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Topical Questions

Volume 542: debated on Monday 26 March 2012

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.