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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Heavy-lift Helicopters

Over the next 10 years, the Ministry of Defence will spend over £12 billion to ensure our helicopter capability remains up to date. The Chinook remains our heavy-lift helicopter. We currently have a fleet of 46 aircraft—the second largest fleet in the world—with 14 new aircraft coming into service from 2014, bringing the total to 60. We regularly review the requirement for all of our helicopter capability.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What steps have been taken to develop a naval capability for the Chinook helicopter?

Chinooks, along with other helicopters, already regularly operate from royal naval vessels. Some specific training is needed to qualify crews to enable them to operate from ships, but no specific engineering work is required for Chinooks to embark on or fly from ships, so no marinisation programme is needed. But as Chinooks cannot fit in the hangar on any of our existing vessels, they embark for specific operations or exercises rather than for long deployments.

The Government of Yemen have specifically requested support, as far as air power is concerned, in order to defeat al-Qaeda. As the Minister knows, there was an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of Yemen over the weekend. What support can be given to Yemen, as far as heavy-lift helicopters are concerned?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, helicopter support into the Gulf is not easy to do from the UK—or even from our sovereign bases in Cyprus. In direct response to his question about helicopters, I am afraid that I cannot enlighten him.

I want to ask the Secretary of State why there has been no response whatsoever to my letters to him and his Ministers dated January, February, April, June and July 2013, or to my letters to the head of the Military Aviation Authority, dated January, February, April and June, about a number of serious concerns raised by my constituent, Christopher Jackson, relating to the safety of the Sea King helicopter fleet and the conduct of a number of individuals involved in ensuring the safety of the fleet, which I understand is now the subject of a police investigation. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State investigated what has happened, and may I receive responses by return?

I am obviously not able to speak for the head of the Military Aviation Authority, which has its own organisation within the MOD, but I would be happy to look into the matter. I have not heard from the hon. Lady directly myself; I will take that on board and write back to her.

Nuclear Deterrent

2. What assessment he has made of the cost and credibility of a nuclear deterrent based on a cruise missile system. (900041)

A range of cruise missile-based systems were examined as part of the recent Trident alternatives review. The evidence showed that any cruise missile option was more vulnerable and had significantly reduced reach compared with a Trident-based deterrent. Additionally, it would be more costly, requiring the design and development of a new warhead, as well as a new missile.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but will he give me a commitment that in any future negotiations with our coalition partners after the next general election, if by some misfortune no single party should gain an outright majority, our party would retain a continuous-at-sea deterrent with four nuclear submarines?

The Government’s position is that we will maintain continuous-at-sea deterrence, and to do that we are preparing to go ahead at the main-gate decision in 2016 with the delivery of replacement submarines. I fear I would be straying beyond my remit if I were to speculate on negotiations that may or may not take place after the next election.

What is the Secretary of State’s latest estimate of the cost of replacing both the warheads and the submarine system, ahead of the main-gate decision in 2016? Has he given further consideration to the possibility of us not renewing Trident in order to help bring about a nuclear-free world more rapidly rather than re-arming ourselves and thus delaying the possibility of a nuclear-free world?

On the last point, I think that history teaches us that unilateral abandonment of nuclear weapons is not the way to bring about a more rapid elimination of those weapons, much as we would all like to see that happen. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the estimates produced in the 2006 White Paper for the cost of replacing the existing submarines with a four-boat solution were between £15 billion and £20 billion—in terms of the 2006 economic conditions—and they remain unchanged.

In order that the Secretary of State does not keep having to tell us that he must not go above his pay grade, will he carry the message back to No. 10 that as Labour Front Benchers say they are willing to sign up to two of the four boats before the next election, and as the majority of people in this House would like to have that main-gate decision implemented at least in part, why should we not go ahead so that we cannot be blackmailed by the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung Parliament after the general election?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point of view. He has on other occasions raised the issue of entering into a contract for the submarines at an early stage. Our current way of managing our equipment programme is to enter into contracts with industry at the point at which projects are mature enough to enable us to secure the best possible value for money for the taxpayer. Entering into a contract at this stage, when the project is relatively immature, would not represent value for money.

Trident Alternatives Review

3. What conclusions he has drawn from the Trident alternatives review about alternatives to a UK nuclear deterrent based on Trident. (900042)

9. What conclusions he has drawn from the Trident alternatives review about alternatives to a UK nuclear deterrent based on Trident. (900048)

11. What conclusions he has drawn from the Trident alternatives review about alternatives to a UK nuclear deterrent based on Trident. (900051)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the dangers of the alternatives to Trident is that of mistaken identity? An intercontinental ballistic missile leaves a very distinct signature on launch, whereas the alternatives could be confused with conventional weapons, and hence trigger an escalation rather than a de-escalation of conflict.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Trident alternatives review makes clear that that is just one of the many drawbacks of a cruise-based system. The other primary drawbacks are the risk, the time scale for development, the likely cost, the lack of range, and the vulnerability of the weapons system.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, when maintenance is taken into account, the cost differential between four boats and three boats is minimal, and that we should press ahead with a full replacement for Trident because it is in our national interest to do so?

