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Topical Questions

Volume 546: debated on Monday 11 June 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 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.