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Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Monday 4 July 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 our armed forces covenant.

Has the Secretary of State considered the effects of off-the-shelf procurement on UK jobs, UK tax revenue, and the future capability of UK manufacturing?

As has already been said, a lot of what is on the international shelves is made in Britain, but the Ministry of Defence’s primary purpose is to ensure that our armed forces have the right equipment when they need it at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.

The creation of the office of the chief coroner would make a significant difference to the families of fallen service people as they go through the very difficult inquest process. The Royal British Legion believes this is a matter of priority, not of cost. When will the Secretary of State stop passing the buck to his colleagues in the Justice Department and make this one of his priorities?

As you will understand, Mr Speaker, this is not a question of passing the buck: the Ministry of Justice is responsible for the coroners department. This has been the subject of much consultation, and the MOJ must answer on it. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) asks what it is doing: it is ensuring that coroners are better trained, as training was the problem beforehand.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree with me and the British Veterans National Defence Medal Campaign that the recent MOD medal review was wrong to suggest that there is little appetite or desire in this country to recognise our brave service veterans with a UK national defence medal? (63158)

I would not agree with my hon. Friend on that. What I would say is that groups such as the British Veterans National Defence Medal Campaign are being consulted on the medal review. What that campaign proposes would mean that some 4.5 million to 5 million people would qualify for a national defence medal, and we have to take into account all representations before determining whether that is the right thing to do.

T3. On 24 June, The Daily Telegraph reported that a £10 billion black hole in the defence budget will lead to cuts having to be increased beyond the current 8%. Can the Secretary of State confirm or deny that report? (63159)

I am delighted that the Labour party now studies The Daily Telegraph in great detail, as it may be able to learn something from that side of the press. There is no doubt that the size of the budget deficit we inherited—about £38 billion of unfunded liability, on the assumption of flat real growth between now and 2020—had to be tackled. We have taken a huge amount out of that already and we will work, not only through this strategic defence and security review, but into the next one, to ensure that as we progress towards the end of the decade we eliminate that horrific inheritance from the Labour party.

T4. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that enough British-trained RAF pilots are operating in Libya, especially at the moment? If there are not, will he ensure that even more pilots will be trained by RAF Linton-on-Ouse, in my constituency? Will he also assure the House that that base will remain one of the top training bases for the RAF for years to come? (63160)

Not only can I give the assurance that we have sufficient British pilots and sufficient British assets in Libya, but I can tell the House that as we go ahead with the greater devolution of powers to the single service chiefs it will be up to them to determine, and make it clear to me, that they have proper training mechanisms in place to ensure that that position remains.

T8. Given the widespread opposition in west Fife to becoming a nuclear submarine graveyard, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence will be using the same principles for identifying the long-term waste store as are used by the civil industry? Will he specifically confirm that the store has regulatory support, makes financial sense and has community buy-in? (63164)

The hon. Gentleman will understand that two sites have been identified as potential candidates for submarine dismantling—Devonport royal dockyard and Rosyth royal dockyard. I can give him the assurance he seeks: we will be following a similar approach to that of the civil nuclear sector and we will take account of a wide range of factors. I do not have time to enumerate those in this answer, but I would be happy to talk to him in detail later, if that would be of help to him. I can particularly reassure him on the subject of consultation, because we recognise the keen local interest in this subject and are keen to ensure that local people have the opportunity to express their views. We will work with all the local authorities and the devolved Administration in Scotland before and during public consultation.

T5. My constituency is home to a large number of reserve armed forces members, who welcome the review of their role. May I ask the Secretary of State whether that review will recognise their capacity, capabilities and willingness to integrate with the regular armed forces? (63161)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the excellent work done by our reserve forces. I have been thoroughly impressed with the commitment and skill that they have shown when I have met them, including in Afghanistan. As he knows, a review is being led by the Vice-Chief of the Defence staff and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), and their report is in the process of being finalised. I expect them to deliver that report shortly and it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.

T6. Like many in the House, I welcome the recent removal of arms export licences to Bahrain. However, given the earlier answer by the Minister for the Armed Forces, may I ask Ministers how many times they have raised concerns about arms export licences to Saudi Arabia with their colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? (63162)

On Bahrain, I can tell my hon. Friend that a cross-Whitehall review of export licences to that country was held on 18 February, and licences for equipment that could be used for internal repression were revoked—to date, 23 single licences have been revoked and 16 open licences have had Bahrain removed from them. On Saudi Arabia, I can tell him that, like all other countries, we subject all defence exports to a rigorous review against the criteria set by this country and elsewhere.

