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Volume 577: debated on Monday 17 March 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Military Procurement

I recognise that small businesses are an important source of innovation and flexibility in meeting defence and security requirements. I am determined to help small and medium-sized enterprises access defence opportunities, including standardising and simplifying our procurement systems, so from this month we are minimising the use of pre-qualification questionnaires and increasing use of standard contract templates for low-risk requirements of under £100,000.

We are regularly making progress on these and other SME initiatives, but we also need to inform the SME community that it is getting easier to do business with the Ministry of Defence, which is why we publish the SME action plan on the website and why I am undertaking a series of regional visits to talk to SMEs, such as the excellent event that my hon. Friend hosted in Hereford on 6 December 2013.

I very much thank my hon. Friend for that reply and for the extremely encouraging news that he has described. There are a large number of specialist defence suppliers in my constituency in Herefordshire. They provide vital new technologies and training for the troops, but they often face huge and apparently unnecessary mark-ups and delays forced on them by the requirement to be part of prime contracts. What can the MOD do to help these companies compete more fairly?

I agree with my hon. Friend that SMEs have an important role to play across defence procurement, but in particular in new technologies and in training. That is why the Government are committed to increasing the proportion of our annual spend on SMEs. Last year that rose to 15% by value of all spend, with some £1 billion spent directly and £2 billion spent indirectly through larger prime contractors, but the proportion of new contracts is even greater with over a third of all new contracts placed with SMEs in each of the last three years.

Devolved Administrations and their arm’s length agencies often have very close relationships with their SME community. What discussions is the Ministry of Defence having with the devolved Administrations to make sure defence contractors based outside England also have an opportunity to bid?

Of course defence, and therefore defence procurement, is not a devolved matter and therefore the work the Ministry of Defence does is primarily with industries right across the country. I have undertaken events in Scotland and I am looking forward to an event in Wales in due course later this year.

May I wish you a very happy St Patrick’s day, Mr Speaker, and no doubt MOD Ministers will be pleased to put on record their appreciation for the increasing co-operation with the Irish defence forces?

In a parliamentary answer on 3 October 2011 the MOD admitted that out of 6,000 SME contracts with the MOD, only 50 contracts were in Scotland, which is 0.83%, just under 10 times less than Scotland’s population share. When will the MOD answer my question on SME spending across the UK by region, which was tabled in January?

As I have said to the hon. Gentleman previously, we do not believe it is relevant to look at the location of where we procure equipment. We want to procure the best equipment for our armed forces from the best place. Scotland of course has a significant share of much of our spending, not least through the aircraft carrier contracts, which I saw for myself last week, and much of that defence work would be at risk were Scotland to vote yes in the referendum in September.

Defence Equipment and Support

2. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on staff pay and conditions in the new DE&S model. (903044)

We have agreed with Treasury Ministers that Defence Equipment and Support will be established as a bespoke central Government trading entity from 1 April this year, with the necessary freedom to operate, including freedom, within very broad limits, to set the pay and conditions of its civil service staff.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but bearing in mind that bringing private skills into Defence Equipment and Support is likely to create a two-tier work force and, if handled badly, could demoralise an already hollowed-out department, will the Secretary of State update the House on what discussions he has had with employee representatives and trade unions within Defence Equipment and Support regarding changes to employees’ pay and conditions?

There have been discussions with the trade unions and there will of course be further discussions with the trade unions as DE&S-plus develops its pay model, but we do have to face the reality that this part of the public service is very much commercial-facing. It deals with commercial bodies and it interacts and exchanges staff with commercial contractors, and we have to be able to pay competitive rates and we have to adopt competitive employment practices if we are to get the best deal for the taxpayer and the best deal for our armed forces.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming defence procurement is a key step in driving better value for money for the defence budget, and will he join me in paying tribute to the staff of DE&S in my constituency, especially those involved in the draw-down of kit and equipment from Afghanistan?

The staff at DE&S at Abbey Wood perform an extraordinary range of functions and play a vital part in this new whole-force concept. It is about how the armed forces work together, regulars and reserves, with civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence—whom I am happy to put on the record in the House today are not pen-pushers, as some parts of our media would have us believe, but vital components of our defence infrastructure.

The Secretary of State is ever the optimist, but he will know that staff in DE&S and industry need certainty, and nothing in the changes to DE&S fits that description. His Department still has not confirmed the arrangements to bring the managed service providers into the business. He talked about the flexibilities and freedoms being broad—they are not in the public domain yet, and April is almost upon us. Is he not cutting it just a little fine?

No. The contract notices for the procurement of the managed service providers will be published shortly. We are finalising the terms of the memorandum of understanding between the Treasury and the MOD, but the broad parameters have been agreed. The freedoms will be very broad, but there will be some constraints, as I hope the hon. Lady would expect. There will be an overall envelope of resources for operating costs, which will be subject to a downward trajectory over time, representing efficiency. Within that envelope, there will be very broad freedom to tailor pay and conditions to the requirements of the marketplace.

Did the shadow Secretary of State for Defence not say in December of last year that we all wanted to see the best of the public sector alongside the best of the private sector? If everyone is in agreement on this—from the shadow Secretary of State for Defence to Lord Levene—it must be a good idea. Presumably, the only really important thing here is ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right: it is about ensuring that the armed forces get the kit they need and have been promised when they need it, and that the taxpayer gets a fair deal. By creating DE&S as a trading entity with freedoms and flexibilities to enter the marketplace and hire the people it needs to do the job properly and effectively, we will ensure that outcome.

Reserve Forces

3. What progress his Department has made on its planned increase in the activity of reserves in Cornwall. (903046)

I know my hon. Friend is concerned about the future of reserves in her constituency following the proposed relocation of D company, 6th Rifles, and I welcome her strong interest in this issue on behalf of her constituents. I understand that my predecessor, my right hon. Friend for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), gave her a commitment that we would look closely at this decision, but that examination is not yet complete.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. We have had good news in Cornwall about more RAF reservists being stationed at RAF St Mawgan, but the continued uncertainty about the future of The Rifles in Cornwall is a major concern. People in Cornwall want to support their country and to have the opportunity to serve as Army reservists. May I therefore urge my right hon. Friend to make a speedy, and the right, decision to enable people to serve from Truro?

I stress to my hon. Friend that we are not closing the Truro Army Reserve centre, which will remain the home of elements of both medical and logistics units, as well as supporting local cadet forces in any event. However, I do understand the strong historical attachment The Rifles have to Cornwall, so I hope to be able to give her a clear answer on this matter in the near future.

Whether people are seeking to join the reserves in Cornwall or in any other part of the country, everyone I talk to says it is still taking too long from the point at which they express an interest in joining the reserves to the point at which they are subsequently enlisted. What is the Minister doing and what more can be done to speed up that process, so we can get more people serving in the reserves—in Cornwall and in the rest of the country?

I am glad to be able to say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I know in view of his past service takes a close interest in these matters, that we have reduced some of the bureaucracy in the process—we have simplified the forms and some of the medical procedures—and we launched a new recruitment campaign in January, the benefits of which are beginning to feed through. The process was too bureaucratic; it is less so now, and it is beginning to work.

May I urge the Minister, when considering the move of The Rifles from Truro to Barnstaple, to recognise that the Army Reserve centre in Barnstaple is the only opportunity for people to participate in the Army Reserve, covering an area from west Somerset down to North Cornwall? If we are to achieve the targets we set ourselves nationally for increasing the size of the reserves, it is very important that people in all communities, however rural, have a realistic opportunity to participate in the reserves.

I understand the point being made by the hon. Gentleman, a predecessor of mine in this job. We are looking to grow the Army Reserve in Cornwall and in Devon, and indeed across the whole United Kingdom.

Flooding: Military Assistance

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of military assistance provided to civil authorities during recent flooding. (903047)

The MOD’s ongoing support to the civil authorities has been significant and achieved real effect on the ground, with a peak of about 5,000 personnel from all three services available to provide everything from sandbagging to aerial reconnaissance. We provided assistance to nine county councils and five unitary authorities. We are now in the recovery phase, with 220 service personnel still engaged. Once the task is complete, we will work with the civil authorities to assess in detail our armed forces’ contribution to the overall national response and to look at how the contribution of the armed forces to civil resilience can be enhanced and accelerated in future emergencies.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I bring to the House’s attention the honourable membership of the Institution of Royal Engineers that I hold because I am a Member of Parliament for a constituency with Royal Engineers in it. Will he join me in congratulating the Royal Engineers on their work across the country, not only in helping to fix the problems, but in being involved in the emergency checks, which means that we are able to get around the entire country in just a matter of weeks?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Royal Engineers on the role they have played. There is a continuing detachment of Royal Engineers inspecting thousands of flood defences around the country, triaging them so that the Environment Agency can target its specialist engineers on those most at risk.

One reason why civil authorities may be reluctant to call in military assistance is the full costing regime in the MOD. Has the Secretary of State considered introducing a marginal costing scheme, which would make that interaction easier for all the parties concerned?

The hon. Lady is understating the case—one of the reasons most certainly is fear of what the costs will be. The MOD’s position is clear: we would like to do more to support the civil authorities, and we want to make sure that the defence budget is neither advantaged nor disadvantaged from doing so. That implies a full marginal costing recovery regime, and I have written to my colleagues at the Treasury suggesting that we look at a change to the regime to make the situation much clearer to the civil authorities in advance.

May I add my congratulations to RAF Linton-on-Ouse and the neighbouring Royal Engineers who have helped in both the vale of York, and Thirsk and Malton during previous floods? On the funding, I understand that one reason why civil authorities were slow to take up the offer from the military was precisely the issue of who was to pay. Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House from which budget the payment will be drawn?

In almost all cases—perhaps I can say in all cases—the net additional cost of military operations that is recoverable from authorities that have lead responsibility under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 will be 100% funded under the Bellwin formula, in accordance with the statement that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made to the House about the increase in the percentage recovery rates to 100% to cover this emergency.

