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Topical Questions

Volume 580: debated on Monday 12 May 2014

My first priority remains our operations in Afghanistan and the successful completion of the draw-down of our combat role by the end of this year. Beyond that, my priorities are maintaining budgets in balance, rebuilding 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.

Supporting the small but significant group of veterans who leave the armed forces and then struggle in civvy street is of paramount important. The excellent Veterans Contact Point in my constituency provides support for such veterans in the Warwickshire area. What more can the Government do to support such excellent organisations, and will the Secretary of State or one of his team visit it?

I think that my hon. Friend was trying to plug a visit, and he has done a good job, because I would be more than happy to go and see that organisation. Often it is those small, local charities that can deliver the best—I certainly have one in my constituency. We have made available millions upon millions of pounds in LIBOR funding for exactly those sorts of organisations to deliver those much-needed services.

Today’s report from Combat Stress flags up the increasing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the increasing willingness of people to seek help earlier, which is a thoroughly good thing. The Combat Stress community outreach team provides those vital services and benefits from the existing funding, as the Minister has highlighted. Will she confirm that it is her intention that that level of funding will continue beyond the end of this financial year?

What I can say is that we have given £10 million of LIBOR funding, effectively in perpetuity, to support our excellent charities. Combat Stress, for example, has received £2.7 million from that, and the outreach team, which the hon. Lady mentioned, received £2 million. May I also make a correction? I think that earlier I said that about £7 million of LIBOR funding had gone into mental health, but it was actually £13 million. We also have many other measures to combat this very concerning condition.

T3. As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have seen at first hand the excellent contribution that men and women make to our armed forces. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to encourage the recruitment of women into our armed forces? (903970)

Women play an important role in our armed forces. Just recently we passed a seminal moment in the history of the Royal Navy, with women officers being assigned to duties in the submarine service for the first time. However, we want to make further progress, and to that end, as has been widely reported, I have asked the Chief of the General Staff to bring forward the next review of the question of women in combat roles in the Army and to report back to me by the end of the year on the opportunities such a move would present and the challenges that would have to be addressed.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that Dudley is home to A Squadron The Royal Mercian and Lancastrian Yeomanry, a brilliant reserve unit that is well supported and has deep roots in the local community. Will he join me in congratulating it on the brilliant recruitment day it organised a few weeks ago, which I was privileged to be invited to attend? Is that not exactly the sort of initiative we need if the reserve forces are to help Ministers meet their targets? (903972)

I am familiar with the dispositions of that well-respected regiment, because B Squadron is recruited from its base in Telford, which is adjacent to my constituency. I am delighted to hear the good recruiting result that the hon. Gentleman refers to. I have further good news for Dudley residents: as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces indicated, reserve units can recruit beyond their structured liability in the event that they have success in recruitment, and we intend for the Dudley and Telford squadrons to be able to continue to recruit to up to 125% of their strength.

T4. Iran’s position as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism was highlighted once again in March when Israel intercepted the Gaza-bound Klos-C ship with a deadly cargo of advanced long-range rockets. What estimate has my hon. Friend made of Iran’s continued support for terrorism and the effect that that has on our security and strategic interests in the middle east? (903971)

Iran’s known support for militant groups across the middle east remains cause for grave concern, and it rather undermines President Rouhani’s stated desire to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbours. The UK will continue to work with allies to ensure a suitable response to Iran’s destabilising activities.

T6. The Ukrainian army is short of basic equipment such as secure radios, bullet-proof vests, and even sleeping bags and blankets. Has there been any consideration of how we could assist? (903973)

The UK has excellent relationships with the Ukrainian armed forces, and we have worked with them over a period of years. We have received a request for additional equipment from the Ukrainian armed forces, and we are considering carefully how to respond to that request.

T8. In the light of Sir John Holmes’ review, will the brave aircrew who were involved with bomber aircraft that were not part of Bomber Command but still flew sorties over Germany—such as my constituent, Theo Eaves, who was then based in southern Italy—be recognised with the Bomber Command class? (903975)

The entire nation should have enormous admiration and respect for the contributions made by our RAF crewmen during the second world war. Such matters are part of Sir John Holmes’s continuing military medals review, which is independent of the Ministry of Defence. He is aware that those who flew on bombing missions with other elements of the RAF outside Bomber Command have made a case for further recognition, and he is considering that as part of his review. I am told that he will report back shortly.