My hon. Friend has conflated two different questions. The Trident alternatives review states categorically that Trident provides the best value and the best capability for the United Kingdom. As for the separate question of how many boats are needed, the Government are determined to maintain continuous-at-sea deterrence, and the best advice at present is that that will require four boats. The cost differential between three and four boats is about £1.7 billion in net present value terms, or about £50 million to £60 million a year over the life of the project.

My right hon. Friend has already made a powerful case for Trident and for continuous-at-sea deterrence, but does he agree that other potential deterrents that have been mooted, such as an airborne deterrent, would also be expensive to implement? Moreover, an airborne deterrent would be prey to a pre-emptive strike—which means that it would be no deterrent at all—and would be considered objectionable by many people who do not want nuclear armed planes landing and taking off on their doorsteps.

Indeed. The nature of the United Kingdom, which is a relatively small and densely populated land mass, is one of the factors taken into account by the Trident alternatives review, and one of the reasons why the idea of land-based ballistic missiles was ruled out at an early stage. The review states clearly that all alternatives to Trident are less capable, higher-risk and more expensive. That strikes me as a pretty categorical conclusion.

Can the Secretary of State tell the House how much taxpayers’ money has been spent on the Liberal Democrat vanity project that is the Trident alternatives review, given that, by and large, both the Conservative part of the coalition and the Labour Opposition support the outcome and knew what it would be?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the work on the review was conducted in-house, led by the Cabinet Office and supported by the Ministry of Defence, and that the principal cost involved will have been civil servants’ time. If he submits a written question to me, I will ask the Department to produce the best estimate that it can make of the time involved.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we opted for an alternative to Trident, we should probably have to be out of the submarine building business altogether, and that that would pose a real risk to the national security of the country?

My right hon. Friend has made an extremely good point. It seems often to be forgotten by those who advocate an alternative that we must make a choice about whether to sustain a submarine building industry in the United Kingdom. I, for one, believe that it is essential to the UK’s strategic interest for us to maintain a submarine-building capability, and that further points to the use of a submarine-based continuous-at-sea deterrent.

The Government’s Trident alternatives review covered a large number of options and was described in this House by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as the “most comprehensive study” of our nuclear deterrent policy. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House as to why the alternative being put forward now by the Liberal Democrats of two boats conducting irregular unarmed patrols was not considered as part of that comprehensive review?

The review considered a three-boat alternative and a four-boat alternative; it did not consider a two-boat position, as that was not considered a credible deterrent.

Armed Forces (Scotland)

4. What assessment he has made of the contribution made by armed forces based in Scotland to the collective defence of the UK. (900043)

Defence of the UK is planned, organised and resourced to meet the needs of the UK as a whole. Units based in Scotland are an integral part of the UK armed forces and, as such, make a vital contribution to national defence. Scotland, as part of the UK, plays a key role in all aspects of its defence, and benefits from the full range of UK defence capabilities and activities. It is perfectly clear that we are better together in defence, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the vast majority of those in this House will agree.

Support for Scottish separation has fallen this morning to just 29%. Does the Minister agree that one reason for that is the lack of credibility of the nationalists on defence? Has he received any communication from the Scottish Government on how they propose to fund a standing army of 15,000 troops with a defence budget one tenth the size of this Government’s?

The data that the hon. Gentleman has reported to the House come as no surprise to me. The straight answer to his question is no; we hear all sorts of rumours, but we await a White Paper from the Scottish Government—apparently, it will arrive at the end of this year—laying out more precisely than we have had thus far what they plan to do for national security and defence. It sounds, however, from the data that he has brought to the House that that will be highly hypothetical.

Troop Numbers (Afghanistan)

5. What progress he has made in drawing down the number of UK troops in Afghanistan to around 5,200 by the end of 2013. (900044)

As the Prime Minister announced on 19 December 2012, UK force levels will reduce from 9,000 to 6,000 from this autumn, and to about 5,200 by the end of 2013. That figure may, of course, fluctuate and occasionally exceed this total due to temporary surges into theatre. Our force level reduction is in line with the draw-down plans of our NATO allies and reflects the progress of the Afghan national security forces in assuming overall security responsibility for the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, I put on the record my salute to all those brave servicemen and women who have given their lives or been injured, and those who place their lives on the line every single day, in support of our security. The worst thing would be if we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and then have to go back. Will he inform the House on what progress he is making on getting the ANSF to take over from our brave servicemen and women?

