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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans (Mental Health)

Before I answer the question, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Jamie Webb of the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, who died in hospital in Kandahar on Tuesday 26 March 2013 from wounds received in Afghanistan on Monday 25 March. He died in the service of his country and our thoughts, and those of the whole House, are with his family and friends.

The Government are committed to ensuring that each and every one of the roughly one in 10 adults in this country who are veterans receive the support they require from across the whole of Government. Responsibility for delivering mental health support lies with the Department of Health, with which the Ministry of Defence works closely. Together we are providing greater access to mental health care for the first six months after discharge, an increase in the number of veterans mental health professionals, a 24-hour helpline in partnership with Combat Stress, and an online mental health support and advice website called the Big White Wall.

The north-east provides more servicemen and women, proportionally, than any other region in the country, so I am pleased to say that we have award-winning mental health services such as a veterans well-being assessment and liaison pilot, in partnership with Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion. They expect a surge in referrals as our troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year, but the pilot ends in March. What plans does the Minister have to meet the expected increase in demand for mental health services?

As I say, this will partly be a responsibility for the Department of Health, with which we work closely, but I take the whole issue very seriously, and I have tried personally to meet as many people as I can who are involved in this issue, for instance Sir Simon Wessely at King’s, Andrew Cameron at Combat Stress and Dr Hugh Milroy at Veterans Aid. The Government will continue to reach out to these and other experts to provide the right care for those to whom we owe such a debt of gratitude.

Some great work has been done on mental health care for veterans since the seminal report by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), some years ago. Does the Minister agree that there is a particular problem associated with members of the Territorial Army and other reservists who have come back from active service and who may not know that they have a mental problem? It may be many years later, when they have left the regimental family, that the problems become apparent. What extra can be done to help members of the Territorial Army who have been dispersed around the country?

I understand the issue that my hon. Friend raises. Like him, I pay tribute to the excellent “Fighting Fit” report, which addressed mental health for both serving personnel and veterans. He may be aware that there was a lacuna a few years ago in that reservists returning from theatre were not subject to the same decompression package as regulars and did not necessarily receive the same mental health briefings as regular troops. We have changed that so that reservists coming back from theatre get the same decompression package and mental health briefings as their regular counterparts, which helps to alleviate problems later on.

Will the Minister tell us what problems the Government have experienced in transferring medical records of former service personnel from Defence Medical Services to GPs?

There has been an issue, partly compounded by difficulties relating to the matter of consent. The FMed 133, as the form is known, provides a summary of a person’s medical history while in the services, and is given to members of the services when they leave. They are encouraged to present it to their GP when they resettle in the civilian community, so that the GP knows that they served and are now a veteran. The form provides information to the GP on how to receive more detailed medical records from Defence Medical Services if the GP decides that that is appropriate.

Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what specific help the Government are giving to Combat Stress in its valiant efforts to help the whole of the military services family with regard to mental health?

We work very closely with Combat Stress, which is a valuable charity. As I intimated earlier, I recently met Andrew Cameron, who helps to run that charity so effectively. As my hon. Friend may know, it has a number of residential centres where people who suffer from such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder can receive help over a period of weeks or months if necessary. I hope to visit one of these centres in the near future.

Defence Exports

This Ministry of Defence is fully committed to the Government’s growth agenda by supporting responsible defence exports. From the Prime Minister down, ministerial colleagues and senior officials are actively supporting the British defence industry in international markets. For example, already this year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has promoted defence exports during his visits to Australia and Indonesia. I have visited India, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Malaysia in support of exports and to lead delegations at defence exhibitions, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who has responsibility for international security strategy, has just returned from supporting defence exports in Libya and Brazil.

The production of the wings for the new Airbus A400M at Filton is progressing so well that Airbus has announced that it is increasing the number of skilled aircraft fitters. Once the first aircraft is delivered to the French air force this summer, and to the RAF next year, I believe that the A400M will be the jewel in the crown of the British aerospace industry. Will the Minister outline what action the Government are taking to support exports of this aircraft to markets overseas?

The A400M Atlas will provide both tactical and strategic airlift capability from its first delivery to the RAF next year. We agree that this world-class capability has the potential to become the tactical lift aircraft of choice for air forces around the world once the hugely successful C-130 Hercules, which has had this role for many years, is withdrawn from service. The UK is fully behind the efforts of Airbus Military to export the Atlas military transport aircraft, which will support skilled jobs in the aerospace hub around Bristol and across the UK.

The Defence ministerial team will have had a number of representations on the challenges faced by small and medium-sized enterprises in being able to compete adequately. What support will the ministerial team be extending to SMEs in the defence sector so that they can compete and export internationally?

As I have said at the Dispatch Box previously, we have a strong commitment to support SME penetration of our own procurement chain and to help them export overseas. Early next month, in support of the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation, I am attending a symposium at which there will be more than 350 SMEs, precisely to help them with their defence exports.

