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Defence

Volume 570: debated on Monday 4 November 2013

The Secretary of State was asked—

Reserve Forces

13. What assessment he has made of the level of recruitment to the reserve forces in 2013 to date. (900865)

May I first welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his new role and congratulate him on his appointment? I hope that, in the interests of Britain’s armed forces, we will be able to have a constructive relationship, as he quite properly holds me to account for the decisions of this Government, and I hold him to account for the decisions of the last one.

When the previous Administration took office in 1997, the Territorial Army was more than 50,000 strong. By the time they left office in 2010, that figure had halved. That pattern of decline has been arrested, and the strength has now been stabilised. Recruitment figures for the first three quarters of 2013 are due to be published by Defence Analytical Services and Advice on 14 November. This is a new data series, and quarterly figures will be published thereafter.

I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde area committee of the Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association.

Most people would describe the current recruitment target as challenging and difficult to meet. There appears to be a lack of clear strategy on recruiting more women and more people from the black and minority ethnic population in order to achieve that target. Will the Secretary of State explain how he intends to disseminate best practice in those areas?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that important point. At the moment, the armed forces recruit about 8% of their strength from women, who make up about 50% of the target age group population, and just 3% of their strength from black and ethnic minority communities, which will make up about 24% of the target age group population by 2020. We have to do better in those areas, and one of the challenges that we have set for the armed forces, and for the Army in particular, is for them to work out how they can pitch an offer that is more attractive to female and black and ethnic minority recruits, and specifically how they can use female recruits more effectively within Future Force 2020.

20. I recently joined more than 100 supporters of 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers as they marched on Parliament protesting against the Government’s decision to scrap it. Ministers believe that the battalion can be replaced by reservists, but the chairman of the Northumberland and North East Fusilier Association is concerned that it will be impossible to recruit the necessary numbers. Will the Secretary of State tell us to what extent the targets are being met? (900872)

The reconfiguration of the Army, including the changing role of reservists and the changing structure of the Army, are not simply about trying to recruit reservists to replace disbanded infantry battalions. Most of the reservists we recruit will be specialists, rather than having a light infantry role. The White Paper that I published earlier this year set out a plan to reverse the long-term decline of the Army Reserve, redefining its role and setting out details of improved equipment, training, terms and conditions. Under the plan, we will grow the Army Reserve to a trained strength of 30,000 by 2018. I can also tell the House that, although it is still early days, a snapshot of data for the recruiting campaign that started on 16 September is quite positive. We received 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve during the first four weeks of the campaign, and 380 were received last week. It is very early days, but those early signs are quite promising.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the encouraging early signs in the recruiting campaign. There will come a time when it will become plain either that he will have achieved the Future Force 2020 ambition of replacing regular soldiers with reservists or that he has not done so and will have to change his plan. When will that date be?

The Army is in the final stages of setting out a properly thought-through recruiting target set, defining the number of recruits needed during each period of time in order to deliver the trained output required if we are to achieve our 2018 target. As soon as I have those data from the Army in final form, I will publish them. They will set our target curve, and I expect to be held to account if we go significantly off it.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me if I press him a little further on this topic. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the targets are proving difficult to achieve. Given that the target of 30,000 is fundamental to the success of the restructuring of the Army, what contingency plans are now in place, and what incentives are being offered to individuals—and their employers—to become part of the Army Reserve?

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Unfortunately, I am not his “learned Friend”: I am used to being called an accountant, but not a lawyer. I can reassure him that a variety of measures are in place to incentivise recruitment to the reserves; in particular, a bonus to attract those leaving the regular Army into volunteer reserve service has proved very successful, with significant upturn in the translation rate over the past few months. There will be a range of further incentive measures that we can introduce as and when it is necessary in order to deliver the targets which I shall publish shortly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks, which I greatly appreciate. We will, of course, work with him where appropriate. I welcome to her post my Nottinghamshire colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who I understand is the first woman Defence Minister in the House of Commons, which is a great credit to her.

The Government need to explain to the House and the country today what is happening with their programme of reform to the armed forces. I declare an interest, as my soon-to-be son-in-law serves in the Territorial Army. A recent high-level memo from the Ministry of Defence states clearly that there are clear problems and worries over Army reform and that recruitment targets are likely to be missed. That has caused senior military figures, Members of the House and the armed forces community to raise serious concerns. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the nation’s security will not be compromised and that a reduction in the regular Army will take place only if adequate uplift in the reserves is achieved?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The memo from which he quoted did not say what he claimed it said. It said that in the absence of any action to stimulate recruitment we would face a very difficult challenge. We are now taking precisely that action. The hon. Gentleman may have seen an article that came from an interview with the Chief of the Defence Staff, in which he made it clear that he was very confident that we will deliver these numbers. I share that confidence.

