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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 584: debated on Monday 14 July 2014


The Secretary of State was asked—

Army 2020

The Army continues to implement Army 2020 structures in accordance with the announcement made by the Secretary of State on 5 July 2012. Headquarters Force Troops Command has formed in its new role, and Headquarters 1 UK and 3 UK divisions will commence their new roles this autumn. Units will enter the new annual training cycle from 1 January 2015.

Will the Minister explain why the only target the Government will meet is to shrink the full- time regular Army to 82,500 by 2018, so that the whole professional British Army will fit inside Wembley stadium? What does that say about the coalition’s priorities in terms of national security?

First, the reserve force is professional too, and the combined regular and reserved force will not fit inside Wembley stadium—although the way England has been playing of late, that may be a mercy. I remind the hon. Lady that the new defence approach does not represent our purely breaking new ground, but brings us more into line with our international partners. Reserves currently make up 17% of our armed forces, compared with 55% in the United States, 51% in Canada, and 36% in Australia. Under Future Force 2020, reserves will make up 20% of our armed forces and 26% of our Army.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Army 2020 model is to succeed it will depend on a proper pull-through of new recruits? Will he confirm that the Capita system, which made such a disastrous start, is now improving and achieving a satisfactory flow of new recruits?

I confirm that there have been problems with the computer system, and I have said that in the House previously. I also confirm that that is being improved, and that additional measures have been taken to streamline the process—for instance, by reducing paperwork and medical bureaucracy. The system is improving and the flow is getting better.

23. Last month’s National Audit Office report on Army 2020 showed that Ministers had not done the basic work to ensure the successful delivery of the reforms, particularly of reservist recruitment. Poor planning data had been used and assumptions were not tested. Why did the Minister not challenge those half-baked proposals? (904822)

When I served in the Territorial Army in the 1980s, I served on something called Exercise Lionheart in 1984. In those days, what was the Territorial Army had 75,000 trained men and women under arms, drawn from a smaller population. I have to believe that if we could achieve 75,000 then, we can get 30,000 trained men and women by 2018-19. We can do this, and I believe that we will.

The Defence Reform Act 2014 requires the reserve forces and cadets associations to prepare an annual report on the state of the reserves, and the Secretary of State to publish it. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that report was filed on time? When will he publish it?

22. Does the Minister agree with the National Audit Office’s conclusion on Army 2020, which was that the Department did not properly assess the value for money of shrinking the size of the Army? (904821)

We believe that we have properly assessed the right size of the Army to create a mixture of regulars and reserves to defend our country in the future, and I respectfully remind the hon. Gentleman that we mobilised 25,000 reservists for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom won gallantry awards fighting directly alongside their regular counterparts. We are very proud of our reserves and what they have achieved in the defence of this country in the past, as well as what they will continue to do in defence of this country in the future.

Although I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier answers, will he tell the House what is being done to get the money and processes of recruiting back into the hands of reserve units?

My hon. Friend—who, by the way, is responsible for the amendment that leads to the report mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon)—is familiar with the whole process, and he and I have discussed the matter on a number of occasions. To make the programme work as effectively as possible, we must continue to devolve responsibility for recruiting down to unit level to give commanding officers and their subordinate officers greater responsibility and challenge in meeting the numbers. As I have intimated to the House, that programme is already under way, and I believe that with his support, and support across the House, we can make this programme work.

The NAO report concluded that the Government’s incompetent handling of Army 2020 was leading to serious shortfalls in capability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) just announced, the only target they were meeting was handing out P45s. The Prime Minister’s announcement today of investment in special forces will ring pretty hollow as they go through a restructuring programme that has seen a reduction in their capability. Is this not yet another example of Ministers giving with one hand, only to take away with the other?

The reason we have been able to announce more than £1 billion of investment in equipment for our armed forces is the careful financial management we have had to undertake because of the financial train crash we inherited from Opposition Members.


2. What policies he is pursuing to prevent political disintegration in Afghanistan similar to that occurring in Iraq after NATO forces leave. (904800)

There are significant differences between Iraq and Afghanistan. Subject to the conclusion of a status of forces agreement with NATO, the alliance plans to continue to support the Afghan security forces and the Security Ministries as part of the Resolute Support mission. NATO countries reaffirmed the Chicago summit commitments of $4.1 billion a year towards Afghan national security force sustainment, helping to underpin the long-term stability of Afghanistan. We look forward to the status of forces agreement being completed as one of the first acts of the incoming Afghan President.

Two things seem to have caught everyone by surprise in Iraq: the very poor intelligence picture that the west has had on the caliphate forces; and the fact that nobody seems to have understood how weak the response of the official Iraqi armed forces was going to be to the Sunni insurgency. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that those two big failures will not be repeated in Afghanistan?

It is important to note that the failure of the Iraqi security forces was a failure of political coherence, not a failure in combat. Where they engaged in combat, they performed adequately. It was where they failed to engage at all that the problem arose. We expect to have far better situational awareness in Afghanistan, because of the continuing engagement through Operation Resolute Support in that country.

