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Volume 542: debated on Monday 26 March 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

United Arab Emirates

1. What plans he has to co-operate with the authorities in the United Arab Emirates on defence issues. (101596)

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the two British service personnel who were killed today in Afghanistan. Their next of kin are being informed. Our thoughts, as ever, are with their families, for whom this will be a deeply personal tragedy. Details of the incident are still emerging, but it appears that a member of the Afghan national army opened fire at the entrance gate of the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah city, killing the two British service personnel. The assailant was killed by return fire. The Ministry of Defence will issue further statements as the details of the incident become clearer. I am sure that the House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to Captain Rupert Bowers from 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan on 21 March.

The United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates enjoy a strong relationship, as is enshrined in the defence co-operation accord signed in 1996, which sets a wide scope for security co-operation, including in planning. I visited the UAE two weeks ago for meetings with UAE Ministers and defence chiefs. We discussed ways to further enhance our co-operation, including through equipment sales and associated industrial collaboration and technology transfer. I look forward to maintaining a productive dialogue as we take those proposals forward with the UAE over the coming months.

May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s tribute to the brave service personnel who lost their lives today and previously?

The UAE is a key strategic ally and has been for a very long time. Given the tensions in the region, notably with Iran, what is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that our Eurofighters and other key arms are provided to the UAE so that it is defended properly?

As I said, I visited the UAE two weeks ago. It has indicated that it requires fighters. However, it rightly looks to set its requirements for military equipment in the context of a wider collaboration with its friends and allies. The UK is looking to put together an attractive package of industrial, technological and defence support with the UAE. We hope that the Typhoon will be part of that.

May I associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State about the recent deaths of the three brave soldiers? They do what they do not only to keep our country safe, but to defend those who cannot defend themselves in Afghanistan.

Our relationship with the United Arab Emirates is incredibly important, as the Secretary of State said. After the importance of the Typhoon jet in Libya, will he ensure that the UAE understands that it is a superior aircraft to the Rafale, the French model? Will he do everything that he can to support the Typhoon in the fighter modernisation programme of the UAE?

I assure my hon. Friend that it is clear from the discussions that I have had in the UAE that the UAE air force chiefs are well aware of the capabilities of the Typhoon. I am sure that they are also well aware of the capabilities of the Rafale. We have had Typhoons in the UAE twice over the past few months. There will be further work with the UAE so that it can understand the capabilities of the Typhoon in detail as part of their evaluation of the options open to them.

The Secretary of State spoke for the whole House in extending condolences to the families of those who fell in the service of their country in Afghanistan. We are grateful to him.

Should we be increasing our arms sales to any part of the Arab world, when people are crying out for democracy and we are critical of arms sales to Syria? It is shaming that as Bahrainis are tortured, killed and repressed, we have resumed arms sales to that country. Should we not try exporting a bit more democracy and a bit less weaponry?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. The United Kingdom’s intention is always to get that balance right. The UAE is a strong and reliable ally and partner. It fought alongside us in Libya and is working alongside us in Afghanistan. In an increasingly fragile security situation in the Gulf, it is a significant ally of the United Kingdom. We always seek to balance the concerns that he has set out against the United Kingdom’s security concerns when making such judgments.

Service Families (Welfare)

All the services have long-standing welfare structures in place to support families. We continually review that support to identify where it can be further improved, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a number of measures last Wednesday to support service families. They included £3 million made available to double, again, to 100% the council tax rebate for deployed service personnel; £2 million allocated to double the rate of the families welfare grant, which is available to commanding officers to use as they see fit on activities for the families of those deployed; and an additional investment of £100 million in 2013-14 to improve service accommodation.

My hon. Friend raises a very good point, and I should say that in general, service children have a rather better than average attainment record in schools. We have several schemes, one of which is the continuity of education allowance, which allows children to remain in one school while their parents move around the world or the country. Another is the pupil premium that we have introduced, run by the Department for Education, under which each child carries a passport of money for their school. Schools very much welcome that.

I join the Secretary of State in expressing sincere sympathy at the tragic deaths of the soldiers in Afghanistan.

Can the Minister confirm that homes at military bases in Northern Ireland such as Aldergrove will be upgraded to improve living conditions for all our military families?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. It is rather like painting the Forth road bridge—or is it the rail bridge? I can never remember. [Interruption.] The rail bridge—I am grateful. It is ongoing—[Hon. Members: “Not any more.”] Apparently, they have found a new paint in Scotland. Nevertheless, we will continue to work on all Army quarters. The last Government took great steps to improve service family accommodation, and we are continuing that work.

