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Commons Chamber

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

House of Commons

Monday 3 February 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Russian Naval Ships

1. Whether the UK received advance notice of the recent deployment of Russian naval ships to the north of Scotland. (902313)

The Russian carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passed through the UK’s area of interest, en route to the Mediterranean, between 28 December 2013 and 10 January 2014. The carrier task group had openly declared its planned deployment on social media sites. Its progress was monitored from the point of its deployment from Russia, and it informed NATO before it commenced routine flying operations.

Once it became apparent that the task group was indeed likely to enter the UK’s area of interest, HMS Defender, as the fleet ready escort ship, was ordered to sail from Portsmouth to meet and escort the group through the UK’s area of interest. This was several days before the task group’s arrival to the north of Scotland. The Russian task group operated in international waters off the coast of Scotland and followed international protocols to arrange their flying exercises. Their contact with HMS Defender was highly professional and cordial throughout.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that the idea that we were caught unawares by this deployment is entirely false, as is any suggestion that there was some kind of stand-off between HMS Defender and the Russian vessels.

We are wholeheartedly relieved to hear that the episode passed off so peacefully and so cordially, and that the relations between the Kuznetsov and HMS Defender remain as strong as they are. Does the Secretary of State not agree in looking to the future—given that 48 ships have gone through the North sea shipping route to the far east this year, and that there is increasing fishing and increasing drilling for oil and minerals in the Arctic—that it is terribly important for our armed services to have first-class relations with those of Russia? I hope that this episode will be the beginning of such relations.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact is that we have very cordial relationships with the Russians and good working relationships with the Russian armed forces, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we cannot be confident that our strategic interests will always align with those of Russia. We should therefore engage and work together with them when we can, but, frankly, we should recognise that our strategic interests may differ at times.

The arrival of the Russian navy off the Scottish coast was the second time in two years that this has happened, yet the Royal Navy does not have a single frigate or destroyer based in Scotland for such eventualities. Last week, the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the fleet ready escort has been gapped for 37 days in recent years. Why has there been a gap to the fleet ready escort?

The hon. Gentleman is flogging a dead horse, frankly. We do not need a frigate stationed in Scottish waters; we need good intelligence about the intentions of vessels approaching the UK’s area of interest, and we have that good intelligence. He talks about the number of frigates and destroyers available. He might like to tell the House how many frigates and destroyers his Scottish navy would have available within its extremely limited budget.

The hon. Gentleman also talks about the gapping of the fleet ready escort, which has occurred for 37 days in the past five years. During that period, there was no specific vessel designated as the fleet ready escort, but that does not mean that there were no royal naval vessels available to respond in case of necessity. In addition to the fleet ready escort, royal naval vessels are usually available to be tasked, as necessary.

If it is safe to assume that these Russian warships were not planning to bombard Mr Salmond, may we assume that they were there to establish the unimpeded rights of Russia to exploit oil in the Arctic? If so, will we have reciprocal rights to look for oil in the Russian Arctic?

The clear stated intention, which was subsequently borne out by events, was that the Kuznetsov carrier task group would proceed from Russia to the eastern Mediterranean, where it currently is. In accordance with the pattern of its last deployment, it stopped in the relatively sheltered waters of the Moray firth to re-oil on its way to the eastern Mediterranean. This is all perfectly normal procedure, and it was notified to NATO in advance.

Does not the debate on this issue underline the importance of our combined—UK—Royal Navy, and also the potential in the strategic NATO alliance? Does the Secretary of State not agree that, in the words of another political figure, it would be “unpardonable folly” to put at risk that NATO alliance by disavowing the very strategic nuclear concept on which it is based?

The hon. Gentleman is right on all counts. NATO’s strategic nuclear concept of course provides protection for the whole of the United Kingdom. Our very close relationship with our NATO allies—in this case, specifically with Norway—ensures that we have good visibility and good intelligence about Russian vessels and, indeed, Russian aircraft approaching the UK’s area of interest.

I am sure that all Members are immensely grateful for the part played by social media in providing the United Kingdom with intelligence in advance of the Kuznetsov’s arrival in the UK’s area of interest. To put a serious point to my right hon. Friend, surely this incident underlines the need for this Government and this country to have a successor to the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, and shows that until we get such a successor aircraft, we will be at risk.

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend’s assertion that we need to look at how we provide maritime surveillance cover. That will be part of the strategic defence and security review in 2015. However, I am afraid that he cannot argue that this incident demonstrates that need. In fact, this incident shows that we are perfectly capable of maintaining an intelligence picture through imagery, signals intelligence and reports from our NATO allies of movements of Russian ships without having access to maritime patrol aircraft.

In the light of this incident, will the Secretary of State tell the House what he is going to do to plug the capability gap in maritime surveillance that has been created by his Government, apart from relying on Twitter?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not have time to amend his question following my last answer. We will review the provision of maritime patrol cover in the strategic defence and security review in 2015. We will look at the need for it and at how it could be provided, including the possibility that it could be provided through the use of unmanned aerial systems. It is a bit rich for him to say that the gap in maritime patrol cover was created by this Government. What this Government did was to recognise the reality that his Government had been investing in aircraft that would never fly, would never be certified and would never be able to deliver a capability.

First World War

2. What contribution the armed forces will make to commemorations of the start of the first world war. (902314)

16. What contribution the armed forces will make to commemorations of the start of the first world war. (902328)

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has the Government lead for the first world war centenary commemorations. The Ministry of Defence is working closely with it and other Government partners in full support of the commemorations. The armed forces will be present at key events on 4 August 2014, the anniversary of the outbreak of war, and throughout the centenary period.

What opportunity will there be for my constituents to visit the Colne Valley military cemetery in Ypres, which has the graves of 47 British soldiers, including some from the 49th West Riding Division, during the commemorations of the centenary of world war one?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is very keen that people should visit not just the big sites such as Tyne Cot, but the smaller, intimate sites of the sort to which my hon. Friend refers, which can be the most poignant. I hope that there will be such an opportunity as part of the Institute of Education’s battlefield tour programme, which his young constituents will be able to take part in. In particular, I hope that people will have an opportunity to visit sites that have local relevance.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the initiative of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to install quick response codes at memorials, including at Gillingham cemetery in my constituency, so that visitors can access information on and the stories of those who died for our country?

Of course I welcome that initiative. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is doing a fantastic job in the run-up to the centenary. I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are Commonwealth war graves commissioners. It is vital that people have the opportunity not only to pay their respects at such incredibly important sites, but to explore the causes, conduct and consequences of the great war during the four-year period. Initiatives of the sort that my hon. Friend has described are an important part of that.

Would the Minister mind my mentioning my grandmother’s brother, farm labourer James Marchant, who served in world war one in the Royal Sussex Regiment, a unit in which, sadly, 6,800 men lost their lives?

I think that many of us will go on a voyage of exploration as we explore our family histories during the four-year period. I know that my hon. Friend has long-standing Sussex ancestry. May I take this opportunity to congratulate his daughter, who I understand has just joined the Army Reserve?

I am sure that Ministers will join me in congratulating the shadow Secretary of State for Defence on winning the Opposition Front Bencher of the year award last week. On world war one, I want to make sure that Ministers recognise, not just this year but over the whole period, the contribution that women made to the efforts.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady, as she would expect. There will be opportunities throughout the four-year period to commemorate not just fighting soldiers, but the population at large and women in particular. It is important to note that this was the first total war that we experienced. It would therefore be bizarre if we did not commemorate the contribution of the whole population, rather than simply commemorating our troops, important though they were.

There are three memorials in my constituency alone, and we pay tribute to the many who died in the first world war in the most terrible circumstances. Does the Minister recognise that not only will there be a continuing debate about Britain’s involvement, rightly or wrongly, in that war—the sort of debate that does not take place about the second world war—but there will inevitably be renewed criticism of the way senior generals conducted it? Many believe, for example, that “Oh! What a Lovely War” was by no means a total exaggeration.

I certainly welcome debate and very much hope that this will be an opportunity to explore the causes, conduct and consequences of the war. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of funding that is available across the board. I commend the Heritage Lottery Fund, in particular, for being very even-handed in the way it has behaved. I understand his point of view well, although it is not one that I necessarily share completely. I point out the debate we had in this place on 7 November, which I think was one of the most consensual we have had during my time here. I see the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) nodding in agreement. He and I have had considerable discussions on the matter and I am very pleased that this is consensual and not party political.

What discussions, if any, have there been with the Governments of Commonwealth countries and the Irish Government on commemorating the first world war?