As my hon. Friend will know, the focus of our armed forces is now on encouraging the ANSF and training, helping and mentoring them. We are very encouraged by the progress that we see. For instance, a major operation took place in the summer in the Logar and Nangarhar provinces, involving a large number of Afghan troops. It was very successful and it also demonstrated the increasing capability of the Afghan air force, so we are on track. Despite the scepticism of some, the ANSF are looking on track to assume responsibilities overall.

Will the Minister also update the House on whether any decisions have been made on the post-2014 UK contribution to Afghanistan and when he will be able to share any likely numbers?

I cannot share the exact numbers with the hon. Lady. What I can say is that our focus will definitely be on the Afghan national officer academy, which is just outside Kabul. We are very much concentrating on that, but of course we need to consider force protection and other issues, and the actual details cannot yet be given.

At a time when some commentators outside the House doubt the utility of UK military force, it is crucial that those from all parts of the House again put on the record our respect for the remarkable contribution that our men and women are making in Afghanistan.

Let me return to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), on which the Minister attempted an answer but did not give enough details. Will he say to the House in more detail what he understands to be the current commitment for UK equipment being retained in Afghanistan post-2014? When will the Government be in a position to share with the House the precise number of UK military personnel who will remain in theatre post-2014?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments about our armed forces, which, notwithstanding any excitements last week, are still doing an extremely good job in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to them as well.

Our focus after the end of next year will most definitely be on the Afghan national army officer academy outside Kabul. I am afraid that I cannot yet give the right hon. Gentleman or the House details of equipment that we might be leaving behind or anything like that, but we expect to announce it by the end of the year.

Defence Equipment and Support

7. What progress his Department has made in the assessment phase for reform of Defence Equipment and Support. (900046)

The Department continues to make good progress in the assessment phase for the reform of Defence Equipment and Support. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are testing a GoCo—Government owned, contractor operated—model in the market. Separately, we are working up the best public sector option we can, which we are referring to as DE&S-plus. The commercial competition for a GoCo provider is well under way and I am pleased to confirm that two consortia are participating in this work. The invitation to negotiate was issued to each on 24 July and officials have commenced negotiations to develop the GoCo option in more detail.

Under the current plans, the MOD would be liable for claims against the contractor should a GoCo model be chosen, meaning that the taxpayer takes a large amount of risk. Would the MOD consider making the contractor liable for all claims instead?

The MOD is in the early stages of negotiations on the contract for a GoCo and, as I have said, is at the same time working up a DE&S-plus option. We will not make a decision until we have received bids from the consortia, which we expect to conclude in the spring of next year, and we will compare that against the DE&S-plus option. Only at that point will it be appropriate to consider the question that the hon. Gentleman asks.

I appreciate that for sound commercial reasons the Minister will not want to share with the House the details of the value-for-money assessment of DE&S-plus and the GoCo. Is he able to tell the House whether that process has been completed and, if it has, what the broad conclusion is?

As I have just said to the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), until we receive the bids for the GoCo option we will not know either the costs of implementing that option or the benefits the MOD will receive. The final value-for-money case can be completed only once that information is available to us.

Proposals for DE&S include greater involvement of the private sector, as we know. We also know that a very large number of private companies already contribute significantly to MOD projects. However, in the light of the very recent public failures and the fact that the GoCo tender process is under way, will the Minister tell the House what discussions there have been across Government and with the Justice Secretary specifically about companies that have been found to overcharge, or worse, and their ability to do business with the Government and MOD in the future?

I can confirm to the hon. Lady that a review across Government is being undertaken into the competition currently being managed by the MOD. We expect it to report relatively soon. On the question of the company that she did not mention specifically but referred to as having difficulties with the Ministry of Justice, we are aware of those discussions. The company is a member of one of the consortia and it will be up to the consortium to decide whether it is appropriate, in the light of the outcome of the review, for that company to remain in it or not. It will be up to the consortium to replace it, if it wishes, with another.

Ministers will have to make a decision about whether to consolidate DE&S at Donnington or at Bicester. Unless and until they make that decision, it will not be easy to persuade the private sector to invest in much-needed new logistics equipment and 21st-century warehousing at either location.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pressing the case for his constituency interest in one of the most significant logistics sites the MOD operates. It is our view that it is not appropriate to prejudge the outcome of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, the logistic commodities and services transformation exercise, the DE&S-plus exercise or the Defence Support Group exercise, all of which have an involvement in both Donnington and Bicester. Once we are clear which entity we are working with on each exercise, we will be best placed to judge where the locations should be consolidated.

Trident Replacement

8. Whether his Department has undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of a Trident replacement; and if he will make a statement. (900047)

A cost-benefit analysis of possible nuclear deterrent systems was carried out for the 2006 White Paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”. This demonstrated that a submarine-launched ballistic missile system based on Trident was the most cost-effective solution to the UK’s requirement. The recently published “Trident Alternatives Review” supports the judgments made in 2006 and demonstrates that the renewal of the current Trident-based system is the most cost-effective and capable nuclear deterrent for the UK.