Following on from the support that is given to serving personnel, what support is given to veterans and their families through extra funding for centres such as the Wirral veterans contact centre, which was set up in 2011 specifically for that purpose?

If my hon. Friend would like to speak to me about that centre, I would be very happy to look into it. I have to say that I have not heard of it before. We work very closely with all the service charities in the voluntary sector to support ex-service personnel, and we also do a great deal of work through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency and other organisations to support ex-service personnel.

I welcome the announcements in the Budget targeted at forces families’ welfare, but I hope the Minister occasionally reads the Army Families Federation website and blog. If so, he will see how the announcement on housing is being received. One blog post reads that

“it’s difficult to regard as new money and is still £40 million short of that allocated and withdrawn last year…it does not begin to answer the problems surrounding the rebasing of families from Germany.”

Is he embarrassed that the Chancellor’s announcement does not even make up for last year’s cut?

I really do think, first, that Opposition Members should remember that we are struggling in a very difficult financial situation caused by the last Government. Secondly, the hon. Lady should not believe every word that appears on every blog on the internet, because there are rather a lot of them. Thirdly, I was most interested to discover that the shadow team led by the right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) had been issuing joint press statements with service charities, which I have to say I find very surprising. I am rather disappointed if the Royal British Legion is sending out joint press statements with the shadow Defence team, as was said in a very reputable newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, yesterday.

Defence Equipment (UK-France Co-operation)

4. What recent progress his Department has made on co-operation with the government of France on defence equipment; and if he will make a statement. (101599)

We have taken significant steps to implement the UK-France defence security co-operation treaty signed in 2010. The recent summit, in February, demonstrated that our bilateral co-operation remains strong and that both nations are committed to delivering the aims of the treaty. The summit declaration set out the areas of co-operation on defence equipment, and we continue to make progress across all the programmes by ensuring that our time lines and requirements are aligned, and in some cases by setting up joint project offices.

I thank the Minister. Can he give the House an assessment of the long-term future of our defence relationship with France, and the outcomes that he sees it delivering both now and in future?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend a clear reassurance on those points. The politicians, armed services and acquisition communities of both countries understand the importance of the relationship, which I believe will endure for many years because of the benefits it brings in terms of both enhanced capability and lower cost, which are crucial tests for anyone interested in delivering effective equipment for armed forces at a price the taxpayer can afford.

May I associate myself entirely with the Secretary of State’s expression of sympathy following the loss of two service personnel today in Afghanistan?

The Opposition support further co-operation with the French, as industry does. However, the industry’s concern is that the French Government have an industrial strategy and are already looking at how they maximise business for French companies. They have been faster out of the blocks yet again, so given repeated delays in the announcement on planning round 12, can the Minister tell the House exactly when we can expect the announcement? Can he please not say “shortly”, because industry and employees deserve a little better?

I assure the hon. Lady that she can expect a statement very shortly. As for her more general point, this country has a very effective way of supporting defence industries by making them competitive to ensure that they can take on world markets well and strongly, by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and exports, and by supporting science, which the previous Labour Government cut. Those things will give us a very strongly competitive defence industry, not only in respect of the relationship with France, but around the world.

Eurofighter Typhoon

Typhoon exports are an important part of our defence export drive. They help to sustain highly skilled jobs and engineering capability in the air sector as well as enhancing our alliances in key regions of the world. We also recognise the benefit Typhoon sales could have on the Ministry of Defence’s own acquisition programme. Ministers and officials from across Government are actively promoting Typhoon where appropriate, highlighting the excellent performance and reliability on operations and the outstanding value for money it offers, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just confirmed.

May I associate my views with those of other hon. Members regarding the loss of life in Afghanistan?

Last week, the Indian Ministry of Defence ordered an internal review into the procurement process that led to the French Rafale aircraft receiving preferred bidder status despite the fact that it was apparently out-performed by the Eurofighter in tests as well as in operations in Libya? What discussions has the Minister held with his Indian counterparts to seek reassurances that Britain’s defence export industry is not losing out because of unfair and uncompetitive practices?

The hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters and took part in the Westminster Hall debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on 7 March, so I understand where he is coming from. I can assure him that I take these matters very seriously. I have read the reports about the internal investigation that Minister Antony, the Defence Minister in India, has instigated. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall be flying to India tomorrow, where I hope to have discussions with Indian Ministers and other officials.

The Typhoon is clearly an exceptional aircraft, but to sell it to countries around the world we need to draw on all the experience we have as a nation and our contacts with other countries. Given that our contact with India goes back many decades, why were the Germans chosen to lead the sales consortium? Should not we have been leading that, in what used to be a part of the British empire?

