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Volume 564: debated on Monday 17 June 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Falkland Islands

1. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in and around the Falkland Islands. (159635)

The Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of potential military threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain an appropriate level of defensive capability to address any such threats. There is no current evidence of the intent, or indeed capability, to launch a credible military threat to the south Atlantic. However, we remain vigilant and committed to the protection of the Falkland islanders.

What discussions has the Minister had with our allies regarding security and safety in the region, particularly for the Falklands, but also across the Southern ocean?

Personally, I have had no such discussions with our allies in Latin America, but we are very engaged with the region—rather more so than other recent Governments. Indeed, in the past six months ministerial colleagues have made nine visits to Latin America, and there have been a similar number of inward visits from the region, and of course we continue to encourage them to support us. I was particularly pleased that Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, last week singled out the Falkland Islands. [Interruption.] He is from north America—well spotted.

What assurances can the Minister give the House that the Falkland Islands will remain as well defended after the comprehensive spending review, following the comments of generals and others in the military over the weekend about the potential pressures on the defence budget in future?

I think I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the islands will remain well defended. I spent four months of my life in the Falklands Islands back in 1989 and know the strategic situation there. I know that the British Government, like previous Governments, are determined that the Falkland Islands will remain British for as long as the Falkland islanders wish them to be so.

As we discovered in 1982, the defence of the Falklands ultimately depends on the skill and resources of our armed forces. When the head of the Army warns that further cuts would run the risk of “damaging the professional competence” of our armed forces, surely it is time for us all to sit up and take notice.

I think that my hon. Friend will know that we are in a very difficult financial situation, which was left to us by the previous Government. I do not think that any Defence Minister came into government wishing to see a reduction in our armed forces.


2. What assessment he has made of the effect on NATO’s defence capabilities of the US strategic realignment towards Asia. (159636)

We are assured that there will be no decline in the US commitment to NATO and its members. The collective benefits of NATO membership, however, come with a collective responsibility to share the burden of the alliance’s roles and missions and to pull their weight. We are discussing how all allies can contribute more to our collective security, including through the NATO defence planning process, as discussed most recently at the NATO defence ministerial meeting early this month.

What specific assessment has my hon. Friend made of the willingness of European NATO partner nations to step up to the plate when it comes to security in Europe, the middle east and north Africa and to take into account the Pacific pivot?

First, it is important to say that the Government welcome the rebalancing of US forces towards the Asia-Pacific region, which is very much in line with our assessment and renewed engagement in the area. It is hoped that partner nations will make similar determinations, noting of course the US’s continuing strong engagement in Europe and the MENA—middle east and north Africa—region, with UK encouragement, and approaching collective security and defence with renewed vigour against a very unfavourable economic backdrop.

What assessment has been made of the capacity of the Government-owned contractor-operated organisation to facilitate joint trilateral and bilateral procurement with NATO allies?

It should be no different from the current situation, but I am sure that the hon. Lady will support any measure we can take to improve defence deliverables and salvage the current position from the mess we inherited.

Does my hon. Friend agree that America’s understandable decision to shift its focus towards the Pacific puts all the more responsibility on countries such as Britain, which after all are much closer to the potential threats than America is, to keep up our armed forces despite the economic situation?

Clearly we cannot ignore the economic situation, because it poses a clear and present danger to this country and others. I think that it means that we will have to renew our efforts with our friends and allies to ensure that they, too, spend significant sums of money on defence, but I should emphasise that the US is quite clear about its continuing commitment to Europe and the MENA region, and I think we should take some comfort from that.

NATO’s defence capability includes the protection of the nuclear umbrella. Does the Minister find it incongruous in respect of NATO membership to have, on the one hand, a policy of unilateral disarmament and, on the other, to seek the protection of that nuclear umbrella? That is the policy of the SNP.

It is always nice to find common ground with the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party. On this subject, we are in violent agreement.

National Memorial Arboretum

May I start by thanking the Royal British Legion for its custodianship of the National Memorial Arboretum and the trustees of the Armed Forces Memorial for its upkeep? As my hon. Friend will recall—we were there together—I visited the arboretum and laid a wreath at the Armed Forces Memorial on 11 November last year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence also visited in November last year and my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will attend the annual ceremony to unveil the new names on the memorial next month.

The National Memorial Arboretum, which is in my constituency, receives more than 300,000 visitors a year and is a real testament to those who died before the second world war and, with the Armed Forces Memorial, those who have perished since that war. What plans does the Minister have for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first world war? Will anything be done at the National Memorial Arboretum then?

My hon. Friend takes a close interest in the National Memorial Arboretum and the Armed Forces Memorial, so he knows well that they were established primarily to commemorate the fallen from 1 January 1948. He will also know that I am the Prime Minister’s special representative for the centenary commemoration of the great war. In that capacity, I am well aware of a number of projects that will involve the National Memorial Arboretum. As my hon. Friend takes such a close interest in both the arboretum and the memorial, I am sure that he will be intimately involved with them.

