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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 546: debated on Monday 11 June 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

New Equipment (Expenditure)

Before I answer the question, I am sure the House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the three servicemen who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met: Captain Stephen Healey of 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in the upper Gereshk valley on Saturday 26 May; Corporal Michael Thacker, also of 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh, who was killed by gunfire in Nahr-e Saraj on Friday 1 June; and Private Gregg Stone of 3rd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, who was also killed by gunfire, on Sunday 3 June. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice, which we will never forget. I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with their families and loved ones.

I am sure the House will also want to join me in paying tribute to the bravery of the British and American forces involved in the operation to rescue aid worker Helen Johnston and her three colleagues, and to the Afghans for the huge help they provided throughout. The rescue operation was conducted with immense skill and professionalism in the most difficult terrain imaginable. Through this operation, we send a clear message to terrorists around the world that the UK will not tolerate the kidnapping of our citizens.

As I announced to the House in May, the core committed equipment programme—which covers investment in equipment, data systems and equipment support—amounts to just under £152 billion over 10 years. This includes some £80 billion for new equipment and its support and, for the first time, over £4 billion of centrally held contingency to ensure the robustness of the plan. In addition, the Department has a further unallocated £8 billion in the equipment budget. This will be allocated to projects not yet in the committed core programme only when it is necessary to commit in order to ensure the required delivery, and when the project in question is demonstrated to be affordable and with military advice.

May I join the Secretary of State in offering my condolences to all those brave troops?

My visit to Afghanistan last year served to bring home to me how important it is for our troops that any uncertainty about future equipment supplies is eliminated. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend offer more details on the £4 billion contingency fund that is in place to ensure the robustness of the equipment programme?

I agree with my hon. Friend that what our armed forces particularly want to know is that, unlike sometimes in the past, they will always have the protective equipment and the support helicopters that they need. Through our balancing of the equipment plan and introducing the £4 billion contingency fund, they will have much greater assurance that that will the case. That is the least we owe to them.

Whilst having a long-term plan for defence equipment is crucial for our conventional military capability, does the Secretary of State agree that we also need to be investing in cyber-defence capability, to combat threats to our national security from this rapidly evolving threat?

The Department certainly recognises the rapidly evolving threat from cyberspace, and we keep it under constant review. The national cyber-security programme has provided the Department with £90 million, and the Department has allocated some additional funding to increase investment in cyber-security this year, enhancing our existing capabilities. It will also be increasingly appropriate to consider cyber-security issues as an integral part of wider projects that depend on networked command and control capabilities.

The sums the Secretary of State mentions are, indeed, substantial and will guarantee thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jobs. How many of those jobs does he envisage will be in Scotland in the event that Scotland decides to be separate?

Clearly, at this stage it is not possible to identify how many jobs will be created in different parts of the United Kingdom by the equipment programme we currently envisage. However, we enjoy an exemption from European Union procurement rules in respect of defence capabilities when we are procuring them in a way that protects our national defence capability, and if Scotland were not a part of the UK, it would be competing for defence contracts in the open market along with other providers in Europe and beyond.

Since May 2010, £1,250,000 worth of kit and equipment have been stolen from the Ministry of Defence and its bases across the UK. That includes night vision goggles, body armour, military uniforms and boots, and even an aircraft fuselage. How much of the new spend will be covering unexplained thefts which have not been investigated and for which only one person has ever been prosecuted?

The hon. Lady can probably do the maths: she says £1.25 million worth of equipment has been stolen, and I have announced a £152 billion investment, so she can work it out for herself. As a member of the Defence Committee, which asked questions about this matter, she will know that of the equipment listed as stolen, a significant amount has been recovered, but not necessarily netted off against that figure, so in fact the total is probably less than the £1.25 million she suggests.

May I, on behalf of the Opposition, join in the condolences offered to the families of the three servicemen who, tragically, gave their lives serving their nation?

A decision has been taken to cut the co-operative engagement capability, which was designed, among other things, to enable and support a reduction in the number of type 45s from eight to six. Dropping the programme, which has already cost the taxpayer £45 million, therefore poses capability risks. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what were the strategic—not the budgetary—reasons for his changing his mind?

I notice that the hon. Lady did not tell the House what was the strategic reason for Labour having delayed the programme for five years, before we grasped the nettle and decided to cancel it. We take decisions on the basis of advice from the Armed Forces Committee, which takes the budget available and decides what the priorities should be. In this case, the First Sea Lord and his colleagues on the Armed Forces Committee have decided that the programme is not a high priority for naval spending.

Life Insurance

The Ministry of Defence provides pensions and compensation for personnel injured due to service, and benefits for the dependants of those whose death is due to service, through the armed forces pension schemes and armed forces compensation scheme. However, we also have a duty of care to ensure that personal accident and life insurance cover is available to those service personnel who consider they require it. This cover is voluntary and separate from the benefits provided by the Government. The Ministry of Defence arranges personal accident and life insurance cover through the PAX and service life insurance schemes provided through Aon Ltd and the Sterling Insurance Group respectively.

