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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 590: debated on Monday 12 January 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cadet Units

We are on track to achieve our target of 100 new combined cadet forces in state schools by September 2015. That will ensure that, whatever their background or school, children will have a great opportunity to enjoy all the benefits of being in the cadets.

I am proud to have 1104 Pendle squadron air cadets in Nelson and Army cadet force units in Briarfield and Barnoldswick in my constituency, but we are yet to have any cadet units in schools. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the funding model for all combined cadet forces?

We decided that we would look at the current funding so that we could make sure that we were in a position to expand. We consulted people and I am grateful that they responded in the way that they did. We listened to what was said and as a result we will not change the funding model. We are confident about the expansion plan, which I hope will go into my hon. Friend’s constituency. I look forward to discussing that, and how we can assist further, with him. It is a good idea.

18. Will the Minister proactively promote youth cadets, particularly in our state schools, for which it is not such a natural course to follow? Will she also talk to her Cabinet Office colleagues responsible for the National Citizen Service as a way of getting more recruits into the uniformed youth services and of recruiting more youth leaders to help run them? (906913)

I absolutely endorse everything my hon. Friend has said. So far, there are 64 new cadet units of which 47 are up and running. I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a wonderful opportunity. It is particularly important that we expand the cadet experience into state schools, because it should not just be the domain of the private sector.

Tower Hamlets is the lead borough for police cadets. We also have fire cadets, a sea cadet unit is being set up on the Isle of Dogs, and I am president of the 31 Tower Hamlets air cadet training corps at Mile End. How much support will be given to cadet units that are not associated with schools, but that are based in the community?

We know that there are more community cadets. They are all equally important and we are determined to do everything we can not just to support them, but, as we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, to encourage more young people to take advantage of the benefits, opportunities and the fantastic experience that the cadets offer.

I strongly support the Government’s initiative for 100 new CCFs in schools across the land. It is a great idea, but the Minister mumbled over the question of the funding formula—[Interruption.] I apologise: she most certainly did not mumble. To put it a different way, I am a little unclear as to what she meant about the funding formula. Will she guarantee that she will not do what she originally planned, namely fund the CCFs by charging existing cadets up to £500 a year for membership?

That was a gracious withdrawal. I have periodically accused the Minister of things, fairly or unfairly, but I have never, ever accused her of mumbling and I cannot imagine ever doing so.

Some people wish I would mumble a bit more, Mr Speaker. Let me make the situation very clear, in case my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) did not hear me, which I find astonishing. There will be no changes. We are determined to support all our cadet units, wherever they are, but we are particularly keen to see growth into the state sector. Everybody should welcome that, especially Government Members because we are the first lot to actually achieve it.

The House will know from the previous Question Time that I was in the combined cadet force when I was at Hampton school many years ago, but I understand that I will never be gallant. May I draw the Minister’s attention to the concerns of the recently retired children’s commissioner that people as young as 17 could serve in combat duties on the front line?

As a comprehensive schoolchild I never had the benefits of the CCF, which is why I am such a keen supporter of the scheme. I did not have the benefit of going to the independent school that perhaps the hon. Gentleman went to.

It was a grammar school. I will move swiftly on to answer his question. [Interruption.] The Hartland was a very good school—I think the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and I both went to it. [Interruption.] Oh no, he went to another one. Anyway, the important point is that I do not share the view of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). This is not about children being put on the front line. I am confident that our duty of care and the way in which we train everybody who joins our armed forces are absolutely right. We take our responsibilities very seriously. Nobody under the age of 18 goes on to the front line—we need to make that very clear.

I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for listening during the consultation. The proposal was very nearly a disaster for the existing CCFs and they rescued it. I thank them very much indeed. Although I understand the desire to have CCFs in state schools, I ask the Minister not to lose focus on the Army cadet force as the policy continues.

I absolutely will not lose focus. It is worth saying that we listened to all the representations that were made. We also know and understand that we have a duty to live within our means as a nation and to keep within the Defence budget. That is why we always look at such matters with great care. We looked at the matter, we listened and, in this instance, we did not act. The policy will therefore continue and I am confident that it will do so with success.

UK Military Personnel (Afghanistan)

Let me start by passing on our congratulations to the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved knighthood. Our commitment to the current NATO Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, the UK element of which is known as Operation Toral, amounts to about 470 UK military personnel. They work in support of the democratically elected Afghan Government, who have just announced their new Cabinet.

I thank the Minister for his kind remarks. The benefits that our service personnel, as well as our diplomats and development workers, have brought to Afghanistan at such cost over the past 13 years could be swept away in part or all of that country, as has happened in Iraq, if the new Resolute Support mission to support the Afghan national security forces does not provide the support that is necessary. Can he reassure the House that Resolute Support will be maintained for as long as is necessary to guarantee the gains that have been made over the past decade?

