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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 596: debated on Monday 8 June 2015

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Strategic Defence and Security Review

I hope you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to welcome the new Minister for the Armed Forces and the new Minister for defence personnel and veterans, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), to their places.

Work has now begun on the 2015 strategic defence and security review, led by the Cabinet Office, and we expect the review to report towards the end of the year.

But before we had seen any timetable for the SDSR, the Chancellor last week announced £500 million-worth of defence cuts. Leaving aside our NATO commitments and the fundamental importance of keeping this nation safe, should we not assess our security needs first and then set the budget?

The savings announced last week were in-year savings that do not affect the core baseline defence budget, from which we will negotiate spending for the next three years; they do not affect manpower numbers; they do not affect our commitment to increase the equipment programme by 1% ahead of inflation; and they will have no effect on current operations. The strategic review on which we have now embarked will be, quite properly, aligned with the spending review, because defence, to be deliverable, has to be affordable.

Surely my right hon. Friend must accept that, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) made clear, we need to establish the security requirements—the strategic prospects for the United Kingdom in a very dangerous world. I am extremely alarmed, as others are, at the prospect of another Treasury-driven review, at a time when we face a much more dangerous world than we did in 2010.

My hon. Friend speaks with great experience on these matters, as a former Defence Minister. Let me be clear with the House: this is a strategic defence and security review. It is not a Treasury-led review. It is a review across the whole of government to assess the threats to our country—and the future threats to it that may emerge; the capabilities we need to address those threats; and, of course, the resources we need to finance those capabilities.

19. The Secretary of State will know that the defence industry contains 300,000 jobs, 55,000 of which are reliant on exports. Will he guarantee that the impact on employment will be included in the SDSR? (900134)

Absolutely. This five-yearly review gives us the opportunity to look again at our defence industry to see how it is competing with our major defence competitors and whether enough is being done to advance those exports in certain markets, and to ensure that our smaller and medium-sized companies also enjoy the benefit. The defence industry is a major employer and this will be a key part of the review.

In 2010, the SDSR largely neglected the threat from Russia. That situation has now changed. It was also not able to address the upheavals in the middle east, because they had not happened, but we now face a serious threat emanating from the middle east. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that those two factors will be clearly placed as assumptions in the next SDSR?

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that. We are building on the foundations of the 2010 review, much of whose analysis holds good, but, as he has told the House, it did not predict the sudden rise of ISIL in the middle east or the return of Russian aggression, with the attempt to change international borders by force in Europe. Let me assure him that both those threats will be a key part of this review.

In the forthcoming SDSR, what cognisance will the Secretary of State give to the fact that in last month’s general election a clear majority of the Scottish electorate voted for parties that put opposition to Trident at the forefront of their manifesto and that 57 of 59 Members returned from Scotland do not want Trident renewal to go ahead? What cognisance will he give to the fact that the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Churches and the Scottish trade unions are also opposed to Trident—

Successive Governments have supported the renewal of our nuclear deterrent that has helped to keep this country safe, and we are committed to replacing all four Vanguard submarines with new submarines that will serve this country until at least 2060. The deterrent is a major employer. Thousands of jobs are at stake in Faslane, in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency, so I hope that he will consider the consequences of his policy on his own constituents.

Given that there was precious little strategy involved in the 2010 SDSR and that it was in fact little more than a cost-cutting exercise, will the Minister ensure that the process of renewing and purchasing United Kingdom maritime patrol aircraft will be undertaken immediately and that those aircraft will then be based where they should be historically and logically—in Scotland?

The 2010 review necessarily involved some tough decisions because we had to balance the budget as a result of the mess that we inherited from Labour. Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be looking again at all these different capabilities and at the importance of Scotland. I hope that he noted that I was able to be on the Clyde this morning cutting the first steel on our very latest warship, HMS Medway, which is being built on the Clyde to defend the whole of the United Kingdom.

