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Topical Questions

Volume 554: debated on Monday 26 November 2012

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.