Along with our NATO allies in Resolute Support, we are committed to the long-term security of Afghanistan. On the UK contribution, we continue to lead mentoring at the Afghan national army officer academy and to provide mentors in the Afghan security institutions. We are also taking the lead on the Kabul security force, which is a key enabler for managing and assuring the protection of UK and NATO personnel in Kabul. The hon. Gentleman mentioned sacrifice. We lost 453 personnel who died in the line of duty in Afghanistan. They made a great sacrifice to give the people of Afghanistan a future and we will never forget them.

Will the Minister outline for the House what role he sees for the Army Reserve in contributing to Operation Resolute Support?

As a former reservist, I am delighted to do so. Army reservists have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will continue to serve in Operation Toral. I believe that some elements of 3PWRR—a regiment close to the heart of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier)—will deploy to Afghanistan shortly as part of the security force. Reservists will be an important and integral part of our commitment under Operation Toral.

Army Reserve

3. What assessment he has made of recent trends in recruitment to the Army Reserve; and if he will make a statement. (906896)

The trained strength of the Army Reserve at 1 October 2014 was 19,310 and we expect it to exceed our end of year target of 19,900. Enlistments in the first two quarters of the year were 62% above the equivalent period in the previous year and we expect the latest quarter to show a further increase, owing to the removal of delays in the recruitment process, the restoration to units of the key role of mentoring recruits and the new marketing campaign.

Ministers raised the age limit for Army reservists from 43 to 52 after recruiting, as I understand it, only 20 new reservists—somewhat short of the 30,000 they were aiming for to cover the cutting of 20,000 personnel from the Regular Army. Recently in east Yorkshire, there has been filming for the new “Dad’s Army”, so I wondered whether Ministers thought it might be appropriate for the cast to keep their uniforms on.

In the latest six months, 2,130 recruits were enlisted into the Army Reserve. I ask the hon. Lady to think very carefully before making jokes about the Army Reserve. Whatever policy differences there are, 30 members of the reserve forces—24 of them from the Territorial Army—have died on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Recruiting for the cyber-reserves is on course in all three services, but I am afraid that I am not allowed to give any details of the planned structure, for obvious security reasons.

Reservists in the Royal Army Nursing Corps are putting themselves in significant danger as they are called up to serve in Sierra Leone to help combat Ebola. Why is the Ministry of Defence refusing to pay those brave people their operational allowance?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s admiration of those people, and I was privileged to see them off just before Christmas. I note that the senior nursing officer in the rotation—effectively the commander in the red zone on the current operation—is herself a reservist.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question directly, those people are entitled to a number of other allowances, and we are looking at the moment at the issue that he mentions. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will write to him when it has been determined.

The latest MOD figures show that the trained strength of the Army Reserve has actually fallen over the past 18 months. Can the Minister inform the House of the extra cost that has been incurred, over and above the original estimates, to encourage recruitment? The MOD’s continued silence on that suggests either embarrassment or ignorance.

On my hon. and gallant Friend’s first question, by looking back 18 months he is looking back past the bottom of the trough. The past six to nine months have been much more encouraging, and the next quarter is expected to be even better.

My hon. and gallant Friend has asked his second question again and again, and we have explained that, although we acknowledge that there are some extra costs, there is no way that we can separate them from the whole picture. Some of them are one-off costs, and some of them are connected with regular recruiting as well—we have to remind people, post-Afghanistan and so on, that we are recruiting.

The original plan to reform the reserve force stated that a force of 30,000 would be required by 2018. That was pushed back to April 2019, and last week in The Times, well informed sources in the MOD suggested that the date may well be pushed back even further. Can the Minister confirm exactly when the 30,000 strength will actually be met?

We are still firmly committed to April 2019 as the target date. As I have mentioned, recruiting has increased substantially. If we look at the latest quarter as opposed to the latest six months, we see that it has roughly doubled. Over the past six months it is up 62%, but over the second half of that period it has gone up even faster, and we expect a further continuation of that positive trend. We are firmly committed to April 2019.

Nuclear War

4. If he will publish research held by the Government on the global atmospheric consequences of nuclear war. (906897)

Classified studies conducted by the Ministry of Defence focus on the effects of UK nuclear weapons and the potential impact, including on critical national infrastructure, of a nuclear attack on the United Kingdom.

Under the 30-year rule, Cabinet papers for 1984 have now been published. They show that the Government at that time refused to undertake any study of the atmospheric effects of a nuclear weapon explosion or nuclear testing. As I understand it, no other study has been undertaken since then. At the conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons in Vienna, there were some disturbing—no, frightening—reports of what would happen to the world’s climate if any nuclear explosion took place anywhere. Does the Minister not think it is incumbent on the Government to tell the British people exactly what the consequences of a nuclear explosion are, not just for them but for the whole planet?

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to some declassified Home Office documents, which as Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence I confess I have not read. I believe that nuclear deterrence contributes materially to our national security. If the hon. Gentleman wants to read a really good study on nuclear deterrence, I recommend “On Nuclear Deterrence: The Correspondence of Sir Michael Quinlan”, published by the Royal United Services Institute in 2011. It is a ripping good read about how to keep a country safe and free.

