Skip to main content


Volume 548: debated on Monday 16 July 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Pay

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of the 2012 Budget on the pay of all ranks of armed forces personnel. (116890)

The Chancellor announced extensions to public sector pay restraint in the autumn statement 2011. That will impact on armed forces pay. However, my right hon. Friend announced no further changes in relation to pay in the 2012 Budget, but he did announce the doubling of council tax relief for personnel on operations; the doubling of the families welfare fund to support the families of those deployed; and an additional £100 million of spending to improve accommodation for service personnel and their families. In addition, the lower-paid members of the armed forces are benefiting from the changes to taxation announced in the Budget.

Before the 2010 election, in full knowledge of the deficit, Hull Liberal Democrats promised to “raise the pay of our lowest-paid soldiers by as much as £6,000”. Lib Dems now back the pay freeze and the 20,000 redundancies while expecting our troops to sort out the Olympic shambles. Why should our armed forces trust Liberal Democrat promises ever again?

The hon. Lady supported the Government who got us into the deficit that this Government are currently digging our way out of. We are setting out plans for sustainable, affordable armed forces who will be properly equipped for the task we ask them to do in future. They understand that.

Part of the remuneration package for reservists is the option for them to earn a bounty if they are deemed to be efficient. Territorial Army regulations allow the linking of a compulsion to train on certain days with the award of that bounty. Although that is not currently done, are there any plans to do it in future?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to publishing a consultation document in the autumn that will look at employer engagement and terms and conditions for reservists. We will set out clearly our proposals for the new deal for reserves under the new arrangements I announced last week.

There is all-party concern about forces’ pay during the Olympic games. The Secretary of State is right that there is no exact comparison with other workers, but the country has noticed that London bus and train drivers are getting Olympic bonus payments and that our forces are not. What contact has he had with G4S about it paying bonuses to troops who are called up at the last minute? I do not begrudge the transport workers their bonus, but just because troops rightly cannot go on strike, they should not be ignored by the Government.

Clearly the union got to the right hon. Gentleman and made sure he included that last bit. We are determined to ensure that the welfare of our troops who are engaged in the Olympic project is properly looked after while they are deployed on that operation and that they are properly recognised. I am in discussion with senior members of the armed forces about how best to do that.

The Government do not have a direct contractual relationship with G4S—the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games holds that relationship—but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that whatever resources we need to ensure we offer an appropriate package to our armed forces will be made available.

22. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that battalions made up largely of British personnel, such as the Royal Welsh, are now facing the axe, whereas battalions made up largely of non-British personnel, such as the Gurkhas, are not? (116913)

This strays slightly wide of the original question. I explained the week before last, I believe, the reason why the decision was taken not to look at removing a Gurkha Rifles battalion—the arrangements we have with the Sultanate of Brunei for the rotation of battalions would have broken down and been inoperable had we removed one of the two battalions.

Middle East

2. What recent assessment he has made of the defence situation in the middle east; and if he will make a statement. (116891)

Demands for greater political, social and economic participation continue in the middle east and north Africa. The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and we are supporting efforts to deliver a political solution to the conflict. The UK also remains concerned over Iran’s nuclear programme and continues to work with other countries to achieve a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On that basis, we assess that the regional security situation will remain fragile.

As the security situation in the Sinai peninsula deteriorates, weapons bound for Gaza’s terrorists are being freely smuggled, and two cross-border terror attacks have left nine Israelis dead. What assessment have the Government made of the Egyptian authorities’ efforts to tackle the security threat emanating from this no man’s land?

The Government remain concerned about the security situation in Sinai and we regularly raise it with the Egyptian authorities. There continue to be credible reports of significant quantities of weapons—particularly rockets—being smuggled into Gaza. The UK recognises that Israel has legitimate security concerns and that the people of Gaza are suffering at the moment, which does not serve Israel’s long-term security interests.

The Minister will be aware that the last nuclear non-proliferation review conference agreed on a strategy of a nuclear weapons-free middle east and that, because Israel is not a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, a special conference, hosted by the Finnish Government, will be held in Helsinki at the end of this year. Will he assure the House that the British Government remain fully behind the process, will be represented at that conference and will do their best to ensure that both Israel and Iran are also present, to bring about a nuclear weapons-free region?

We continue to support that initiative, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be represented at that conference. We would like it to make progress, but we do not underestimate the inherent challenge.

My hon. Friend has already indicated by his answers that there is an inextricable link between the military and political situations in the middle east. It is also the case that there is still consideration—the possibility—of a strike by Israel against Iran. Have my hon. Friend and the Government made any assessment of the political fallout of such a strike?

The Government remain committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and we continue to work with international allies and others around the world to try to bring it about. We stand ready to help the international community in the event of any general security deterioration in the region, but it is important above all else that we find an international solution to what is a very tricky problem.