Spouses of Armed Forces Personnel

We know that one of the most important factors in enabling spouses to enter employment is making sure that good child care provision is available at a good cost. In addition to the measures that the Government have taken to help all workers, I am pleased to tell the House that £20 million of the LIBOR funding announced by the Chancellor in the autumn will specifically go to help the provision of child care facilities for service families, particularly the infrastructure. We also have a number of excellent schemes to encourage people to go into employment and to support them to set up their own businesses, as well, of course, as the corporate covenant.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I commend to her the work of the social enterprise Recruit for Spouses, which is doing so much to challenge outdated perceptions of military families always being on the move and to engage with businesses to unlock the potential of armed forces spouses? Recruit for Spouses is based in Wiltshire, and it does a lot of work in both Wiltshire and in Swindon.

As it happens, I have heard of Recruit for Spouses and I know that its aims are admirable, and of course we support all such projects. That is one reason why I mentioned the corporate covenant: it is very important that businesses recognise the real benefits they get when they employ people who are married to our excellent service personnel, because their spouses tend to be as good.

Is the Minister not living a little bit in the 20th century rather than the 21st century? It is not just child care that spouses need, but a tailor-made system that allows them to use their enormous talent for a productive purpose. Could she not do something more adventurous? We are talking about not trailing spouses, but people who give a great deal to this country under enormous stress.

I am sorry, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said. I will happily go into more detail. We have programmes in place with the Royal British Legion Industries and the university of Wolverhampton, which run workshops specifically for spouses on finding jobs and on helping them to start businesses, so, on the contrary, I am far from living in a previous century. I do not underestimate the issues. I have spoken to various families’ federations, which told me in no uncertain terms that child care costs and the availability of good provision are absolutely critical. The hon. Gentleman should welcome my announcement of £20 million of LIBOR funding. I do not think that he matched that when he was in Government.

19. As a graduate of the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have had the privilege of learning about all aspects of military life, including the ability to settle in one location thus enabling military spouses to find and to keep down regular employment. What estimates has my hon. Friend made about whether the return of British troops from Germany will help increase the opportunity for spousal employment in the future? (903063)

That is a good question. We believe that the return of units from Germany offers a major opportunity for more service families to lead more stable lives, and we also know that that is important. It is vital that Government, local authorities, employers, the Army and the other services work together and plan carefully. A good case in point is the great work that is being undertaken by Rutland county council and its partners. Let me give one quick example of that. Its latest initiative is to hold a job fair at Kendrew barracks next month.

Army 2020

The Army remains on track to implement Army 2020 structures in accordance with the announcement made by the Secretary of State on 5 July 2012.

Of particular note is the fact that all units have now been assigned to the new reaction force, adaptable force or force troops; regular and reserve units have been paired, in line with the move to a fully integrated Army; and future unit locations have been confirmed, taking account of the return of units from Germany to the United Kingdom.

The Defence Committee’s report into Army 2020, which was published last week, expressed grave concerns about the reduction to 82,000 soldiers, the way in which that figure was arrived at and the fact that the Army was informed of it rather than consulted about it. When the Minister for the Armed Forces opened our report and read it, did he have even the slightest momentary frisson of worry that he might—just might—have done the wrong thing?

I have a frisson when I open any Defence Committee report. It is worth taking into account the fact that the report has only recently been received and the implications of its recommendations are being reviewed by the respective staffs. We will be providing a full response to the report in the normal way in May 2014. It is clear to me that the Army’s response to the challenges posed by the end of combat operations in Afghanistan and the move to a UK base force remains fully valid.

In that Select Committee report, Sir Peter Wall, the Chief of the General Staff, says that Army 2020 was financially driven. Does the Minister agree with that? Furthermore, will the shortfall of 8,000 not lead to capability gaps? If so, what will he do to plug those gaps?

As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has said on numerous occasions, the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces cannot operate oblivious to the country’s fiscal position. However, we and the Army are quite clear that Army 2020 represents the best answers to the challenges, fiscal and otherwise, the country faces and is best placed to help us address the future.

Events such as in Crimea and the South China sea remind us of the need for strong defence. Has the time not now come for a fundamental reassessment of how much we spend on our armed forces? That figure should be increased even if white elephants such High Speed 2 have to be sacrificed along the way. We may have the fourth or fifth biggest defence budget, but we rank nearer 30th when it comes to deploying troops overseas, which is nonsense given the extent of our global interests.

My hon. Friend might want to turn up to Treasury questions in the near future and ask the same question. In the meantime, as he mentions overseas deployments, he might be interested to hear that last week I visited 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Cyprus, in which I know he takes a strong interest. I can report to him and the House that despite difficult circumstances its members are in good order. The planning for the merger of the two regiments of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is almost complete and a number of soldiers in the 2nd Battalion have expressed interest in remaining in the Army. We are seeking to facilitate that wherever possible.