Does the Minister understand that at a time when we are rightly outraged and mourning the deaths of 17 people at the hands of terrorists, it is a terrible paradox that every hour of every day this nation deploys a nuclear weapons system that will kill directly millions of people, and due to its climate effects could kill up to 2 billion? Does he think it is time to engage with a new Austrian initiative that could ultimately lead to a ban on all nuclear weapons and is, I stress, a multilateral initiative?

I respect the position from which the right hon. Lady approaches this issue, but as I have said, I believe that maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence is the best way to deter nuclear exchanges, rather than lead to them. In fairness, she has been absolutely consistent and long standing in her views about nuclear weapons, which is more than we can say this week for her party leader.

I am sure my right hon. Friend agrees that we would all like nuclear weapons not to exist, but sadly they do. Given that, is it not rather strange to hear cries for disarmament on the very day we read that former President Gorbachev has said that the likelihood of a nuclear conflict around Ukraine is much greater than it has been since the end of the cold war?

The Conservative party remains firmly committed to continuous at-sea deterrence to provide the ultimate guarantee of our nation’s security, and as a former Armed Forces Minister, I know my right hon. Friend shares that view. Conservative Members also share that view; what is the view of the leader of the Labour party?

A recent report suggested that the long-term climatic effects of nuclear war could include low light levels, sub-freezing temperatures and heavy air pollution that could place the global ecosystem in serious jeopardy. If nuclear weapons had existed since Roman times, statistically all that may have come to pass by now. Does not that show the danger to the planet of the madness that is nuclear weapons?

A nuclear war would be a tremendous danger to the planet. That is why it is better to deter it.

Defence Capability (Conventional Weapons)

5. What plans he has to consider delivery of UK defence capability through conventional rather than nuclear weapons as part of the 2015 strategic defence and security review. (906898)

The next strategic defence and security review is a matter for after the general election. My Department is preparing for the review, but our focus remains the delivery of the 2010 review.

In a period of changing security threat, and as the national security strategy noted in 2010, is it not sensible to consider how ending the Trident replacement programme would release resources that could be spent more effectively on other security measures, as well as on a range of other public spending priorities, not least our national health service?

Successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, have been committed to our continuous at-sea deterrent for more than 45 years, and I hope that the Labour party in Scotland will not waiver from that. It would be extremely dangerous to move to any kind of part-time or lesser deterrent, and the Conservative party will not gamble with Britain’s national security.

My right hon. Friend has just made that commitment to continuous at-sea deterrence and, as I understand, it is the position of both main parties that the successor submarines for Trident should go ahead. Will he therefore guarantee to me that there will be no question of any delay in signing the main-gate contracts if we end up with another hung Parliament and the Liberal Democrats or Scottish nationalists seek to exact that as a price for their participation and support?

I confirm to my hon. Friend and to the House that the main-gate decision is scheduled for 2016. I will not speculate on the possibility of a hung Parliament, except to note that I know the Liberal Democrats would favour some kind of part-time deterrent, although it is pretty obvious to me that our enemies are not part time.

Given that RUSI is predicting that by the early 2020s the replacement of the nuclear deterrent will account for some 35% of the defence procurement budget, and given that this summer, whatever the outcome of the election, Ministers at the Ministry of Defence will be struggling to make limited resources pay for a long list of major procurements, could it possibly make sense to exclude from a comprehensive review the biggest single procurement?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend, who has some experience of these matters, does not attach the importance to continuing the deterrent that we do. Of course, the costs of the deterrent are spread over a number of years. As I have said, successive Governments in office have, every time they have re-examined the need for the deterrent, committed to continuing it.

Defence Equipment Plan

Under this Government, the Ministry of Defence was one of the first Departments to publish a long-term plan: our 10-year equipment plan. The third annual iteration of the equipment plan will be published shortly. I expect it to show that, in the vital area of defence equipment, we have a plan and that we are delivering against it in each domain. New investment committed last year includes: three offshore patrol vessels, four new F-35s, and 589 new Scout armoured vehicles under the largest land equipment contract the British Army has seen for 30 years.

As my hon. Friend will recall, the previous Labour Administration had no plan and compounded one procurement incompetence with another. Consequently, the wrong equipment was often delivered, years late and billions over budget. By contrast, since balancing the defence budget and establishing an equipment plan, where there was chaos now there is competence; where there were cost overruns now there are cost savings; and where equipment deliveries were years late now they are on time, or, in far fewer cases, a few months behind.

In recent weeks, maritime patrol aircraft have been seen in the skies above Moray, operating from RAF Lossiemouth and plugging a capability cap, because the RAF has precisely no maritime patrol aircraft. All of our neighbours have them: the Irish air corps, the Royal Danish air force and the Royal Norwegian air force. In the plan the Minister has just mentioned, when can we expect to have maritime patrol aircraft?