When the SDSR finally arrives, it must incorporate three promises: the Prime Minister’s promise during the general election campaign that there will be no cuts whatsoever in the regular forces; the promise that the Prime Minister made shortly after the last election that there will be real growth in defence spending; and the promise recently reiterated by the Secretary of State about the 1% increase in real terms in defence equipment spending from now onwards. Given those three commitments—leaving aside for a moment the 2% commitment to NATO—where will the Secretary of State find any cash at all to save if he is asked to by the comprehensive spending review?

My hon. Friend is right that he and I were elected on a mandate to replace the nuclear deterrent with four new nuclear ballistic submarines; to maintain the current size of the regular armed forces; and to increase our spending on the equipment programme by inflation plus 1% each year. It is our task now in this review to ensure that those commitments are held to and that our armed forces have the equipment and the resources that they need.

I congratulate the Defence Secretary on his reappointment and wish him and his ministerial team well for the future. I also pay tribute to all the crew on HMS Bulwark who are doing such a fantastic job in the Mediterranean at this time.

Owing to a lack of transparency—almost secrecy—nobody outside a small inner circle in the Government has a real clue about what is going on with respect to the forthcoming strategic defence and security review. At a time when Britain is being accused of resigning as a world power, should the Government not get a grip, abandon warm rhetoric and set out a clear timetable for discussing how we address our role in the world and the military capability that we need to match it?

I am grateful to the shadow Defence Secretary for what he said and congratulate him on hanging on in there, at least for the moment. I thank him for his tribute, which I hope the whole House will echo, to the crew and the air crew on HMS Bulwark. I visited Bulwark myself on Saturday afternoon and saw at first hand how the crews were preparing to cope with this extraordinary number of migrants who need rescuing from the sea.

As far as the strategic review is concerned, I have set out the timetable to the House today, and the scope and the ambition of the review, which has already started and will be concluded towards the end of this year. We will also consult key external voices, such as academics and those in other areas who have something to contribute to the review. I hope that will include the hon. Gentleman.

That answer really shows just how complacent the Government are. Just yesterday, the US President spoke to the Prime Minister. The US Defence Secretary said that our actions seemed to indicate disengagement. I ask the Secretary of State again: when will the Government set out their plans to discuss, with Parliament and the rest of the country, the threats we face, our global role and the military capability we need? For example, when will they discuss the lack of a maritime patrol aircraft and what the availability of two aircraft carriers actually means—just two examples of the decisions facing the country? This is the Defence Secretary’s chance to launch a wide-ranging debate about the forthcoming SDSR. Will he do it?

Yes, of course we will engage with Parliament and I look forward to engaging with the newly established Select Committee on Defence. However, the hon. Gentleman has chosen two rather odd capabilities to put on the table. We are addressing the gap in maritime patrol aircraft because the previous Labour Government were supposed to deliver 23 Nimrods but, when we came into office in 2010, the programme was eight years behind schedule, £800 million over budget and not a single Nimrod had been delivered. He then went on to mention aircraft carriers, but it is this Government that are building two aircraft carriers and this Government that are committed to sailing them both.

ISIL (Iraq)

The UK contributes significantly to the coalition against ISIL by providing sophisticated aircraft such as Tornado, Reaper, Rivet Joint and Sentinel from across the middle east and Cyprus to support Iraqi ground forces. We lead the coalition’s counter-improvised explosive device training programme and have trained more than 1,400 Iraqis in counter-IED and other infantry skills. Yesterday, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) will have heard, we offered to expand that counter-IED and other training to additional coalition training sites.

Major General Tim Cross, who was the senior British officer involved in post-war planning in Iraq, attributed the fall of Ramadi to a lack of will or, as he put it, “moral cohesion” on the part of Iraqi forces. What is my right hon. Friend’s Department doing to help promote that moral cohesion in an Iraqi army that frequently heavily outnumbers its ISIL opponents?

The partners in the coalition and Prime Minister al-Abadi recognise that the Iraqi security forces need support to help them take the fight to ISIL on the ground. That is why we are contributing not simply to air support but to the building partner capacity programme, which aims to boost the capabilities and confidence of the Iraqi security forces.