We look forward to the Defence Secretary publishing that memo so that we can all see what it actually said. Is not the problem one of credibility? The Government cannot get their figures right. Just today, we learned that the cost of new aircraft carriers has increased by £800 million to £6.2 billion. That is after the £100 million wasted last year on reversing the decision on fighter jets. A few months ago, the Defence Secretary told us he had balanced the books at the MOD, and then just a few weeks ago we were told that there was an £1.8 billion underspend. How can the British public have confidence that the Government will meet their target for recruitment to the reserves when they have got so much else wrong? When will the Defence Secretary take some responsibility and stop blaming everyone else but himself?

With that last remark, the hon. Gentleman has probably pre-empted my response. If I were him, I would tread a little more carefully around the issue of the cost of the aircraft carriers—until he hears, in due course, what precisely we have done. A huge amount of work is going on across the Army around the reserves recruitment initiative. There are many different strands to this work. I have made a commitment in the past, which I will repeat today, to be as transparent as possible with Parliament as this campaign gets under way. I remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that we are just five weeks into a five-year campaign to halt and reverse the attrition in our reserves that the previous Government oversaw.

In my experience, inquiries about recruiting by no means turn into enlistments. Everything we have heard suggests that the recruiting for the reserves will be difficult. Was it therefore correct for our regular forces redundancy programme to have gone ahead with the urgency that it did?

Perhaps my hon. Friend did not hear me earlier. I was not talking about inquiries; I was talking about 1,576 applications to join the Army Reserve in the first four weeks of the campaign. The simple fact is that if we are to live within our budgets and restructure the Army for its tasks in the future, the decisions we made about the size and shape of the regular Army must go forward, and the recruitment and training of 30,000 Army reserves must happen. We will make sure that they do so.

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

2. What assessment he has made of the level of contracting by his Department with small and medium-sized enterprises; and if he will make a statement. (900854)

As I have said in the House before, the Government understand the significance of SMEs to the United Kingdom’s economy. The Ministry of Defence is playing its part in increasing the number of opportunities for SMEs to contribute to defence, both as direct suppliers and as subcontractors on major programmes. We recently published details of the MOD spend for 2012-13. Some £1.1 billion was spent directly with 12,000 SMEs. During that year, 10% of all new contracts by value and 36% by number were placed with more than 1,000 SMEs.

Jobs in the supply chain are vital to constituencies such as Ogmore, but I understand that last year the MOD was fined £21,000 for making late payments to suppliers. The new contracts and direct payments that were promised by Ministers have not materialised. Can the Minister explain to SMEs in the supply chain in Ogmore and throughout the United Kingdom why the Government’s actions do not match their rhetoric?

I am very glad that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to light on the single late payment penalty that the MOD suffered in just one of the 4 million transactions that took place in 2012-13. It involved a company that was not based in Ogmore, not based in Wales, and not based anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It was for late payment for aviation fuel sent by a supplier to our base in Akrotiri in Cyprus, with an invoice from a Greek company in Corinth, over the Christmas holidays. The Ministry of Defence pays 92% of its bills within five days, and has a better record in that regard than any other Department.

I greatly welcome the letting of the main contract for the expansion of MOD Stafford to enable it to receive two more Signals regiments. Will the main contractor be encouraged to work with local SMEs which offer value for taxpayers’ money?

I think that my hon. Friend is referring to facilities management contracts which are being placed on a regional basis. The contractors will of course undertake to use SMEs in their supply chain, but it will be up to them to decide where they place their contracts, so I cannot give my hon. Friend any specific reassurance relating to how many of the subcontracts will go to Staffordshire companies.

Although reassuring in many respects and full of detail, the Minister’s response will not give much comfort to SMEs that hold subcontracts with Serco and are awaiting the outcome of the Cabinet Office review, which I assume has been further delayed following this afternoon’s announcement by the Serious Fraud Office. This matter is of serious concern to, for instance, those involved in the consortiums that are bidding for the GoCo. When does the Minister expect a firm decision from his colleagues on whether the MOD can let further contracts to Serco?

As the hon. Lady said, there has been an announcement following the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into two contractors, which was first highlighted by the Ministry of Justice in its announcement of 26 September. I cannot give her any information about when the SFO will complete its inquiries, and she would not expect me to do so. Until that has happened, we shall not be in a position to make any comment on Serco itself.

A constituent of mine is considering installing on his farm an anaerobic digestion plant that could supply heat to HMS Raleigh. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet my constituent and me to discuss that?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning her interest in encouraging the supply of renewable energy to Ministry of Defence bases throughout the country as well as in her constituency. The matter that she has raised is the responsibility of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but I am sure that one of us will be happy to meet her as soon as possible.

