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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 2011


The Secretary of State was asked—

Security Relationships (South Asia)

First, I am sure the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jonathan McKinlay of 1st Battalion the Rifles and Marine David Fairbrother of Kilo Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed in Afghanistan on 14 and 19 September respectively. Our thoughts, as ever, are with their families and friends, for whom this will be an immense personal tragedy.

The south Asia region is one of the United Kingdom’s highest engagement priorities, and the Ministry of Defence enjoys strong historic relationships with most countries in the region. We have developed a broad range of positive initiatives to enhance co-operation between Ministers, senior officials and military officers, and continue to work to broaden and deepen those links in support of the Government's strategic objectives.

I join the Secretary of State in his tribute to the dead. May I also tell him that he has our full support, not least in deepening our security ties with south Asia? Will he use this opportunity to explain to the House his involvement in Sri Lanka?

I shall be delighted to do that, especially in front of so many Members with a new interest in defence.

In 1996, when I was a Minister in the Foreign Office, I worked on what became known as the Fox agreement, which was part of the early peace talks in Sri Lanka. In recent years I have been attempting to work again for reconciliation in that country, and to encourage investment in it. As I said when I spoke there recently, there will be no future for Sri Lanka unless all citizens, whatever their gender, religion or ethnic origin, are treated in the same way and allowed to realise their full potential.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the sterling work he has done in respect of Sri Lanka. Will he elaborate on the work that he has done in relation to the Sri Lanka Development Trust, and specifically on the work that Ministers have done in that regard?

As I have said, the point of involvement in Sri Lanka is to create greater stability which will contribute to stability in the region. I was particularly keen to see a mechanism for investment that could reduce some of the regulatory restrictions imposed by the Sri Lankan Government, on the basis that a proportion of the profits would go into social projects that would benefit ethnic minorities. I still hope that that project will succeed, and give it my full support.

Is not the general problem in south Asia as a whole the massive growth, modernisation and aggressive posturing of the Chinese military? As the Chinese launch a blue water aircraft carrier battle fleet, thanks to the Secretary of State’s handling of our affairs we will have no aircraft carriers from which planes can fly for the next 10 years.

For some 17 of the last 20 centuries China has been the world’s biggest economy, but our thoughts tend to be forged in the period when it was not. China will emerge as a global superpower, and as an Asian superpower it has a right to a blue water capability. What we must try to keep in check is what China’s intent may be, as well as the capability. Looking at the two together will give us an idea of the sort of threat that we may have to counter in the future.

I know that the Defence Secretary has a long-standing interest in Sri Lanka. Can he tell us how many times he has visited that country since becoming Defence Secretary, and how many of those visits were on official Government business?

I have been there twice; I am not sure whether it was three times. One of those visits was on official Government business, when I met a number of politicians. I also took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on behalf of my friend Mrs Kadirgamar—widow of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was a Tamil Foreign Minister—in which I set out what I thought was a vision that should cut across Sri Lankan politics. I believe there is a widespread view in the House that Sri Lanka needs reconciliation and an understanding of what happened at the end of the war, and that there must be transparency about who was responsible so that the country can move on to a proper process of reconciliation.

May I return my right hon. Friend to the subject of his current responsibilities? Given that Afghanistan is in south Asia, can he tell us whether he agrees or disagrees with General McChrystal’s assessment of how we are doing in that country?

General McChrystal’s assessment was, in my view, a touch pessimistic; I think we have come a long way. He was referring to the period from 2001 onwards, and we did not make sufficient progress for a large proportion of that time. However, I would argue that since 2006, and particularly since the American surge, we have had the correct force densities to achieve what we wanted. We are now increasingly able to hold the military territory and are increasingly tactically successful, but there must be greater progress in the political and economic spaces.

Levene Review

2. What progress he is making in implementing the recommendations of the Levene review of defence reform. (72900)

Since entering office, we have made significant progress in transforming defence. The new Defence Board and the Major Projects Review Board are up and running. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Defence Business Services organisation have both been established. We have appointed the first commander of the new Joint Forces Command. In addition to the specific recommendations in Lord Levene’s report, we have completed the basing and reserves reviews, and, even more importantly, established a broadly affordable future defence programme. This ambitious, but achievable, programme of work is part of transformation across defence, the likes of which has not been seen in a generation.

I commend the Secretary of State on the substantial work that he has done so far in implementing the Levene report and ask him to stick to his guns in dealing with the £38 billion hole in the budget. Has he had any word of apology from the Opposition?

I think it is unreasonable for my hon. Friend to expect an apology from the Opposition as they do not yet understand what they did. They are still deficit deniers who not only fail to recognise what they did to the MOD budget, but do not yet understand what they did to the broader British economy.

Levene recommended strengthening financial and performance management to ensure affordability and accountability. However, the National Audit Office rated the MOD’s response to the major projects report as weak, and criticised the Department for not submitting the multi-million pound costs for contract cancellations. When will Parliament receive the necessary details to be able to scrutinise these big ticket decisions?

