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Volume 535: debated on Monday 14 November 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Chief Coroner

1. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the creation of a post of chief coroner to oversee the inquest system in relation to deaths of armed forces personnel. (80068)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to pay tribute to the late Private Matthew Thornton, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment. He was a brave young man, serving his country, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to send its condolences and sympathy to his family.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on the creation of a chief coroner’s post. The post is entirely a matter for the Ministry of Justice, although we have of course provided it with every assistance regarding the impact of the issue on military bereaved families, and we have engaged with the Ministry of Justice and with the Cabinet Office on the matter.

I should like to associate myself with the Minister’s opening remarks and with yours, Mr Speaker.

The Royal British Legion thanked hon. Members from all parties for their cross-party support when the post of chief coroner was agreed just two years ago. Does the Minister agree that the issue should unite, not divide, this House, and that appointing a chief coroner in line with the revised proposals from the Royal British Legion and Inquest would send a wonderful message to service families at this particularly special time?

I am afraid that I do not entirely agree. The important thing is the results that bereaved families receive at inquests, with which there have been problems in the past, and that is why the Ministry of Defence is, for instance, laying on specific events and continuing familiarisation with military inquests for coroners. We are also ensuring that they are properly trained with regard to bereaved families. People seem to have become hung up on the office of a chief coroner, but it is a Ministry of Justice matter, as I have said. What is important is that bereaved families receive an excellent service from coroners, and we are working very hard to ensure that that happens.

To what extent does my right hon. Friend believe that the undoubted success in years gone by of the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, and the Oxfordshire coroner, Andrew Walker, in improving the welfare and safety of troops has been down to their independence and to the fact that they have not had a potentially bureaucratic official standing over them?

My hon. and gallant Friend makes a very interesting point, and again the issue is that we do not have a bureaucratic official standing over coroners. Inquests in the past, as the Opposition know, were not always as sympathetic towards military families as they might have been, and indeed they were not particularly good with the bereaved, so we are allowing the Lord Chief Justice to set mandatory training requirements for coroners and their officers, including training in respect of military inquests, and we think that that is the right way forward.

Last month I asked the former Secretary of State whether he had reviewed the Royal British Legion’s proposals to deliver a reformed coronial system at significantly lower cost than the Government estimate. He did not answer the question. May I once again give the Minister, under the direction of a new Secretary of State, the opportunity to put on the record his views about scrapping the office of chief coroner? Will the Minister support the Royal British Legion’s campaign?

I think that I am still a member of the Royal British Legion; I certainly have been, and I think that I paid my subscription this year.

I am a great supporter of the Legion. It is a fantastic organisation with fantastic people, but that does not mean that it is right about everything, and on this campaign it has rather overstated its case. It said in its briefing, which I have with me, that when asked in the street two thirds of people thought that a chief coroner was essential, but I ask all Members, “How many of their constituents do they think have heard of the chief coroner?” The answer is not two thirds of the population, I can promise you that much.

Libya (Aircraft Carrier Capability)

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on operations in Libya of the unavailability of an aircraft carrier. (80069)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on operations in Libya of the unavailability of an aircraft carrier. (80076)

Thanks to our overseas basing rights, the unavailability of a UK aircraft carrier had no significant effect on the UK’s participation in military operations over Libya. That was clearly demonstrated by the outstanding performance of our armed forces over and off the coast of Libya, and by the civilian and military staffs that supported them.

Difficult decisions had to be made by my predecessor, the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), to whom I pay tribute, in order to deal with the black hole that we inherited from the previous Government. The decisions made in relation to carrier capability were painful, but they were the right ones in Britain’s long-term interests.

On my visits to RAF bases as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, air service personnel have raised concerns about the lack of availability of an aircraft carrier. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the British contribution to the no-fly zone in Libya has demonstrated that we can still project air power effectively, despite having to accept a break in our carrier strike capability?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The performance of British forces in Operation Ellamy precisely demonstrated that we retain such a capability and, indeed, that the aircraft deployed were capable of carrying weapons such as Storm Shadow and the dual-mode Brimstone, which allowed us to deliver a precision response in Libya. That greatly reduced collateral damage and civilian casualties.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that carrier strike force is a fundamental capability that we must regenerate as it will provide future Governments with both a powerful deterrent and the flexibility to respond to any situation in the most efficient and effective way?

As my hon. Friend suggests, the decision to regenerate the carrier capability at the end of the decade will give the United Kingdom a formidable capability in addition to the other capabilities it currently has to project force in areas of the world where basing and overflight rights may not be available. That will be a very welcome and important addition to our overall capability.

The Secretary of State will know that Rosyth in my constituency does the refitting for the current carriers and that it is expected to do the refitting for future carriers that may be used in Libya-style operations. Will he confirm that, if there was a separate Scotland, the Ministry of Defence would have to look again at the long-term refitting options for our aircraft carriers?