Typhoon Exports

3. What discussions he has had with his counterparts in partner nations on improving the prospects of future Typhoon exports. (900855)

Since the Government took office in 2010, they have reversed a decade of neglect in support for defence exports. Ministers from the Prime Minister down have taken a particularly proactive lead among our partners in encouraging Typhoon exports. Eurofighter Typhoon continues to attract global interest through active participation in a number of campaigns, which are likely to come to a head over the next couple of years. Last week, when I met counterparts from our three partner nations, we agreed to refocus our collaborative programme to improve Typhoon’s export prospects in those campaigns around the world.

Does the Minister believe that to keep the Typhoon production line running in the future, the Eurofighter consortium must be much more agile in its corporate governance in order to help export potential?

In our meeting last week I made very clear to both industry and our Eurofighter partners that we need an increased focus on responding to export requirements, which will play an increasingly important part in extending production lines for this aircraft, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We agreed that fundamental reforms are needed to speed up decision-making processes within the governance structure, which will make it more responsive both to the requirements of partner nations and to export customers.

RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Merryfield

4. What his plans are for the future use of RNAS Yeovilton and RNAS Merryfield; and if he will make a statement. (900856)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has asked about Yeovilton, where a number of our constituents work and where I have served. I am also pleased to assure him of our intention that Yeovilton will remain a royal naval air station with, additionally, 1 Regiment Army Air Corps based there as a lodger unit. Indeed, the Ministry of Defence is investing heavily in Yeovilton in order for it to be the main operating base for all Wildcat helicopters flown by the Royal Navy and the Army. Merryfield, as my hon. Friend will know, is a satellite airfield of Yeovilton and will continue to be used for training.

I am most grateful; the deployment of the Army Air Corps at Yeovilton is very good news for both Yeovilton and the surrounding area, even if we will have to get used to different coloured uniforms around the place. Given that the AAC uses Salisbury plain predominantly for training purposes, will the role of Merryfield be changed in future and will the Minister let me know if that is to be the case?

The answer to the last question is yes, of course I will let my hon. Friend know, but Merryfield will continue as a satellite to Yeovilton. He is right to say that the colour, as it were, of many of those working in Yeovilton will change—it will become more khaki—and that means Salisbury plain training areas will be used rather more. I reassure my hon. Friend that that probably means that his constituents are unlikely to be disturbed by too much low flying, which I know is a concern from time to time to a number of us who have military aviation operating in our areas.

Royal Air Force (ISTAR)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the future Royal Air Force requirement for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance systems; and if he will make a statement. (900857)

Joint Forces Command is leading an air intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—optimisation study looking at all Defence requirements, not just the RAF’s, and capabilities in air-based ISTAR.

A system such as Sentinel R1 is surely absolutely crucial to the proportionate and precise use of armed force in the future, so can the Minister reassure me that he is working to ensure that the armed forces rise above their usual rivalry to enable these systems both to be taken forward and developed deeply in the interests of our country and our forces?

I have heard it suggested that occasionally down through the centuries there has been a tad of friendly rivalry among the different armed services, and as my hon. Friend is a former RAF officer, he may well be aware of that. We are well aware of the capabilities that are provided by the Sentinel platform. We value those capabilities and we are examining how we might be able to use them further in the future.

How were the important RAF intelligence and surveillance services operating from RAF Gibraltar affected by the serious incident when a Guardia Civil vessel connected with an escorted royal naval vessel during which the vessels’ guns were pointed at each other?

Last week’s actions by the Guardia Civil were completely unacceptable. They were both unlawful and irresponsible, placing themselves and others in unnecessary danger. I can tell the House that we have made a formal protest to the Spanish Government, and ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office will be raising this matter with their Spanish counterparts at the first opportunity.

Given that we are a maritime nation, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the next defence and security review a maritime patrol aircraft should receive high priority?

That will, indeed, be one of the issues we look at in some detail in the context of the next SDSR. As my right hon. Friend is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he will be well aware that there were serious problems with the previous programme, because it was way over budget and, unfortunately, technically did not ultimately work. Perhaps I may remind the House who was in government for most of the time that that programme was running; it was not us.

To reinforce the point made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the UK’s armed forces are unique among those in northern Europe in having not a single fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft. Given the time scale that the Minister has talked about for this review, what is the earliest date by which the UK may have maritime patrol aircraft?

As I have explained to the House, we will be looking at this in the context of the next strategic defence and security review. The hon. Gentleman asks me for early dates, so perhaps he can share with the House the earliest date by which the Scottish nationalists will tell us how they will afford the defence programme that they envisage. We are all dead keen to know.

May I support what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Defence Committee, as the loss of the maritime patrol aircraft capability is the most serious loss we face at the moment? May I urge the Minister not just to push this out to the SDSR of 2015 but to reassure the House that work is being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence today to find ways to remedy that serious capability loss?

As my hon. Friend—again, a former RAF officer—will be aware, we already work with allies in a number of ways to fill that gap, but I assure him that we will look at the issue seriously in the wider context of ISTAR and of the SDSR.

Employment (Service Leavers)

We attach great importance to assisting service leavers in making a successful transition from service life into civilian employment. A recent defence statistics study shows that about 85% of the service leavers in 2011-12 who have a known employment outcome are employed within six months of leaving the armed forces. But we are not complacent, and we continue to review whether there are areas we should improve. Indeed, Lord Ashcroft, the Prime Minister’s special representative on veterans’ transition, is leading a review of the provisions that are in place.

I am very glad to hear that. Service leavers undoubtedly have much to offer employers. Wiltshire has more than 15,000 military personnel and the number is rising. Will the Minister look favourably on Swindon and Wiltshire local enterprise partnership’s city deal bid, which will help service leavers to gain the qualifications they need and ensure that they are not disadvantaged compared with the civilian population in seeking work?

Absolutely, and I am more than happy to congratulate my hon. Friend and all others who champion such schemes. This is another reason why we attach so much importance to the corporate covenant, of which I wish to give one quick example. National Express has signed up to the corporate covenant—we urge many other companies, of whatever size, to do so —and will guarantee anyone leaving our armed forces an automatic interview for any job vacancy. That is a good example of why the corporate covenant is to be welcomed.

The Minister knows that these servicemen and women make very good teachers and very good professionals in almost any sector. What has happened to the scheme to get them into the classroom, and could we use them more in leading apprenticeship programmes?

I do not know of any problems in that regard. I am more than happy to make further inquiry and update the hon. Gentleman by way of a letter, but my understanding is that this goes from strength to strength.

Home Ownership

The Secretary of State for Defence recently announced that £200 million has been allocated for the creation of the forces Help to Buy scheme. Launching on 1 April 2014, it will significantly improve the support available to members of the armed forces who wish to buy their own home. Forces Help to Buy will offer the men and women of our armed forces a deposit loan of 50% of their annual salary, up to a maximum of £25,000. The loans will be interest-free and repaid over an affordable 10-year period. As well as that additional funding, there will be tailored advice on financial and housing matters. Of course, service personnel are also afforded high priority and additional flexibility under the Chancellor’s main Help to Buy equity share scheme.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. What reassurance can she give my armed forces constituents, particularly those in the Army Air Corps at Middle Wallop, that they will be able to combine this new scheme with the schemes already put forward by the Department for Communities and Local Government, in an example of joined-up government?

There should not be any difficult in doing that at all. I should add that I am always more than willing to come to see some of the excellent accommodation that I know exists already at Middle Wallop, and I look forward to doing so.

Armed forces personnel inevitably experience more difficulty accessing home ownership because they often have to move to different parts of the country because of different postings. Has my hon. Friend considered reducing the frequency of such movements to enable greater take-up of home ownership among the armed forces?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the new employment model that we are developing will deliver an offer to regular service personnel that supports domestic stability by reducing the frequency of moves and supports partners’ employment. We know that issues such as those two points often concern members of our armed forces and lead to a lot of dissatisfaction.

Often the problem is the availability of housing. Will the Minister update the House on what discussions have been had with local authorities in general and Birmingham city council in particular about the provision of extra housing?

I am not aware of any discussions. I do know, however, the great benefits that the community covenant has brought in and I have no doubt that Birmingham is fully signed up to it. If I need to, I am more than happy to make further inquiries and write to the hon. Lady.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role and thank her for her answer to my written question about low morale in the armed forces, in which she admitted that it has doubled over the past three years from 15% to 30%. She will be aware that the quality of and access to housing, along with pay and allowances, are key factors in forces’ morale and that of their families. Will she guarantee that it will not plummet further on her watch?

I wish I could guarantee that it will not plummet any further, but I strongly suspect that this has been a long-standing problem. I am pleased to say that the Government take it seriously, which is why we are doing the many things that we are doing precisely to address those issues.

18. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of service personnel who could benefit from the new forces Help to Buy scheme? (900870)

I cannot give my hon. Friend a figure, but as the scheme is worth £200 million we can be confident that it will be many thousands.

That is a remarkable self-denying ordinance. If the Minister wants to say something, we must not deny her the opportunity in her maiden performance in this portfolio.

Reservists

10. What recent assessment the Government have made of how many reservists need to be recruited as part of the Army Reserve plan to replace regular troops from the disbanded units. (900862)

I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, as I have already this afternoon, that we are not recruiting reservists simply to replace regular troops from disbanded units. We are changing the structure and functions within the Army, creating a whole force of regulars, reservists, civilians and contractors that will make the best use of our resources and harness the talents across the whole of UK society. As I have already said, the Army is finalising a set of recruiting targets that will at different points over the next four years deliver the numbers into training that we need to achieve the challenging goal of 30,000 trained reservists by 2018.

Given that the Secretary of State is constantly moving the goalposts and that we know that he will not recruit the number of reservists that he needs, why does he not reinstate the two battalions of the Royal Fusiliers? That will give him the manpower he needs, so why does he not retrain those people?