Defence Munitions Beith in my constituency employs 236 people and maintains and services complex weapons systems. Has the Department been involved in any discussions about what would happen to Defence Munitions Beith in the event of a yes vote in September?

I pay tribute to Defence Munitions Beith, which does a hugely important job and is right at the very centre of defence in the United Kingdom. The straight answer to the hon. Lady’s question is no, because to pre-negotiate would place the Scottish and UK Governments in an invidious position. We do not intend to prioritise one part of the UK above another in advance of the referendum on 18 September.

T9. Further to the exchange that the Minister and I had in the House on 16 December, can he confirm that he would expect that an MOD objection on the grounds of low- flying aircraft in the area of a proposed onshore wind farm, such as Bullingdon Cross in my constituency, would be taken extremely seriously by any planning authority and by the Planning Inspectorate? (903976)

My hon. Friend and I have discussed this matter in the past. He knows that the MOD is working hard to find a solution to mitigate the effects of onshore wind turbines on the things that we do. In the meantime, it is important that the MOD does object to planning applications that may get in the way of its defence deliverables.

Further to Question 14, has the Minister had any discussions with her Commonwealth equivalents about enabling Commonwealth veterans to get to France for the D-day celebrations next month?

I personally have not, but I undertake to make full inquiries when I go back to the Ministry to see whether any of my officials have done so, and to write to the hon. Gentleman.

T10. What steps are the Government taking to encourage former reservists to re-enlist? Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of us old veterans may still have something to offer? (903977)

We are particularly keen to get former reservists to re-enlist, not least because of the experience they bring to the role. My hon. Friend practises what he preaches. He served as an Army reservist in Afghanistan, left what was then the Territorial Army, has clearly missed military service, and has recently joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to wish Officer Cadet Lopresti the best for the future.

Our military are increasingly subject to a legal regime that is increasingly costly, both financially and operationally. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Defence Committee’s recommendation that the next strategic defence and security review must examine the legal framework within which they operate and have less regard to human rights law and more regard to the law of armed conflict?

It is essential that when we deploy our armed forces in combat, they are able to operate without having both hands tied behind their back. An increasing spate of costly actions are being brought against Her Majesty’s Government by contingent fee lawyers on behalf of foreign nationals. We are spending £31 million on the Al-Sweady inquiry, the principal allegations of which have collapsed. A number of legal cases are under way and it is not clear that the legal situation will have been clarified by the time of the next strategic defence and security review. The legal processes are very long-winded. The commitment I have made is that if the legal situation is unsatisfactory when those cases come to their final conclusion, we will take further measures, whether by legislation or other means.

On placing orders for Royal Navy ships, including fitting replacement engines, does the relevant Minister agree that the national security importance of guaranteed ongoing servicing in the UK must be the determining factor, instead of a foreign deal that weakens Britain’s long-term defence interests?

As the hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished member of the Defence Committee, knows, this Government believe in open procurement to get the best value for the taxpayer, not only in procuring equipment initially, but in sustaining and supporting it, including diesel turbine engines for Her Majesty’s royal naval ships.

The Minister has referred to the important project of the Type 26 frigates. He will know that the first HMS Gloucester was launched in the Commonwealth in the 1650s and that the 10th HMS Gloucester was decommissioned only a couple of years ago. Does he agree that nothing would be more appropriate than for the 11th HMS Gloucester to be a Type 26 frigate?

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful case. I have to inform him, however, that the decision of whether the next class of frigate will be named after locations, people or whatever has yet to be taken, but his points have been well made.

Do Ministers know whether the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq will be published by the time of the general election? If so, which one and what is causing the delay?

Both my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister have called for early publication of Sir John Chilcot’s report. I voted against the Iraq war, but served in Iraq in 2003 and I, too, would rather like to see this publication in my lifetime.

I have been saving up the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) as a favoured delicacy of the House.

Is there any evidence that the recent developments in Ukraine are impressing upon all of our NATO allies the importance of spending at least 2% of their GDP on defence?

I assure my hon. Friend that the question of the levels of defence spending among NATO allies and commitments to future defence spending will be an important theme at the NATO summit in Wales later this year.