Just because Trident is obviously the best new nuclear deterrent, surely we should still worry about, and be aware of, costs. Given that submarine programmes have a history of vast cost overruns—50% in the case of the Astute class programme—will the Secretary of State assure the House that he is keeping a close eye on costs and that he is broadly confident that he can deliver Trident on time and on budget?

We have not yet contracted but, as I said in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), we believe that the costs of replacing the Trident deterrent will fall within the estimates set out in the 2006 White Paper. I should say to my hon. Friend that we have made significant strides to reform the way in which the submarine enterprise is conducted, and we believe that the MOD has a much firmer control of the enterprise’s cost base than has previously been the case.

Is the right hon. Gentleman keeping an open mind about the timetable? If experts and the industry tell him that there could be a more cost-effective solution for the taxpayer if the main-gate decision were to come earlier than the scheduled date of 2016, will he be alive to that, rather than sticking to the current agreement within the coalition?

Tempting though it is to go down the route that the hon. Gentleman sets out, the reality is that the processes that must be undertaken to reach a mature main-gate decision that is properly informed by the evidence simply could not be shortened to the available time scale. We are aiming for 2016, by when we will have a robust basis on which to contract and to conduct the value-for-money assessment.

Syria

10. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Syria; and if he will make a statement. (900049)

The conflict in Syria is of grave concern to the international community and the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is, I think, regarded as abhorrent by everyone. The UK will continue to press for a political solution to end the bloodshed and we are urging the Syrian regime to enter the Geneva process towards a negotiated transition.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Clearly the security situation will have the greatest impact on Syria’s near neighbours, so what discussions have he and other members of the Cabinet had with those near neighbours and the Arab League, as well as NATO and the EU?

My hon. Friend might have seen that the Secretary-General of NATO made a statement only this morning about this matter. I assure her that we have the closest possible contact and dialogue with the regional players—the Arab League, the Gulf Co-operation Council, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. We are acutely conscious of the risks and threats that the situation in Syria present to them. I should also mention that we are the second largest donor of humanitarian assistance to try to alleviate the shocking refugee crisis in Syria.

Is it not the case that, although the civil war in Syria started in early 2011, a UK firm was granted a licence to sell chemicals to the regime in 2012, and that was stopped only because of tougher EU sanctions? Is there any murderous regime anywhere with which we are not willing to do business? This illustrates what I have said about Syria. If that process had not been stopped owing to EU sanctions, chemicals would have been sent that could have made the gas that was used against civilians there.

The hon. Gentleman makes a case with a great deal of passion, but without much detailed understanding of what he is talking about. Export licences were granted for some industrial chemicals that could have been used in a process that might be involved in the production of poisonous gases. Those export licences were revoked—no such chemicals were exported. However, I should explain that the problem that we all face is that a significant number of industrial chemicals have perfectly legitimate industrial uses—in this case, I believe, in metal-finishing activities—and we have to maintain the right balance between ensuring that we are not providing materials that could be misused and allowing normal trade to be conducted.

Much has been made in the media about the potential impact of last week’s vote on the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that whatever disagreements there might be on the particular issue of Syria, the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is absolutely essential, and it rests, much more importantly, on intelligence and a shared belief in a nuclear deterrent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our relationship with the United States is central to our defence and security, and I am confident that, whatever happened last week, the depth, strength and history of that relationship mean that it is a resilient one. The Prime Minister has spoken to the President since last Thursday, and I am confident that as a result of that conversation the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom will continue, and will remain strong and resilient.

Given that the security situation in Syria is likely to deteriorate or certainly change, will the Secretary of State tell the House why last Thursday’s vote, whereby in essence the House did not agree to two motions, should not be revisited in future?

As the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary have already made clear, this is a democracy. Parliament has spoken, and we take it that Parliament has spoken very clearly. We cannot keep coming back to Parliament with the same question. I think that the circumstances would have to change very significantly before Parliament wanted to look again at this issue.

I warmly welcome the Government’s policy of not intervening militarily in Syria, but may I seek assurances from the Secretary of State that every action will be taken by the Government and by friendly Governments around the world to make sure that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria are outlawed, and that should they seek to leave their country they will stand trial and any wealth and money they have forfeited?

Our position remains that there needs to be a robust response to the illegal use of chemical weapons. The House of Commons has ruled out military participation in any such response, but we will pursue every diplomatic, political and other channel to continue to deliver the robust message that my right hon. Friend calls for.

I want to return to the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart). On Thursday, after the vote, the Prime Minister ruled out UK involvement in military action in Syria. The Government of course will remain engaged diplomatically and on aid policy, but will the Secretary of State spell out for the House in what, if any, circumstances, following changes in Syria or internationally, the Government would bring back to Parliament the issue of UK military involvement in Syria?

