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Topical Questions

Volume 588: debated on Monday 24 November 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. I want to build up our reserve forces and invest in the equipment that our armed forces need to keep Britain safe.

Has the Secretary of State noted the comments made today by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) who said that he is very disappointed

“that there appears to be no public dialogue about the Strategic Defence and Security Review in advance this time round?”

Why are the Government so reluctant to have an open and transparent debate about the future of Britain’s defence?

There certainly will be a public dialogue and debate about the security review, but the review is planned for next year, and it would be premature to start it before then.

T2. The number of cyber-attacks against computer systems in the UK are increasing every year, and it is suspected that foreign Governments may well be involved in some of those attacks. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to deter such attacks, and what is being done to protect our critical infrastructure? (906169)

The Ministry of Defence takes the cyber-threat very seriously. Indeed, I visited one of our joint cyber-units only last week. The priority is to keep our networks and systems defended and operational. Since 2010, we have invested several hundred million pounds to help maintain the UK’s cyber-security and cyber-defences. In July, the Prime Minister announced a package of investment for our armed forces, which included a further £75 million over four years to help maintain a leading edge capability in this vital field.

Opposition Members were pleased that the Secretary of State took the opportunity, following articles that suggested the opposite, to confirm that the Type 26 will be built in Scotland and not overseas. However, he did not take the opportunity to allay fears about the slippage in the programme, with the approval date going beyond mid-2015. Will he do so today?

Let me take the opportunity absolutely to reinforce the point the hon. Lady makes. UK warships are built only in UK yards. I do not think I can make the position on the Clyde any clearer, and I hope she will take some reassurance from that. I am aware of what she says about the timetable and we are addressing that. I hope that we can make some early decisions, at least on some of the longer lead items that feed into the Type 26 programme, in the very near future.

T4. We are the only country in the world to pay legal aid to foreign nationals to sue our own soldiers. The MOD spends many millions more defending these claims. Is there anything more that the Secretary of State can do to divert these millions of pounds away from the legal profession on to the equipment budget? (906172)

I agree with some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. There is no place, in my view, for European human rights law to come into any of this. We have a Geneva convention and we have good strong international law that should determine these matters. I am concerned, however, about how some solicitors act. All solicitors, like those in all professions, are guided by strict codes of conduct and if anyone thinks that a firm of solicitors or an individual is not abiding by that code, they should absolutely report them to their professional body so that swift action is taken. They should at all times behave with complete integrity.

T3. Official figures show that the Government granted 68 export licences for nearly £7 million-worth of military-use items to be sent to Israel between January and June of this year. What discussions did the Defence Secretary have with the Business Secretary about those licences and why did the Government refuse to suspend them during the offensive on Gaza this summer, when they clearly broke the guiding principle of being responsible exports? (906170)

The Government were concerned to look at any export licences that had been granted and undertook an initial review in August. We launched another review earlier this month and when it is available we will respond to the hon. Lady.

T6. I sincerely welcome the Government’s recent decision to grant pensions to forces widows who remarry. However, there are still 126 divorced spouses, including one of my constituents, who are denied access to their anticipated pensions due to an administrative error by an agency of the Ministry of Defence. In the light of the recent decision, will the Minister reconsider these cases and see what can be done across government to put this right? (906174)

The short answer is yes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on his constituent’s case. He can be assured that I am aware of the ruling. Consideration is being given by lawyers from both the MOD and the Department for Work and Pensions. I am very happy to continue to work with him and to help his constituent.