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that 10 days ago I lectured at University College Cork on our relationship in that respect, and I was extremely well received, for which I am grateful. The Government have made it clear that it needs to be a Commonwealth-facing series of anniversaries. It would be extraordinary, given the history, if it was not.

Burmese Army

3. What support his Department has offered to the Burmese army; and what his Department’s objectives are for such work. (902315)

Our support to the Burmese military is limited to providing courses that address subjects such as accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. We have neither provided any training that would enhance combat capability, nor do we plan to do so. The Burmese military are a central political actor in Burma and are key to the process of political reform. It will only be through engagement with all actors, including the military, that we will see greater democracy in Burma, something I am sure the whole House would welcome.

I thank the Minister for that clarification and for the tone of his response, but civil society organisations in Burma have expressed concern that, given the human rights situation there, our involvement could be rather premature. What conditions were imposed on the Burmese army in return for UK assistance, and how will the Ministry of Defence monitor the Burmese army’s compliance with international law in future, particularly on the use of child soldiers and impunity for human rights abuses?

There are two points to make. First, the trainees who undertook the course were selected by the Burmese army. We are not aware of any involvement in human rights abuses by any of those course participants. Secondly, the House should be aware that in a speech at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst last October, which was broadcast on Burmese television and covered by the international media, Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged the UK to engage with the Burmese military and appealed directly to the Burmese army, saying that she wanted it to be a professional military of the highest standard and noting that the most respected armies in the world were apolitical.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only by engaging with the Burmese army that we can have any hope of positively influencing human rights issues and democratic accountability and that, on balance—it is a balance—that outweighs the risk of coming into contact with individuals who might have been involved in abuses in the past?

I understand my hon. Friend’s question, and I am mindful of his previous military service. The whole House will understand that Burma has a complicated history and that this is a difficult situation, but given that, and given the fact that the Burmese military have an important role in the Burmese political system, if we are to encourage reform, which we would all like to see, it is right that we engage with the military, although we maintain a strong commitment to human rights in everything we do in that context.

I visited Burma last year as a member of the International Development Committee, and some of us met General Aung Min, who is leading the peace process. I believe it is extremely important that our military develop relationships with their military and pass on some of the lessons we learnt from the Northern Ireland peace process. I strongly encourage the Government to ensure that that happens.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am mindful that he represents a constituency with a significant military component. The previous Chief of the Defence Staff has visited Burma and engaged with the Burmese military at senior level, and as I said, we are undertaking our course of action partly on the advice of Aung San Suu Kyi herself.

Prompt Payments

We are encouraging our suppliers to accept payment through our new electronic bill paying system, and I am proud to confirm to my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Defence paid 92% of correctly submitted invoices within five working days in the last financial year. We have identified that the majority of the less than 1% of late payments made by the MOD were a result of incorrectly submitted invoices, such as those submitted on order rather than after product delivery. All correctly submitted invoices were paid within 30 days in 2012-13.

Prompt payments are particularly crucial for small businesses that can face severe cash-flow problems without them. Will the Minister assure the House that he is doing all he can to ensure that small businesses are paid on time?

This Department, under this Government, is well aware of the benefits of prompt payment and the importance of cash flow to SMEs. That is why not only are we paying our suppliers on time, we are also encouraging them to pay their subcontractors within 30 days of receipt of a valid invoice.

When this issue was raised in November I inadvertently misled the House and I would like to put the record straight. I informed the House that the Ministry of Defence had incurred a single late-payment penalty on only one invoice out of some 4 million. It has now come to my attention that in fact we paid almost 5 million invoices last year—a penalty payment rate of 0.00002%.

It would be churlish of Labour Members not to acknowledge the good work that MOD officials in particular have been doing, not least because they are protecting a supply chain that often produces extremely specialist products. What discussions is the Minister having with small and medium-sized businesses that may be affected by the reported 20% efficiency savings sought in the support contracts about the way that prime contractors may pass that 20% down the line to protect their own losses? Getting paid on time is one thing, but losing one’s business is another.

I am glad the hon. Lady asked me to comment on that. We are engaged across the supply chain in seeking to extract maximum efficiencies for the taxpayer from MOD procurement. I am engaged in SME conferences with the defence industry right across the country. Indeed, I intend to come to Plymouth in the not-too-distant future, and the hon. Lady may like to join me.

Defence Estate (Wales)

Wales is at the very heart of our defence effort and will continue to be so. HQ Wales infantry brigade in Brecon will convert to an adaptable force brigade HQ in situ, and redevelopment work will take place at St Athan. In addition, military training will continue at Sennybridge.

I thank the Minister for that reply and I agree that facilities in Wales are essential for the training of our armed forces. The regimental museum based in Brecon, which is so important to veterans, has been assisted thanks to fundraising by a charity led by Mrs Dorcas Cresswell and Mrs Elaine Stephens. Will the Minister meet that charity to see whether ownership of the museum could be transferred to it so that it can better attract funds?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is supporting that because museums large and small are extraordinarily important. As he will know, the Ministry of Defence supports the National Army Museum at one end of the scale, but he is right to say that regimental museums at the other end are also vital. I hope that the good work he has described will continue. Out of interest, I would—of course—be more than happy to meet that charity, but as he will understand, I must be cautious about providing monetary support, which is probably better sourced elsewhere.

Some 9% of those in our armed forces come from Wales, yet the population of Wales is only 5% of the UK population. We therefore take a strong interest in the future of our armed forces. The Minister said there will be redevelopment at St Athan. I presume that does not mean that there will be a defence training academy, but what exactly is he going to redevelop there?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Wales has provided a disproportionate part of our Army, and I pay tribute to it for that. As he will know, St Athan is of great interest to the Welsh Government, who want to develop an aerospace business park there. The MOD is working closely to reconcile our continuing MOD defence needs for that site with the need to advance the prosperity agenda and the Welsh Government’s requirement to ensure that jobs are sustained and supported there in the long term.

In my view, possibly the best infantry training area in the United Kingdom is Sennybridge. Is there any possibility of infantry battalions being positioned around Sennybridge, where they would have ease of access for training, perhaps in Crickhowell?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Sennybridge is a first-rate training area—I have had casual experience of it myself. I am more than happy to consider and discuss his precise proposition, but we have no plans to do that at the moment.

Armed Forces Widows’ Pensions

6. What recent progress his Department has made on its study of the surrender of armed forces widows’ pensions. (902318)

Under the 2005 pension scheme, widows and widowers retained their benefit for life. The older schemes are of course subject to Treasury rules, which is no doubt one of the reasons why the previous Government did not amend them. If we were to make changes for our service personnel, we would have to do so for all public service pensions, and it has been estimated that that would cost about £3 billion. I know that this has disappointed many, but I can see no prospect of the rules changing.

I thank the Minister for that response, but there is real confusion among widows, with many unclear about which scheme they are under. What steps are the Government taking to provide widows with the information they need to make informed decisions on their future?

There are all manner of helplines and organisations available to any widow and widower who is in any way confused about what scheme he or she may be under. I urge the hon. Lady and other hon. Members who have constituents with such complaints to come my way, but an extensive system is available through the various charities and the armed forces to ensure that everybody is fully informed.

Lord Astor recently revealed that it would cost in the region of £250,000 a year to put this matter right, and that the Ministry of Defence spends about £50,000 a year enforcing the current rules. I appreciate that there are concerns about the impact on other pension schemes, but there is support and agreement across the House for special provisions to be put in place, where necessary, for the armed forces community. The Minister will appreciate the difficulties for armed forces spouses in building up their own pension pots, so may I urge her to look again at this matter?

I can assure the hon. Lady that this is a matter I am always considering, because I know of the representations from the Forces Pension Society and the War Widow Association of Great Britain. The difficulty is that this is not within our gift; it is a matter for the Treasury. The very important point to make is that if this is done for the armed forces, others will come forward. Presumably, that is why the previous Government did not do it. One could imagine that the widows and widowers of police officers and fire officers would make just the same sort of case.

Senior Military Posts (Women)

The most tangible evidence of the progress that women have made in getting to the most senior ranks of the armed forces is the appointment in 2013 of Air Vice-Marshal Elaine West and Air Vice-Marshal Sue Gray as the first female two-star officers in the RAF. Air Vice-Marshal West is a project manager in the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and Air Vice-Marshal Gray will be responsible for the procurement of future combat equipment, including fighter aircraft. I am sure the whole House will wish to offer both of them congratulations and the best of luck in their new appointments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell the House what specific steps the armed forces are taking to improve the proportion of women serving in senior roles in the military?

