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Topical Questions

Volume 540: debated on Monday 20 February 2012

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in future, through the delivery of the military tasks for which the MOD is mandated; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in those military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. It is clear to me that in order to discharge those duties I have a responsibility to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget and a force generation strategy and defence equipment programme that are affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term.

Ministers have already made reference to last week’s meeting between the Prime Minister and President Sarkozy, where they agreed to move on to the procurement phase on the unmanned aerial vehicle project. How many new jobs does the Secretary of State estimate will be created in the UK as a result of this agreement, and how will he maximise the potential for job growth?

The announcement made at the summit last week was to advance the assessment phase of the unmanned aerial vehicle project, which involves £44 million of expenditure split between British Aerospace and Dassault. I cannot give the hon. Lady an exact estimate of the number of jobs that that will create in BAE, but I am happy to write to her to give her the best estimate I can.

T3. Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress made at the recent Anglo-French summit—if any? (95306)

The Anglo-French summit consisted of two separate parts. First, there was a defence meeting where we were able to have direct discussions with my counterpart in France and talk about all the joint procurement programmes and opportunities that we see for collaborating together in future—for example, in the combined joint expeditionary force—and for procuring together as both defence budgets come under financial pressure. The broader summit conducted between the President and the Prime Minister reasserted at the highest level the desire of the two countries to work together in areas such as nuclear collaboration and the unmanned aerial programme.

Owing to the nature of this question, I will ask it gently. Forces children receive a service pupil premium, but it has recently come to light that a child who is orphaned due to the bravery of their parent in combat loses that payment. I welcome the fact that the Government say they will act upon that, but have they now implemented the change? How many children receive the premium? Can the Minister guarantee that no child will lose the premium as a result of a seriously injured parent being discharged from Her Majesty’s forces?

This is an important issue and the Government were concerned about what we read. However, it must be understood that the premium is given to schools, not to children, to compensate for the way in which armed forces children move around. We have instigated scholarships for the children of casualties in Afghanistan so that they can go into higher education. The pupil premium is a Department for Education responsibility, but Defence Ministers are concerned and we wish to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged. The Department for Education is looking at the matter. We certainly do not wash our hands of it and we are concerned, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that once a child is settled in a school, the need for a premium is somewhat changed.

T4. Having served with the present commander of British forces in the Falklands, I think the Argentines would be very foolish even to contemplate any sort of military intervention, but does the Secretary of State agree that a strong statement of support from the United States would be helpful? (95307)

Clearly, strong statements of support from any of our allies are always helpful, but the realistic situation, which we have long recognised in this country, is that the defence of the Falkland Islands is a task for which the UK must be prepared and capable of undertaking alone if necessary. We hope that we will have support from others, but that cannot be our planning scenario.

T6. What is the current position concerning the aircraft carrier project? Has there been any change in strategy as far as the design and build are concerned? (95309)

T5. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to purchase the new C-17 aircraft for the Royal Air Force. Is that not evidence of the benefits of tackling the Ministry of Defence budget, which is vital to securing the future effectiveness of our armed forces? (95308)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In fact, the acquisition of the eighth C-17 aircraft was an extremely high priority for the military. It reinforces the Afghanistan air bridge at a time when the ground lines of communication through Pakistan are closed.

The purchase was possible because the MOD is moving forward with the process of delivering a credible and sustainable budget with which Treasury officials are comfortable. Trust between the Treasury and the MOD has been the crucial missing ingredient in the past, and rebuilding it has allowed the Treasury to sign off the acquisition of the new aircraft from an in-year underspend. The Treasury would traditionally have been very reluctant to do so without seeing MOD hard numbers for the following year.

T7. I thank the Minister for his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) on the service premium. However, was the Secretary of State aware that extra support would be cut off if a serving parent died in the service of their country before it was disclosed in The Sun and other newspapers, which pressured the Government into a U-turn? (95310)

The hon. Gentleman also raises that important point. The truth is that that is a Department for Education responsibility. Let us remember that this Government introduced the pupil premium, and it is therefore new, but it would be fair to say that we in the Ministry of Defence had not appreciated that this might happen. The Department for Education is looking to ameliorate any problems, but let us remember that the pupil premium is about the transience of service children attending schools—[Interruption.] Well, that is why we introduced it. Circumstances change when a child is settled, but we do not wish them to be disadvantaged.

Is the Ministry of Defence able to offer the longer term reassurance, of the type that it gave last July for the MOD bases in South Uist and St Kilda, for the Sound of Raasay, Rona and the Kyle of Lochalsh bases in my constituency, not least because in the last couple of weeks QinetiQ, the operator, has published half-year profits that were up—commendably—by 45%?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the whole issue of bases is currently under review. The Army is undertaking a large rebasing exercise in conjunction with the new Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and I hope to be in a position to make an announcement to the House in the not too distant future.