I think most military families will not be entirely happy with the Minister’s answer. How much would it cost to provide fully funded—100%—state-funded insurance to all those on the front line, and will he and his Department consider doing that?

In a sense, we already provide cover for those on the front line in the matter I have described—through the armed forces compensation scheme and the armed forces pension schemes—so that anyone who suffers in consequence of their military service is compensated appropriately. The hon. Lady will be aware that, after the previous Government ordered an independent review of the armed forces compensation scheme, the amounts payable were substantially increased. If members of the armed services decide, for personal reasons, that they want to seek cover additional to that, we are determined to ensure that they are not disadvantaged or prevented from doing so on account of their service in the armed forces. That is why we intervened in the market to ensure that the schemes I mentioned are available, but it would not be right for us to go out and procure those policies on behalf of individuals: these are personal decisions that those individuals make. We provide death-in-service and injury-in-service benefits; it is up to—

Order. Minister of State, I think there is extensive scope for an Adjournment debate on the matter.

I will not start an Adjournment debate on the matter, Mr Speaker, but the armed forces compensation scheme, although first class, does not go quite far enough. It was recently reported that as many as 50 soldiers killed on the front line in Afghanistan had no private life insurance at all. Could not the MOD do more both to encourage and to facilitate the provision of private life insurance to everyone on active service in Afghanistan?

We do encourage individuals to take out additional cover, but people’s circumstances will vary enormously in terms of mortgage liabilities, the size of their family or anything else they wish to cover for. We heavily subsidise these schemes while people are on active service in Afghanistan, but it would not be right for the state to assume responsibility for this and take it over completely.

Aircraft Carrier Cover

The strategic defence and security review confirmed the Government’s intention to re-introduce a carrier strike capability from around 2020. This capability will be delivered by the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, operating the STOVL— short take-off and vertical landing—variant of the joint strike fighter. Until then, the Government have accepted that expeditionary air power will need to be deployed by other means, which may include agreements with allies regarding overflight and basing rights. In addition, the Government are considering the scope for us to co-ordinate carrier strike operations with those NATO allies that currently operate aircraft carriers, including the United States, France and Italy, both prior to and following the re-introduction of the United Kingdom’s own capability.

Our future aircraft carriers are being built by our Scottish allies. What happens to the construction of those carriers if Scotland declares independence and does not contribute to the cost?

As a good Unionist, I must emphasise that the carriers are being built by the United Kingdom, and that many English yards, as well as Scottish yards, are making a fine contribution to these outstanding ships. The best thing that I can say to my hon. Friend is that it is two thirds of a century since the United Kingdom built a warship outside the UK—that happened during the second world war—so the facts speak for themselves.

The Telegraph conservatively says that it is £250 million, but can the Minister say how much the bad decision to proceed with the F-35C cost? Surely this should include the costs of carrier conversion, too.

I can confirm what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said on many occasions: as of the end of April, we had committed £39 million on conversion studies and a further £1 million on an air-to-air refuelling study. We do not think that the money has been wasted. Changing the variant was considered the best course of action under the SDSR, and these costs were necessarily incurred.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that it is our intention to build the two carriers so that both are able to operate fixed-wing aircraft and that we will purchase enough fixed-wing aircraft to operate from both of those carriers?

I can confirm that both carriers will be built; it will be a decision in the next SDSR as to whether or not both are operated. Similarly, we are following an incremental acquisition policy on the joint strike fighter itself. Therefore, I cannot give my hon. Friend the comfort he is seeking at this stage, as this relates to a commercial negotiation and a strategic decision for the next SDSR.

War Widow Pensions

War widows have our deepest respect for their loss. War widows today span the generations, from those who have lost their husbands in world war two through to those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the War Widows’ Association, whose tireless help and support is invaluable. Payments are made through either the armed forces compensation scheme or the former war pensions scheme. In addition, pensions may be paid through one of the occupational armed forces pension schemes.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. My constituent, Iris Thorogood, is an 85-year-old former chairman of the War Widows’ Association, an organisation founded in 1971, at a time when war widows received very little by way of a pension. I am sure that Iris, and indeed the War Widows’ Association, would appreciate confirmation from him that, contrary to some rumours being peddled, war widows have received the full increase of 5.2% this year, in line with disability benefit, and will continue to do so?

First, I pay tribute to Mrs Thorogood and reassure her about the 5.2% uprating of her pension, in line with the Department for Work and Pensions disability benefit. I was very surprised at the recent comments by the shadow Defence Secretary about

“veterans’ and war widows’ pensions being frozen year-on-year.”—[Official Report, 14 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 265.]

That is completely incorrect, and it is a pity that he does not know a little bit more and is not a little bit better informed of such important issues in his brief.

Given the unveiling of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command memorial later this month to remember the 55,000 airmen who died during the second world war, does the Minister agree that when we are talking about war widows’ pensions, we must give accurate information and not engage in the skulduggery of misleading people about this?