If I may say so, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Gentleman, who last week trooped into the Lobby behind the leader of his party, giving rise to the very situation in which we now find ourselves, to demand that I tell him precisely in which circumstances we might revisit this issue. I have already said to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that we believe that Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue, and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless the circumstances change very significantly.

Military Covenant

As my hon. Friend knows, the armed forces covenant is important for this Government and it is a personal priority of mine. We are taking a number of steps to strengthen it. These include the continued promotion of the community covenant scheme, with more than 370 local authorities now signed up—that is more than 80% of all the local authorities in the UK; the recent announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of £10 million per year to support the covenant; and the launch of the corporate covenant, which allows businesses and charitable organisations to demonstrate their public support for the armed forces community.

Over the next few years, a considerable number of pupils from military families will be educated in south Wiltshire and around Salisbury. Will the Minister confirm that the MOD will work proactively with local authorities, including Wiltshire, to ensure that pupil premium funding is spent in an optimal way and that best practice is shared?

Yes, I believe I can. The service pupil premium was increased in April this year from £250 to £300. I can assure my hon. Friend that as units move under re-basing, whether from Germany or within the United Kingdom, we continue to work with the Department for Education, providing specialist information, advice and support through our own directorate for children and young people to local authorities and schools to secure maximum benefit from the service pupil premium for service children. In my hon. Friend’s particular case, we will of course ensure that we involve the military-civil integration partnership in Wiltshire, which does very good work in this area.

The Army Families Federation has launched an investigation into the effect of the bedroom tax on armed forces families, which I know may come as a surprise to the Minister as it took him some time to accept that armed forces families would be affected by the bedroom tax. Will he clarify whether the families of armed forces personnel who stay in single living accommodation on base in the UK are to be exempt from the bedroom tax in the same way as are the families of students living away from home? At present there are inconsistencies in the way this policy is being applied and it is undermining the armed forces covenant.

I recently had the privilege of attending the Army Families Federation conference in Germany, where I spoke on a number of matters, and a number of questions were raised with me by service personnel. I do not remember that issue being raised with me by the Army Families Federation when I was in Germany, so it may be an issue that the federation has raised with the hon. Lady, but it certainly did not raise the matter with me when I was at its conference.

The Minister rightly pointed out that the armed forces covenant is not just for the Ministry of Defence. With that in mind, what regular liaison and discussions are held with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the community covenant is more than just a photo call?

The hon. Gentleman mentions the community covenant, which gives me an opportunity to repeat the fact that more than 80% of local authorities have signed it, including, I am pleased to say, all those in his and my county, Essex. He talked about co-operation between Government Departments. As he will know, a specific Cabinet sub-committee chaired by the Minister for Government Policy meets regularly to make sure that we are properly co-ordinated between Departments in evaluating the covenant. The hon. Gentleman may be pleased to know that that committee is due to meet again in the near future.

Smart Defence

13. What smart defence or pooling and sharing initiatives the UK has joined; and what estimate he has made of savings to the public purse arising from such schemes. (900053)

I am delighted to be able to say that the ultimate answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is 42, as the UK currently participates in 40 NATO smart defence initiatives and two of the European Defence Agency’s pooling and sharing projects. I am happy to write to him with a list, if he would like it. Capability development is a long-term process. Many of these projects are still in their infancy and as such we are unable to quantify meaningfully direct savings to the UK, but savings there certainly will be. There are clear benefits for the UK in seeking collaborative opportunities and encouraging other partners to do the same, particularly working in small groups where it is expedient to do so. UK-Dutch amphibiosity, 40 years old this year, is a very good example.

Indeed, I would like the Minister to write to me. I support what the Government are doing to try to buy at lower cost collaboratively with allies, but the Government’s defence expenditure, according to public expenditure statistical analyses last year, was in real terms £4.9 billion less than when Labour was in power in our last year of office. What proportion of that £4.9 billion has been saved through smart defence?

I have to refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier remarks. These projects have been going since 2011—they are in their infancy—so it would be remarkable if demonstrable savings were to be volunteered at this point, but we are confident that there will be savings, which is in large part why we are doing this, and they will be forthcoming as we go further with pooling, sharing and smart defence.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on what progress is being made on initiatives to deepen co-operation with other northern European countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He will be aware of the Northern Group. Within both NATO and the European Union it is important to identify groups of like-minded countries, such as the Northern Group, with which we can work particularly well. It seems to me to be expedient to work with the grain of such countries in order to lever in effect. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will discuss that shortly in Vilnius.

On defence sharing, the UK provides military training to senior military officers from countries around the world. The MOD has confirmed to me in parliamentary answers that over recent years that has regularly included senior army officers from the Assad regime. Does the Minister regret that?