The Department will be fully audited on its equipment programme, and let me tell the hon. Gentleman one of the big differences we have made. The Defence Board is the primary decision-making body of the MOD, and we inherited a board that had 24 members and was not chaired by the Secretary of State, which in my view was an utterly absurd position to be in. We now have a Defence Board of nine, chaired by the Secretary of State and with far more vertical management structures, accountability and responsibility.

Defence Exports

Ministers and officials from across the Government continue actively to promote British defence exports overseas, led by the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. Last month the UK hosted the defence and security equipment exhibition, which served to showcase the best of the UK’s defence and security industries, and was attended by me and my ministerial colleagues. The exhibition—[Interruption.] Hold it. The exhibition afforded us the valuable opportunity of meeting overseas delegations and British and overseas companies.

I thank the Minister for that response, and particularly for drawing attention to an exhibition at which companies from my constituency were exhibiting. Will he join me in congratulating Britain’s defence industry, which remains the second largest exporter in the world and employs more than 300,000 people in the UK, and can he confirm whether the coalition’s policies on defence exports have seen any change compared with those of the previous Government?

I thank my hon. Friend for that very challenging question, because this Government have a great deal to be proud of, and one thing we have brought to the business of promoting defence exports is enthusiasm for helping our friends and allies to protect themselves in what is a very dangerous world. I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that in the past year the UK’s share of the defence export market has increased by 4%, which is no mean feat.

If the Minister is being so enthusiastic and it is all going so well, can he tell the House why British Aerospace has been forced to cut 3,000 jobs across the north-west and Yorkshire, citing the failure of exports as one of the principal reasons for its decision?

BAE Systems did not actually cite exports as being one of the problems. What it cited was the fact that it is a multinational company operating in a number of markets where there is pressure on the budgets—its principal market is the United States of America. It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention, but the US is looking to make defence cuts of $1,000 billion over the next 10 years, and that is affecting us all. However, the good news is that the fact that the US has to make savings means that it may well be more receptive to the sort of products made in his constituency and in others across the United Kingdom.

The Minister is doing an excellent job of promoting British defence exports. The purpose of a defence export Minister is to promote exports so that our industry will be reinforced and strengthened, thereby helping to defend the country. He will know that, as part of its strategy, BAE Systems intends to sell 350 to 500 Hawks to the USA, not one of which will be built in Britain, and that the company is, at the same time, closing a factory in my constituency, costing 900 jobs. Does he think that that is consistent with the Government’s strategy of trying to defend the British defence industry?

I was very grateful to my right hon. Friend for bringing the trade unionists representing workers at both Brough and Warton to see me at the Conservative party conference in Manchester the other day. I will tell the House what I told them, which is that we believe that the Hawk is a fantastic, proven training aircraft—I have had the privilege of flying it recently. As he knows, the new T2 has the most sophisticated onboard air-combat simulator. The company and I are working very hard, along with my ministerial colleagues, to impress on the United States that it already operates the T-45 Goshawk, much of which came from Brough, and I hope that it will be able to buy the Hawk. Although the aircraft is unlikely, in serial numbers, to be built in the United Kingdom, the company hopes that there will be real prospects along the whole supply chain for British industry.

I am sure the Minister recognises that one of our best engineering manufacturing sectors, which is world-leading as well as cutting edge, is the defence sector. Obviously, that brings with it the potential rewards of defence exports. Will he give a commitment that ongoing investment in research and technology will be linked closely to the scope to promote exports?

Exportability is a key component of all our procurement decisions; we are trying to build in exportability, not only to generate revenue, but to reduce the unit costs of the equipment to our armed forces. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that we would not be having to make some of the difficult decisions that we are having to make had it not been for the destruction of the public finances by the previous Prime Minister and the shadow Secretary of State for Defence. If they had not destroyed the public finances of the United Kingdom, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would not have had to make the difficult decisions that he has had to make.

Defence Contracts (SMEs)

4. What progress he has made on increasing the number of small and medium-sized enterprises bidding for defence contracts. (72902)

This Government value the flexibility, responsiveness and innovation that SMEs bring to defence, which is why we are taking a number of actions to make it easier for them to participate in defence programmes, both as direct suppliers and as subcontractors. We are simplifying our bidding and contracting processes to make them easier for SMEs. I now chair an SME forum for representatives of small businesses, so that they can better understand and respond to the particular issues they face in doing business with the defence community. We will also set out a number of more specific measures in the White Paper that we will publish later in the year on equipment, security and technology.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I recently met Stephen Shepherd of S Dawes Weaving and Chris Blackadder of Howorths Textiles—both are manufacturers in Nelson, in my constituency. Those SMEs are interested in bidding for more work from the MOD. I would be grateful if the Minister could offer them and other SMEs in my area any advice on bidding for and winning more contracts.