I will.

I will be attending the memorials for Armed Forces day on 22 June in Penarth in my constituency. What assessment has the Minister made of the scale and support of memorials on Armed Forces day this year? I assume and hope that they are growing.

Memorials are certainly a focus for our remembrance and always central to any commemoration of the fallen. I look forward to Armed Forces day this year. I am sure that, as ever, it will be a great success.

On Armed Forces day at the National Memorial Arboretum and around the country, I hope that hon. Members will join me in remembering Lance Corporal James Ashworth, who was recently posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery in Afghanistan; he is only its 14th recipient since the second world war. The commitment of our troops in the field in Afghanistan lends itself to a proper recognition at the National Memorial Arboretum.

I add my tribute to that of the hon. Gentleman. It is our intention to remove the memorial currently in Camp Bastion to Staffordshire when that is appropriate. Preparatory work for that will begin later this year.

Joint Strike Fighter

4. What assessment he has made of progress in development of the B-variant of the joint strike fighter aircraft; and how many countries have expressed an interest in its procurement. (159638)

11. What assessment he has made of progress in development of the B-variant of the joint strike fighter aircraft; and how many countries have expressed an interest in its procurement. (159645)

Development of the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the joint strike fighter aircraft is progressing well. I saw for myself our third aircraft, of which we have now taken receipt, when I visited Lockheed Martin’s facility in Forth Worth in April, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also witnessed an F-35B demonstrating its hover capability at Pax River last month.

The STOVL variant, the mainstay of the US Marine Corps, has conducted nearly 3,000 flight hours to date, including vertical landings and short take-offs from the USS Wasp. The US, Italy and the UK are the three nations currently committed to procuring the STOVL variant. The UK is working with all joint strike fighter European partner nations to determine the most cost-effective support solution across Europe.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he confirm that the F-35Bs will always be embarked on the carriers when they are out of port?

As my hon. Friend knows, the aircraft will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. The precise mix of aircraft embarked will depend on the mission, but the carrier will routinely have 12 fast jets embarked for operations whenever she sails outside of home waters, while retaining the capacity to deploy up to the 36 previously planned, providing combat and intelligence capability much greater than legacy systems. The aircraft carrier will also be able to carry a wide range of helicopters, including up to 12 Chinook or Merlin transports and eight Apache attack helicopters.

Moog aviation based in my constituency will be a major supplier of components to the new short take-off and vertical landing engine fitted on the joint strike fighter. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will do all he can to promote the export opportunities for the JSF, which will act as an enormous boost to many aerospace component manufacturers in the west midlands?

The UK is the only tier 1 partner in the joint strike fighter partner programme, which is the largest defence programme in the world. UK industry will provide approximately 15% by value of each JSF to be built, which will secure aerospace industry jobs in this country for decades. Five hundred British companies are already involved in the programme through fair and open competition. Indeed, the UK’s decision to revert to the STOVL variant has increased orders for Rolls-Royce lift system engines for STOVL aircraft, from which the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency will benefit. The British defence industry is exceptionally well placed to benefit from any future export opportunities for this fifth-generation aircraft.

Will the Secretary of State and his team listen to those of us, on both sides of the House, who believe that if we can persuade more of our European partners to switch to the B variant, it will provide a perfect example of how European nations can stand together?

As the hon. Gentleman will know from his work on the Defence Committee, the orders for the aircraft will depend on the capability requirements of the customer nations. Italy is the European nation that is already procuring the same variant as we are; other nations that have declared an interest thus far have different capability requirements.

The Government will make their decisions on the next substantial order by the time of the strategic defence review. We expect to place an order for the first squadron this autumn, so by 2020 we are talking about an expected order of 48 aircraft.

Reservists (Employers Compensation)

5. What compensation is given to employers to reflect the additional cost incurred by them through the call-up of a reservist. (159639)

Reservists’ employers are key partners in mobilisation and the Ministry of Defence recognises that they may incur additional costs when their reservist employee is mobilised. The reservist and their employer have the legal right to apply for financial assistance.

Under the terms of the Reserve Forces (Call-out and Recall) (Financial Assistance) Regulations 2005, an employer can claim the amount by which the replacement costs incurred exceed the relevant earnings of the reservist, subject to a cap of £110 per day. In addition, employers may claim for certain non-recurring costs that they incur in replacing the reservist, including agency fees and advertising costs. An employer may also claim the cost of retraining the reservist following their return to work.

I am grateful for that encouraging response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that service in the Territorial Army gives men and women alike invaluable life skills, and does he share my belief that, given youth unemployment levels, there are real opportunities to help young people get into the TA through events such as my recent jobs fair in Gloucester? Will he say a little more about the promotion of such opportunities in the TA?