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets his information from, but as I said earlier we are five weeks into a five-year recruiting campaign, and I do not see anything about his track record that would lead me to give any particular credence to his prediction about how successful that campaign will be.

In supporting my right hon. Friend’s robust stance, may I urge him to look into the truly staggering level of delays and mistakes in the Army enlistment process? Will he urge the Army recruiting group to prove it is serious by at least getting Army recruiting offices open on evenings or at weekends?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and freely acknowledge that there have been teething problems with the IT support systems for the recruiting campaigns for the Regular Army and Army Reserve. I was in the Army recruiting centre myself last week with the Chief of the General Staff. This matter has the highest level of attention, both ministerial and military, and a number of initiatives will be implemented over the next few days and weeks that I expect to deliver a significant improvement in the areas that my hon. Friend highlights.

I suspect that we will experience regional variations in recruitment, with it being more difficult in some localities than in others. In answer to Question 1, the Secretary of State mentioned that he will produce certain data. Among those data, will there also be an indication of where there are difficulties and what extra efforts are being made at those locations?

The targets that we will publish will be national, but the hon. Gentleman is right that there will be different recruiting challenges in different parts of the country. The job for us is to ensure that the Army recruiting centre, the senior officers responsible for it and their recruitment partners, Capita, are agile enough to respond to the data coming in from the front line in the recruitment campaign and flex that campaign accordingly. The plan will not be implemented without change over five years; it will be highly responsive and we will monitor it regularly.

As the Secretary of State has confirmed again today that failure to achieve the reservist recruitment numbers is not an option, surely there is now no difficulty in his repeating the pledge given by his predecessor that the Regular Army will not be cut until those reservists are recruited.

Any such pledge would be an unfunded spending commitment. We must live within the envelope of resources that we have available, and we have to restructure the armed forces to deliver the configuration we need for Future Force 2020. That means drawing down some regular units and providing support from reserve units, civilians and contractors for some tasks that were previously done within the Regular Army.

Claro Barracks

11. With reference to the Army basing review, what recent discussions he has had on the closure of Claro barracks in Ripon; and if he will make a statement. (900863)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will be acutely aware of the close links between Ripon and the Army, particularly the Royal Engineers. A meeting was held on 4 October 2013 with officials from Harrogate borough council and Ripon city council to discuss the implications of the Army basing plan and the relocation of 21 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers. The Department will continue to maintain contact with stakeholders as plans mature. I understand that the next meeting will have taken place by the end of November.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Ripon is coming to terms with the loss of the base, but we are still waiting for the Ministry of Defence’s decision on whether it ultimately wants to get out of Deverell barracks or Claro barracks. May I urge him to push forward that decision now, so that plans can be made for the future and Ripon is best placed to deal with a difficult time?

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. The announcement that has been made relates to the removal from Ripon of 21 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers, as we consolidate around Catterick. The separate but adjacent site, Deverell barracks, and the associated training area have not been subject to that announcement. A decision on them will be made separately, but I understand that the two sites are very much linked.

Procurement

12. What account his Department takes of the social and economic effects of its procurement decisions in the UK. (900864)

Last year, we published the White Paper, “National Security Through Technology”, setting out the purpose of defence procurement—namely, to provide our armed forces with the best capabilities we can afford while obtaining the best possible value for money. The Ministry of Defence makes a significant contribution to the UK economy—approximately £20 billion of annual spend sustaining many highly skilled jobs in communities the length and breadth of Britain—but we also support the defence industry in the UK through active help in export campaigns and in supporting the defence growth partnership, where we share its vision to secure a thriving UK defence sector.

It is good that the NATO summit will be held in Newport in Wales next year. Will the Minister please update me on the procurement of the Scout vehicle, which is important for jobs in the south Wales valleys?

I add my support to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to ensure that the NATO summit in Newport is a great success next year. The Scout vehicle is proceeding in its demonstration phase and has passed a number of milestones. As he is aware, it is due to be delivered as part of Future Force 2020. I will not be able to give him an update on the next placing of contracts until such time as the main investment case has been made.

It will not surprise the Minister to learn that I entirely agree with his answer, but may I ask him, on the day when Professor John Perkins’ review of engineering skills has revealed a serious shortage of those skills in this country, what assessment he has made of the impact of that shortage on the defence industries in particular, and on the nation’s operational advantage and freedom of action?

I thank my hon. Friend for all his work in stimulating interest among our young people in taking up engineering careers, particularly so that they can take up the many hundreds of engineering jobs for which the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces seek to recruit every year. We are doing a lot of work, not least through the Bloodhound initiative—a project with which he was intimately involved—to raise awareness of engineering skills in the armed forces, and to encourage young people to consider maths, science and engineering as future careers.

