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Topical Questions

Volume 528: debated on Monday 16 May 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.

Following the First Sea Lord’s comments that he wished he could revisit the Government’s position on the Ark Royal and the Harrier jets, and that if the UK had an aircraft carrier it would be deployed in Libya, will the Minister consider reversing the decision on the Ark Royal and explore ways of closing the carrier strike-capability gap?

What is important in Libya is the fact that we are able to project our air power in an effective and timely manner, and we are able to do that because we have no problems with basing or with over-flight, which is exactly the analysis that we made in the strategic defence and security review.

T3. I welcome the historic decision to enshrine the armed forces covenant in law, but what else is being done to ensure that ex-service personnel are not discriminated against, especially when they set up a home? (55396)

My hon. Friend is quite right, and as I said just now we had a meeting at DCLG just a couple of hours ago. We are determined that armed forces personnel, be they serving or just leaving the services, which is often when they want to buy a house, are not discriminated against by mortgage providers or, indeed, by credit reference agencies.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that legislation that protects reservists’ employment is red tape, or does he agree with me that scrapping it would jeopardise recruitment and morale? Will he therefore guarantee to protect it? (55395)

I am very grateful to be able to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House personally, and I look forward to the expertise that he will bring to Defence questions. He will be aware that we are undertaking a very detailed review of reservists, not just the number and structure of the reserves, but the framework within which they operate, including for example the issues relating to employment, so that this country can make proper use of our reserves and maximise the benefit that they can bring to the armed forces, as happens already in many other countries.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend share my recognition of the critical importance of defence diplomacy to UK interests around the world? Will he update the House on what progress he has made on making amends for the decade of Labour neglect in this area? (55398)

I can assure my hon. Friend that since taking office we have set a new and vigorous pace to make up for the deficiencies of the previous Labour Administration. As my 1924 map of the British empire should remind everybody, the United Kingdom enjoys extensive historical ties with a large number of countries, giving us an unrivalled position. It is our policy to build on that strength through defence diplomacy, and we are doing so.

T4. The original White Paper for the Trident replacement programme estimated a figure of £11 billion to £14 billion in 2006 prices, but in a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), the Minister stated that “the combined cost of the Concept Phase, totalling approximately £900 million, and the Assessment Phase, totalling approximately £3 billion at outturn prices is consistent with the departmental guidance that programmes should spend approximately 15% of the total costs before Main Gate.”It appears that this would put the cost of the whole programme at £26 billion. Will he confirm that that is an accurate projection? (55397)

As I previously explained in an Adjournment debate, all the costs that we are using are entirely consistent with the original projections. I will be delighted to spend some time with the hon. Lady explaining to her in detail exactly why that is the case.

T6. I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me regarding the restructuring of the provision of elementary flying training at RAF Church Fenton. What plans does the MOD have for the future of Church Fenton? (55399)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that in order to rebalance flying training in the light of the new requirements, there will be no further intake of elementary flying training students at RAF Church Fenton. That is because the requirement is reduced from 155 to 105 pilots a year, and the last course, which is currently under way, completes in August. I understand that that will create considerable concerns for local people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. No decisions have yet been taken about the future of RAF Church Fenton, although the Yorkshire university air squadron, which incorporates No. 9 Air Experience Flight, will continue to use the station, and it will continue to act as a relief landing ground for RAF Linton-on-Ouse.

T8. Post the very welcome announcement on the future base porting of the Type 23 frigates, will the Minister—I am sure he will forgive me for not letting the paint dry on this one—tell us at what stage are the strategic discussions about the future of the Type 26? (55401)

I was very pleased to confirm, on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), that the seven Type 23s are to remain based at Plymouth. The Type 26 global combat ship is in the assessment phase at the moment, and we are working extremely hard to see whether we can build it in partnership with other nations. I cannot go into too much detail at the moment, because much of it is commercially sensitive, but I can assure the hon. Lady that as part of our defence diplomacy initiative, it appears to be going rather well.

T9. So often the House focuses on our armed forces in theatre and in conflict, but is it not also important that we celebrate our armed forces at home? I hope that the House will forgive me if I celebrate in particular the work of the armed forces recently at the royal wedding, where they were so brilliantly turned out. (55402)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. After the service that so many have given on the front line, including in Afghanistan—some of those involved that day were involved on the front line in Afghanistan—it was very good, with the eyes of the world looking at us, that the contribution of the armed forces was able to be celebrated in that way and that they gave such a good account of themselves with everybody watching.

T10. Has the Department reflected on the concerns of the Royal British Legion and the other place over the post of chief coroner? If so, what representations has it made to other Departments about the necessity of keeping the post? (55403)

I share the concerns of the Royal British Legion and the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of this issue. I am having ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Justice to determine the best way to ensure that the skills required in this specialist area are available, that access is improved and that the distances that families have to travel to attend are minimised.

Further to oral Question 16, does the Minister understand that soldiers who have returned recently from Afghanistan are living in family accommodation that is not up to the right standards, while across the road, former Army houses have been modernised at a cost of millions of pounds of public money? If the Government can find money for that side of the road, why can they not find it for our soldiers’ families?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I have driven along that particular road and seen the situation. [Interruption.] I hear somebody shouting from a sedentary position, “It’s your Government!” Actually, the houses were built under the last Government, and the houses that have not been done up were not done up under the last Government. We are trying.

What assessment have the Government made of the proposition put forward at the weekend by the Scottish National party, that in an independent Scotland, armed forces bases could be shared?