I cannot really comment because I just do not know. I would be very surprised if that was the case, but we can certainly look into it. The hon. Gentleman is right that we provide training and exposure to a wide range of countries, looking all the while at the probity and integrity of their regimes. Clearly nothing is perfect in this world, but we put huge effort into ensuring that those who benefit from our training courses go back to their countries and use the information they have gained to good purpose and in a way that we in this House find acceptable.

Does the Minister believe that the principles of smart defence are best served through multilateral organisations, such as the European Defence Agency or NATO, or on a bilateral basis, such as the Lancaster house agreement? He said that he will write to my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley). Will he share that information with the entire House by placing details in the Library?

Absolutely. I am more than happy to write about the 42 programmes and place a copy in the Library. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s binary proposition: namely, that we should choose to operate either on a bilateral or multilateral basis or through supranational organisations. I believe that both have their part to play. Working with the grain of other countries, in the way I have described, seems to me to offer great opportunities for levering in effect. I have cited UK-Dutch amphibiosity, which we should all be celebrating in this 40th anniversary year.

Defence Exports

This Government are working tirelessly to support economic growth, and responsible defence exports make an important contribution to that. From the Prime Minister and Ministers across other Departments to service chiefs and Ministers in the Department—indeed, I was in Korea and Japan during the recess—all are engaged in supporting our allies in looking at acquiring top-quality British military equipment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. My constituency has a number of defence and aerospace contractors, so will he join me in welcoming the 62% growth achieved last year in defence exports and tell the House what support he has received from other Departments to ensure that that growth continues?

Of course I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the 62% increase in defence and security exports in 2012, which is up to £8.8 billion, and in a global market that grew by only 45%, so we are increasing our market share. As I indicated earlier, we have had support from other Government Departments. The Home Office, in relation to security, the Cabinet Office and No. 10, through the Prime Minister, are engaged. I point out to my hon. Friend and to the whole House that next week the defence and security international exhibition, which is expected to be the largest of its type in Europe this year, will take place in the O2 Centre here in London, showcasing to over 30,000 visitors and 100 foreign delegations the best of British on offer.

Notwithstanding the growth of the industry, does the Minister accept that the recent debacle over parts of chemical weapons being sent to Syria shows that this Government still have not learned the lessons from Matrix Churchill and must be much more joined up between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the MOD?

I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the nature of the export application that was declined for Syria recently, as described by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have a very clear policy for export controls that is supervised by BIS. I should have referred earlier to BIS’s excellent work in responsible defence exports through the UK Trade & Investment Defence & Security Organisation.

Reserve Forces

16. What discussions he has had with employers following the publication of the White Paper on reserve forces. (900056)

The proposals in the “Future Reserves 2020” White Paper published in July were the result of a full and open consultation with stakeholders, including employers and representative bodies such as the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses. I have been encouraged by the constructive support we have received. We know that the only way to implement our plans successfully for the future reserves is to maintain an open and honest discussion among the Department, reserves and their families, and employers. That is what we have done to date, and it is precisely what we shall continue to do in the weeks and months ahead.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he join me in paying tribute to the many reservists who have served with distinction in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including one young man in my office, Hugh Orton, who has completed a three-month internship and who has done valuable service overseas?

I wholeheartedly join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our reservists, including her member of staff. Our reservists are essential members of our armed forces who have served and continue to serve with great distinction and gallantry on deployed operations. Since 2003 more than 25,000 reservists have been mobilised for operations alongside their regular counterparts, with a number paying the ultimate price. In the Territorial Army alone, more than 70 operational awards have been earned since 2003.

The Minister is of course right to pay tribute to the contribution of reservists, but could he indicate to the House what protection he will put in place to ensure that reservists are not discriminated against by employers when they go for new jobs?

We are already providing additional support for employers, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, to assist them to find people to fill in if their members of staff are deployed as reservists on operations. We also plan to give greater notice to employers, so they should have greater regularity in when their employees are deployed for service. We have discussed this in great depth with employers. They are not convinced that we should legislate specifically on this issue, although of course we keep an eye on it as we go along.

Topical Questions

My first priority remains the success of operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to deliver the sustainable transformation of the Ministry of Defence, to build confidence within the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model, to reinforce the armed forces covenant, to maintain budgets in balance, and to deliver equipment programmes on time and to budget so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful statement. Does he agree that the current crisis in Syria brings into very sharp relief the crucial importance of the strategic bases in Cyprus, particularly RAF Akrotiri? Does he agree that it is essential that the Government do not just retain those bases but invest in their facilities and infrastructure?

The Government reviewed the utility and position of the sovereign base areas in 2010-11 and concluded that they played an important part in Britain’s defensive arrangements. We intend to continue to invest in them and to maintain them on the current basis.