As the hon. Gentleman knows full well, there was a recognised capability gap when maritime aircraft were taken out of service in SDSR 2010. The Government, as with previous Governments, operate in conjunction with our allies around the world. We provide aircraft to Baltic patrol and transport lift aircraft to the French. On occasion, our allies provide us with maritime patrol aircraft.

I was glad to hear the Minister’s answer to the question regarding Russian submarines infiltrating our waters.

Why, after the major equipment programme has been let, are his Department and UK Trade & Investment still scurrying around trying to hold the manufacturer to a pre-contract offer of safeguarding or creating 10,000 jobs in the UK? We now know that the Scout programme he mentioned will be built in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands, and that the core jobs in the UK are fewer than 400. That has happened on his watch. Why was the economic case for bringing the work to the UK not done before the contract was finalised? The Secretary of State spent all that time trumpeting what seemed to be a huge success when, in fact, it is not.

As the hon. Lady may recall, the original proposed contract, which was considered under her Administration, was for more than double the number of vehicles for which we have contracted. Consequently, the number of people potentially employed is significantly lower. However, the contract for the Scout vehicle, at £3.5 billion, is the largest contract that the British Army has received, and involves some 160 companies, predominantly in the UK. It will sustain 1,400 jobs in the UK, and we are currently actively exploring the opportunity for the onshore assembly of vehicles, from 101 to 589.

National Defence Medal

There is a long-standing and widely understood military tradition that medals are not awarded as a record of service but in recognition of specific campaigns or operations, acts of gallantry or outstanding service. We set up an independent review into medals and decorations, and its chair, Sir John Holmes, specifically considered this matter and decided against such a medal. That decision received royal approval.

MOD tradition and protocol have an important role, but would it not just be the decent thing to recognise our veterans in this way simply because they have served their country? Would it not be wonderful to have cross-party agreement to recognise them, as happens in many other English-speaking countries around the world?

We absolutely recognise and pay handsome tribute to our veterans. There is no better example of that than the military covenant and all that it stands for. The fact that so many people are signing up to it—businesses, all our local authorities and so on—demonstrates that the understanding of the great sacrifices made by our veterans in their service and by their families has never been higher in the public’s imagination.

I support the comments of my fellow Essex MP, the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell). The last Government quite rightly introduced the national service badge, which has been greatly appreciated. The medal would do no harm, but it would do a lot of good.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Medals are for specific campaigns and acts of gallantry, and rightly so. In this instance, therefore, we will have to disagree.

Albemarle Barracks

I fear I might let down my hon. Friend because we have no plans—unfortunately—to visit his barracks, unless he makes me an offer I cannot refuse. However, we all look forward to the moment when 3 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery replaces 39 Regiment Royal Artillery later this year. I know of the great work he does in supporting his barracks, and of course he will welcome 3 Regiment Royal Horse Artillery when it moves in.

No pressure there! All I can say is that the Minister would be warmly welcomed in Northumberland, where we are transitioning from 39th Royal Artillery and welcoming 3rd Royal Horse Artillery. We are also looking at the base improvements that have happened already and the ongoing case we are making in respect of these troops.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend and others have done, and I will look at all our diaries to see whether we can come up; we would like to if we can. I promise I will look at my diary, and at the diaries of other Ministers as well.


Maintaining robust cyber-security is a priority for the UK and of particular importance to the MOD. The threat is continually changing in scope and complexity. All public and private sector organisations have a stake in addressing the cyber threat, and the MOD is one element of the national cyber-security programme, which is co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office.

We know that cyber attacks are often targeted at defence companies themselves. What steps have the Government taken to ensure that security within the UK defence sector is strengthened?

We have taken very specific steps. With the Office of Cyber Security and Information Assurance, the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and GCHQ, we are working closely with industry to ensure it is aware of the changing nature of the threat and has effective counters in place. The defence cyber protection partnership aims to meet the emerging threat specifically to the UK defence supply chain by increasing awareness of cyber risks, sharing threat intelligence and defining risk-driven approaches to applying cyber-security standards. We are already doing it.

For obvious reasons, NATO takes this threat very seriously. For instance, I believe it has a centre of excellence based in Estonia helping to provide advice to other NATO countries. We in the UK also take the threat very seriously and have invested heavily to counter it.

In response to the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), the Minister said that the recruitment for cyber-reserves was on track, but he could not give us precise details because it would breach confidentiality. I have always subscribed to the notion of “trust but verify”. Will he indicate by what means—numbers or some other means—we can ensure that the information is accurate and correct?

I went and verified. I visited the joint forces cyber-group at Imjin barracks in Innsworth in November, and I was able to meet a number of reservists, one of whom was from the Bank of England, who had recently signed up to help provide for the defence of our country. We do not give out publicly the number of people recruited for the cyber-reserves, and I hope the House will realise that there is a logical reason for that. The recruitment is, however, on track, and the quality of the individuals I met at Innsworth were, I have to say, extremely impressive.