I was not quite sure where that was going. The hon. Gentleman is of course right: it is unlikely Her Majesty’s forces would wish to use facilities in a fully independent Scotland in the way they would wish to use them within a United Kingdom.

Military action in Libya was, of course, supported in a non-partisan manner right across the House, but there will have been concern about the fact that, over the weekend, there were reports of military incidents in Libya. Will the Secretary of State give us an indication of the scale and extent of those incidents?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a detailed report on the weekend’s news stories, but I can say that having provided the cover that allowed the Libyan people to liberate themselves from a brutal dictatorship that has tyrannised them for the best part of four decades, it is very much in our interests and it is our moral responsibility to help them to make the best of the opportunity they have created. We will be watching very carefully as the situation develops. I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be keeping a very close eye on the situation, with a view to assisting in any way we can to ensure a satisfactory long-term outcome for the people of Libya.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the difference—the important distinction—between mounting a no-fly zone and mounting long-range bombing raids in active intervention in a civil war? The latter is what we did in the Libya campaign, and no one would have doubted we could do that from land bases. However, does he not appreciate that a no-fly zone, which involves lengthy routine patrols and the suppression of air defences over a long period, would have been far better mounted from aircraft carriers? It is very important that we do not draw the wrong conclusions from the slightly triumphalist tone that both he and the Prime Minister have adopted in this matter.

I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend because I know he is very knowledgeable about these matters and I am still a fair way down a steep learning curve. However, I have to say to him that, in the early phases of the Libya campaign, Typhoon operations were mounted in support of the no-fly zone with a view to potentially having to engage in air-to-air operations. From the briefing I have had, my understanding is that it is perfectly possible to mount such an operation from a base that is the distance that Gioia del Colle was from Libyan airspace. Clearly, my hon. Friend is right: if we were seeking to mount an air exclusion operation in a location that was much further away from friendly bases, there would be greater difficulties.

As we have a base in Gibraltar, the use of a NATO base in southern Italy, and Cyprus, of course we can handle Libya from fixed bases. If we have a crisis anywhere else, such as a new Sierra Leone or a new Indonesia, where Royal Navy aircraft carriers went down to protect British forces, we would not be able to do that. Will the Secretary of State simply say that for the next 10 years we are no longer a maritime power in terms of air projection?

The right hon. Gentleman is overstating the case. The Government have been very clear that taking the tough decisions that have had to be taken to clear up the fantasy defence procurement programme we were left will leave us with some limitations in capability in the short to medium term. That is to be regretted, but it was necessary to put our defences on a stable and secure basis in the long term.

Terms of Business Agreement

The terms of business agreements are unique to the maritime sector and reflect our collaborative work with industry to transform the surface ship build and support, and submarine support, areas. The Department has separate TOBAs with BAE Systems Surface Ships and Babcock Marine, both of which are performing well and currently delivering savings in excess of their targeted benefits. These are 15-year agreements and we have not decided whether or how they will be replaced.

I presume that, under those conditions, the Secretary of State has not had an opportunity to speak to any of the defence industries.

We have not yet had any discussions with industry about how these arrangements will be carried forward in future—in some 14 years’ time. However, the TOBAs are performing very well and delivering savings in excess of their expected benefits. I promise my hon. Friend that we will talk very carefully to all those involved, including Plymouth city council and him, about any future arrangements when the time comes, but that is not quite yet, I fear.

EU Operational Headquarters

It is the policy of this Government that NATO remain the cornerstone of UK defence. We see no justification whatsoever for a permanent EU military operational headquarters, and we will continue to oppose it. We have been clear that the establishment of a permanent operational headquarters would be a duplication of existing capability provided by NATO, would permanently dissociate the EU from NATO, and would be an unnecessary and unjustified use of resources.

The lesson from recent military operations is that our operations with joint and existing allies have enabled military objectives to be achieved. The Secretary of State is clearly right that the proposal to create an EU headquarters would be a duplication, but would it not also curtail the involvement of some of our existing allies in military objectives that we may wish to undertake?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. It would duplicate and undermine arrangements we have in place that have been demonstrated to be perfectly adequate.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that spending money that the EU does not have on these headquarters is an absurd waste that would also cause confusion in the military chain of command in terms of duplication of effort?

Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is something that we do not need and cannot afford, and that would be damaging to our overall military capability.

The Anglo-French defence accord has been a success, but let us not forget that it was largely negotiated under the previous Government. May I ask this Government whether other agreements are being discussed with other member states of the European Union?

On Wednesday I am going to meet my Nordic and Baltic counterparts, and I have already had discussions with my Italian counterpart. It will be the Government’s policy to seek bilateral arrangements with other European allies where it is appropriate and in the interests of both parties to collaborate.