Within the last 24 hours, the International Committee of the Red Cross has stated that the situation in Syria has now developed into a civil war. What are the implications for us of such a statement, and has the Secretary of State spoken with his US or any other NATO counterparts about what practical measures need to be taken to alleviate the pain and suffering of the Syrian people?

The Foreign Office is in constant dialogue with international communities and our allies about the grave situation in Syria. Nobody underestimates the difficulty that will be involved in trying to secure any international consensus in favour of action there. The recent events that we have seen are deeply shocking. The Government want to see an end to violence and an orderly transition to a more representative form of government, but the efforts being made so far are certainly hitting a lot of obstacles.

Joint Strike Fighter

Although an initial decision had been made by the previous Government on the basing for the joint strike fighter, it is being reviewed in the light of the strategic defence and security review, as part of the work on the footprint strategy for the defence estate. The military requirement for the joint strike fighter has gone forward to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which is leading the work to deliver a defence estate of a sustainable size and shape, and one that delivers the most cost-effective approach to Future Force 2020 basing.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported to have said that RAF Marham would be the logical base for the joint strike fighter. Can the Minister tell me when a decision on basing will be made to help to secure the base’s long-term future, as well as boost confidence for local businesses in west Norfolk?

This Thursday, the Defence Secretary will take delivery of the first of our joint strike fighter aircraft. A decision will be made on where it will be based in good time for the introduction of the strike fighter into service. Detailed work is taking place at the moment to look at the basing requirements, and we will make a decision as soon as is practically possible.

The Minister will no doubt recall that the Ministry of Defence has already concluded that the optimal base for the next generation of fast jets is RAF Lossiemouth, but I am sure that he will also appreciate that, in relation to RAF Lossiemouth, the thoughts of everyone at the moment will be with the personnel and with the families of the crew members who died on board the two Tornadoes that were lost. Will he take this opportunity to update the House on the recovery operation, and on the medical condition of the fourth crewman, who was recovered?

The investigation into what went wrong is continuing, and I must be careful not to say anything that could prejudice it. Our thoughts are with the community and, in particular, with the relatives of those who perished. As soon as we can, we will make it clear to everyone what contributed to that disastrous incident.

On the future of Lossiemouth, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that since that announcement, it has been announced that Typhoon is moving into Lossiemouth. With the best will in the world, it would not be practical to have both fleets situated at one base.

The Minister talked about the bases for the joint strike fighter. The Government have already carried out two U-turns on the joint strike fighter programme and sold the Harrier fleet to the USA. Given that the USA is now in the throes of major budget problems and, if the story in The Sun today is to be believed, might well pull the plug on the whole programme, will the Minister reconfirm the confidence expressed by the Secretary of State a few weeks ago not only in the joint strike fighter programme but in the carrier programme? Will he also confirm that there will be no further budget increases as a result of what is happening in the USA?

I am sure that the hon. Lady does not believe everything she reads in The Sun, or indeed in any other newspaper. There are stories almost every week about the alleged state of that programme in the US. On Wednesday this week, the Secretary of State will be visiting the US Marine Corps to see the short take-off and vertical landing—STOVL—version of the joint strike fighter flying. It has already done 1,000 hours of flying time with the US Marine Corps, and we have every confidence that it will come into service as planned.

Army Recruiting Policy

4. What plans he has for Army recruiting policy in the next five years; and if he will make a statement. (116893)

Recruiting remains one of the Army’s highest priorities. Given that it is an organisation that promotes from within, there is an enduring need to ensure that the Army has the capacity to take on an appropriate number of new recruits. Our recruiting targets are already reflecting those required for a regular Army of 82,000, with current planned annual recruitment figures of approximately 600 officers and 7,400 soldiers.

I am interested in the Minister’s reply, especially in the light of the Secretary of State’s statement on recruitment the week before last. The trouble is that recruiting takes a long time, and if we need troops to be instantly available—as we have done for the Olympic games—we surely need to rethink the cuts to major units, particularly the five infantry battalions.

I know that my hon. Friend was responsible for recruiting in his last job in the Army; he was director of Army recruiting, and I pay tribute to him for that. He will know that making these cuts to the Army is not something that we would have wished to do; they were forced upon us by the appalling financial position that was left behind—

Groundhog day it may be, but it is also true. I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) says about recruiting taking a long time, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State understands the difficulty of raising extra troops at short notice.

Some of the brightest and bravest soldiers have traditionally been recruited in Yorkshire, but the people of Yorkshire are pretty savvy, and they know that the critical mass of our armed forces is such that joining up has a declining attraction for young men and women in the present situation.

I pay tribute to the soldiers from Yorkshire. They join not only the Yorkshire regiments but the Coldstream Guards, with whom I served, and other corps throughout the British Army. Joining the Army remains an attractive option, and I would recommend it to anyone. It is sad that fewer people are joining at the moment.