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend, and Mr Shepherd and Mr Blackadder, that we have a cunning plan to help SMEs, as I hope my original answer suggested. For example, we are revising our internal guidance to ensure that SMEs are not rejected at the pre-qualification stage on the basis of rigid turnover-to-contract value ratios. I would be very happy to arrange for Mr Shepherd and Mr Blackadder to meet departmental officials to ensure that they are fully informed of the opportunities they now have.

In answer to a question I tabled in June, the Minister suggested that only about 50 of some 6,000 new contracts placed directly by the MOD in 2010-11 across the UK are known to have been awarded to Scottish-based SMEs. Given that that is based on an estimate, does he not agree that it is unacceptable that the MOD does not have the actual figures so that we can scrutinise the amount of work going to SMEs and, at the same time, end some of the myths promoted by the separatists?

I sort of agree with that question and I sort of do not. I do not think that it is our job to keep careful records of exactly which SMEs get which business, but it is part of our job to ensure that Scotland shares fully in the benefits of defence expenditure. I get very surprised when the Scottish nationalists frequently represent Scotland as in some sense losing out, which the hon. Gentleman alluded to in his question. That is simply not the case. I have visited Scotland on many occasions over the past few months and seen the massive footprint of defence in Scotland and the massive contribution made to employment and jobs, all of which will be at risk in an independent Scotland.

Westland helicopters has a licensing agreement with Boeing to build Chinook helicopters. Why was the order for 14 new Chinooks worth £1 billion given direct to Boeing rather than the licensing agreement being used to give the order to Westland so that it could take on half the work?

I think it is stretching a point a bit to define AgustaWestland as an SME, but nevertheless I am happy to confirm that I happen to have in front of me the previous Government’s defence industrial strategy, which says of AgustaWestland that it is important to understand that AgustaWestland’s role is

“neither predefined nor guaranteed, but dependent on their performance and the value for money of their propositions.”

Our position is very similar and I am happy to be able to confirm to my hon. Friend that the contract we have for the construction of the new Chinook helicopters will lead to some £350 million-worth of work flowing to the British supply chain, which—

Last week, in a written answer, the Minister confirmed that the MOD’s estimate for the number of contracts issued in the last financial year was 2,370 in England but only 50 in Scotland. Does he believe that that is fair and equitable?

I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but I am a half-full man, and the Scottish nationalists seem to be talking about half-empty glasses. I think the hon. Gentleman is quoting extremely selectively from the answer I gave him and, for what it is worth, I share his disappointment about the SME performance. I do not believe the figures or trust them, because they are extraordinarily low. I have seen the vibrancy of the Scottish defence sector for myself on a number of visits and I believe that the share of business is much higher. I invite the hon. Gentleman to abandon his ludicrous plans for an independent Scotland and join me in building a still more robust defence industrial base in Scotland rather than talking it down all the time.

I congratulate the Minister on the steps he is taking to encourage more SMEs to bid. One criticism we often hear from SMEs is that they are lured into bidding for contracts, only to lose out to much larger firms at the last round with little or no feedback from the MOD. May I encourage the Minister to ensure that in such cases SMEs get full feedback on why their bids have failed?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very powerful point. If any hon. Member has an example of an SME receiving inadequate feedback from my Department, I want to hear about it. SMEs deserve full feedback. They have an awful lot that they can bring to defence; their innovation and the cost savings they can offer are extremely important and they must be told why they have failed when they do fail.

Comprehensive Spending Review

5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of his Department’s budget during the comprehensive spending review period; and if he will make a statement. (72903)

On 18 July 2011, I announced that the defence budget is now broadly in balance over the decade and adequate to enable the Department to fulfil its objectives, including success in Afghanistan and Libya, delivery of the Future Force 2020 and the major process of transformation that follows the strategic defence and security review.

Men and women in the west midlands have always made a huge contribution to the armed forces, not least at MOD Donnington, which provides a first-class logistics service, ensuring that forces get the right kit in the right place at the right time. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will use those resources to ensure that the logistics commodity services site at Donnington is retained as the main logistics site for the MOD, safeguarding the 2,000 jobs that depend on it, and will he meet representatives of the work force to discuss this issue?

I and any of my ministerial colleagues will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue. We are keen to retain as much of the defence infrastructure, naturally, as possible within the constraints we are set given the budgetary position in which the Department finds itself. First, may I pay tribute to the excellent logistics the hon. Gentleman has described? We will do what we can to retain what we can.

One of the really excellent initiatives that my right hon. Friend has pressed for to make capacity in defence affordable is the decision to move various elements towards the reserves. May I ask when we can expect a full response to the reserves review? He has already given a very positive preliminary response.

I would like to be able to do it before Christmas, but, as my hon. Friend will understand, there is a lot of very detailed work to be undertaken. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the fact that we are pouring £400 million into the reserves over this Parliament—an unprecedented amount to put into that organisation, which was very badly run down by the previous Government. There will be challenges in absorbing that amount of money and, of course, the rate at which we are able to build up the reserves will determine the rate at which we are able to change the ratio with the regulars.