It is tempting to make light of the nonsensical ideas that tend to come from the Scottish National party, but now that it is in such a strong political position in Scotland, we have to take these issues more seriously. It is extremely worrying that the SNP has previously had a posture that is anti-NATO and anti the nuclear defence of this country. It is time to engage in a serious debate on issues that ought to worry all those who believe in the United Kingdom, and in sound defence for the United Kingdom.

In a television debate on the BBC on 6 April, the Minister for the Armed Forces asserted that this country did not have the capability to fly Harriers off aircraft carriers even before the defence review, and that we had not flown them off aircraft carriers since 2003. The truth is that they flew off Ark Royal as late as November 2010 in difficult sea conditions. I am sure that he did not intend to mislead the British public. Will he put the record straight now?

I am happy to correct what I said in that TV interview. I had thought that from the context it was clear that I was talking about flying in combat operations. The 2003 date was the last time that we had flown Harriers off carriers in combat operations. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Harriers continued literally to fly off carriers after that. Indeed, the nation watched the valedictory flights off Ark Royal back in December, as he said. I apologise for any confusion that my remarks may have caused.

Will the Minister give an assessment of the financial cost of the conflict in Libya so far? Does he recognise reports which state that if the conflict lasts six months, the cost could reach £1 billion?

I do not think it will get to that. This is necessarily a complex subject, and I cannot give a straightforward answer. There are costs that would be incurred anyhow by the armed forces operating in Libya. There are additional costs that are specific to the campaign. We would also have to establish the precise value of the assets deployed or used in the campaign. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the House will be informed in the usual way of the precise costs in the winter supplementary estimates.

Will Ministers update the House on the provision of mental health support for our service personnel, in particular those who have returned from theatre? As we know, such problems can take many years to emerge.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, because we take it very seriously. She will know of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) entitled “Fighting Fit”, which is extremely valuable. We are taking forward its proposals. For example, there is already a helpline for those who have concerns, and I have phoned it to check that it works. We continue to be concerned and are working with Combat Stress to ensure that people who have concerns or who may have mental health problems can raise those issues with the authorities. Along with Combat Stress, we will ensure that they have the best possible care.

May I tell the Secretary of State that his earlier answer on Libya will cause a great deal of anxiety? Is it now the policy of the British Government, despite the denials, to take Gaddafi out by one means or another and bring about regime change? Would that not be totally outside Security Council resolution 1973?

The policy of the Government is not regime change, which would be outside resolution 1973. It is Government policy, as it is NATO policy, to do everything possible to protect the civilian population, who would be considerably better off if Colonel Gaddafi and his regime were not there.

When we were in opposition, we were critical of the former Government for not having enough helicopters. In the SDSR it was confirmed that we needed helicopters and planned to purchase them. Can the Minister confirm that the 14 Chinooks will now be ordered?

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that the position in relation to the Chinooks is exactly as was set out in the SDSR. Indeed, I will be visiting the Boeing production site very shortly to see the production line for myself.

Given today’s reports in The Times, and following Ministers’ responses earlier this afternoon, it appears that the Secretary of State has some stark choices. He can restrict the capacity for British military capability and influence by cutting personnel and equipment still further, or he can secure a better deal from the Treasury. Which option does he prefer?

It was always clear to those who followed these matters that following the SDSR, there were a number of very important second-order issues to address, such as the basing review, the reserves review and the changes made under the defence reform unit. It is also essential that we put the armed forces’ finances on a firm footing for the years beyond the current spending settlement, which runs from 2014-15 to 2020. That is the exercise upon which we are currently embarked, because we are determined that we will not get the defence budget into the shambles that it was in when we inherited it from Labour.

Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to welcome the news that India has just put the European Typhoon, made by BAE Systems, on a shortlist of just two for the hugely valuable multi-role combat aircraft tender, one of the biggest defence orders on the horizon anywhere in the world?

The simple answer is yes. That is an extremely successful outcome, and we are delighted with it. A lot of effort has been expended by the four partner nations. I was at the Bangalore air show myself in February pursuing the cause, and I am delighted by the outcome. We must now pursue the campaign to a successful conclusion.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the future servicing and storage of complex weapons systems? In particular, what assurances can he give about the future of Defence Munitions Beith, in Scotland, which stores such systems?

I cannot give the hon. Lady a precise answer about what discussions have taken place lately on that subject. If she will forgive me, I will write to her with the details.

Have Ministers had a chance to consider the imaginative scheme to retain HMS Ark Royal for the nation as a heliport facility in conjunction with the Homes for Heroes project, bearing in mind that this year is the centenary of the first naval aviators being taught to fly and bearing in mind the importance of keeping aircraft carriers in the forefront of our minds until they resume their rightful place in this country’s armoury?

I doubt whether my hon. Friend, or many other Members, would believe some of the suggestions that we have had for the future use of Ark Royal. Its use as a helipad is one of them, and although I find it particularly attractive in some ways, I am not sure whether the residents where it might be placed would think exactly the same. Its use is subject to a range of issues, not least planning considerations but also a range of financial ones. As ever, however, he makes a welcome and creative contribution to the debate.

It has been essential to ensure that all the issues involved are agreed on, including, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware from his constituency interest, those to do with the safety of nuclear propulsion. I will make a statement to the House in the very near future.

Order. I appeal to anybody leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly, because we await with interest and anticipation the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence.