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Topical Questions

Volume 567: debated on Monday 2 September 2013

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.