I am sure that the Minister will be pleased that the Secretary of State gave an assurance to the Defence Select Committee last week that the decisions to cut the Army would be revisited in 2015. Alongside welcoming that, will the Minister give me an assurance that recruiting policy will look again at the Pay As You Dine arrangements?

I am not entirely sure that my right hon. Friend did give that assurance, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman can discuss that with him. The decisions were made by the Army itself—by generals looking carefully at future recruiting patterns—and I am sure that they will keep the matter under constant review as well.

I understand that Pay As You Dine was introduced at the request of members of the armed forces under the last Administration. Although not universally popular, it does mean that people pay less for food that they often did not eat under the old system.

Wales has an excellent reputation for recruiting into the Army, and the loss of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh has come as a huge blow there. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that Welsh men and women who wish to join Welsh regiments will continue to do so following the loss of the 2nd Battalion?

As I have said, I think that everyone regrets the loss of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Wales, but Welsh men and women do join the armed forces. Welsh men join the Welsh Guards; they join all the corps, and so forth. I spent 15 years in the Army until I was kicked out, and I think that it still provides a very attractive career for any young man or woman.

Farnborough Air Show

The Farnborough international air show, which takes place in my constituency, was opened last Monday by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who emphasised the high importance that the Government attach to supporting defence and security exports. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence attended with his ministerial team, and we were extremely well supported throughout by the team from the UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation. RAF air and ground crews, accompanied by Italian air force personnel, were on hand to provide briefings on the outstanding role played by the Typhoon on operations over Libya last year. In addition, 150 air cadets were out in force helping the show organisers.

I visited the Farnborough air show last week and was able to see the best of the British aerospace industry, which employs 100,000 people, is worth £20 billion, and holds a 17% share of the global market. Will the Minister join me in recognising the importance of the role played by small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain, particularly those in my constituency which are driving growth and employing apprentices?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for setting out so clearly the merits of the Farnborough air show. He is absolutely right: SMEs play a hugely important part. It is not just about the big boys. Without the SMEs, which are a repository of a huge amount of highly specialised technical knowledge, we would not have the industries that we do have. I am pleased to say that orders worth $72,000 million were signed as a result of last week’s show.

I too had the privilege of attending the air show last week, in my capacity as vice-chairman of the Parliamentary Space Committee. The UK’s space industry has grown by 10% year on year for most of the last decade. Will the Minister tell me how the Ministry of Defence is supporting UK business in exporting in the defence sector?

I am pleased to say that the space industry is making a hugely important contribution in the United Kingdom. We have a number of very well-qualified companies. Two names that spring to mind are EADS Astrium and Surrey Satellite Technology, both of which are making huge contributions. I must tell my hon. Friend, however, that this is quite sensitive territory, and I cannot go into too much detail.

We are still exporting arms to Bahrain, where the death toll mounts, the numbers in prison grow and the torture continues. I am curious to know whether the Minister has any moral qualms about that.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well from his experience in the Foreign Office, we have one of the most stringent arms export control arrangements in the world, and we look very carefully at these matters. I should add that Bahrain has been an extremely important friend and ally to both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Many Scottish firms get assistance from UK Trade and Investment and benefit from the fact that the British forces use Scottish equipment. Are Scottish firms likely to be helped or hindered by any breakaway of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Order. Please will the Minister answer that question with reference purely, and very narrowly and briefly, to the Farnborough air show?

First, let me say that the Typhoon air display was given by a Scot—Scott Loughran. He gave an absolutely stunning display of the Typhoon. The UKTI Defence and Security Organisation represents the whole United Kingdom, and it does a great job for Scotland. If we were to bust up the UK, that would be bad news for Scotland, bad news for the UK and bad news for all businesses in this country.

The fact that last week some 16 Ministers attended the Farnborough air show, all of whom showed a great degree of knowledge and interest, and the fact that the Prime Minister opened it with an outstanding speech, went down extremely well with the defence industry. Is my hon. Friend able to say whether exactly the same will happen in two years’ time?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and constituency neighbour, for pointing out that—as the trade association, the ADS, also observed—the event had unprecedented support from Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and from the Opposition as well. The support given to the show has been extremely valuable. I myself had 15 meetings with overseas delegations, and I can tell my right hon. Friend that I fully expect the same to apply in 2014.

Equipment and Support Contracts (SMEs)

6. What his most recent estimate is of the proportion of defence equipment and support contracts let to small and medium-sized enterprises. (116896)

9. What his most recent estimate is of the proportion of defence equipment and support contracts let to small and medium-sized enterprises. (116899)

During the financial year 2011-12, approximately 41% of new contracts were awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises. That represented approximately 13% of the value of all new contracts placed in the year. A significant proportion of our other business also reaches SMEs from the prime contractors through the supply chain.

I welcome the recent announcement that 41% of contracts were awarded to SMEs. They are vital not only to our security, but to the economy. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to fulfil their potential abroad as well as at home?