I certainly do, as I believe I have already made clear. I am proud to be an honorary member of the Bomber Command Association, and I look forward to the opening of that memorial at the end of June. We need to remember the debt that we owe to those 55,000 people from Bomber Command who died and to all the others who died in the second world war, as well as to their dependants and their surviving widows.

Maritime Surveillance

The wide range of assets capable of conducting maritime surveillance were reviewed during the strategic defence and security review and decisions were made in the light of our future requirements and the challenging circumstances facing the Government. Due to the financial legacy we inherited from the previous Government, including the woeful mismanagement of the Nimrod MRA4 project, we had little choice but to cancel that project and make a number of other adjustments to our force structure. I believe we have the capabilities we require in this area, but we keep our requirements under close review against operational circumstances. Should the threats change, we stand ready to respond.

The Government have made a commitment to additional maritime surveillance with respect to Somalia because of the serious maritime threat posed there. What additional steps are the Government taking to support the Prime Minister’s peace process initiative in Somalia and what steps are they taking on the threat to the peace process caused by piracy?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of the international efforts being made in Somalia, in which the UK is proud to play a part. Surveillance is certainly a part of the international effort, but the UK did not specifically engage to undertake it—it is done on an international basis, and other allies provide the surveillance capabilities.

The Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that he has balanced the budget, but the lack of maritime surveillance demonstrates that he can make such a claim only because he has cut the equipment budget so deeply that he has left our nation with a capability deficit. He cannot deny that we have a capability deficit in terms of maritime surveillance.

The hon. Gentleman has answered his own question. If one has had to balance the budget having inherited a £38 billion black hole, inevitably certain capabilities would have had to be deleted. I remind him that the previous Government were using alternative methods of providing maritime surveillance. They considered that such methods would be adequate for a two-year period, and we have concluded that they provide sufficient cover for a further period.

London Olympics (Security)

7. What recent assessment he has made of the armed forces contribution to implementation of security plans for the London 2012 Olympics; and if he will make a statement. (110549)

The armed forces recently conducted an extensive exercise to test their operational readiness to provide safety and security, in support of the police, during the Olympic and Paralympic games. The exercise achieved its objectives and I am confident that we are well placed to deliver this important role.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the constructive way in which she engaged with the Army on the air defence missile site at Blackheath in her constituency for the exercise, and to her constituents, the overwhelming majority of whom were supportive of it.

The Secretary of State mentioned the proposal to site surface-to-air missiles on Blackheath as part of the Olympic security plan. It is my understanding that a final ministerial decision has yet to be taken. When will that decision be made, and will the Department be in direct contact with residents who live in close proximity to the proposed site to inform them of it?

The hon. Lady is right. We have received the military advice on the outcome of the exercise and Ministers will now consider it and make a final decision on the deployment of ground-based air defence systems. As you would expect, Mr Speaker, when a decision is taken, an announcement will be made first to the House, but I will ensure that the Army engages with residents who live in close proximity to the site to ensure that they are aware of all the ramifications of any decision to go ahead and deploy.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, to ensure effective interoperability between the emergency services and the armed forces, all parties involved with Olympic security will use a common communications platform?

The arrangements for effective command and control will involve military commanders being embedded with police gold commanders in their headquarters. I cannot give my hon. Friend a guarantee that they will use a common communications system, but the key decisions will be made by people sitting in the same room. They will then be passed down the respective chains of command.

My constituents living in Bow quarter are rightly concerned about the Ministry of Defence’s plans to base surface-to-air missiles on their rooftops ahead of the Olympics. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that more than a month ago. When does he intend to respond to my request for a meeting to explain the risks to my constituents and answer their concerns? The consultation has been very thin.

I am not aware of a request from the hon. Lady, but the Army and MOD officials have engaged with a number of Members of Parliament who have sought a briefing. She is welcome to come to the Ministry of Defence at any time for a detailed briefing. There appear to be a very small number of her constituents who are opposed to the proposal, and there has equally been significant support from other areas. There is no risk to residents of the building. The water tower at Bow quarter was selected on military advice, because it is the right place to locate this particular defensive equipment.

What has been done to keep local people informed about the deployment of those assets in their communities during the Olympic period?

The Army has engaged with local authorities in the first place, and more recently with local community groups. We have a standing Army capability to go out and engage with any groups that want to be engaged with, and to brief Members of Parliament. I am very happy to brief any Members who are affected by the proposals.

Social Housing

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on access to social housing for former members of the armed forces. (110551)

I regularly speak with the Minister for Housing and Local Government and raise such issues as are necessary. My hon. Friend will be aware of the consultation recently undertaken by the Housing Minister on what more can be done, and particularly on statutory guidance on giving precedence in social housing lists to service personnel with local connections when they leave the services.

The Minister will be aware of the recent changes to the housing allowance, which mean that those aged between 25 and 35 will have to share. Exemptions have been announced for those living in homeless hostels and for certain offenders. Will the Government consider also exempting servicemen returning from active duty, particularly those who may be at risk of redundancy?

