Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 551: debated on Monday 22 October 2012

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. My first priority is and will remain the success of the operation in Afghanistan. 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, so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained. With many of the most difficult decisions needed to put our defences on a sustainable basis having been taken, and with the benefit of a balanced budget to build on, we now need to focus on the future, and in particular on building the trust and confidence of the people who make up defence.

Small and medium enterprises such as Aircraft Maintenance Support Services in my Bridgend constituency provide invaluable support and enablement to combat troops. They send their employees out to ensure that equipment is available for troops to use outside the bases. Does the Secretary of State agree that we owe a huge debt of thanks to those private sector companies that ensure that our troops are appropriately equipped to take part in active service?

I absolutely agree. I always make the point clearly that there are three legs to our defence: the armed forces, regular and reserve; the civilians who support them; and the contractors—the hundreds of thousands of people working in the defence and defence support industries who provide and maintain equipment so that our troops can do their job.

T3. Given the outstanding contribution of our reserves to the armed forces, will the Minister please update the House on the progress of the Green Paper? (123738)

The Green Paper on our plans for the reserves is expected to be published around the end of this month or early next month.

I, too, welcome the new Front-Bench team. Two and half years into this Government, there is a hiatus in the decision making on Defence Equipment and Support. Ministers’ views seem to ebb and flow, and indecision is rampant. We need clarity, so when exactly will the Minister set out plans for a Government-owned contractor-operated body—a GoCo—or whatever other body he intends to bring forward?

The hon. Lady talks about a hiatus. There were 13 years during which the previous Administration made no attempt to transform procurement within the Ministry of Defence, but this Government are determined to make procurement efficient and effective so that our armed forces can be given the right equipment at the right time and at the right cost. In July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an investigation into the GoCo route, narrowing the options for Defence Equipment and Support. A value-for-money exercise is nearing completion, and we expect to make a decision before the end of the year on whether to move forward.

T4. What progress is being made on moving bases from Germany to the United Kingdom, and to Stafford? (123739)

My hon. Friend might know that the 1st Armoured Division’s signal regiment, based at Herford, and the 16th Signal Regiment, based at Elmpt, will move to Beacon barracks in Stafford in the second half of 2015. A competition is under way between four bidders to develop the main site, and we hope to let a contract for that development in the summer of next year.

T2. There is a degree of confusion over what happened in last Thursday’s debate, so may I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that the Minister for the Armed Forces approached the Speaker’s Chair about the conduct of Fusiliers in the Public Gallery? (123737)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for letting me set the record straight. I have the greatest respect for ex-service personnel, including the Fusiliers who were in the Chamber last week. By the way, I do not think that the hon. Lady was in the Chamber that day, so she does not speak with great effect, does she? Furthermore, I believe that anybody should be allowed to watch our proceedings from the Gallery, because that is an important part of our democratic process. May I finally say that what she alleges is entirely untrue?

T5. I shall be pleased to be wearing the Queen’s Jubilee medal for service to the police on Remembrance Sunday this year, but that service pales into insignificance compared with the service given by the Arctic convoy veterans. Should not the Government recognise—or allow the Russian Government to recognise—their heroic role in defeating national socialism? (123740)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he has taken a long-standing interest in these matters. I should also like to add my strong thanks to those who served in that particularly unpleasant theatre during the second world war. He will know that, earlier this year, Sir John Holmes began to undertake an independent review of the rules applying to military medals and that, on 17 July, he reported his findings, which appeared in the form of a written ministerial statement. Further work has been commissioned by the Prime Minister, including a re-examination of issues that have been the subject of past campaigns, such as the Arctic convoy medal. The outcome of Sir John’s further work is expected by the end of the year.

T6. Last Thursday, the House voted to oppose the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Will the Government now have the humility to accept that Commons decision? (123741)

May I say that we had an excellent debate? I have to say that I found myself in a minority of one when it came to speeches defending the Government’s position. We had an excellent debate and we listened carefully to what was said, but I do not think that, at the moment, it is the House’s intention for a vote in such a debate to be binding upon the Government.

