very small headcount reduction in the Royal Marines—the right hon. Gentleman is quite right. However, those units were not going to be deployed to Afghanistan and, in consequence, this will not undermine the effort in that country.

(Leeds North West) (LD): The city of Leeds has very close connections with HMS Ark Royal, following the remarkable fundraising campaign by local people and the adoption of the ship in 1941. On 12 February, the crew of HMS Ark Royal will be given the freedom of the city of Leeds and will take part in a parade. Will the Secretary of State join me in saying what a wonderful event that will be? Does he agree that there should be a permanent commemoration of this link?

This is a commendable link. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the city of Leeds. Whenever there is an example of civic life recognising the sacrifices of our armed forces, both are enriched.