I realise that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), who is responsible for NATO matters, is not here, but I am sure that the Secretary of State can respond. I agree with response he gave to the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). The Secretary of State is aware that Holland has withdrawn its main battle tank fleet and that Denmark is cutting its navy and ground-based air defences. These are just two examples of defence cuts among our European allies. As a nation, we are part of a European collective, but will he detail what work he and his ministerial colleagues are undertaking to ensure that NATO maintains a coherent capability?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reiterating that there is cross-party support for resisting the temptation or blandishments for an EU operational headquarters. On ensuring that the European part of NATO remains effective, I again pay tribute to my predecessor, who never tired of exhorting our NATO allies to do their bit to maintain NATO effectiveness. I shall certainly continue in his footsteps.


The UK takes seriously efforts to tackle piracy off the horn of Africa and makes a direct contribution to a number of international efforts to counter piracy. We provide the operational headquarters and operational commander to the EU’s Operation Atalanta, we provide the deputy commander and HMS Somerset to the US-led combined maritime forces operation, and RFA Fort Victoria is currently under the command of NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield. Successful naval efforts must be complemented by proactive measures by commercial shippers.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensuring that our commercial vessels can carry armed guards. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that that will in no way diminish the assets of the Royal Navy that are applied to tracking down those involved in piracy?

Yes, I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that this move is in no way intended to be a substitute for action by the Royal Navy; it is an additional measure. No matter what degree of resource navies from around the world put into the counter-piracy effort, it would not be possible for there always to be a naval presence on hand when a ship is attacked. No ships that have had any sort of security or that have followed best practice have been pirated.

Following the point made by the hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), has the Minister had any discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport on the arming of commercial vessels? Will he tell us a little more about that, because it should not be a substitute for the duties of the British Navy?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been a lot of discussion between the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. Companies can apply for authorisation to carry firearms on ships. The Home Office will shortly issue guidance. Types of weapons will be considered on a case-by-case basis, but they will have to be appropriate and proportionate. Vessel owners will have a responsibility to ensure that guidance is followed, and necessary safeguards will have to be implemented.

When were the rules of engagement for royal naval ships off the horn of Africa last reviewed, and when will they next be reviewed? Can we ensure that we are not tying the arms of our armed forces personnel behind their backs when they are fighting piracy?

I assure my hon. Friend that the rules of engagement are kept permanently under review. Having looked closely at this issue, I am confident that we are not in any sense causing our people to fight with their hands tied behind their backs. The rules of engagement are, in my view, entirely appropriate to the task that they are being asked to perform.

The hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride) said that the Prime Minister stated two weeks ago that there would be draft regulations on proposals for arming British merchant-registered ships. Will the Minister confirm what the legal status of those individuals will be, what the rules of engagement will be and, more important, how they will interface with UK personnel who are already deployed off the horn of Africa?

I say again that the details of how this policy will work are a matter for the Home Office. It will shortly issue guidance that will cover some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. The Home Office has taken a view on the legality of the policy and it is satisfied that it is legal within existing legislation. On the interface with the armed forces, the armed guards who might be carried on ships—that is a matter for the owners to decide—are there in a preventive capacity. The Royal Navy and other navies will continue to patrol the entire area. The focus of the military effort is to deter and disrupt. As I said a moment ago, it would not be possible, no matter how much resource navies were to deploy, always to have somebody there in a preventive capacity. All ships that have taken the necessary precautions have successfully prevented themselves from being pirated.

To follow up the question on rules of engagement, will the Minister ensure that ours are as robust as possible and allow people defending ships to engage the enemy, or the pirates, at the maximum distance possible, to give those ships more time to take evasive action?

I say again that I am perfectly satisfied that the rules of engagement provide the armed forces with as much flexibility as they need to deal effectively with the situations that we expect them to find. I have to say that the UK has been pressing international allies for a bolder set of tactics, and we continue to press them to agree to that.


I have just returned from my first visit to Afghanistan as Secretary of State for Defence. The visit allowed me to see at first hand the fantastic job that our armed forces are doing on behalf of our country, and the progress that they are making both in reversing the momentum of the insurgency and in training the Afghan security forces to defend their own country. I assess that the security situation in central Helmand has improved, and that good progress is being made in both the number and capability of the Afghan national security forces.

Given this morning’s disturbing report that the Taliban are attempting to procure the security arrangements for the forthcoming Loya Jirga, what assistance will the international security assistance force be able to provide to the Afghan security forces to ensure that those participating in that important event can do so free from attack and intimidation by the Taliban?

The Loya Jirga will take place in Kabul, and of course ISAF has considerable resources deployed there in support of the Afghan security forces. Also, many ISAF contributing nations have special forces operating in Afghanistan, working in collaboration with the Afghan special forces and special police. All those arrangements will help to ensure the security of the Loya Jirga.