The proportion of women in senior military posts is increasing. For instance, I believe that we now have about 30 female colonels serving in the British Army, but the increase is still not as fast as we would wish. Therefore, although we are now seeing the best and brightest of our people recognised and promoted irrespective of gender, we are working to address the under-representation of certain demographic groups, including women. To cite an example that illustrates our commitment, I am delighted that the Ministry of Defence will be hosting an event on 12 March, in conjunction with other Government Departments, to celebrate and support international women’s day.

I welcome the news that women are increasingly moving up into senior ranks in the armed forces, but despite that, women in senior military posts are still experiencing bullying and sexual harassment. When will we have an independent ombudsman service that can enforce zero tolerance of such behaviour throughout the armed forces?

I wish to make it perfectly plain to the hon. Lady and the House that we in the MOD and the armed forces do not tolerate such behaviour, and any allegations are thoroughly investigated. I want to be absolutely clear about that. She is well aware of our discussions with the Service Complaints Commissioner, as she and I have discussed the matter on several occasions. We have been talking to Dr Atkins about how we can modify her role in the future, and those discussions are progressing quite well. We have not sorted out all the remaining issues, but we hope to be in a position to make an announcement reasonably soon.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s news today. May the message go out from this House that bullying and harassment will not be tolerated, whether in the military, in politics, or in civilian or any other walk of life?

I find it difficult to improve on what my hon. Friend has just said so I will simply say: I agree.

Mr Speaker, you know I never like to be a curmudgeon, but can we not do better than this? When will we have female admirals and generals and other high-ranking female officers? There are not enough, and it has been too long; let us get a move on, or we will never attract high-flying women into the services.

On the specific naval point, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Commander Sarah West is now the commanding officer of the Type 23 frigate HMS Portland and Commander Catherine Jordan is the commanding officer of the Type 23 frigate HMS St Albans. We have female officers in command of Royal Navy warships, protecting our waters around the coast and serving further in great waters. We are proud of them. I do not want to be curmudgeonly either, but an air vice-marshal is the equivalent of an admiral.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) asked about a military ombudsman, and my right hon. Friend talked about making a decision soon, but the excellent Dr Susan Atkins’ term of office is expiring soon. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last month told us that he was taking a personal interest in whether we moved to a military ombudsman. May we know the time scale for this decision as soon as possible?

My right hon. Friend is a former Defence Minister and knows that phrases such as “relatively soon” are by definition not precise; nevertheless discussions with Dr Atkins have been proceeding well. I do not want to misinform the House and give the impression that every issue has been settled—it has not—but we have made genuinely good progress with Dr Atkins. I feel, therefore, that we are not that far from making an announcement, but I cannot give a firm timing until all those issues have been resolved.


Armed forces recruiting remains a top priority within the MOD, and a new multi-media recruitment campaign was launched on 11 January. As I have previously announced to the House, there has been a series of issues affecting the management of the recruitment process, including IT problems. Action is in hand to address these issues. The recruiting element of the Army website was updated in December, a simplified online medical questionnaire was launched last week, and a new simplified mobile and tablet-compatible application form will be launched later this week. Although it is early days, there is evidence that the principal objective of the national media campaign—to raise awareness of armed forces recruiting—is being achieved, with visits to the Army recruiting website up by over 50% compared with last year’s weekly average.

I thank the Secretary of State for that candid answer. Will he confirm that he has no idea how many applications to join the reserves have been lost as a result of the IT fiasco over which this Government have presided, and will he explain how he plans to make potential reservists aware that their applications might not have been processed?

I think I have dealt with this on a previous occasion. We are aware from anecdotal evidence that some applications have been lost in the system—

By definition, we cannot answer that question. Every effort has been made by the application of additional manpower to the system, going back manually checking records, to make contact with anybody who may have got lost in the system during the past year, and I welcome the opportunity to place it on record that we would welcome being contacted, as my office has been, by anybody who is so affected who wants to pick up the threads and re-embark on the process. We will make sure that that happens.

With the fiasco of the failed recruitment system costing, I think, £6.7 million and the failure to recruit reservists to plug the gap from redundancies, will the Secretary of State now admit that he is gambling with the nation’s safety?

No, and I would not gamble with the nation’s safety. The £6.7 million has to be seen in the context of the overall budget for the reserves and regular recruitment process, which is £1.36 billion. As the hon. Gentleman will know, because I have said it many times before, the project to increase the size of the reserves is not to backfill for the regulars as the Regular Army is reduced in size to 82,000; it is part of a broader restructuring of our forces, making different use of regulars and reserves, additional use of contractors and more effective use of civilians.

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the size of the armed forces is important in relation to not only initial deployment but the resilience that will allow that deployment to be sustained over a period. In the light of the speech he made at Munich, which has been extensively reported, what assessment has the Ministry of Defence made of the time that the United Kingdom could sustain, for example, a brigade or a division?

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the SDSR 2010 sets out a clear level of ambition. We have defined what we will be able to deploy on a sustained basis, and over time the increase in the size of the reserves will be essential to provide that resilience on a sustained operation. The point that I was making at Munich, which I have made before in the House, is—I think most Members would agree—that the mood of the public after 10 years of engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan is unlikely to be supportive of a sustained deployment at scale in the near future.

Although I welcome the progress at Recruiting Group since General Tickell took over there, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the two areas of reserve recruiting that do not come under its processes—the recruiting for the officer preparatory course and transfers from the Regular Army to reserves—are both running at healthy levels?

My hon. Friend is right. As he knows, one of the things that I am trying to do is see what lessons we can draw from the relative success in those two areas and apply them to the broader reserves recruitment agenda.

22. My local artillery Territorial Army unit in Abertillery plans a recruitment surge shortly. Given the self-inflicted problems for Army recruitment over the past year, will the Minister publish figures on how many applicants there are from Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively? (902335)

I do not believe that we maintain those data on the basis of the component nations of the United Kingdom, and the data that are published are a matter for the defence statistician, who is answerable to the national statistician.

The challenge of meeting the reserves target is well rehearsed, but recruiting to the Regular Army is also in difficulty. Will the Secretary of State give his assessment of this and will he explain the role of regular regiments in assisting with their own recruiting? What continuing role will they have?

I think this point applies equally to the regulars and reserves. There are things that can be done nationally. Support for the process of managing recruitment nationally is certainly a key part of our plans for the future, but that does not mean that individual units will not have a critical role to play in the attraction function—bringing in people in the first place and getting them to commit to joining the armed forces—and we will give an appropriate focus to that activity.

23. Will the Secretary of State tell us how often he personally reviews the recruitment figures and, more importantly, whether there will be independent scrutiny of them by, for example, the Defence Select Committee or the Intelligence and Security Committee? (902336)

I have given a commitment to publish them, so I have no doubt that, whether I say so or not, they will be subject to external scrutiny. However, just to reassure the hon. Gentleman, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who has responsibility for defence personnel, veterans and welfare, is holding weekly meetings with the senior military personnel responsible. I am holding formal monthly meetings—in fact, regular meetings over and above that—to monitor what is going on. We are absolutely clear that this is our most immediate priority for action in the Department at the moment.

European Defence Agency

I can confirm that the UK has successfully blocked any increase in the EDA’s budget for the fourth consecutive year. Hon. and right hon. Members would agree, I think, that it would be perverse to squeeze defence budgets at home while acquiescing to increases in Brussels. As a result of the UK’s action, the agency has been forced to prioritise its work plan to focus on delivery of key European capability shortfalls. We note that some progress has been made, but there is much scope for further improvement, notably from efficiencies from the current internal reorganisation process.

I thank the Minister for his excellent reply. Will he tell the House by what percentage the European Defence Agency’s budget would have increased over the past four or five years had it not been for the UK Government’s determination to keep its costs down?

I cannot give my hon. Friend the precise figure he seeks, although it has been flat cash, so he can probably do the maths himself. What is more important is to compare the European Defence Agency’s operational budget with its functional budget. I am afraid it is not a particularly pretty picture, because in 2010 the operational budget was €8.4 million and in 2014 it €6.4 million, while the figures for the functional budget are €22.1 million and €24.1 million. My hon. Friend will therefore understand why we feel strongly that there is scope for further reform at the European Defence Agency.