The Government have used the issue of cost as the main reason they are scrapping the office of the chief coroner. This is a Justice lead, but it affects fallen servicemen and women and their bereaved families. The Royal British Legion has submitted a compromise proposal in which it outlines reforms that could be made to the coronial system at a much lower cost than the Government estimate. Has the Secretary of State reviewed this proposal and does he support it?

I have had conversations with ministerial colleagues over this and although I am broadly sympathetic to some of the changes outlined, the hon. Lady is right that this is a Justice lead. For her to say that the Government simply use cost as a means of having to make reductions is, again, not to understand what it is to inherit a budget with a £38 billion black hole. Of course we have to learn to live within our means, and we do not yet know from the Opposition what their budget would be and which parts of the SDSR they accept and do not accept. In fact, we hear very little from them except negative criticism. It seems they have nothing constructive at all to say on the matter.

Medical Care

7. What recent discussions he has had on the medical care of wounded service personnel and veterans. (72905)

Given the importance that the whole Government, and especially my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, place on this issue, both he and I have numerous discussions with ministerial colleagues and others across the Department, Government and the community and voluntary sector on a regular basis.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the concerns expressed by families recently about the care for seriously wounded and injured service personnel who will have to be discharged from the armed forces because of their injuries—including about their care in the NHS thereafter. What mechanisms have he and his colleagues put in place to ensure that those service personnel get the same standard of care as that provided currently by Defence Medical Services?

I think the hon. Gentleman and I would agree a great deal about this. We are extremely concerned about the future of many badly injured service personnel when they leave the armed forces, and that is why we have put in place a transition protocol. It is also why I often have meetings with Ministers in the Department of Health—indeed my next one is on Wednesday—to discuss how, going forward, we can better serve those who are badly injured. I beg your indulgence, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman will know of the Army recovery capability that was put in place by the previous Administration, which is similarly helping very badly injured people to go forward with their lives in future.

The question I was about to ask was properly asked by the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), so I shall sit down.

Effective medical support is essential to any operation, so will the Minister join me in wishing 22 Field Hospital a successful forthcoming tour of Afghanistan, particularly as some 30 servicemen and women from 22 Field Hospital are in the Public Gallery watching these proceedings?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in wishing 22 Field Hospital a good tour. May I say to any Member of the House on either side who has seen the excellent work done by our medical personnel—both regular and reservist—out in Bastion and elsewhere that we should be very grateful to them for the hard work they do? Many reservists give up several months of their time to help our armed forces.

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the Government are committed to the Army recovery capability introduced by the last Labour Government. A key element of that was the tracking of personnel in the health service once they had left the armed forces. Is that still part of the programme, and if so, when will the deadlines for implementation be met?

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that we are pursuing the policy of the last Government, because on this occasion it was quite right. We are indeed tracking personnel. I am afraid that this is a work in progress, but I will ensure that he receives an update when there is something to update him on.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the close collaboration between the Ministry of Defence and the NHS in dealing with traumatic injuries through the joint unit. Bearing in mind that the NHS does not provide the same level of care for our wounded military personnel, is there not a case for the NHS and the MOD setting up a joint unit to deal with ongoing treatment?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The question of how the transition protocol works is very important, particularly when it comes to health issues. We already have a national centre in Birmingham— the Queen Elizabeth hospital—and I was at the opening in January; it deals with trauma in particular. We are going forward with the Department of Health to ensure that proper treatment is available. We will announce a report on prosthetics shortly, because we must make proper treatment available for people who are injured in the service of their country, and who suffer throughout their lives as a result.

Training and Support (Armed Forces)

8. What assessment he has made of the co-operation on training and support of British armed forces with armed forces in the middle east and north Africa; and if he will make a statement. (72906)

Defence engagement has a long and continuing role in contributing to wider UK regional objectives through programmes of world-class training and education. Our relationship with many countries includes work on counter-terrorism that is important to the security of the United Kingdom. That engagement creates lasting relationships with our armed forces and enhances our ability to work together towards regional security and stability.

Have British armed forces played any role in the training of forces involved in repression in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain?

We do not believe so, but we have trained staff over a period of years in those countries, and it is impossible to say with any certainty what they have subsequently gone on to do. When engaging in training programmes, we do our utmost to spread British principles and approaches to military activity, and have done so for many years, in the hope that that will rub off on the countries we are training.

Having been involved in a very similar training team, albeit some time ago, I can confirm the value of such training teams, but the weight and burden of those teams falls heavily on the combat arms. Can the Minister reassure the House that cuts in personnel will take into account the need to maintain our combat power for training roles such as those under discussion?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Obviously, as numbers contract, the demands put on all our personnel are difficult to balance, but the work to which he alludes, and to which he has given his time in the past, is very important for all the reasons that I have specified, and we will ensure that that is taken into account in deciding force numbers.