I am glad to say that I find that SMEs are often particularly energetic in pursuing overseas opportunities. Indeed, many British small defence contractors begin their commercial lives exporting, rather than selling to the domestic market, which is a great tribute to the enterprise they show. UKTI DSO takes enormous steps to help SMEs. It participates in many trade delegations with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), the Minister with responsibility for international security strategy. I pay tribute to DSO and to SMEs, which make a great contribution to our economy and to defence.

There are 3,000 SMEs in the UK defence industry, and they are doing great things for our economy and vital work for our defence sector. What is the MOD doing to make Government business more accessible to these SMEs?

My hon. Friend might apply for an Adjournment debate on that topic, because it would test your patience, Mr Speaker, if I were to list all the things we are doing to help SMEs, which include producing simplified standard contracts, making SMEs aware of tendering opportunities, and ensuring they are paid quickly. However, I attach the greatest importance to the establishment of the suppliers’ forum for SMEs, which I chair, and which enables us to pursue in detail both the concerns of SMEs and the issues we have in dealing with them. That is a very fruitful discussion, which is leading to a radical simplification of the way in which we do business with SMEs, and in due course it will create many more opportunities for them.

I always have patience for orderly answers, but not for speeches masquerading as answers. I know the Minister will readily accept that point.

On defence contracts, will the MOD’s current plans inevitably result in more contracts for companies such as G4S?

That is not my responsibility. I was talking about defence equipment and support contracts, and as far as I am aware—I stand ready to be corrected—G4S has no role in such contracts.

Many SMEs in Northern Ireland are involved merely on the periphery of large MOD contracts. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that there is a fair distribution of defence contracts and fair business opportunities for SMEs in Northern Ireland?

It is one of the sadnesses of the structure of the UK defence industry that defence industries are relatively few and far between in Northern Ireland. Of course, Thales is the prime example of an excellent company doing first-rate work in Northern Ireland; I visited it earlier this year, seeing for myself just how good that company is, and it makes a huge contribution through the supply chain. The small and medium-sized businesses of Northern Ireland can also contribute to other contracts throughout the United Kingdom, and I am sure they are doing so in a realistic and strong way.

Defence Equipment and Support

7. What plans he has for the future of Defence Equipment and Support; and if he will make a statement. (116897)

I expect to be able to make a written ministerial statement about this issue tomorrow that will give further detail. However, in headline terms, the analysis conducted by the Chief of Defence Matériel on the comparative benefits of changing Defence Equipment and Support into either an Executive non-departmental public body with a strategic partner from the private sector or a Government-owned contractor-operated entity suggests that the strategic case for the GoCo option is stronger. More value-for-money analysis is required to confirm that assessment, and the Ministry of Defence will focus effort over the summer on developing and testing the GoCo option further.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Was it not the case that the Government were always in favour of privatising Defence Equipment and Support but found it difficult to find the evidence to show that that provided value for money for the taxpayer? Were the other options under active consideration and in development?

We have looked at all the options, including what we call “DE and S-plus”: keeping an on-vote solution with enhanced capabilities. At the moment, it is clear that the work being done is pointing in the direction of a Government-owned contractor-operated entity, but I will publish further details tomorrow, and further details still as they become available later in the summer and in the autumn.

While welcoming my right hon. Friend’s willingness to be bold in this area, may I suggest to him that one of the key factors to take into account in deciding just how bold to be—the GoCo is the boldest option—will be how many years Mr Gray is willing to stay in the job? I speak as one of his great admirers.

We are extremely grateful for the contribution that Bernard Gray is making as Chief of Defence Matériel. He is looking at bold and radical solutions that will allow us to deliver the equipment programme within the budget envelope we have set, and thus ensure that the whole of our programme for the armed forces is sustainable, in marked contrast to what the previous Government managed to deliver.

Employment (Veterans)

Prior to leaving, all service personnel are entitled to some form of resettlement assistance consisting of time, money and training, according to their length of service. Those who have served for six years or more, and all those medically discharged, regardless of how long they served for, are entitled to the full resettlement programme, which includes a three-day career transition workshop, the use of a career consultant, a job-finding service, and retraining time and a retraining grant. Those who have served for four years or more are entitled to employment support in the form of a bespoke job-finding service and career interview.

May I invite the Minister to borrow or even steal an excellent idea from the Labour Front-Bench team—the Labour veterans interview programme, where leading companies guarantee veterans interviews for appropriate vacancies—and include that as part of the official resettlement programme? Will he support the calls to roll that programme out through Jobcentre Plus, as it would be a great boon for our armed services?

Having previously extolled the merits of a career in the armed forces, may I recommend to all employers the merits of employing ex-service personnel, who, in general, bring with them a better work ethic and better values, and often better skills, than people from outside the armed forces? So I think that we would agree on that matter. We welcome the guaranteed interview scheme and would welcome all assistance.