In paragraph 32 of its recent report on Army 2020, the Defence Committee stated:

“We were…concerned to hear that it was the Ministry of Defence’s Permanent Secretary who told the Chief of the General Staff the future size of the Army under the Army 2020 plan.”

Will the Minister say what exactly the role of the Chief of the General Staff was in determining the size of the Army? Why was it left to the permanent secretary to inform him what the size of the Army would be under Army 2020?

Decisions about the overall size of the armed forces are ultimately taken by Ministers, but the Army 2020 plan was designed by the Army, and it is the Army that has the primary responsibility for implementing it. While we are on the subject of advice, one thing we will not do in trying to grow the Army and the reserves is follow the example of the previous Government, who thought that it was a good idea, for growing the Territorial Army, to threaten not to pay its members for turning up for training.

Military Personnel: LIBOR Funding

7. What progress he has made on using funding from LIBOR fines to benefit former and serving military personnel. (903050)

9. What progress he has made on using funding from LIBOR fines to benefit former and serving military personnel. (903053)

The short answer is that a great deal of progress has been made. As Members will know, in December 2012 the Chancellor transferred £35 million from fines levied on the banks following the LIBOR scandal. The whole of that £35 million has now been allocated to almost 100 projects that will provide support to members of the armed forces community. In addition, we can now look forward to the £40 million recently announced for the veterans accommodation fund, the £20 million about which I have already given details and, in perpetuity, £10 million each year for our service charities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her answer. Will some of the money from the LIBOR fines be used to deal with the awful mental illness that comes to those who have lost loved ones in conflict, and to help the families of those who have suffered mental health problems after spending time overseas in conflict areas?

I am happy to confirm that Cruse Bereavement Care, a wonderful charity that comforts bereaved people—not only service families but anyone who has lost someone—has received £500,000 of LIBOR funding. An additional £2.77 million has gone to Combat Stress, and SSAFA has a number of projects that have benefited, to the tune of £2 million. I hope that shows that we take this work very seriously.

Finding the right accommodation for veterans who have been wounded or injured is an important part of upholding the duty we owe them for their sacrifice. What assistance is the Ministry of Defence providing to ensure that veterans with a housing need are properly supported?

As I have explained, £40 million of LIBOR funding has been set aside specifically for what we are calling the veterans accommodation fund. It will make a big difference, and is available to fund the building of purpose-built accommodation and the purchase or refurbishment of existing housing. The bid criteria have been published and the fund is open for applications now.

Queen Elizabeth Class Carrier Programme.

8. What recent assessment he has made of the economic effects on west Fife of the Queen Elizabeth class carrier programme. (903051)

The carrier programme as a whole is estimated to have sustained about 10,000 jobs across the UK, 4,000 of which are based in Scotland. Although we have made no specific assessment of the impact on the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to the end of January the Ministry of Defence had spent about £2.3 billion on work billed to the programme by BAE Systems on the Clyde, and by Babcock at Rosyth. I was pleased to visit Rosyth last week to see the progress of the work on the Queen Elizabeth carrier, which is on track to be flooded up in July. The initial bow sections of the Prince of Wales carrier are dockside, ready for assembly to start later this year.

I am grateful for that answer. Is the Minister aware that Babcock commented last week that if Scotland votes yes it would be highly unlikely that my constituency dockyard would get further orders for maintenance work from the MOD? Is that why the Scottish National party has admitted that there would be significant job losses at Rosyth in the event of independence?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I keep an eye on press cuttings relating to all defence procurement matters. The in-service support solution for the Queen Elizabeth class carriers is still in development and will not be decided until next year, but much support will be delivered at the base port and on deployment at sea. I think, however, that the hon. Gentleman was referring to depth maintenance and refit, and the security implications of that work being undertaken in a non-sovereign dock outside the UK would need to be carefully considered. Several dry docks in the UK are physically capable of accommodating such ships outside Scotland.

NATO Summit

10. What discussions he has had with his counterparts in NATO member states in preparation for the NATO summit in September 2014. (903054)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a range of discussions with his counterparts in recent months in relation to the NATO summit in Wales this September. Most recently he discussed the summit and its possible content with fellow Defence Ministers at the NATO defence ministerial in Brussels on 26 and 27 February. The Wales summit falls at a crucial time for partners as they contemplate a post-2014 future and the importance of the transatlantic alliance. It is also a great opportunity to showcase the best of British to our allies and partners.

As an active member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, may I ask what plans there are for parliamentarians from the 28 member nations—to engage with the NATO summit later this year?

We look forward to members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly playing an active role, and we are exploring what that might mean. May I say how pleased I am that the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) is president of the Assembly? The Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) as his parliamentary adviser on the summit. I know that my hon. Friend is working hard, and I look forward to working with him on the preparations.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has already approached me about an event that he wishes to stage, so he is going about his duties with great conscientiousness, and I hope to be able to assist him in his endeavours.

With the threat of cyber-attack and espionage rising substantially, will the UK play an active part at the summit in pushing for NATO-wide cyber-capability?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that point. He will know that the UK’s preparations are reckoned to be far advanced, but he will also understand that cyber-defence is a sovereign capability. However, it is important that supranational institutions such as NATO ensure that their own systems are protected from cyber-attack.