Will my right hon. Friend pay an especially warm tribute to the soldiers of the British Army, and those in other parts of the services, who are contributing so much to the training of Afghan forces? Has he decided in which particular areas we will specialise in training Afghans after 2015?

I am happy to join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to British servicemen and women for their work in training and mentoring Afghan national security forces on the job. Looking forward, the Prime Minister has made a commitment that Britain will take the lead role in the Afghan national officer training academy, which will be established just outside Kabul and will train the bulk of officer recruits to the Afghan national security forces.

The progress at the operational level in central Helmand that the Secretary of State reports has been achieved by the bravery of troops, yes, but also by the fact that in the past year or so they have had sufficient troop density in the area of operations to carry out an effective counter-insurgency operation. Is he now taking decisions that will effectively widen the area of responsibility, but with the same number of troops? That will surely have an impact on force density, which will potentially undermine their ability to succeed in the way they have in the past couple of years.

The simple answer to the right hon. Gentleman is no. I understand very well the concern that he expresses. He is referring, I think, to stories about the level and speed of US Marine Corps withdrawal from central Helmand, and indeed from the wider Helmand area. We are very clear that it is the increased force density that has secured the success of the British mission, and we have no intention of allowing that force density to be diluted in a way that damages our future prospects of success.

Over recent years the Afghan national police have been regarded as a threat by the local population second only to the Taliban. Can my right hon. Friend say whether significant progress has been made in bringing the quality of the police up to that of the Afghan national army?

I believe that progress has been made. The composition of the Afghan national police is different from that of the Afghan national army in terms of the distribution of locally raised forces. There is a greater affinity between ANP forces and local people than between the army and local people, but there is still further work to do, and I fully recognise what my right hon. Friend says.

We remain committed to the Afghan mission, and we now want to see military might matched by substantial political progress. The Secretary of State will know that reservists will play a bigger role in Afghanistan and beyond, which may require additional mandatory training. At a time when many reservists have lost their full-time jobs, the benefits system might be unintentionally penalising them and hindering their freedom to take on extra reservist training or allowances. It would be a disgrace if a single reservist lost a penny in benefits because of their service. Will the Secretary of State undertake a wider piece of work with the rest of Government and conduct an urgent review to ensure that our welfare state does not punish a single reservist?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for again reasserting the cross-party support for the Afghan campaign, and he is right that reservists are playing an important part in it. Sadly, one of those killed in action most recently was a reservist serving his country.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces tells me that the problem the right hon. Gentleman raises is one that we are acutely alert to and aware of. There is work being done across Government to look at the problem and ensure that the concerns that he has raised are dealt with.

War Memorials

War memorials provide a lasting and poignant reminder of all those who have served and died in the service of our country. Most right hon. and hon. Members will have attended a war memorial yesterday to pay their respects to the fallen, both in the first and second world wars and subsequently. It is shocking that memorials are being violated and vandalised in the manner that we have all read about. I support any plan to protect memorials, and I know that the Home Office and local authorities are committed to dealing with the problem.

At this solemn time of year, when we remember those who fell to protect our freedoms, there is a small, despicable group of people who go round stealing metal from war memorials. What action are my right hon. Friend and his colleagues across Government taking to bring the full force of the law to bear on those individuals?

For myself—I should say that I am not sure that this is Government policy—if they were caught, I would ensure that they received exemplary sentences, but that is a matter for my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice. In the Ministry of Defence, the sponsored cadet forces are being encouraged to participate in project In Memoriam 2014. The project involves locating and logging the thousands of war memorials across the United Kingdom and marking them with SmartWater, a commercial product that should enable the metal components of war memorials to be forensically traced if they are stolen.

The desecration of war memorials is an appalling crime, condemned by Members in all parts of the House. Would the Minister be willing to meet representatives from SmartWater, which is based in my constituency? It is doing a tremendous job protecting metal on war memorials, as part of its wider social obligation to our communities. Would he be willing to meet SmartWater representatives to see what more we can do to protect memorials? All parts of the House would support such initiatives.

I would be very happy to hear their submission. I should point out that the something like 100,000 marvellous war memorials in this country are not the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence. The War Memorials Trust is doing excellent work on this, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me, we shall see whether we can have a meeting, perhaps with one or two of the people responsible for the matter.

Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle

12. What assessment he has made of the potential effects on (a) the Army and (b) UK industry of the capability sustainment programme for the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle. (80080)

The £1 billion upgrade to the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle is an important step towards meeting the requirements for Future Force 2020. Warrior will remain the backbone of the infantry for the next 30 years. The upgrade represents a step change in capability, ensuring that our forces are equipped to counter the threats of the future. UK industry will benefit from the creation and sustainment of some 600 British jobs within prime contractor Lockheed Martin UK and its supply chain, sustaining both skills and capability within the UK’s armoured vehicle sector.

