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Topical Questions

Volume 590: debated on Monday 12 January 2015

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.