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Topical Questions

Volume 535: debated on Monday 14 November 2011

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. 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.