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Topical Questions

Volume 572: debated on Monday 16 December 2013

My first priority remains the success of our operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are to complete the Ministry of Defence’s transformation programme; to build confidence within the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model; to make progress in growing the reserve forces; to reinforce the armed forces covenant; to maintain budgets in balance; and to reform the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained.

My Bridgend council recently added to its military covenant a recognition of the service of the nuclear test veterans and called for the development of a fund for those veterans and their descendants in times of need. The idea was put forward by Councillor David White, whose father died when he was four, as he had been at Christmas Island and was one of the nuclear test veterans. What steps will the Ministry of Defence take to give that additional support and recognition to nuclear test veterans?

This is a somewhat complicated subject, and certainly one of some controversy. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) recently secured a debate on the subject. At the moment, the Government have no intention of setting up such a fund. We believe that the existing provision is there. Again, I am more than happy to have a discussion with the hon. Lady to explain what I think is the very good case that the Government make on the matter.

T3. As we approach the end of combat operations in Afghanistan, support for armed forces veterans will become more important than ever. What action is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that veterans charities benefit from LIBOR fines funding? (901507)

We are very much aware that, as a result of withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a concern that a number of our charities might not get the sort of generous support we have seen from the public by way of financial donation. That is one of the reasons why the LIBOR funding is so important. I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that an extra £10 million will be available from 2015 each year for the next 25 years.

May I join the Defence Secretary in sending Christmas and new year wishes to members of our armed forces past and present and their families, whether abroad or in this country?

Once again the media are reporting concerns about a major defence issue based on a document obtained from the Ministry of Defence. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the planned privatisation of the Defence Support Group, which provides equipment repair and maintenance for our armed forces? Will he confirm that the US Government have raised significant concerns about intellectual property and that the sell-off is causing understandable nervousness in the Army?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, this Government do not comment on leaked documents. I can confirm, however, that the Defence Support Group is an important maintenance supplier to the British Army and that we are in discussions about the possibility of selling that entity, as has been made clear to him and to the Members of this House who have facilities in their constituencies. A decision will be taken in the first quarter of next year. We have had initial interest in this opportunity and we are well on top of the issues that have recently been identified in the press in relation to intellectual property and foreign IT.

Well, there we have it—again. We have seen this one before and we all know how it ends. Despite warnings from Labour Members, the Defence Secretary pressed ahead with his fundamentally flawed plans for a GoCo before being forced to abandon them last week when it became clear that they would not work. Rather than go through that again, why do not the Government delay putting the Defence Support Group out to tender to allow a proper analysis of the implications of selling it off and to help to ensure that we do not end up with another GoCo no-go debacle? This is about our national interest and security; does not the Defence Secretary agree that we need to get it right?

The Defence Support Group provides maintenance and repair to platforms used by the British Army. It is entirely analogous to the maintenance and support repair facilities provided to surface and sub-surface ships in the Navy and to all the air platforms in the Air Force, which are all provided by private contractors, many of whom were put under contract under the previous Government.

T4. I strongly welcome the improvements already made to the care of veterans, but do Ministers agree with the Prime Minister that more can be done in this area? Do they also agree that the Chavasse report written by Professor Tim Briggs, which has the support of the surgeon-general and others, points the way forward to even better care of veterans and reservists through better co-operation with the NHS and Defence Medical Services? (901510)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, because I know that Professor Tim Briggs is his constituent, and that is why he so ably puts forward this report, which of course has much merit. Professor Briggs has met the surgeon-general, and we look forward to the report bearing fruit in due course.

T2. Last time I asked the Secretary of State a question about the reserves, he said that he had a better track record than me as Secretary of State, although as I have never been Secretary of State I could not have a better track record in that regard. When and why did the Government’s policy change so that reductions to regular forces are no longer contingent on an uplift in reserves recruitment? (901506)

I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman or the Secretary of State, but frankly I have no recollection of that exchange, and I expect that my experience is widely shared in the House.

I may be suffering from early onset whatever, but I do not think that at any stage I have suffered from the delusion that the hon. Gentleman was ever Secretary of State for Defence. I have made it clear in answer to similar questions in the House that Defence is not funded to maintain a regular force at the scale of 94,000 through to beyond 2018. We are required for budgetary reasons to draw down the regular force as we build the reserve force, and that is what we are doing.

I welcome the update to Parliament on the United Kingdom’s future nuclear deterrent published today, which states:

“The Government policy remains to maintain a continuous at sea deterrent and proceed with the programme to build a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines.”

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government will in no way entertain any squalid deals with any other party if what is needed for continuous-at-sea deterrence is four submarines and if another party, conceivably the Liberal Democrats, tried to argue that three would do?

My hon. Friend may note that some people have even suggested that two submarines could provide some sort of deterrent, but the Government and the Prime Minister have made clear their commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence and to delivering the number of submarines required to provide proper at-sea deterrence, not some jumped-up, import alternative.

T5. My constituents who work for the Defence Support Group at Sealand in north Wales share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) about this possible sale. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) does not need to comment on leaked documents; could he just tell the House whether or not the American Government have made any representations to him about the dangers of such a sale? (901511)

What I can say is that the activities at Sealand cover ECBU—the electronic and components business unit—which we have indicated would not form part of the sale, so it is most unlikely to apply.

As we approach the next strategic defence and security review, may I invite the Secretary of State to consider leasing the V-22 Osprey—a multi-mission tilt-rotor aircraft—from the United States? Its unique design means that it moves faster and goes further than a Chinook and I hope the Secretary of State will agree that it provides enormous expeditionary capability, including the refuelling from the carrier of the joint-strike fighter.