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but unfortunately the previous Government decided that the project would be led by the Germans, despite all the connections the UK has with India. I can assure him that we and BAE Systems are taking a very active part not only in preparing ourselves in case the Indians would like us to resubmit and talk to us again, but in discussions with EADS, Cassidian, the German Government and our other two partners. We are also working very hard on the export drive to make up for the loss and damage done by Labour when it was in government.

Carrier Programme

My aim is to announce a balanced budget for defence and a properly funded equipment programme for the first time in a generation, and to deal with the £38 billion black hole we inherited from our predecessors.

As part of that process, we are reviewing all programmes and I will announce the outcome of this work when it is complete, but as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, we will be guided by the facts and be realistic about costs and risks. If the facts change, we will, if necessary, change our plans and not plough on regardless, as the previous Government did.

Does the Secretary of State not agree that it is essential that we continue with the carrier programme to ensure that our troops in conflict far from our shores can at least have air supremacy and to bring much-needed jobs to our shipyards around Britain, including on the Clyde, where many of my constituents work?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the strategic defence and security review committed us to a regeneration of carrier strike capability, and the building of the carriers is well advanced. I can reassure him on that front. There is no intention to revisit the decision to build the carriers. The review is about how we operate them, use them and ensure that they remain affordable into the future.

My right hon. Friend is rumoured to be considering reverting to the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter. Is he aware that were he to do so, his decision would be applauded by many because it would mean not having to find £2 billion per carrier—money not readily available—and because it might mean having two carriers instead of one?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I have spent a great deal of time looking at this project over the past few months, and I believe that I am aware of all the arguments on both sides.

The Government have just placed great emphasis on co-operation between the UK and our French NATO partners. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is helped by the reports that they are chopping and changing their plans about which aircraft will go on the new carriers?

The collaboration that we have discussed and intend to progress with the French essentially concerns carrier deployment—working together to ensure deployments that make sense and which are coherent when looked at together. It is not about interoperability of aircraft as such. We expect that whatever decision we come to, the co-operation and collaboration that we have been discussing with the French will go ahead and will be an important part of our posture in operating our carrier strike force.

On 19 December, I asked in Defence questions about the state of the carrier fleet and the aircraft to fly from it. Rather to my surprise, I got the old ministerial brush-off. If I say I have heard echoes of that so far today in the Secretary of State’s answers, perhaps I will not be criticised. It has been known for months that the F-35 programme, so far as it relates to the aircraft the United Kingdom was to procure, has been in trouble. When will the Government come to the House of Commons and make a full, clear and detailed statement about the carriers and the aircraft to fly from them? Does anyone in the Ministry of Defence now admit to regretting the fact that we disposed of the present generation of carriers and sold off the Harrier aircraft to the United States marine corps?

My right hon. and learned Friend is conflating two issues. I have already said that we are looking at the carrier programme along with the rest of the equipment programme, and as soon as I am in a position to do so, which I expect to be shortly, I will come and update the House fully. The disposal of the Harriers was a separate decision taken because of the cost pressures facing the Government and taken consciously to save the Tornado, which proved to be an invaluable aircraft in the Libya campaign. It was the right decision.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s words about the tragic loss of life of two serving personnel and, obviously, Captain Rupert Bowers, last week?

In responding to the initial question, the Secretary of State referred to the Prime Minister’s words last week. I remind him that in introducing the SDSR, the Prime Minister said that the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 was an error. He has obviously seen fit to change his mind. Does the Secretary of State agree with that position, and will he confirm that the Government will deliver continuous carrier strike capability by 2020, as outlined and pledged in the SDSR?

I can only say what I have already said. We are looking at all the issues around the carrier strike programme, and I will make a statement to the House shortly. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that I will not take any lectures on the carrier programme from him. He supported a Government who delayed the programme by two years and drove £1.6 billion of costs into it, and whose management of the programme was described by the Public Accounts Committee as

“a new benchmark in poor corporate decision making.”

Can the Secretary of State confirm that if he decided to go for the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35, this would enable continuous carrier strike capability to be maintained, as it could be deployed from both carriers, which is impossible to do with a single carrier?

My hon. Friend is pointing out that there are complex capability traits to be looked at in considering the question of carrier strike—the capabilities of the two aircraft, but also the availability of carriers from which they can fly. All those things are being evaluated. When we have come to a clear conclusion, we will come back to the House.