T8. The Minister with responsibility for veterans will be aware of the call by the shadow Secretary of State for a £1 million legacy veterans fund, to be funded by cuts at the top end. The Minister is well known to be a commonsensical man: will he stand up and say that he agrees with my right hon. Friend? (95311)

I always accept compliments, from whatever surprising quarters they come. I was not aware of the £1 million veterans fund suggestion, but I will look into it when I have heard from the shadow Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State’s excellent decision to deploy an anti-air warfare Type 45 destroyer to the Falklands certainly ensures that the islands are protected against aerial attack. That still leaves the danger of surface attack. In the absence of aircraft carriers, can my right hon. Friend confirm that a nuclear-powered submarine is available to protect our warship and the sea lanes approaching the Falklands?

First, I should make it clear that the deployment of HMS Dauntless to the south Atlantic is a routine deployment and she will rotate with other vessels of the fleet in due course. Secondly, as I suspect my hon. Friend knows, we never comment on the deployment of our submarines of any description. As he has raised the issue, I will take the opportunity to make one thing clear. There has been some speculation in the press and by Argentine Ministers about the deployment of nuclear weapons to the south Atlantic. The United Kingdom has a clear and publicly stated policy that we will neither use nor threaten to use our nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state that is a compliant member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, so the Argentine republic need have nothing to fear on that count.

The Government have willed an end-date for combat operations in Afghanistan, but not yet an endgame for how we disengage militarily. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the sacrifice and outstanding efforts of those who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan will be underpinned by a departure that is properly planned, co-ordinated and commensurate with conditions on the ground?

The ISAF strategy for transition in Afghanistan has been worked up in detail and continues work that the previous Government had started before we took office. The strategy is clear—it is a progressive transition to an Afghan security lead, which is taking place area by area throughout Afghanistan. It is proceeding well and on a time line that gives every indication that we can make the withdrawal from the combat role at the date that we have suggested. Obviously, the precise speed and order of events depend on circumstances on the ground, but the direction of travel is clear. All international elements are signed up to it and it is progressing well.

I welcome the review of the awarding of medals, but will it also look at the service of police officers who have served with distinction on the police training mission in both Iraq and Afghanistan?

The review is of military medals. I believe that those police officers who serve are entitled to campaign medals. I am sure that they can make representations, but as they already receive those medals, I do not think that it will affect them. I am not responsible for the terms of reference.

Further to Question 6, what structures exist to allow concerns about the biggest Army cuts of all time to be raised further up the chain? I am thinking of the sorts of concerns raised earlier by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I and my colleagues are asking ourselves, “What’s he talking about?” I’m not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Is he talking about whether the Army is top-heavy? [Interruption.] I am at a loss to know exactly what he is talking about, but we intend to reduce numbers in the senior ranks of the Army in order to address the disproportion there.

I think that arrangements can be made for a conversation outside the Chamber, possibly over a cup of tea—who knows?—if the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) is lucky.

I welcome the forthcoming review of the awarding of military medals and I thank my right hon. Friend for his recent correspondence regarding the survivors of the 1940 Lancastria disaster and their campaign for a medal, but may I press him for further details on the timing and remit of this important and timely review?

It should happen speedily. The problem is that this is a responsibility across Government and led, I believe, by the Cabinet Office. We want it announced swiftly and we want it to take place swiftly so that we can understand the rules. I am sorry that I can only give this answer, but I think that everyone will be glad to know that I am not responsible for it.

When members of the armed forces are facing a two-year pay freeze and 20,000 are losing their jobs, how can the Secretary of State justify bonuses, some of five figures, to senior officers in the MOD civil service?

I think we have covered this one already. The arrangements for performance-related pay were put in place by the previous Government and were a decision taken by them with which I concurred entirely. It is the right way to incentivise senior civil servants. By paying non-consolidated performance-related pay, we reduce the total cost to the Department. The scheme was introduced in lieu of pay increases.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of reported collusion between the Taliban and Pakistan on our troops serving in the region?

The situation on the Afghan-Pakistan border is extremely complex, as my hon. Friend will know. As I said, the Government’s position remains that we repeat continually to the Pakistanis that it is in their interest to engage with the peace process and the reconciliation talks, and to ensure long-term stability in the region.

What precise act of brilliance justifies the payment of an £85,000 bonus to one of the Secretary of State’s civil servants? Will the Secretary of State make a bid for his own bonus for today becoming the first Minister to stop blaming the previous Government for all his problems, and tell the House on what precise date the coalition Government will take responsibility for their own conduct?

The hon. Gentleman might not have heard my previous answer when I stated the fact that this contractual, performance-related pay system was put in place by the previous Government. I happen to approve of it; I consider it the right way forward. If he wants to ask about the details of its design and why it was done the way it was, perhaps he should ask the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) or one of his many right hon. Friends who served in the previous Government as Secretary of State for Defence.

RAF Fylingdales and RAF Staxton perform key duties as listening and radar stations. There is concern locally about the impact of wind farms on them. May we have a rejection of any wind farm applications on the grounds that they will interfere with the RAF’s work?

I am not sure whether this will be good news or bad news for my hon. Friend, but we are making increasing strides towards finding radar systems that do not interfere with RAF operations, so this particular obstacle to wind farm applications is diminishing. That is probably not the news that she wanted, but it happens to be the truth.