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for his answer and to welcome the announced upgrade that will provide our forces with state-of-the-art firepower for the next 25 or 30 years, but will he also ensure that our troops have the kit they need when they need it to do their job as effectively and as safely as possible?

I am certainly happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. I pay tribute to his constituents for playing their part in ensuring that that is achieved both at Thales, which is making the battle group thermal imager for the upgrade and at Defence Equipment and Support itself. I met many staff at Ampthill a week or so ago to celebrate the great success of the Warrior upgrade programme.


Our estimate on 12 October was that the net additional cost of operations in Libya would be £160 million. Our estimate at the same date of the cost of replenishing munitions used in Libya was £140 million. That estimate assumed that operations would continue until the end of December. We are currently calculating a new estimate based on the actual end of operations on 31 October, and I expect to make a further statement in early December. I expect the new estimate to be lower than the one previously given.

Given Libya’s vast oil wealth, does the Secretary of State think it might be appropriate in due course for Libya to make some form of compensatory payment to the United Kingdom for those costs incurred?

The UK’s motivation in intervening and playing a leading role in the Libya campaign was not based on an expectation of financial reimbursement; it was to prevent a humanitarian disaster and to protect the vital interests of this country. The Libyan situation, as hon. Members have already pointed out, remains fragile and our first priority is to assist the Libyan people and the Libyan Government in stabilising the situation. Seeking financial reimbursement is not a current priority.


15. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of equipment supplied to troops in Afghanistan. (80083)

The provision of equipment for our forces in Afghanistan is regularly reviewed, with new equipment and capabilities being developed and delivered in response to emerging requirements. The military assessment is that our forces are now being provided with the equipment they need to undertake the tasks they are doing and that no missions are being compromised by the inadequacy or unavailability of equipment. Having met both 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade after their respective tours in Afghanistan, I know that that view is shared by those on the front line who actually use the equipment.

I thank the Minister for his response. There has been much criticism of the kit supplied to front-line troops, particularly those on foot patrol in Afghanistan. Will he advise us of any improvements made specifically for those troops on foot patrol to mitigate these threats?

As I said in my original answer, constant improvements are being made. One of the two that I would highlight has already happened—tier 1 and tier 2 pelvic protection against blast, which is being well received by our own armed services and is now being emulated by the Americans. Secondly, for the future, there is the provision of the light protected patrol vehicle, Foxhound, which will come into service in the early part of next year.

What proposals does the Minister have to improve the equipment that will reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries among British troops dealing with improvised explosive devices and bombs?

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that the third layer of pelvic protection—the tier 3 protection—does precisely that. I can reassure him that work is being done constantly to ensure that those very brave operatives have access to the best possible equipment to do their important task. It is important that they are allowed to disassemble IEDs because they provide vital clues about the tactics of the enemy, which helps prevent further deaths among the widest number of forces serving in Afghanistan.

Service Families (Education)

16. How many children received support through the additional pupil premium for children of service families in the latest period for which figures are available. (80084)

Some 45,000 service children have been recorded as eligible for the service child pupil premium in 2011-12. We are working to encourage service families to complete the annual school census so that their children and their schools can benefit from this additional payment to recognise the uniqueness of service life.

There are currently 134 children from 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh in eight Chester schools, but parents and teachers seem unsure about the purpose and use of the pupil premium in their schools. What has the Minister done to raise awareness of the actions that the Government have taken to support service children?

This is a new initiative. We want to raise awareness, and anything that my hon. Friend can do to help in that regard will be very welcome. We have set aside £9 million this year for the pupil premium, and have also set aside £3 million specifically for schools that take a large number of service pupils and may be experiencing problems. We have invited them to apply for the money, but may I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that they look up the details on the Department for Education’s website and then apply?

Defence Manufacturing

17. What steps his Department is taking to support strategically important defence manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom. (80085)

The Ministry of Defence’s first responsibility when procuring equipment is to provide the armed forces with the capabilities that they require when they need them, in an affordable and sustainable way. The forthcoming White Paper will set out our approach to acquiring technology, equipment and support for our armed forces, and will explain how we will take action to protect our operational advantages and freedom of action where that is essential for national security.

I think that all Members will recognise the vital strategic importance of having defence production lines in the United Kingdom, as well as the importance of rebalancing the economy through modern manufacturing jobs, private sector jobs and jobs in the regions. What is the Minister doing to protect the skilled jobs and apprenticeships that are likely to go at BAE Systems in Brough? Those workers will find out on Boxing day whether their jobs are going to disappear. What is the Minister doing about it?