My hon. Friend is right that the V-22 is an exceptional platform and incredibly impressive, but he will also know that operating an additional fleet of any kind imposes a huge burden on defence. Strangely enough, I am not approaching SDSR 15 on the basis of looking for additional commitments other than those that are already well known.

T6. Press reports suggest the Prime Minister is increasing support for armed forces children in schools, which is, of course, welcome, but today’s armed forces covenant report says that “the need for more comprehensive, affordable childcare…needs to be addressed.”What does the Department propose to do about that? (901512)

Our child-care proposals in any event are providing the sort of support that one would hope for. Again, I believe there is an understanding at the local level and that, as the covenant rolls out, people will understand that they are making a commitment when they sign it. I believe we will see progress on this.

Earlier this year, the Royal British Legion was unable to secure a road closure for Armed Forces day in the village of Bulkington in my constituency. However, the good news is that that will be achieved next year, following the adoption of the community covenant by authorities across Warwickshire. What can be done to ensure that common sense prevails in such situations in future?

There is the community covenant, but I would be more than happy to make a phone call if it might help in any way.

I am sure the Secretary of State is concerned, as are many people, about the new statistics on near air misses involving fast jets. The Ministry of Defence committed in 1998 to installing collision warning systems on Tornado aircraft, but it has not yet done so. Does the Secretary of State regret that? Will he also confirm that the Typhoon does not have a collision warning system installed? Are there plans to do so and when will that happen?

I am sure those four questions will be pithily replied to by the Secretary of State, who is dexterous in these matters.

First, a collision warning system on the Typhoon is currently under test and if that test is successful, we would expect to roll it out. The Typhoon is a platform with a very long life ahead of it. There is also now a plan to install collision warning equipment on Tornados. The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue in the House before in relation to the very regrettable Tornado accident in his constituency in July 2012, and I have, in consequence, looked at whether, if the original procurement had gone ahead, we would have expected that equipment to have been installed on Tornados by the time that accident occurred. The answer is that we would not have expected it to be installed by that stage.

My right hon. Friend has done some sterling work to make sure that we get much better value for money from the defence budget. What role does off-the-shelf procurement have to play in that and what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that it becomes more of a default approach?

We have been clear that there are some areas where we need to protect UK sovereign capabilities for reasons of strategic advantage or in order to protect strategically important industrial capabilities. In all other areas we will look to procure in the way that is most effective for delivering defence.

The Secretary of State will be pleased to know that I have looked at “The United Kingdom’s Future Nuclear Deterrent” report, which he has just placed before the House. Page 5 gives me great concern, however, because it seems to assert that the programme is on track and on budget, and then goes on to predict savings thereafter. Those two things seem to me possibly to be in conflict. Will he assure me that there is no commitment to spending money beyond this Parliament in 2016, in relation to making the main-gate decision, when the new Parliament will have the right to decide the future of the whole programme?

Yes. Some £3 billion has been earmarked for spending before the next election, and the expectation is that that will have been committed, but that is the total commitment that will have been made at that time. That includes money that will not be disbursed until some time during the next Parliament, but which will have been committed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rebasing of British troops from Germany represents a further opportunity to give a much-welcome boost to the UK economy?

Yes, I very much welcome the rebasing. It will indeed boost the economy in the country overall, and not least in my own constituency. It is likely that in training and efficiency measures, it will save about £240 million a year. That will be of great benefit to the country in pursuing the prosperity agenda, and it will of course give surety to our troops, which is vital going forward, so I very much welcome it. Our German friends and colleagues are of course being taken along with the programme: they understood that it was coming, and they are very much on side. We pay tribute to the presence of the British Army in Germany for all these years.

In written answers to parliamentary questions, the Government have said that they have had 10,000 applications for Arctic Star medals, of which 4,000 have now been processed. One of my constituents is the daughter of such a veteran who is seriously unwell. I am grateful to Ministers for expediting her application, but I ask them to do everything they can for other next of kin in a similar position to make sure that veterans get the recognition that they deserve?

Absolutely. As all my predecessors have said, if any hon. Member has any difficulty at all, they should write to me and we will make sure that we speed up the process. If hon. Members have any difficulty they should contact the Minister—at the moment, it happens to be me—and we will do everything we can to speed that up, because that is very important.

In respect of the defence estate, we are very keen to get on with building new housing on the surplus Ministry of Defence land at Craven Hill in Bicester, but there appears to be some confusion about where the new housing will go and where tank transporters will be stored. Will my right hon. Friend please intervene to make sure that that is sorted out as soon as possible? We want to ensure that he gets a financial receipt for his Department.

I have, indeed, already done so. I think that there has been a miscommunication and a misunderstanding by Cherwell district council. We are clear that our proposals for the possible continued use of part of the land for military purposes will not have any negative impact on the wider proposed housing development. We hope to be able to proceed with the sale imminently.

Now that the MOD has taken back responsibility for the disposal of RAF Kirton in Lindsey from the Homes and Communities Agency, will the appropriate Minister meet me and representatives of the town council to be assured that the MOD will not make the mistakes in that transfer that it has made in other parts of Lincolnshire?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his constituency issue. I hope that he is not criticising the level of disposals that we have undertaken. We must satisfy our target, which he will know is to have 37,624 living spaces by the end of this Parliament. That is on track, and it is a huge success.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. With the EU defence ministerial Council taking place this week, will my hon. Friend reassure the House and the country that, for the United Kingdom, NATO remains the cornerstone of this nation’s and, indeed, Europe’s defence? Will he resist any attempt by some of our pathetic European partners to try to rival NATO in the defence of Europe?

It is my guess that this will be the last question, so it gives me great pleasure to wish my hon. Friend a very happy Christmas and, I hope, a Eurosceptic new year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NATO remains the cornerstone of our collective defence, and I am certain that he will be satisfied with the outcome of the December Council meeting at the end of this week.