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Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Monday 3 February 2014

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.