20. I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer. Will he explain to those who do not necessarily understand the merit of defence exports the incredible benefit they deliver, not only for our armed forces but for the wider British economy? (150749)

Our armed forces benefit directly from responsible defence exports. Not only do they help build bilateral relationships and defence co-operation with our key allies, but they raise capability, enhance the interoperability of allies and partner nations, and contribute to regional security around the globe. As far as the contribution to the UK economy is concerned, defence exports have a vital role to play in sustaining UK jobs, generating UK tax revenues and helping to ensure the long-term viability and cutting edge of our defence industrial base.

I would like to associate the Opposition with the Minister’s condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Webb for their loss.

The Minister will be aware that the Brazilian navy is looking to acquire at least one, possibly two, new aircraft carriers, so there will be significant potential for export opportunities. French companies are already on the case, supported by the French Government, looking to procure the design work. Given that we are building two of the world’s most advanced aircraft carriers, as a result of which we will have the skills and a dip in ship-building orders between the end of the carrier build and the start of the Type 26—which, incidentally, we are looking to sell to the Brazilians—what discussions has his Department, including the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), during his recent visit, had with the Brazilians specifically to promote British interests in the design and build of those carriers?

As the hon. Lady knows, Brazil and the UK entered into a maritime co-operation agreement as a result of the Prime Minister’s visit in recent months. As I said earlier, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire, visited Brazil only last week, when he discussed maritime co-operation, particularly in the offshore patrol vessel area. It is clear that the Brazilians wish to construct the aircraft carriers in their own shipyards, which means that there is no prospect of a direct export order for an entire ship; but as regards many of the systems, components and weapons systems, we will be seeking to provide opportunities for companies in this country supplying our aircraft carriers, which are currently under construction in Rosyth, to bid into the Brazilian and other nations’ programmes.

Reserve Forces

3. What recent discussions he has had with employers to encourage their support for the expansion of reserve forces. (150730)

Reserve forces have a central role to play in delivering national defence and security—what they do matters to our nation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended two national workshops in January with a range of employers to discuss our vision of a transformed relationship based on mutual benefits. I am very pleased that at these workshops and in other responses from employers to November’s Green Paper consultation, there has been broad and constructive support for our proposals. In the lead-up to the planned publication of the future reserves 2020 White Paper later in the spring, we will continue to engage with employers and employer groups such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Will the Minister confirm that our target for additional reserve recruitment could be met by less than one third of 1% of the younger working-age population and that the employers in question would benefit enormously from the positive attitude, outlook and determination of employees who take up reserve training?

My hon. Friend knows something about this matter personally, because he himself served in the Territorial Army some years ago, and is absolutely right about the benefit that reservists can offer to their employers. I am pleased to say that a number of employers recognised that in their response to the consultation. On his good point about numbers, I would just say that when I served as a TA infantry officer in the 1980s—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] Thank you—employer support was an issue then too. We managed then to get to 75,000 trained soldiers in the TA with a smaller population than we have now, so I have to believe that we can get to 30,000 now.

Will the Government introduce legislation to deal with employers who discriminate against reservists, especially in relation to hiring procedures?

I am aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Our instinct is to try and garner employer support voluntarily, as it were, but we are aware of the issue and intend to address it in our response in the White Paper.

I suggest that expressions of support and troops and boots on the ground are two different things. Given the widespread concerns about defence cuts and force generation factors, how confident is the Minister that the plan to plug the gap left by the loss of 20,000 regular troops will not prove to be a false economy?

As I think I have already said, I am confident that we can do this, based not least on my own experience and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who, as my hon. Friend will know, was a Territorial Army officer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—the same regiment to which he belonged.

We all wish the Government’s reservist White Paper to be a success. Within existing competition rules, would the Minister consider MOD procurement processes that take into account whether companies support reservists? I wish to return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy). Current legislation protects reservists returning from the front line, but no equivalent employment legislation protects them from the minority of employers who discriminate against reservists in their hiring processes. Although the Minister has held out against such legislation in the consultation, will he at least consult employers large and small to see whether there is an appetite to prevent that small number of employers from discriminating against those who protect our nation?

In some ways the right hon. Gentleman has, for honourable reasons, asked a similar question to his hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy), who sits on the Benches behind him. We are aware of the issue and intend to address it directly when we publish the White Paper later in the spring. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has offered bipartisan support in principle for the White Paper and the process of growing our reserves, which clearly we welcome.

Leading by example, will the Minister say how many civilians employed by the Ministry of Defence have joined the reserve forces since 1 January?

I am not sure I can give my hon. Friend a precise number for how many have joined since 1 January, but I am willing to write and give him a number for how many in the Ministry of Defence are serving in the reserve forces. I am also happy to provide that information to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I am sure that, like me, he will agree with the remarks of the chairman of Durham county council, Councillor Linda Marshall, who said:

“Reservist employees are better at problem solving, they are good negotiators…their confidence grows throughout their training.”