The Secretary of State will be aware of recent reports that areas such as Sangin, Now Zad and Musa Qala have fallen into the hands of the Taliban or the insurgents. Are those reports correct?

I think I said to the hon. Gentleman the other day that there has been combat in that area of northern Helmand and that the Taliban did take some ground from the Afghan national security forces. However, the ANSF rapidly regrouped, and almost without any support from the international security assistance force retook the towns in question. The ANSF are now in effective control of those towns on the ground. The Taliban attack has been defeated. That is not to say that the ANSF are not prepared for a further assault by the Taliban. This area of Helmand is by far the most kinetic in Afghanistan. It is a very dangerous area still, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

In the difficult circumstances that the Secretary of State outlines, some of those most in danger are the 600 interpreters who served with the British forces on the front line. In June last year, he outlined plans to allow them to resettle in the UK, so will he tell the House why, according to recent reports, only two of them have so far been granted visas?

I do not have the statistics on the current state of the programme to hand, but it is working and applications are being processed. I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact current state of affairs.


8. What plans he has to consult partner countries in the middle east about a solution to the current violence in Iraq. (904807)

I recently travelled to the Gulf for discussions with the Governments of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar to better understand the views of our closest allies in the region on the situation in Iraq. There is a shared view that only a political solution, based on a more inclusive Government in Iraq, can turn the tide against ISIS.

Would this House of Commons not be in a shameful position if, having caused this murderous civil war between Sunni and Shi’a by our wrong-headed invasion of Iraq, we now washed our hands of the situation? Nobody wants to commit ground troops again, but is there not a case to be made for committing advisers and, if necessary, special forces—any means necessary short of ground troops—to show our moral support for the existing Government in Iraq?

We have made it clear that we believe there are two steps. The first is a political solution to the situation in Iraq. Iraq must have an inclusive Government in order to rally the Iraqi security forces and to be able to provide an appropriate defence against the ISIS incursion. Our focus at the moment is on encouraging the formation of such an inclusive Government in Baghdad. Once a Government with broad legitimacy in the country is established, we will be open to considering requests for technical advice and support from that Government to reinforce the Iraqi security forces.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s initial answer. Does he agree with me that it is critical for the UK to remain close to all the regional players, including Jordan and Qatar, so that maximum influence can be brought to bear if any of these individual countries get drawn into Iraq’s internal security challenges in different ways?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that we remain engaged with the key countries in the region, and we will do so. It is vital, too, that we are acutely mindful of the pressures that the Governments of Jordan and Lebanon are under as a result of what is going on in Syria and Iraq. These are two very important countries, and we will do everything we can to support them in these difficult times.

In my right hon. Friend’s discussions with his counterparts in the middle east, did they say whether Mr Maliki was the right person to lead Iraq or whether former Prime Minister Allawi, having had excellent relations with Sunnis in Iraq and the wider middle eastern countries, is the right person to take Iraq forward?

Not all the Governments of our key allies in the middle east have such an understanding of the democratic process as we do. It is very clear to us in this country that it is not for us to comment on who should be the Prime Minister of a country following a democratic election. It is clear that the Government of Iraq need to be inclusive, and in direct answer to my hon. Friend it would be fair to say that there is a range of different views among middle east countries about the appropriateness of various individuals to lead such an inclusive Government.

Twenty years ago, John Major’s Government supported the Kurds and quite rightly protected them against Saddam, while Tony Blair’s Government did the same. Is it not now time for the British Government to recognise that the Kurdish region of Iraq, which is democratic, pluralistic and inclusive, needs support to defend itself against al-Qaeda-linked terrorism, and to support the pluralism and democracy that will grow from that region into the rest of Iraq?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Secretary went to Erbil on his recent visit to Iraq. The British Government’s position is clear: we need to keep Iraq as a unified state. The one thing that I heard in every one of the capitals I visited in the Gulf is that Iraq needs to remain a unified state. We should devote our efforts to trying to achieve that outcome—a unified state with a pluralistic Government.

I want to pursue the answer that the Secretary of State gave to the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen). Jordan is extremely important, so I think there is a collective responsibility to build up that country’s resilience. Will the right hon. Gentleman say a little more about what precisely we are doing?

The UK has excellent military-to-military relationships with Jordan. We send troops there for training for our own purposes and we provide technical support and assistance to the Jordanian armed forces. Many Jordanian officers come to the UK for training. We will continue to support the Jordanian armed forces and the Jordanian Government in every practical way we can.

Have the Government given any thought to the aftermath if they cannot get agreement on a broad-based Government for Iraq? What is likely to happen after that?