I have to disappoint the hon. Lady, because decisions about where redundancies fall must be made by defence companies and not by Ministers. I understand her concern about what has happened at Brough, and she will understand what BAE Systems said, in public, about the underlying reasons for the changes. [Interruption.] I can answer the sedentary question from those on the Opposition Front Bench by saying that the White Paper, which will set out our approach in more detail and will help hon. Lady to understand the issues more fully, will be published next month.

I fully understand the difficult balance that my hon. Friend is trying to strike between securing the best value for our forces and protecting key capabilities, but may I urge him to look carefully at French industrial strategy? When we are collaborating with a country that has an activist industrial policy, there is a real danger that our procurement policy will end up following French industrial strategy unless we are fully aware of what is happening on the other side.

Some Members may well find themselves in considerable sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. Let me simply say that when I engage in discussions with my French opposite numbers, such issues are always at the forefront of my mind, and they will continue to be so—for instance, at the summit that is to be held in December.

The Minister will be aware that the global financial crisis is causing a number of nations to take defence work back in-house, partly in order to protect their own work forces. Others, such as Italy, are seeking to renegotiate contracts, which is leaving UK firms of all sizes open to potential job losses. The Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) provided no reassurance that the Government were doing everything that should be done to protect British business overseas. In fact, what we heard was far from reassuring: it was about passing the buck back to industry. Will the Minister please reassure us that he will do all that can be done to support British industry?

With respect, the hon. Lady’s question is rather different from the one asked by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). When it comes to helping British businesses overseas, I think that this Government’s track record compares very favourably indeed with that of the lot opposite when they were in power, and I am happy to tell them that the reason the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)—the Minister responsible for international security strategy—is not present today is that he is at the Dubai air show doing precisely that. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in Japan a couple of weeks ago, making the case for the Eurofighter Typhoon. We are doing a very good job speaking up for British industry overseas: a damn sight better job than the Opposition did.

One of the most important defence manufacturing businesses in the UK is BAE Systems in Warton, which is in my constituency and is the home of the Typhoon. Will the Minister update the House on the Government’s efforts to support that world-leading product?

We are working strenuously to support the product, although I think that in many senses it speaks for itself. What we are doing is ensuring that the wider world recognises the outstanding performance of the Eurofighter Typhoon in the activities over Libya, where it has shown itself to be superior in all respects to every other aircraft in the world today. That is the message that we are taking to India and Japan, and that we are delivering in our many other export campaigns. I am hopeful that we will achieve success in many of them, for the aircraft certainly deserves that success.


18. What steps his Department is taking in co-operation with other countries to develop future defence initiatives against Iran and to prevent the build-up of that country's nuclear weapons technology. (80086)

The MOD conducts contingency planning for numerous possible scenarios around the world. However, the UK continues to work with other countries to achieve a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We want a negotiated solution, not a military one, but all options should be kept on the table.

Do the recent visits by the Chief of the Defence Staff to Tel Aviv and the Israeli Defence Minister to London suggest that Her Majesty’s Government are seeking a closer defence relationship with Israel, with Iran at the top of the agenda?

The recent visit to Israel by the Chief of the Defence Staff was part of his long-standing programme of visits. He visited both Israel and the occupied west bank, he was able to speak to both the Israeli chief of staff and the Palestinian Prime Minister, and he assessed for himself the security concerns at first hand and urged the two sides to resume direct talks. I have no doubt that during his visit he also discussed the wider security implications in the region.

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 their military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. In order to discharge those responsibilities, it is necessary to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget and a programme that is affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term.

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), just said, UK Ministers have been assiduous over the past few weeks in promoting the case for the Typhoon in India and in other countries that are considering the purchase of new fast jets. We understand that there is likely to be an announcement in the next few weeks on the decision made by the Indian Government.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is deeply irresponsible for certain elements of the press to print untrue scaremongering stories about the future treatment of our armed forces personnel, especially over the Remembrance day weekend? (80094)

I agree with my hon. Friend. The story that has been running this weekend has been deeply unhelpful to morale in our armed forces, and is based on untruths and misconceptions. There has been no change in the Government’s position on the number of Army posts that will go over the remainder of the decade and no change in the procedure for exempting those recovering from injuries incurred on active service from the redundancy process.

We fully understand why the dedicated international security Minister is not with us today, but can the Secretary of State not come to a conclusion where he makes this temporary absence permanent and cuts the number of Ministers at the MOD? This is nothing personal against the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)—he is a good man, he works hard and I am not suggesting that he should be sacked in his absence. However, the Levene review recommended a head count reduction in MOD Ministers and, at a time when the Army is being cut by almost by 20,000 and the Air Force and the Navy by almost 5,000 each, why is it that the only place in the MOD exempt from head count reduction is the ministerial offices?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the appointment of Ministers is a matter for the Prime Minister. But I cannot help noticing that the Leader of the Opposition does not appear to have taken note of the right hon. Gentleman’s self-denying recommendations.