If we can do it in Durham with the support of the county council, we can do it elsewhere.

Arms Trade Treaty

As the hon. Lady will now know, on Tuesday 2 April the arms trade treaty was adopted by an overwhelming majority vote, with 154 states voting in favour at the United Nations General Assembly. Once implemented, this robust and effective legally binding treaty will establish a common baseline for the regulation of arms transfers.

I very much welcome the work that the Government have done on the treaty, and I am sure that the Minister will want to acknowledge the central role played by the previous Labour Government in promoting it. Will he confirm that the agreed terms of the treaty will be implemented in full in the UK at the earliest opportunity and also say when we can expect legislation on this matter?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her congratulations, which we should pass on to colleagues in the Foreign Office who led on this issue. We welcome the treaty wholeheartedly. The arms export licensing regime operating under this Government and the previous Government is one of the most rigorous in the world and ensures that we will comply with the treaty’s obligations. It is good for British defence contractors, as it establishes a level playing field at a higher standard. We will have no difficulty implementing the treaty. It does not become effective until 50 states have signed it, and we will work hard to encourage that to happen as soon as possible.

The outcome of the talks has been broadly welcomed, as the Minister recognises. Labour has always argued that “conventional arms” should include ammunition, munitions, parts and components. Can the Minister confirm that the Government’s interpretation of “conventional arms”, as it will apply to the UK arms trade in implementing the treaty, will also cover those elements?

Yes I can. The treaty covers all seven categories in the UN register of conventional arms, as well as small arms and light weapons, ammunition, munitions, and parts and components.

RAF Facilities (Alternative Uses)

5. What plans he has for the commercial or community use of RAF facilities; and if he will make a statement. (150732)

It is Ministry of Defence policy to encourage commercial, social or community use of RAF facilities, consistent with operational, security and safety considerations. We are encouraging civil aviation use of certain military airfields, such as RAF Northolt, within agreed operating hours. We regularly hold air shows at military airfields and encourage community use of sporting or other leisure facilities on RAF bases wherever possible.

I thank the Minister for that response. In my constituency, RAF Woodvale is in danger of forfeiting good will and much needed revenue by stopping the popular Woodvale rally because of asbestos risks. What can he do to make my constituents happier and the Ministry of Defence a little better off?

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman was concerned last year when the Woodvale rally could not take place as a result of the discovery of fragments of asbestos following burrowing activities by, I believe, rabbits and moles in the grassy areas of the airfield. They have been fenced off and we are undertaking a land quality assessment exercise this year to see whether the asbestos can be safely contained, for public health and the health of the servicemen and women who work there.

How much are the Government planning to save through the rationalisation of the defence estate by the end of this Parliament?

The Government’s estate has been the subject of one announcement so far on Army basing, and there will be a subsequent announcement on reserve basing. As part of that exercise, the Government are intending to make savings that are baked into the efficiency targets agreed with Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I would be happy to write to the hon. Lady with more details in due course.

Defence Engagement Strategy

The international defence engagement strategy, published in February 2013 and now very much in play, provides a sharp focus to our defence engagement activities in support of wider Government objectives, in line with the vision set out in the strategic defence and security review. Defence is making a contribution to UK influence worldwide on a daily basis, with the Defence Engagement Board overseeing the rolling out of our defence engagement strategy. Since publishing the strategy, we have accredited a non-resident defence attaché for Burma and advanced our preparations for new defence sections in Libya and Somalia.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Given that maritime security is vital for shipping off the horn of Africa, will he tell the House how the defence engagement strategy will specifically target that important region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this matter. He will be aware of the success of Operation Atalanta under British command; that operation has really got to grips with piracy off the horn of Africa. In addition, we engage with the European Union through EUTM—EU training mission—Somalia and EUCAP NESTOR, which is involved in training indigenous assets for littoral operations. He will also be aware of the work of AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, in which we are involved with training, and of the British Peace Support Team Eastern Africa, based in Kenya, which is heavily involved in peace support operations. Later this year, I hope that we will be able to open a defence section in Mogadishu, when security conditions allow.

Does the Minister agree with the value of joint international training as part of the defence engagement strategy? Will he take this opportunity to commend the thousands of personnel from 10 different states who are currently taking part in the Joint Warrior exercise, as well as all the communities that are hosting them?

I certainly commend our engagement in training. I have spent some time in Libya and Brazil recently, and it is clear that our international partners really want British training. It is an important part of their ask of us, and it is a first-rate part of our defence engagement activity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and successor on his work on the defence engagement strategy. Does he agree that nothing leverages influence in the world more than defence, particularly in areas such as training, mentoring and providing advice? Has he been able to secure any extra funds, particularly from the Department for International Development, given that money spent on the defence engagement strategy is much more effective than some of the money that is being spent on overseas aid?