I absolutely agree that service in either the regular armed forces or, indeed, the reserve forces offers a great deal of training in life skills, basic values and behaviour, and that that is of value to employers. I would encourage anybody to join the Territorial Army or the reserve forces, and I think that those who join and experience the reserve forces often find that they are much more suited to joining the world of civilian work than they might have been beforehand.

There is solid support across the House for the TA and the reserve forces. I know that the Government are undertaking a review and looking at their recruitment targets. However, there is uncertainty about the future of key regiments. When will the Minister make an announcement, and will he ensure that we protect the Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to reveal what has yet to be decided through the White Paper on reserves, which we confidently expect to be published before the summer recess. By that, I mean this summer recess, not next year.

The Government have promised to make up the difference between civilian and reservist rates of pay. What estimate has been made of the cost to the Government of that policy?

Already, reservists are paid the same or very much the same as regular service personnel. We are looking at all aspects of this subject. Again, I am afraid that my hon. Friend must wait for the White Paper on reserves. I am relatively confident that enough people will come forward to join the reserves and that we can look forward to having a vibrant reserve Army.

Tomorrow, the Government will announce the next round of Army redundancies, which will be painful for everyone who is affected. To fill that gap, it is crucial that the reservists plan is a success. There may well be a problem of reservists losing out in job interviews, as some employers worry about a prospective employee being away for prolonged periods. Does the Minister accept that it is crucial to consult on new rights at work to protect our reservists, who do much to protect our country?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, about which we are very well apprised. When the White Paper comes out, he will find much that satisfies him. He will know that the Secretary of State has said that we are considering financial incentivisation for employers, and for small employers in particular, who suffer disproportionately. If one person out of a work force in single figures leaves, it has much more impact than one person deploying out of a thousand people from a large employer.


6. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of former Gurkhas; and if he will make a statement. (159640)

There have been no recent ministerial discussions with representatives of former Gurkhas. However, the Government place great value on the contribution of Gurkhas, past and present. I am aware of recent approaches by representatives of ex-Gurkhas to other right hon. and hon. Members on a number of issues, including the possibility of ex-Gurkhas joining the reserves.

Given the Government’s ambition and determination to create a large, integrated and fully trained reserve force, would it not be a powerful reinforcement of that strategy to give automatic reserve liability to Gurkhas, who have residency rights and, as the Minister rightly said, are famous for their contribution and military skills?

The fighting spirit of the Gurkhas has never been in doubt. They serve in the Territorial Army and all ex-Gurkhas who are living in the UK can apply to join the reserves. The recently launched TA Live campaign encourages all ex-regulars, including Gurkhas, to join. We hope that as many of them as possible will do so.

When he was Leader of the Opposition in 2009, the Prime Minister said of the Gurkhas:

“They are the bravest of the brave…they have fought and died for this country in some of its toughest battles. We owe them a huge debt. We need to treat them properly in return.”

In the light of those comments, can I take it that there will be no announcement tomorrow about redundancies for the Gurkhas?

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the blanket guarantee that he has asked for. He will have to wait until tomorrow’s announcement.

Everyone in this House is a total supporter of the Gurkha regiment and former Gurkhas. However, now that the Gurkha regiment costs roughly the same as an English regiment, how can it be that we will scrap four infantry battalions in the next 18 months, some two years at least before the reserve Army comes into full being? That seems crazy to me. I am referring in particular to the 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, the Staffords.

I am sure that my hon. Friend, with his military background of which the House is well aware, is as proud as any Member of the House of the service record of the Gurkhas for this country. As he is aware, we have a particular arrangement with the Sultan of Brunei regarding one of the two Gurkha battalions, which helps to defray part of the cost of their service to the country. That arrangement is likely to continue and our decisions are partly based on that. I reiterate our great pride at having Gurkhas in the British Army. That is something that we wish to continue.

NATO Defence Ministers’ Meeting

7. What the outcome was of the recent NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting; and if he will make a statement. (159641)

The key outcomes of the recent NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting included allied endorsement of the concept of operations for NATO’s post-2014 “Train, Advise, Assist” mission in Afghanistan; agreement to national capability targets apportioned to allies as part of the NATO defence planning process; and a commitment to conduct follow-on work on how NATO might prevent, respond to and recover from a cyber-attack against systems of critical importance to the alliance.

The UK is one of a small number of alliance members that spend 2% or more of their national income on defence. Was the need to raise defence expenditures by those countries that do not meet the 2% threshold raised at the meeting, and what is the Secretary of State doing to try to ensure that other countries in the alliance share the burden with us?

The adequate resourcing of European NATO members’ defence budgets was raised, but—as I have already said in the House—we must also be realistic about the situation that most European countries are facing in their public finances. The more fruitful vein for the next few years will be to ensure that we get true deliverable military capability with the budgets that countries already spend.