I join in the Secretary of State’s earlier condolences to the relatives of those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. The whole House will be in awe of the remarkable professionalism of our forces, and all that they have achieved in Libya as part of a wider coalition, so will the Minister for the Armed Forces update the House on progress in persuading other allies who are less involved in the fighting to bear more of the burden in helping to train and stabilise the country?

The shadow Secretary of State makes a very good point, and that is certainly something we would want to see as we go forward. There are countries that we hoped would have played a more active part in the engagement in Libya, and we very much hope that they will bear more of the responsibility. It is too early yet to have any particular international agreements in place, but he can rest assured that work is in progress towards the objective that he identified.

Eurofighter Typhoon

Typhoon has already been exported to Saudi Arabia and Austria, where it is in operational service. It is also competing in a number of other important markets. Oman has announced its intention to buy Typhoon, and India has selected it for the final phase of its medium multi-role combat aircraft competition. It is also competing in a number of other countries, including Japan, Malaysia and Qatar.

I confidently expect an increase in interest in Typhoon, following its highly successful air defence and ground attack roles over Libya, in which it has consistently demonstrated exceptional levels of reliability, performance, accuracy, and overall cost-effectiveness over and above our very high expectations.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that Typhoon’s success is down to UK leadership in the design and manufacture of world-class aircraft and that Government support is needed, not just to maximise export potential but to defend this vital national interest?

On the question of supporting exports, I know the close interest that my hon. Friend takes in Japan, particularly through her role in the UK-Japan 21st century group. I am happy to reassure her of the close interest that I personally have taken in the export campaign to Japan, which I visited in April, where I discussed Typhoon with many Japanese interlocutors. I am hopeful of a successful outcome. She is absolutely right, too, to emphasise the importance of the underlying design skills and technology—for example, our strong support for Europe’s first second-generation active electronically scanned radar will be key to our success in these export campaigns.

Ministers talk rather too often about buying off the peg from our international partners, including the USA which, we understand, is struggling at the moment, too. Should Ministers not seek to enhance sales, encourage value for money from British companies and ensure that we retain jobs and skills in the UK? Perhaps the Minister can tell the House whether, given the fall in international demand for top-quality British goods such as the Typhoon and subsequent job losses, he intends to ensure that such phrases are not used in future and that orders go to the UK first.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position and, as it is her first outing, I will be relatively kind in my response to her. [Interruption.] I have to say that I have read with considerable interest her party’s defence review procurement document, which advocates a similar policy in relation to off-the-shelf and modified off-the-shelf, so she should read what her own party is suggesting before criticising us. As for her comment that demand for Typhoon is falling, it is true that the four partner nations are stretching out production, but demand is rising fast around the globe, and I am confident that Ministers have a strong commitment to their export diaries, which will lead—

Order. We need to move on; I am grateful to the Minister. [Interruption.] Order. The Minister’s answers are simply too long—we need to make progress.

I am grateful for the efforts that the Defence Secretary and his team have made to try to export Typhoon and secure jobs for my constituents in Lancashire at Samlesbury and Warton. However, should the British Government be successful in helping to win those orders abroad, what guarantees can we try to secure from BAE that this is good news for work in Lancashire, and not just good news for BAE shareholders?

I think that it is guaranteed that it will be good news for Lancashire. Of course, the precise composition of the bids is a matter for the company, but I think that it understands the importance of protecting its design skills in my hon. Friend’s constituency, for which he speaks up vigorously and effectively in the House.

Military Equipment

11. What procedures exist to ensure that British military equipment used in operations abroad does not fall into the hands of others. (72909)

Robust accounting and security measures exist to prevent the loss of equipment through theft. In the rare event that equipment is damaged and cannot be recovered because of a risk to life or likely loss of further equipment, it is destroyed to prevent it from being used by others.

I thank the Minister. In the light of his response, can he say anything more about the announcement at the weekend of a £1 million fund to stop weapons proliferation in Libya? Does that fall within his domain, and exactly what is that money going to be used for?

The concerns that we have in Libya do not relate to our own equipment that our troops have used, but relate to a proliferation of equipment that we believe may now be at large in Libya, much of it having been previously held by the Gaddafi regime. It is in the interests of everyone around the globe that that situation is contained and controlled as quickly as possible, and we have sent personnel out to assist the new Government in Libya in getting those munitions under control.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report by the Select Committee on Defence on the handling of assets by the Ministry of Defence in 2009-10 is another damning indictment of the mismanagement of the MOD under the previous Government?

It is true that there has been a problem with inventories and accounting for equipment. Audit processes have identified that, on occasions, that has been a matter of misclassification of items. The situation in practice is probably less gloomy than it sometimes looks in reports.

Defence Exports

19. What steps he is taking to ensure that any increase in the level of defence exports is transparent. (72917)

The UK has one of the most rigorous and transparent export control systems in the world. All applications to export controlled military goods are assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, and decisions are published in the quarterly reports on strategic export controls. Following the Arab spring, the Foreign Secretary undertook a review of export licensing for equipment that might be used for internal repression. That concluded

“that there was no evidence of any misuse of controlled military goods exported from the United Kingdom.” —[Official Report, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 79WS.]