It is certainly correct that the Iraqi forces need strengthening. What further measures does the Secretary of State have in mind to do exactly that, as it is the long-term guarantee of security?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced at the weekend, we have offered a further 125 troops to join the coalition troops training the Iraqi security forces, including more than 60 counter-IED trainers. Those additional troops will be the first UK personnel deployed to training sites outside Irbil or Baghdad and, subject to the needs of the coalition, will take our presence in Iraq to more than 275 troops. As well as further counter-IED trainers, we are offering specialist training in areas such as medical skills, equipment maintenance, manoeuvre support and information operations.

Building and strengthening partner capacity is happening not just in Iraq but in neighbouring countries. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about what we are doing with Jordan and whether we are expanding our capability there?

We have begun the training of moderate Syrian forces in bases outside Syria and a number of people are contributing to that training. Progress will depend on identifying suitable moderate forces that are prepared to take the fight to ISIL, particularly in the north of Syria, and ensuring that once they are trained they are ready to rejoin that fight. We are making that contribution to the training effort being led by the Americans and proposed for four different sites, all outside Syria.

What steps is the Department taking to work with other Departments, particularly the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, to ensure that measures being taken to counter extremism include aid to support education, not just military action?

The hon. Lady is quite right. The effort has to be spread across diplomatic activity, political activity and communications activity. We have to make efforts to deradicalise extremists in our societies, so we have to take measures across the board. ISIL cannot simply be defeated militarily, and I can assure her that this is an effort that is spread across the Whitehall Departments to which she referred.

Will the Secretary of State clarify, with the additional deployment, how many UK troops will serve in Iraq? Will he confirm that they are working not just with the Kurdistan Regional Government and in Baghdad but with the very varied ethnic groups in Iraq whose support is essential to a successful coalition effort?

The number involved, as I told the House, is about 275, but it will vary as the training forces begin and end service. The significance of the announcement at the weekend is that we will—[Interruption.] Two hundred and seventy five is the number that I have given the House. The significance of the announcement at the weekend is that some of those trainers will train at the building partner capacity bases outside the Kurdish areas.

Reserve Forces (Recruitment)

Six thousand eight hundred and ten personnel joined the reserves in financial year 2014-15, a rise of 65% on the previous financial year. For 2012-13, the only statistics available are for the Army reserve, with 3,960 joining that year. We have made significant improvements to the recruiting process, the offer to reservists and the support we give to employers. We continue to look at further improvements to build on this considerable growth.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Can he explain what plans his Department has to celebrate reserves day later this month, and will he encourage hon. Members to support it in their constituencies?

Reserves day is an important opportunity for colleagues in the House to support the reserves. It was called uniform to work day, and a number of hon. Members took part in it. Reserve forces and cadets associations will tell colleagues about opportunities to support the event, including an opportunity in the House of Commons for Members and researchers, both existing members of the reserves and those who are interested in joining.

The 37 Signal Regiment reservists, who are based in my constituency, do an amazing job and have been awarded the freedom of our borough. Will my hon. Friend inform the House how future reserve proposals will help the regiment to continue its brilliant work?

I join my hon. Friend in her tribute to the 37 Signal Regiment, which has deployed personnel on operations to Afghanistan, as well as on recent exercises in Belize, Gibraltar, Germany and Cyprus, and has provided essential work to the civil authorities in the UK. Army reserve units are paired with, and train alongside, regular units and, when required, may deploy with them—in 37’s case, with 16 Signal Regiment, as she knows. Reserves have the same access to equipment and technology as their regular counterparts, and receive high-quality, challenging training, including more opportunities to exercise overseas.

I see the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) has perambulated to a different part of the Chamber, and is not where we are accustomed to seeing him—but I can still see him.

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on his tremendous support and enthusiasm for the reserves, which is very well taken? He is aware of my connection with the Royal Yeomanry, but is he aware that it is the best recruiting regiment in the reserves? That is not just because it has made good use of what the central facility provides but because it does a lot of it itself, and takes a lot of trouble over recruiting. Will he emphasise to all the other reserve units that they can do a great deal themselves to encourage people in their regimental family to get more people into the reserves?