Following the meeting on the common security and defence policy on 19 and 20 December, the European Council called for the development of an EU cyber-defence policy framework in 2014. Will the Minister tell us what that will mean for us, in terms of our involvement and responsibilities, and explain how it will interplay with the work on cyber-security currently being undertaken by NATO?

The first thing to say is that we should resist absolutely any duplicity—[Interruption]—any duplication between NATO and the European Defence Agency. It goes without saying that we should avoid duplicity at all times. The important point to note is that cyber-security is a sovereign capability and is therefore not something that we believe should be subcontracted to supranational organisations. Of course we have to discuss doctrine and dogma and how we interact with this evolving modality, but cyber-security remains a sovereign capability as far as we are concerned.

Veterans (Mental Health)

13. What recent discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on the mental health of armed forces veterans. (902325)

This obviously remains a huge priority for me and other Ministers. One of my first actions after I was appointed was to go to the King’s Centre for military medicine and meet Professor Sir Simon Wessely and his team, which was one of the most enlightening and indeed informative visits that I have made. He discussed with me the state of health of our veterans, and in particular their mental health, which is actually as good as, if not better than, that of those in civilian life. However, when our veterans have mental health difficulties, they must remain a priority for treatment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. My constituent Anthony Gibbs, who came to see me in my surgery, is a very brave young man who served in Northern Ireland and a number of other places. His service led in subsequent life to severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and he still has very severe mental health problems. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), wrote a report—which the Prime Minister told me last year was being fully implemented—on this issue, but it is quite apparent that things are still going wrong. I hope my hon. Friend will agree to a meeting with me and, if he will come, Mr Gibbs, so that she can have further conversations with her colleagues in the Department of Health and we can start to get this right for the brave young men and women of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend has written me a letter, which I have before me. All those proposals have been implemented, but we are conscious that GPs, for example, do not always refer people for the treatment that they need. We have discussed the issue at length with the Department of Health. I am not saying that this cannot be done, but it will be difficult, because we cannot tell GPs to make the referrals. I should be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.

Nuclear Weapons Tests (Veterans)

It is important for me to make clear that the Government continue to recognise, and be grateful to, all the servicemen who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. Like all veterans, they are entitled to a comprehensive range of support from the veterans welfare service at the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, which can also put them in contact with other organisations that can help with specific issues.

I am sure the Minister is aware that, according to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, nearly half the descendants of those veterans have experienced some kind of congenital problem such as illness or disability, while the veterans themselves are particularly susceptible to cancer and other diseases. Will she consider establishing a benevolent fund to support those who are still suffering the after-effects of nuclear tests?

We had a lengthy debate in, I think, Westminster Hall on this very issue. I am aware of the argument that is being advanced by the survivors, but there is no evidence to support their claims, and I do not think that it would be right to set up a £25 million benevolent fund when no proper basis for it has been provided. I am always available to listen to arguments, but so far I have heard no good argument to support that case.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the nuclear veterans data are shared with other parts of the national health service, so that it can deal with some of the issues that may arise?

I cannot see any difficulty with that. As long as people have given permission for their data to be shared, it seems to me to be eminently sensible.

Topical Questions

My first priority remains the success of our operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are the Ministry of Defence’s transformation programme, which is due to be completed in March 2014; building confidence in the armed forces in the Future Force 2020 model; developing the reserve forces; reinforcing the armed forces covenant; maintaining budgets in balance; and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and properly trained.

Last week I was pleased to hand Lance Sergeant Tom Reah of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards the keys to his new house, which had been purchased with help from the long service advance of pay scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that schemes of that type are very important when homelessness is rife, and that we should do all that we can to increase their take-up and efficacy?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have taken a number of steps to increase home ownership among members of the armed forces. Most recently, we announced that those who are made redundant in tranche 4 of the Army redundancies will be able to draw up to 90% of their redundancy packages before redundancy so that they can, if they wish, complete a home purchase before leaving the forces and forces accommodation.

I had to look twice at today’s date. Reading The Guardian this morning, I thought that it must be April the 1st. Apparently the Defence Secretary is the champion of the shipyards and the workers, the insider on shadow Cabinet discussions, and the man in the know on Labour party policy.

Labour’s position is in favour of the minimum credible independent continuous-at-sea deterrent, and I have told the Defence Secretary that directly and recently. Will he now tell the House why he is playing party politics with an issue of such national importance?

I do regard this as an issue of national importance and I hugely welcome the position of the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues, but we should not be naive about this: he knows and I know that there are those who do not support this position and that there are those who are seeking to undermine the consensus that we have formed in the national interest. I hope he will agree with me that it is important that all of us who believe this consensus is in the national interest do what we can when we can to ensure that those who are seeking to destabilise it do not succeed.

Having been to Barrow after a few days in post to see the successor programme and having met Keep our Future Afloat and the trade unions regularly since then, my and our position is clear. Perhaps the Secretary of State is a little confused. Are these whispers he says he has heard about the Opposition in fact about those he serves alongside in government, namely the Liberal Democrats? Is it not his coalition partners, not Labour, where the opposition comes from when it comes to retaining a nuclear deterrent?

In terms of official party policy the hon. Gentleman is of course right and I do not know why he is trying to make a spat out of this: we agree on this issue. He knows very well, however, who within his party is seeking to reopen this issue. He knows what is going on behind the scenes and I absolutely support his determination to hold the line in the Labour party. I wish him every success in doing so.

T2. I understand that there will be an exchange of contracts between the Ministry of Defence and Cherwell district council for the sale of MOD surplus land at Craven Hill early in March. That is good news because this is the largest Government surplus brownfield site—it is a one-off and in due course will enable the building of up to 1,900 homes. May I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to come to Bicester later in the year, once completion of the contracts has happened, to turn the first sod on this important construction site? (902354)

We do expect exchange of contracts between the MOD and Cherwell district council in the time scale my right hon. Friend outlines, but there are a number of outstanding issues that will need to be resolved first, including identification of alternative access into the St David barracks area, and we encourage Cherwell district council to be forward-leaning on finalising this point. May I also say to my right hon. Friend that invitations to turn sods are always welcome?

T4. Nobody likes long conflicts but given the Secretary of State’s speech at Munich at the weekend, does this now mean public opinion trumps strategic interests in defence policy? (902356)

No, it does not. The subject of the discussion the right hon. Gentleman refers to was the conundrum involving the need for quick wins to satisfy public opinion in countries contributing to stabilisation operations and the very deep-rooted problems that need to be addressed, but that often are not susceptible to rapid solution. It was a serious debate with a panel of experts who are deeply versed in this subject and I was attempting to make a serious contribution.

T3. With one of my local engineering businesses having been awarded the design contract for the Type 26 global combat ship, please can my right hon. Friend update me on the progress of this project? (902355)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to confirm that the current contest for the design for the Type 26 has been won by BAE Systems but it is in its assessment phase and all contracts that have been placed thus far are to enable BAE Systems as prime contractor to refine its pricing so that when the entire design is mature we will be able to place a main-gate contract, which we hope to be able to do by the end of this year.

T9. Will the Minister update the House on what progress the Department is making in incorporating UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security into the training and education of our armed forces? (902362)

We take all UN Security Council resolutions seriously, including that one. I have already explained to the House how we are attempting to promote more women into senior roles within the British armed forces. Clearly providing appropriate training and mentoring from people in order to do that is a very important part of achieving greater progression.

T5. Employees of Defence Equipment and Support who are resident in the Chippenham constituency are watching closely to see what the latest reforms of that organisation will mean for them. Will the Minister give them his assurance that those organisational changes will not put their jobs at risk? (902357)

Our proposal to stand up the DE&S as a bespoke trading entity with effect from 1 April are proceeding apace, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there are currently some 800 vacancies among the 9,500 posts in DE&S involved in defence acquisition, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the Defence Select Committee the other day. The prospects for skilled employees in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and adjacent constituencies are therefore extremely good.

Does the Secretary of State welcome the terms of the agreement reached in Brussels last month on greater European defence co-operation, including completing the single market in the sale of military equipment? What does he think would happen to jobs in our defence manufacturing industries if Britain were to sleepwalk out of the European Union—a proposition that he has agreed with in the past?

As in other areas, we strongly support the completion of the single market. However, we do not support some of the other proposals that would have interfered with our sovereign capabilities relating to the defence industry.

T6. I welcome the announcements made at the UK-France summit on Friday about further co-operation between our two countries. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the combined joint expeditionary force remains on track to be fully operational by 2016? (902358)

Yes, I can give that assurance, but the date is 2016. The level of ambition that we declared in 2012 was for an early-entry combined force capable of a time-limited but complex intervention operation in the face of multiple threats up to the highest intensity, and I can confirm to the House that we are on track to achieve that by 2016.