It is not for us to get agreement on a broad-based Government; it is for the Iraqi people to seize the moment to ensure the future continuity of Iraq as a unitary state. That is not assured. Clearly, there are three separate regions within Iraq, any one of which could seek autonomy if a broad-based Government in Baghdad is not formed. We have to devote our present energies to seeking to ensure that outcome.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to return to the issue of Jordan? That country is under grave pressure as a result of the influx of refugees. It is a country that is generally recognised to be both politically and economically fragile. The fact that ISIS has expanded its activities to such an extent that people believe Jordan could be menaced serves only to underline the importance of our assistance to a country that is enormously important to us, not least on account of its being a very long-standing ally. Can we be assured that this Government will understand the urgency of Jordan’s position and do everything feasible to ensure that it does not succumb to the undue influence of ISIS?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Jordan is a key ally in the region. Crown Prince Faisal will be at Farnborough tomorrow, and we look forward to discussing these issues with him. However, what my right hon. and learned Friend has said also emphasises the need for us to look at the impact of ISIS on a cross-regional basis. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan are all affected by its activities, and the threat that those activities represent will also be felt by many states in the Gulf and, indeed, in the west.

NATO Summit (Wales)

Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and other shipbuilders on the Clyde for their tremendous achievement in creating HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The Government have three clear priorities for the NATO summit in Wales. First, we will mark NATO’s achievements in Afghanistan, recognise the sacrifices that it has made, and draft the next chapter in our enduring support for the Afghan people. Secondly, we will send Russia the clear message that NATO has the necessary capabilities and intent to provide for the collective security of the alliance by means including the deterrence of further Russian aggression. Thirdly, those capabilities will also contribute to addressing the numerous challenges that emanate from an unstable world in NATO’s neighbourhood and further afield. In particular, we will underscore transatlantic unity through a commitment to defence spending and practical security sector support for NATO’s partners and friends.

I thank the Minister for that extensive answer, and on behalf of the 2,000 workers in my local shipyard and other yards throughout the United Kingdom I thank him for his kind words.

I am a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and, as such, I have meetings with NATO parliamentarians from the United States and Europe. They are of the opinion that Georgia should be given a membership action plan at the Wales summit. What is the United Kingdom’s view?

Let us be clear: this is not an enlargement summit. However, at a recent meeting, NATO Foreign Affairs Ministers determined that Georgia should be encouraged and given every support that it needs in its aspirations. They also considered other aspirants to NATO, and similar programmes have been mapped for them.

Given the importance of the Russia-Crimea issue to the NATO summit, and given the importance of the UK’s showing leadership at the summit, does it not provide a unique opportunity for us to make a statutory commitment to spending no less than 2% of our GDP on defence?

My hon. Friend is tempting me, but, in resisting his proposition, let me suggest to him ever so gently that our intent is to encourage other partner nations to step up to the plate and make their fair contribution. If we are to enjoy the insurance policy, we must pay the premium. Too many of our partners in this endeavour have yet to spend a proper proportion of their GNP on defence, and that must be our priority.

Cyber is certain to be a priority at the NATO summit, as it is a growing threat. Today there was an announcement of increased resources for ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—and cyber defence. However, the Secretary of State is seeking to sell off military spectrum capability. What work has been undertaken to establish the possible effects of that on military communications and equipment, given that it is an increasingly critical area?

We are, of course, keeping the spectrum that we need. I am very pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes today’s announcement, which is a result of prudent management of the defence budget early in the current Parliament. Let me also gently point out to her that this country has been independently assessed as being No. 1 in respect of preparedness for a cyber attack. Most of that is due to close co-operation between the Government and the commercial sector, which is vital in preparing this country to face down a possible cyber attack.

Article 5 of the NATO treaty currently specifies that if there is armed aggression against any member, there will be a collective military response, but of course most of the Russian activity in the eastern Ukraine has not been armed; it has been deniable, special forces and asymmetric. If there were similar Russian activities against the three Baltic states, would that constitute an Article 5 moment, and, if not, does article 5 need redefining, or perhaps even adjusting or changing, at the summit?

Article 5 stands. It is very clear, and any potential aggressor needs to fully understand the implications of it. My hon. Friend mentions Ukraine and, of course, we have been clear that the solution to Ukraine is primarily not military, but economic and commercial, and has to do with energy security, and that is where we are putting our efforts.

Middle East

I have regular discussions with the principal NATO Defence Ministers on issues of current concern, including the middle east. I attended the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels on 3 and 4 June, I met the US Deputy Secretary of Defence on 3 July in the margins of the naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth, and I will meet my French counterpart for talks at Farnborough tomorrow.

Given the increasing insecurity in the middle east and the crucial role NATO will be playing, what commitment has my right hon. Friend received from our European partners that they will also step up to the plate and commit to spending up to 2% of their GDP on defence?

There is an ongoing discussion among the European NATO partner nations about how to respond to the perfectly fair challenge the United States has set us, by asking the question: why should US taxpayers be prepared to pay for a defence of Europe that European taxpayers appear to be rather reluctant to pay for? I have to say to my hon. Friend that this discussion has been rather more fruitful and productive than I was initially expecting, and I am optimistic that we may reach agreement on a declaration at the NATO summit in Wales this autumn that will set a baseline for moving European NATO spending forward as the European economies recover.