I know my right hon. Friend believes that NATO’s output is more important than the 2% target of defence spending, but does he accept that if we abandon that 2% target, we will reduce the pressure on improving the output from NATO?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I think both issues are important. It is important to be clear that in the medium to long term we must expect NATO members who want to benefit from the advantages of membership to pay the subscription price, as it were, in the form of adequately resourced defence budgets. In the shorter term, reality dictates that we focus on turning the budgets we already have into real, deliverable military capability. There is enormous headroom between what is delivered now with the £200-odd billion of NATO European defence expenditure, and what could be achieved if it were properly organised.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that northern European NATO allies such as Denmark, Norway and Iceland believe that the challenges of the Arctic and the high north are extremely important? Will he also confirm whether the Ministry of Defence has any plans to take part in air policing for NATO from Reykjavik?

We have no plans at the moment to take part in air policing operations from Reykjavik, but we recognise the importance of the high north, not least because such a large proportion of Britain’s primary energy resources now come from the Norwegian sector of the North sea. The MOD is currently undertaking a review of the strategic significance of the polar regions, both north and south, and that will be part of the evidence that informs the 2015 strategic defence and security review.

One of the lessons from Libya showed that the European members of NATO lack sufficient ISTAR— intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and air-to-air fuel capability. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what progress European allies are making in bringing forward that capability?

Both areas mentioned by my hon. Friend are identified gaps in European NATO capability. Once again, I made it clear at the NATO ministerial meeting that the UK will have surplus capacity in air-to-air refuelling once our new Voyager fleet is fully delivered, and that we are more than willing to share that capacity with other NATO allies in the spirit of pooling and sharing.

The Government and other NATO members have our support in difficult circumstances in trying to end the bloodshed in Syria. As the UK and some other NATO nations consider arming the rebels, will the Secretary of State say what successful precedent there is for the UK arming an opposition force and using a vetting process to ensure that weapons provided are quarantined so that they do not fall into the possession of those whose aims we do not share?

I think there is a hypothetical hidden premise in the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The UK has made no decision to arm the rebels in Syria and we maintain our focus on achieving a political solution, in particular at the Geneva II peace conference, and that will be a central theme of the discussions going on right now in Lough Erne. We must, of course, leave all options on the table while the terrible attrition of the Syrian population continues at the hands of the Assad regime.

Defence Facilities (East Midlands)

I believe I can be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his army basing plan announcement on 5 March, Cottesmore and North Luffenham will be the focus of one of the seven areas in the UK around which the Army will become increasingly consolidated. The major site for development in the east midlands is Kendrew barracks at Cottesmore, which will be expanded to accommodate an additional unit. North Luffenham will see some minor development and a logistics unit will move into Grantham. The written ministerial statement on 25 March confirmed the vacation of RAF Kirton in Lindsey and the disposal of the former airfield and technical facilities at the site.

It was an honour to sit behind the veterans of the Dambusters raid at its 70th anniversary at RAF Scampton in my constituency. Beside the courage of those men, hon. Members’ efforts in the House look very puny indeed. In the light of the glorious history of RAF Scampton, will the Minister reassure me that the base continues to have a bright operational future?

I am glad to say that I can reassure my hon. Friend. Both the Red Arrows, the RAF aerobatic team, and the air surveillance control system will be retained at the station until at least the end of the decade, although I cannot vouch for whatever happens afterwards, because I will probably have left this place. [Interruption.] It wasn’t that—I was just thinking that, by that time, I will be getting on a bit.

Claro Barracks (Ripon)

10. What steps his Department is taking to engage with those affected by the closure of Claro barracks, Ripon. (159644)

Following the Army basing plan announcement of the 5 March 2013, which confirmed the closure of Claro barracks, Ripon, a meeting was held on 28 March with my hon. Friend and officials from North Yorkshire county council, Harrogate district council and Ripon city council. A further meeting was held on 7 May, at which the Department undertook to maintain contact with local authorities and agencies to keep our key stakeholders informed of developments as closure plans proceed.

I thank the Minister and civil servants for the sensitive way in which they are dealing with this serious issue in my constituency, but may I urge him to come to a quick decision on whether the Claro or the Deverell site will ultimately close?

My hon. Friend and I met and discussed that last month. As he knows, I am keen to see the site for myself. We have a use for a training camp in that area, and wish to retain the training area adjacent to both barracks. From what I understand, the Claro site is a better, more modern site, and the Deverell site might be more suitable for redevelopment. However, we will work through that with my hon. Friend and the local authority.

As a fellow north Yorkshire MP, I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) with regard to Ripon, but will the Minister shed light on the future of the RAF Church Fenton site, which is to close by the end of this year? Are there plans to sell the site off or to use it for other military purposes? If so, what is the likely time scale?

I am slightly uncertain of the exact details on Church Fenton. If I may, I will write to my hon. Friend with the detail, but I understand that we intend to dispose of the site when it is entirely vacated.