T5. Is the Secretary of State not concerned about what has happened in Georgia and Mr Putin’s record of expansion towards the rest of Europe? Does that not worry him? This is a time when the Government are weak on the European Union, in their relationships across Europe and in their partnerships in NATO. Are they not the worst Government? They are allowing Britain to sleep—[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, Mr Speaker. They are allowing Britain to sleep and they are a Government who remind me of the age of Neville Chamberlain. (906173)

There was a reference earlier to Captain Mainwaring and I think the answer to the hon. Gentleman is, “Stupid boy.” That is not the position. We are a predominant member of NATO and I am as concerned as anybody by the actions of President Putin in destabilising eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea. The northern members of NATO discussed that last week in the Oslo meeting and we are determined to continue a programme of large-scale exercises involving multiple countries in the territories of the eastern members of NATO precisely to provide reassurance to those countries and to deter Russia from any further aggression.

T7. My hon. Friend recently signed an £800 million contract for the development of a state-of-the-art radar system for the Eurofighter Typhoon. What are the implications of that decision for the protection of our skies and for British jobs? (906175)

The contract signed last week in Edinburgh is a major step forward in developing radar capability for the Eurofighter Typhoon. It will increase operational effectiveness by simultaneously tracking air and ground targets at range. It also represents a significant investment in the UK defence industry, sustaining jobs in BAE Systems in Lancashire and in the whole radar supply chain, including some 500 jobs in Scotland, half of which are for highly skilled engineers, which would not have happened in the same way had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom.

The construction costs for the second aircraft carrier have been identified within the MOD equipment budget. However, Government Front Benchers have been reluctant to identify the operational costs. As well as having a second carrier, would it not be a good idea to be able to put it into operation? Will they take this opportunity to clarify the position?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to explain once again to the House that it is this Government who have decided to make both carriers operational, unlike the previous Government, who were going to leave the second one tied up. The Ministry of Defence is now conducting a detailed analysis to develop how best to utilise the capability, including man power and aircraft numbers, which will become clear as part of the strategic defence and security review 2015.

T8. In addition to Army Reserve numbers going backwards over the past 18 months, recent answers to written parliamentary questions show that there has been no improvement in the age profile of the existing Territorial Army/Reserve, with the average age of the infantryman stuck at 35 and the average age of senior non-commissioned officers and junior officers in the 40s. Why are the Government not tackling that? (906176)

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for his question. On his premise, I remind him that over the past six months numbers have been moving firmly in the right direction as a result of the upturn in recruiting. On his question about age, I make no apology for a reserve force recruiting some older people, especially ex-regulars, who bring much experience. Fitness is a major requirement for all those people, and it is this Government who over the past few years have re-established a common standard for fitness across regulars and reservists.

In the 2010 SDSR the UK Government committed to reducing the number of launch tubes from 12 to eight. A recent opinion poll issued by the US navy states that the American firm General Dynamics will build 12 Trident missile launch tubes for a successor UK submarine, something that has not yet been approved by this Parliament. Is that true? If so, why has the House not been informed, and why do we need to learn about it from US navy press releases?

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, this Government have committed to spend up to £3 billion on the successor deterrent system, and that includes some preparatory work for the common missile compartment. There is nothing new in that announcement.

With 1,000 people killed since the Minsk accord in Ukraine, with up to 1 million displaced and with NATO countries such as Lithuania looking as though they might be prepared to be more deeply involved, can we be told what the latest news is from the European monitoring team on the state of the ceasefire and the risk of escalation involving NATO countries?

I will ensure that the Foreign Office updates my hon. Friend on the latest status of the monitoring. The best answer we can give is to make it absolutely clear that the sanctions will stay in place and, if there is any further destabilisation of Ukraine, they should be increased. In the meantime, it is important that all NATO members keep up their defence spending and commit to the very high readiness taskforce that was agreed at the NATO summit.

I have pressed Ministers previously about the increase in pension age for MOD police and firefighters, who merely want parity with their civilian counterparts. Will Ministers look at this again given the very high costs associated with redeploying older workers and people having to be retired early on heath grounds?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Negotiations continue, but the MOD Police Federation takes the view that it is looking for retirement at 65. It is not quite as simple as straight parity with the civilian forces, but we continue to negotiate with everyone.