T7. When will the Government make a decision on the number of F-35s that will be procured as part of the arrangement with Lockheed Martin, and is the Minister able to guarantee that the work-share allocation for the United Kingdom and BAE Systems will not be reduced in the future? (900006)

I can confirm that it is our intention, in the remaining months of this year, to place our first order for the first operational squadron of joint strike fighters. As far as the work-share component is concerned, as long as other countries maintain their orders and we maintain ours, we intend to retain the 15%.

T2. In July the Secretary of State announced that the Territorial Army centre in Stratford-on-Avon would close and made assurances, through a Minister, that tenants of the centre, such as the local ambulance association, would not be left homeless. The Minister also made assurances that the facilities would be provided for the local cadets and that recruitment to the historic 867 Signal Troop based there would not be negatively impacted. Two months on, could the Minister update my constituents and me about plans for the New Broad Street centre? (900001)

I can tell my hon. Friend—who is quite right to be concerned about these things, and I understand his constituents’ point of view—that the long-term future of the centre in Stratford-on-Avon has yet to be determined and that there will be re-provision for any cadet units and any lodging units when that happens. We have yet to decide what the wider defence uses might be for the site. If there is no long-term defence use for the site it will be disposed of in accordance with standard procedures, but without, I hope, any bad impact on the cadets or other lodging units.

A leading commentator in Australia recently characterised the Syrian conflict as not “goodies versus baddies”, but rather “baddies versus baddies”. Does the Secretary of State share that simple assessment of our political and military dilemma?

Simple assessments of complex situations rarely paint the whole picture, but the hon. Gentleman has a point. The opposition is not a single, homogenous force. There are various elements within it, some of which are deeply unpleasant in their objectives and methods.

T3. Following the answer to the first topical question and in the light of last Thursday’s decision, what conflict-resolution role does the Secretary of State envisage for our troops based either in Cyprus or more widely in the middle east and north Africa region? (900002)

As I have made clear, we accept the will of Parliament that there will be no British military involvement in any action against Syria. That does not mean that we are not continuing to press for a diplomatic solution and for the convening of the Geneva peace conference to try to reach a negotiated transition in Syria. No one has yet suggested that any such transition would involve any military role for the UK. Until such a conference convenes and makes progress, any such question is purely hypothetical.

Why was the intelligence document published by President Obama on Friday so much more comprehensive, detailed and compelling than the one the Secretary of State published just the day before? If the Secretary of State was not in possession of the same information, which I find difficult to believe, why did he not wait until he could put all of the facts before this House, instead of forcing Members to make a decision when it was too soon and we were not in possession of the facts?

First of all, I did not publish a document. The chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee wrote to the Prime Minister summarising the judgment of the UK intelligence community. That was done in an atmosphere in which we were extremely conscious of the parallels with Iraq 2003 and extremely cautious about presenting any argument to Parliament that relied or depended on intelligence information that we could not publish or produce. I think we made the right judgment in presenting our argument cautiously, relying only on information that was available and could be examined by Members of the House of Commons.

T4. Ministers’ summer reading will have included the report of the Committee on Arms Export Controls, including its concerns about export licences for dual-use items to Syria. In responding to that report, will the Minister confirm that British exports will not have contributed to the military strength of the Assad regime? (900003)

I am glad to answer that question because it allows me to provide a rather more full answer than was given to the somewhat hysterical outburst from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). The licences that are mentioned in the newspapers today, which I think are those that concern the hon. Gentleman, are two standard individual export licences that were issued in January for sodium fluoride and potassium fluoride. As everybody in the House will know, sodium fluoride is used in the fluoridisation of drinking water and in toothpaste—I suspect that we will all have some today. Potassium fluoride has applications in the metallurgical industry and in the manufacture of pesticides. When it was considered that those substances could be precursors in some other application, the licences were withdrawn. Nothing has been exported.

The head of Britain’s armed forces, General Sir Nick Houghton, has admitted that he faces a “huge challenge” in maintaining morale and performance. Figures that were released just the other month show that the proportion of service personnel who feel that their morale is low has gone up to 30%. That is a shocking situation. What will the Government do about it?

If the hon. Lady cares to read the original interview that General Sir Nick Houghton gave to the in-house magazine, she will see that there is a slightly different slant in that story to that in some national newspapers. The Chief of the Defence Staff was saying that we have perhaps not communicated our vision of Future Force 2020 and what it offers to the people in our armed forces as well as we could or should have done. That is why I included in the list of my priorities that I gave a few moments ago the communication of the challenges and opportunities of Future Force 2020 to our own people.