Typhoon Aircraft

12. What reports he has received on future developments in the capability of the Typhoon aircraft. (159646)

As my hon. Friend knows—he is a keen student of the Typhoon programme—there is great scope to enhance the capabilities of that already powerful aircraft, in particular when compared with mature platforms, which have less scope to enhance their capabilities. Tranche 3 aircraft are being delivered from the Warton plant near his constituency with improved multi-role, and ISTAR capabilities.

Does the Minister believe that the upgrades to Typhoon, which is built in my constituency, will not only provide the RAF with a world-class front-line aircraft, but ensure that Typhoons will be competitive in the highly competitive export market?

I believe the constituency boundary with Ribble Valley passes through the site, so I may have to stand corrected on which bit of the site they are made. The development upgrades and improved ISTAR to which my hon. Friend refers will provide the RAF, and the other six air forces that have already committed to the aircraft, with battle-winning performance, as was demonstrated in the Libya campaign. We are actively engaged with existing and potential partners and customers on the scope for collaborating on the development of further capability. We are also supporting industry in a number of export campaigns, and are hopeful that other allies and partner nations will join the family of users of this outstanding aircraft.

European Defence Agency

The European Defence Agency has achieved some initial success in delivering improvements to the capabilities of European nations, but we believe that it could do a great deal better. That is why the Ministry of Defence concluded earlier this year that although we should maintain our subscription to the agency, our continuing membership is to be reviewed again in late 2013 in the light of progress made during the year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that continued UK membership must be based on detailed cost-benefit analysis of both UK defence needs and those of our European NATO allies?

The EDA spends €30.5 million a year, which is a great deal of money in the current circumstances. I think the House will agree that it would be perverse if we were forced to make cutbacks in defence at home while voting through increases at a European level. I am therefore pleased to say that in November last year I again vetoed the increase in the EDA budget. The UK was the only country to exercise its vote in that way. For as long as the EDA fails to cut the mustard, we will continue to do just that.

Spending Review

14. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about his planned spending review. (159648)

I have frequent conversations with my Cabinet colleagues on a wide range of Government business. The current spending review will set departmental funding limits for financial year 2015-16 and is due to report on 26 June. My officials have been working closely and collaboratively with the Treasury and Cabinet Office colleagues to identify areas where further efficiencies in defence spending can be achieved.

I am sure the whole House agrees that we live in dangerous and difficult times. Does the Secretary of State not agree with me, and, more importantly, the Chief of the General Staff over the weekend, that any further cuts in defence spending would seriously risk undermining our capability to defend our realm and to project power overseas?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister and the Treasury have already confirmed that the equipment plan will increase in real terms plus 1% in the period from 2015 to 2020, and we are not looking at changes that will reduce military manpower. However, I have to say to him and to the House that efficiencies can always be found in any budget, and we will search for all the efficiencies that we can reasonably find and deliver.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State highlight the importance of efficiencies in considering the spending review. Will he meet me to discuss the deep concerns of Joseph Gleave & Son, which has been a long-standing supplier to the Ministry of Defence and employs approximately 80 people in my constituency, regarding inefficiencies in procurement following the shift to the Government Procurement Service and the establishment of Defence Equipment and Support operations?

I recognise that there may be a tension between our determination to drive more efficient procurement and some suppliers finding that to be a difficult experience, but I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence equipment support and technology, would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

Has the Secretary of State thought of giving Treasury officials and Ministers an idiot’s guide to what Her Majesty’s armed forces are all about, because some of the comments over the weekend about army horses and tanks showed a degree of ignorance?

I will probably not share with my hon. Friend all the thoughts that I would like to offer to the Treasury and some of my colleagues, but I will say this: while it is easy to draw attention to such things as the number of horses in the army, the moral component of our armed forces—that which links it to the great tradition of military service in this country—is a very important part of delivering military capability and is money well spent.

Included in those discussions will be the projected savings from the proposed changes to Defence Equipment and Support announced in last week’s White Paper. For the benefit of the House, will the Secretary of State set out what specific flexibilities he has won from the Treasury—one assumes he got its agreement before publishing the White Paper—so that the DE&S-plus model can compete openly and fairly with the Government-owned, contractor-operated option during the assessment phase?

That is precisely the purpose of the assessment phase: to explore the boundaries of how far we can take a wholly public sector DE&S-plus model as a benchmark against which we can score the bids we receive for the alternative GoCo proposal.

Veterans' Travel

We try to be responsive and innovative in thinking about how we repay the debt we owe to our veterans. An example is the recently revamped defence discount service, which covers discounted holidays and travel. Other direct support includes reduced rate air travel, via the South Atlantic air bridge, for Falkland Islands veterans.

I am sure the whole House supports the need to do more to give our armed services personnel and veterans the ability to travel. It is commonplace in America for US personnel to get priority boarding at their airports. Would the Minister support a similar scheme here and encourage British airlines to offer Her Majesty’s armed services personnel priority boarding rights in British airports?