T3. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the need for sustainability. Will he therefore confirm to the House that he will continue the good work of his predecessor in implementing the whole of the Levene recommendations? (80095)

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have been through the body of recommendations that Lord Levene made and that were endorsed by my predecessor. I am happy with them as a whole and I will pursue their implementation.

T8. The British Legion’s money advice service helped more than 3,000 service families with unsecured-loan problems last year. Today’s Daily Mirror reports that firms such as QuickQuid are targeting military personnel and charging annual rates of more than 1,000%. According to the Daily Mirror, the Minister has never heard of payday loans, so how will he stop those get-rich-quick merchants ripping off our service families? (80100)

May I counsel the hon. Gentleman? In no circumstances should he believe everything that he reads in the Daily Mirror. However, in response to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) who referred to payday loans on Thursday, I made the point that the issue had never been raised with me.

I do wish that the hon. Gentleman would be quiet. I had indeed never heard of them, because the issue is not something that has come across my desk. However, I deprecate these ridiculous, high-interest loans, which are appalling. They are not something that we find in the chain of command. It is true that the Royal British Legion does an excellent job in helping families and, indeed, ex-service personnel when they get into trouble with debt.

T4. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how many force elements at readiness the joint Harrier force had at the time of the strategic defence and security review, and what his assessment was of the number of trained pilots and the force’s ability to conduct strike operations? (80096)

At the time of the SDSR, there were eight qualified Harrier pilots trained to operate off an aircraft carrier, only one of whom was trained to do so under night-flying conditions. The previous Government envisaged that the Harrier force would be worked up to support a small-scale contingent operation by the end of 2011. The Harrier force did not have the ability to have conducted both the Afghanistan and the Libya commitments at the same time. Indeed, my advice is that it would have taken 18 months to regenerate the Harrier force to support operations in Afghanistan alone.

In recent weeks, BAE Systems has made it absolutely clear that the reason that there are 3,000 job losses is the slow-down in the Eurofighter order. In the light of that, can the Secretary of State clarify the Chancellor’s comments to the House on 1 November? When asked about job losses by the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who is in his place, he replied that the job losses reflect the fact that

“the US defence budget had an impact on BAE Systems.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2011; Vol. 534, c. 758.]

Will the Secretary of State clarify which UK-US defence cuts the Chancellor was referring to?

T5. There are reports that the Department’s medal review has been stopped and that an independent review will now commence. Can the Minister assure me that that will not cause further delays to veterans, such as those of the Arctic convoys, in getting a decision and that no service personnel facing redundancy will miss out on the diamond jubilee medal? (80097)

Two questions for the price of one. A review of medals is indeed ongoing. It has not yet been finalised. When it is finalised, it will be put before the House in the normal way. No one who is eligible for the diamond jubilee medal on the correct date, which is, I think, 6 February this coming year, will be affected by compulsory redundancy because the qualification date will be before anyone is made compulsorily redundant, although, of course, if they have not done five years on that date, they will not qualify for the medal.

Concern has been expressed about Army recruitment in Swansea because Territorial Army pay is taken off the benefits of Territorial Army personnel, thus undermining demand from those people who are not working to join the Territorial Army. Will the Minister talk to the other Departments involved to try to reconcile that problem?

The hon. Gentleman was dozing earlier, but the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) asked precisely that question, and I was able to reassure him, first, that we are very much aware of the issue and, secondly, that a piece of cross-departmental work is going on to ensure that the negative effects that he suggests do not in fact materialise.

T6. Will my hon. Friend consider introducing legislation to allow councils to give council tax discounts to servicemen returning from duty? At the moment, although that is possible, it is very difficult for them to do so. (80098)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. It is within the powers of any local authority to give a discount on council tax, should it wish to do so. I would welcome that if it improves the lot of our service personnel returning from operations.

If, in the near future, Members of the other place decide once again to remove the chief coroner from the Public Bodies Bill, the Government will clearly have to think again. In those circumstances, will the Secretary of State stand up for the bereaved families of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and encourage the Justice Secretary to adopt the affordable alternative put forward by the Royal British Legion?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was not here or was dozing earlier, but I answered the question—[Interruption.] What I can say to him is that we absolutely care for the bereaved families. That is one of our highest priorities, and rightly so. We wish to ensure that they get decent services inquests, and that is what we are doing. I point out gently to him that it was under the previous Administration that there were problems with inquests.

T7. My family, like many other fans of the Red Arrows, were deeply saddened by the recent tragic loss of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham. Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps are being taken to investigate that tragic incident fully and to ensure that similar tragedies are avoided in the future? (80099)

I can assure my hon. Friend that in addition to a service inquiry, the Military Aviation Authority is conducting a detailed analysis of what went wrong. In the meantime, we have grounded aircraft using the same ejector system, but not those that are currently on front-line operations.