Service Accommodation

7. What steps his Department is taking to improve service accommodation; and if he will make a statement. (101602)

The Ministry of Defence is continuing to target efforts on the most pressing accommodation issues. For example, both this year and next, the MOD plans to spend around £75 million on upgrading single accommodation. Furthermore, some £44 million was allocated in financial year 2011-12, and £50.5 million in 2012-13, to upgrade service families’ accommodation to the top standard. In addition, the Government have just announced £100 million of further investment in financial year 2013-14. Around 650 service homes and 600 single accommodation units are expected to benefit from this substantial investment.

What steps are being taken to adapt service accommodation for servicemen or women who are injured or disabled in combat?

This is taken on a case-by-case basis. Accommodation will be adapted as necessary where a clear user is coming in and using a unit of accommodation. However, rather than trying to pre-empt or guess what will be required, we will continue to take an entirely pragmatic approach.

The Minister will be aware that the Defence Committee recently visited the Falkland Islands. As part of an excellent programme, we looked at the accommodation provided to servicemen while they are in the Falklands. However, we came across personnel from the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland who were being accommodated in camp beds in an old gym, having just returned from an exercise. Does he find that acceptable, and will he look into it to ensure that it does not happen again?

The accommodation to which the hon. Lady refers was an entirely temporary arrangement while the units of accommodation that those personnel would ordinarily have been living in were being refurbished—I think this was made clear to the Select Committee on its visit. Those personnel will be in that permanent accommodation as soon as it is ready.

As the Minister correctly says, this Government have done a great deal since they came to power. However, does he agree that the provision of decent accommodation, for both single servicemen and married couples—and, indeed, for families—is central to the military covenant? Does he agree that there is so much more to be done, and that even the announcements that he has made are not yet all that could be done? When does he anticipate having an entire military estate that is fit for purpose?

As I explained in my initial answer, we continue to make substantial investments, which were further boosted by the additional funds that were made available last week in the Budget. It is important to keep a sense of proportion about the condition of housing at the moment. More than 96% of family accommodation in the UK is in either condition 1 or 2, and we are now meeting the commitment in the armed forces covenant that no family accommodation will be newly allocated if it falls in condition 3 or 4. There is more to be done in the case of single living accommodation, but that work continues apace. Even as we speak, the Allenby Connaught project is continuing to deliver new units of single living accommodation across Salisbury plain and in Aldershot.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the likely cost of upgrading the service accommodation in the Edinburgh estate, including at Craigiehall in my constituency, is likely to be significantly less than the £600 million cost of the proposed super-barracks in Kirknewton?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the costs of differing future accommodation options for the Army are being scrutinised closely. The Army 2020 piece of work is nearing a conclusion. The attendant estate study will continue for a few months, but the sort of comparisons that he makes will be central to the thinking in those studies.

May I press the Minister on his answer on single accommodation? When does he expect single accommodation—I mean single accommodation specifically—to be up to a standard that he would expect all service personnel to live in?

The aim would be to complete that as part of Future Force 2020, but we cannot know for certain until the work that I described a moment ago is completed. Until we know the future basing requirement of the Army, it will be very hard to say. For example, if a great deal of new build for new barracks were involved, this goal would be likely to be achieved much earlier than if it were a question of “make do and mend”. Some pretty big strategic decisions need to be taken on the defence estate during the next six months.

I welcome the priority given by the Government to this issue when they are under intense financial pressures. May I suggest that the very different accommodation patterns across the services are one of several good reasons why the future new employment model should be devolved to the three services rather than developed centrally?

It is certainly the case that future employment practices will determine the sort of accommodation we supply to our armed servicemen, and these will vary across the three services, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Middle East

9. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in the Middle East; and if he will make a statement. (101604)

Demands for greater political, social and economic participation continue in the middle east and north Africa, particularly in Syria where the situation is of grave concern. The UK remains concerned over Iran’s nuclear programme and its continued attempts to develop nuclear weapons.  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 we are clear that all options should be kept on the table. We assess that the regional security situation will remain fragile.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s appraisal of the Iranian nuclear programme; no options should be left off the table. Will he ensure that the Iranians are under no illusions and state that, if necessary, the United Kingdom has the capability to act—and act decisively?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already made the situation abundantly clear. The UK, together with the United States, seeks a peaceful solution to the Iranian crisis, but we are very clear that a combination of engagement and continued pressure is the way to deliver that. We look forward to the resumed E3 plus 3 talks, and we are also very clear that no option should be taken off the table.

Can the Secretary of State tell us on what British forces are engaged in the Gulf region at the present time, and what the rules of engagement are for naval vessels in the strait of Hormuz and surrounding waters?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have naval vessels in the Gulf. I am not able to tell him from this Dispatch Box the details of the rules of engagement, for reasons that will be obvious to him.