As someone who flew Ryanair from Stansted over the bank holiday weekend recently, I am in favour in principle of just about anything that gets people on to aircraft more efficiently. The hon. Gentleman’s idea could be worth looking at, but he and the House might be interested to know that the MOD has been having much broader discussions with business and industry about how they can do a range of things for the armed forces community under the auspices of the armed forces covenant, and we hope to have something to say about that in the relatively near future.

Last week, I visited the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington DC and picked up a copy of a book, “Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependants and Survivors”. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet me to discuss producing a similar directory and potentially a website?

I, too, have been to the States and met people in the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is important to remember that the Americans have a different way of doing it from us, because they do not have a national health service model. Nevertheless, the VA has a high profile in the United States—higher than the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency has in the United Kingdom. I would like to raise the latter’s profile so that more veterans and members of the public know what we do for the veterans’ community, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about precisely that.

At-sea Nuclear Deterrent

16. What estimate he has made of the minimum number of submarines required to maintain a continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent. (159650)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential effect that a reduced number of nuclear-armed submarines would have on the UK’s ability to maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrent. (159651)

The 2006 White Paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”, stated that the minimum number of Vanguard class submarines required to maintain a continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrent was four. The number of submarines required to deliver CASD into the future will be determined in the main gate investment decision for the successor replacement for the Vanguard class, which is expected in 2016. This is a technical, rather than a policy, question.

Has my right hon. Friend seen recent media reports that the Liberal Democrats might be proposing a reduction to just two nuclear submarines? Does he agree that it would be impossible to maintain a continuous-at-sea deterrent, which is the hallmark of national security?

I have learned not to read too much into newspaper reports. The main gate decision in 2016, which will define the number of submarines required to maintain CASD, will consider the case for four or three submarines, but I can say without equivocation that there is no possibility of maintaining CASD with two submarines.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any cost savings from a proposal to reduce the UK’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines to just two would need to take into account the requirement to maintain the UK’s sovereign submarine manufacturing capability?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Simply reducing the fleet, even if that were possible while maintaining CASD, would not generate proportionate savings. Many of the costs are fixed—the costs of development and maintaining industrial capability, not merely at Barrow-in-Furness for submarine building, but in the nuclear propulsion industry. No one in this House should ever forget either that these high-end, high-technology platforms support the very top end of British manufacturing industry—the high-precision, high-technology engineering industry on which the revival of manufacturing depends.

An unclassified summary of the Trident alternative review will be prepared by the Cabinet Office and published as a Government document.

In January, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury told The Guardian newspaper that the coalition review of Trident would compile a “compelling” list of alternatives. It was suggested in the Financial Times recently that the review will come down on the side of a submarine-based ballistic missile system. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State tell the House when the review will be published, and if it comes down on the side of a submarine-based system, will the Government consider bringing forward the main gate decision into this Parliament?

I cannot comment on the findings of the review, which is not yet concluded and has not yet reported to the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no need to bring forward the 2016 main gate decision point. That decision will be made in 2016, in order to deliver the new submarines into service from 2028, when they are required.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has responded to Rear-Admiral Patrick Middleton, who wrote in The Times on 7 May:

“With the latest developments in defence technology, the argument for Trident as a deterrent is rapidly becoming a losing one”.

I am afraid I do not agree with him. I suspect this is a retired rear admiral—well, I know it is; and if it isn’t, he soon will be—to whom the hon. Lady refers. We are clear that the retention of the continuous-at-sea deterrent is vital to ensure Britain’s national security and is the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty.

I very much look forward to welcoming the Minister for defence equipment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), and the shadow Secretary of State to my parliamentary reception on 1 July about the high-end manufacturing jobs that the submarine supply chain produces. The durability of the submarine hulls is critical to the decisions and the timing of renewal. Will the Secretary of State give the House an update on his Department’s assessment of extending the hull life to 35 years, as is currently the case, and any possible decision to extend it further in future?

First, I will check my diary. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is asking if we have considered whether it is possible to extend further the life of the existing submarines or to design the successor class with a longer in-service life. On the first question, he will know that we have already extended the life of the Vanguard class once, and it is not judged possible or safe to extend it further. On the second question, we will of course be looking to design the successor class with the longest possible in-service life.

My right hon. Friend is clearly very robust on this issue, but may I urge him to consider deeply the suggestion of the shadow Armed Forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? If those on both Front Benches agree on the need to renew Trident and to keep continuous-at-sea deterrence, why should they not agree before the general election to make this irreversible, so that Trident cannot again become a political football, as it unfortunately did between my party and the Liberal Democrats in 2010?

I have to say to my hon. Friend—who is a great expert on this subject and has been one for longer than I can remember—that the essence of our strategy for defence procurement, which is at the heart of our determination to maintain a balanced budget, is that we do not make contractual commitments until we need to for the delivery of equipment in a timely fashion, when we need it. Locking in decisions before they need to be made merely reduces flexibility and, as the previous Government found out, drives cost into the programme if changes have to be made.

