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Topical Questions

Volume 559: debated on Monday 25 February 2013

I call Siobhain McDonagh. Not here—[Interruption.] We are never going to be troubled for any length of time, any more than the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) is.

Our 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 MOD is mandated. The MOD is also engaged in a major project of transformation to bring about the behavioural change that is needed to maintain a balanced budget and to deliver equipment programmes, so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained. To deliver that project, we need to complete the rebasing of the Army from Germany, secure our target level of trained reserves and restructure the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and Defence Equipment and Support. In parallel with the defence transformation project, I am focused on the steps we need to take to restore confidence in the future to those who serve in the armed forces after a period of turbulence and uncertainty.

Why do the Government think it right that the pension age for firefighters in the defence fire and rescue service is to be aligned with the civil service pension age, rather than with the age for civilian firefighters, given that the job done by those serving in our defence services is no less dangerous, and certainly no less physically challenging, than that done by other firefighters?

Lord Newby has been leading negotiations on behalf of the Treasury as the Public Service Pensions Bill has gone through another place. We are now working with our colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to understand the implications of the amendment made to the Bill in the House of Lords, which I believe is at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are currently considering how to respond.

T3. My hon. Friend will be aware of recent problems caused by former military personnel accessing the MOD estate. Will he tell the House what measures he is going to implement to deal with this matter? (144328)

I am grateful for this opportunity to announce a comprehensive set of measures implemented in the MOD by the Secretary of State to ensure that both former and current employees are clear about the rules and restrictions on access.

For the first time, a list of all ex-MOD personnel who are subject to lobbying restrictions under the rules of the Advisory Committee for Business Appointments will be available for all MOD staff to see. The MOD permanent secretary has written to all former MOD personnel who are subject to business appointment restrictions to remind them of their duties under the advisory committee, and to the Association of Defence Suppliers to ensure that industry members are aware of the rules. Transparency measures have been radically increased, and since the review the permanent secretary has removed nearly 2,500 passes allowing access to the MOD’s main building to ensure that only members of staff who require regular access to the MOD are granted it. Passes that have not been used for 60 days have been disabled, and there will be an ongoing audit of those who are granted visitor passes.

When Ministers were last asked about the need to double the reserve force numbers, they dodged the question, instead talking about the increase in Territorial Army inquiries. Today we have heard from Ministers that they are hopeful that the policy will be a success. However, a policy that the country needs to be a success is being totally mishandled, with missed targets and too few businesses aware of the Government’s plans. Instead of talking about inquiries, will Ministers now place on record the fact that recruitment targets are being missed? Surely, in relation to this important issue, accepting that there is a problem would be the first step towards dealing with the problem.

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that the way in which we will not increase confidence in the Territorial Army, and will not increase reserve numbers, is arbitrarily cancelling its members’ training, cutting their kit and relegating them to the second division, which is what his party did in government. [Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) is assuming that there is an automatic link between what he says and what the Secretary of State says, which is itself the creation of a notable parliamentary precedent. However, it is not for the right hon. Gentleman to yell from a sedentary position. He asked the question; whether he likes the answer or not, he is getting an answer, and he owes the Secretary of State the courtesy of hearing it.

That is certainly not a precedent that I noticed during my 13 years of opposition.

Let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. We know that we have set ourselves a substantial challenge in increasing the size of the Army reserve to 30,000. We have a number of measures in train, including a new recruiting campaign which started only 10 days ago. We expect to start to make significant progress this year. We will be publishing details of recruitment and retention figures, and as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces suggested earlier, we will do that periodically and regularly—not, I think, monthly, but probably on a quarterly basis.

T4. I understand that it costs about £14 million a year for HMS Bulwark’s sister ship, HMS Albion, to sit in Portsmouth doing not very much. Given the Prime Minister’s new-found enthusiasm for spending on our armed services, may I suggest that some of the money be used to put this wonderful ship to sea—if for no other reason than to help the Department for International Development? (144329)

The Prime Minister has always been enthusiastic in his support for defence, but as my hon. Friend knows, in October 2010, as part of SDSR 2010, we outlined plans to place one of our two landing platform dock vessels at extended readiness, while holding the other at high readiness for operations. HMS Albion entered a period of extended readiness in late 2011, and according to current plans will remain at Her Majesty’s naval base Devonport until her upkeep is completed in 2016. At that point, HMS Bulwark will go into extended readiness and HMS Albion will be placed at high readiness for operations.

T8. Bearing in mind what the Minister said about the military covenant and the Liberal Democrats’ 2010 campaign for a fair deal for our troops, will he now publish the impact assessment—which I am sure he undertook—of the effect of the bedroom tax on the armed forces, and the actual numbers affected? (144333)

I have to say to the hon. Lady that I believe that she and some of her parliamentary colleagues are becoming over-excited about this. We have discussed it with the Department for Work and Pensions, and we believe that a very small number of service personnel will be affected, but we will continue to keep the matter under review.

T5. Since 1990, the Army has been reduced by about 40%, but officer numbers are down by less than 30%. Indeed, there are more colonels now than there were then. Is there more that we can do to ensure that the cuts are proportionate? (144330)

We are committed to reducing—and, indeed, are reducing— the star count in the Ministry of Defence by 25%, which means those with the rank of brigadier and above. It is true that the number of colonels is higher than in 1990, but it has fallen by 80 since 1 April 2010, and some of the jobs that those officers do are specific to NATO or to defence engagements. For instance, some are defence attachés. We need all those jobs, and that is why we employ those people. However, my hon. Friend has raised a very good point.