In July the Foreign Secretary said that more work needed to be done between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to strengthen certain aspects of UK arms control. There is an even greater urgency for this work to be done following reports today of an investigation into a EADS Saudi defence contract. Can the Minister set out what work has been done on transparency and UK arms control and how, with a policy of providing weapons to any willing country, he will ensure that those weapons do not fall into the wrong hands?

Every export licensing application is considered on a case-by-case basis against our strict export controls. In terms of transparency, detailed information on our export policy is on the Foreign Office website. Information on decisions by destination is listed on the BIS website, and the licensing criteria are also published. My right hon. Friend is right to say that further work is ongoing between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Foreign Office, and they are at present working out how that will be taken forward.

The Minister is, I am sure, aware of the number of cases in which there have been allegations that defence exports have ended up with people whom we would not want to have them and used for purposes that we would not want to see. He will also be aware that there are a number of cases of defence lobbyists acting in a shady and disreputable manner. Will he consider taking further steps to ensure transparency in who gets the weapons, what checks there are and how lobbyists operate?

The Government are committed to a thriving British defence and security industry because it is vital for our economy. It is worth more than £6 billion a year to the economy, but we will maintain strict export controls. We promote defence exports that are consistent with the criteria, because that strengthens British influence and helps support British industry and jobs.

We all want a strong defence industry, but we also want a responsible one, which is why I am proud of the fact that it was a Labour Government who abolished the manufacture, use and sale of cluster munitions in this country. The protocol also places an obligation on us to try to make sure that other countries, including our allies, are no longer using cluster munitions, because all too often such use means that many civilians are killed or maimed many years afterwards. What are the Government doing now to make sure that the Americans stop using cluster munitions?

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments; I, too, was a campaigner on that issue. I am very pleased that the UK duly signed up to that, but clearly our ability to control the US is no greater now than it was at the time of the convention. We will continue to apply pressure on the Americans, but we need to be realistic about the likelihood of their changing their policy.

What discussions has the Minister had with our European partners to ensure that when a licence is refused by the United Kingdom, similar steps are taken by our European partners and they do not take advantage of our progressive approach to export licensing abroad?

That is a good question. I will check what sharing of information we have with our EU allies when we turn down an application, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman in due course.


17. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on recovering from the national transitional council in Libya any of the costs to his Department of the deployment of armed forces to that country. (72915)

The National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister and attended by myself and other ministerial colleagues, meets regularly to discuss the ongoing operations in Libya, including stabilisation. In terms of recovering the costs of operations in Libya from the national transitional council, NATO’s intervention in Libya under a clear UN mandate has saved countless lives and is helping to bring new hope to a country that has suffered tyrannical rule for 42 years, but the UK did not play a leading role in this action for financial return.

Given the extended nature of the Libyan conflict, the tribal nature of the country and the experience in Iraq, will the Defence Secretary assure me that maximum attention will be given to conflict prevention and conflict resolution issues from now onwards, so that we do not have a recurrence of victory followed by great difficulties thereafter?

That is a key question. I visited Libya at the weekend. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Iraq, but Libya has three big advantages coming out of this conflict compared with Iraq. First, we were careful not to cause civilian deaths, which has given the impression that we value human life higher; secondly, we did not target civilian infrastructure, so it is likely that the country will be able to move much more quickly to economic recovery; and thirdly we encouraged the NTC not to engage in a process similar to de-Ba’athification. I therefore find Libya in a much better place than Iraq was.

Given that the cost of our involvement in Libya is about £260 million and rising, at the same time as we have the biggest budget deficit in the G20, should we not be asking Libya and/or the Arab League to repay the cost, just as the Kuwaitis did after the first Gulf war?

As I said, we went into Libya not on the basis of recovering the costs, but because we believed there to be an imminent humanitarian disaster. Mindful of such disasters in previous generations, we can be proud that we averted this one. How costs are apportioned and whether other countries can help with those wider costs can be discussed, but only after the conflict has been concluded, which it has not yet been.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has quite taken my hint, but I am sure that he can ask his question under this one with great dexterity.

Is there not great concern in Libya about the future of the surface-to-air missiles? When I asked the Minister for the Armed Forces about this back in June, he said:

“We continue to assess the situation in Libya closely, including the potential proliferation of man-portable anti-aircraft missiles.”—[Official Report, 28 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 672W.]

From his answer earlier, he does not seem to have been doing a great deal. This is a major threat and we need some evidence of urgency and some results.

This is one of the issues that I discussed at the weekend. The right hon. Gentleman is right that it is an urgent matter. We have provided a small team of UK military specialists to work alongside the Libyans and the United States in preventing surface-to-air missile proliferation. We have already disarmed a number of these missiles and identified a large number of sites where further activity will take place.