The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has spoken eloquently at me on the matter for 30 years.

Topical Questions

My priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the sustainable transformation of the Ministry of Defence, to maintain budgets in balance and to deliver equipment programmes so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

A number of us on the Conservative Benches have reservations about the Government’s reservist policy, including its cost-effectiveness. Given that the MOD’s figures show that the Territorial Army’s mobilisation rate is 40%, which suggests we need 50,000 reservists not 30,000, and that rates of pay for ex-reservists will beat those of a serving brigadier, how confident is the Secretary of State that the £1.8 billion will cover the policy?

As in many areas, we have to work within the financial constraints presented to us, and we are currently tailoring a package of support for the reserve forces that can be accommodated within the £1.8 billion. I am quite confident that we can do so.

I would like to correct a possible misunderstanding. The top-up to rates of civilian pay has always been available in the system and our proposal is to limit that so that we make sure that we pay only people who have specialist skills what are sometimes very large amounts of money.

Mesothelioma is a terrible disease, as far too many of my constituents know. Will the Government take the opportunity to back amendments to the Mesothelioma Bill—or indeed table their own amendments—so that veterans who were exposed to asbestos prior to 1987 while they were employed by the Ministry of Defence, and their families, are able to get compensation?

As the hon. Lady knows, issues of Crown immunity relate to the period before 1987. As she also knows, it is not this Department that leads on this particular issue. I cannot guarantee her that there will be a change in the position, but her comments are noted and I will make sure that they are passed on to those who are dealing with Bill.

T2. With the importance of engineering and technology in mind, what measures is the Secretary of State or the Minister taking to engage with defence industries in Gloucestershire? (159661)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence places great emphasis on trying to improve access for small and medium-sized enterprises into the procurement chain. As far as Gloucester is concerned, my hon. Friend may not know that next week, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), I will attend a meeting of defence contractors for the whole of Gloucestershire.

T6. Given that so many experts, leading generals and admirals think that we no longer have defence forces that are capable of defending this country, will the Secretary of State look at his Department’s spending over the last five years of £34 million on G4S, which did such a good job on the Olympics? (159665)

We are looking at all areas of spending other than those that support military personnel numbers. Some of the hon. Gentleman’s examples and many others that people have quoted at me are, in fact, examples of the Department having historically made efficiencies by civilianising or contractorising parts of the service. We will continue to do that where it makes sense to do so.

T3. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to small and medium-sized businesses such as Armadillo Merino in my Mid Derbyshire constituency, which wants to apply to the approved MOD procurement list? It has socks that stop trench foot and undergarments that will stop people burning, keeping their lives safer for longer. (159662)

The Ministry of Defence takes the clothing of our personnel exceptionally seriously. We have a dedicated defence clothing team in DE&S, which last year placed £80 million-worth of contracts. We have some 30 companies engaged in clothing contracts, 90% of which are UK based. My hon. Friend has written to me about the sock and undergarment manufacturer in her constituency, and I look forward to responding to her in writing very shortly.

Given that Russia’s latest statement of its military doctrine states that the greatest threat to Russian security is the existence of NATO, and given that Russia has significant naval and military investment in Syria, is it not the height of irresponsibility for the Government constantly to ramp up talk of putting more arms into Syria?

As I have already said once today, the Government have made no decision to supply any arms to anyone in Syria. As for the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about Russia, in the context of the debate that we have just had about the nuclear deterrent, it is important to note that the Russians are committed to spending $146 billion over the next 10 years on modernising their forces, including parts of their nuclear forces that had been mothballed over the last few years.

T4. Eighteen-year-old Private Thomas Wroe from Meltham, in my constituency, was serving in the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment when he was killed by a rogue Afghan policeman last September. Next Thursday, Helme Hall care home will open the Tom Wroe complex care facility, a specialised unit for adults with complex care needs. Tom’s mother, Claire, is a manager at the home. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the initiative of dedicating care homes, parks and streets after our brave soldiers is a fitting tribute to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country? (159663)

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Private Thomas Wroe of the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, who gave his life in the service of his country. I am very pleased to hear about the opening of the Tom Wroe complex care facility, which I am sure will serve as a fitting tribute to his memory.

There may indeed be merit in my hon. Friend’s proposal, but I think that such decisions are best made by local communities, in which, in a sense, these matters will resonate the most. On behalf of—I am sure—the whole House, I wish the new facility the best of luck in the future.

Government guidelines that were supposed to exempt the families of members of the armed forces from the bedroom tax require a letter to be sent by those in the chain of command to confirm the deployment of the soldiers in question on the front line in Afghanistan. Can the Minister tell me how many armed forces families are in rent arrears as a result—I have heard that it is a large number—and will he meet me to resolve the problem as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue with me in the House before. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions announced on 12 March that adults who were in the armed forces but continued to live with their parents would be treated as continuing to live at home, even when deployed on operations. I cannot give a specific answer to his numerical question off the top of my head, but I assure him that I will look into it and write to him promptly.

