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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 554: debated on Monday 26 November 2012


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cadet Forces

As announced by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister on Armed Forces day, the Department for Education and the Ministry of Defence are working together to enable 100 more state-funded schools to have cadet units by 2015. The extra cadet units will be formed through partnerships with existing units, or by self-standing new units, both using third-party sponsorship funding. The departments have identified £10.85 million to meet the programme’s training and equipment costs. More than 50 schools have already registered their interest, and the joint departmental team, supported by the reserve forces and cadets associations, will work with schools to develop the most appropriate cadet option for them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer. I recently had the pleasure of attending my local sea cadets, TS Deva, which like other sea cadet groups does not receive much financial assistance from the Ministry of Defence. Has my right hon. Friend considered whether the MOD could provide more support to sea cadets?

I commend my hon. Friend for supporting the cadet movement in his constituency, which I am sure will be genuinely grateful for his support. Sea Cadets receives financial assistance from the Ministry of Defence, and as part of the memorandum of understanding it received £8 million as grant in aid from the Royal Navy. It also raises money from trusts and legacies and through fund raising events locally and more widely. We wish it every success in its endeavours.

In my constituency of Erewash we are lucky enough to have fine cadets across all the armed forces, learning skills and providing exemplary services to the community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way of promoting cadets is to support the community work they undertake across the country?

I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend’s assertion. Activities such as those offered by the cadets and inviting armed service leaders into the classroom help to instil qualities such as confidence, self-discipline and responsibility, while developing team work and leadership skills. Experience from the military and education sectors has demonstrated how those core values can help pupils reach their academic potential and become well rounded and accomplished adults, fully prepared for life beyond school. The Government very much encourage the movement, and I am grateful that my hon. Friend gives it her personal support.

I support the Minister in what he is trying to do and draw his attention to the excellent work carried out at Walker Technology college and Heaton Manor school in my constituency. Is a core problem the way in which the BTEC in uniformed public services counts towards the evaluation of state-funded schools more generally? I know the Education Secretary is aware of that problem, and it will have to be overcome if cadet forces are to flourish in state schools.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that part of the new programme of expansion is deliberately aimed at state schools—I take it he welcomes that. I take on board the point about the BTEC. I recently met Lord Hill, the Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Education, to discuss how we can further increase the cadet movement in schools, and when we next meet I will ensure the issue is on the agenda. It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues used their links with the trade union movement to ensure the fullest possible participation among trade unions in helping to support cadet units.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the air cadets of 2344 (Longbenton) Squadron on being made the Newcastle Evening Chronicle’s children and young people’s champion 2012 for their outstanding work with young people? Does the success of that exemplary cadet squadron show how important it is for the Minister to increase the number of cadet forces across all our communities?

I am glad to add congratulations from the Dispatch Box to those of the hon. Lady, and I hope they will appear prominently in her local newspaper. She might be aware that the cadet movement has more than 140,000 members, of whom at the latest count 35,700 are members of the Air Training Corps. As the House has heard, the Government are trying to increase those numbers further because we appreciate the values that cadets bring to our society.


The UK and the international community are committed to Afghanistan for the long term. As part of our enduring legacy in Afghanistan, UK troops will support the continuing development of the Afghan national security forces by mentoring trainers at the Afghan national army officer academy. In addition, it is likely that some troops will remain in a non-combat role after the end of 2014 to complete the recovery of our equipment. Beyond that, no decisions have yet been made about any longer-term UK mission in Afghanistan, but detailed planning with NATO and other allies is ongoing. We are clear, however, that we will not be involved in a combat role after 31 December 2014.

Speaking for the United Kingdom, it is not our intention to remain in a combat role after the end of 2014. That would include combat drone strikes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that international support for Afghanistan beyond 2014 must be sufficient to send a clear message to insurgents that they cannot wait us out?

There are two audiences in this matter: the Afghan national security forces, to whom we need to send a clear signal that they will have the continuing support of the international community as they take over responsibility for security in their own country, and the Taliban—the insurgents—who need to understand that they cannot simply adopt a policy of trying to wait us out, and that we will not abandon Afghanistan but will support it as it takes over responsibility for its own security and for containing the insurgency beyond the end of 2014.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating 12th Mechanized Brigade on the degree of transition that it achieved over the summer? He will know that it will be marching to Parliament later today. How far are we are down the road to the total transition that we need to achieve by the end of 2014, and what impact is the current spate of “green on blue” attacks having on our ability to carry out that transition?

