Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 533: debated on Monday 10 October 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 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.