Given the recent deployment of some of Britain’s minesweepers to the strait of Hormuz, does the Secretary of State agree that the clearing of mines in international waterways is a necessary but passive action, which should not be seen as a hostile act by Iran or any other country?

To be clear, there has not been a recent deployment. The UK has minesweepers deployed in the Gulf—they have been there for some time, and I expect them to remain there. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Keeping the strait of Hormuz open is a passive action in the interests of the international community, and should not be regarded as a war-like action by anybody.

Armed Forces Morale

I continue to be impressed by the morale and commitment of those putting their lives at risk on operations on a daily basis. This was particularly evident to me during my recent visit to Afghanistan. More broadly, the Ministry of Defence uses a number of measures, including the annual armed forces continuous attitude survey, to monitor and understand changes in morale across the services. In the 2011 survey across the three services, 46% of respondents reported that their morale was high, and 31% were neutral.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, and in particular convey my deepest sympathies to the family of Captain Rupert Bowers of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last week? The people of Bromsgrove are rightly very proud of having given the Mercians the freedom of the district last year. Does the Minister agree that if more cities and towns throughout the country followed their example by conferring a similar honour, that could help to boost morale?

I do agree, and I applaud the local communities that are taking part in the armed forces community covenant scheme. Over the past five or six years, the community in general has increasingly recognised the contribution that our armed forces make, and has become increasingly willing to make spontaneous gestures of respect for them. That is very welcome, and it undoubtedly has an impact on morale.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to the morale of our troops on operations that they know that in their absence their families are safe, secure, and surrounded by understanding and like-minded communities such as those in the neighbourhoods of married quarters, which are known as “patches”? Can he reassure service families that the forthcoming review of accommodation options under the new employment model will take account of the intangible benefits of such communities in towns where there are married quarters?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There is a balance to be struck, but the community support that results from the collocation of armed forces families is tangible. We must also concentrate on the ability of families to secure employment in local communities, and that is another consideration that we take into account.

I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response. Forces’ morale is closely linked with events in Afghanistan, and I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences: the thoughts of all of us, and the prayers of many of us, are with the families and friends of those who have been bereaved today. I do not want to go into the specifics of that attack, but attacks on NATO forces by Afghan forces have resulted in 75 fatalities since 2007, and most of the attacks have taken place in the last two years. In the light of previous incidents, what new procedures have been implemented to vet Afghan recruits, and will Afghan forces be responsible for the protection of UK trainers who remain in Afghanistan post-2014?

We keep force protection issues under continuous review, and we have changed our procedures in the light of events that have occurred both recently and over a longer period. The decision of the Government —the last Government, as it happens, but that is not relevant—to adopt a partnering strategy and put our troops in alongside those of Afghanistan undoubtedly carried a considerable degree of risk, and there are those who think that that is the wrong approach, but I do not agree. I believe that the last Government were right to compute that the risk was worth taking, and I believe that that is the only way in which we will engrain the necessary skills and culture in the Afghan forces and complete our mentoring task.

Forces’ morale often depends on success in Afghanistan. Last week the Prime Minister made clear his view that the handover to Afghan forces could be achieved satisfactorily without a political settlement, but that is contrary to all experience in Afghanistan. Such a vacuum would encourage neighbouring countries to seek influence, allow the Taliban to return, and allow other elements to exploit the ungoverned space. Does the Minister accept that while there can of course be significant military success in Afghanistan, stability in the country will ultimately rely on a political settlement?

I certainly agree that a political settlement will be required if there is to be enduring stability beyond the end of 2014, but I think that the hon. Gentleman conflates two issues. It is perfectly possible for us to complete the security challenge of handing the lead over to the Afghans district by district, area by area, which we are doing now, and doing successfully; but if that is to stand a chance of sustaining peace in Afghanistan in the long term, a political settlement will need to come behind it to return the country to the stability for which we have all been trying to work.


I regularly discuss a wide range of security issues with my NATO counterparts. 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 we are clear that all options should be kept on the table.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Most of the people I speak to on this subject are very concerned about any prospect of military action against Iran. Can the Secretary of State reassure them that everything that can be done through diplomatic means is being done, and what steps is he taking with his US counterparts to move that forward?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that everything possible is being done. The UK has been in the forefront of the effort progressively to tighten sanctions against Iran. All the evidence suggests that they are beginning to have an impact on the Iranian economy and the Iranian regime. We are also leading supporters of the E3 plus 3 talks, and we are moderately encouraged by Iran’s commitment to resume talking next month, but, of course, the proof will be in the pudding, as we have heard all this before. We hope this is a genuine re-engagement by Iran, but, as I said earlier, we should leave all options on the table.