I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in congratulating 12 Mechanized Brigade on the considerable advances that have been made over the past six months. For all that we read in the media, and for all the siren voices attempting to tell us something different, the evidence on the ground is that steady progress is being made. Incidents of violence continue but are increasingly outside the population centres, and life in much of Helmand is increasingly returning to normal, with bazaars reopening, schools operating and health centres being constructed. Of course, the current spate of “green on blue” attacks has a significant impact, but I am confident that we will not allow it to deter us from our mission.

The Royal United Services Institute reported in September, after it had met some senior Taliban people, that the Taliban were prepared to do a deal for the continuing presence of American troops after 2014, but not prepared to do a deal with Karzai because they regard him as weak and corrupt. That would mean a return to Taliban rule in parts of Afghanistan. What is the Secretary of State doing to prepare the British public for that eventuality?

The hon. Gentleman will know, having been present at most of these exchanges, that in the 13 months for which I have been in this job I have repeatedly said that although the military dimension is important, a lasting solution in Afghanistan necessarily involves political reconciliation. As we in this country know perhaps more than anyone else in the world, reconciliation in war-torn, strife-torn countries invariably means some compromise with the people we have been fighting. There will have to be a compromise in Afghanistan if we are to get a sustainable solution.

Further to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), the Secretary of State has already reflected on the ugly and demoralising nature of so-called “green on blue” attacks. What else can be done to minimise them over the years that lie ahead?

Our commanders on the ground have already taken a significant number of steps to reduce the risk of “green on blue” attacks—to reduce the number of opportunities for the perpetration of such attacks. As we go through the cycle of transition, we will expect there to be mentoring and assistance at increasingly higher levels of command. There will be fewer and fewer instances of mentoring at tolay and even kandak level as the situation proceeds, which will in itself reduce the opportunities for such attacks.

Joint Strike Fighter

The UK took delivery of its first joint strike fighter aircraft in July and its second in October, both of which are both operating from Eglin air force base in Florida, where they are undergoing operational testing. A third aircraft is due in the second quarter of 2013. Decisions on the overall order for joint strike fighters will not be made until the strategic defence and security review in 2015.

When will the Minister be able to tell the House precisely how much the Government’s U-turn to procure the F-35B rather than the F-35C, which the SDSR committed to, will cost the taxpayer?

The hon. Lady should recognise that the decision to change the configuration of the aircraft carriers and the aircraft operating on them will save the taxpayer money.

The previous Government entered into the joint strike fighter agreement without securing the source access code to allow British manufacturers to make British products for our planes without having to go via the American prime contractor. Will the Minister update the House on what progress has been made in acquiring the very important source data?

My hon. Friend is well aware that the arrangements entered into whereby the UK became a tier-1 partner in the JSF programme mean that 15% of the aircraft’s components are manufactured in this country, securing more than 25,000 jobs.

Reserve Forces

15. What support he has received from major employers for the proposals set out in his reserves Green Paper. (129614)

The Government are fully committed to delivering reserve forces that are integral to and integrated with the regular forces, and we are investing an additional £1.8 billion over the next 10 years to meet that aim. Our aspirations, as set out in the “Future Reserves 2020” Green Paper, will require a closer relationship with employers, based on partnering and on giving greater predictability and certainty to the employer, the reservist and the Ministry of Defence.

What specific support have the Government put in place for small and medium-sized enterprises to employ reservists, given that SMEs will face the greatest struggle to achieve this?

When we mobilise a reservist we already provide financial assistance to employers, to help both with recruiting an additional employee and to pay some marginal additional costs for their employment in certain circumstances. We are examining this area extremely closely in the context of the Green Paper and if we have further proposals to announce to strengthen things even further, we will make them plain in the White Paper in the spring of next year.

I have told the House that we provide some financial support to employers when we mobilise a reservist. We are examining this closely in the context of the Green Paper, but I encourage my hon. Friend to submit any specific suggestions to the Green Paper process. I should also add that companies such as BT, Carillion, Serco, the Automobile Association and BAE Systems have shown their support to our reservists in the consultation process, but clearly we would like to see more contributions from SMEs, too.