Turkey is a critical ally within NATO. It is also struggling to manage the large numbers of refugees who have come over its borders both from Syria and Iraq. Can we be very clear in sending out a message to other nations also at the Newport summit that we will not stand by and see Turkey attacked before coming to its support?

Turkey is a full member of the NATO alliance and benefits from the article 5 guarantee that the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), referred to a few moments ago, so Turkey can be assured that the alliance will stand behind it both militarily and, perhaps of more immediate importance, in providing assistance to it with the huge humanitarian challenge it is facing from this influx of refugees.

Given the insecurity in Ukraine and the middle east, is the MOD giving any thought to reconstituting the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction force?

Such a move would be a matter for SACEUR—Supreme Allied Commander Europe. I have not heard of any such ongoing consideration at the moment, but I am happy to check my facts and get back to my hon. Friend if I am wrong.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the widespread public concern about the current conflagration in Gaza, and the women and children either dying or threatened with death. I am aware that there is a statement this afternoon, but none the less my constituents will expect me to be telling the Secretary of State that they hope that every arm of Government will be bending every sinew to work towards a ceasefire.

Of course, the Government’s position is that there must be an urgent ceasefire and, although we have been saying this for a very long time, there must be progress towards a two-state solution, however challenging achieving that sometimes appears. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement shortly. The role of the MOD in this matter is not central and I hope it remains not central; it is a Foreign Office lead and I am sure my right hon. Friend will be happy to answer the hon. Lady’s question more fully.

Military Covenant

The armed forces covenant is a symbol of the debt we owe to servicemen and women, veterans, and their families. As the House will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence reports annually to Parliament on progress in implementing the covenant.

Since the last report was published in December 2013, significant achievements include the allocation of £40 million to fund accommodation projects for veterans and the establishment of the £200 million forces Help to Buy Scheme. I am also delighted to say that the vast bulk of local authorities in Great Britain, from borough councils to county councils, have signed a community covenant, a tangible commitment to supporting our armed forces

I welcome today’s announcement of released extra investment in special forces, which will be very welcome in my constituency. The Royal British Legion and SSAFA have set up a new military charities advice service in Hereford and in Ross-on-Wye, supported by Herefordshire council. Will the Minister join me in praising the volunteers who staff that new service, and the council, which has taken a leading role in promoting the community covenant?

I am very happy to praise my hon. Friend’s council and the volunteers who do such vital work for the wider armed forces community, and I am extremely happy to praise those two very good charities, not least as we in the Ministry of Defence have for some while been encouraging charities to work more closely together—what one might in the military community call the principle of combined arms—and to see these two great charities combining forces for the benefit of the wider armed forces family is excellent, and I commend them for their efforts.

The Prime Minister has found rather a large amount of cash down the back of the Secretary of State’s sofa, with which he is now playing catch-up with the UK’s defence capabilities. But did any of the Ministers argue at any point that some of this money should be spent on armed forces housing, which remains a key priority for armed forces families, or in addressing the unfairness in the previous war widows’ pension schemes? I remind the Minister that the noble Lord Astor has estimated the cost of sorting out one of those schemes at £70,000 a year.

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome for our equipment announcement today. The Government are committed to removing the disadvantage faced by our armed forces, and that is why we enshrined the key principles of the covenant in law. We have committed £105 million during the past four years to upholding the covenant; £30 million for the community covenant; £35 million for the LIBOR fund; and £40 million to fund a range of accommodation projects for veterans. In addition, £10 million per annum will be available in perpetuity to support the commitments for the armed forces covenant from 2015.

Armed Forces (Recognition)

9. What steps he is taking to ensure that the commitment and sacrifice of the armed forces is recognised by the public. (904808)

15. What steps he is taking to ensure that the commitment and sacrifice of the armed forces is recognised by the public. (904814)

I am in no doubt whatsoever that the British public are incredibly proud of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. This pride was emphatically displayed at this year’s Armed Forces day, which was a resounding success. The national event in Stirling was attended by more than 35,000 members of the public, and across the rest of the UK more than 200 regional events were organised by local authorities and community groups, including one at Woolwich barracks, which I was delighted to attend. I am told that social media activity around Armed Forces day this year reached more than 3 million people.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating organisations such as ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, for which I recently jumped out of a plane; the Essex Military Support Association, which organised the excellent South Essex Armed Forces day; Basildon council, which has awarded the Royal Anglian Regiment the freedom of the borough; and a group of residents who have recently refurbished the Stanford-le-Hope war memorial? As well as the Government having a role, does he agree that the community has a wider role as well?

In the 1990s, I served on Basildon council, once described as the only local authority in the United Kingdom where at council meetings the council has actively heckled the public gallery. I commend what it has done for the covenant, I commend the Essex Military Support Association, an event that I attended in Armed Forces week, and I particularly commend my hon. Friend for courageously jumping out of a perfectly serviceable aeroplane in support of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and the wider armed forces community. He did a brave thing and we commend him for it.

