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Volume 593: debated on Monday 23 February 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Covenant

I am incredibly proud of the fact that it was this Government who enshrined the covenant in law. We should all be extremely proud of that, and of the work we have done.

I wrote to all the local authorities that signed the covenant. I have been overwhelmed by their response, and by the outstanding work that many are doing in delivering on their pledges. We must now ensure that that work continues throughout the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. Incidentally, I received a letter from Gedling, whose contents I may share with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker).

The Veterans Contact Point armed forces centre, which is based in my constituency, does vital work to support veterans, many of whom have found the transition from the armed forces to civvy street extremely difficult. Will my hon. Friend visit the centre to see the excellent work that is being done by a vital charity that supports people throughout the Coventry and Warwickshire area?

Yes, indeed. I look forward to visiting it on, I believe, 9 March. I have seen the website of that excellent charity, and I pay wholehearted tribute to the work that is being done by a wide variety of people. I note that the local council has reduced the charity’s rent in recognition of its commitment to the covenant. As I have said, we must now roll out that work throughout the United Kingdom.

Some people leave the armed forces suffering from mental health conditions. What action has been taken by the Government as a whole to help people who are suffering from those debilitating conditions?

We have invested an extra £7.4 million in precisely that sort of work. I pay tribute to Stockton-on-Tees borough council, which—along with other councils in the north-east—has been doing outstanding work, and whose chief executive has written to me. Councils are working across the piece, bringing together all the relevant bodies and people, and delivering good mental health services to veterans in particular.

Is there a follow-up system to ensure that when people leave the armed forces they do not fall by the wayside when it comes to medical provision?

It is critical that we get that right. At present, such services are delivered only at a local level. Many councils are involved, including those in the Greater Manchester combined authority, which signed the covenant at the end of December. All those councils are doing outstanding work which they are determined to continue, on a completely cross-party basis. They are working with a number of parties, bringing in health authorities, hospital trusts and clinical commissioning groups. What is beginning to happen in councils must now be replicated throughout the United Kingdom.

What progress has been made in regard to the commitment to an armed forces charter based on the covenant that was made by the United States and others during the NATO summit?

That is a good point. We need to proceed with that commitment. It was a great honour for me to go to the United States, meet other veterans Ministers, and share best practice. A number of countries are particularly interested in our work in delivering on the covenant, and, because other countries do things in different ways, we learn from each other. NATO has provided us with a very good device to enable us to share that best practice and, as I have said, to learn from each other.

I am sure the Minister will welcome the fact that Flintshire county council, which is in my area, has signed the covenant, but what assessment has she made of the number of services charities that understand what it means in practice?

That, too, is a good question. The short answer is that it varies. It is clear from the website of the charity mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) that a huge number of charities have signed up and are delivering across the country. Progress is sporadic, because not everyone “gets it”, but others absolutely do “get it”, and some great work is being done out there.

I am pleased to say that Telford & Wrekin council has signed the covenant on a cross-party basis. What has the Minister done internally, within the Government, to ensure that individual Departments are delivering on the covenant? The Ministry of Defence is doing a very good job, but it is important for other Departments to commit themselves as well.

I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman says we are doing a good job, because I think we are, and he is absolutely right. We now must make sure others do not just sign up, but actually start to deliver. On the work the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for example, has been doing with jobcentres, I recently went to my own jobcentre in Beeston—not for reasons connected with 7 May, I quickly add—and looked at the work it is doing with reserves and veterans. That is sporadic; not every jobcentre or Jobcentre Plus “gets it”, to put it in that way, but increasingly they do and that is invariably because of the good work of Members of Parliament and local councils.

I am incredibly proud of the fact that Tameside was the first council in Greater Manchester to sign the armed forces covenant, followed very quickly by Stockport, and the Minister is absolutely right to commend the work of the Greater Manchester combined authority, the first whole city region in the country to bring together councils and public bodies across the area for the armed forces covenant, but what is she doing to make sure that in other parts of the country local authorities are committing time and resources and making sure the same services are available to our armed forces personnel so that we do not have a patchwork quilt?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have an excellent letter here from the leader of Wigan council, Lord Smith, extensively detailing all the great work being done. One of the tasks I want to do in the remaining weeks of this Government is to make sure the covenant team with the MOD brings all this work together and gives more advice to local authorities on sharing best practice, because it is stacked full of ideas. There is £30 million available to deliver on many of these projects, and I am pleased to say many are taking that up as well.

