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Topical Questions

Volume 586: debated on Monday 20 October 2014

My immediate priorities remain our current operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL and Ebola, as well as the commitments reached at the NATO summit and the delivery of Future Force 2020 by building up our reserve forces and investing in the equipment that our armed forces need to keep Britain safe.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Red Arrows on their 50th display season this year? Will he give an assurance that the future of the Red Arrows is secure under a future Conservative Government? The shadow Secretary of State was unable to give such an assurance for a future Labour Government.

Yes. As the Prime Minister made clear, so long as there is a Conservative Government, the Red Arrows will continue flying.

The reported bonus package allowable under new Treasury rules for the new chief executive officer of Defence Equipment and Support would certainly embarrass a banker. In the interests of openness and accuracy, will the Minister confirm exactly how many freedoms and flexibilities there will be? Importantly, have the proposed managed service providers been told about them, and if so, please will he make them available to Members of the House and the shadow defence team?

The hon. Lady is referring to the recent advertisement for the new chief executive of DE&S. I think that she and the whole House will agree that for one of the largest procurement programmes in Government—£14.5 billion a year out of a £164 billion programme—we need to get the best person for the job, who needs to be adequately rewarded. I will leave it at that, because the recruitment process is in progress. As far as the MSPs are concerned, the freedom allows us to recruit 25 people within DE&S at in excess of the Prime Minister’s salary.

T2. To return to cadet forces, the excellent Sandbach school in my constituency has run a popular combined cadet force since 1948. The head teacher, Sarah Burns, has told me that the leadership and life skills it develops are particularly positive for the most disadvantaged pupils who attend. It is a vital part of community life, but proposed funding changes threaten its future. May I add my voice to those urging the Minister to review these plans? (905504)

I thank my hon. Friend not just for her question, but for her letter. I have seen letters from various schools in her constituency, and I note that a large number of them are state schools with existing CCFs. It would not be our plan at all to threaten any existing CCF, and we will do everything we can to ensure that that does not happen. However, we have to look at a good funding solution for our expansion programme, which is exactly—with a new Secretary of State—why we have consulted on it.

T7. I welcome the contract awarded for maritime support at HM Naval Base Clyde. Will the Minister give more detail about how many apprenticeships will be created through the contract? (905509)

I can give the hon. Gentleman a little extra detail, but I may not satisfy him completely. The contract values by location are £1.98 billion at Devonport, £600 million at Portsmouth and £632 million at the Clyde, which breaks down to £2.6 billion for Babcock and £600 million for BAE Systems. Of course, both those companies are intimately engaged in the defence apprenticeship programme.

T3. In May, I joined North West Leicestershire district council in signing up to the armed forces community covenant. Will the Minister update the House on how many councils have now signed up to the covenant, and what assessment her Department has made of the resulting benefits to members of the armed forces and their families? (905505)

I am pleased to say that all local authorities have now signed up to the covenant. We must now make sure that everybody delivers on it. If I may say so, it is beholden on councillors and, indeed, MPs to make sure that we now see real delivery at local level and put the covenant into practice so that none of our service personnel and their families, or indeed our veterans, suffers any disadvantage because of their service.

What local economic impact assessment is being undertaken on each of the bids coming in as part of the Defence Support Group sell-off?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the DSG bids are being evaluated. I will not be in a position to enlighten the House further until the evaluation has been completed.

T5. I listened with interest to the Minister’s responses to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) about Ebola. I welcome his commitment to providing further resources, if they are needed. Given how quickly the situation can change with Ebola, how frequently will he review the need for more personnel? Has he considered training more people to deal with Ebola before they go into the field? (905507)

As I hope I made plain to the House, we have taken extreme care to train all the people who will be deployed to Sierra Leone to take on this difficult disease. It is important to remember that we are doing that not in isolation, but with international partners. For instance, the United States is leading in Liberia and France is leading in Guinea. We need to get more international partners to join the fight to beat this disease.

The Minister for the Armed Forces will know that, with the support of the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce, I had arranged to visit the west Mercian Regiment in Fallingbostel in the spirit of the armed forces covenant. Unfortunately, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority did not approve the designated journey. Given that IPSA, after representations from various people, has reconsidered its policy, does the Minister agree that it is of the greatest urgency that it should issue revised guidance on the scope for proper visits?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her doggedness. As she will recall, we have had exchanges on this matter before. She has persuaded IPSA to change its mind, which does not happen every day of the week. We congratulate her and are considering erecting a small statue to her in Parliament square.

T6. I welcome the deal that the Secretary of State signed last week in Gibraltar. Does he agree that it shows that the UK’s commitment to Gibraltar is as strong as ever? (905508)

Yes. The agreement that I signed last week with the Chief Minister, whom we welcome to London today, is for the resurfacing of the runway, a transfer of surplus land for the benefit of the Gibraltar economy and the fuller incorporation of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, all of which demonstrates our long-term commitment to Gibraltar and should leave nobody in any doubt as to the strength of British sovereignty there.