T7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that support across society for the work of our brave servicemen and women in keeping our country safe is ever more widely recognised? Will he welcome the support of businesses for the new defence discount scheme and encourage more businesses to get involved in it? (123742)

Yes, we do indeed welcome the support of businesses for the defence discount scheme, which will offer servicemen, veterans and servicemen’s families a number of discounts in a range of high street businesses across the country. People may already register for the scheme now, but we hope within the next few months to progress the scheme by giving them a card bearing their name, which will make it easier to prove their membership when they enter one of the participating companies. We believe this will be valuable to the people concerned, and we commend those businesses that are participating in the scheme.

The 2012 armed forces continuous attitudes survey provides some very concerning information, particularly in respect of the Army. Only 52% of soldiers are satisfied with service life; the trend of declining morale has continued, with only 18% reporting high morale across the Army; and only 33% of soldiers questioned felt valued. Does the Secretary of State share my concern at these figures, and, if he does, what is he going to do about them?

Yes, of course we are concerned about morale in the Army, which I have previously described as “fragile”. We have been through a period of enormous change—budget retrenchment, necessary redundancies, reorganisation and rebasing. What we can do now is try to get this process completed as quickly as possible, so we can return to some certainty whereby people are able to plan their personal futures. As I said just a few moments ago, we have the challenge of starting to rebuild the trust and confidence of people in the armed forces around the armed forces of the future. I am confident that, despite being smaller, our future armed forces will be highly capable, valued and very well respected.

T8. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the United Kingdom has shared intelligence on locations with the United States leading to drone strikes in Pakistan? If so, will he explain the legal justification for sharing such information? (123744)

We do not discuss in this Chamber matters relating to intelligence. I can tell my hon. Friend that there is a need for effective action in the Pakistani tribal areas and that there is a need for that action to be owned by the Pakistanis. The United States operates in Afghanistan under a different basis of law from the one under which we operate. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that everything we do complies with the law under which we operate.

One of my constituents served on the Arctic convoys during the second world war. Like many others, he has been advised not to accept a medal offered by the Russian Government. I was heartened by the Minister saying that this matter would be reconsidered and a decision taken by the end of the year. May I ask him to reflect on the fact that other British Commonwealth countries—Australia, New Zealand, Canada—have advised that this medal can be accepted and that it is hardly surprising the offer was not made earlier when there was a communist Government in Russia?

Sir John Holmes, in his excellent review published in July this year, accepted all the principal parts of the rules that go behind or underpin medalling in this country. We have to accept that the integrity of our medalling system is peerless. Nevertheless, Sir John will report further towards the end of the year on the rules that apply to medalling and will deal specifically with the Arctic convoy and various other circumstances.

T9. Following the failure of the talks between EADS and BAE Systems, will the Government tell us about any more promising avenues for European defence co-operation that they are pursuing? (123745)

It is not for the Government to pursue arrangements for the future of BAES, EADS or any other company, but we will of course listen carefully with an open mind to any proposals brought to us by any of these companies. Where we hold a golden share—a veto share—we will allow any such transactions to proceed only where the United Kingdom’s vital national interests can be protected.

When does my right hon. Friend expect the National Audit Office’s assessment of the affordability of the defence equipment programme to be published?

Given the Secretary of State’s past comments about the failure of the private sector to fulfil its obligations in regard to Olympic security, does he have similar doubts about the outsourcing of procurement at Defence Equipment and Support, which is based in my constituency?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to comments about the security arrangements for the Olympic games. Let me say this: there are things that are best done in the sector, and there are things that are better done in the private sector. Our proposals for DE and S are an attempt to get the best of both worlds by bringing in private sector management expertise to work alongside highly skilled civilian and military professionals who have specialist knowledge of military procurement.

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for coming into the Chamber to hear my question.

The Secretary of State will now be aware that the Defence Committee has written about the future of Garrison Radio, in the context of local radio not just at Colchester but at Catterick. Will a statement be made today about preventing the British Forces Broadcasting Service from snuffing out local Garrison Radio services?

On behalf of the Prime Minister, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.

I am aware of the issue involving the BFBS and Garrison Radio. I understand that Garrison Radio tendered for the work initially, but that unfortunately its tender was not entirely successful. I believe that the Future Forces Broadcasting Service will be able to provide a perfectly adequate service, but if the hon. Gentleman—who I know represents a valuable garrison—is still dissatisfied, I shall be willing to meet him personally to discuss the matter.