What specific new powers are to be given to local authorities to provide affordable accommodation for service families?

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter on Thursday. Only last night the Minister for Housing and Local Government was on television making the point that we are very keen that people returning from operations or from abroad and moving into their home area where they have not lived for some time should have priority in council housing. That is, of course, the responsibility of local authorities, but we are working hard with them to get them to take note that somebody who has been away for six years may be a resident of Islwyn, even if he has been living somewhere else for the past six years.

This is the first chance I have had to welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his post, which I do with the greatest pleasure and the utmost confidence. Since the Atlanta games there has been an internationally accepted minimal level of protection for the Olympics. Will he confirm to the House that there will be a full range of multilayered defence and deterrence for the London games, including ground-to-air missiles in London?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his generous words. I can assure him that all necessary measures to ensure the security and safety of the London Olympic games will be taken, including—if the advice of the military is that it is required—appropriate ground-to-air defences.

I am delighted to have raised the consciousness of the Minister about payday loans in our debate last Thursday, and I am pleased to hear his words of condemnation today. May I press him to go a little further? Will he write to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to back calls for a cap on the cost of credit to protect our forces families, so that he can turn his outrage into action?

As I said to the hon. Lady on Thursday, I am already investigating the matter, although I make the point again that it has not been raised with me in the past 18 months that this is an issue with service personnel. I think it is an issue, obviously, because the hon. Lady raised it. It is not my responsibility to write to BIS, but if, in the course of investigations, it appears that that is affecting service personnel, I shall certainly take it up with BIS, as I agree with her—surprisingly—that the rates of interest are ridiculously high and should be capped.

Does the Minister understand that any satisfaction there may be in Scotland about the announcement of Army units to be deployed at RAF Kinloss is more than tempered by severe disappointment in my constituency that no such similar announcements have been made in respect of RAF Leuchars? Promises have been made. Is it not time we were told how these promises are to be implemented and some guarantees were given?

The announcement in the House on 19 July explained the broad strategic direction that will be taken on rebasing. As far as the particulars of RAF Leuchars or any other base are concerned, further work is currently under way on the detailed site-by-site analysis, but there is a further complication, as the Army is currently conducting a large piece of work on its future shape and structure, so we will not come to any final decisions on basing until that work is concluded, which we expect to be early next year.

The full unit establishment total at RAF Kinloss was about 1,500 posts and the annual gross wage contribution to the local economy was £54.5 million. The planned relocation of 930 Army engineers to Kinloss is welcome, but what economic assessment has been made of their relocation?

The decision to move Army units to Kinloss was taken on the basis of military efficiency. I acknowledge that the number of personnel will be slightly smaller than the number who were there previously, but the fact is that the decision was dictated by military considerations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will welcome the Army into their community and be grateful for the contribution they make to the local economy

I remind the House of my interests. In the light of the proposed future utilisation of reserves, does the Minister anticipate any need to change their terms and conditions of service?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend, who continues to serve in the Territorial Army, for which I am grateful? As he knows, there are concerns following the Future Reserve 2020 study, which we are concentrating on, such as the under-recruitment of young officers into the TA, which is extremely important. We are yet to decide on changes to terms and conditions. People join initially for patriotic reasons of service, and secondly, quite rightly, for adventure, excitement and such reasons, but we must of course get the terms and conditions right because finance is also important. We are looking at that closely.

May I return to the issue of housing? Two weeks ago I was visited by a soldier who is to be invalided out of the Army. He has served in Afghanistan and elsewhere and has local relatives, yet the London borough of Hillingdon is contesting its responsibility to house him. I ask the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to get specific advice or instructions on local connection rapidly to local authorities so that they cannot use it to wriggle out of their responsibilities.

I am sorry to hear about that case. If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me about it, I will certainly take it up with the London borough of Hillingdon. It is a great pity—I put it no more strongly—that some local authorities do not take sufficient care in their responsibility towards the armed forces. We are setting up community covenants, which many local authorities are taking up. They are about local authorities liaising with the military so that they take in people such as his constituent and give them priority when they need it.

A recent ActionAid survey found that 86% of Afghan women worry about the return of a Taliban-style Government when international troops leave. What will the Ministry of Defence do in the lead-up to the planned withdrawal of troops in 2014 to ensure that we leave as a legacy an Afghanistan where there is safety and security for women as well as for men?

It is absolutely clear that for Afghanistan to have a stable and sustainable future there must be an inclusive political settlement, and that is this Government’s policy. That means including all the ethnic groups within Afghanistan and ensuring the participation of women in Afghani society. That is the direction of the Government’s policy that we will pursue vigorously.