I am always delighted to take a question from my right hon. Friend, whose illustrious grandfather was a long-serving member of the Territorial Army. He is quite right about the Royal Yeomanry’s achievements. I visited it twice in the past year, and in many ways it is a trailblazer. The key point that he makes about empowering units to do more to help themselves, including devolving some of the marketing budgets—something that we have begun to do—is very well taken.

I do not have the exact age of reservist recruits, but the current average of the Army Reserve is 37. If the hon. Gentleman is thinking of joining, I am sure we can put him in touch with somebody.

14. Recent personnel statistics show that nearly a third of the armed forces are dissatisfied with military life, so what provisions are in place to ensure that this troubling figure is reduced? (900128)

There is no single bullet. The armed forces have come through a difficult time, with a combination of downsizing of the numbers in the Army as a result of the £38 billion black hole, and the end of operations in Afghanistan, which for many young men and women was an attractor. But measures ranging from the purchase of new equipment to an almost unparalleled number of overseas exercises, together with a fresh look at the terms and conditions of service, are all designed to address the issue that the hon. Gentleman points to.

I welcome the Minister back to his position and congratulate the two new members of the Defence team. In the run-up to the election the Prime Minister pledged that regular personnel numbers would not be reduced, but we heard last week about the first down payment from the Defence budget as a result of the Chancellor’s cuts. Can the Minister give an assurance that the target set by the previous Government for reservists will be met and funded?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome, and the same applies to him. It is always a pleasure to spar across the Dispatch Box. The Conservative manifesto was clear about expanding the number of reservists across the three services to 35,000. The funding is there through the £1.8 billion that was provided over a 10-year period, and the current strengths are running ahead of schedule in all three volunteer reserve services.

Order. At this point I appeal for slightly snappier questions and answers because we have a lot to get through.

Defence Storage and Distribution Agency

4. When he expects to complete negotiations on the sale of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Ashchurch; and if he will make a statement. (900118)

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the Ministry of Defence presence at Ashchurch in his constituency. I am pleased to be able to inform him and the House that a land sale development partnership contract was signed with Vinci St Modwen in March this year to promote the site through the planning process and ultimately to enable its redevelopment, subject to planning consent. We expect to commence transfer of the site to our development partner in phases from early 2018.

I thank the Minister for that response and for the interest he has taken in the site. He will be aware that the threat of closure has hung over employees on that site for very many years. Can the redevelopment be moved along as quickly as possible with due regard to the future of those employees?

My hon. Friend rightly takes a great interest in the site for the welfare and future prospects of the employees from his constituency there. The 160 former employees and 80 agency staff within the Defence Support Group at Ashchurch were all transferred under the TUPE process across to Babcock on completion of that transaction on 31 March, and we have continuous and regular engagement with the trade union representatives to make sure that they are all fully informed.

Ebola

5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the contribution of the armed forces to tackling the spread of Ebola. (900119)

I would like to make the House aware that I have a declarable interest as a member of the Royal Navy Reserve. The Navy is investigating the most appropriate way for me to remain a reservist for the duration of my appointment as Minister for the Armed Forces. I will update the House in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for enabling me to pay tribute to our armed forces who have served on Operation Gritrock, one of the most challenging operations in recent times, during which our medical professionals demonstrated tremendous skill and courage. Recent statistics show just 12 new cases of Ebola a week, well down from the more than 500 in November last year. The World Health Organisation currently assesses that Sierra Leone will be free from Ebola in a matter of weeks, and I am sure the whole House will want to join me in thanking our armed forces and our MOD civilians for all they have done in achieving that.

The Minister will be aware that personnel from RNAS Culdrose in my constituency sailed with RFA Argus last year as part of the Government’s reaction to the fight against Ebola. What assurances can she give that RNAS Culdrose will continue to be adequately resourced so that it can play a similar role in future crises?

Culdrose is certainly resourced for similar crises. In fact, only recently we deployed further personnel and three helicopters from there to assist in our operations to deal with the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, where they are providing valuable information to the search and rescue operation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion them.