Further to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), why cannot the Ministry of Defence assemble data on where in the UK recruits are coming from, be they from England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland? We face a real challenge because of the break in the link between local communities and recruitment, particularly into Army regiments.

I did not say that we could not provide such data; I simply said that I did not believe we did so. I am happy to go and have a look at what would be involved, but I would not want there to be any suggestion other than that the UK is stronger when recruiting its military forces across the whole of the United Kingdom, organising them across the whole of the United Kingdom for the benefit of the United Kingdom, and financing them across the whole of the United Kingdom.

T7. I have had the pleasure and honour of seeing the construction of our new aircraft carriers as a result of the investment being made in the Royal Navy for Britain. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the new aircraft carriers will have an airborne early-warning system when they begin operational duties? (902360)

I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that we have been able to advance the Crowsnest airborne early-warning capability project as a result of prudent management of the MOD’s equipment programme, so that we will have the full operating capability available when the aircraft carriers go into service.

May I refer the Secretary of State back to his Munich speech? He has used the term “time-limited”. Will he tell us what he means by that? He must be aware of the military maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let me tell him what I had in mind. The French have recently conducted a limited operation in Mali; it was limited in time and in scope, and they have been able to carry public opinion with them on that. We are going to have to recognise, in the face of sceptical public opinion about engagement, that some of the engagements we might wish to propose will need to be quite specifically limited in time and scale in order to gain public assent.

Assuming that Ministers feel that their job is to protect not only the sacrifices made by the present generation of armed forces personnel but that of previous generations, will they take the opportunity of the debates in the coming months to argue that the sacrifices made by the millions of people who served in the first world war was not part of some European power play, and that it served to defeat militarism and stand up for the freedom of smaller countries?

I refer my hon. Friend to the debate we had here on 7 November, in which the Government and the Opposition made it clear that there was complete consensus on this matter. It has also subsequently become clear that the majority of people believe that this country went to war in 1914 for good reasons, given the situation that we faced at the time. I am afraid that none of us has a crystal ball, and no one can ever tell how events will unfold, but I believe that our predecessors did the right thing at that time.

Do the reasons why the public feel war weary and disillusioned include the fact that this House decided to put the lives of our brave soldiers at risk to protect us from non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and from a non-existent Taliban threat to bring terrorism to Britain?

In respect of the first part of the question, the hon. Gentleman may have to take that up with those who were in Government at the time. On the Taliban threat, I am clear that the Taliban, while not posing a direct threat to UK security, created the conditions that allowed an al-Qaeda threat to our national security to be established in that country.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is in Britain’s defence interest to collaborate militarily with other European countries? In that respect, will he welcome the joint exercise recently undertaken by French paratroopers and 16 Air Assault Brigade?

Yes, on two levels. Clearly, we have an important and developing bilateral operational military relationship with France, which we intend to build on still further in the future. We absolutely recognise the need for collaboration between European countries in defence capability. What we do not want to see is the duplication—or duplicity—of capability that already exists in NATO in the European Union, chewing up resources that we really cannot afford to waste on additional structures.

While the Government are making cuts to the armed forces, how can they justify spending £66 million on consultants? Is it true that much of that £66 million was spent on the Secretary of State’s failed GoCo procurement? Will he be asking for the money back?

I am interested that the hon. Lady has given us an opportunity to highlight the amount of money that was spent on external consultants under the previous Administration. While this Government have undertaken transformational change in this Parliament and spent £45 million last year on external specialist advice, the previous Government did no transformation in defence and spent £120 million in 2007-08.

May we acclaim the fact that Members of both the Conservative and Labour Front Benches are vying to show which party is the more committed to the successor Trident nuclear system? Is the Secretary of State aware that an analyst at the normally sensible Royal United Services Institute defence think-tank has suggested that even an inactive fleet of submarines can help deter actors from seriously threatening the UK? Does he agree that to adopt such a dangerously destabilising posture would not even save any significant money at all?

First, I agree with my hon. Friend. The outcome of the Trident review precisely showed that the negative impact on our strategic defence would not be justified by the small amounts of money that would be saved by changing the posture. May I also say to him that in respect of the specific article to which he refers, the content was much more measured than the headline suggested and in fact made it clear that there would be very significant additional risks in adopting a different nuclear posture?

How many staff at Defence Equipment and Support have been made redundant and received pay-offs only to be re-employed on a consultancy basis a very short time later? How will that affect the new pay structures that the Secretary of State is planning to adopt there?

Close to 2,000 people from DE&S took voluntary redundancy under two tranches in 2012. There are a number of vacancies, as I have already said to the hon. Gentleman. A total of seven individuals have been rehired into DE&S who subsequently applied either for lower grade posts or who have upskilled in the meantime.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues who are still trying to get in, but, as usual, demand exceeds supply.

Flooding (Somerset)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government’s recent response to the flooding in Somerset and what action the Government have taken following recent Cobra meetings.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to reply to this question. Let me begin by expressing my sympathy for the serious difficulties local residents face in Somerset as a result of the continuing widespread flooding of the moors and levels since late December, including impacts on properties, businesses, transport and farm land.

Recent Met Office figures show that Somerset received more rainfall in December and January than it would normally receive over an entire winter. The high tides experienced in early January and early February exacerbated the situation by preventing water from flowing out to sea, resulting in rivers overtopping their banks and flooding the surrounding land. Floodwater has covered more than 65 sq km on the levels and hundreds of people have been affected with about 21 properties still flooded. Some 200 people have been cut off in the villages of Muchelney, Thorney, Oath, Stathe and North Moor. I visited Somerset on Sunday 26 and Monday 27 January to witness the situation at first hand and listen to the views of local residents and experts.

On 26 January I held meetings with local MPs and the leader and chief executive of Sedgemoor district council as well as a range of local experts including farmers and representatives of the local internal drainage boards. I held further meetings on 27 January, including with the leader of the county council. We agreed to dredge the Tone and Parrett rivers and on the need for local organisations to come together on a partnership basis to fund the ongoing dredging and de-silting that would subsequently be needed.

We also discussed the potential for action to hold water back in the upper catchments and to consider a longer term project to create a River Parrett barrage. In the light of that visit I asked my officials to work with local authorities and other local partners in Somerset as well as the Environment Agency, Natural England and other Government Departments to develop an action plan over the next six weeks for the sustainable future of the moors and levels. On 29 January, the Prime Minister confirmed that dredging would take place on the moors and levels as soon as it was safe and practical to do so. This will build on the targeted dredging of the Tone and Parrett that the Environment Agency began in the autumn. It will build on what the Environment Agency already spends annually on flood risk management in Somerset and the £100,000 a week spent on pumping operations on the moors and levels.

Local authorities, residents and emergency services have been working around the clock to ensure that people are safe. The Environment Agency is carrying out the largest pumping operation ever undertaken on the levels. In addition to 40 permanent pumps, the Environment Agency has mobilised a further 22 temporary units increasing its ability to pump up by more than 150%. It is currently pumping 1 million tonnes a day.

I have chaired five meetings of Cobra since last Wednesday to ensure that the Government have fully considered how best we can meet the needs of the local communities affected while the floodwater remains. Following those meetings, the Government have taken a number of actions.

First, we have put arrangements in place to ensure that the local transport needs of the cut-off communities are met. The Environment Agency, Somerset county council and local responders under the leadership of the local gold command are working together and have a presence on the ground. I am grateful to those who have assisted with that—for example, the Red Cross provided a vehicle to deliver heavy goods and food and local fire and rescue services provided a ferry service. We have also considered how the military could be used to help on the ground and they remain on standby if needed.

Secondly, sewage and wastewater services are not available in some areas. Support has been provided to affected properties and all necessary mitigation measures have been put in place to guard against any public health risks of contaminated floodwater. As is normal practice, floodwater has been sampled by the local authority since the incident began and advice is being given regularly by the local authorities. I urge everyone in the affected area to heed the clear advice of Public Health England.

Since the beginning of last December, the UK as a whole has experienced a period of exceptionally unsettled weather and there is no sign at present of its abating. Many parts of the country have been subjected to flooding from the sea, rivers, surface water or ground water, and I am extremely grateful for the excellent response by the emergency services, the Environment Agency, and Flood Forecasting Centre staff, and the leadership shown by many local authorities in responding to the floods.

