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Topical Questions

Volume 593: debated on Monday 23 February 2015

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?