The armed forces covenant had, of course, the full support of Her Majesty’s Opposition, but does the Minister accept that this is still very much a work in progress? Not all local authorities understand it. Only last week Essex county council refused to continue a support package for the needs of one military family moving with their child from another part of the country.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I have to say my own county council in Nottinghamshire did not understand the covenant when it came to a soldier constituent of mine coming down from Catterick who needed to have a place for his child. I reminded the county council of the covenant. That is the sort of work that local MPs can do when these cases come to us through our casework. It is about making sure we share best practice. There is masses more work to be done, and it would be nice to think I might be able to continue after 7 May, Mr Speaker, but that takes us into different territory.

The Minister of State says that other people do not get it. I am not sure that she gets it, because why else would she be consulting on removing the principle of no disadvantage from the armed forces covenant? I refer of course to the consultation she has commissioned through her officials that Woodnewton Associates is carrying out. She looks confused; I am surprised if she does not know that her own officials are carrying out this consultation. Is that because the Government are still refusing to test their own policies against the principles of no disadvantage? A Labour Government will test our policies against the armed forces covenant, and we will not drop the principle of no disadvantage, which this Government are apparently thinking about doing.

Of course the hon. Lady forgets that she has got to win an election, and there is every chance she will not do so. Let me make it absolutely clear: as far as I and the rest of the team here are concerned, this is news to us and we are absolutely committed to the principle of no disadvantage. [Interruption.] It is in the covenant, and chuntering from the sidelines achieves nothing.

Reserve Forces

In the quarter to December, 1,490 personnel joined the Army reserve, an increase of 147% on the equivalent quarter last year. Colleagues will have seen the multimedia campaign showing the range of opportunities the reserves offer. We have unblocked the enlistment pipeline, more than 420 employers have signed corporate covenants and the civil service is setting an excellent example as a supportive employer, too.

A constituent, Reservist Rifleman Ben Taylor, was awarded the Queen’s gallantry medal for saving the lives of eight comrades in Afghanistan. With hundreds following in Rifleman Taylor’s footsteps every month, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that the Chief of the General Staff’s blueprint for reaching our target is achievable?

I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend and I join him in congratulating Rifleman Ben Taylor. With the upturn in recruitment, and with retention improving too, the trained strength of the Army Reserve has gone up 560 over the past 12 months to 20,480. That is above our target for the year end, and I am confident that the plans of the new Chief of the General Staff—who, incidentally, was also a rifleman—will be achieved.

On Friday, I held my fourth Pendle jobs and apprenticeships fair, at the Colne municipal hall. I was delighted that the Army was one of more than 20 organisations that took a stall, at which it promoted regular and reserve opportunities. Will my hon. Friend tell us more about the steps that the Ministry of Defence is taking to recruit more reservists in the north of England?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his initiative. The north of England provides the greatest proportion of our soldiers, regular and reserve, and the relaunch of the Army recruiting campaign’s reserve component last month involved a major event in Liverpool, as he knows. There will be more in the north. Following the Secretary of State’s announcement in October of the intention to restore a post-nominal award to recognise long service in the reserves, I should like to take this opportunity to confirm that such an award will be restored for those of all ranks who achieve 10 years’ service.

The new 77th Brigade, which will focus on psych-ops, is expected to recruit about 40 % of its members from the reserves. According to press reports, however, by Christmas only about 20 had been recruited. When does the Minister think he will achieve the full complement?

For obvious reasons, some of the detail of the recruiting in that area will not be published in the House, and I am sure that the hon. Lady—my hon. Friend, if I may call her that—will understand those reasons. There is, however, a big upturn in recruitment right across the reserves, as the figures I gave the House earlier indicated.

Over the past two years, the MOD has spent £16.4 million on television advertising for recruitment purposes. Was that money well spent? How many recruits resulted from that large spend?

We cannot say what proportion of recruits resulted from it, but we can say that there has been a surge in recruiting, and that it was up 147% on the quarter last year, as the figures I have just given the House show. Additionally, although we are not going to publish the figures on cyber-recruiting, I can say that they are running ahead of the reserves average as a percentage.

19. Government answers show that the average age of an existing reservist infantryman is in the mid-30s. Given that we have added only 500 reservists in the two years that this plan has been in place, and that that has led to capability gaps and false economies, has not the time come to rethink the plan and to stop trying to get our defence on the cheap? (907686)

Over the past 12 months, we have added more than 800 to the reserves. That followed a long period—a whole generation—of decline. We make no apologies for revising the age requirements for ex-regular soldiers to join the reserves in order to share their knowledge and expertise. We are looking for people with key skills and it is a waste to lose people with specialist skills in areas such as intelligence and medicine. Dare I say that my hon. Friend, with his years of experience, might have something to offer to the reserves?

We have had months of failing IT systems, targets being revised downwards and recruitment to the reserves stalling. In addition, we learned last week that recruitment to the regulars was not meeting its targets. Will the Minister confirm the speculation that is going on within the Ministry of Defence and the Army that an alternative plan to scrap the current target of 30,000 is being drawn up?