May I also draw the Minister’s attention both to my local regiment, the 1st Battalion the Rifles, which demonstrated commitment and sacrifice on its two tours of Afghanistan when, sadly, it took a number of losses, and to Captain Angus Buchanan VC who won his Victoria Cross in the first world war saving two of his wounded comrades? His Victoria Cross has been bought by the noble Lord Ashcroft and is shortly to go on display in the Imperial War museum.

I pay tribute to all those who have won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour that this country can possibly convey. As we approach 4 August and the commemoration of the first world war, I am sure that Members from all parts of the House are very conscious of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defence of our freedom. It was Pericles who said:

“Freedom is the sole possession of those who have the courage to defend it.”

They had that courage and we remember them.

I recently had the honour of attending the rededication of a refurbished war memorial in Whitburn village in West Lothian, which had been taken in hand by the local community, aided by local councillor George Paul. Added to the memorial was the name of Sapper Robert Thomson of the 35th Engineers, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, and one of the most poignant moments was when his mother laid flowers beneath his name. What are the Government doing to encourage and assist communities to add the names to war memorials of those members of the armed forces who have died in recent conflicts?

I have been impressed by a number of schemes across the country in which local authorities and schools have taken a greater interest in war memorials. For instance, I have heard about projects where primary schools have been invited to research the names of those who are on war memorials. We all know why that is fundamentally important. I was at the National Memorial Arboretum yesterday to attend the unveiling of a monument to the Essex Regiment, the Second Battalion of which came up the beach on D-day. We say on Remembrance Sunday, “They will never be forgotten.” They never will.

Bereavement Leave

10. What the Government's policy is on bereavement leave for parents and spouses of armed forces personnel killed during service. (904809)

The Government are employers in two respects. Anyone in the civil service who finds themselves in this horrible position can apply for up to five days of paid leave, which can be extended depending on the circumstances. Members of the armed forces who lose a loved one in service are entitled to up to four weeks of paid compassionate leave.

I thank the Minister for her reply. My constituent Bill Stewardson lost his son Alex who served with the Duke of Lancaster’s regiment in Basra in 2007. On his next working day, Bill was told by his manager:

“You can have one day’s carer’s leave for the funeral— and we don’t have to give you that.”

Since then Bill has campaigned tirelessly for statutory bereavement leave for the parents of members of the armed forces lost on active service. Does the Minister agree that that is the least we can do and will she work with colleagues to bring forward such proposals?

I am aware of the case that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I congratulate him and his constituent on their campaign. This is actually a matter between employers and employees, and it is also a policy direction under Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but that does not preclude me, or other Ministers, from having a view. I would not be in favour of putting such a proposal in statute; it would be far too complicated and difficult—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is chuntering as ever, but he obviously has not given the matter much thought. I imagine that there will be many others who will also want to have that sort of bereavement leave. Statute is not the way to do this. The way to do it is for employers to do the right thing by all of those who face such circumstances, just as we must do in Government.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

11. What progress his Department has made on the next strategic defence and security review; and if he will make a statement. (904810)

The Government’s priority remains the delivery of the outcomes of the 2010 SDSR which was launched in May 2010 and published in October that year. The next review will of course be after the general election, and therefore its direction will be a matter for the next Government. The MOD, alongside other Government Departments, is engaged in early preparatory work that will feed this as part of a Cabinet Office-led process.

The Minister will know that civilian contractors already play an important role in responding to the growing cyber-security threat that we face as a country. But what further consideration will he give to reviewing recruitment procedures in order to consider direct recruitment to some of those specialist roles, so that we can meet the cyber-threats of the future.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Reserve forces were mentioned in response to an earlier question and cyber-capability is one of those niche areas in which reserves will be able to bring something to the piece. This is a difficult and complex area and as we move forward into a different defence environment, we must think carefully about the new niche capabilities that we need.

Army 2020 doubled the savings expectations from the Army following the strategic defence and security review. Reserve capability is important. What is the training strength of the Army Reserve today?

I am a reservist, so I should really know the number off the top of my head, but from memory it is a little shy of 20,000.

It would be churlish not to start by wishing everyone well in the forthcoming reshuffle—[Interruption.] I knew that comments would be made; I do not mind.

Given the importance of the question, I am absolutely amazed that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) is answering and not the Secretary of State. How does today’s announcement by the Prime Minister relate to decisions taken in the previous strategic defence and security review in 2010 and to preparations for next year’s review? Where has the money been taken from? The Prime Minister has cut hundreds of special forces personnel, but he now says that the special forces are being given additional capability. He said that he had saved money by scrapping Sentinel, but now says that that money might be used to keep it. Is it not the case that today’s announcement has as much to do with PR for an ailing Government as it does with an SDSR for the country’s future?

Today’s announcement comes from proper financial prudence and the proper management of a budget, something which the previous Labour Administration so signally failed to do. If I may say so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State deserves a great deal of credit for bringing our defence budget back into balance, which is why the Prime Minister is able to announce £1.1 billion of investment. It is a pity that the Labour party does not welcome that a little more fully.

