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Topical Questions

Volume 570: debated on Monday 4 November 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 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.