Earlier this year, the Government announced quite radical changes to our reserve forces. I understand that the recruitment campaign has already begun. What confidence does the Minister have that those recruited will have their employment rights protected without a change in the law? Will he update us on where the Department is with the review of Defence Estates?

I take a close interest in this matter. I spent the best part of a day at Army HQ last week going in detail through proposals to increase the size of the reserve forces. We are considering the issue extremely closely. The Green Paper asks employers and others whether we might need primary legislation to change some of the terms, but as the consultation has only just begun it is perhaps a little rich of the hon. Gentleman to ask me what the answer is.

Departmental Contracts

6. What steps he is taking to enable small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for procurement contracts with his Department. (129603)

As set out in the White Paper published earlier this year, increasing opportunities for SMEs in defence procurement is an important strand in our open procurement policy. We have set up an SME forum, which I chair, precisely to identify barriers to participation. Specific measures include standardising and simplifying procurement systems, promoting opportunities for SMEs through e-procurement mechanisms and marketplace events, and working with our prime contractors to boost opportunities for smaller businesses in the supply chain.

I welcome that statement. I was a senior contracts officer with GEC Marconi Avionics, so I would like to think I know something about the complexity of the MOD procurement process. Large companies such as BAE Systems have access to teams of expert contracts officers who can plough through the bid documents. Sadly, SMEs often do not have that luxury, which puts them at a disadvantage. Will my hon. Friend consider how the bid process can be made less complicated and more user-friendly for SMEs?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for demonstrating his expertise and bringing it to bear on our complicated procurement processes. We recognise that smaller companies, unlike the larger ones, do not have the resources to focus on putting bid proposals together, which is why we are introducing a number of measures to make that easier for them. They include publishing on web portals all tenders over £10,000, streamlining contract processes and speeding up invoice and bill payment systems, which will make it more convenient for SMEs to receive timely payments. We are also considering requests for interim payments on procurement.

According to the MOD’s own statistics, only 2% of SME contracts are given to Scottish companies. Meanwhile, the new Defence Business Services organisation is set to have 1,672 members of staff, only 13 of whom will be in Scotland. Is the Minister not embarrassed by that track record?

The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that I will be in Scotland on Wednesday evening to meet defence contractors precisely to encourage them to participate more in the procurement that is on offer.

The Minister has explained to the House how much has been done to make it easier for smaller businesses to do business with the MOD. One outstanding action item is publication of the audited equipment programme. A month ago, the Secretary of State told me that it would be published “shortly”. How shortly is “shortly”?

I pay tribute to my predecessor for his work in championing the role of SMEs in defence procurement. As far as his direct question is concerned, as he knows the equipment plan is with the National Audit Office, and as soon as it has finished its deliberations the Department will publish it, alongside the NAO’s review.

SMEs will be affected by any decision by BAE Systems to shut any of its three yards in Portsmouth, Scotstoun or Govan. Will the Minister update the House on behalf of the businesses and workers in Glasgow who want to know whether, if they were in an independent Scotland, they could compete for work on Royal Navy warships? Will he also update the House to address the concerns of SMEs and workers in Portsmouth who will want to know about any future order of two offshore patrol boats that could fill any production gap?

The shadow Secretary of State is well aware that under EU procurement rules any nation can direct warlike stores, such as large warships, to be built within its national boundaries. That would mean that in the very unlikely event of a Scottish independence vote leading to an independent Scotland, a new Scottish Government could place orders for Scottish warships to be built in Scottish yards, whereas the residual UK Government could direct warships to be built in their own yards, if they decided to take advantage of the EU exemption. As far as Portsmouth is concerned, the terms of business agreement entered into by the previous Government left the decisions about how the company should rationalise the ship building programme for another day. Having placed large orders that would run beyond the general election, they were not prepared to take tough decisions on what should happen to consolidate the industry.

Operation Atalanta

Operation Atalanta is one of three multinational counter-piracy operations in the Indian ocean that have played an important role in the dramatic reduction in piracy observed over the past 12 months. Operation Atalanta assesses that there are now only five vessels and around 140 hostages held captive off the Somali coast. That compares favourably with May 2011, when there were believed to be 23 vessels and about 500 hostages being held.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Deterring piracy at sea is essential, but it addresses the symptoms, not the causes, of Somali criminal activity. Will he commit the Government to tackling the deeper political causes by supporting the parallel EUCAP NESTOR mission on the ground in Somalia?