There are no plans, and no such planning is going on, to scrap the target. The number I gave earlier, of 1,490 people joining the reserves in just one quarter, indicates that things are now moving sharply in the right direction. That figure relates to the Army Reserve, but the Royal Naval Reserve has been ahead of target all the way through and the Royal Air Force Reserve is also doing well, with 150 joining in a quarter.

Armed Forces: Home Ownership

I am delighted that the forces Help to Buy scheme, launched just 10 months ago, has already helped 2,600 military personnel on to the property ladder, and a further 1,400 approved applications are awaiting the completion of the property purchase. Those 4,000 fully approved applications are broadly equivalent to the entire military presence at Colchester, and the vast majority of them—more than 80%—are for those from non-officer ranks.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does this scheme not just prove the good work that this Government have been doing in ensuring the improvements to armed forces accommodation, in terms not only of service accommodation but enabling people in the armed forces to buy their own properties?

Yes, this scheme enables military personnel to have the opportunity to buy their own home and benefit from the increased domestic stability that home ownership brings, bringing a more realistic life choice for those who have chosen to serve their country. We also recognise the importance of continuing to offer subsidised accommodation of a good standard to service personnel who are not yet ready to own their own home, which is why we have committed that from next April no service family will be allocated a house that does not meet the Government’s decent homes standard.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the success of this scheme, which shows how potent the Government’s Help to Buy schemes are. Will he ensure that he gets all military groups to work with the new Mayor’s land commission to ensure that any unused land can be brought forward for housing purposes?

Yes, I will certainly do that. Of course, under Labour the great recession meant that the prospect of buying a first home was no more than a pipe dream for many thousands of hard-working taxpayers. That is why we launched Help to Buy, which enables those who work hard and get on to enjoy the financial security that they deserve.

Defence Equipment Plan

For the third consecutive year, the defence equipment plan demonstrates a realistic and affordable plan to invest £163 billion on new equipment and support for our armed forces over the next 10 years. The delivery of this plan has been independently assessed by the National Audit Office, through the major projects report. The best way to illustrate progress is to compare the report for 2009, when in-year cost overran by £4.5 billion, with cost underspends in 2014 of almost £400 million. My hon. Friend may recall who was responsible for the chaos of defence acquisition in 2009 and who is responsible for the competence we have brought to that department since.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and for the announcement made on Friday about the Type 26s. What is the timetable for the building of the Type 26 frigates? When will there be an announcement about the base porting, which we hope will be in Plymouth?

My hon. Friend is a vigorous champion of the merits of Devonport, in his constituency, as home to seven of the Royal Navy’s Type 23 frigates. The Prime Minister did indeed announce on Friday, as confirmed in a statement to the House this morning, that a demonstration phase contract worth £859 million to invest in detailed design work, shore-based test facilities and long-lead items for the first three Type 26 global combat ships will sustain 1,700 jobs. The current planning assumption is that 13 Type 26 vessels will replace the current frigates on a one-for-one basis, aligned to the current split in base port allocation, with the first coming into service in 2022.

It would be churlish of me not to welcome the recent contract that has been awarded that will benefit David Brown’s, a great employer in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that this Government’s failure to invest in men and equipment means that we are a laughing stock around the world? Our defence capacity is derided by the President of the United States, and President Putin knows very well that we are too weak to be a powerful defence force in Europe?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the defence equipment plan or, indeed, the capability of our defence industry to support it. This country remains the second largest defence exporter in the world. If our capability was so derided, as he says, how come we sold defence equipment worth nearly £10 billion last year?

Last October, the Government announced the largest Army order in 30 years for the latest set of armoured vehicles. Will the Minister outline the potential for greater procurement from UK firms, which would benefit firms in the midlands, including Elite KL in Tamworth?

I am proud to confirm that the Scout contract was the largest vehicle contract for the British Army since the Falklands war, and more contracts have now been let through the supply chain for that vehicle. The number of UK jobs secured through the programme is expected to be some 2,400 across more than 160 suppliers. Two-thirds of the suppliers are UK-based, including several in the midlands, and from all parts of the country.

Three of my constituents from RAF Lossiemouth were killed and a fourth was seriously injured when two Tornadoes collided above the Moray firth. That occurred nearly 20 years after the Ministry of Defence recommended the installation of collision warning systems. Is it really true that only eight out of 100 Tornado aircraft have had such a system installed, that they are not fully operational and that there are no concrete plans for such a system to be installed in the Typhoon fleet?

The hon. Gentleman has raised that subject many times in this House. He knows full well from the answers that I have given him to parliamentary questions that, when our Tornado fleet has a traffic collision avoidance system installed, it will be the first combat jet fleet anywhere in the world to have such a system. Civil airline fleets have been provided with such systems with success, but introducing such a system into a combat jet environment is exceptionally complicated. I can confirm that currently eight aircraft have been fitted with a system. We are working to iron out some of the residual issues with that system as we install it across the Tornado fleet.