T9. The Minister for defence personnel will know that for the past two months I have been trying to secure a meeting with him to discuss the financial losses faced by Army officers who are being made redundant shortly before their immediate pension point. To date, he has not agreed to such a meeting. Will he do so today? If not, can he tell me how members of our armed forces should raise their concerns with this Government about broken promises on their conditions of service? (144335)

I recently wrote back to the hon. Lady on this precise subject. I hope she has received the letter—she is nodding, and says that she has. I have also written to Ms Jayne Bullock, who wrote to me originally, and to a number of other servicemen’s wives who have campaigned on the matter. I remind the hon. Lady and others who support the so-called taper model, which a number of people have argued for, that we used that model for redundancies up to 2005-06, when the previous Government abandoned it.

T6. Last year, with colleagues, I visited the British peace support team in Nairobi. Does the Secretary of State agree that the valuable work it does at the international mine action training centre and in training peacekeepers from the east African armed forces plays a vital role in helping to bring about the stability that is essential to economic, social and political development? (144331)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend and pay tribute to the work done by the team, which, as the House will note, is broadly in peacekeeping, ending conflict and mine clearance. We should all pay tribute to that work and we very much value our defence engagement in Kenya.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many jobs will be lost at Faslane nuclear base if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom?

As the House will know, the Government are confident that the Scottish people will decide in the referendum that the benefits of union far outweigh anything else on offer and will make the right decision. The hon. Gentleman is right to observe that significant numbers of jobs, not just in the immediate vicinity but across the whole of the west of Scotland—thousands of jobs—depend on the operation at Faslane. When I was last at the base, I made a specific inquiry about the geographical location of workers. People come to the base daily from the east coast, so such a change would affect the whole central area of Scotland.

T7. Constituents of mine, including Councillor Jenny Purcell, have raised with me the worrying case of soldier Harry Killick, who suffers from post-traumatic stress and has received recent press coverage. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to provide support for personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as Harry? (144332)

The case of Corporal Killick is still before the court, with sentencing deferred pending advice on his mental health. I hope that the House will appreciate that it would therefore not be appropriate for me to comment further today. However, in general terms, when on operational deployment members of the reserve forces, such as Corporal Killick, have access to the same extensive range of mental health counselling and treatment as their regular colleagues, including access to mental health professionals in theatre and treatment in military-run departments of community mental health, if necessary. This issue is a priority for the Government, who have invested £7.2 million in it.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), the Secretary of State said that he had “right-sized” the Army in line with the defence budget. How would he rebut the suggestion that that sounds like the strategic defence review was not strategic but budget-driven?

It sounds like a Government who are rejecting the previous Government’s policy of sending people out to do a dangerous job without the kit, equipment and support that they need and deserve. We have a moral obligation not to put people in harm’s way unless they are properly equipped, and setting the size of the armed forces at a level the taxpayer can afford to support and equip properly is the morally correct and appropriate thing to do.

I would like to ask the Secretary of State whether it is the case that when service personnel are accused of breaking the law their pay is stopped with immediate effect, which can cause real hardship to service families who are left unable to meet the costs of rent, bills and food, as well as of independent legal advice. If that is so, what is the justification for that and will he review the situation?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point, but I am pretty certain that that is not the case, although I will write to her if it turns out that I am wrong. Nobody has their pay stopped until and if they are convicted of a criminal offence or at a court martial. If I am wrong I will let her know.

Products from Belted Galloway beef cattle reared and slaughtered on the Falkland Islands travel 30 miles to the NAAFI shop at Mount Pleasant. To be used in the kitchens, I am told by the Falkland Islands Government, the beef travels 8,000 miles back to the United Kingdom, is rebagged and goes back. Is that smart procurement?

Food for our armed forces on operations, including in the Falklands, is supplied under a contract with Purple Foodservice, which undertakes supply to our forces wherever they are stationed. The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point and I will look specifically, and write to him, as to whether there is any possibility of shortening procurement lines for beef in the Falklands.

In Portsmouth and the surrounding area, we have world-leading maritime infrastructure, including dockyards, port facilities, marinas, protected and controlled waters, Europe’s largest hydrodynamic tank and a host of high-end maritime electronics system design and integration facilities. As well as maintaining the 200,000 tonnes of warship that will soon be in the harbour, ought we not to be capitalising on those assets too?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the wide range of world-class defence-based skills around the maritime industry in Portsmouth. We will continue to capitalise on the capabilities offered around Her Majesty’s naval base, providing vital defence jobs for thousands in Portsmouth and the surrounding area, including along the M27 in Eastleigh.

Given the earlier answer about equipment for our armed forces and given the plight of the remaining Remploy factories, will the Minister use his good offices to ensure that Remploy factories are the first preference for providing equipment and other procurement within the remit? The Remploy factory in my constituency has a long-standing relationship with the MOD, and if the MOD would commit to continue it, the factory may—just may—be secure.

The Ministry of Defence does not give long-standing commitments for any individual sources of supply; they need to be competitively tendered. But I will be happy to look at the point the hon. Gentleman raised, if he writes to me with details.

My hon. Friend has worked hard on the award of the Arctic Convoy Star medal to veterans of the second world war Artic convoys. He will appreciate that time is of the essence, so will he pledge to complete the necessary processes as soon as possible so that the remaining Arctic convoy veterans can receive their hard and bravely earned recognition?

I thank my hon. Friend for that pertinent question. I am pleased to tell the House that since the Prime Minister’s announcement, considerable progress has been made on the introduction of the Arctic star. I hope to make an announcement very shortly on the design, eligibility criteria and application process for the new award. Similarly, I hope to make an announcement about the Bomber Command class at the same time. Both categories of men served their country with great distinction and it is right that we recognise them.