May we have an assurance that if there is any discussion of Ukraine at the NATO summit, careful attention will be paid to the defence anxieties of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia about what appears to be the emergence of a Putin doctrine, not least because of the close proximity of Kaliningrad to all three countries?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise the concerns of the Baltic states, which are nervous at the moment. Of course, they are covered by article 5, so they have a particular relationship with NATO that is not enjoyed by Ukraine.

Does the best of British that we are hoping to show to the delegates include the best of Newport, which is a wonderful habitat for the conference? Will the conference arrangements be such that the delegates will have plenty of time to see and enjoy the robust personality of Newport and its beautiful hinterland?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty advocate for the area that he represents, and he is absolutely right that the summit is an opportunity to show off Newport and Wales in general. It will clearly be great to showcase our military, but the summit is also a great opportunity for Wales.

There is, rightly, broad consensus on both sides of the House that military action in Crimea is not an option, but will the Minister confirm what contribution the UK has made to NATO in response to the Ukraine crisis, and what role our forces have played in NATO training exercises in Europe? Will the matter be discussed up to and including at the autumn summit?

The hon. Gentleman knows of the strategic concept in relation to NATO and what it implies. He will also be aware of our contribution of the E-3D airborne warning and control system aircraft that is currently deployed to make sure that we have situation awareness in Poland and Romania. We are, of course, open to requests from NATO, in relation to what we might do on collective security, but he knows very well the implications of article 5. The importance here is to de-escalate, not escalate.

I thank the Minister for that considered reply. It is the Opposition’s view that we must be prepared to ask serious questions about the UK’s role in NATO and about the security of our allies, including those in the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Does the Minister agree that the forthcoming summit should discuss how NATO can best protect our own security, as well as that of our allies? Is it not clear that one of the most important discussions up to and at the autumn summit must be about the future long-term strategic direction for NATO following the present crisis?

The agenda is primarily a matter for the Secretary-General of NATO, not for the host nation, although it is probably true to say that the host nation traditionally has a role in trying to suggest and shape the agenda for summits on its soil. The hon. Gentleman might expect us to be considering what NATO means post-2014. He would probably expect the transatlantic alliance to be debated at some length, and what will happen with regard to Afghanistan and NATO’s involvement in that country. I suspect that all those things will be important and top of the agenda in Cardiff, but it is important to note that this is primarily a matter for the Secretary-General.

Armed Forces Covenant

We continually review areas where we can make a difference, from home purchase schemes and health care to transition and increased pupil premiums in schools, and our approach is making a difference right across the armed forces community. Upholding the covenant is not a matter just for the Government; it is the responsibility of the whole of society. Charities, employers, local authorities and individuals are all asked to recognise members of the armed forces community and give them the respect, support and fair treatment that they so richly deserve.

A 2012 survey showed that one in five of our armed forces received abuse back home, and 6% were victims of violence. I do not think we need to legislate for new offences, but is my hon. Friend satisfied that the police properly investigate all allegations, and has she considered with other Government colleagues the case for raising the sentence for criminal violence harassment where it deliberately targets serving British troops?

As my hon. Friend will know, different offences relating to violence have different sentences attached to them. I do not think there is a case for raising those sentences overall, and the sentencing guidelines make it clear that if somebody is assaulted by virtue of their being in the armed forces, that is clearly an aggravating feature and as a result, in simple terms, the perpetrator receives a higher sentence—and rightly so.

In opening, the Minister rightly mentioned transition. Given the concerns about members of the armed forces’ transition that were highlighted in the recent review by Lord Ashcroft, which of his recommendations will the Ministry of Defence be taking forward?

We are considering all the recommendations in Lord Ashcroft’s report. On balance, it was a positive report, and it shows what many of us know—that when our personnel transit out of service, they do so extremely well. They are more likely to find a job than other members of society, because of the remarkable skills that they have, often as a result of the experience that they gained as members of our military. On balance, things are working well, but that does not mean that we cannot do more. We are looking at that report and at improving things, and much of the work I am doing leads to that.

On Thursday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the Service Complaints Commissioner would become an ombudsman, for which the existing commissioner, the excellent Dr Susan Atkins, and the Defence Committee have been calling for years. Does the Under-Secretary agree that this very welcome move will mean that the complaints system will be both quicker and fairer, and will help to bring in more aspects of the armed forces covenant?

Absolutely. I completely agree with my right hon. Friend in his assessment of the benefits of this new system. As he says, Dr Susan Atkins has welcomed this greatly, and may I use this opportunity to pay tribute to the great work she has done? I notice that the Royal British Legion also welcomed these changes. The new system will do exactly as he says: it will help to speed things up, and where there has been maladministration the service complaints ombudsman will not shirk from making recommendations to the Defence Council, and we will see huge improvements.