Given their localism rhetoric, why have the Government ignored their published guidance on the disposing of assets at market value to public authorities that express an interest in acquiring them in the case of Kirton in Lindsey air base?

I am aware of that issue. In fact, I have just signed a letter to the hon. Gentleman. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the future and what has happened.

T8. What impact will the decision to use, rather than sell, the second aircraft carrier, the HMS Prince of Wales, have on the defence of the realm? (905510)

I am delighted to confirm our decision to deploy the second carrier within the Royal Navy. It will ensure that we have one carrier available 100% of the time, either at sea or at very high readiness. The carriers will give us unprecedented flexibility over the next 50 years to deploy our power globally to assist in joint strike fighter operations, peacekeeping, conflict prevention missions and the provision of aid and assistance in times of humanitarian crisis.

What will the Government do to help unblock the long-stalled deal with the Indian Government for the innovative Barrow-designed and built M777, and when will the Army start using that superb piece of kit?

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion and I pay credit to him for his work in helping BAE Systems to conclude its contract with the Indian Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is due to visit India between now and Christmas. We are in active discussions in support of the US efforts—the contract is being placed through BAE Systems Inc.—to secure the order.

T10. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that Iraqi forces can conduct a ground war against ISIL? (905512)

I can tell my hon. Friend that 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment is already training the Kurdish peshmerga in how safely to maintain, operate and use British-gifted heavy machine guns. We have run one course and a second course is under way. We are working on additional courses in specialist skills. We will, of course, authorise further commitments to train Iraqi or Kurdish troops, if it is consistent with the strategy to defeat ISIL on the ground and consistent with the support of our coalition allies.

I welcome Thursday’s statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), about the submarine dismantling project. Will the Minister confirm that as far as he is concerned we are still on course for early dismantling, and will he meet me before the end of the year to discuss further the future of Rosyth?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the consultation, which will take some time. We are arranging consultation exercises in public in each location proposed on the shortlist—of which his constituency is one—and I would be happy to meet him before Christmas as part of those efforts.

The only way that we will militarily defeat ISIL is to face it in battle on the ground. Will my right hon. Friend say which of our allies and friends in the middle east have committed themselves to providing forces such as infantry to close with the enemy and deal with them?

It is our view that the advance of ISIL can only be dealt with, and that it can only be driven back to the border by, a home army of Iraqi and Kurdish forces that other countries are ready, able and willing to support, help to train, and provide with arms and ammunition. We have made it clear that neither ourselves nor the Americans will deploy our combat troops on the ground.

How many bombing raids has the RAF been involved with in Iraq to date, and on what basis does the Secretary of State judge how effective they have been?

Around 37 combat missions have been undertaken by the Royal Air Force since Parliament gave that authority, and a further mission is being conducted today. Success is measured not simply by the number of airstrikes, but also by the intelligence gathered and the surveillance in support of ground forces. That has already had some success in pushing ISIL back to the civilian areas.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to maintain our essential Apache helicopter capability a procurement decision for the upgrade must be made soon?

My hon. Friend is aware that the Ministry is considering a number of options to sustain the attack helicopter capability. We have not yet made a final decision on procurement strategy, but we expect to do so soon. Our existing fleet is due to remain in service until 2025, and in January this year we announced a £500 million package of support to keep the aircraft flying until 2019.

When awarding defence procurement contracts, large or small, what levers do Ministers have to ensure that supply chain economic multipliers are maximised, particularly in areas such as south Wales that give so much in other ways to our armed forces?

As my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary told the House in answer to an earlier question, the contract to award the Scout armoured vehicle is the largest single contract that has been placed under this Government since 2010, or to the British Army for 30 years. The Ministry’s job is to get the best deal with the prime contractor, and it is down to the prime contractor to secure the best supply chain.

There is an unsatisfactory anomaly whereby war widows can keep their pensions if they remarried before 1973 or after 2005, but not in between. That is an unhappy and unsatisfactory anomaly for war widows, so will the Secretary of State or the Minister look at it?

We have a new Secretary of State, and he, I, and other Ministers, continue to consider that issue. Notwithstanding how much sympathy—perhaps that is not the right word—but support we might have for the argument made, there is a real legal problem and difficulty with retrospection, and that also occupies our minds when deciding what to do.

What can the Minister for reserves tell us about the future of the Barnstaple Territorial Army centre? He knows that the existing unit does not want to relocate more than an hour’s drive to Exeter, so can they stay where they are?

I was with the Royal Wessex Yeomanry on Saturday, and in the gentlest possible way may I remind my hon. Friend—of whom I am extremely fond—that he promised me a short written brief on the subject? I look forward to discussing that with him and seeing what can be done.