My hon. Friend is right that the piracy will not be resolved entirely at sea, and EUCAP NESTOR is showing early promise of delivering effect. The subject will be returned to at the next EU Foreign Affairs Council early next year. I pay tribute to the EU training mission in Somalia, which is showing early promise and already training people to ensure that we tackle this problem at its heart and do not rely simply on our undoubted success offshore.

But what assessment has the Minister made of the links between al-Shabaab and piracy in the region, and what are the Government’s long-term plans to tackle the growth of extremism operating both within and out of Somalia?

We have seen some early signs of improvement politically and economically in Somalia. It is absolutely essential that the root causes of insurgency are dealt with at source, and that is happening. The international community is absolutely committed to dealing with this and tackling the menace that al-Shabaab poses.

European Defence Co-operation

We believe that there is scope for improved European defence co-operation focused strongly on supporting operational effect and capability. We would encourage closer co-operation through either multilateral or bilateral initiatives, such as the UK-France Lancaster House treaty signed in 2010. That is becoming increasingly important as nations face reductions in their defence budgets.

I commend the Minister for his participation in the European Defence Council last week and welcome the subsequent announcements on pooling capabilities, helicopter training and air-to-air refuelling, but with America rebalancing its defence away to the Pacific what is the future of UK involvement in the European Defence Agency?

The United Kingdom stood alone last Monday in insisting on flat cash for the European Defence Agency. I am very pleased that we did so, as we have been forced, because of the deficit we inherited, to make fairly substantial cuts to the defence budget and it would have been perverse to vote through an increase in the EDA budget. It is absolutely crucial that the EDA takes every opportunity to ensure that it extracts efficiencies from its programmes, and it will have our support in levering in effect, but the emphasis must be on effect and capability, not institution building.

On European defence co-operation, the Minister will be aware that the separatists in Scotland have recently announced that they would wish a separate Scotland to join NATO at the same time as getting rid of Scotland’s nuclear weapons—a very difficult thing to achieve. Is he aware of any discussions between the Scottish Government and NATO?

I think that it would be premature for the Scottish Government to engage with NATO, as I confidently expect the good people of Scotland—people of sound good sense—to reject independence at the forthcoming referendum.

Following the successful deployment of Iron Dome and the trials of David’s Sling, what discussions has the European Defence Agency had with Israel regarding procurement of those two vital tools?

It is important to stress that NATO is the cornerstone of our collective defence. I know that my hon. Friend would agree with that, but it is also important for the European Union to ensure that it engages with what might be called its near abroad. Colleagues—defence Ministers—across the EU keep a very close eye on developments.

One of the objectives of the UK-France defence accord was the potential jointly to develop a new unmanned combat air vehicle. Has agreement been reached with France on its development, and if not what is causing the delay?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We have agreed the assessment phase, which is under way, and we will have further to report in the fullness of time. I am very pleased that he raises the important liaison that we now have with France. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) for securing that in 2010 and for the two Lancaster House treaties that we now have with France. I look forward to ever closer co-operation with France, noting of course that France spends a proper amount on defence; we would like other European colleagues to follow suit.

Combat Immunity

Combat immunity is an important legal principle that the MOD is committed to defend. The courts have consistently held that a soldier involved in combat or under an immediate threat should be able to focus on the task of fighting. Constant assessment of personal liability on the battlefield could lead to paralysis across the chain of command and result in military failure and increased loss of life through operational inefficiency. Imposing a duty of care in those circumstances is not appropriate and would reduce operational effectiveness. However, there is a recognised mechanism to compensate for injury or death under existing statutory schemes.

Does the Minister agree, though, that the MOD’s decision not to make a further appeal against the ruling of the Court of Appeal in the case of the late Corporal Stephen Allbutt—I pay tribute to his widow’s courage—is a landmark in respect of combat immunity? Given that the clear consequences of that ruling are that the MOD owes a duty of care properly to equip its troops when they go into battle, does the Minister agree that an urgent review of procurement and training—never mind statutory schemes—is needed in the interests of the safety and morale of our armed forces?