In the absence of the appropriate UN Security Council authorisation and the justification of self-defence, does the Secretary of State agree that any attack on Iran, whether by Israel or not, would be an act of aggression and in breach of international law?

That would depend on the circumstances. For the United Kingdom, a pre-emptive attack would certainly be regarded as illegal.

Armed Forces Act 2011

13. What recent progress his Department has made on implementation of the provisions of the Armed Forces Act 2011. (101608)

The Armed Forces Act 2011 received Royal Assent on 3 November 2011. Some of its provisions, including the continuation of the Armed Forces Act 2006, came into force on that day. The provision relating to the call-out of reserve forces came into force two months later. Implementation of the remainder of the Act is now under way. The first commencement order was made on 1 March, which brings into force, with effect on either 8 March or 2 April, about half of the remaining provisions of the Act, including the provisions relating to the armed forces covenant report, Ministry of Defence police performance regulations and the independence of service police investigations.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and may I associate myself with the condolences expressed earlier? Does the Minister agree that means-testing the compensation paid to the bereaved families of those who have fallen on the front line is not right and should be looked at again?

The hon. Lady raises an important issue. This practice causes a great deal of unhappiness among some people, and I accept her point that it should be kept under review. The means-testing of compensation awards is not a Ministry of Defence responsibility, but if she likes I will get my colleagues in the relevant Department to write to her.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Government on their work on the military covenant. Will he take this opportunity to thank organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association for the work they do for those serving on the front line and their loved ones?

I certainly will. As my hon. Friend knows, both we and the country as a whole rely a great deal on the service charities and voluntary sector, as have previous Governments. My hon. Friend mentions the SSAFA, but many other organisations, including the Army Benevolent Fund—or ABF, as it is now called—Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion do excellent work on behalf of our service personnel and ex-service personnel. There are, I think, almost 2,000 such service charities, so I will not name them all.

Armed Forces Community Covenant Scheme

14. What assessment he has made of the efficacy of the armed forces community covenant scheme; and if he will make a statement. (101609)

It is too early to assess the efficacy of the scheme, which was launched less than a year ago, but the level of interest from communities across the UK is very promising. More than 40 councils have already signed a covenant, and more than £2 million has already been allocated to support local projects under the grant scheme.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am particularly interested in soldiers’ mental health. What is the MOD doing to increase public understanding and awareness of potential mental health issues among armed forces personnel, especially in preparation for the troop draw-down from Afghanistan?

We take the issue of mental health extremely seriously, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know. I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for his “Fighting Fit” report. We have implemented a great many of his recommendations and I believe we will implement them all, including working closely with Combat Stress, which we continue to do. Combat Stress has installed a helpline for those in trouble. We continue to take this matter seriously. It is not really part of the armed forces community covenant, but we see it as part of wider covenant issues.

On celebrating links between communities and the armed forces, will the Minister note the extremely strong support shown by the town of Warminster on 16 March as 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, which is deploying in extremely difficult circumstances to Afghanistan, marched through the town?

I will. We all know of the tragedies in Afghanistan, and there cannot be anyone in the House who has not shed a tear for the brave young men who die in the service of their country. I pay tribute to the people of Warminster and, indeed, to their Member of Parliament.

Military Personnel (Training)

16. What steps he is taking to ensure that military personnel deployed in combat zones have sufficient training and experience. (101611)

I would like to offer my condolences to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents for the recent losses to the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. The Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its responsibility and duty to care for all our service personnel to make sure they are sufficiently prepared for the job they are deployed to undertake. Training is designed to meet the specific requirements of each operation, and individuals will be provided with appropriate training, depending on the role they are going to perform.

May I remind the ministerial team that it is young men and women who are killed and have been killed on active service? Captain Lisa Head, from the bomb disposal squad, was killed a year ago in Afghanistan, and the inquest into her death takes place tomorrow. The young Yorkshire men who were killed recently were 19, 20, 20 and 21, which makes one wonder whether these young people are sufficiently skilled, trained and experienced to be in such a dangerous position so early in life.

I entirely repudiate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Army units deploying to Afghanistan go through a bespoke 18-month training progression prior to deployment, which is tailored to the role they will fulfil in theatre and creates a very high level of individual and collective competence. From talking to them out there, I know they will believe that they have had the training they need, and that is also the assessment of the military professionals.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure: that our country is properly defended, now and in the 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. In order to discharge those duties, I have a clear 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.

The Defence Secretary announced today that the life of the Vanguard-class submarines will be extended to 2030. That was missing from his earlier written statement. Why has he tried to sneak this announcement out without debate?