President Obama has openly stressed the importance of establishing rules for the road on cyber-security, but what capacity has the UK developed to respond to a cyber-attack?

I remind the House that the strategic defence and security review announced a £650 million budget for the national cyber-security programme. Moreover, in June 2013, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer went further by stating that investment in this area will continue to grow in 2015-16 and will include a further £210 million. An announcement by the Ministry of Defence last July showed that we are going even further than that.

ISIL (Iraqi Forces)

We are making a major contribution to the coalition, having deployed sophisticated surveillance, strike and transport aircraft to the region. As of yesterday, we have carried out 99 air strikes in Iraq, second only to the United States. We have also provided training and equipment to Kurdish forces, including infantry, combat first aid, sharpshooting and counter-IED training.

Given reports at the weekend that ISIL fighters killed another 24 people in the security forces in northern Iraq, will the Secretary of State provide more details of the equipment that his Department might be supplying to Iraqi forces to help them counter this threat?

Yes. The National Security Council has asked us to do further work to scope the additional assistance we can offer to the Iraqi military. We plan to gift counter-IED equipment to the Iraqi security forces in the near future, subject to the approval of this House. All our support is part of the developing coalition and Iraqi plan to ensure that Iraqi forces are coherently supported.

To what extent are British personnel in Iraq liaising with the Shi’a militias? Given the recent deaths in Iraq, apparently in action, of the Iranian General Taqavi, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the extent of the Iranian influence over those militias?

Our training has been focused in Kurdistan through the Ministry of Peshmerga, and our other embedded personnel work only with the security forces of the Government of Iraq, not with any of the Shi’a militia. Iranian influence over the Shi’a militia is well known, and Iran can certainly play a positive role in helping to bring about better government in Iraq.

In combating ISIL jihadists, our armed forces might be at greater threat in the UK than in Iraq. After last week’s atrocities, France has, I understand, allocated 10,000 troops for sensitive sites. What steps is my right hon. Friend considering armed forces in the UK should take for their own and our constituents’ safety?

We take our personnel—both military and civilian—extremely seriously. We have reviewed our protective security measures and the advice to personnel in the light of the recent tragic events in France. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, for obvious reasons, I cannot discuss details of the security arrangements that are in place.

Given that the Kurds still face attacks by ISIS forces using sophisticated captured American arms, is the Secretary of State satisfied that our allies have enough heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, to counter those attacks?

We are looking at the gaps in the capability of the Kurdish and Iraqi forces, and if we can help with additional equipment, we are ready to do so, and we have already played a very active part in transporting to those forces equipment that has been gifted or sold from other nations.

The House stands united with the people of France, and, indeed, with all who support the principles of freedom of speech, tolerance and democracy in the face of the barbarity that the world witnessed last week on the streets of Paris. This morning the Defence Secretary attended high-level meetings in Whitehall to discuss the United Kingdom’s response to those tragic events. Given that one of the terrorists said that he was acting on behalf of ISIL, will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on what further steps the Government are taking to combat this threat in Iraq and beyond?

I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for, in particular, the tone that he has struck in the light of the tragic events in France. We all have sympathy with those involved.

I think that the hon. Gentleman and I are clear about the fact that if we are to reduce the threat from ISIL in France and the United Kingdom, ISIL must be defeated in both Iraq and Syria. This morning, under the Prime Minister’s direction, we again reviewed our standing preparations for a terrorist attack, including the number and readiness of troops available to assist the police, and we are keeping the security situation under continuous review.

I think that the whole House will be grateful to the Defence Secretary for his response. Does he agree that following those recent events the need to tackle the threat is even more urgent, and that we must work ever more closely with our allies in Europe—such as France—and with our partners in the region, including Turkey? Will he update us on the progress that has been made by United Kingdom forces in their crucial work of training Iraqi and peshmerga troops in Iraq to combat the ISIL threat there, and also, importantly, preventing future acts of terrorism here in the United Kingdom?

We are already co-operating closely with France in particular, and we have reinforced our offer of assistance to France over the last few days. If ISIL is to be defeated and the threat to our own country and other European countries reduced, we will of course depend on the co-operation of the entire international community, but especially on the co-operation of partners in the region. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the role that Turkey and other regional partners can play.

We have been training Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and are doing so at the moment. Training courses in Kurdistan are being managed and led by British troops, and I hope that they will help the peshmerga, in particular, in their fight against ISIL.

Setting aside the fact that there will be no foreign combat troops on the ground, will the Secretary of State tell us what is the difference between the 2007 strategy in Iraq and the strategy today? In particular, have we a new counter-insurgency doctrine, is there a new Sunni outreach strategy, and have we adopted a new approach to building the capacity of the Iraqi Government and army, or are we fighting the same target with the same strategy and fewer resources?