Most veterans do extremely well in civilian life, not least because of the skills they have acquired while they have been in uniform. However, those who do less well, especially in employment terms, tend to be those who have spent relatively few years in the armed forces, and that is where resources are not focused. What can be done for that particular group of people?

My hon. Friend is right about that, and I know that he takes a particular interest in these things. Of course various factors are at work here, one of which is that some people leave after less than a week and do not stay in touch, in any way, with the armed forces. We are looking at improving the career resettlement advice. Indeed, we are ensuring that everybody now gets a resettlement interview and gets some financial and employment advice when they leave.

21. How many veterans have lost the opportunity of a job as a result of the G4S Olympics fiasco?


On that same theme, does the Minister agree that it would have been good if G4S had recruited more veterans to police the Olympics and ensure security? Will he confirm that what has happened will not result in a single serving soldier in Afghanistan having to stay on the front line for one day longer than would otherwise have been the case?

First, I can confirm that nobody will remain longer on operations in Afghanistan because of this debacle over the G4S contract. I will say to my hon. Friend, as he would expect me to, that I absolutely agree that former service personnel would do that job particularly well, but I have no responsibility for the recruitment practices of G4S. However, it appears that it was not recruiting that was the problem but the organisation of the Olympics in general in terms of security.

Mental Health (Soldiers)

10. What additional support he plans to provide for mental health conditions experienced by current and former soldiers. (116900)

The Ministry of Defence is committed to offering a high standard of mental health care to those who need it. In his “Fighting Fit” report, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) made a wide range of recommendations for improvements to mental health care for both serving and former armed forces personnel. The MOD is working with the Department of Health to implement the recommendations, and I am pleased to report that excellent progress is being made.

With the stigma of mental health increasingly being lifted in our society, not least in the armed services, will the Minister take it on himself to ensure that every mental health trust across the country is required, in partnership with his Department, to have an effective strategy for dealing with current and former members of the armed services?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the stigma is being lifted. Indeed, there is a programme in the Army called trauma risk management, or TRiM, which means that if somebody appears to have some mental problems, his comrades in arms will go to the chain of command and say that they think that so-and-so is having trouble and should be looked at carefully. We are already deploying extra mental health nurses across the Department of Health as a result of the “Fighting Fit” report. If the hon. Gentleman has not read it, I strongly recommend that he does because it is an extremely good piece of work.

Does the Minister agree that it should be a key objective of any Government, whether led by those on the Government Benches or by the Opposition, to look after people who have been mentally or physically hurt in the service of our country for the rest of their lives?

I do agree and I think that those who have been injured mentally or physically in the service of our country and of us all deserve due consideration. That is certainly what we look to give them. In the spirit of co-operation, let me say that I thought the armed forces compensation scheme, which was put in place by the previous Government, was a very good scheme.

Reports show that there is a higher incidence of mental ill health among reservists who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan than among those from the regular forces. Recent announcements make it clear that the Government intend to rely more heavily on reservists in the coming years. Will the Minister say whether the MOD intends to give greater importance to reservists’ mental health, and what measures he will put in place to analyse the reasons for the disparity and to improve their mental health?

The hon. Lady is correct, in that it is more difficult to keep tabs on reservists because they go out of the military environment back to their homes and jobs and so on. They also do not have the cocoon, dare I say it, of having their comrades around them. We are taking action, and I want to mention two things in particular. First, the medical assessment programme and the reserves’ mental health programme are currently based in St Thomas’s hospital. We are moving the medical assessment programme to Chilwell in the very near future—

No, we are certainly not downgrading it. Indeed, I went there only about a month ago to talk about it to those involved, and they think that it is the right way forward.

Secondly, Professor Simon Wessely at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research is carrying out an in-depth study into the mental health problems that people encounter, particularly focusing on reservists.

Not all people suffer after-effects. I believe that my hon. Friend’s son has served or is serving in Afghanistan: is that correct?

He is. Not all people who return from Afghanistan have mental health after-effects, but it is obviously a concern that some people do. Within units in particular, there are various options, including the programme I have mentioned, TRiM, and a programme called the Big White Wall. It is an online programme and people can put their feelings anonymously on a big white wall. There is a huge amount of support, but it is not always easy to access. We want to make it easier for families and others to access that mental health provision—

Order. We are extremely grateful to the Minister, but I think that the Minister and the hon. Lady should have a cup of tea together and discuss the matter further.

Defence Manufacturing Industry

11. What steps his Department is taking to maintain skills levels in the defence manufacturing industry. (116901)

The “National Security Through Technology” White Paper published in February emphasised the need for a strong skills base in the UK to ensure that the armed forces and national security agencies have access to the technology, equipment and support they need. That is why we are creating the right conditions for companies to invest in the UK, encouraging innovative small and medium-sized enterprises, investing in defence science and technology, and strongly supporting responsible defence and security exports. We are also working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on a range of initiatives to maintain and develop engineering and scientific skills, including initiating a dialogue with the defence industries similar to that taking place through the successful aerospace growth partnership.

