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Topical Questions

Volume 564: debated on Monday 17 June 2013

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.