Topical Questions

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 the military tasks and that we honour our armed forces covenant.

Does the Secretary of State agree with his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), that brave Gurkha veterans should be described as asylum seekers, or does he agree with the Gurkha justice campaign that these comments are shocking and unacceptable—or is the cat out of the bag on immigration and defence cuts?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has done a grave disservice to my hon. Friend, who never used any such words and has the highest regard for all those sacrifices made in the past.

T2. Many small and medium enterprises in Pendle are keen to know when the yellow book review will be completed. Is the Minister in a position to update the House on progress? (72925)

I am delighted to be able to do precisely that; it was published a few hours ago. [Hon. Members: “Read it out!”] It runs to more than 100 pages, so I think that I would be in trouble with the Speaker if I did that. Section 4 is specifically about SMEs. I invite the whole House to pay careful attention to this important document and to take part in the consultation on it.

May I say how much I agree with the Secretary of State when he says that we cannot allow the unpopularity of the Iraq conflict in many quarters to prevent us from standing up for what we believe in in other countries around the world? That is why there remains consensus across parties about the action in Libya and Afghanistan. However, now that there is a timetable for the drawdown of our combat role in Afghanistan, can he update the House on how much longer he anticipates Her Majesty’s forces remaining engaged in Libya?

We have set out, in accordance with the plans President Karzai himself has set out, that we do not plan to have a combat role in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. The big question now is what we do beyond 2014 and what signals we send to Afghanistan and Pakistan about our determination to provide regional stability. We have already said that we will take charge of the officer training academy and are encouraging other countries to do the same. I anticipate that there will be a role for special forces and mentoring and training as well as what I have set out. That is one of the issues we discussed at the NATO summit last week, and we will set out further details at the Chicago summit in May.

T4. Given the great pressure on MOD finances, has my right hon. Friend considered following the example of the shadow Defence team by accepting very substantial sponsorship from generous British defence companies, such as Cellcrypt? (72927)

T3. The Royal British Legion has said that the creation of the chief coroner“is essential to improving bereaved Armed Forces families’ experience of military inquests” and that Government proposals will“fail to meet the needs of bereaved Armed Forces families.” The Secretary of State’s rant about his budget shows that he has not read the Royal British Legion’s proposals, so will he, in the quiet moments that I am sure will follow later this afternoon, take the time to explain to the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice that failing to introduce a chief coroner will be a betrayal of our brave military personnel? (72926)

As I thought had been made pretty plain earlier, this is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, not the Ministry of Defence. However, I hope that everyone in the House would agree that the important thing is that well-trained coroners do a good job in their inquests on deceased service personnel. That is what we are working to achieve, and I know that the Ministry of Justice is determined that that shall happen.

T8. Members of the armed forces often have to move very quickly and with short notice, which can affect the education of their children, particular if it happens when school has already started. Will the Minister therefore congratulate the George Spencer academy in my constituency, which intends to change its policy so that priority is given to such children, especially those moving to the Chetwynd barracks, which is also in my constituency? (72931)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that school. She will know that admissions codes can now allow favourable treatment for children of service personnel, and we must not forget that the Department for Education has introduced the pupil premium, which will also benefit service children. We have also put £3 million forward to assist schools that have a disproportionate number of service children when they have problems. In general, though, service children do rather better in education than other children.

T5. Is the Secretary of State aware that the future of high science, research, innovation and design in our country very much depends on a fine balance among the defence industries, universities and the private sector? Many of us believe that that is now at risk because of failing demand from the defence sector. (72928)

I am very sorry indeed that the previous Government introduced such massive cuts to the defence science budget, which did great harm to the issues that the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about. I can reassure him that the defence White Paper on equipment, support and technology, which will be published later this year, will address these issues very seriously, because he is right to draw the House’s attention to this very important question.

I recently visited the Brentford air cadets, squadron 342, in my constituency and was really impressed by the training that the young people are given in respect, discipline and community responsibility. What more can we do to encourage more young people to get involved in the cadets?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, because I, too, absolutely support the cadet forces. They do fantastic work that is very much in tune with the Government’s policy of the national citizen service. They keep children off the streets and give them excellent training and discipline, which I think we all applaud. We also have the youth engagement review, but I will brief her on that later if she would like, because you, Mr Speaker, would stop me if I went on too long now.

T6. The Secretary of State and I have a considerable number of constituents who work at the MOD’s Abbey Wood site in Filton. There is real uncertainty there at the moment about how many jobs will be lost, what new work will be sent there and what work will be lost. Could he give some certainty to the people working at the plant about the future of their jobs? (72929)

I make regular visits to the Filton Abbey Wood site, as the hon. Lady knows, to discuss those issues with the staff, and I appreciate the concern that they face. The chief of defence matériel, Bernard Gray, is currently conducting a full review of matériel strategy and how the organisation will be structured in future, and I hope that its outcome will give precisely the certainty that she rightly seeks for her constituents.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the leadership that he has shown on Libya. What action is he taking with his Libyan counterparts to help prevent the risk of insurgent activity, in preparation for the national transitional council taking complete control?