May I echo the warm welcome for the signing on Friday of the demonstration contract on Type 26? But are the original assumptions from the 2010 strategic defence and security review still valid, or has anything significant changed?

As my hon. Friend is well aware, we are anticipating that a strategic defence and security review will take place following the general election later this summer, so all the planning assumptions that were introduced in the 2010 review will be reconsidered in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, as far as the frigate contract is concerned, the current planning assumption is for a like-for-like replacement of the Type 23 class.

That was a very interesting comment from the Minister given that the Prime Minister recently announced that both carriers would be operational. Clearly, it also has implications for the equipment programme. Is the Minister saying that he intends to build 13 frigates for carrier support?

I just explained in my answer to the previous question what the planning assumption is for replacing frigates. I can reconfirm to the hon. Lady that within the equipment plan is the capital cost of constructing both aircraft carriers, and they are coming in on time and on budget, in stark contrast to what happened under the previous Government.

Armed Forces: Diversity

The Ministry of Defence is committed to creating a more diverse work force, better able to represent the nation it serves and defends. That is why we are developing a comprehensive defence diversity and inclusion programme to increase the diversity of the whole work force, both military and civilian.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but will he reflect on the comments of the Chief of the General Staff who said this month that

“recruitment from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities has been improving…but it is nowhere near where it needs to be.”

What steps is the Army taking to ensure that it reflects the society that it protects?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the Chief of the General Staff’s initiative, but as the CGS has made clear more needs to be done. For instance, a significant amount is already being done to increase the diversity of the Army, such as targeted recruitment campaigns and high-profile engagement events aimed at the Sikh and Muslim communities, including the establishment of an armed forces Muslim forum.

Order. In calling the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) on the subject of diversity, I note for the benefit of the House his past and possibly current presidency or patronship of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

That is very helpful, Mr Speaker. Thank you so much. My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware of the extraordinary gallant and distinguished service by Sikhs to this country down the generations. Does he not agree that it is high time to do away with the political correctness that infects some of this thinking and raise a Sikh regiment to serve in the country and make up a very serious gap in our armed forces?

My right hon. Friend is nothing if not a survivor, as have been his illustrious predecessors who have served in this House. With regard to his specific suggestion, he is one of a number of Members of Parliament who have made the suggestion to me recently. We have passed the proposal on to the Chief of the General Staff, who is now considering the issue, and we are awaiting the CGS’s comments. The idea might well have merit.

Following on from the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), will the Minister specifically consider the notion of a Sikh company within the reserves as a starting point? There seems to be much more possibility within the reserves to begin what seems like an excellent idea.

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for his additional suggestion. I said earlier that the idea might have merit, and we are considering as one specific option the possibility of a reserve company that would inherit many of the proud traditions of Sikh regiments in the British Army going back many years. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the reserves is leading on that aspect and he, too, remains in contact with the CGS on the matter.


We are making a major contribution to the coalition. We are conducting infantry training and have trained more than 1,000 Iraqis so far. We are leading on counter-improvised explosive device training and, subject to parliamentary approval, will gift 1,000 hand-held metal detectors. As of Sunday, we have conducted 152 air strikes in Iraq and deployed a range of aircraft to the region, including surveillance aircraft.

One of the legacies of our time in Afghanistan is our expertise in tackling IEDs. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when Britain will begin training Iraqi forces in this capability and what equipment—for example, electronic IED counter-measures such as those built by Selex ES in Basildon—will be made available so that they can better tackle ISIL?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and can tell him that the counter-IED training will begin early next month. UK personnel are already engaged in Baghdad in course design at the coalition headquarters. In conjunction with the metal detector equipment we intend to supply, the training will allow about six Iraqi battalions to have an improved counter-IED capability, as well as creating smaller specialist counter-IED teams.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and many constituents who have written to me in the past few months that the Government are doing all they can to support and protect minority groups, such as Yazidi Christians, especially women, who face unimaginable dangers from ISIL brutality?

Yazidi Christians, particularly women, have suffered more than most at the hands of ISIL. They are not alone. ISIL is a terrorist organisation that brutally beheads and crucifies people, slaughters children, sells women as slaves and has systematically used rape as a weapon. We flew supplies and surveillance missions last year to help Yazidi refugees on Sinjar mountain. Since beginning air strikes last September, we have, with other coalition partners, hit ISIL positions that have threatened Yazidi refugees and have assisted the Kurdish peshmerga in pushing back and reclaiming territory from ISIL, which, in turn, helps the Yazidi population.

Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that none of the service chiefs who gave evidence to the Defence Committee as part of its recent inquiry was willing or able to articulate the UK’s objective or strategic plan in Iraq? What exactly is our plan?

Our plan in Iraq is very simple: first, to disrupt threats to the UK mainland and to our interests overseas; secondly, as part of an international coalition, to defeat ISIL, including discrediting its violent ideology; and, thirdly, to mitigate the impact of ISIL and other violent extremist groups on the stability of the whole region.

In Iraq, the Brimstone missile provides the UK with a unique capability that minimises collateral damage. What measures are being taken to integrate it with the Typhoon system?

Let me pay to tribute to the important work being done at AWE sites in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere in Berkshire and to the highly skilled personnel working there. I will of course look at his point about integration. We are accelerating the integration of those weapons with Typhoon, which will improve its attractiveness as an export and pick up on some of the lessons we have learnt from the campaign in Iraq.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that the Kurds, who have lost 1,000 peshmerga, are key to isolating and defeating ISIS but are seriously short of the heavy weapons they urgently need. Will he talk with the Kurdistan Regional Government about how the UK can do much more to help them, as one of our closest and most reliable allies?

I have met the Kurdish Regional Government and we continue to be in touch with them. We have already gifted heavy machine guns, nearly 500,000 rounds of ammunition and some 49 tonnes of non-lethal equipment. We have also helped transport to the Kurdish region around 300 tonnes of weapons, equipment and ammunition from other eastern European nations, because they tend to use former Soviet equipment. I hope that underlines the amount of help we are giving to the peshmerga, but it is important that we also help the reconstitution of the Iraqi army further south.

What stance does the Secretary of State take in responding to requests from other Governments in the region seeking military assistance to take on ISIL and its affiliates in the way the Iraqi Government did?

This is an international coalition, with between 40 and 50 countries involved, and we are one of the 16 that are involved in the air strikes. Indeed, we have so far recorded the second highest number of air strikes—second only to the United States. However, countries in the region and internationally are all helping in different ways—for example, with logistics or by providing bases. The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to continue to reassure other countries in the region that we are committed to their security. That is why we signed the recent naval base agreement in Bahrain and why, for example, I talked this morning with His Excellency the Qatari Defence Minister.

The Secretary of State is of course aware that ISIL is operating not only in Iraq, but in Syria and, unfortunately, now in Libya. Will he clarify what role the UK and its armed forces are playing in those theatres?

The House has not given its authority for military operations to be conducted in Syria at the moment. However, we are preparing plans to help train moderate Syrian opposition forces outside Syria, and we are now drawing up plans to participate in that training at a number of sites outside Syria. The situation in Libya is equally disturbing. It now looks as though ISIL has several footholds along the Libyan seaboard, so we are also considering what further role we might play there.

The Kurdish peshmerga have indeed done a magnificent job in halting Daesh and regaining some ground from it. I am proud that we have given them 40 heavy machine guns and that we have 46 members of 2nd Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment training them in Sulaymaniyah, but I have heard that we are reducing the amount of support we are actually giving them. Will the Secretary of State please outline in detail what extra help we can give the peshmerga forces in Kurdistan?

We are not reducing our effort; on the contrary, we have the RAF flying Tornadoes virtually day and night—a huge effort—from Cyprus. We have nearly 600 service personnel involved in this battle against ISIL, including more than 140 personnel in Iraq. It is important to help the peshmerga, but it is also important to help the reconstituted Iraqi army.

What are the Government doing to identify ISIL’s funding sources, and have they taken any action, such as sanctions, against those they have identified?

The hon. Lady is right that ISIL needs to be defeated not just militarily, but diplomatically and politically with all the instruments at our command, and cutting off its financial sources of support is extremely important. We are working with our international partners to ensure that those financing streams can be cut off, and that proper sanctions can be applied where we can identify exactly where the funding is coming from.

Strategic Defence and Security Review

The Government’s priority remains the delivery of the 2010 strategic defence and security review. The next SDSR will not begin until after the election.

Does the Secretary of State agree that all the major parties in the coming election should commit to a real-terms increase in the defence budget and to the 2% NATO target, because only in that way can we hope to keep our nation safe in an increasingly hostile and menacing world?

Since the 2010 SDSR, our planning assumption has been that real growth in the defence budget, with 1% growth on equipment, is required to deliver the highly capable and adaptable armed forces that we set out in Future Force 2020. The scale of our current operations in Kabul, the middle east and Sierra Leone underline the value of the flexibility that we encouraged in that review. So far as the future is concerned, we are spending £34 billion this year; we will be spending £34 billion next year. It is time we heard from Labour whether it will match that spending or whether it plans to cut it.