Outsourcing

14. What contracts for recruitment of armed forces personnel have been outsourced to date; and what arrangements are in place to monitor such contracts. (900866)

The Ministry of Defence has not outsourced the recruitment of armed forces personnel, but the Army has entered into a recruiting partnership with Capita, and once the contract is fully operational, payment will be linked to the number of recruits required by the Army. I have already acknowledged that there have been teething problems with the IT support for the contract, but the issue has the attention of those at the highest levels in the Army and in the ministerial team.

We have heard a lot this afternoon about recruitment and how critical it is to the White Paper, and how difficult it will be to meet the target that has been set. Given the real difficulties with recruitment on the ground—I am referring to unanswered e-mails, lack of communication between departments and lost forms—will the Secretary of State hold an urgent investigation into the way that Capita plays its part in the joint venture, with particular reference to candidate support managers?

Yes; we are already doing this. The initiatives that I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) are designed to deal with specific problems with the way in which the website interacts with mobile devices, and the way that we deal with medical records and with inducting candidates through the interview process. We will reintroduce, on a pilot basis, the idea of a face-to-face weekend process that deals with all the procedures in one hit. If that is successful, we will make it the default option for 2014.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with large public and private sector employers to see how they can better support our reservists to improve the recruitment and, equally importantly, retention of our volunteers?

That is absolutely the key to the programme. In the public sector, central Government have made a generous offer of an additional 10 days’ paid leave to reservists in the central Government service, so that they can take those days for training. Many major private companies have already signed up to the corporate covenant, and more are considering doing so. There are excellent examples of companies working with us to reach out to their employees, and to make a joint proposition to them, so that employees join the reserves in a way that is supported by their employer, not done behind the employer’s back.

Cyber-attacks

15. What new capabilities the armed forces are investing in to ensure the UK can properly defend itself from cyber-attacks. (900867)

In September, my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary announced the creation of the joint forces cyber group and plans to develop a cyber counter-attack capability. That and other Ministry of Defence measures are part of the £650 million cross-Government investment in cyber that was announced in the strategic defence and security review in 2010.

Does the Minister agree that in addition to strengthening our cyber-defences, we need to deter attacks? What plans does he have to improve UK deterrence in the cyber-domain?

In addition to the more than £600 million to which I referred, a £210 million investment to further bolster our cyber-defences was announced by the Chancellor in a statement to Parliament on 26 June this year. That is a clear indication that cyber will play a role in a national deterrent posture. It is critically important to the country, and that is why we are investing in it.

It is reported that convicted hackers could be recruited to Britain’s cyber-defence force. What assurances can the Minister give that robust and sufficient measures will be in place to ensure that national security will not be compromised as a result?

I can tell the hon. Lady, and indeed the House, that cyber-reserves will be subject to the same stringent vetting process as other members of the Ministry of Defence. Regarding criminal convictions, all applicants seeking to join the regulars or reserves are looked at individually, and a decision is made based on the type of conviction and sentence imposed. No one will be employed as a cyber-reserve if there is evidence that they represent a security risk which means that they cannot pass the vetting process.

Trident Alternatives Study

I can tell my hon. Friend that the review demonstrated that no alternative system is as capable as a Trident-based deterrent, or as cost-effective. As to the utility, carrying out the review fulfilled a Government commitment but did not produce any unexpected conclusions.

Yes, well, it is good to know that the review came to such a predictable and predicted conclusion, but what does my right hon. Friend think of the fact that our coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have not adopted any of the options from the review but have decided instead to come off continuous at-sea deterrence and have only two Trident submarines? This was rejected as unworthy of consideration by the review, but now that even the Liberal Democrats want two submarines, should we take up the suggestion of the shadow armed forces Minister, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and try to sign a contract for them?

As my hon. Friend suggests, the reason a two-boat solution was not considered in the review is that it did not meet the hurdle test of providing a credible deterrent. I am actually rather more interested in the views of official Opposition Front Benchers on this matter than the views of our coalition partners. I welcome the fact—[Interruption.] Hang on a minute. I welcome the fact that the first visit in office by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was to Barrow-in-Furness, the home of Britain’s submarine fleet.

On the alternatives review, at Defence questions on 2 September the Secretary of State told my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who had asked about costs:

“If he submits a written question to me, I will ask the Department to produce the best estimate”.—[Official Report, 2 September 2013; Vol. 567, c. 5.]

I have now tabled a number of parliamentary questions, but the Government seem to be refusing to produce a figure. May I gently ask the Secretary of State when he will produce the answer to my questions?

I am rather glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that question. Let me tell him that the Cabinet Office has the lead on this matter because it was a Cabinet Office review. Any question that is phrased in general terms will be answered by the Cabinet Office; were a question to be phrased in very specific terms as to Ministry of Defence resources, then it would fall to me to answer it.