Offshore Patrol Vessels

12. What progress his Department has made on its procurement of three new offshore patrol vessels from BAE Systems. (903056)

We are in negotiations with BAE Systems for the contract to build the three new offshore patrol vessels announced in November. As part of these arrangements, only last Wednesday, during a visit to Scotstoun, I announced that the MOD had committed £20 million to this programme, with the award of a contract for long-lead items, such as engines and gearboxes, which need to be ordered in advance. The main investment decision is due in coming months and construction work of the vessels is due to begin this autumn.

Will my hon. Friend also set out the timetable for the building of these frigates and ships, and say a little about when the base porting announcement might be made?

I thought that my hon. Friend might be interested in the base porting announcement. As is normal practice, we will make the announcement around the time of the main gate investment decision, which, as I have already said, is likely to be this autumn. I am sure that he will advocate strongly his constituency interest, but I have to advise him that other hon. Members will be doing so as well.

Army 2020

Under Army 2020, the Army will be equipped to face future threats after more than a decade of enduring operations and will remain capable of operating across the full spectrum of military capability, either at home or overseas.

The Minister said earlier this afternoon that the MOD cannot be “oblivious” to the country’s fiscal position, but the Treasury cannot have it both ways. If it insisted that the Army had to suffer dangerous cuts in a non-strategic review in 2010, surely in 2020, when the economy will be growing, the Army, in a dangerous world, is entitled to share in the proceeds of growth.

Again, my hon. Friend tempts me to stray into what are perhaps Treasury matters. It is evident that the Ministry of Defence must live within its means, as must all other Departments. There is no national security without economic security. That said, we believe that with Army 2020 we have a credible and realistic plan, and we are determined to carry it through.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while many of us would like to see more emphasis on and funding for defence within the money available, the rebalancing brings us into line with all other English-speaking countries? May I further report that my local TA battalion has recruited as many people during the last two months as during the previous 10, because at last the pipeline is starting to come unblocked?

On behalf of the whole House, I am delighted to receive my hon. Friend’s positive report. We do believe that we can meet the target. The reserve forces when I served in the 1980s had 75,000 men and women under arms. I have to believe that now, with a larger population, we can get to 30,000 trained, particularly as we start with 19,000 trained now. Put another way, it would require a net increase of only about 20 in each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies in this country across a period of four years. I believe that is eminently achievable and, backed by initiatives such as the corporate covenant to get employers’ support, we are getting on with it. We will deliver this programme.

Conflict Prevention

14. What steps his Department is taking to support conflict prevention; and if he will make a statement. (903058)

Together with the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence is a full partner in the delivery of the July 2011 building stability overseas strategy, and uses a multi-departmental approach to prioritise UK activity in upstream conflict prevention and stabilising fragile and conflict-affected states around the world in association with partner nations.

In addition, the Ministry of Defence has developed the international defence engagement strategy jointly with the FCO. Published in February 2013, this sets out how the Ministry of Defence can contribute most effectively to the building stability overseas strategy, as well as wider overseas Government objectives.

I welcome the Ministry of Defence’s involvement in the strategy. Security sector reform is one of its key elements with regard to conflict prevention. How do we ensure that, by building capacity among local security forces, we do not inadvertently enable repression and repressive tactics among those organisations, and that we instead make people feel safer in those countries?

My hon. Friend will be aware that, when taking training to countries we partner, we put a great deal of effort into instilling what might be called the “moral component” of warfare very directly into what we teach and into what we inculcate in them. That is a very strong part of our overall offer. We can never guarantee that the people we train will not go on to do terrible things, but we can reduce the chances of that happening and make sure that the ethos we are rightly proud of in our own armed forces is exported to others.

21. The Minister spoke about multi-departmental work, but may I press him on multilateral work? What is he doing to make sure that a priority of work with NATO and the European Union is a focus on conflict prevention? (903065)

My hon. Friend takes a great interest in this and will be aware of the large number of military and civilian missions that the European Union has mounted: there are 16 in all, four of which are military. My hon. Friend will be aware of the EU training mission to Mali—EUTM Mali—and EUCAP Nestor. It is very important to understand that in all of these scenarios we have to work with partners, meaning NATO first and foremost, but other partnerships where it is expedient to do so.

HMS Vanguard

15. What recent progress his Department has made on its response to the internal radiation leak aboard HMS Vanguard; and if he will make a statement. (903059)

Let me make it clear to the hon. Lady that there has been no issue with the reactor on HMS Vanguard or, indeed, any of our submarines. I announced to the House on 6 March that there had been a small fuel element breach in the naval test reactor at Dounreay, but that did not lead to a leak of radiation from the reactor circuit.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. What assessment has he made of whether the reactors on all Vanguard and Astute-class submarines will last the full lifetime of the submarines?