I can tell my hon. Friend—who, I know, brings a great deal of experience from Iraq to the House—that the biggest difference between now and 2007 is that we now have a genuinely inclusive Government in Iraq, who represent both Shia and Sunni, and, indeed, Kurdish elements in Iraq. The new Defence Minister, Minister Obeidi, is himself a Sunni. It is important for that Government to concentrate on precisely the kind of Sunni outreach that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, so that their forces can enjoy the support of the tribes in the Anbar region, where ground must be recaptured from ISIS.

UK Military Base (Bahrain)

The Ministry of Defence has had a naval base in Bahrain since the 1950s, providing naval and logistics facilities in support of our operations in the Gulf. The agreement that was signed last month reaffirms the joint determination of the United Kingdom and Bahrain to maintain security and stability in the region.

How long does the Secretary of State expect the military personnel who have been sent to train the Kurds in Iraq to remain there? Can he give us a time frame?

Our training effort, our troops and our air contribution to the fight against ISIL will remain in Iraq for as long as is necessary, which may well be a very long time. As for our presence in the Gulf, I hope that the House will welcome the recommitment that we have made to security and stability through the new naval base agreement, which will enable us to deploy larger ships and to provide better facilities for those who are deployed in or are passing through the Gulf.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and salute the work carried out by Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall in re-establishing an east of Suez policy with our very close and reliable ally the Kingdom of Bahrain. Is this not a good example of the role defence diplomacy can play, and, in that context, may I invite the Secretary of State to reaffirm our commitment to the five power defence agreement in the far east, which reassures our allies and gives Britain an influence in the region?

My hon. Friend, one of my predecessors as a Minister in the Department, is right to pay proper tribute to Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall, who was responsible for negotiating this agreement, which will put our naval presence in the Gulf on a more permanent footing. My hon. Friend is also right to say that we should continue to examine our defence engagement policy in the far east as well as in the middle east.

It has been estimated that a three-day closure of the strait of Hormuz, perhaps by a terrorist attack, could lead to a four-year negative impact on the world economy. Has that influenced our decision to increase our capability in the Gulf?

Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the economic and strategic importance of the strait of Hormuz. Our mine counter-measure vessels are playing a major part in ensuring that the strait always remains open, and I was privileged to visit two of those vessels and meet their crews. I put on record our appreciation of them for the very difficult and challenging work they do, particularly their divers, in making sure the strait remains open.

Defence: Investment

13. What recent investment he has made in (a) cyber-security and (b) unmanned aerial vehicles for the armed forces. (906907)

In addition to the sums identified by my right hon. Friend the Armed Forces Minister, in July of last year the Prime Minister announced a further investment in equipment for our armed forces, which included £75 million specifically for cyber-defence. The total recent investment in unmanned aerial vehicles for the armed forces in the current year is £233.5 million.

On unmanned aerial vehicles, will my hon. Friend provide more information about the Watchkeeper tactical remotely piloted air system and when it will be available to our British Army units?

I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. and learned Friend that the Watchkeeper achieved its first initial operating capability last summer and was deployed with the Royal Artillery to Afghanistan between August and October last year. It immediately demonstrated its excellent, and potentially game-changing, tactical capability over Helmand. We expect Watchkeeper to be at full operating capability in April 2016.

As well as investing in unmanned aerial vehicles, is the Department responding to reports that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is developing counter-measures designed to diminish the effectiveness of these drones in current operations?

We are always alert to intelligence reports of evolving threats, from wherever they emerge. We take a very keen interest in the development of unmanned systems across the armed forces and will continue to do so.

Topical Questions

Our 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.

Will my right hon. Friend tell me whether there will be opportunities for reserve units, such as 4th Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment, to serve as units in operations and major exercises?

Reserve service offers exciting opportunities to serve overseas in formed units. For example, a platoon from 3 Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment will be supporting 1 Royal Anglian in Kabul from February onwards, and 4 Mercian, based in Wolverhampton, recently deployed two platoons to Cyprus. This is exactly what Future Force 2020 was intended to do—making the most of reservists’ skills by integrating them with our regulars.

In the recent armed forces covenant report, the three service families federations state:

“We remain disappointed that a sizeable proportion of our people continue to say that they have little or no knowledge of the AF Covenant and the principles that underpin it.”

Three years after Conservative and Lib Dem MPs were initially whipped by the current Armed Forces Minister to vote against enshrining the principles of the armed forces covenant in law, this Government have failed to test their own policies against the covenant, failed to support local authorities to implement it and, we now know, even failed to ensure that forces families know about it. When are they going to get a grip?

May I say how very disappointed I am at such an appallingly negative question that achieves absolutely diddly-squat? With the introduction of the covenant enshrined in law, this Government, more than any other, have ensured that our veterans, serving members of our armed forces and their families get the sort of recognition that they need. It is not disputed that we can do more, especially at local level. That is why, by the end of the day, I shall personally have topped and tailed a letter to every chief executive and every leader of every council in Great Britain. My next task is to write to every clinical commissioning group and hospital trust to ensure that we deliver on the covenant in the NHS as much as we are doing in government, and we now want to do it at local level.