My hon. Friend is right in many respects, especially on the quality of the men and women of our armed forces and the high regard in which they are held. This country is absolutely peerless in that regard, and it is a great joy for me to go around the world—as I now inevitably do, and as he used to do during his excellent tenure of the post that I now hold—and see that the reason that others want to engage with us is that we are very good at what we do. It will therefore continue to be the case that the UK will be a partner of choice in defence engagement.

Armed Forces Covenant

The full extent of the Government’s work to support the armed forces covenant was set out in the armed forces covenant annual report, which was laid before the House in December 2012. Since then, new measures have included the introduction of the armed forces independence payment, which is not taxable or means tested, as well as the introduction of the new defence discount service and the recent Budget announcement of further LIBOR fines funding for service charities. The Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Armed Forces Covenant, on which I sit, was established to ensure that momentum is maintained, and it continues to provide a forum in which Ministers can propose commitments from their respective Departments to assist in honouring the covenant.

Some 2,900 recipients of war widow or disabled military pensions are being hit by increases to council tax as a result of changes in the benefit system. How does that align with the principle of the military covenant?

I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman has asked me questions on related matters before. Local councils have some discretion in the money they can use for assisting particular cases, and I hope they will use it wisely, including when military families are affected. I am encouraged by the fact that more than 250 local authorities across Great Britain have signed community covenants—more than half the local authorities in Great Britain—so I particularly expect them to do their best to make the right decision.

I am interested in the Minister’s response, because the devolution of blame for the policy overlaps with how the Government have behaved over the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendation for a 1.5% increase in pay for the armed forces. The Budget said that it would be paid, but the detail shows that it will start on 1 May not 1 April, and will therefore run for only 11 months, not 12. This means our forces are getting £2.6 million less than was promised, or intended by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Could the Minister explain how that is in line with the principles of the military covenant?

The announcement in the Budget was indeed that it would come in from May, and not in April, so there is no surprise in what the hon. Gentleman announced. It was made plain in the Budget at the time. When Labour Members have raised these types of question in the past, they sometimes found that their criticism was ill-founded. I refer to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He will remember that a few months ago he asked me how reforms to housing benefit would affect service families. He will know, following the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that we changed the system so that where an adult child living at home is serving on operations, the child will be treated as continuing to live at home and is therefore exempt. The point I make to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) is that when these issues have been raised in the past we have listened, and we have funds for local authorities to address the issue as well.

Order. I always enjoy the Minister’s answers and I listen to them very attentively, but today they are somewhat longer than were his speeches to Conservative student conferences, which we both attended together in 1985.

The two local authorities in my area, South Gloucestershire council and Bristol city council, have yet to sign up to the community covenant scheme. What more can the Government do to ensure that local authorities sign up to the covenant as a matter of priority?

The decision to sign a community covenant is a matter for individual local authorities, but we obviously encourage all local authorities across the country to sign up to a community covenant to show their support for the armed forces family—the wider armed forces community. I hope that will apply to the local authorities in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I make that about 23 seconds.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gosport borough council, which adopted its version of the military covenant at the tail end of last year? Will he update the House on the progress that has been made in the take-up of community covenants?

As I said, more than half the local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant, and I am pleased to say that they are coming in all the time. I am really encouraged by the number of local authorities at all tiers of local government that have been signing community covenants to demonstrate their support for the armed forces community, and I am very pleased to hear that that spirit is alive and well in Gosport.

The Service Complaints Commissioner and the Defence Select Committee both back the creation of a services ombudsman, as do we. On 31 January, we held a Westminster Hall debate on the military justice system, and I hope the Minister will review the remarks he made in that debate. I am concerned that he may have inadvertently overstated the powers being given to the Service Complaints Commissioner. Could he confirm that it is his intention that the commissioner should have all the powers he outlined in that debate, and does he therefore agree that it is time for an ombudsman?

I have a great deal of time for Dr Susan Atkins, the Service Complaints Commissioner. I have met her twice since my appointment to this post and my ministerial colleagues and I remain in dialogue with her. We are looking at the whole operation of the service complaints system, not least in light of some of the points raised in that debate. We continue that dialogue with her and we may have more to say about the matter in the future.

North Korea

8. What assessment he has made of the ability of North Korea to deliver a ballistic nuclear warhead and the extent to which such technology is being shared with Iran. (150735)

It is clear that North Korea is undertaking programmes to develop nuclear weapons and a range of missile systems. It has successfully flight-tested ballistic missiles capable of reaching South Korea, Japan and US bases in the region. It has paraded a long-range missile with a claimed range of 12,000 km, which is highly likely to be intended to be nuclear-armed. Those developments are in breach of international law and threaten the stability of the region.