My hon. Friend will know that Lancashire county council’s Councillor France has expressed his concern, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for also doing so. We obviously always keep an eye on the matter, but the changes to the shared accommodation rate were discussed between Ministry of Defence officials and Department for Communities and Local Government officials prior to the announcement in June 2010. We will take a look at how we can best serve our personnel, but those who are exempted are those who are considered to be in difficult circumstances, such as people leaving prison. I do not think our personnel leaving the armed forces should be equated with, for instance, those leaving prison.

The Minister also has responsibility for forces accommodation. The Government recently announced that they would be giving an extra £100 billion, but they forgot to inform the public that they were taking away £141 million. Armed forces accommodation is the largest single issue raised in complaints to the authorities. What will the Minister do to address the sorry state of some of our armed forces accommodation?

First, I should say that we announced £100 million extra, not £100 billion, for accommodation?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, but there has been no hiding the fact that we have had a three-year pause in the amount that we have put into forces accommodation. He will know why—we inherited the most ghastly financial situation. I have talked the matter through with the families federations, and they understand that times are very hard. If he does not understand that, he should read the newspapers.

May I remind the Minister of the armed forces covenant in respect of housing? In his discussions with his colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government has he been advised of when the mandatory guidance will be issued to councils on that matter? Will there be more money in significant areas of garrison towns?

We are discussing the matter. I am not sure that mandatory guidance will be given, but there will be guidance on giving preference to those leaving the armed forces. We are very concerned about the matter, and we are continuing to uprate kitchens, bathrooms and so on with the money that we are spending. I know that the hon. Gentleman is as well aware as I am of the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.

I want to raise an issue about housing on which I am sure there will be all-party consensus. Recent research by Lord Ashcroft showed that a third of junior ranks in the Army and more than a quarter of those from the armed forces who have applied have been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card in the past five years. Although individual circumstances can always lead to a refusal, that number is far too high. Will the Minister agree to cross-party talks, involving service charities and the military, on how to deal with this and other issues of discrimination raised in the report?

Of course, I am very happy to indulge in cross-party talks on such matters. I talk to service charities the whole time about them. For instance, the right hon. Gentleman talks about mortgages being refused, but that is one thing that we have put right. Although I am not blaming the previous Government in particular, it is a fact that British Forces Post Office addresses were not accepted by mortgage companies. We have now said that they are to be accepted—[Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) saying from a sedentary position that that is not true, but that was what I was told by all the service charities and servicemen to whom I spoke.

For the purpose of this question, I shall set aside the partisanship and ask the Minister about the issue again. When one in five members of our forces is shouted at in the street and almost as many are refused service in a pub, hotel or elsewhere, we must all go further. There are sensible examples of legal protections for other specific groups that go much further than the military covenant to protect against discrimination, harassment or abuse. In the light of the research, in the build-up to Armed Forces day and as part of these indulged in—or indulgent—all-party talks, will the Minister consider new legal protections for those who keep our country safe?

I hear your strictures, Mr Speaker. I am not sure whether new laws are required. What is required is a greater respect for our armed forces and the truth is that most people in this country view our armed forces with great pride, which the four out of five people who are not subject to any form of abuse will recognise. Now, I notice people wearing uniform in the streets much more often, for instance. Once upon a time, that was actively discouraged because one did get abuse, typically from long-haired left-wing students, but that was just when I was young.

On the question of social housing, a problem that has come up in my constituency is what happens when someone who has been in the armed forces returns to an area from which they have been away. They want social housing, but the local council has a regulation that people cannot get such housing unless they have been there in the past year. Is that something we can put right?

It is, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government is talking about. When someone has been away for 10 years —perhaps they have been abroad, serving in Germany with the Army—they should have the opportunity to register for a house and to get precedence in the area where they lived for all their life before joining the armed forces to serve their country.

Birmingham city council was probably the first specifically to ring-fence new social housing provisions for ex-members of the armed forces. Is the Minister aware of any other councils in the west midlands following suit, as, although what Birmingham does is magnificent, it is not sufficient?

Here I call on the help of my civil servants, because I am not aware of any other councils in the west midlands following suit. I applaud Birmingham city council—under, I think, Conservative administration —for putting this to one side—[Interruption.] Then under Conservative administration. I applaud the council and, as the hon. Lady will know, we are encouraging the community covenants that lead to such activities.

I am sure that the Minister will write to the hon. Lady with further and better particulars when he has consulted his officials.

Defence Budget

A balanced budget gives our armed forces confidence that once a project is in the programme, it is real, funded and will be delivered, so that they can plan with certainty. The balanced budget is a firm baseline for the transformation to an armed forces that are smaller, but that will be adaptable, agile, well equipped with the best technology and supported by a Ministry of Defence that is re-focused around their needs.

Will the Secretary of State give me a further assurance that in future we will never again return to an unbalanced defence budget, which saw us buying very expensive, high-ticket items while our brave personnel were going without some of the basic equipment they needed in theatre on the ground?