T2. The closure of RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk represents a staggering £0.2 billion loss to the Suffolk economy, including the loss of more than 700 civilian jobs. I know that the Minister for Business and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is chairing the taskforce on trying to continue economic activity in some form at RAF Mildenhall, but will the Minister tell me what steps he will be taking to help fill the massive economic void that will result from this regrettable closure? (906934)

This is the first opportunity I have had to put on record at the Dispatch Box how pleased the UK is with the decision by the United States air force to base its first two F-35 squadrons at RAF Lakenheath, which is adjacent to Mildenhall. We think that a number of jobs will transfer from Mildenhall to Lakenheath. The base closure at Mildenhall is regrettable, but it will not happen for a number of years. We in the Ministry of Defence will engage with the working group being led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business and Enterprise, and we will be looking to see whether there is a future military use for the facility; if not, we will work to find an alternative.

T9. According to recent reports in The Times, Ministers are presiding over not only a stalling reserves recruitment programme but a crisis in recruitment to the regular forces. Can any of the Ministers reassure the House that the targets for recruitment to the regular Army forces will be met this year? (906941)

The hon. Lady is correct to say that, in recruiting year 2013-14, we were running at 66% of the annual regular soldier target. That represents roughly 6,200 soldiers, against a target of 9,300. However, the numbers are increasing and we are looking at a range of measures to increase them further, including a marketing campaign that is to be launched shortly.

T3. Returning to the question of the issuing of a national defence medal, will the Minister join me in paying tribute to my constituent, Mr Martin Halligan, who has done an inestimable and unstinting job on promoting the campaign for the medal nationally? Despite the review that has taken place, will she take on board the feeling expressed by many current and former service personnel that the issuing of such a medal would not undermine previous protocols and conventions or take away from specific acts of courage, leadership and honour, which are rightly recognised at present? (906935)

I certainly pay tribute to the work that has been done by my right hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that it is helpful in any event. There has been an independent review, however. Sir John Holmes has made his recommendation, and I am bound by the arguments that he has advanced against what my right hon. Friend is suggesting. I am not actually sure that the veteran community would agree with my right hon. Friend, but I am always willing to listen and if he wants to come and have a chat with me, I would welcome that.

At this weekend’s Cardiff City game, I saw not only a welcome return to blue, but, intriguingly, that substitutions in the game were being sponsored by the Royal Naval Reserve recruitment programme, no doubt at considerable expense. Will a Minister tell me what the cost of that programme was and how many reserves have been recruited? Given the low levels of reserve recruitment across the UK, what assessment has been made of the efficacy of such expensive advertising programmes?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the exact answer he requests, but I can say that the maritime reserves have been consistently ahead of their recruiting and manning targets from the beginning.

Progress towards the implementation of Future Force 2020 is on track. Taking the Army as an example, the transition towards Army 2020 structures and locations is well under way. For instance, Force Troops Command reached full operational capability in April, and I was there to mark that. In November, I visited the newly formed 1 Artillery Brigade and Headquarters South West in Larkhill, which has taken responsibility for the regional point of contact in the south-west. On Wednesday, I will visit 11 Infantry Brigade in Aldershot before it deploys to Sierra Leone to help to fight Ebola. I am sure the whole House will join us in wishing them God speed and good luck in that task.

The Minister said earlier that the Cabinet Office has a role to play in cyber-policy. If that is to be a strong and robust policy, will he tell the House when a ministerial representative from the MOD last met the Home Office, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to discuss the issue? What was the outcome of the meeting?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that within government we take this issue extremely seriously, and we had meetings with representatives from other Departments and with members of the House of Commons Defence Committee. We are dealing with a diverse and complicated threat, and I have already explained to the House how much we have invested to meet it. We are in no way complacent, nor will we be.

T5. Pupils from Corbridge middle school in my constituency are shortly to go to the world war one sites, under the battlefield tours programme. What support is the MOD giving to schools, charities and families whose ancestors were involved as we go forward with future commemorations? (906937)

Of course there are a number of schemes run and encouragements given, not just through the MOD, but through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has been the main Department leading on all this. My hon. Friend makes a good and important point: the commemorations of the first world war continue right up until 2018. Let me just mention that this March we have the commemoration of the battle of Neuve Chapelle, which holds huge significance in both India and Britain. Later in the year, notably in April, we will remember all the events at Gallipoli, and we will be marking Anzac day on 25 April at the Cenotaph.

At today’s high level meetings was any additional help offered to Yemeni defence forces, who are under sustained attack from extremist groups?

That has not specifically been discussed, but, obviously, we continue to see what further help we can give to countries in the region which are under pressure from ISIL. The right hon. Gentleman is right to remind the House that this is not simply a challenge to Iraq.