As for links with Iran, North Korea is known to have sold ballistic missile technology to Iran. Any sharing of nuclear technologies would be a matter of grave concern and would breach UN sanctions.

The attempted development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran surely underlines the importance of maintaining our own independent nuclear deterrent, but does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps the greatest risk to world peace is a miscalculation or mistake on behalf of either Iran or North Korea at this time when tensions are rising?

I completely agree that there are huge risks at a time of heightened tension and a huge potential for miscalculation, which is why I welcome the initiative in which the United States is engaged to try to calm tensions around the Korean peninsula. The developments in Korea, and indeed Iran, show us primarily that the world is a very dangerous and unpredictable place, and that a credible nuclear deterrent is the ultimate protection against the threat of nuclear aggression or blackmail.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the time frame in which the North Koreans will have the capability to strike mainland Europe with a nuclear missile?

It is impossible for us to make with any accuracy a prediction of the time scale involved. As I said, the North Koreans have tested shorter-range ballistic missiles and paraded a ballistic missile with sufficient range to reach Europe and the continental United States. We can only assume—I would be prepared to bet my bottom dollar on it—that they are seeking to integrate their nuclear technology with that ballistic missile technology.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust earlier reply, but does he agree that the links to which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) referred—not only with Iran but, to a lesser extent, with other potentially extreme regimes—emphasise once more that, in a world with huge uncertainty, our nuclear deterrent is critical?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I would go further and say this: the life expectancy of the replacement ballistic missile submarines will be about 35 to 40 years, and it would be a very brave man who would claim now that he could see, 40 years ahead from the 2020s, that there will be no need for that capability.

It is in all our interests that the situation in North Korea is resolved not only peacefully but meaningfully so as the US deploys military assets to the Korean peninsula, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his US counterparts about the provision of any UK logistical support? Should the US move any military assets out of Afghanistan to that region, has he confirmed to the US that the UK would be willing to fill any of the gaps created by that redeployment?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. There have been no discussions with and no requests from the US, as far as I am aware—certainly at ministerial level—regarding any form of logistical support in relation to the tensions on the Korean peninsula. Again, as far as I am aware, there is no proposal by the US to move any assets from the Afghanistan theatre in response to this crisis.

Defence Budget

I announced to the House last May that we had eliminated the black hole in the finances of the Ministry of Defence that we inherited from the Labour party, and had brought the Defence budget into balance. Since then, on the one hand, we have been required to make further budget reductions in 2013-14 and 2014-15 of £1.2 billion in total as a result of the Chancellor’s announcements at autumn statement 2012 and Budget 2013; on the other hand, we have made further savings through efficiency and renegotiation of contracts and have been granted exceptional levels of end-year flexibility by the Treasury to carry forward 100% of our 2012-13 underspend, including unneeded contingency provisions, into 2013-14 and 2014-15. In consequence, we are confident that we can absorb the budget reductions announced without any significant impact on core defence output in those years.

Ministers frequently say that they have a defence review and then budget according to the security needs of the country, so I am a little confused as to why No. 10 and the Treasury say that there will be defence cuts post 2015. Is it because the Government’s priority is Treasury accountants, rather than the security needs of this country?

The Government have announced that there will be a spending review—spending review ’13 —which will set the budgets for non-ring-fenced Departments, including Defence, for 2015-16. There has been an announcement confirming that the equipment programme will be protected in the defence budget, with a real-terms increase of 1% per annum between 2015-16 and 2020-21.

Ministers have pledged an annual real-terms 1% increase in defence equipment spending post 2015, but in what year, under current plans, does the Secretary of State forecast the whole defence budget rising in real terms?

I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of SR 13; nor am I going to conduct the spending review in public. My Department is engaged in analysis with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, in search of genuine efficiency savings. Where we can find such savings, for example in the equipment support programme, the Ministry of Defence will willingly do its bit to contribute to fiscal consolidation. I will, as you would expect, Mr Speaker, argue vigorously for the resources that Defence needs to deliver Future Force 2020 in accordance with the strategic defence and security review 2010.

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that he continued to hold the “strong view” that the overall defence budget should rise in real terms from 2015 onwards. When will that prime ministerial wish become Government policy?

I can confidently predict that the Prime Minister will be involved and will be a key player in the end game of the SR 13 discussion.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that he struck a chord with many in the House of Commons when he recently expressed reservations about the possibility of further cuts in the defence budget? Does he agree with me that it is not the immediate availability of capability that is important but the resilience that our armed forces possess in the event that the United Kingdom found itself engaged in a protracted engagement? Is he satisfied that all three services possess that resilience?

My right hon. and learned Friend is of course correct: it is resilience, both in the sense of an ability to sustain an enduring operation, and in the sense of an ability to regenerate capability and force levels should the global security situation change, which is crucial. One can always have more resilience, and one would always like more reserve, but I am confident that the stance or posture that we set out in SDSR 2010 will enable us to deliver appropriate levels of national security in 2020.