You will understand, Mr Speaker, that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any ongoing legal procedures. The hon. Lady should realise, however, that we are absolutely committed to defending the position of combat immunity. It would be very worrying if soldiers, sailors and airmen in battle were concerned about looking over their shoulders the whole time for fear of legal challenge. Of course we wish people to be properly trained and properly equipped; we are determined that that should happen and we believe that they are so.

All battlefield commanders of whatever rank are given appropriate training and advice on the legal position, from the Geneva convention onwards, and on training with equipment and the like.


Transition of security to Afghan control, as agreed at the Lisbon conference in 2010, remains on track to be achieved by the end of 2014. The Afghan national security forces are taking an ever greater role in their domestic security. They now have lead responsibility in areas that are home to three quarters of the population, including all 34 provincial capitals and the three districts that make up Task Force Helmand’s area of operations. We expect that by mid-2013 all parts of the country will have entered the process and that Afghan security forces will be in the lead for security nationwide. The progress of security transition will allow ISAF, gradually and responsibly, to draw down its forces to complete its combat mission by 31 December 2014.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will know that, to date, not one senior official or political figure in Afghanistan has been successfully prosecuted for corruption or other abuses, despite the many major scandals that have taken place. Does he agree that governance and the rule of law will be more, rather than less, critical to progress in Afghanistan after the security transition, and how does he propose to ensure that it is at the heart of our engagement post-2014?

I am glad to be able to say that I absolutely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s view. As I said a moment ago, what happens in the military space is only one part of the overall equation. There needs to be political reconciliation, progress on building good governance, particularly on the eradication of the extreme corruption that is still prevalent in Afghanistan, and progress on developing relationships with Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Given the limited capacity of the RAF airbridge and the difficulty of transporting stuff overland to seaports in Pakistan, how much equipment do we expect to leave behind when we finally exit Afghanistan?

Our intention is to extract all equipment whose value to the armed forces is greater than the cost of extraction and recuperation. We hope to be able to use the southern route overland via Pakistan and we are also negotiating northern lines of communication through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia, but in extremis we have the capacity to bring equipment out by air.

One of the key factors in ensuring a secure Afghanistan is, of course, the position of Pakistan, whose security services have given help to the insurgents and the Taliban over recent years. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what he thinks the latest position is with regard to the help and support given to the Taliban and insurgents by Pakistan’s intelligence services?

I am glad to say that relationships between Afghanistan and Pakistan are improving significantly. The recent visit of the High Peace Council to Islamabad marked an important step forward in building collaborative relationships in the region. Both countries understand the threat that the Taliban and other insurgent organisations pose to their security, as well as the benefits of collaboration in dealing with that threat. We are making significant progress, but the hon. Gentleman will know that Pakistan is not a simple country, that the situation is complex and that the issue will require a lot of effort for many years to come.

The Secretary of State will be aware that British troops preparing for deployment to Afghanistan undertake important training at the British base in Laikipia in Kenya. Will he join me in paying tribute to those who make sure that those troops receive the necessary training for Afghanistan? Will he also look into the absence of navigation aids at Laikipia air base, which means that British troops are prevented from flying directly to the training area and instead have to travel the long route via Nairobi?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those who make possible that valuable training facility in Kenya. He has raised an issue that I was not previously aware of; I will look into it and write to him.


I thank the Minister for that reply. After the first Gulf war, Her Majesty’s Government recovered £2 billion from Kuwait and other countries to help to cover the cost of our operations there. Is he able to tell us that the Secretary of State will be unyielding in his demands of the oil-rich Libyan Government to help to cover the £200 million cost underwritten by the British taxpayer for the Libyan intervention?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; I know that he takes a deep interest in these matters. It is important to emphasise that Libya’s security is our security, and this was a mandated operation. We will not seek to recover costs from Libya; that would not be the correct course of action. I look forward to Libya rejoining the international community of nations and to the UK and Libya proceeding on that basis.

What assessment has the Minister made of the security of UK staff in our diplomatic buildings in Libya following the attack on the US embassy?

That is primarily a matter for the Foreign Office, but I will try to reassure the hon. Lady. When I was in Tripoli recently, I visited UK staff, both uniformed and civilian. We have a small presence of staff embedded in the interim Government to assist them. Our staff are, of course, protected according to the risk assessment on the ground.