I congratulate the Defence Secretary on highlighting the real and present danger posed by Mr Putin’s Russia to the stability of Europe and the threat posed by ISIL. Does he agree that it would be folly for the United Kingdom to cut its defence expenditure below the minimum requirement of 2% that NATO has set?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have set out our planning assumptions for the current defence budget, but I still think we ought to hear exactly what the Opposition’s plan is. Are they going to match our £34 billion a year, or are they going to cut it? Is it match or cut? [Interruption.]

Not very statesmanlike. Mr Jones, you aspire to be a statesman. I have sought to encourage and nurture your ambitions. [Interruption.] No, he says from a sedentary position. Don’t be so unambitious, man, for goodness’ sake.

Falkland Islands: Military Threat

16. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications of deployment of Russian-made military aircraft to Argentina for the UK’s defence footprint in the south Atlantic. (907682)

The Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of current and potential military threats to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain the appropriate defensive capability. There is currently no suggestion that there will be any need to vary significantly our capability in the south Atlantic, but contingency plans are in place to do so if required.

To what extent is Russia re-establishing relations with Argentina, and to what extent might that pose a military threat to the Falkland Islands?

Let us be clear. The Government are clear about British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and in March 2013 the Falkland Islands referendum reaffirmed the islanders’ overwhelming wish to remain British, with 99.8% voting in favour. We should always defend the right of the Falkland islanders to determine their own political future. I believe the question may refer to media reports that the Argentines were proposing to purchase Su-24 aircraft from the Russians, although this proposal came as a surprise even to the Argentine Defence Minister and was swiftly denied by the Argentine Government. Nevertheless, we are not complacent and the Ministry of Defence undertakes regular assessments of potential military challenges to the Falkland Islands to ensure that we retain appropriate defensive capabilities, but it seems that the Russians did not tell him.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the defence of the Falkland Islands would be made much more difficult if we failed to spend 2%, at least, of our gross domestic product on defence? If we encouraged all parties, including Labour, to do that—

And ours, indeed. Then we would be standing by the encouragement and the commitments that we made at the NATO summit only six months ago.

There are currently about 1,200 UK military and civilian personnel in the Falklands Islands. They support a range of air, sea and land capabilities, including Typhoon aircraft, support helicopters, offshore patrol vessels, air defences, and a resident infantry company. My right hon. Friend is an established former member of the Defence Committee—indeed, its former Chair—and the whole House will have heard what he said.

Service Personnel: Police Cautions

17. How many service personnel were dismissed from the Army, demoted or otherwise penalised as a result of having received a police caution between 2008 and 2011. (907683)

Initially, in reply to the hon. Lady’s campaign, I said that the figure was 1,500, but we have made further inquiries because our aim is to contact everybody. We now think that the figure is nearer to 1,200—1,000 in the Army. As we make those inquiries, it is important to appreciate that not everybody who was penalised in some way had that happen as a result of their receiving a police caution—other matters may have been involved as well—so we are exploring all that.

The Minister will be aware that at least 58 of those personnel were discharged from the armed forces. On a rough calculation of losing, say, a £25,000 salary for just one year, compensation of over £1.25 million would be due. What assessment has she made of the cost to the defence budget of the military law-breaking and cover-up that was involved?

As I have explained, we are identifying all the individuals so that we can contact them and advise them accordingly. I have made it very clear that I want to see action by the three armed forces to anticipate what may come forward so that we do not suffer any more delay and there are no injustices.

Topical Questions

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

The House may also want to know that the solider reported as missing last week has now been located and is being returned to his unit.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that Britain is playing a key role in Ukraine and that we have not been relegated to a mere junior partner in negotiations?

We have been playing the leading role politically in ensuring that Russia is subject to a proper degree of sanction for the actions it has been taking, and we will continue to press the case for further sanctions if Russia’s aggression is not halted. We are playing a key role politically and diplomatically in trying to bring the conflict to an end.

T2. Further to that answer, will the Secretary of State update the House on his assessment of the recent militaristic threats of action in Ukraine by Russia? (907708)

Ahead of the second Minsk meeting, Russia stepped up its military support to the separatists. It transferred hundreds of heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, heavy artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles. It maintains hundreds of regular soldiers, including special forces in Ukraine. Since the latest Minsk agreement, we have seen the ground offensive at Debaltseve, leading to the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces, and the denial of access for OSCE monitors—both flagrant breaches of the Minsk agreement. What matters now is that Russia returns to what it agreed at Minsk and implements it as soon as possible.

Does the Defence Secretary agree that episodes in recent months in which RAF jets have been scrambled to escort Russian bombers close to our airspace, aircraft from our NATO partners have been asked to help locate a suspected Russian submarine off the west coast of Scotland, and the Royal Navy has been seen escorting a Russian warship in the English channel are very serious and risk a very serious incident? Will he tell the House how is he meeting these ongoing challenges and assure us that gaps in our military capability such as the lack of maritime patrol aircraft do not hinder us in any way in responding to such events?