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 so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

As we move towards a weekend when we honour the fallen, and also, I hope, bear in mind those who currently serve and veterans of our armed services, does the Secretary of State wish to congratulate the 80% of councils that have now signed up to the community covenant? Will he also follow up the one in five local authorities that have not done so? Surely that is the least they owe to those who serve in our armed forces.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), reminds me that 372 local authorities have signed up, and that is well over 80%. We anticipate that there will be a surge of further authorities signing in the run-up to the act of remembrance on 11 November. However, once that milestone is out of the way, I will be more than happy to answer a question listing the authorities that have not signed up, should any Member feel minded to ask me such a question.

T2. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much money has so far been spent on preparations for the replacement of the Trident submarine system and, of course, the missile warheads that go with it, and what representations he has received within the higher echelons of the military not to go ahead with the replacement of Trident but to spend the money on something else? (900844)

As I have told the hon. Gentleman before, the figure is approximately £3 billion of commitments so far on design and early lead items. I am racking my brains, and I think I can say to him that since I have been in this post, which is just over two years, I have received no representation against the renewal of Trident from any senior officer in the armed forces.

T3. What progress has my right hon. Friend made with the renegotiation of the aircraft carrier contract? (900845)

Negotiations with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance are ongoing, but we believe they are close to reaching a conclusion. As soon as we have information to convey to the House, I will seek an early opportunity to make a statement.

T6. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 allows military families based in Scotland to request that an investigation into an operational death overseas be transferred to Scottish jurisdiction for a fatal accident inquiry. A written answer has revealed that, thus far, no families have made such a request. Could Ministers reassure the House that the information is being disseminated to families? (900848)

I am grateful for that question. I am aware of the difficulty and that is also my understanding of the issue. I will make further inquiries. Of course, one of the problems we know we will face is when we have bereaved families both north and south of the border and what will occur in such circumstances. I would be more than happy to discuss the issue further with the hon. Gentleman.

T4. Parliament sent a very clear message to the Government—the vote was 92 to nil—not to disband regular units until we were sure that the Army Reserve plan was both viable and cost-effective. What plans do the Government have to enact Parliament’s will? (900846)

As I have said in answer to an earlier question, it is just not possible, within the resource envelope available, to maintain the regular forces at their previous level while also recruiting and building the reserve. Neither would it allow us to restructure the force in the way necessary to deliver the outputs required from Future Force 2020.

Darlington is home to many forces families, probably because we are so close to Catterick garrison. What more are the Government going to do to support families moving between postings, particularly those who have children with additional needs?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has already indicated, we are looking at the range of accommodation we provide for service families. Under the new employment model, we also hope to be able to provide greater stability for armed forces personnel. We will still move them, in the interests of the service, but we hope, in many cases, to do so less frequently than we used to. I hope to visit Catterick garrison next week and perhaps this could be one of the things I look at while I am there.

T7. Cyber-defence is an important part of national security, as well as, obviously, economic regeneration. A number of nations are seeking to restructure the current form of internet governance. What action are Ministers taking to work with Cabinet colleagues to ensure a co-ordinated approach? (900849)

The Foreign Secretary recently mooted some proposals and we discuss the matter frequently, both with other Government Departments and with international allies. This matter is in the interest of all our security and we take it very seriously.

Small businesses in my constituency tell me that late payment threatens their survival and the jobs of their staff. Ministers can quote all the figures they like, but they have to accept that late payment by the MOD is a real problem for some small businesses.

If the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber and listening to my earlier response to the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), he will have heard that there was a single example of a penalty for late payment out of 4 million transactions last year. Where is the evidence to substantiate the allegation made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson)?

T8. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with European Ministers on preparations for the European Council on defence? (900850)

Discussions have been extensive, as my hon. Friend would expect. The December Council summit is very important and I am pleased to say that we have been leading like-minded partner nations in the debate to set the agenda, which will be very much about capability and complementarity with NATO. It will most certainly not be about laying down more concrete, which is a prerogative of sovereign states, or, indeed, instituting more command wiring diagrams, which has absolutely nothing to do with our collective security and defence, and everything to do with the misguided political nostrum of ever-closer union.

Seven Territorial Army centres in the north are set to close by 2016. How on earth will that assist the Government in recruiting up to 30,000 reservists before 2018?

As we announced in our reserves basing plan, a small number of TA centres will close and consolidate. We have made a commitment that we will provide reservists with the latest equipment and training opportunities with their Regular Army counterparts. We can do that only by consolidating so that there are units of critical mass. In most cases, the consolidations are taking place within urban conurbations. We expect there to be few cases of people who are not within reasonable travelling distance of the next nearest reserve base.