Latest estimates suggest that over 7,500 properties have been flooded since the beginning of December. However, existing defences and improvements to the way in which we respond to incidents meant that we could protect over 1.2 million properties from flooding in the same period. Some 87,500 properties are currently being protected. That reinforces the importance of continuing our investment in flood defence schemes and forecasting capability. I will chair a further meeting of Cobra to discuss our response to the flooding at 5 pm today.

This is an unimaginably stressful and distressing time for those in Somerset who have seen their homes and businesses ruined by floodwater, and more flooding has been reported in Devon and Cornwall this morning. The emergency services and Environment Agency staff deserve our thanks for their efforts on the ground in difficult conditions, yet despite those efforts it is clear that residents in Somerset have been badly let down. When the water first rose, it took far too long to provide the pumps, sandbags and other assistance they needed. We have seen meeting after meeting of Cobra, yet there is little coherence in the Government’s strategy for dealing with the crisis.

Will the Secretary of State set out what precise steps he took between 6 January this year, when he last reported to the House, and last weekend, when the Prime Minister was forced to intervene and tell him to get his skates on? Does he still think that calling for a report “within six weeks”, as he did when he visited Somerset last Monday, is an adequate response? The Prime Minister has said that

“dredging will start as soon as it is practical”.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that that is Government policy? I think I heard him say that some dredging took place on the levels this autumn. Will he confirm that my understanding of what he said in the statement is correct? Will he admit that he knew a year ago of the specific threat of serious flooding in the Somerset levels from the Association of Drainage Authorities, which warned of

“de-silting work on rivers in areas such as the Somerset Levels having all but ceased”,

and what did he do about it? Why did he remove the aim to

“prepare for and manage risk from flood and other environmental emergencies”

from his Department’s list of priorities when he got the job, replacing that with four of his own?

Is the Secretary of State still refusing to be briefed by his own chief scientific adviser on climate change and the implications for more extreme weather conditions? Will he confirm that he has had to correct previously published figures on flood prevention funding, contradicting his claims that the Government are spending more in this four-year period than in the previous four years? Will he admit that the corrected figures reveal that funding for flood protection has fallen from £670 million in 2010-11 to £576 million in the current financial year? Will he admit that £67.6 million of partnership funding has been raised since April 2011, not the £148 million that he repeatedly claims?

Finally, will the Secretary of State apologise to those affected by flooding in Somerset for the decision to use a premium rate number for the flooding helpline? Will he name the company that is making money from those who have already lost so much? The Prime Minister has now said the line will cease to be a premium rate line. When precisely will that happen?

The Prime Minister promised the Leader of the Opposition that the Secretary of State would come back to the House with a “full assessment” of levels of support for flood protection by the end of last month. He failed to do so. Does that not typify the Secretary of State’s whole response to the floods? After his botched badger cull and now his failure on flooding, it is no wonder that people are increasingly asking whether the Secretary of State is up to the job.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Cobra has met regularly since the Christmas period, and obviously the floods and levels were regularly mentioned. The first specific request was at last Wednesday’s Cobra, which was acted on immediately by Government agencies responding to Cobra.

The hon. Lady mentioned the six weeks. I described briefly the fact that I went down to Somerset the Sunday before last, had meetings on Sunday evening, meetings on Monday, and agreed, quite clearly, a plan, which had to be worked up in detail with the Environment Agency and with the internal drainage boards. That is a marked contrast with the previous Government, who sat on the Parrett catchment flood management plan way back in 2008 and did absolutely nothing about it.

We began dredging on key points. The hon. Lady goes on and on about DEFRA’s priorities. I boil DEFRA down to two simple priorities across a kaleidoscopic variety of activities: to grow the rural economy and to improve the environment. I cannot think of any activity that involves spending central Government money that better delivers those two key priorities than what we are doing on flood spending. That is why this Government will be spending £2.4 billion in the first four years of this Parliament compared with £2.2 billion in the last four years of the previous Parliament. The hon. Lady has to nod just once—just give one little nod—to confirm that Labour Members will back this Government’s growing spending plans on flood spending. For us, it is a priority; for them it is not. She has missed her chance, but there is still a chance. Will she please agree to match our increased spending plans for this Parliament?

These are sad days for the people of Somerset, but local heroes have emerged. We must not use the Environment Agency as a political football. We need to revisit the balance of spending between urban and rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend allow the internal drainage boards to retain their moneys to themselves before the maintenance of these watercourses and look for a scheme similar to that in my own constituency to store the water upstream if appropriate?

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for her question. She is absolutely right that there is a balance to be struck. The lesson in Somerset is that it is an extraordinary environment. It is completely artificial. It was first dredged by the Dutch before the time of Charles I, way back in the 17th century. Our criteria are not applicable in an environment where the rivers are, in effect, canals. We need to treat it as a unique environment and therefore bring in local knowledge. At the meetings I had last Sunday and Monday, it was very clear that this had to be a combined effort of the Environment Agency doing the dredging, and then, for future years, allowing locals to take over and come to their own arrangements. There will be close involvement of local councils and colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government to work out how that will be funded and organised.

Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the measures he has announced to address the very serious problems on the Somerset levels will not delay investment in the south-west’s main priority in relation to flood defences—namely, the upgrading of the Exeter flood defence to protect the railway line and thousands of businesses and homes after last year’s floods, which caused huge economic damage and devastation not only to parts of Somerset but the whole of Devon and the whole of Cornwall?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind us of how damaging the floods were last year and the impact on the railway line, which I saw for myself. Significant work is going on on that line as we speak, as has been discussed in Cobra this week. It is absolutely our intention to deliver the very significant programmes that will soon come forward; we will announce the details shortly.

Does not the recent trouble show the problems of having unelected quangos taking decisions that favour environmentalism rather than the concerns of people and businesses? Is it not better to have democratic accountability through a Secretary of State in whom the people of Somerset can have confidence?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It shows that this is a team effort. The Environment Agency has done remarkable work around the country in protecting 1.1 million houses. I fully respect and publicly thank the chairman and the chief executive of the Environment Agency, and all those working for it. We then have the “but”. The Somerset levels is a unique environment. It is not typical—it is artificial and all below sea level—and it requires a lot more local involvement. That is why I went down there last Sunday and Monday. I think we have come up with an arrangement that will be satisfactory and, I hope, deliver security to all the people on the levels for the next 20 years once we have worked out the detail of how to deliver, first, the Environment Agency doing the dredging, and secondly, democratically elected local councils working with the IDBs to deliver long-term dredging and maintenance.

Is the Secretary of State aware of modelling done by the university of Cardiff that shows that a Severn barrage, operating on ebb flood, would significantly protect the Somerset levels from flooding and act as a barrier against storm surge, protecting 500 sq km and many properties from flooding? Is that not a reason for pressing ahead with the barrage?

I admire the right hon. Gentleman for grabbing the opportunity to promote that project, of which he is a very strong supporter. I remind the House that some are very hostile to it because of the barrage’s environmental consequences.

I can only speak as a local Somerset MP, but we have had nothing but help from the Secretary of State. Cobra has done a damned good job and I assure the House that, other than, I think, two days, the Secretary of State has spoken to me every day about what we require to help us in the area. I am very grateful to him for that.

I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) said, and the Environment Agency people on the ground have done a phenomenal job—they have been superb. The problem lies at the top. There is a disconnect between what goes on here in London and what is going on in the levels in Taunton Deane and Somerset and Frome. We need to sort this out and I hope the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister will get those machines on the levels as fast as possible in order to get this sorted. That will not sort out everything, but it will give people confidence where there is none at the moment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) were both present at the two meetings in which we discussed the broad outline of the plan. As he knows, having represented the area for some years, it is simply not possible—[Interruption] regardless of the chuntering from the Opposition Benches—to get machines on the banks in these conditions. We are looking at technologies that could be borne from vessels as a means of getting going. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are absolutely clear—there was virtual unanimity in our meetings—that we want to get on and get the two rivers dredged at the earliest opportunity, and then hand over to the local representative of the internal drainage boards to carry out the routine maintenance. [Interruption.] To respond to the questions being asked by Opposition Members, that will happen when it is safe to do so.