These are indeed serious issues and serious threats. So far as the incursion of Russian aircraft around British airspace is concerned, we have successfully intercepted all of those potential incursions and they have been shadowed by our quick-reaction aircraft based at either Lossiemouth or Coningsby. Our Royal Navy has picked up and shadowed the transit of Russian ships through the channel. We will, of course, respond, though not in the sense of being provoked; we will ensure that any potential incursion into our airspace or maritime area is properly dealt with.

So far as maritime patrol aircraft are concerned, of course we will look at that capability again in the new review, but we share capabilities with our NATO allies. We helped to lift French troops into Mali and, in return, we share other capabilities with NATO allies.

I thank the Defence Secretary for that answer. He will, of course, be aware of ongoing events in eastern Ukraine and concerns about the stability of other areas in the region. He recently talked of Russia seeking to “test” NATO, so, while our response needs to be calm and considered, it also has to make strategic sense. What is the Defence Secretary’s latest assessment of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, especially in the light of the deadly incident in Kharkiv yesterday; and what role is Britain playing, as a leading member of NATO, to reassure our partners of the fortitude, resilience and involving nature of that alliance?

It is pretty clear that the ceasefire agreement is not being properly respected. Russia needs to get back to the terms of that agreement and ensure that the fighting stops, that the heavy armour and other equipment I have referred to are withdrawn and that the territory of Ukraine is therefore respected. We have already been supplying non-lethal aid to Ukraine, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and we are continuing to consider what further help to provide in terms of training that might help to reduce the number of casualties and fatalities and build up the capability of the Ukrainian forces, which have been subject to an awful onslaught.

T3. May I also congratulate the Defence Secretary on his forthright warning about an expansionist and aggressive Russia under President Putin representing a real and present danger to the Baltic states and, therefore, to NATO and European peace? May I be the third former Defence Minister from the previous SDSR to urge the Defence Secretary to use the current SDSR to improve defence capability rather than reduce it? May I also reassure him that there is a huge groundswell of opinion on the Benches behind him in support of an increase in defence spending and certainly not in support of a cut? (907709)

I hope that my right hon. Friend, who served with distinction as a Minister in my Department, will recognise that, by investing in two aircraft carriers, committing to a replacement of the Type 23s, investing in armoured vehicles, purchasing fighters and commissioning new offshore patrol vessels, we are improving our defence capability. It is because we sorted out the defence budget that we are able to invest in new equipment in a way that the previous Government could not possibly have done.

On the basis of a previous answer, can the Secretary of State give an absolute assurance that none of the British military activities in Iraq will be allowed to drift across the border into Syria?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we have authority under the terms of the motion passed in this House to act in Iraq but not in Syria. That, of course, enables other members of the coalition to help the battle against ISIL in Syria; indeed, it frees up some of their capacity to do so. It is important that ISIL is defeated in both countries. ISIL does not respect the borders to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

T5. The RAF has been using precision munitions effectively in Iraq, which, as far as is possible, are good at minimising collateral damage. Further to the earlier comments by the Secretary of State, will the Minister reassure the House that that important capability will not be lost when the Tornado combat jet is retired in 2019? (907711)

Further to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s answer to an earlier question, I can confirm that—as it happens, yesterday—I witnessed a contract signature for the investment of a further £165 million to integrate Brimstone precision munitions on to Royal Air Force Typhoons, which will enable this unique air-to-ground strike capability to enter service on our Typhoon fleet in 2018, before the Tornadoes come out of service in 2019.

T8. What assurance can the Minister give that the costs of the new Type 26 global combat ship will not rise ever upwards? How much clout does his Department have in avoiding some of the mistakes of the past? (907714)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question, because he invites me to draw another comparison with the way in which this Government have sorted out the manner of our defence procurement, in stark contrast to the previous Administration. We are undertaking detailed analysis and taking contract negotiations to a much greater degree of granularity before entering contracts so that we know what we are buying and we remove risk from layers of prime contractors, following the model that we introduced in the aircraft carrier renegotiation last year.

T6. As civil nuclear developments expand the market for skilled nuclear engineers, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we maintain the skills levels of the hundreds of nuclear engineers at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire? (907712)

The facility in Berkshire is extremely important—part of it is in my hon. Friend’s constituency—and I have led cross-Government talks to consider how we ensure that demands for nuclear engineering skills across defence and civil sectors are successfully managed by recruiting, training and retaining appropriately skilled engineers. Next week, I will host an event in Downing street to raise awareness of degree courses in nuclear engineering.

Ministry of Defence police officers and their colleagues in the defence fire and rescue service are currently subject to the state pension age; yet their counterparts in the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government can retire up to seven years earlier. Does the Minister think that is fair?