12th Mechanized Brigade

13. Whether he has met the commander of 12th Mechanized Brigade following its return from Afghanistan. (129611)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence met the commander of 12th Mechanized Brigade, Brigadier Doug Chalmers, during his last visit to Afghanistan in September. On 23 October, the Secretary of State and I were pleased to meet the commander in Parliament when he briefed both Houses and all parties on the brigade’s deployment on Operation Herrick 16.

I hope that the Minister for the Armed Forces, other Ministers and all Members of the House are aware that some 20 minutes from now, there will be another opportunity to meet Brigadier Doug Chalmers and the 120 soldiers of 12th Mechanized Brigade as they march, led by the band of the Grenadier Guards, through the gates of Parliament and down to the north door of Westminster Hall. As we welcome them, I hope that hon. Members will remember not only those who have not come home with the brigade, but those who have come home with life-changing injuries and the families who support our soldiers, sailors and airmen as they go off to operations in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for setting up the march-ins at Parliament. They are a valuable and tangible sign of the respect that we owe our armed forces when they go to war on our behalf. He has done a great deal to organise them. I share his sentiments about those who have not returned, the families of the bereaved and those who have come back with life-threatening illnesses. I shall be at the march-in at some stage this afternoon or this evening, and the Secretary of State hopes to be there as well.

I shall be here, but I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) will pass on my respect and appreciation, which I would have preferred to convey in person.

I echo the Minister’s comments on the massive contribution of 12th Mechanized Brigade.

I recognise what the Secretary of State has just said about the importance of the message that we send to the Taliban and the Afghan army, but what message will be sent by the reduction in the size of the Afghan army in respect of the security of Afghanistan?

The total size of the Afghan national security forces is approaching 352,000. It is for Afghanistan to make decisions for the future. We continue to support the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan, as do the Opposition.

Defence Equipment and Support

14. What plans he has for the future of Defence Equipment and Support; and if he will make a statement. (129612)

Our evaluation of how best to improve the delivery of procurement and support is progressing well. A soft market testing of the potential for a Government-owned contractor-operated model is due to conclude before Christmas, and the outcome of the value-for-money comparison is expected shortly. Subject to those conclusions, we are on track to make decisions on how we intend to proceed in the new year. In the meantime, we continue to drive efficiency and improvements within Defence Equipment and Support.

Defence procurement is a key part of an active industrial strategy. Defence firms need certainty to plan and invest for the long term. There has been far too much uncertainty over the future shape and direction of Defence Equipment and Support. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, the position is still vague, with promises made about the new year. Will he provide further clarity and, in so doing, help British businesses to invest for the long term?

The single most effective answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that this Government have removed the overspend in the defence equipment budget that we inherited from Labour. By narrowing the spend for the next 10 years into a £160 billion envelope, it is now clear that some 95% of that money is committed and the contractors know that the programmes will be delivered. That was not the case under the previous Government.

The success of the future structure of Defence Equipment and Support lies at the heart of our ability to deliver Future Force 2020. The concerns raised by the industry about exactly how a Government-owned, contractor operated model would work therefore need to be taken seriously. The Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), also highlighted the delay to the announcement on the equipment programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) was absolutely right about the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills perspective—it is vital that the defence sector has certainty. Will the Minister undertake to come to the House at the earliest possible opportunity in the new year to set out the detail of the GOCO model and give us a definitive list of the projects that will be overseen by it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. This Government are engaging with industry more proactively than has been the case in recent times. We have just announced the defence growth partnership in conjunction with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to drive forward how we support defence contractors in growing the economy in this country. Once we have made the decision, we will make an announcement to Parliament in the usual way.

Armed Forces Pensions

17. What comparative assessment he has made of the value and terms of armed forces pensions and other public sector pensions. (129616)

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Mark Francois): There are currently two armed forces pension schemes in operation, known as armed forces pension scheme 75 and armed forces pension scheme 05. These are due to be superseded in 2015 by what is currently referred to as the future armed forces pension scheme. That scheme was born out of the recommendations of Lord Hutton’s independent public service pension commission report.

As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I often have the opportunity to discuss pension provision with serving members of the armed forces. Surprisingly, not only those coming to the end of their term of service but young soldiers too raise the issue. What steps are being taken better to communicate to service personnel the future terms and conditions of their pensions?