It is the same old song, but this Government’s record does not stand up to scrutiny, which is what we are discussing today. Four years on from the previous SDSR, the Government have given a little with one hand, having spent four years taking far more away with the other. The Secretary of State has gone from denying there was an underspend to saying that it was earmarked for future equipment costs and to saying that it was for contingency. He now announces that it will be spent on things that were cut in the first place. Will he finally admit that he does not have a grip on where the Department is going or what it is doing about the SDSR and that he is just making it up as he goes along?

Oh dear, oh dear. The hon. Gentleman is inhabiting a parallel universe. The Labour party left a £34 billion black hole in 2010, and it has taken some tough decisions to bring us to where we are today. Today saw the announcement of £1.1 billion of spending and a further £160 billion over a 10-year period. Where would we have been had the Labour party still been in power four years on?

MOD Donnington

12. What recent representations he has received on future employment at MOD Donnington; and if he will make a statement. (904811)

The Secretary of State has an uncharacteristically ashen face, but I am sure that the sensation will pass.

As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) knows, I have visited MOD Donnington a couple of times. My most recent visit was on 15 May, when I had the opportunity to meet representatives of both staff and the trade unions. I have received representations from both hon. and right hon. Members of the House, including from my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour.

I am grateful for that reply. While I may not be right honourable, I nevertheless hope that MOD Donnington will feature in the Minister’s thinking over coming weeks as he decides on the successful bidder for the future logistics of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

As my hon. Friend knows, we are currently engaged in introducing private sector management skills into the logistics and defence support group activities carried out at Donnington. Both are at advanced stages of negotiation, so I am unable to give him any more information at this point about the competition. However, as soon as a decision is reached, he will be one of the first to know.

Trident Commission

13. What assessment he has made of the recommendations of the concluding report of the Trident commission set up by the British American Security Information Council. (904812)

I welcome the commission’s conclusion that while there remains the possibility of a direct nuclear threat to the UK, we should retain our nuclear deterrent. We are clear that for this to be effective we need to retain a continuous at-sea deterrent posture, as we have for the past 46 years.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Will he confirm that the British American Security Information Council Trident commission report did not consider a two-boat solution?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. There have been suggestions that, to save a relatively small sum of money, Britain should abandon continuous at-sea deterrence and opt for a part-time deterrent, with boats tied up alongside or even sent to sea without nuclear weapons on board. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government firmly reject such advice and I can further assure him that a Conservative Government will never take risks with Britain’s strategic security.

In welcoming what the Secretary of State for Defence has said, may I remind him that those on the Labour Front Bench have similarly committed to the retention of Trident and continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence? Does he therefore agree with me that whatever the complexion of the next Government, there can be no possible excuse for failing to renew Trident—whether in coalition, in government or in opposition? Wherever we are, we all ought to be committing to renewal in the next Parliament.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that there is no possible excuse for not doing something that is absolutely necessary to Britain’s long-term strategic protection. However, I note that there are two parties represented in the Chamber this afternoon that do not support that agenda.

Nuclear Deterrent

Government policy remains as set out in the 2010 strategic defence and security review: we will maintain a continuous submarine-based deterrent and are proceeding with the programme to replace our existing submarines.

There are potential threats from hostile regimes around the world, and I have heard what the Secretary of State has already had to say. Does he agree, however, that any surrender of our deterrent would not only leave us vulnerable but weaken our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council?

My hon. Friend is exactly right, although of course we maintain our strategic deterrent as the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty and independence of action. It is worth remembering that there are still 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and so long as that is the case, we must be able to protect the British people against them.

As the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) just had the finger rather distinctly pointed at him, I rather thought that he might be pricked into responding.

It appears not. Never mind, he is a model of calm and patience. We will move on—I think we will get Sir Peter Luff in.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

17. What plans he has to encourage public debate on the defence needs of the UK in advance of the strategic defence and security review in 2015. (904816)

Public debate on defence matters and Britain’s place in the world is always welcome and the Ministry of Defence encourages this through its frequent engagement with Parliament. We also routinely engage with the service community, academics, think-tanks and other stakeholders in the course of policy formulation and I would expect this to accelerate in advance of the formal Cabinet Office-led cross-Government SDSR.

Given the importance of winning the informed consent of the British people for the payment of the insurance premium that guarantees our freedom and security, will my hon. Friend commit to following the good, if somewhat belated, example of the previous Government and publishing a Green Paper to build consensus ahead of the next SDSR?

The precise questions to be asked and the nature of the asking are a matter for the next Government, since this review will take place after the general election. Of course, both parties, of which one is likely to form the next Government, are represented in the Chamber today and I have no doubt that they are listening to what my hon. Friend has to say.

Topical Questions

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 priority is delivering Future Force 2020 by maintaining budgets in balance, building our reserve forces, reinforcing the armed forces covenant and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces get the equipment they need at a price the taxpayer can afford.