T5. Given that for four centuries, Scotland and the Scottish people have played such a glorious part in the defence of our United Kingdom, and that from the battles of Malplaquet and Blenheim to the sands of north Africa and the mud of Flanders we have shed blood together, would it not be a good idea if Armed Forces day 2014 was held in Scotland? (900004)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Armed Forces day was held in Scotland in 2011. He will remember that it was held in Edinburgh. I am delighted to tell him that on 28 June 2014, Armed Forces day will be held in the great city of Stirling. I spoke to the Provost, Councillor Mike Robbins, about that and he was absolutely delighted. The Ministry of Defence and the city of Stirling will work together to ensure that it is a first-rate event.

What is the strategy in Syria? Listening to the speeches in last Thursday’s debate, it became very clear that no one had spoken to the new leadership in Iran or to the new leadership in China about their position on the Security Council. What is the strategy or are the Government just giving up on defence and foreign affairs?

We will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman on the last point. As I have said several times today, notwithstanding the vote last Thursday, which made it clear that we will not engage militarily in a response to the shocking use of chemical weapons, we will continue to explore every avenue to influence the outcome through diplomatic and political means. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that if he makes himself available here tomorrow, he will have the opportunity to ask the Foreign Secretary that question at Foreign Office questions and to receive a full answer about the level of engagement with the leaderships of Iran, Russia, China and the many other countries that are involved.

As I believe my hon. and gallant Friend knows, the air ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—optimisation study is looking at our defence requirements and capabilities in air-based ISTAR, including maritime patrol, to inform decisions as part of the strategic defence and security review in 2015. A range of options is being considered, including unmanned air systems for maritime surveillance. If he is available next week to go to the ExCel centre—rather than the O2 centre which I mentioned earlier—for the Defence and Security Equipment International conference, I am sure that he will see some of those systems on display.

Have the Government taken the opportunity to thank the Americans for so thoroughly dumping on their oldest ally, the French, in favour of the long grass of the Congress when it comes to Syria?

I think we have to be clear in these matters. The British Government can speak for what Britain will or will not do; other allies have to make their own decisions, and just as we have asked them to respect our political processes and constitutional norms, so we have to respect theirs as well.

T8. Parliament as a whole owes a huge debt of gratitude over 25 years to the armed forces parliamentary scheme and its founder, Sir Neil Thorne. Under your instructions, Mr Speaker, and those of the Lord Speaker and the Secretary of State, the scheme will be relaunched next Tuesday at 5 o’clock in Room 14 under new management, and I am glad that Sir Neil Thorne has agreed to become life president of the new scheme. Will the Minister recommit the assets and determination of the Ministry of Defence to the scheme, and ensure it takes forward this brilliant opportunity of educating parliamentarians about the ways of the armed forces? (900007)

Absolutely, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming chairman of the trustees. I know he has put a lot of effort into that, and it will be a great success. I add my tribute to Sir Neil Thorne, who has done a wonderful job over more than a quarter of a century in bringing together this wonderful scheme which so many right hon. and hon. Members have participated in and benefited from. The Ministry of Defence values that highly and will, of course, commit resources to ensuring it is a success. I am sure the House will agree it is important that the scheme should evolve, and right hon. and hon. Members will want the sort of transparency and governance arrangements that have now been brought in. I am clear that under the guidance of my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour, the scheme will go from strength to strength.

Beyond the dialogue that has taken place with the United States Government on how to respond to the chemical weapons attack in Damascus on 21 August, will the Secretary of State confirm that work will continue on how to respond were Syria’s chemical weapons to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates or Hezbollah?

That is a very good question and, of course, a completely separate issue. If the large stocks of chemical weapons held by the Syrian Government were to fall into the hands of non-state actors, that would represent a very serious threat to the region and indeed to the wider international community. I confirm, as the House would expect, that we have had and will continue to have dialogue with international partners about what we might collectively do if such a situation were to arise.

T9. I understand that a Fleet Air Arm pilot recently landed an F-35 on an American aircraft carrier. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that, and also update the House on the implications of any effect last Thursday’s vote had on training with the Americans? (900008)

As my hon. Friend says, I am delighted to confirm that a British-piloted F-35B—the short take-off and vertical landing version of the F-35 aircraft—has completed a successful landing on USS Wasp, which was, I think, off the coast of Virginia. We have a programme of embedded UK pilots training with US navy marines on those aircraft. Progress is good on that programme, and we expect the first squadron of aircraft to come to the UK fully formed in 2018, with pilots who have been trained and prepared in the United States.

Post-conflict Commonwealth applicant Burundi desperately needs assistance in rehabilitating soldiers and ex-combatants from the civil war, including disabled and child soldiers. Will the Secretary of State use his good offices to come up with a scheme with the Department for International Development gainfully to employ some of the great expertise that our ex-service personnel, who are about to increase in number, could use to assist them?

I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary and see whether DFID could look at that. I will also ask our own conflict prevention and reconstruction unit to consider whether there is anything that the UK military could do to help in that situation.