T9. Given that the MOD’s figures suggest that the present TA mobilisation rate is 40%, what research or evidence is there to justify the Secretary of State’s contention that that mobilisation will be doubled under the reserve forces plan? (900851)

I am not entirely sure that I understand my hon. Friend’s question. Under Future Force 2020, we would expect the reservist component of the deployed force on an enduring operation eventually to get to 40%. The construct that we are planning is designed to support that level. That level is still lower than what many of our English speaking allies routinely expect to use.

Given the 20% cut in the Army, what representative structures exist so that the understandable concerns of servicemen and women can be heard in Whitehall and the upper echelons of the armed forces?

Of course, we have something called the chain of command. We also have a number of other bodies such as the Army Families Federation, which represents service families very effectively in my experience. In the Ministry of Defence, we never lack advice, but we also do our best to provide solutions.

T10. The Meon Valley constituency is home to many who work in the defence sector for companies such as Northrop Grumman, Chemring, Cobham and many smaller defence-related businesses. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what efforts the Government are making to boost employment in this sector, which is so important to the prospects of many of my constituents? (900852)

The three companies to which my hon. Friend refers are important suppliers to the Ministry of Defence through both open competition and single-source capability. I encourage each of those companies to continue bidding for relevant MOD contracts when they are advertised through the portals that are well known to them. I have met representatives of each company at recent defence company exhibitions both in the UK at the Defence Security and Equipment International exhibition in September and overseas. Along with Ministers from other Departments, we actively support responsible defence exports by all quality British companies.

What is the MOD doing to improve its communication with local communities when bases, such as the one in Kirton in Lindsey, are being transferred out of MOD ownership?

We engage with all stakeholders. It is vital, as we restructure, that we take local authorities with us. Our record across the country has been very positive in that respect.

I agreed with much of the Minister’s reply about the European Defence Council meeting in December. However, when do the Government expect to announce the review of Britain’s membership of the European Defence Agency? Given that we have rightly criticised other European nations for a lack of defence effort, would it not be perverse to turn our back on one of the few practical ways of doing something about it?

The European Defence Agency has its merits. We have been perfectly up front about that. However, it also has its problems. This country has been helpful in guiding the EDA as it evolves and we are keeping the matter under review. Our experience is that that approach has been effective in procuring the change that is needed in the way the EDA operates and in the efficiency with which it operates. We will continue in that light.

The Minister’s earlier response to me was shockingly complacent and refused, notably, to deal with new contracts and the failure to roll out direct payments, as the Government said they would. Will he respond to my constituents who run small and medium-sized enterprises that supply the MOD? They said:

“The MOD remains as inefficient as ever…Their commercial support is lacking and things take for ever to finalise…The MOD is in a mess in some areas we deal with.”

I am sorry that I disappointed the hon. Gentleman, who had clearly got his facts wrong when he stood up the first time. This Ministry pays 92% of bills within five days, and we make arrangements specifically for small and medium-sized companies to make part payments to assist them with their cash flow. I would be happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me if he has any other specific evidence to substantiate his claim.

May I ask my right hon. Friend what percentage of the £1.8 billion allocated to bolster reserve forces has been spent already?

I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise answer because some of the money is committed to infrastructure, and some to equipment programmes that are in the process of being rolled out. Perhaps I can offer him a written answer that will provide some indication of where we are in this process.

In the recent dispute between Spain and Gibraltar, would it be appropriate to threaten the withdrawal of the British ambassador to Spain before somebody is injured?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, but that is, of course, a matter for the Foreign Secretary. As the Minister for the Armed Forces has already said, we utterly condemn the action taken by the Guardia Civil, which was distinctly unhelpful. Not only is it an invasion of sovereign territory, but it is also dangerous. The Guardia Civil cannot continue operating like that and expect that nobody will get hurt.

May I invite the Secretary of State to commit to operating both aircraft carriers? A single carrier can be operational for only two thirds of the year, whereas a second carrier would ensure that we have year-round capability and allow us to work up not only a carrier strike but expeditionary capability as well.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—nice try. As he knows, however, it will be decided in the 2015 strategic defence and security review whether or not to bring into operation the second carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

Given the recent increase in its centrifuge capability, and that there is no plausible use for the amount of uranium it has enriched to 20% and beyond, how close does my right hon. Friend feel that Iran is to developing a nuclear warhead that is ballistically deliverable to either Tel Aviv or Riyadh?

I do not want to speculate on how close Iran could be to developing any kind of warhead, but I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government support the process of engagement with the Iranian regime to test whether it is serious when it says that it wants to negotiate with the west.

Given previous failures, the Government are rightfully changing the framework for defence procurement, which generates a £22 billion turnover. Will the Minister confirm that under the new arrangements there will be more opportunities for small businesses to get their fair share of that expenditure?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s contribution in the Defence Reform Bill Committee. He has consistently championed the role of small businesses in defence procurement—something that the Government wish to take forward. Tomorrow, I will chair the SME forum at the Centre for Defence Enterprise in Harwell, and I will be picking up on those points.