My hon. Friend has put her finger on the problem: in the past we had an armed forces budget that was out of kilter, and were trying to support armed forces that were not properly resourced. The consequences were inadequate protective equipment and inadequate military equipment to do the job they were being asked to carry out. I believe that we have an absolute moral responsibility, when we ask people to put themselves in harm’s way, to equip them with the kit that they need to be as safe as possible in doing that.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that we live in a very uncertain world, in which new threats are evolving—we have already heard mention of cyber-security threats. Is he convinced that now that we have a balanced budget, there is scope to tackle these new threats and to provide the kit that our armed forces need?

As my hon. Friend says, we live in a very uncertain world and the threats are changing, and technology also is changing very rapidly. Precisely for that reason, we have kept £8 billion-worth of headroom in the equipment programme, rather than allocating every last penny of it, as was the practice in the past. Too often in the past, we have had to cancel or abandon expensive commitments in order to respond to changes in technology or threat. We should not be in that position in future.

In terms of the budget and the impact on armed forces personnel, what is the Secretary of State’s policy on service personnel who have lost a limb or have other disabilities staying in the armed forces? Has an across-the-board decision been taken that anyone who has lost a limb will have to leave, or is it down to individual circumstances or commanding officers?

It is down to individual circumstances. We have given a clear commitment that as long as someone who has suffered injuries on active service is in the process of treatment or rehabilitation, where it is appropriate for them to remain in the Army, they will so remain. Once they have completed the rehabilitation process, we will do our very best to find positions that they can fill in the Army. Many service people who suffer disabilities as a result of their service have been found positions that they can continue to hold down in the Army, but we cannot give a guarantee that nobody will be medically discharged after they have completed the rehabilitation process.

Given that the Secretary of State’s statement about supposedly balancing the defence budget relates only to the 45% of the budget spent on equipment, how will his announcements this week of compulsory redundancies in the armed forces affect the other, unaccounted for, 55% of the budget? When can we expect the details of how he has balanced the rest of the budget?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was here when I made my statement, but he is completely wrong; my statement related to the whole budget, not simply the equipment plan. As he will know, the announcement of a reduction in the size of our armed forces was made last year. We are now making a series of tranches of redundancy announcements, of which the one due tomorrow will be the last for the Royal Navy and the RAF, to get us eventually to armed forces of the size specified for Future Force 2020 in the strategic defence and security review.

The news that the defence budget is balanced is obviously very welcome, but there will inevitably be a certain amount of scepticism about it. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if he is to dispel that scepticism, the sooner he can provide absolute clarity about exactly how he has balanced the budget, and exactly how the £38 billion black hole that Defence Ministers referred to is calculated, the better?

I accept that there will be a certain amount of scepticism. In relation to the equipment plan, there are two parts to the answer. First, the armed forces committee has confirmed that the equipment plan that we set out and funded does deliver the capabilities required for Future Force 2020. Secondly, we have submitted the programme to the National Audit Office for review, and we will publish the result of that review in due course. In respect of the 55% of the annual budget that is not taken up by the equipment plan, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and Members in all parts of the House will look to see a defence budget that comes in within the spending plan total, as they did in 2011-12.

Departmental Procurement

Innovation ensures that we are able to access and deliver technology into our systems and equipment to provide continuing operational advantage to our armed forces. That is why our recent White Paper, “National Security Through Technology”, highlighted the importance of investment in science and technology. It also recognised the contribution of commercial investment in developing new technologies. Using open competition in defence acquisition ensures that we are able to deliver the best and most innovative capabilities at an affordable price. In addition, the success of the Centre for Defence Enterprise in bringing through suppliers new to defence, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, which are important sources of innovation, led to our decision to broaden the centre’s remit, including the mentoring of smaller companies.

During the recess, BAE Systems announced the closure of the historic Scotswood road site in Newcastle, with the loss of more than 300 jobs. This brings to an end a 165-year history of skilled engineering, the longest continuous site of tank manufacture anywhere in the world, as well as bringing great distress and uncertainty to my constituents. Does the Minister agree that refusing to take into account the wider economic implications of defence procurement undermines not only innovation, but jobs and communities across the country? Will he agree to meet me and a delegation from BAE to see what can be done to save the site?

I have enormous respect for the hon. Lady’s expression of concern for her constituents, and I pay tribute to the work that those people have done over many years to support the armed forces. However, it is not true to say that the policy that she describes is the cause of the problem. The problem is that BAE Systems has not won contracts at this site. Meanwhile, the Warrior sustainment programme, the Scout SV programme, the Foxhound programme and the integration of the urgent operational requirements continue around the United Kingdom, generating thousands of highly skilled and important jobs. I very much regret that BAE Systems has been uncompetitive, but it is not the fault of the Government. The company must answer why it could not compete successfully for contracts.

Departmental Budget

The budget after 2015 will be set at the next spending review. Our current planning assumption is for a flat real-terms budget settlement overall, with a 1% real-terms increase per annum in the equipment and support budget, as agreed with the Treasury.