T5. The Army’s Nanyuki base in Kenya is greatly appreciated by the armed forces because of the wide range of training that it offers. What plans has my right hon. Friend for further investment there? (159664)

We greatly value the training facilities in Kenya, and are determined to maintain them. We continue to have good relations with the Kenyan Government. I think that the country benefits from our presence, and we certainly benefit from the training. I cannot tell my hon. Friend exactly what plans we have for further investment, but I will let him know by letter.

May I return to the subject of protective clothing for our armed forces personnel? The Minister may recall that I wrote to him recently asking him to look sympathetically at Remploy in my constituency, which has successfully manufactured such clothing for many years. Why have we offered the contract to a firm in north Africa, thus pushing the Dundee factory nearer to closure? Is it right to save money at the cost of British jobs?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have adopted a policy of open competition when it comes to, in particular, commodity equipment such as clothing. I am afraid that if the business in his constituency was unable to bid competitively, that is the consequence.

Figures produced two years ago showed that four out of 100 homeless people in London had spent some time in the armed services. The Government have taken welcome initiatives in regulation, legislation and policy, but can the Minister update us on what further progress is being made, given that there are likely to be more redundancies in the armed services, and given that Armed Forces day will be celebrated at the end of the month?

I take a close personal interest in the issue of veterans’ housing. In March I met Hugh Milroy of Veterans Aid, and I subsequently visited New Belvedere house, a hostel for homeless veterans in Limehouse, east London. Last month I visited a community self-build project for veterans in Bedminster in Bristol. The Government have asked the community to show their commitment to the services and the veterans of our country, in some cases via local authorities, and I am pleased to say that 331 councils, including all those in Scotland, have signed a community covenant. I am sure that that will help our service personnel when they become veterans and seek housing in the future.

Was the Minister as shocked as I was to read of the families of service people who have been made redundant and who are being evicted from their service housing when they have nowhere else to go? What is he going to do about that?

I am not sure from the hon. Lady’s question, but she might be referring to one case that has achieved prominence in the media this morning regarding a member of the Parachute Regiment. If she is referring to that case, my private office is already looking into the issue and I hope there might be some way in which we can help.

T8. My constituent Sergeant Andrew Askew is shortly to be discharged from the Army having completed 13 years’ service. Six months ago he was diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he is yet to receive any support or treatment. Can the Minister advise me on what steps have been taken to assess the effectiveness of the personnel recovery units and aftercare programmes that are in place to support soldiers, such as Andrew Askew, who have been diagnosed with PTSD? (159667)

It is very important to me that every member of the armed forces needing medical care receives the very best treatment available. I am pleased that research by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research confirms a low incidence rate of PTSD for UK armed forces. For those who do require help, however, the NHS, in conjunction with the MOD and some superb charities, are providing excellent mental health care for both serving personnel and veterans. This includes wider awareness of the symptoms, early intervention on deployment, greater access to mental health care for up to 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 provided by the Big White Wall—and I am due to meet my opposite number in the Department of Health, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), very shortly, where we will discuss this matter further to see if there is even more that we can do.

What message does the Secretary of State have for the 10,000 north-easterners who have signed a petition, that is now with Downing street, seeking to save 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers?

I say to the hon. Lady that we have had to make some very difficult decisions in relation to the structure of the Army as we draw down its size to match our ambitions to our budgets. In doing that we have had to make sure we maximise the military capability. That means structuring the Army to deliver most efficiently the military capability that we need. I know that has meant painful decisions in a number of cases, but I am afraid we have to put the priority on delivering military effect.

T10. I greatly welcome the recent contract signed by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) on behalf of the MOD for the sensor support optimisation project with my constituency company of Thales UK. Can he say a little more about how this sonar technology will help the resilience of our fleet? (159669)

I greatly enjoyed visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency at the end of last month to sign that contract. It is a £600 million contract, which will ensure that the very sophisticated sonar and avionics systems—I mean periscopes—in our fleets are supported for the next 10 years, and it should save the Exchequer some £140 million over that period.

In the last Session of Parliament I introduced a private Member’s Bill which would have made attacks on members of the armed services a hate crime. In the light of tragic recent events, will the Minister meet me urgently to discuss how that issue can now be taken forward?

The hon. Gentleman will remember that when we had what I thought was a very well-conducted and good-humoured debate on that serious subject, I undertook to him that we would keep this under review and would have more to say in the armed forces covenant report 2013. That remains the Department’s position, but perhaps we can have a discussion after questions today so I can update him if he needs further information.

Falmouth is hosting Armed Forces day on Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those people from all walks of life who come together to make it such an exciting day that really pays tribute to our armed forces?

I am happy to do that, and I look forward to attending the national Armed Forces day event in Nottingham.