There are reports today in the newspapers that the F-35B programme is to face substantial cuts in the US. Has the Minister had any indication from his counterparts in the US of a reduction in the number that will be procured, which may affect defence jobs in east Lancashire?

I remember a good friend of mine, a general, who retired recently from the British armed services, who said he would know that he had retired when he started believing what he read in newspapers. I would strongly recommend to the hon. Gentleman not to believe what he reads in newspapers. The United States remains strongly committed to the programme. The F-35B is an outstanding aircraft, it is flying extensively, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will receive our first two aircraft on Thursday. The hon. Gentleman should be a little sceptical.

Regimental Disbandment

In selecting infantry battalions for withdrawal, the Army has focused on the major long-term recruiting challenges that it faces in this area. It has looked carefully at historic recruiting performance over a decade, and at demographic projections for the age cohort from which infantry recruits are drawn in the recruiting catchment areas of different regiments. It has also considered regional and national affiliations, the merger and disbandment history of individual battalions, and existing commitments of battalions to future operations. The overriding objective has been to arrive at a solution that delivers a balanced and effective military force and is seen as fair and equitable by those currently serving in the Army.

Although the MOD has not been able to supply the five and 10-year recruitment figures, despite a named-day written parliamentary question tabled the week before last, the three-year figures clearly show that better recruited English battalions, including the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, are being axed in order to save the more poorly recruited Scottish ones. Will the Secretary of State deny that petty politics in relation to the Scottish referendum has influenced decisions?

My hon. Friend is repeating an assertion that he made when I made the statement. I sat down afterwards with the Chief of the General Staff and went through his process again to reassure myself that I could say with confidence to my hon. Friend that the assertion he is making is simply not correct. Looked at over a decade, the recruitment figures for the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers speak for themselves. I am happy to have a meeting with him and go through the numbers, if he would like to do so.

Three former senior figures from all three services wrote in The Daily Telegraph this morning of “cynical” cuts to our armed forces and described the plans for Army 2020 as “unbelievable”. Does the Secretary of State not think that with a collapse in confidence at such a high level and morale among the ranks in free-fall, along with his risky strategy on the use of reservists, his decision on 2020 should be another candidate for a possible Government U-turn?

As usual, plenty of criticism and no constructive suggestions from the Opposition. In relation to the letter this morning, the key word is “former” senior officers. I take my advice from senior serving officers in the military. This is a plan designed by the Army to secure the future of the Army. They are confident that they can deliver it and I have confidence in their ability to do so.

New Regiments (2006-07)

13. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the unification of the new regiments created in 2006-07 where battalions were created from previous historical regiments; and if he will make a statement. (116903)

The Royal Regiment of Scotland, the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, the Yorkshire Regiment, the Mercian Regiment, the Royal Welsh and the Rifles were all created in 2006-07. All these regiments have provided battalions for operations in Afghanistan which have been well prepared and which have delivered significant success, as well as all taking significant casualties.

My right hon. Friend will understand the disappointment in Yorkshire at the disappearance of 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment—the Green Howards—but can he confirm whether his intention is to have a completely merged Yorkshire regiment in its entirety with the two remaining battalions, which I understand is what the majority of those serving would like to see, or to have the two remaining battalions based on their previous regimental backgrounds, which it seems the majority of retired personnel would like to see?

My hon. Friend draws an interesting distinction—not the only one that has been brought to my attention—between the desires of people serving in the Army now and those of former members of the armed forces, because they are not necessarily aligned. I can only repeat what I told the House on 5 July: having announced the changes, we expect regiments to come forward with proposals for restructuring within the boundaries we have announced. We will support decisions made within the regimental families to do that, whichever way they propose going.

Helicopter Capability

The Ministry of Defence is making significant investment in helicopter capability, including: buying an additional 14 Chinook helicopters and modernising the existing fleet; completing the life extension programme for Puma; upgrading the Merlin helicopters and our attack helicopter capability; and replacing the current Lynx fleet with new Wildcat helicopters, the first of which was formally handed over to the MOD at the Farnborough international air show last week. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also announced a £250 million support contract to sustain these in service. That is a substantial programme of investment that will ensure a strong and credible helicopter capability.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s reply. Will he update the House on plans to marinise the Merlin and upgrade Apache?

The Department is currently exploring options for upgrading the mark 3 and 3A helicopters as part of an assessment phase for the Merlin life sustainment programme. It will look at obsolescence issues and the ship optimisation upgrades needed for routine operation at sea. All options are still being considered, so I cannot tell my hon. Friend what he wants to know until the conclusions are available. The decision on exactly how many Apache helicopters will be upgraded will be taken at a later date, but we plan to sustain their capability until their out-of-service date, which is 2040.

The Minister will know of my sincere wish to see air-sea rescue remain within the Department. What contingency plans, if any, does he have on helicopters as far as air-sea rescue is concerned?