When will the Secretary of State publish the National Audit Office report on the budget and equipment programme? Such impartial information is needed by us as MPs, the public and the defence industry.

I completely accept that, and as I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) a few moments ago, I am aware of the fact that the degree of confidentiality around the defence budget invites scepticism when such announcements are made. As soon as we have the report from the National Audit Office, we will publish it.

Scottish Independence (Royal Navy Construction Projects)

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of independence for Scotland on Royal Navy construction projects. (110556)

The defence industry in Scotland, particularly shipbuilding, plays a key role in equipping and supporting the UK armed forces. Defence contracts sustain thousands of skilled jobs and generate billions of pounds for the economy of Scotland. The Government greatly value the highly skilled work force in Scotland. Although the Government are not making plans for separation, as we are confident that the Scottish people will continue to support the Union in any referendum, it is worth noting that the UK has not had a complex warship built outside the UK since world war two. Were we to do so in the future, companies in a separate Scotland would, of course, be free to compete for those contracts, along with international bidders. However, any exemption from EU rules governing public procurement contracts would apply only to warships ordered from our own national yards.

The Minister has made very clear the position of Scottish shipyards, should separation for Scotland take place. Can he clarify the position for suppliers of fixtures and fittings based in Scotland when applying for contracts, if those contracts are given to English shipyards?

The way the EU rules work is that if a Government declare something to be warlike, they can claim an exemption from the EU competition rules on the basis of national security. In the case that the hon. Gentleman describes, those contracts would be non-warlike and would be subject to normal competitive rules. Scottish companies would have to win against global competition.

Can the Minister confirm that in the allocation of naval contracts and defence expenditure in general in Scotland, he will give no credence whatsoever to the notion that such expenditure should be governed by something approaching the Barnett formula—an idea which is as naive as it is risible, not least because it ignores strategic objectives, fails to take account of differing geographical levels of threat, and of course, from Scotland’s point of view, ignores the location of industrial capacity?

I can confirm for my right hon. and learned Friend that the Government would be governed by no such notion. Scotland does well out of defence at the moment; it has one of the UK’s three naval bases, it will have one of the UK’s three RAF operating bases and it has an Army brigade. Those who would seek to change that situation should spell out what it would look like under a separate arrangement.

Scotland also has a disproportionate underspend. The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are, of course, very much in favour of continuing defence procurement co-operation, regardless of the constitutional situation. We believe that it is good for jobs, for manufacturers and for the taxpayers of both Scotland and England. With so many defence sector jobs in England dependent on Scottish taxpayers’ contributions towards procurement, why do not the UK Government simply concede that it would make perfect sense to continue with procurement co-operation if the Scottish people decide that they want defence decisions to be made in Scotland itself?

Defence procurement co-operation of the sort the hon. Gentleman describes would completely contravene EU competition rules. We are allowed to procure non-warlike stores only on an open and competitive basis, so the defence industry in Scotland would have to compete with South Korea, or whichever other country it might be, for future defence contracts.

Regimental Structure (Wales)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has engaged in a number of discussions about the structure of regiments in Wales and, indeed, those elsewhere in the United Kingdom as part of the study into the Army’s future force structure.

In his speech last Thursday the Secretary of State said that regional identity and recruitment capability were important criteria. Does the Minister accept that 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards—the Welsh cavalry—fulfils both criteria and, therefore, every effort should be taken to ensure that the regiment is saved?

Any decisions made will respect regional and national identities, but they will have to be made on objective criteria, including geographical considerations that link closely to recruitment and the need to get the right balance of capabilities and the maximum operational output.

We accept that there will be a reduction in the number of regiments, but given that any artificial increase or staying the same of Scottish regiments, some of which were recruited at only 78%, will have a knock-on effect throughout the United Kingdom, does the Minister think that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence consulted his Welsh and English colleagues on the likely effect of keeping an artificial number of Scottish regiments?

My hon. Friend is quite right; if we are to see a reduction in the regular Army from 102,000 to 82,000, it is inevitable that some units will be disbanded. The criteria by which those units are selected must be objective, as I have described. They must recognise the recruitment strength and the right balance of capabilities. It would not be right for favour to be shown to one part of the country at the expense of another.

The Minister will be well aware that Wales provides an above-average number of Army recruits, compared with the UK average, and of the tremendous symbolic importance of having a distinctive Welsh identity when the regiments are redrawn, so will he take both factors into consideration when making his decision?

As I have said, the criteria that will be used will be objective, and certainly the contribution of Welsh members of the armed forces is hugely recognised and respected.

Nuclear Deterrent

15. How much his Department plans to spend on renewing the nuclear deterrent in the remainder of the spending period. (110558)

The Ministry of Defence plans to invest around £1.4 billion between now and 2014-15 on the assessment phase of the successor submarine programme, as announced to Parliament in May last year. The total cost of the assessment phase, including long-lead items, will be around £3 billion by the time it is complete in 2016-17. Without that investment, it could not be guaranteed that a successor submarine would be available in time to ensure a continuous at-sea deterrent.