I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is displaying a deep misunderstanding of what has happened today. We have announced today the signing of the contract for the long period overhaul of the last of the four Vanguard-class submarines, HMS Vengeance. HMS Vigilant will sail tomorrow, having completed her refit. This will extend the life of the Vanguard-class submarines into the 2030s, which will allow the nuclear successor submarine to be introduced in the late 2020s while maintaining the UK’s continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

T5. Given that 30% of all Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and given the 13 to 14 year average before our veterans display PTSD symptoms, what is the Minister doing to ensure that servicemen and women receive support not just soon after their discharge, but in the decades that follow? (101625)

I note that my hon. Friend recently took part in a Westminster Hall debate on exactly this issue, which was replied to by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), with whom I recently visited Combat Stress because we have worked hand in hand on these issues. I mentioned the “Fighting Fit” report earlier. We are looking very closely at the long-term provision of support. This is a difficult and complex field, and we work very closely with the King’s Centre, under Professor Simon Wessely.

I wish to return to the question posed by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about one of the most controversial decisions of the Government—the decision to sell the Harriers, leaving the UK with carriers but no aeroplanes to fly from them. I have in my hand an internal MOD document that reveals that the Government sold the Harriers for much less than they were worth—in fact for a sixth of the cost of a recent upgrade. The document shows that there is a fear about viable capability being thrown away and points out that at the point of sale the aircraft should be moved in secret to avoid media attention. May I ask the Secretary of State why, when money is so tight, the Government sold the Harriers so cheaply to the US?

I think the right hon. Gentleman perhaps spends too much time reading the Sunday newspapers. I too read an article yesterday that said we had spent £500 million refurbishing the Harriers shortly before selling them to the United States. In fact, the programme in question was instigated by the previous Government in 2002 and sustained the Harrier through to the end of its service with UK forces. Far from sneaking the Harriers to the US in secret, when the deal was signed the MOD issued a press release announcing the sale price, $180 million, which was nearly twice the figure that I was told when I arrived at the MOD had been pencilled in as the receipt. It was a success, although the right hon. Gentleman would hate to admit it.

Order. May I just remind the House that there is a lot to get through so from now on we need shorter questions and shorter answers?

T6. The Minister will be familiar with Chetwynd barracks in Chilwell in Broxtowe having visited it just the other week, when he brought a cheque for £50,000 for Alderman Pounder school, for which we are very grateful. Will he ensure that some of the extra money announced in last week’s Budget is provided to soldiers’ families at Chetwynd, who want, like many soldiers, to live on base as a community? (101627)

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and Alderman Pounder school and I am delighted at the work going on there, which is helped by the MOD support fund for state schools with service children. I should also warn her about Greeks bearing gifts, but I have no Greek blood.

T2. The recent London-Somali conference reflected the commitment of successive Governments to that region, but the communiqué spoke of co-ordinated ground action, and air strikes were also mooted. Will the Secretary of State rule out British military action in Somalia, including ground troops and air strikes? (101622)

I do not think it would be sensible for me to rule out anything in the long term, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have no plans to deploy any troops at the moment. As he will know, the African Union provides the troops for this operation; our involvement is limited to a very small number of staff advisers, largely advising the Kenyan forces.

T7. Concerns about the provision of mental health care for veterans have been widely reported in the media. Does the Minister have any plans to implement the community veterans mental health project following the success of a pilot scheme in Wales? (101629)

We are looking at that as we are looking at all future provision, but this is quite a developing field. As I said earlier, we look very much to advice from the King’s Centre and Professor Simon Wessely. He has already provided some excellent advice. PTSD and issues of mental health are extraordinarily complicated. I think we need to tread very warily when we go forward and to take them extremely seriously.

T3. In the previous MOD questions my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State asked what steps the Minister had taken to ensure the service premium continues to be paid for the children of service personnel who die on duty. The Minister has had a full month, so will he tell me what steps he has actually taken to ensure that service children are properly supported and continue to receive the help they deserve? Has he lived up to his previous statement that he does not wash his hands of the situation? (101623)

The reason I said that I do not wash my hands of the situation is that we are concerned about service children whose parents have been killed. However, as I said at the time, this is a Department for Education initiative. I should have hoped that the Opposition praise the pupil premium initiative. We are very keen that all children of service personnel should do well, but the premium is paid because of the mobility of children. We therefore have to look very carefully at how children will be affected when their mobility ceases.

T8. Does the Secretary of State agree that the tempo of our military withdrawal from Afghanistan should be dictated by real measures of military success on the ground, so that the British lives lost in Afghanistan will not have been in vain? (101630)

I agree absolutely that we must secure our legacy in Afghanistan for the sake of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. The tempo of our withdrawal will depend on the situation on the ground and on decisions that our allies take: we have to go in lockstep with our major allies.