As a friend of the Forces Children’s Trust, which you, Mr Speaker, very kindly host in your apartments every year, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the children of service widows will have a guaranteed pension until the age of 18 despite the fact that their mothers may have remarried?

I do not know if I can give an answer to that; it is a new one on me, if I may say so. No doubt my hon. Friend will want to discuss it further with me, and I am more than happy to do so. Again, this is where the power of the covenant comes in, because if people can establish a disadvantage, then the covenant can deliver justice.

Today in Craigneuk in my constituency, the first sod will be cut on the building of new homes for ex-service personnel. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the local volunteers who have been working so hard to ensure that this much-needed project goes ahead?

Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend—I hope he does not mind me calling him that; he knows exactly what I mean, because he is a friend in this regard—on the work that he is doing to support such great schemes. These schemes are doing remarkably good work, not only in delivering better homes but, invariably, enabling the veterans who get involved to learn skills and helping those who have been damaged in any way to restore themselves and get back into the world of work.

I read in the media that the greatest threat to the United Kingdom is considered to be so-called Islamic State and jihadism. While I am not a great fan of deploying troops to Syria, does the Secretary of State believe that NATO, the western powers or the coalition in Iraq—whomsoever—should be reassessing the help they are giving in Syria and in Iraq to defeat Islamic State?

The Prime Minister has made it clear that ISIL can only be defeated both in Iraq and in Syria. There are now some 50 countries involved in a huge international and regional effort to support the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their action against ISIL in Iraq, but we also have to consider what more can be done in Syria. We support the United States in its strike missions in Syria, and we are looking at what more can be done to train moderate Syrian elements outside Syria itself.

May I commend to Ministers the film “Kajaki”? It is a brutal but brilliant account of soldiering on the front line in Afghanistan, and, as such, should be seen by all in this House. Will the Secretary of State consider going to see the film?

I understand the importance of the film, which conveys very dramatically the very difficult circumstances that our forces had to overcome. I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman up on that suggestion.

Order. We are short of time—indeed, out of time—but we must accommodate Jackie Doyle-Price, who has been standing for a long time.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As we approach the 200th anniversary of Gurkha service in the British Army, will my hon. Friend look with sympathy on the recommendations made by the all-party group on Gurkha welfare so that we do right by these veterans of the British Army too?

A short yes is the answer to that, but I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her group for the fantastic work that they have done and the excellent report they produced.

I do not like seeing patient colleagues disappointed, so let us speed on. I call Mr Alan Reid.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that negotiations with defence police and firefighters are still ongoing, but time is running out because the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 comes into effect on 1 April. Will my hon. Friend ensure that these negotiations are concluded to the satisfaction of both sides well before then?

My hon. Friend has been pressing me on this issue for some time and I can confirm today that while the Clyde will become our main submarine base from 2020, HMS Torbay and HMS Trenchant, which are both due to decommission shortly, will remain at Devonport in order to minimise disruption to their crews and the crews’ families.

I am taking a relaxed attitude, the House should know, because there is protected time for subsequent business and I cannot bear to see colleagues disappointed unnecessarily.

How much has been spent on advertising to support the current reserve recruitment, and how much is budgeted to be spent on advertising in future?

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this unexpected boon. As he prepares for next year’s SDSR, may I commend my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on the merits of an open and inclusive process that maximises the involvement of the public, Parliament, industry and academics?

I certainly welcome that suggestion. I think there should be a wide-ranging process. The point I made earlier was that we cannot start the review now in 2014—it is scheduled for 2015—but it is important, obviously, that we consult widely when it gets under way, not least with our international allies.

In welcoming the announcement about war widows, may I ask whether it is the case that a war widow who lost her widow’s pension on remarriage but who has subsequently become single again is eligible to have it reinstated and never taken away under any circumstances thereafter?

I believe the answer is yes, but I have to be cautious and say that if I am wrong I will, of course, inform both the House and my hon. Friend.