May I press the Secretary of State on what he has said about the public health risk of contaminated water? Last weekend microbiologists found 60,000 to 70,000 bacteria per 100 ml; the World Health Organisation suggests that the safe level is 1,000. Other than raising public awareness of the possible risks, what can the Department do to mitigate the impact?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point, which has had some publicity. We have already had samples taken from around the levels and Public Health England has been very vocal in making it clear to all local residents that they should be extremely careful with their personal hygiene and, obviously, that they should not drink or bathe in the water. The standards set are for drinking water. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue, which we have discussed on several occasions at Cobra. It is vital, given the current difficult circumstances and the enormous amount of water on the levels, to realise that the water is going to be dirty and contaminated. People must be really careful about washing themselves and, in particular, washing wounds.

In Somerset we are getting increasingly bemused by the number of armchair experts from hundreds of miles away who seem to know more about the levels than we do. The right hon. Gentleman knows exactly what I want him to do in terms of dredging and the long-term management of the moors and levels, and I thank him, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), and the Prime Minister for listening and acting on that.

On an entirely local issue, I went down to the villages of Long Load and Long Sutton again over the weekend and they are cut off because of a collapsed bridge. They need an alternative crossing over the river or repairs to the bridge. Will the Secretary of State look into that and see whether something urgent can be done?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, until recently, ministerial colleague for his support and advice. We have of course discussed this matter frequently over the past year. He better grab me immediately after this urgent question and give me the details, so that I can raise it at Cobra, because it is exactly the sort of thing that we are trying to fix at Cobra.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) is far too courteous to interpret the Secretary of State literally. Perhaps spectators to the event will be able to testify one way or the other.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for praising the work of the emergency services. He may not be aware that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is sitting next to him, is recklessly cutting the number of firefighters: there will be 5,000 fewer in England by 2015 than there were in 2010. Will he ask the Secretary of State to stop those cuts and will he recommend that the Pitt review, which suggested that a statutory responsibility should be given to fire and rescue services, be implemented without further delay?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes to look in the mirror and reminds himself that his Government left us borrowing £400,000 a minute. I want publicly to praise all those in the fire services: they have supplied specialist vehicles that have been of great succour to those on the levels, and I really admire the work that they have done around the country. The fire services have been key during this very difficult period—over Christmas, the new year and right through January—and I am very grateful to them for the splendid job that they have done.

May I commend the Secretary of State for his consultation with local people in Somerset? Following the consultation that he—or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson)—had with Cornwall’s local authority in Westminster a few weeks ago, is there any way that he can report back to us about rebalancing the Bellwin formula, which disadvantages Cornwall county council?

I have many responsibilities, but the Bellwin scheme is not one of them. I will, however, make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government heard that point.

A number of homes in my constituency were flooded once the brooks stopped being cleared. What confidence can my constituents have that their homes will not be flooded again, given the scale of the cuts in spending on flood protection that have taken place under this Government?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are spending £2.4 billion, which is more than the previous Government, over this spending round. On local brooks—this picks up earlier questions—we set in train seven pilots last year to see whether some low-risk waterways could be cleared by local farmers or local landowners, with the collaboration of the Environment Agency, so that we get more work done on low-risk areas.

Will the Secretary of State call in the chairman of the Environment Agency and ask why, from a budget of £1,200 million last year, it spent only £20 million on clearing watercourses? Will he get across to the chairman that we need new budget priorities—not just in Somerset, which is the subject of the urgent question, but in places such as mine—to clear watercourses so that people do not have wet rooms?

As I have said, I have great confidence in what the Environment Agency, led by the chairman and by the chief executive, has delivered in protecting 1.1 million properties. However, as my right hon. Friend says, we can always do better. One thing I am looking at is getting more low-risk water clearance work done locally, with local councils being more involved, and with local agencies and more IDBs. This is very much a team effort.

Why were there no floods on the other side of the River Severn on the Gwent levels? They have an identical environment, share 2,000 years of drainage history, have had the same weather and tides, and have had no dredging, but have had no floods. Is not the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) right to say that the answer lies in the fact that the woods in Gwent are richly endowed with trees, and have not been denuded in the same way as on the Mendips?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I am not an expert on the Gwent levels, but I have made it clear that, for the long term, there is a role for holding water further back in the catchment, as there is possibly a role for building a barrage on the Parrett. Those would be special measures for a very particular landscape, but his own landscape of the Gwent levels have their own characteristics, on which I am not an expert.

As I stood in Burrowbridge yesterday morning with the water in the River Parrett again breaching the banks, the residents expressed considerable relief that the Prime Minister had committed in this House on Wednesday to the dredging of the River Parrett and the River Tone. However, I must say to the Secretary of State that there was scepticism and even cynicism about whether that would happen, when it would take place and on what scale. I would be grateful if he would take this opportunity to reassure the residents of that village and people across the Somerset levels that dredging will take place to the level that they think is appropriate to reduce the risk of flooding next year.

I am very happy to repeat that it is our clear intention to dredge the Tone and the Parrett as soon as it is safe to do so. That will be conducted by the Environment Agency. It is looking at technologies now. Part of the plan is for routine maintenance to be carried out in future years by the internal drainage boards, which do a very good job and have many experienced local people on them. That is absolutely our intention. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the banks are not safe at the moment, so if we are to use any technologies immediately, they will have to be vessel-borne.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lessons that are coming out of the horror in Somerset are equally applicable across the whole country? Will he ensure that the Environment Agency starts to do the things that he has been talking about so well?

I stress again that this is a team effort. The Environment Agency has done a great job at protecting 1.1 million properties. However, it is quite clear from going around the counties of rural England, including Herefordshire and Berkshire, that there is exasperation at the lack of work on low-risk rural waterways, which stopped under the last Government. It is clear that that work is much better done by local people. It should be carried out by local landowners in co-operation with IDBs and local councils. That is why I started the seven pilots. We want to apply the lessons from those as quickly as possible across rural England.

Residents of Bradford-on-Avon have been heard to say that they have more in common with those just across the border in Somerset than in the rest of Wiltshire. Since Christmas, they have been dealing with the consequences of a 25-year flood event. Whatever action it is necessary for the Secretary of State to commit to in the Somerset levels, will he ensure that funds are available for any measures that are agreed to between the Environment Agency and local councillors to protect Bradford-on-Avon from a repeat of the recent flood damage?

I obviously cannot pre-empt the priorities that will be decided on by the Environment Agency shortly. I stress that our partnership scheme has brought in significant funds from local councils. I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman’s council is involved in that partnership method of raising money.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to say that this is a team effort. Will he confirm today that the money that has been identified for new flood defences is still available if Cornwall council puts forward an appropriate bid for better defences to protect my constituents in Perranporth, who have suffered dreadful flooding all year?

As my hon. Friend will have noted, we have an ambitious programme of flood defence schemes that goes right through to 2021. Significantly, that has not been matched by Her Majesty’s official Opposition. If her council puts in a partnership bid, I am sure that it will slot into our programme in the coming years, although I cannot promise when.

Once the waters have subsided and the Secretary of State starts to put right the wrongs of the past, will he have an urgent review of the use of sandbags, which are an old technology and are actually quite porous, when new technologies are available? My constituent, Simon Crowther, has flood protection solutions that deliver better results than sandbags.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There may well be better alternatives to sandbags. I would be very interested to hear from him if his constituent’s solution is as easy to move around as empty sandbags, because that has proved to be invaluable in recent weeks.

The Secretary of State was right to mention the Dutch engineers who drained the levels, because they dug out the ditches and rivers and kept them clean, which was absolutely key. We have now had six weeks of flooding. I welcome what the Secretary of State has done, but we need to change the rules to ensure that farmland and environmental land is protected, because six weeks of flooding destroys not only farmland, but nature conservation and people’s lives.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I remind him that we are protecting significant areas of agricultural land as we speak, but my view of the future, as he has probably picked up, is that many of the low-risk waterways are much better cleaned out and maintained by local landowners, in co-operation with the Environment Agency. That is probably the best way to go.

I hope that the Secretary of State will applaud the fantastic work of the Somerset Community Foundation and its hardship fund, which is helping people who are suffering financial difficulties as a result of the flooding. Does he agree that the whole catchment approach should include the Rivers Axe and Brue and that it should involve dredging, repairing the Bleadon sluice gates, installing more flood gates and more pumps for local protection, and ensuring that we value productive land?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right that they are part of the whole catchment of the levels, and the relevant internal drainage board will be involved in the discussions. As she probably already knows, the River Brue is one of our pilot schemes.