With unfriendly regimes advancing their development of nuclear weaponry, will the Minister give an assurance that the United Kingdom will be defended by the most advanced and effective nuclear deterrent?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we understand the vital importance of keeping the minimum effective nuclear deterrent for precisely the reasons she sets out so eloquently.

The decision finally to go ahead is welcomed on the Opposition side of the House, and indeed in my constituency, but the previous Secretary of State put the cost of delaying at between £1.2 billion and £1.4 billion, so is the new Secretary of State’s estimate of the extra cost of delay higher, lower or about the same?

I must be honest and say that I am not sure what delay the hon. Gentleman refers to, so I suggest that we have a conversation about it later.

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 Ministry of Defence is mandated; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks; and that we honour our commitments under the armed forces covenant. In order to discharge those duties, I have worked with the chiefs of staff and my senior officials to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget and a force generation strategy and a defence equipment programme that are affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term, details of which I have already announced to the House.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the members of the armed forces who played such a splendid role in the magnificent diamond jubilee celebrations, remembering that many of those men and women fought bravely in Afghanistan until recently?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The relationship between the monarch and the armed forces is historic and important. Her Majesty the Queen, as head of the armed forces, has maintained and strengthened those links throughout her 60-year reign, and she enjoys the deep loyalty and affection of her armed forces. The diamond jubilee celebrations were a welcome opportunity for the armed forces to demonstrate the affection and esteem that they have for Her Majesty.

May I bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the comments of the head of Army manning, who said that the 4,100 soldiers, sailors airmen and women facing redundancy this week should transfer to vacancies in the Army, Navy or Air Force? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate how angry this comment has made those who are being rewarded for their years of service with a P45, and can he confirm how many vacancies are currently available?

I have read the article by the head of Army manning, and I am surprised at the newspapers’ interpretation of it. I recommend that the hon. Lady also reads it.

Those people who are being made redundant and who wish to apply for another job are, of course, encouraged so to do, be it in the Army, the Air Force or the Royal Navy. When I served in the Army, there were people from the Air Force and from the Navy who had transferred and joined—and some from the foreign legion as well.

T2. I welcome the MOD’s recent award of a £350 million contract to maintain the Royal Air Force’s Hercules aircraft, which will sustain 500 UK jobs. Can the Minister say what other steps are being taken to support the UK defence industry? (110568)

Absolutely I can. I too welcome the award of the Hercules integrated operational support contract, which will save the MOD £170 million by replacing several short-term contracts with one overarching contract. It is another example of the policy that we set out in our recent White Paper, with a list of measures to improve the lot of the British defence industry, including a £160 billion equipment programme, strong support for responsible exports, support for small and medium-sized enterprises in the defence sector and strong support for the previously declining science and technology budget.

T8. When Sir John Holmes reports on his review of the medals system, is the Prime Minister likely to keep his pre-election promise so that after 67 years the surviving Arctic convoy veterans at last receive a British medal in acknowledgement of their brave service? (110575)

Perhaps I should be clear that the remit of the medals review is to look at the process and at the factors that are taken into account when making such decisions. So the review will look at the framework and the basis on which decisions are taken, and it will then be for individual decisions to be reviewed within any new framework that is put in place.

T3. Defence diplomacy is a key component of Britain’s soft power capability. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that defence diplomacy is therefore at the forefront of our foreign and defence policy, and will the Minister highlight some of the programmes currently being pursued in the MOD? (110569)

May I say, with all honesty, that I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his question? I know that he takes a very keen interest in the issue, and he is absolutely right to emphasise the importance of defence diplomacy as a very cost-effective and vital part of our armoury. It is one of seven military tasks set out in our 2010 defence review, and together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office we are now finalising a detailed defence engagement strategy. That will set out the contributions made by, for example, defence training, defence attachés, defence advisory teams, de-mining and, as in Pakistan, the help to develop a centre of excellence for counter-IED capability, to which of course I add defence exports and the role played by Ministers and senior military officials in travelling throughout the world in support of defence diplomacy—I having visited no fewer than 23 countries in the past two years.

(Glenrothes) (Lab): How will the Minister protect the rich legacy of the Scottish regiments, particularly in respecting the historical identities and cap badges of proud battalions such as the Black Watch, in any military cutbacks?

The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and I have all made it clear that the traditions of the Scottish regiments will be respected. There is not, and never has been at any stage, a plan to do away with those identities, which will remain in the long term as part of the Army in Scotland.

T4. This afternoon we have heard the Minister speak of the objective criteria that will be used to determine how the infantry will be cut. For the avoidance of doubt, will he reassure the House that one of those criteria is not the upcoming Scottish referendum? (110570)

To recap, the criteria that will be used are the geographical footprint for recruitment, the right balance of capabilities, and the maximum operational output, not political considerations between different parts of the UK.

Will the relevant Minister tell me what will happen to Fijians and other Commonwealth citizens serving in Scottish regiments, and indeed to the Scottish regiments themselves, in the event of separation?