T4. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the planned cuts of almost 50% to the Ministry of Defence police budget and explain further how such a massive reduction can have anything other than a detrimental impact on national security? (101624)

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), tells me there is to be a written ministerial statement on that subject tomorrow, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: if he is concerned about cuts, perhaps he should be aware of a passage in a letter written by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to his party’s defence spokesman, in which the right hon. Gentleman says that there is no easy future for defence expenditure, and clearly a Labour Government can expect to have to make further savings after the next election. The hon. Gentleman might want to talk to the Leader of the Opposition about the matter.

Following on from that question and the Secretary of State’s reply, may I draw his attention to my Question 17 on the Order Paper and ask when the Ministry of Defence is going to come clean about the future of the Ministry of Defence police? The Labour Government cut the number of MOD police posts in my constituency from 33 to three, and now Question 17 indicates further cuts.

As my right hon. Friend just mentioned, there is to be a written ministerial statement tomorrow, but I can say that we aim to reprioritise the work of the Ministry of Defence police criminal investigation department on the crimes that most significantly affect the defence interest. There will be reductions, but we will consult staff associations and the trade unions, as well as other key stakeholders such as the Home Office.

Have the Scottish Government recently sought any discussions with the Minister and, if so, what have they focused on?

That is a rather widely targeted question. I believe the Scottish Government have recently engaged with us on the safety of nuclear materials moving by road, but I do not recall any other engagement in the past couple of months.

I represent a constituency with a proud heritage of support for the Royal Navy. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that any decision on the future of the carriers will be based on considerations of long-term costs and long-term interoperability, not of short-term savings?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is our intention and it is what the previous Government signally failed to do.

Earlier, we heard about morale in the armed forces. I regret to report that, apparently, morale is low in the Royal Marines Reserve detachment in my constituency, because of uncertainty about its future. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence in January, raised the matter in Prime Minister’s questions in February and today I am raising it for the third month in succession. What does the future hold for the RMR detachment in Dundee?

That is part of our ongoing review. I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman with more details as soon as we have finalised our decisions.

I was with service families 10 days ago. They told me that, at the moment, what they are most worried about is redundancy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we ought to get redundancy done as soon as possible, so that morale can improve?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: uncertainty saps morale. That is why the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force have completed the announcements of redundancies required. Because of the rebasing, the drawdown from Afghanistan and the return from Germany, it has not been possible for the Army to complete that process, but we will make announcements as soon as we can to provide as much certainty as possible.

The treatment of veterans, including those in ongoing conflicts, such as Afghanistan, is a key part of the military covenant. To that end the Westminster Government repeatedly send Ministers and Members of Parliament to understand circumstances there to inform decision-making on the treatment of veterans in medical policy and support provision. Given that veterans issues are largely devolved in Scotland, why has the MOD refused to arrange a visit to service personnel in Afghanistan for Scottish veterans affairs Minister, Keith Brown?

I understood that that was a question about a visit for a Minister from Scotland. I am afraid we do not arrange visits for Ministers from Scotland unless we are asked specifically in writing.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our support to the Afghan Government will continue long after 2014 so that Afghanistan does not once again become an ungoverned space that can be exploited by terrorists?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is precisely our intention. At the Chicago NATO summit in May we expect to put together a package of ongoing financial support to the Afghan national security forces to allow them to take control of their own security in Afghanistan and maintain it as properly governed space.

Sixty-nine years ago tomorrow, HMS Dasher sank off the coast of North Ayrshire and 379 crewmen lost their lives. The survivors and families have been asking for access to the Ministry of Defence files to find out what happened. Will the Minister meet me, any of the seven living survivors who wish to come, and the families to discuss the matter?

In the welcome building stability overseas strategy on conflict prevention, is the MOD contributing anything to seek to bring down the pressure in the middle east, and in Syria in particular?

I am delighted to be able to give my right hon. Friend an assurance that the Ministry of Defence is working closely with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development because we think building stability overseas and defence diplomacy are extremely important parts of the overall picture in conflict prevention. I can assure my right hon. Friend and the House that we are working hard to that end.

Given the physical constraints of Headley Court, will the Minister update the House on plans for a national rehabilitation centre?

Headley Court does a fantastic job. I know that Members from across the House have visited it. However, in the long term we see a new centre, the defence and national rehabilitation centre, being established in the midlands—at a place called Stanford Hall. This is being supported very much and led by the Duke of Westminster and other donors. We pay tribute to them. I will discuss the details later—I shall be sat on if I give any more. It is an excellent initiative and I pay tribute to those involved.