Does the Secretary of State realise that if he wants a defence manufacturing sector to remain in our country—I have David Brown Gear Systems, an important defence contractor, in my constituency—and if he wants it to survive and thrive as a sector, it is absolutely vital that we have procurement over a long period to enable the necessary investment? Is he aware that there is uncertainty in the industry about these defence cuts?

Of course, cuts in defence budgets, not only in the UK but in the United States and, in fact, in nearly all developed countries, have presented huge challenges to defence industries. At the same time, many of their traditional export customers have developed their own defence manufacturing and even design and development capabilities. We are trying to work with the defence industry to give it greater visibility of our forward intentions, and to work with it to design greater export ability into its projects.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend unreservedly on his success in the herculean task of balancing the defence budget, but does he agree that if we are to keep that budget balanced, one of the things that has to change is the status of Defence Equipment and Support? Can he share with the House any clear indication of when he will announce his intentions in respect of that organisation?

My hon. Friend is right. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) correctly guesses that the announcement will be made shortly; “in the spring” and “before the summer recess” also spring to mind. My hon. Friend is right that if we are to deal effectively, and in a way that protects the best interests of the taxpayer, with large corporate entities which are able to scour the world for the top talent, we must be able to match them man for man across the negotiating table.

Onshore Wind Turbines

11. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the renewables industry regarding onshore wind turbine planning applications; and if he will make a statement. (150738)

Perhaps it is a matter of keeping the best for last, or there is nothing in my portfolio, or it may be an attempt to keep me away from the Dispatch Box—the House will decide.

Regarding the question, Ministry of Defence officials and my colleague the Minister with responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans met the chief executive of RenewableUK in November to discuss matters relating to both offshore and onshore wind turbine applications. MOD officials also attend the aviation management board made up of key wind energy stakeholders, chaired by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. My Department routinely engages with developers and consenting authorities in its consideration of onshore wind turbine planning applications.

I am sure the Minister is aware that despite the installation over the past few years of a number of radar systems that can distinguish between turbines and planes, the number of MOD objections to turbine applications doubled between the first part of 2012 and the last part of 2012 as a percentage of applications. Can the Minister assure me that his Department continues to honour the memorandum of understanding between the wind energy industry and the MOD in 2008?

The hon. Gentleman and I share a deep commitment to renewable energy, including wind energy onshore, going back to the days of the parliamentary renewable and sustainable energy group, when I was the vice-chairman and he was the chairman. There are two reasons, as I understand it, for the increase in the number of objections. The first is that there has been a plethora of applications for wind turbines onshore, and many of those are pretty close to airfields and other radar installations. The second is that, because of the plethora of applications, we are no longer able to provide the pre-application advice as we did before—there are so many of them.

RAF Staxton Wold in my constituency is within an 8-mile radius of a raft of onshore planning applications. Surely the MOD must have a view as to possible interference with and collision between radar and these obstructions.

I am not aware of the individual circumstances surrounding those applications. However, I do not think we are particularly concerned about collision with turbines—I hope I am not being unduly optimistic about that. Each application is judged on its merits, and the MOD will object only if it believes that a wind turbine will interfere with the radar or flying activities.

China

13. What assessment he has made of China’s planned expansion of its aircraft carrier capacity. (150740)

China’s aircraft carrier capability remains at an early stage of development and the building of new indigenous vessels will take it some time. The Government closely watch developments in the Asia-Pacific region as they may affect our interests and our allies.

What discussions has the Minister had with our allies in that region and elsewhere about the possible implications for the stability of the Asia-Pacific region?

We have regular discussions with allies across the region, including major talks such as AUKMIN, where the Foreign and Defence Secretaries visited their counterparts in Australia in January and where a variety of strategic issues were discussed. I went to New Zealand and Tonga at the end of last year to promote defence co-operation. I passed on my thanks for their troop contributions to Afghanistan and presented some medals to the Tongans who defend Camp Bastion.

Compensation (Service Personnel)

16. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the armed forces and reserve forces compensation scheme in compensating injured service personnel; and if he will make a statement. (150743)

The armed forces compensation scheme was last reviewed in 2009-10 under the independent chairmanship of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Lord Boyce. The review found that the scheme was fundamentally sound but adjustments were required in some areas. The MOD implemented all recommendations from the review through legislation laid in August 2010 and February 2011. The changes became operative on 9 May 2011.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he undertake to look into the case of my constituent former Royal Marine Thomas Nicoll, who was medically discharged after suffering permanent injuries to the tendons in his knee? Had he suffered ligament injuries, he would have been entitled to the highest rate of compensation under the scheme but, because there is no mention of tendons in the guidelines, he is not entitled to that. Will the Minister promise to rectify that bureaucratic absurdity so that my constituent will be entitled to the compensation?