As I explained to the House when I made my statement, the purpose of the naval test reactor at Dounreay is to run the reactor hard and flat out, as it were, ahead of the operational reactors on the submarines, to see what happens as they approach the end of their planned life. The reactors on board our submarines have nothing like the percentage fuel burn that the reactor at Dounreay has now experienced, so we are looking at something that has developed at a much further advanced stage of the life of the reactor. We have, however, taken the decision, on a precautionary basis, to refuel HMS Vanguard during her planned deep-maintenance period. Once the reactor at Dounreay is decommissioned, it will be examined in detail and we will then have much greater evidence of what has caused the issue and be able to make sensible decisions about the future.

Will the Secretary of State advise whether and when the Commodore at Clyde naval base was alerted to a potential issue with the reactors of the Vanguard submarines, and whether, no matter whose responsibility it was, he would have expected the relevant local authorities— namely Argyll and Bute and West Dunbartonshire councils—to be alerted?

If there had been any health and safety risk or any risk to the environment, I certainly would have expected the relevant local authorities to have been notified, but there was none at any time. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency has a written agreement with the MOD that allows it oversight of these matters in military bases in Scotland. If it had thought there was any risk at any time, it would have notified the necessary civil authorities.

Topical Questions

My first priority remains the success of our operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are maintaining budgets in balance, developing our reserve forces, reinforcing the armed forces covenant and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped.

The people of Wiltshire love the Army and will welcome the 4,000 soldiers who are shortly due to return there from Germany, but we also love Stonehenge and the mysterious mists and swirling druidical mysteries that surround the stones. Will the Secretary of State look carefully at reports that houses to be built to house the 4,000 soldiers will block off the rising sun at the summer equinox, and if they do, will he make sure that it does not happen?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of preserving important sites such as Stonehenge and of having a careful approach to the design of any development that might impact on them. I, too, have seen the press articles to which he referred. I am happy to reassure him that although Larkhill is an important element of our strategy for accommodating troops returning from Germany—we intend to invest about £800 million in the area to accommodate 4,300 service personnel—no decision has been taken about the location of additional service accommodation. A public consultation is about to close, and organisations such as English Heritage have very clearly expressed the issues that he has raised. We will make a decision in due course.

Although we welcome the events in France and, indeed, around the UK to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-day in 1944, does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be appropriate to hold a national event in London at that great symbol of sacrifice, the Cenotaph, to provide a real focal point for remembrance here?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern that we should mark the 70th anniversary appropriately and, indeed, that we should learn the lessons of the past in this respect. I know that considerable work is under way to make sure that the 70th anniversary in France is a huge success, and that veterans and their carers who want to go are supported in returning to the beaches to commemorate this huge anniversary. On anything more than that, we will have to wait and see, but the important thing is to make sure that veterans and carers who want to go can do so in the manner they wish.

T2. An attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them. Can we therefore thank God that Ukraine never did join NATO, because otherwise we might now be involved in a European war? (903070)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), has already said, the status of Ukraine is quite different from the status of NATO countries—NATO countries enjoy the article 5 guarantee, which protects and assures their security—but we are doing everything we can to reassure our NATO allies about the protection that we offer. I am able to advise the House this afternoon that we have taken the decision this morning to offer NATO UK Typhoon aircraft from late April to augment the Polish contribution to the NATO Baltic air policing mission. I hope that will provide reassurance to our NATO allies in the east.

T6. In thinking about the importance of learning from the past, has the Secretary of State read “Why England Slept”, a little book by John Fitzgerald Kennedy? It is about Britain not being prepared in the 1930s for what was going to happen in Germany. Does he think that England, or Britain, is sleeping now, with an uncertain and unpredictable presence in the east of Europe? (903074)

I have not read the book, but I have said consistently in this House and elsewhere since I came into this post that we should not forget Russia’s very significant rearmament programme. Russia remains a major military force on the continent of Europe, and its interests are not always aligned with ours, as we have seen only too clearly over the past few weeks.

T4. Much as no one wishes to see the cold war return, do not recent events between Russia and Ukraine indicate that this is not some flight of fancy, but that it really could happen, and does that not mean that we must be extremely careful never to let down our nuclear or conventional defence guard? (903072)

What those events do show is that we have been right throughout in maintaining the need to continue with a strategic nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantor of Britain’s sovereignty and freedom of action. The world is a very uncertain place, while the time horizons for the provision of military equipment are very long, and we are looking forward 40 or 50 years in the planning. The events of the past months and years show that it would be a very brave man indeed who said that there would be no threat to our sovereignty and independence over that time horizon.

T7. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), admitted that he had wasted £50 million on the Cipher cyber-security project. This weekend, we heard that the NATO website and other websites came under attack following the recent actions in Ukraine. Will the Minister give us a timely assessment of the UK’s and NATO’s cyber readiness, particularly with regard to the situation in Ukraine? (903075)

The Cipher contract cost the MOD £46 million. Work under the contract ceased in June of last year at the end of a protracted assessment phase, which concluded that the project would not meet the full defence capability requirement at value for money for the taxpayer. I remind the hon. Lady that the contract was placed in November 2008. It is a classic example of the legacy of out-of-control procurement contracts that we were left when we took office in May 2010.