The hon. Gentleman asks a very good hypothetical question to which I do not have an answer, but I very much hope that the good people of Scotland will show some sense in a referendum.

T6. May I welcome the arrival of the new C-17 aircraft, which plays a vital role in transporting our troops and our equipment, and ask the Secretary of State to add to that? (110572)

Yes. I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that I went to Brize Norton to see the new C-17 aircraft a couple of weeks ago, just a few days after it had been delivered. This aircraft will reinforce the vital, strategically important air bridge with Afghanistan, which is especially important at a time when the ground lines of communication through Pakistan are closed. In the longer term, the C-17 represents a step change in our capability to support operations, including humanitarian operations and disaster relief, and, very importantly, to support the aero-medical evacuation of wounded personnel back to the United Kingdom.

Given that there is clearly concern on both sides of the House, may I press the Minister on when we will get a full statement to Parliament on the future of our regiments, particularly the well-loved Welsh Cavalry?

The Chief of the General Staff is in the final stages of an analytical review of recruiting demographics and manning across the Army, looking at the future needs of the Army but also at the very important historical threads that run through the Army. As soon as we have completed that exercise, I will make a statement to the House, and I confidently anticipate that that will be before the summer recess.

T7. Encouraging strong leadership in our armed forces is vital to the development of an agile fighting force, so will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the recent appointments of Commander Sarah West and Commander Sue Moore, both of which are major milestones demonstrating the achievements of women in the armed forces? (110574)

The House will know that Commander West has been appointed as the first woman commander of a major warship, HMS Portland, and that Commander Moore has become the first woman to command 1st Patrol Boat Squadron. Both appointments were made entirely on merit, and they are very well deserved. I think that the whole House would wish to congratulate those two women and all others who come into such positions of authority.

In response to my earlier question about the closure of BAE Systems on Scotswood road, the Minister seemed to prefer to criticise BAE Systems, and therefore some of my constituents, than to answer my request for a meeting to see whether we could find a way to save these jobs.

It is always a pleasure to meet the hon. Lady. I extended an invitation to her to discuss another subject, but she did not respond. I am always happy to meet her—[Interruption.] On the strictly professional matter of innovation. I intended no criticism of her constituents whatever. They have done a first-rate job. However, the other companies put in lower, better value bids and so won the contracts. That is the problem, and there is no answer to that.

An effective and trusted Afghan national army is key to a smooth transition. When I visited Afghanistan last year, I heard that although recruitment is going well, attrition remains a challenge. Will the Secretary of State look into the fact that attrition rates are not monitored for the different ethnic groups, so we do not know whether there is more of a problem with the Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras or Uzbeks? That information would surely be useful in addressing the problem.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. My understanding, although I will have to check this, is that attrition is measured by ethnic group in the army. I will take the matter up with my Afghan counterpart on my next visit and let the hon. Lady know what I find out.

The review is making good progress and is on target to report to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister at the end of the year, as was announced by the previous Defence Secretary.

The cadet forces provide great opportunities for young people to train in teamwork, leadership and discipline. I very much enjoyed being a cadet when I was at school. What is the Department doing to ensure that more young people avail themselves of those wonderful opportunities?

We are very keen to encourage more cadet forces. Indeed, I had a joint conference with the schools commissioner at the end of April on this matter. We are pushing it forward and will find the resources. I am delighted that my hon. Friend gained from the cadet experience and learned about things such as integrity, teamwork and leadership. I, too, was a cadet, but I will leave it to the House to determine whether my character improved.

Given that the Government are proceeding with the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter, will the Secretary of State say when a decision will be made about the basing of that aircraft? Does he agree that RAF Marham would be an ideal location because of its engineering facilities and its proximity to the US base at Lakenheath?

My hon. Friend is nothing if not diligent in promoting the case for RAF Marham to be the home base of the STOVL JSF aircraft. We are well aware of its engineering capabilities and of its proximity to USAF Lakenheath, where F-35s are likely to be based. The decision does not need to be taken yet, and it will not be taken until it needs to be.

In the United States, the rate of suicides by active military personnel is almost one per day, which is higher than the rate of combat casualties. What are the equivalent figures for the three UK armed services?

Any suicide is a tragedy. The UK has much lower rates of suicide in the armed forces than the US. Research is being done on the matter as we speak, in particular by Professor Simon Wessely of King’s College hospital. Although we remain concerned, for people over 25, service in the armed forces means, curiously, that one is less likely to commit suicide than others. I am happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman.

Next month, the UK will join other Governments at the United Nations to negotiate and agree an international arms trade treaty. We are often told that Britain’s arms controls are among the strictest that one will find anywhere. Does the Minister recognise the benefit to Britain and the world of reaching a strong agreement with as many countries as possible, even if certain countries opt not to become signatories at this time?

The UK is strongly committed to an arms trade treaty and is pushing for it to be as broad and effective as possible. We are encouraged by the fact that certain countries that we did not think would be supportive are showing more encouraging signs as we get near to the negotiations.