I have every confidence that my hon. Friends in the Department for Transport will secure that facility very successfully during the competition they are running.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure: that our country is properly defended now and in the future through 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 the military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. My first priority is the success of the operation in Afghanistan, followed by the provision of support to the Olympics security plan. The Ministry of Defence has also embarked on a major project of transformation to ensure the behavioural change needed to maintain the budget in balance and deliver the equipment programme.

As a former Territorial soldier, I have every confidence that our reserve forces will rise to the challenge set by the Secretary of State, as they always have done, but when does he expect the order of battle for the Territorial Army to be announced?

As I said, we will publish a consultation paper in the autumn. The consultation period will take us through into the new year and we expect to be able to publish full details of our plans for the Army reserve in the spring, including the order of battle.

How many contracts does the Ministry of Defence have with G4S? Will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing them in the light of recent events, and will there be a moratorium on the MOD signing any future contracts with that company until the findings of those reviews have been reported in full to Parliament?

I cannot given the right hon. Gentleman a simple answer on contracts we have in place with G4S—

I am quite happy to look into the matter and write to him. Depending on the type of contract being let, the MOD is bound by the regulations binding all Departments—European procurement directive regulations—unless it is a contract for war-like supplies, and must conduct its procurement in accordance with them.

T2. Can the Minister update the House on the range of protected vehicles available to our troops in Afghanistan? (116916)

Yes I can, and I have heard very moving testimony from those who have returned from Afghanistan, and from the families of those in Afghanistan, about the effectiveness of such vehicles. We have a range of options that balance firepower, mobility and protection, including Huskey, Mastiff, Warthog, Warrior, CVR(T)—combat reconnaissance vehicle (tracked)—Coyote and Jackal; and the latest protected mobility vehicle, Foxhound, which is being deployed to Afghanistan now, will reinforce our commitment to provide force protection and proper protection against the improvised explosive device threat, while providing maximum utility. It is a good package.

T4. The armed forces careers advice centre in Hanley in my constituency is the second busiest in the country, but, under the Defence Secretary’s ill-thought- out plans, its recruits will not be able to join their local battalion, the Staffords. On recruitment, his numbers are not wrong, but, rather than acting like a desiccated calculating machine, will he support the campaign to keep the Staffords’ name in the Mercian Regiment by merging it with 1st Battalion the Cheshires? (116918)

On the first point, I take advice from the Army, and that is the correct way for the Defence Secretary to behave in these matters. On the preservation of the name of the Staffords, I am well aware of the concerns expressed by Staffordshire Members of Parliament, and as I said in relation to the Yorkshire Regiment, this is a matter for the regiment. If the regiment comes forward with a proposal to merge the antecedent name into the antecedent names of the 1st Battalion the Cheshires, we will be quite happy to support that arrangement.

T3. Does the Defence Secretary agree that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has done everything that was asked of it in conflict, in peacekeeping, in recruitment and in coping with reorganisation? Why, then, has it been reduced to a single battalion, when its recruitment record is so much better than battalions unaffected by the infantry cuts? (116917)

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman repeats the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) made earlier, and that is simply not the case. Looked at over a 10-year horizon, the recruiting figures speak for themselves, and the Army has conducted a rigorous process that resulted in the withdrawal of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. I can say no more than that to the right hon. Gentleman.

T5. Significant cuts to the armed forces carry real risk; increased reliance on the reservists carries real risk; and greater emphasis on the private sector for logistical support, again, carries real risk. Will the Secretary of State therefore respond to my concern that the potential cost-saving benefits of the cuts to capability that the Government have announced do not outweigh the risks that they pose to our ability to leverage force in an uncertain and changing world? (116919)

As usual, there is no alternative constructive suggestion. We have a £38 billion black hole in the defence budget, and we have to resolve that problem to make our armed forces sustainable in future and to ensure that we can properly equip them when we ask them to put themselves in danger. What we have done is to set out a coherent plan that will deliver smaller but better equipped armed forces that are sustainable in the medium and long term, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is the best way forward for them.

T7. I warmly welcome the involvement of the armed forces in ensuring that the Olympic games are safe and secure. Will my right hon. Friend explain the role that they will play during the Olympics and, in particular, the various consultations and engagements that have taken place with the community over the use of ground-based air defence systems? (116921)

Yes. The armed forces will support the police in the security operations for the Olympics. We will provide the air policing regime, including the ground-based air defence missiles, to enforce the prohibited and restricted zones around London. There will also be Royal Marine activity on the River Thames in support of the police, and of course 11,000 people will be deployed in support of the venue security operation. There has been extensive consultation with local authorities, landlords and Members of Parliament on the proposed location of the ground-based air defences.

I am very happy to double-check and write to the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that the position is that we have two MOD personnel on secondment in Libya. [Interruption.] The Minister for the Armed Forces is confirming that.