In the interests of brevity, I give the hon. Lady my word that, if she would like to write to me directly about the details of the case, I will look into it and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House.

Topical Questions

My priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the transformation of the MOD, maintain budgets in balance and deliver equipment programmes so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained. We have set out plans to restructure the Army, to re-base it from Germany, to expand the reserves and integrate them with regular forces, and to restructure the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and Defence Equipment and Support within a slimmed-down MOD that is focused on providing support to the armed forces.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the recommendation of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s report on the implications of Scottish separation that the Government should provide assurance that plans are in place to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent in the event of the Scottish people voting for separation? Does he agree with the recommendation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and disappointed that the sole representative of Scottish separatism in the Chamber today had disappeared before we reached this point in proceedings. I have indeed seen the recommendations of the House of Lords report. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government’s position is clear: Scotland benefits from being part of the United Kingdom and the United Kingdom benefits from having Scotland in it. We are confident that the Scottish people will agree. However, in the event that they voted to leave the United Kingdom, the referendum, rather than being the point at which Scotland would leave the Union, would mark the beginning of a lengthy and extremely complex set of negotiations between the Scottish and UK Governments on the terms of independence. If an independent Scotland wanted to change the arrangements for the UK’s nuclear deterrent, the considerable costs, complexity and time scale involved in delivering alternative arrangements would inevitably be a major feature of the negotiations. It is therefore incorrect to suggest the need for an immediately deliverable contingency plan for the deterrent. However, the House will be aware that the MOD plans for a huge range of contingencies. For reasons of national security, we do not comment publicly on plans relating to the nuclear deterrent.

The MOD underspent its budget by £3 billion last year: a total of £1.6 billion is being carried forward, and there is now a shortfall of £1.4 billion up to 2015. Further to the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), can the Secretary of State tell the House why the MOD is not using some of that money to backdate the pay increase from May to April announced in the Budget?

A significant proportion of the underspend in 2012-13 is, in fact, the result of delayed spending on equipment programmes and will be needed to be spent in 2013-14 and 2014-15. As the hon. Gentleman will also know, part of the underspend is being used to meet the additional reductions in the budget announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement and the Budget, which is why we are able to meet those requirements without cutting into the delivery of our core outputs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. To amplify the point about the pay settlement that is effective from 1 May, I will say this: the practical reality is that the MOD’s pay system is quite fragile, and the possibility of making a retrospective change was considered significantly high-risk. It would introduce a significant risk of a catastrophic breakdown in the pay system. We therefore—

Order. We have a lot of questions to get through and I intend to get through them. Frankly, the answer to the first supplementary question was an abuse of the procedure at topical questions. Answers should be brief. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State can look at me quizzically, but I am telling him that the answer was simply too long for me, too long for the House and it delayed us unnecessarily. It must not happen again.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the conclusion of the Defence Committee that it is ultimately up to the Afghan people to determine their future? What assurances can he give that the UK will continue to give substantial support to the Afghan Government and institutions once ISAF combat operations conclude by the end of next year? (150756)

I agree with the Defence Committee that it is for the people of Afghanistan, not people abroad, to determine their future. We certainly intend to continue to support the Afghan people. We intend to support the Afghan national army officer academy post-2014 and in other ways. I also understand that the Government will be supporting Afghanistan through the Department for International Development.

T3. Given that the security situation in Syria is deteriorating by the day and that there is growing concern about the possible use of chemical weapons, will the Minister update the House on what discussions he has had with EU partners and NATO allies about the risk of escalation of the conflict—in particular, the risks of arming the opposition groups in Syria? (150755)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue. She will be aware that under UN Security Council resolution 1540, responsibility for the securing of those terrible weapons lies with the Assad regime. That regime should be under no illusion but we will hold Bashar al-Assad to account in the event that he deploys them. The hon. Lady will also be aware that the United Nations Secretary-General will investigate both sides of the issue to determine whether there is any evidence of use of these terrible weapons. We will offer our technical assistance in that matter.

T5. As the anniversary is now little more than a year away, what help can my right hon. Friend give, with colleagues in other Departments, to Normandy veterans, along with their families and carers, to make what may well be their final trip to Normandy to commemorate the 70th anniversary of their arrival on those beaches in 1944? (150757)

I regard commemorating D-day as particularly important, not least because my own father, Reginald Francois, served on that historic occasion. I am aware that the Normandy veterans are considering how best to contribute to the 70th anniversary next year. The Heroes Return 2 scheme was launched on 1 April 2009 and provided funding to help second world war veterans who saw active service to take part in commemorative visits to mark the anniversaries of important events in that conflict. We hope that the scheme, which is provided by the Big Lottery Fund, will also be able to assist in a material way next year.