The Secretary of State will obviously be aware, as we all are, that the Environment Agency, local authorities and others will be rethinking their programmes after the flood waters retreat. It appears to me that in the past the payment of funds, and certainly central funds, has gone mainly to major schemes. I am delighted to hear that he is moving towards more minor schemes. Does he agree that the collection of small schemes might be more effective in some areas than one or two large schemes, be they in Somerset or north Surrey?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that there is merit in a lot of the smaller, low-risk schemes. What we have seen in the levels—it is a completely unique environment—is that the national guidelines were not appropriate for that artificial environment, and the same might apply in other parts of rural England.

If the pastures of the Somerset levels remain inundated for much longer, considerable damage will be done. Will the Secretary of State be able to give farmers advice and help to re-establish those pastures so that they can continue in business?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that comment, because several of the farmers I have talked with were emphatic that, following the very wet summer we had last year, the grass could be permanently damaged. We are absolutely prepared to work very closely with organisations such as the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association to help those famers. I also pay tribute to the agricultural charities, which have also been very helpful on the matter.

I declare an interest as one of the 7,500 people who have had their homes flooded. With Gatwick being knocked out on 24 December and with thousands of houses being planned to be developed in the flood area of the River Mole, the expenditure committed to flood defence is wholly inadequate if we are to continue with the development policy in place at the moment. There needs to be a strategic review for the balance of our priorities as a country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are absolutely clear that current planning guidance steers property development away from floodplains. In the overwhelming number of cases—over 95%, I think—in which the Environment Agency recommends that a planning application should not go ahead, that advice is accepted.

On Saturday morning I visited the North Corner pontoon at Devonport and saw at first hand bits of the sea wall falling off into the River Tamar. Will my right hon. Friend have a chat with Poole city council and the Environment Agency to ensure that some work is done fairly promptly, because otherwise it will have a significant impact not only on flooding, but on the dockyard, which is bang next door to it?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am afraid that around the coast we have seen significant damage done to our coastal defences, and we are working closely with the Environment Agency and local councils to ensure that it is repaired speedily.

We all, of course, have enormous sympathy with those in Somerset and elsewhere, including places such as Hambledon in my constituency which has been flooded by ground water for three weeks now, and expects to be flooded for at least another three weeks, or perhaps six or eight. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is at least a crumb of comfort in the fact that the recent Water Bill contains provisions for the creation of Flood Re, which should allow the continued provision of affordable flood insurance to most properties in Somerset and elsewhere?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Flood Re will, I hope, bring relief to 500,000 people with high-risk properties, and as he knows, the Bill is going through the other place this afternoon.

I grew up on the Somerset levels, and when I was a child, farmers were responsible for managing and carrying out drainage on their small waterways. Unfortunately, over the decades, the advice they have received has started to become more conflicting and the different priorities of Natural England and the Environment Agency have caused great confusion and inconsistency. In future, after the emergency has passed, will my right hon. Friend ensure that on dredging policy those two agencies sing from the same hymn sheet?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and I assure him that Natural England will be involved in the discussions that start tomorrow. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), will chair the first meeting to deliver the plan within six weeks.

The Environment Agency correctly identifies housing as the principal driver of where flood defences should be built, and the Secretary of State saw the scheme in Warrington that was completed three months ago and prevented the flooding of 1,500 houses. For the avoidance of doubt, will he assure the House that there will be no knee-jerk reaction to change criteria after the tragedy in Somerset?

I saw the real value of those schemes when my hon. Friend kindly invited me to his constituency, and I assure him that it is our intention to continue similar schemes around the country.

On the better use of technology, will the Secretary of State clarify and confirm that the Government have allocated £4.6 million towards the better use of space technology for weather prediction? It would mean that the United Kingdom is one of only a few countries in the world doing that.

The Government invest significant sums in forecasting, and, as someone who has received storm forecasts on a daily basis and paid close attention to them in recent weeks, I know that their accuracy is extraordinary and of huge value. I thank all those who have been active in drawing up those forecasts at short notice.

If there had been a change of wind in Suffolk, we may have suffered similar levels of flooding to that experienced by constituents in Somerset, which might explain the Gwent issue. Will the Secretary of State assure me that in future he might look again at having the Environment Agency and Natural England as two separate bodies? He is currently advertising for a chairman of the Environment Agency, so this could be an opportune moment to merge the two.

A triennial review concluded last year that it was better to leave the two organisations as independent because it would be a hugely complicated task to legislate to bring them together. However, the review made it clear—this touches on an earlier question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace)—that there needs to be more co-operation between the two organisations, and that significant efficiencies could be made by working together.

Deregulation Bill

[Relevant document: Report from the Joint Committee on the draft Deregulation Bill, HC 925, and the Government Response, Cm 8808.]

Second Reading

I inform the House that the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and other colleagues has been selected.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I will begin by saying something that several in the House might find mildly surprising in the context of this debate: regulation is often sensible and necessary. It is no part of the Government’s plans or our view of life to suggest that regulation is never useful. Indeed, like previous Governments, this Government are presiding over an immense amount of regulation, much of which is constructive and helpful. Nevertheless, it remains true that what we inherited in 2010 was not just a rational set of regulations that anybody who looked at them carefully would have sponsored. There were all sorts of regulations that, frankly, made no sense at all. What we set out to do in 2010 was to review the entire regulatory scene. We have put in an enormous amount of effort, and I am immensely grateful to those in the civil service and outside who have helped us.

As we have gone through regulation after regulation, we have in many instances discovered that there are things being regulated that no longer exist. There are regulators doing things that no longer have any useful purpose, and bodies that are provided for in regulations that no longer function. We have also found that there are things being regulated that do exist, and for which regulations are still operative, but on which such regulation ought not to exist. I suspect that dealing with such matters would be uncontroversial among hon. Members, and I shall give the House two minor, slightly amusing, examples.

On inspection, it turned out that every time the Mayor of London or a borough of London wanted to set up a statue to any grand figure of our past, they had to seek, under a regulation, the specific approval of the Secretary of State. That is clearly completely mad, so I am glad to say that the Bill will remove that particular amusement. A second example—it is a particular favourite of mine, as it has taken a very long time to get this changed—is that until we manage to get the Bill enacted so that clause 40 becomes law, I regret to tell the House that it remains the case that it is an offence to sell liqueur chocolates to under 16s. I can sort of see why someone had the crazy idea to legislate for that at some point, but it does not make any sense, so we are getting rid of it.

My right hon. Friend is starting to outline a delicious smorgasbord of deregulation. I am particularly pleased about the clauses that will cut red tape for business. When the Departments looked at everything that could be deregulated, were there examples that they wanted to include in the Bill, but could not because they are overridden by EU legislation?

My hon. Friend raises an immensely important point. I was going to talk about it later, but let me deal with it now. He is absolutely right, and I am not talking of a few cases. We came across—and we continue to come across—many, many cases on which, given our way, we would certainly have deregulated, yet we found that directives made it impossible for us to do what we would have liked to have done. That is, of course, one of the reasons why, if there is a Conservative Government after the next general election, we will be seeking to renegotiate our relationship with the EU and then—as long as the Opposition do not prevent this—putting that to the British public in a referendum. It is also one of the reasons why we are trying to pass the referendum Bill right now, and we will bring it back and do so.

It would be helpful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us the number of regulations that he wishes to abolish but cannot. Precisely how many are there? Perhaps he could produce a list.

That is a very tantalising thought, so I shall go back and see whether that is possible. I am sure we can put together a list. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman or Opposition Front Benchers would like to see it very much, but it is extremely clear that there are large numbers of cases in which it would have been desirable to do things, but it is impossible to do so because of the structure of directives that we inherited. Most of those directives were signed up to willingly by the previous Government. It is also the case—

The hon. Gentleman does not need to exert himself; I will give way to him again.

Of course, some EU regulation is perfectly sensible, but the problem is that much of it, unfortunately, forces us to do things in ways that we would much prefer were not the case. I suspect that, if the hon. Gentleman were to look at some of that regulation, he would agree with me.

Order. Certainly the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) does wave eccentrically. There is not necessarily anything disorderly about it, but it may offend the sensibilities of some right hon. and hon. Members, a point to which I am sure, as always, the hon. Gentleman will be sensitive.

I certainly would not wish to offend the Minister; I merely want an answer. He said “many”; he said “many, many”; and I think he said “excessive”. How many regulations—he has been through them all—has he not been able to deal with in the Bill because of European legislation? Is it 10, 20, 50, 100 or 1,000?

I will send the hon. Gentleman a list. It will not be exhaustive, but I suspect it will contain hundreds, rather than tens, of cases for which we would have wished to do something different. Of course we have not kept an exhaustive tally—there is no point, because we cannot change those things in domestic legislation, which is what the Bill is about.