T8. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute to our armed forces, who do such a tremendous job? Does he believe that their professionalism will be an asset at the Olympic games? (116922)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Contrary to a lot of the noises off that we have been hearing, most people visiting the Olympic games and most people living in London will be hugely reassured by the presence of our armed forces. They bring resilience and reliability to the security arrangements. When a soldier is scheduled to be at place A at time B, you can bet your bottom dollar that he will be there.

What will be the effect of the ludicrously last-minute commitment for our armed forces on post-operative leave entitlement for those returning from Afghanistan?

I have answered that question in the House before. People who came back from Afghanistan in April will have had their post-operational leave scheduled. It is possible that some people who have post-operational leave scheduled for the period of July and August will be asked to reschedule it. However, I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that everyone will receive their full entitlement of post-operational leave, or any other kind of leave, and that people who have to change their personal arrangements and incur any financial loss as a consequence will be fully reimbursed for that loss.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Scout specialist vehicle will go ahead, giving much needed certainty both to the armed forces and the supplier, General Dynamics, a valued employer in my constituency?

I can confirm that. The Scout specialist vehicle programme is currently in the demonstration phase. The first vehicle platform test rig was rolled out on 6 June this year and pre-production vehicle prototypes are due to begin delivery from 2013. The successful completion of the demonstration phase will lead to a main investment decision at main gate, currently planned for 2016. That is good news for my hon. Friend’s constituents, and I thank them, through her, for what they are doing to create that important capability for the Army.

Constable Colin MacColl of Tayside police came to my surgery last Friday in his capacity as a constituent and someone who works in my constituency. He outlined how distressed and distraught his family are at the fact that his nephew, Leading Seaman Timmy MacColl, was last seen on 27 May in Dubai on shore leave from HMS Westminster. Can the Minister outline what has been done to try to locate Leading Seaman MacColl and what will be done in future to alleviate my constituent’s concerns?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I should say that the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) has been in touch on behalf of the family as well.

This is a sad case. Leading Seaman MacColl has disappeared. The Royal Navy police made all efforts to find him in Dubai, but unfortunately the ship then sailed, as ships do. We have no particular police presence in the country. We are liaising with the Dubai police, who are leading on the case. The Foreign Office is absolutely on the side of the Dubai police.

We have announced all the reductions in armed forces manpower required to deliver the outcome of the strategic defence and security review. The changes announced will allow us to deliver the Future Force 2020 structure in 2020.

Will the Secretary of State look again at the cuts to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, particularly the impact on Coventry and Warwickshire and the local impact? Can we have an answer without the right hon. Gentleman blaming everybody else? He is responsible for the double-dip situation that we have got.

I am responsible. I take advice from the Army, which is the only responsible way to decide on a restructuring package for the Army. As I said, I have reassured myself since I made the announcement that all of its elements are sound and based on proper evidence provided by the Army.

There is an excellent proposal for 10,000 tickets for the Olympic games to be given to Her Majesty’s armed forces personnel. What procedures are being undertaken for the proper allocation of those 10,000 tickets? Can my right hon. Friend say something about whether, if other tickets remain unsold, it might be possible to give those tickets to armed forces personnel?

We are extremely grateful to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games for the help that it has provided in making tickets available through Tickets for Troops and directly to the armed forces. We now have a substantial number of tickets available and we hope there may be still more to come. The detailed arrangements for distributing those tickets will be determined by the commander-in-chief, land forces.

I am sure that the thoughts of all right hon. and hon. Members will be with the families of those who lost their lives in Afghanistan in recent days. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of recent reports that the Taliban believe that the insurgency can no longer be won? Is not this the perfect opportunity to convene all-party talks to bring about a secure peace in Afghanistan?

Indeed. The Government’s policy is to maintain the pressure through the military campaign, while encouraging both sides to come together and explore their tentative early contacts, and also to encourage Pakistan to play a constructive role in this process, because, in many ways, Pakistan holds the key.

A senior military source has told me that many soldiers have been taken off promotional courses as a consequence of the G4S shambles. Will the Secretary of State assure me that they will get back on to those courses and will be fully compensated if their course is delayed by, say, a year?

I am not aware of any such cases, but I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend outside the Chamber and to write to him.

Further to the previous unclear answer, is the Secretary of State categorically ruling out revisiting the “cat and trap” system for the aircraft carriers?

I do not think that there was a previous unclear answer. We have made a decision to revert to the STOVL––short take-off and vertical landing—solution. We are highly confident of the delivery of the F-35B STOVL variant, which the US Marine Corps depends on. We have had the highest level discussions with the US Administration, who strongly support the programme. I am looking forward to seeing US Marine Corps aircraft flying at Pax River on Wednesday.

Before I call the shadow Home Secretary to ask the urgent question that I have allowed, I must tell the House that I intend to bring proceedings on it to an end after half an hour. In view of the proceedings on Thursday, I ask Members not merely to repeat questions already posed and answered then, but to explore new territory that has since arisen.