T9. The Secretary of State may have seen a recent interview, given by the Foreign Secretary to The Times, in which the Foreign Secretary said that what we increasingly need is more capability in surveillance, specialist capabilities and cyber skills. May I ask the Secretary of State whether his Department is cutting, or has plans to cut, any of those capabilities of which the Foreign Secretary says we need more? (150762)

No. We are very much aware of all those needs and I endorse the comments that my right hon. Friend made. He was probably making an oblique reference to press speculation about special forces. I can confirm that front-line special forces numbers will remain at current levels and will not be cut below the 2010 level.

T6. I very much welcome the increase in UK defence exports, which employ hundreds of thousands of people around the country, many of whom are in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress on exports of the Typhoon fighter? (150758)

The Government have been at the forefront of export campaigns for Eurofighter Typhoon. Following success in securing export orders in Oman last December, we have been actively working with industry, the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation and the Eurofighter partner nations to support potential Typhoon sales to a number of countries in the middle east, Europe and Asia—including Malaysia, where I led a delegation of 25 companies in the week before Easter. Typhoon exports help to sustain highly skilled jobs and engineering capability in the air sector, including that of the facility in my hon. Friend’s constituency which produces vital, full-mission simulators for Typhoon pilot training.

Ministers will be aware that subcontracted work on the aircraft carrier on the Clyde is drawing towards a close. What steps are being taken to ensure that work is found for those shipyards before steel starts to get cut on the Type 26?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, because we have discussed this directly in recent months, the Aircraft Carrier Alliance is continuing work on the programme for the construction of the existing Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier and its successor, Prince of Wales. Discussions with the company on how to mitigate the work gap prior to the order being given for the Type 26 frigate are continuing.

T7. I am sure that the Minister agrees that the new centre for the Devon Army cadet force in Newton Abbot is a demonstration of this Government’s continued support in maintaining strong local links with the armed forces. Will he consider a visit to my constituency to see for himself the valuable contribution that the corps provides to young people in our community? (150760)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the excellent work that our cadet forces do for young people in all parts of the United Kingdom. I am delighted that the Army cadet force and the air training corps in Newton Abbot are making full use of their new joint centre. Only last week, the Secretary of State visited two cadet units in Glastonbury, and before Easter I visited a cadet unit at Kinnegar in Northern Ireland. Later in the year I hope to visit the commando training centre in Lympstone, and I will look into visiting the Newton Abbot cadets on the same trip.

The people of Chesterfield have tremendous affection and respect for 575 Field Squadron Royal Engineers reserve forces, based in Chesterfield. Notwithstanding the success of that squadron, which was given the freedom of the borough of Chesterfield last year, there will be considerable concern at recent reports that the level of reservists needs to increase by 66% for the Government to hit their targets. Are the Government confident that those targets will be hit?

As I have already made plain to the House, I am confident that we can meet those targets, but taking nothing for granted, this Friday I am going down to the new Army recruiting centre at Upavon to see the recruiting process at work for myself. I think that I will be even more confident when I get back.

T8. In drawing up plans for the return of military equipment from Afghanistan, what account has the Ministry of Defence taken of the equipment that the Afghan army will need to carry out its challenging duties in the future? (150761)

We have yet to decide on any gifting to the Afghan army, but obviously the Afghan army is our ally. We are proceeding on withdrawing equipment from Afghanistan as we withdraw numbers of personnel from the country, but we have yet to decide on anything about gifting.

Next year HMS Illustrious will be taken out of service. The Minister will know just how fond memories are of the work that was done at Rosyth dockyard. Will he meet me to discuss how we can best commemorate her withdrawal?

I hope that we can do better than to commemorate the withdrawal of HMS Illustrious and that it will be possible to come up with a scheme to save her for the nation. She is representative of a historic class of aircraft carrier, and we need, one way or another, to preserve her for generations to come.

One of the reasons the previous Government were able to run up a £38 billion gap between their budget and their forecast expenditure was the doing away with the annual defence review White Papers in 1997. What measures does my right hon. Friend have in place to make sure that the forthcoming defence budget stays honest in the light of his decade-long promise on defence expenditure?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have implemented a number of measures internally, including a very tight control on new commitments, constant monitoring of budgets, and attention to this issue at the highest levels of the Department, including ministerial oversight. I am very confident that the defence budget, having been got into balance, will be kept in balance, however difficult the decisions that have to be made to ensure that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only guaranteed nuclear deterrent is one that is carried by a submarine, launched by a ballistic missile, and on duty 24 hours a day, every day of the year?

There is no doubt in my mind that the most cost-effective way of delivering a credible and effective nuclear deterrent is through continuous, at sea, submarine-based deterrence.

As I intimated in response to an earlier question, I have met Dr Susan Atkins twice and we discussed her view of the operation of the service complaints system. As I said earlier, we are looking at how to improve our service complaints system and we hope to have more to say in the future. I hope that that will satisfy sub-lieutenant Mordaunt.