On 28 April, I received an answer from the Minister to a request for a breakdown of outsourced transport costs from the Bicester logistics centre. The response was that £4 million had been saved and that the amount spent by Bicester on private couriers between 2008 and 2010 was zero. In my office, I have copies of literally thousands of transport documents that show that the answer is millions of pounds. The answer I was given therefore could not be further from the truth. Will the Minister provide urgent clarification on this very important matter?

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern, based on what he has told me, and would be delighted to meet him to discuss the matter in more detail. He has brought a very serious matter to the attention of the House and I look forward to meeting him to discuss it further.

T7. Following recent debates about the restructuring of NATO, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the future of Northwood as a key NATO command headquarters is secure? (63163)

In the recent discussions at NATO ministerial, the maritime headquarters for NATO were going to be in Lisbon, Naples or Northwood. First, Northwood is an effective and efficient place from which to carry out that command and, secondly, the UK Government do not believe that it is acceptable to see another northern European command move to the south of Europe at a time when many northern European forces are carrying more than their fair share of operations in Libya or Afghanistan.

I was pleased to be at Staveley Armed Forces day on Saturday, where I met a soldier who had recently returned from his third tour of duty in Afghanistan. He expressed his fear that political expediency would outweigh the military concerns about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and, specifically, about the impact that was having on their efforts to train up Afghan nationals. His fear was that those nationals would return to the Taliban if they felt that Britain had withdrawn from Afghanistan prematurely. Does the Minister share that fear?

I think the key element is the confidence we can give the people of Afghanistan that the international community’s relationship with that country will not end when our combat forces leave at the end of 2014. As we have trained up the Afghan national security force to have greater capability, there is now greater emphasis both on the political space and on redevelopment and reconstruction, rather than on the purely military arguments.

T9. What plans do the Government have to mark the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, which ended a quarter of a century of conflict in Europe and packed Napoleon off to St Helena? (63165)

My hon. Friend may know that I spent some 15 years in the Coldstream Guards and he will know—he has historical knowledge—that the Coldstream Guards shut the gates of the chateau, or the farm, of Hougoumont. Wellington said that the battle would have been lost had that not happened. Our relationship with France has changed a little since the Napoleonic wars, and this is now an historical matter. I understand that our colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have set up a Waterloo 200 committee to discuss the commemoration, but it will certainly be commemorated by the Coldstream Guards, among others.

May I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), for agreeing to meet me yesterday to discuss the potential implications of the SDSR on organisations that depend almost entirely on Ministry of Defence contracts for their survival? I was perhaps a tad parochial at that meeting in stating the case for the Remploy factory in my constituency. Is the Minister in a position to give any assurances and an update to the people employed at Remploy in Dundee West and to me?

I am afraid I cannot go beyond what I said at the meeting with the hon. Gentleman, which I greatly enjoyed. I look to him to carry on making the case for an important facility and factory that does excellent work for the people it serves and who work for it.

T10. Like the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), I had the honour of joining Armed Forces day celebrations and, in my case, they were at Bulkington in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this annual event not only raises public awareness of the contribution made to our country by those who serve and have served in the armed forces but gives the opportunity for the entire country to show its support for all the men who make up that community? [Interruption.] And women. (63166)

Men and women. I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point that will resonate throughout the country. Armed Forces day gives us all a chance to be aware of what the armed forces do and gives the public the chance to thank them. I visited the Armed Forces day celebrations in Edinburgh, which were magnificent. The city put on a great display and I look forward to seeing what Plymouth is capable of doing next year.

The Secretary of State may be aware of the excellent research carried out by Professor Al Rowland into the exposure of our atomic test veterans. Since conducting that research, Professor Rowland has been honoured by the Queen. The UK Government are now the only Government refusing to accept their responsibilities for Christmas island, so will the Secretary of State now agree to do so?

I do not entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and I happen to know that neither do those on his party’s Front Bench. What happens in New Zealand is, of course, up to the people of New Zealand. However, I note from the article in The Times today, which he might have read, that Neil Sampson of Rosenblatt says that he wants a compensation fund worth £30 million to be set up. It should be asked of Rosenblatt—perhaps the hon. Gentleman himself might wish to ask this question—how much its fees are, because I understand that they would take up more than half that compensation fund, and would—I think everybody in the House would agree—therefore probably be a little large.

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that RAF Leuchars in my constituency continues to fulfil its responsibilities for the air defence of the northern half of the United Kingdom with the professionalism and commitment that we have come to expect. Has he assessed the extent of the effect on the ability of Leuchars—or, indeed, of any other air base in Scotland—to operate if Scotland was not under the umbrella of NATO?

I had a chance to visit Leuchars recently to thank those who carry out those duties on our behalf. My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. Those in the Scottish National party in the Scottish Government who pretend that they can enjoy both the security of the Crown forces and the luxury of talking about leaving NATO leave a lot to be desired intellectually.