When I was in Camp Bastion two weeks ago for the remembrance celebrations, I had the pleasure of meeting a dozen or so regimental sergeant majors, who impressed upon me—at close range, shall we say?—a number of questions about pensions. Perhaps I could help to reassure them and my hon. Friend. John Moore-Bick, who heads the Forces Pension Society, which is expert in this matter, has said that the new pension scheme is

“as good as it gets”.

We are redoubling our efforts to explain that to serving personnel, including by developing a new pensions calculator from the middle of next year, so that they can plug in all the details on how pensions will affect them and get a clear answer.

Last week, the Secretary of State announced plans to allow serving personnel to access their pension funds early to buy a house. Will the Minister confirm that an individual who takes up that offer will therefore receive lower pension payments in future?

Lord Hutton’s report confirmed that the armed forces pension schemes in general stood up very well compared with others in terms of benefits to members. We should bear it in mind that, unlike many other schemes, the armed forces scheme will remain non-contributory and that the normal pension age will be lower than it is for most other schemes. Personnel will also qualify for an early payment at age 40. We are looking at incentives to assist servicemen to purchase their own homes. That is actively being worked on but no final decisions have been taken.

Topical Questions

My first priority is, and will remain, the success of the operation in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priority is to deliver the military tasks for which the Ministry of Defence is mandated.

The MOD is also engaged in 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 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. Over the next few weeks, we will publish—jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—the defence engagement strategy, and I will announce the decisions emanating from the review of Army basing in the UK as we bring our troops home from Germany.

Has my right hon. Friend received any evidence from the Scottish Government on the economic and employment prospects of people in Gairloch if Scotland becomes independent and if a non-nuclear defence policy is announced?

I have received no evidence whatever, but this is not simply about people in Gairloch: the impact of the 6,000-plus jobs at Her Majesty’s naval base in Clyde is felt throughout the entire west of Scotland. The removal of those jobs or any erosion of their numbers would be a devastating blow to the Scottish economy.

The veterans interview programme aims to get private sector employers to guarantee job interviews for unemployed veterans. This scheme was designed by the Labour Opposition and is today being rolled out nationally by Jobcentre Plus. For months, Ministers have been asked to do something similar in the public sector. Will a Minister—any Minister—update the House on the progress made in getting public sector employers to guarantee job interviews to suitably qualified unemployed veterans?

I am not sure from the right hon. Gentleman’s tone whether he is pleased or saddened by the news today. He does not sound very joyous about it. The Department for Work and Pensions is rolling out a programme to ensure that veterans leaving the services are guaranteed interviews. I should have thought that he would be rather pleased about that.

Let me make a further point. Any suggestion that people leaving the services are unable to get work would not do them any favours. More than 90% of people leaving the services have found work within six months, and more than 97% within 12 months. I would have thought that that was rather a good record to build on.

T3. May we have an update on the Government’s policy towards Syria and a commitment that British ground troops will not be sent there? (129625)

I can tell my hon. Friend that our policy in relation to Syria remains that we believe that a diplomatic and political solution is necessary to deliver a sustainable solution to the crisis. While we pursue such a solution, we will not rule out any option that is in accordance with international law and might save innocent lives in Syria and prevent the destabilisation of a region that is of critical importance to the United Kingdom.

T2. Given the Government’s plans to impose the bedroom tax on the parents of serving soldiers, will the Secretary of State at least undertake to invest the Department’s forecast underspend in forces’ welfare, rather than returning it to the Treasury? (129624)

I, too, have seen speculation in the media that the Department will be underspending and returning money to the Treasury. It is our policy to operate a prudent approach to our budget, but—unlike the previous Government—it is also our policy to work closely with our colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that we deliver the equipment programme and support the armed forces in the most cost-effective way possible, and over a number of years, not just over a single year.

T5. Following recent international cyber-security incidents such as the Flame and Shamoon viruses, what recent steps have been taken to secure MOD systems and critical national infrastructure? (129627)

My hon. Friend will understand that I would not wish to go too deep into security systems. What I can say is that we take the threat of cyber-attack very seriously. That applies both to the commercial world and the public sector in the UK, including defence. We are pursuing this issue with other organs of Government and we are also ensuring that we have niche capabilities within defence that can assist us in protecting against cyber-attack.

