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Topical Questions

Volume 561: debated on Monday 15 April 2013

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.