T5. To pick up the theme from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), between 1935 and 1939, defence expenditure doubled in response to the deteriorating security situation in Europe. Does the Department do any contingency planning to determine how our defence capability could be improved rapidly if there was a greater call on our nation’s defence resources? (903073)

As I have said before in the House, part of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review in 2010 was that we should focus, while consolidating our armed forces, on our regeneration capability in case the need arose, or the resources became available, for capabilities or scale of operations that we do not have.

We were delighted that the Secretary of State and his Australian counterpart made it through the Barrow fog to visit the shipyard on Thursday to announce major new infrastructure investment to make the Successor programme possible and the cutting of steel on the seventh Astute-class submarine. Did his conversations with the company and the work force on that day maintain his confidence that the leak in the test Vanguard reactor will not affect the build of the Astute programme?

I am not sure that I discussed that matter with the work force at Barrow, although I did have some interesting conversations that reassured me greatly about their commitment to the programme. We are clear that the incident at Dounreay will not have any impact on the progress of the Astute or Successor programmes.

T8. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute on St Patrick’s day to all the Irish citizens who currently serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces and the 100,000 who sacrificed their lives in the British armed forces during the first world war? Does he agree that our defence partnership with Ireland would be immensely strengthened if it considered joining NATO? (903076)

My hon. Friend will know that we are working closely with the Republic of Ireland to ensure that our period of shared history is commemorated appropriately. Today, we are operating with troops from the Republic of Ireland in Mali. He will know that the UK and Ireland stand shoulder to shoulder in EUTM Mali. It is a strengthening relationship and one that has great promise.

As the Secretary of State says, procurement times are long. Joint Helicopter Command has indicated that it requires a new fleet of Apache AH-64E attack helicopters for operational use by 2020. Has that contract been signed yet?

If the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the AgustaWestland contracts, he will be aware that last month the Secretary of State announced a contract for the sustainment of the existing Apache fleet for the next five years. Thereafter, we are looking to introduce a contract that will take the effective use of the helicopter up to 2040. Discussions on how we should go about procuring that sustainment upgrade are under way.

T9. In Budget week, will the Defence Secretary join me in commending Britain’s improved economic outlook, thanks to the Chancellor’s stewardship, which potentially gives rise to finding the annual £65 million required to run the second aircraft carrier? Does my right hon. Friend agree that operating two carriers would strategically extend and involve Britain’s diplomatic military influence in a manner not seen for a generation? (903077)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Chancellor on the remarkable recovery in Britain’s economic prospects. He knows well my own view, which is that having invested £3 billion each in building our carriers, it would look strange if we did not make every possible effort to find the relatively small amounts of money that will enable them to be operated, so that we can have a set of doctrine based on the continuous availability of a carrier at sea.

The Secretary of State gave a written statement saying that the armed forces complaints commissioner is now to become an armed forces ombudsman. Will he explain why an announcement of such importance to the House and the armed forces family was not made on the Floor of the House, rather than through The Times and through a written statement, as that would have given us far greater awareness of what was going to happen?

May I suggest to the hon. Lady that, as many of her colleagues have clearly understood, if Members wish to pursue a written statement further, they always have the option of asking an urgent question?

Given that Russia has effectively annexed Crimea, in contravention of the Budapest agreement signed by Britain, the United States and Ukraine in 1994, and that it continues to threaten eastern Ukraine, what consideration has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, or indeed NATO, given to mounting maritime exercises in the Black sea so that a message may be sent to Mr Putin’s Russia that any attack on Odessa would be a step too far?

We are clear that a graduated response to these unjustified actions by Russia is necessary, but it should be a diplomatic response in terms of economic and trade sanctions. Meetings are ongoing today across the European Union to try to agree the best way to deliver that response.

There is no doubt that the late Corporal McLaughlin of 3 Para demonstrated outstanding courage during the battle for Mount Longdon in the Falklands conflict of 1982. We know that a citation was put forward by his commanding officer, but it was apparently not considered by the MOD. Given that new evidence now casts doubt on the reason it was not considered, would it be reasonable for Ministers to look at the detail of the case and satisfy themselves that an injustice has not been served on Corporal McLaughlin, his unit and his family?

I have been to the Falkland Islands and visited the battlefield at Mount Longdon. Having done so, I can appreciate what a remarkable feat of arms it was for that assault to have taken place and to have succeeded. I fully acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s regimental links in all of this, but as he will know, the decision to give individual military awards is not a matter for Ministers of the Crown. Such things are examined through well-established procedures, and it is not down to Ministers to take individual decisions.

Is the Secretary of State aware that some Scandinavian armies are not allowed out after dark? This pernicious human rights culture is already infiltrating our armed forces. What will he do to exempt our armed forces from human rights laws?

There are issues about the encroachment of judicial processes into the operation of the armed forces. A number of cases currently before the courts, or pending, could have a significant impact, and we are watching them closely. We are clear that once we commit our armed forces to combat, they must be able to carry out operations without fear of constant review in the civil courts. If we find that the current cases develop in a way that makes that difficult, we will come back to the House with proposals to remedy the situation.