The first thing that we require is an end to hostilities; then we require disarmament and the militia’s incorporation into national forces; and then we require the formation of a Government as soon as possible—a Government who include all elements of Libya’s geography and ethnic make-up and are cross-generational.

T9. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), waxed lyrical in earlier answers about his support for small and medium-sized businesses and for SME exports, so why are his Government forcing them to bear more of the cost of showcasing their equipment throughout the world? (72932)

We are not imposing additional burdens on industry, but clearly we have to take into account the costs of supporting it in these difficult times and in view of the economic inheritance that we were bequeathed by the last lot.

The Ministry of Defence police are, sadly, as everybody else is, touched by the strategic defence and security review because of the £38 billion black hole that we were left, but I envisage a future for the Ministry of Defence police—providing security for our service personnel and their families—and I visited them in Portsmouth dockyard only last month.

The future of European security will be enhanced by military capability, interoperability and co-operation; it will not be enhanced by an unnecessary duplication of military headquarters. What more can we do to convince our European colleagues that that is not a sensible proposal, particularly at a time when defence budgets are falling across the continent?

The Government oppose, and I have always very strongly opposed, any concept of an EU military headquarters—and we will continue to do so, whether any proposal is made up-front or attempted with permanent structured co-operation through the Lisbon treaty. NATO is the cornerstone of defence in Europe, and it shall continue to be so, because it brings the United States into the defence of Europe. Such a concept would be a diversion, as the right hon. Gentleman says, and a dilution of scarce resources; it would not produce one bullet, one battle tank or one aircraft; it would be pretentious; and it would be bureaucratic—none of which commends it to me.

The Ministry of Defence has invested considerably in additional reserve forces, which are welcomed by many of us across the House. What steps might the Secretary of State be able to take to ensure that the jobs of our reservists, such as those serving in 6th Battalion The Rifles in my constituency, will be protected, especially given that 10 of them are returning from Afghanistan this week?

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue, and I pay tribute to those reservists who go out to Afghanistan, including those from 6 Rifles. We have the Reserve Forces Act 1996 and the Reserve Forces (Safeguard of Employment) Act 1985, both of which should protect reservists deployed on operations, but he is quite right to raise the issue, which we keep under close review.

Ministry of Defence medical services has a good record of engagement with the carers of wounded service people, but when servicemen are transferred to the NHS system, carers are often told that, because of patient confidentiality, they cannot be engaged with and information cannot be shared. Will the Minister ensure that such continued engagement with carers takes place for service personnel, especially those with traumatic brain injury or mental health problems, once they enter the NHS?

The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, of which I was not aware. Practitioners in the NHS certainly should get full medical records from the military medical services. If she were able to raise some specific cases with me, I would be most interested to hear them, and I look forward to hearing from her.

The reason why so much public money has been invested in BAE technology is to protect British interests and British jobs. What steps can Ministers take to ensure that jobs at Brough and other BAE sites are retained in this country and not shipped abroad?

As I have tried to explain to the House, since we took office we have made huge efforts, led by the Prime Minister, to promote these first-class British products. The Typhoon is a world beater—not, as some press commentators have suggested, a cold war legacy programme. It is the most advanced combat aircraft in the world today, and the Hawk is the most proven and effective military training aircraft. We are working flat out to try to promote those in the interests of the constituents of everybody in the House today.

What further support are the Government going to give to ex-service people who belatedly discover that they have post-traumatic stress disorder?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue, not least because PTSD can take many years—up to 16 years—to show itself. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the report of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), called “Fighting Fit”, which leads a way forward.

Things are not perfect yet, but we are going forward. We are deploying additional mental health nurses across the country in NHS hospitals and we are working closely with Combat Stress to ensure that ex-service personnel get the opportunity, through both a call line and otherwise, to get treatment as necessary. It is extremely important that they get that treatment.

Today is world homeless day. What recent progress has the Secretary of State made in reducing the number of ex-service people who find themselves homeless?

This looks like my afternoon.

Although there are homeless ex-service personnel, in fact their number is much less than one might expect. Analysis has shown that those ex-service personnel who are homeless very often left the forces some 20 and more years before.

I hear from the Opposition Front Bench that the figure is 3.8%, and one might expect more than that. We do work with Veterans Aid in London, among others, to ensure that the maximum support available is given to ex-service personnel who, unfortunately, find themselves homeless.

Is the Minister aware of the campaign by the Royal British Legion Scotland to get a Ministry of Defence hospital unit based in Scotland? I understand that the tendering process for that is due to commence in 2013. Will the Minister look into the issue and try to get a better geographical spread for such units?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and it is something that we will look at. As I said at the conclusion of the basing review, it is essential to remember that Her Majesty’s forces are for the whole Union, not for any one part of the Union. Having them more evenly spread is part of what the United Kingdom is all about.