I recently attended the wonderful and much loved annual RAF Waddington international air show, but the Minister will know that next year’s show has been cancelled by the board of the RAF to accommodate refurbishment work to the runway. Although I am pleased that the work is taking place, the air show generates more than £12 million for the Lincolnshire economy and about £500,000 for forces charities, so can the Minister reassure me and my constituents that the air show will return to the base in “bomber county” north of London in 2016-17, and certainly in time for the 100-year anniversary of the RAF?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the great success of the air show at RAF Waddington, which I believe he attended the other day. He is also right to point out that the runway is in need of routine maintenance—essentially, a new runway needs to be laid, which will take 59 weeks starting in September—and therefore it will not be available next year. The RAF is undertaking a review of all air show commitments for next year, so we will be in a better position to respond on 2016 when that review has been completed.

The Government made a clear decision in the 2010 SDSR to withdraw the important Sentinel capability from service. There is now speculation that it is to be retained, although it is not named in the news release that has gone out—it sort of slipped under the media radar. Does the Secretary of State accept that, like the F-35 U-turn costing millions, this is another example of poor strategic decision making and more back peddling?

No, and I think the hon. Lady will find that the capability was mentioned in the announcement that has been issued. The decision was made to take Sentinel out of service at the end of the campaign in Afghanistan, for reasons of affordability. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, because of careful husbandry of the defence budget, we have now been able to take the decision to extend Sentinel once the Afghan campaign has ended, at least until 2018. That will allow us to look at the capabilities that Sentinel delivers—wide-area surveillance of fast-moving ground targets—in the context of our broader need for wide-area surveillance capability, both maritime and over land.

T2. The F-35 Lightning II should be one of the world’s most advanced combat aircraft, not least thanks to British expertise at companies such as GE Aviation and Ultra Electronics, but it was sadly missed at Gloucestershire’s royal international air tattoo—a very exciting event this weekend. Can Ministers reassure the House that that has no implications for its service for the United Kingdom from 2018? (904839)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the importance of the F-35 programme to businesses up and down this country, including in Gloucestershire. Last year, the F-35 suffered an engine incident, which is being investigated. It is absolutely right that the safety of aircrew and aircraft are of paramount importance, rather than seeking to attend air shows around the world. Obviously, we would welcome the F-35 once it has been declared safe, and we are still hopeful that it will arrive at Farnborough before the air show finishes.

T7. Although today’s announcement is welcome for companies in my constituency such as MBDA, which is of course at Farnborough this week, does the Secretary of State think that announcing a re-spend on things that he cut in the first place will make up for the hundreds of millions of pounds wasted on botched decision making, bad equipment decisions, IT failure, a recruitment crisis and collapsed procurement reforms on his watch? (904844)

I do not know who writes this stuff, but what has happened is very simple. We have got the defence budget under control. We have set up the armed forces committee, which comprises the chiefs of the individual services, and we have allowed them to set the priorities for requirements in the military equipment programme. As headroom becomes available, we accept their advice on the urgent priorities. They have identified a package of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance measures, which they consider now to be the highest priority for defence expenditure, and that is what we have announced today.

T3. British defence exporters, such as GDT in Newark, can take their stands at Farnborough today with renewed confidence as a growing part of our economy. GDT grew by 10% last year and the sector by 11%. What steps are the Government taking proactively with companies like GDT to ensure that this success continues? (904840)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the Farnborough air show, which I attended this morning for the Prime Minister’s opening. He was highlighting at Farnborough, not just to the British defence supply chain, but to representatives of the international supply chain who were present and to the international delegations visiting from abroad, just what a high-quality defence industry we have in this country, and as he pointed out, we cannot have a secure economic growth plan without a secure national security plan.

As we know from the recent services inquiry of the Military Aviation Authority, three of my constituents died aboard colliding Tornado jets above the Moray firth in 2012. Among the contributory factors may have been the absence of a collision warning system. When will we see a collision warning system installed in Typhoon aircraft?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, because he called an Adjournment debate on this subject last week, at which he asked that very question and I gave him the answer, at present we are investigating the introduction of a system on Typhoon, and at this point it is not appropriate to give him a timetable or a cost for that introduction.

T4. If Pericles were alive today, I am sure he would have been at the Farnborough air show, looking at all the amazing equipment that is available to defend our freedoms. One piece of equipment is BAE Systems’ Taranis unmanned air vehicle. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that this Government will continue to support that technology to ensure that we have manufacturing and research and development capability for the future, both militarily and commercially? (904841)

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that I shall be signing with my French counterpart at Farnborough tomorrow the Anglo-French collaboration agreement on unmanned combat air vehicle research, which will support the programme in which BAE Systems is engaged.

How many of the former soldiers sacked by the Secretary of State for Defence in historic acts of vandalism have found permanent employment—not employment on the basis of single-hours contracts or temporary employment, but permanent employment? Will he put the figures in the House of Commons Library?

We find that, among those who leave our armed forces, an incredibly high proportion—some 86%—find employment within six months. That is because they are eminently employable by virtue of the service that they give to our country.