T6. Boko Haram slaughter the innocent, sell girls into slavery and impose mediaeval government and fear in wide areas of Nigeria. The local military are seen in many cases as being corrupt and perhaps to have involved themselves in human rights abuses. What role is the MOD carrying out to support Nigeria in tackling Boko Haram? (906938)

We unequivocally condemn the awful atrocities committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria. In June 2014, at the London ministerial meeting, the former Foreign Secretary announced that the UK will significantly increase the training and capacity-building assistance we offer to the Nigerian armed forces. We have since expanded our resident training and advisory team, and deployed increased numbers of short-term training teams to help prepare Nigerian troops for deployment against Boko Haram.

Last year, the number of Britain’s reservists rose by just 20. Given the millions thrown at the recruitment campaign, how is that a triumph?

The tri-service numbers of reservists over the past six months were up 400. The fact is that after 15 years of continuous quarter-on-quarter decline, they are now going up again. As I mentioned earlier, in the last quarter announced, recruiting was running at double the rate that it was in the equivalent period last year. [Official Report, 14 January 2015, Vol. 590, c. 7-8MC.]

T7. May I put on record my thanks to the Minister for the Armed Forces for his visit to BAE systems in Warton and Salmesbury aerodromes, which are key employers in Lancashire? Will he update the House on defence export prospects for the Hawk trainer aircraft, as its production line has recently opened in my Fylde constituency? (906939)

As my hon. Friend knows, BAE systems is pursuing a number of significant export prospects for the Hawk, with active support from the Ministry of Defence and UK Trade and Investment Defence and Security Organisation. As international air forces modernise their front-line aircraft, we anticipate that there will be significant further interest in the next generation of Hawk aircraft, the Hawk T2, which is already in service to train our Typhoon pilots and will do so for the F-35 pilots in due course.

Next month, the Government will be hosting a meeting of the five declared nuclear weapons states ahead of the non-proliferation treaty review in May. Will the Minister tell the House what he intends to achieve from that meeting, whether there will be an agreed position put and whether the P5 will adhere to the basic principles of the non-proliferation treaty and take steps towards nuclear disarmament?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we take the nuclear non-proliferation treaty extremely seriously. We uphold that treaty and it is vital that we persuade other nations around the world that may be in breach of that treaty to abide by its conventions as well. The hon. Gentleman and I take a different view on these matters. I spent many years at university debating against the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and I still seem to be doing it now.

Will the Government reassure me that they, apparently unlike some parties opposite, will not allow even the distant prospect of coalition negotiations to soften their commitment to continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrence?

Absolutely. Successive Governments have maintained that commitment to a continuous-at-sea deterrent and this Government are also determined to do so.

I am puzzled by the attempts of the Minister for the Armed Forces to goad the Opposition on the issue of the nuclear deterrent. Let us be clear: we are committed to a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent delivered by submarines that are continuously at sea. We continue to support the programme that we started in Government, which his Government have delayed. In what way is that different from his policy?

What is different is that the Leader of the Opposition, who was challenged on this just a week ago, spoke only about the need for the least-cost deterrent, without repeating—[Interruption.]

Order. I know that the Secretary of State can generally look after himself, but Members must not seek to shout him down. I always facilitate full exchanges on all these important matters, but the Secretary of State must be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is a very important matter. The Leader of the Opposition did not repeat Labour’s previous commitment to what matters, which is a continuous-at-sea deterrent. What we cannot have is any kind of part-time deterrent, which would rely on our enemies being part-time as well.

I have the great pleasure of announcing to the House that I have just been made president of the (Mercian) Squadron Air Training Corps in Lichfield, which is one of the biggest Air Training Corps in the midlands. Will my right hon. Friend maintain his commitment to the Air Training Corps?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on that great distinction. Air cadets offer a huge opportunity to young people from a whole range of different backgrounds. The Ministry of Defence provides, and will continue to provide, support to both the Air Training Corps and the university air squadrons through the provision of high quality flying training and other supporting activities, including access to defence training areas and ranges.

May I try to goad the Secretary of State so that he stops trying to bamboozle us all about the real deterrent we need, which is a properly armed, conventional group of 100,000 men and women to defend this country? Is it not about time that he took our mind off reservists and talked about how many men and women we have under arms in this country?

In stark contrast to the previous Government, our defence budget has been properly managed and has enabled us to keep this country safe. We are determined to support Future Force 2020. The hon. Gentleman’s question might be better directed to the shadow Defence Secretary, who last week told The Times:

“Army 2020 isn’t working and Labour will not take it forward”,

although last year he said that

“we support the rationale behind…Future Force 2020”.

Allied warplanes cross the skies above Syria while Assad’s helicopters drop barrel bombs on the civilian population. How can this apparent indifference help us to prevent the civilian population of Syria from turning to the ISIL militia?

The Prime Minister has made it clear to the House that ISIL can only be defeated in both Iraq and Syria. We are making a major contribution to the campaign in Iraq, which itself of course allows others to contribute to the campaign against ISIL in Syria. ISIL has to be defeated in both countries.