T4. Does the Secretary of State agree that he should make an assessment of the contribution made by UK armed forces and related MOD contracts to Scotland’s economy? I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee and our inquiry, although not yet complete, would seem to suggest that the contribution is immense and the implications of separation would be devastating. Do any of the Ministers agree that the loss of jobs and investment is simply too high a price to pay if the MOD and UK armed forces leave Scotland? (129626)

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that all MOD Ministers agree with what he said—not just “any” of them. Furthermore, probably all Members in the Chamber at present would agree with him.

T6. I have had the opportunity to visit a number of living quarters as a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. What investment are the Government making to improve the quality of both single and family accommodation for our armed forces? (129628)

I assure my hon. Friend that we take the issue of accommodation very seriously. Within a week of my appointment, I attended an Army Families Federation conference where one corporal in particular raised with me the issue of his quarters at Aldershot. Two weeks later I went to knock on his door to see them for myself. I hope that that counts as taking it seriously. We have recently put £100 million back into the budget for accommodation. We anticipate further announcements on this subject in the context of the basing review.

In his exchanges with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the Secretary of State agreed about the need to deal with corruption in Afghanistan. I understand that the first prosecutions in relation to the Kabul bank scandal are taking place. Is the Secretary of State convinced that there are any prisons in Afghanistan at the moment that would be secure enough to hold anybody convicted?

Strictly speaking, this is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence. However, the working of the Afghan justice system does concern us, not least because our normal practice until recently has been to transfer UK detainees into the Afghan justice system to allow them to them to be processed. There is a great deal of work to be done to get the Afghan justice system into a satisfactory state.

T7. Some weeks ago in Prime Minister’s Question Time I raised an issue relating to my constituent Emma Hickman, whose fiancé had died in Afghanistan and who was having difficulty determining a paternity because a DNA sample had not been released by the MOD. May I thank the Minister of State for the work he has done on this case, which is almost resolved? Will he consider asking the Army to hold DNA samples routinely for those on active duty, as happens in France and the United States? (129630)

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It has been a long journey, but I believe we are nearly there. On his wider question, it is current Ministry of Defence policy to offer all military deployable MOD civilians and other entitled personnel the opportunity to provide reference samples suitable for DNA analysis. This is entirely voluntary and is to enable identification post mortem, should that unfortunately be required. The policy is under review, and I can confirm that the United States position is being considered. I expect this work to be complete by spring 2013.

The Army cadet forces outreach programme aims to reach troubled youngsters and deter them from a life of crime. Will the Secretary of State commit to expanding this programme?

We certainly support the expansion of cadet forces. Earlier, a colleague talked about the programme already in place to deliver an additional 100 cadet forces. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a commitment at the Dispatch Box that we will be able to go beyond that, because of the resource implications. However, we are certainly reviewing it all the time, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.

T8. In Harlow, we are fortunate to have a strong Royal British Legion that has raised more than £45,000 for ex-servicemen so far this year. Harlow and Essex have now signed up to the Royal British Legion’s community covenant, but 200 local authorities have not done so. Will the Minister urge them to sign up today and back the Royal British Legion? (129631)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. May I take this opportunity to place on record our gratitude for everything that the Royal British Legion does in support of our servicemen and women, and of course our veterans and their families? I was in Essex when Harlow, among others, signed the community covenant. It is wonderful that more than 200 local authorities across the United Kingdom have signed the community covenant, which helps to give effect to the armed forces covenant at local government level. I recently wrote a joint letter with Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, congratulating councils that have signed the community covenant and gently urging those that have not to do so. We would like every local authority in the land to sign it, if possible, and that is what we are working towards.

Warm words alone are not enough when it comes to enabling small businesses to compete in the defence supply chain. Will the Minister confirm that he will take the action needed to create a level playing field, so that small businesses can compete?

The Ministry of Defence is determined to increase the participation of small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain. To that end, we are holding a marketplace next week, on 3 December, which the hon. Gentleman is welcome to attend, to show off the innovation coming out of our SMEs to the prime contractors.

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the issue of Syria? Will he tell the House in what conceivable circumstances he would think it appropriate for British troops to intervene in a civil war?

As I have already told the House, our clear intention is to pursue a diplomatic path towards a political solution in Syria, but it makes no sense to take any options off the table in such an uncertain situation, where future developments are not yet clear.

Order. I am sorry. Colleagues know that ordinarily I like these sessions to be very full, but we have an important statement, and we must now proceed.