T5. The Red Arrows based at Scampton in my constituency are one of the most popular public faces of the RAF, but unfortunately their Hawk T1 aircraft ends its service in 2018. Can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that RAF Scampton has a future with the Red Arrows and that they will be provided with suitable aircraft? (904842)

The decision on replacement aircraft for the Red Arrows does not have to be made until 2018, but my hon. Friend will have heard the Prime Minister say that, so long as he is Prime Minister, the Red Arrows will continue to fly.

Now that the Secretary of State for Defence might be leaving, having cut to the bone the armed forces to the lowest figure ever, many of them to be thrown on the scrapheap, is he looking forward to trying to employ them when he is in charge of the Department for Work and Pensions, or will he enjoy sorting out universal credit?

What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that my Department has an excellent relationship with the DWP, looking at ways in which we can support those who are out of work and seeking to acquire the skills, soft and hard, necessary to get back into work, to get them into the reserve forces and trained in the reserve forces while looking for civilian employment at the same time. [Interruption.]

Order. An hon. Gentleman should not be talking about kicking people in an unspecified location. It is rather unseemly. I think I heard what he was driving at, if I may put it that way.

T8. In view of the uncertainty about the future of Public Health England at Porton Down and the imminent submission of the outline business case to the Treasury, will the Minister confirm that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is ready and willing to work collaboratively on a Porton-based solution for the future of the PHE facility there? (904846)

My hon. Friend is a valiant champion of all that goes on in and around Porton Down, and he is to be congratulated on the work he did in securing the science park funding last week. With regard to the CL4 facility at Porton Down, which is co-shared with Public Health England, the Ministry of Defence will be working with the Department of Health to ensure that the best solution is found for the country as a whole for the future of CL4 facilities.

What discussions has the Ministry of Defence had with North Lincolnshire council in recent weeks to ensure that the disposal of the Kirton in Lindsey base benefits the local community rather than damages it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows—we have corresponded on the matter—discussions with the local authority are ongoing. Our intention is to ensure that the site has a use that accords with our need for disposals, but in a way that the local community will appreciate. I believe that we will end up in that position before very long.

T9. The naming of HMS Queen Elizabeth is extremely welcome, and it will be even more so when we have some planes to fly off her decks. When the First Sea Lord says that“continuous carrier availability… means having two carriers, not one… a modest extra premium to pay for an effective, a credible, an available, insurance policy”,does the Secretary of State agree? (904847)

Whether to bring the second carrier into service is a decision for the SDSR in 2015, as we have always been clear. Equally, I have always been clear that my personal view is that when one spends £6.4 billion of taxpayers’ money building two ships, one had better strain every possible sinew to operate them both.

Before the Secretary of State finalises the agenda for the NATO summit, will he revisit his decision and stance on a statutory basis for spending 2% of GDP on defence? His hand would be infinitely strengthened if he could say to other NATO members that not only do we already spend 2%, but we are committed to continuing to do so on a statutory basis.

It is for NATO as an organisation to set the agenda for the summit, not the UK; we merely host it and pick up the bill for doing so. We have been in the lead in seeking to agree across the member states a statement about the future financing of NATO, a statement that will answer the challenge—I referred to it earlier—that the United States has been persistently and quite legitimately raising over the past couple of years. I am confident that we will have a positive statement to make at the NATO summit.

Given that Britain is an island state that is very dependent on our trade routes, has my right hon. Friend yet decided how many Type 26s we will need and where they might be base-ported?

The programme for Type 26 envisaged 13 frigates being ordered. It is likely that the fleet will be split, as the current frigate fleet is split, but no final decision has yet been made.

When does the relevant Minister expect to announce a decision on the normal pension age for workers in the defence fire and rescue service?

That is a long-running problem. As my hon. Friend will know, those in our defence fire and rescue service are actually employed as civil servants, so it is a difficult one, but we hope to make a decision as soon as possible.

As Ministers cannot sign early-day motions, may I exceptionally ask the Secretary of State for a comment on EDM 252, which commemorates the sacrifice of 7,000 British soldiers in the Normandy battle for Hill 112? It was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). What it does not say is that his father was one of those 7,000: Captain Paul Cash won the Military Cross a few days before he was killed 70 years ago yesterday.

I was aware of the role our hon. Friend’s father played in that decisive engagement, and I am sure that the whole House will join the sentiment expressed in the EDM. It is one of a number of EDMs that Government Front Benchers regularly regret being unable, by convention, to sign, but I am very happy to have this opportunity to indicate my strong support for it.

When the Minister is taking a decision on the retirement age for defence, police and fire personnel, will she take into account the fact that the strenuous activity demanded by this job is more in line with the other uniformed services than with the majority of civil servants, and that I believe that a retirement age of 60 is appropriate?

Yes, indeed. Having been to see the work of the fire service myself, I am fully aware of all these arguments. As I say, I very much hope that we will be able to make a decision sooner rather than later.