We are in the process of working with other colleagues in the Government to conclude that matter, and I very much hope that we can make an announcement very soon. I pay tribute to the fire service and the MDP, both of which do an outstanding job.

T7. In addition to the training that my right hon. Friend mentioned earlier, will he tell the House what equipment the British Government are providing to the Kurdish peshmerga, and whether they are providing any equipment on behalf of other countries to assist their fight against ISIL? (907713)

May I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday?

As I said, Her Majesty’s Government have gifted some 40 heavy machine guns with spares and some 480,000 rounds of 12.7 mm ammunition, in addition to 49 tonnes of non-lethal assistance, which was directly supported with training on machine guns. Most of the requests for equipment we have received are of types that British forces do not normally use, but through our strategic air transport capability, we have been able to work with other countries to deliver more than 300 tonnes of weapons, ammunition and equipment from mostly east European—

Will the Secretary of State explain why the House is not allowed to know how many people were recruited from an online source?

There has been no attempt to refuse to answer that question. All Army recruits, regular and reserve—100%—come through online applications. We have published the numbers of enlistments. [Interruption.] The number I cited earlier—1,490—was the number of Army reservists. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with other numbers. There is no secret about this at all: all Army recruits come through the online system.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our fast jet airmen, who help keep our skies safe and are dealing with the increasingly frequent Russian incursions? (907715)

I do indeed pay tribute to them. This Department works in the recesses too, and last week I went to Royal Air Force Lossiemouth and met our fighter pilots, who help defend the skies against any incursion from wherever it may come. They are incredibly impressive and they now include female pilots too. “Top Gun” was on television last night. I have seen the real thing and it is more impressive than the movie.

Six hundred British citizens have travelled abroad to support ISIL and we have heard the anguished pleas of the parents of three young London girls who have gone for similar reasons. What further steps are we going to take to stop British nationals travelling in that way?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Home Secretary is producing further proposals to ensure that we continue to prevent the radicalisation of our young people in mosques and schools, and to introduce further passport controls where necessary to discourage the movement of young, radicalised Muslims to Syria.

Given the very welcome commitments that the Prime Minister made in Scotland just last week about ongoing defence expenditure, bases and so on, will the Government confirm that those commitments extend to the all-important and long-standing BUTEC—British underwater test and evaluation centre—submarine range in and around Kyle of Lochalsh and that it has a viable future, given that defence will loom so large at the general election?

I confirm that the UK Government have no plans to close the British underwater test and evaluation centre on the Applecross peninsula and at Kyle of Lochalsh. In fact, QinetiQ, supported by the Ministry of Defence, has plans to invest £22 million in its research and testing facilities up there, which, of course, would not have happened had Scotland been independent.

Can the Secretary of State say more about the circumstances in which the deserted soldier in Syria was found? What steps can he take to prevent a recurrence of that situation? Does he understand the frustration that must be felt by many in our armed forces who want to do more to fight ISIL, but who see the Government not doing enough?

We are, as I said, making a major contribution to the fight against ISIL, with nearly 600 service personnel involved, not just in Cyprus but in Irbil, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Gulf. We are fully involved in this struggle. I would prefer not to comment on the soldier who has been located and is being returned safely to his unit until he has been fully debriefed.

T10. May I support the Defence Secretary’s warning about the danger that Russia poses to world peace? We should look at supporting brave Ukraine before Mariupol is put under pressure or falls. (907716)

We have increased our assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces. Following the start of the crisis in spring last year, we have provided non-lethal support, including personal protective equipment and other supplies. We are helping with defence reform and modernisation. We are considering providing further non-lethal assistance to enhance the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces to reduce casualties and fatalities and to build their resilience, for example through further training.

If the Secretary of State is so pleased with our present defence capacity, will he say when was the last time an American President begged a British Prime Minister not to run down British forces any further?

I have made it clear throughout this Question Time that far from running down our forces, we are investing in them for the future. We are investing in aircraft carriers, armoured vehicles, new frigates, offshore patrol vessels and fresh equipment of all kinds. What we have not yet heard is whether the Labour party would match our £34 billion of spending or cut it.

There are four drivers and constraints on the defence budget: the international security environment, including what is happening in Ukraine; commitments already entered into, including upgrading our nuclear deterrent; the overall fiscal position; and our international obligations and moral authority. Does the direction of travel of any of those four things justify our defence spending falling below 2% of GDP? Is this a case, if ever there was one, for a proper cross-party consensus in Britain?

Only because we sorted out the budget mess that we inherited have we been able to invest in and modernise our defence equipment. I fully agree with my right hon. Friend: we would be in a stronger place if there was more consensus. We have yet to hear whether Labour would match our £34 billion or cut it. Is it time we had an answer?