I welcome the Minister to her new post, but may I gently remind her that the British Army’s capacity to intervene, even in helping with the Ebola crisis, will become more limited as time goes on, as America retreats as a pushy world power and we are more on our own in Europe and the world? The fact of the matter, as she knows, is that we could fit the whole of our defence forces into Wembley stadium, yet still she is in favour of cutting defence spending to below 2% of GDP.

As I speak, we have over 3,600 personnel deployed on 21 operations across 19 countries. We are actually doing more operations, although they might not have the profile of some recent operations, so our armed forces are still incredibly busy. We are also regenerating capability that was lost under the Labour Administration.

VJ Day

As this is my first Defence Question Time, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Although I remain a member of the Army Reserve, I have requested that I be placed on the unposted list for the duration of my appointment as a Defence Minister.

The MOD will be supporting the national commemorative and thanksgiving events that will take place in central London on Saturday 15 August. The Government are committed to providing their full support to those events, which will provide an opportunity for the public, and the nation at large, to honour and pay their respects to those who fought during the far east campaigns.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his new post. Men such as my late grandfather fought in the east, enduring the harshest conditions, and of course many never returned home. Will the Minister commit to working with colleagues across the Government to ensure that schools, organisations and communities have all the support they need to recognise the bravery and commitment of our veterans?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady clearly shares my passion and determination to ensure that this year’s events will be a fitting tribute to veterans and their families, such as hers, who will be very much the focus. We are committed to marking the 70th anniversary of VJ Day and ensuring that veterans of the far east campaigns have a national event that provides an opportunity for the public and the nation to pay their respects and offer their gratitude. I will be delighted to work with any Member of the House who wishes to pursue that.

Last year I received a very moving letter from a veteran in Goole, Edgar Sheppard, whom I subsequently visited in his care home. He told me how concerned he was that young people did not know the sacrifice that he and his Burma veterans had endured. Can we ensure that our cadet forces and the Ministry of Defence work with the Department for Education to ensure that the school children of today know about the sacrifices of yesterday?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware of the Government’s commitment to the cadet forces expansion programme. We increased the number of cadet forces by over 100 during the previous Parliament, and we are committed to increasing it to 500. I am a great fan of the cadet force, having previously been a member of it, and am determined that we should expand it.

Defence Spending (NATO Target)

7. Whether his Department’s budget will meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence in each year to 2020. (900121)

We will be spending 2% of GDP on defence this financial year. Spending beyond that will be determined in the spending review. The Government were elected with a mandate to maintain the size of our regular armed forces, increase the equipment budget in real terms every year and replace our four nuclear ballistic submarines. Those commitments will secure the shape and power of our armed forces throughout this Parliament.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but I think he is aware from the comments already made that there is deep concern on both sides of the House about the fact that the Prime Minister, having asked other NATO countries to commit themselves to spending 2% of GDP on defence, is unable to commit to that beyond 2015-16. I hope we will all urge the Secretary of State to make certain that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is aware of that concern, given the threats that have been outlined and the fact that our capacity to deal with them is stretched pretty thin.

Let me assure my hon. Friend that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is fully aware of the commitments that were made at the NATO summit and has been even more fully aware during recent negotiations over the in-year savings, which have not taken us below 2%. It is important to note, though, that seven of the 28 NATO members do not even spend 1% on their defence and 20 of the 28 do not even spend 1.5%.

As NATO now requires us to pay 2%, and apparently other member states the same, and has since 2006 given itself a global role, whose interests is it defending worldwide, and is it demanding that we replace the Trident nuclear missile system, or is that a self-grown decision?

The purpose of the alliance is to defend its members. That is why our troops were exercising last week in Estonia and will shortly be exercising in Romania and the Baltic sea, and why our Typhoons are flying with the Norwegians to protect the skies over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the face of Russian aggression. We are one of the nuclear members of the NATO alliance, and that nuclear shield helps to protect all members of the alliance.

When the Secretary of State is next having a word in the shell-like ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he mention that it does not make a lot of sense for any Government to say that defence is the first duty of Government if they protect other Departments’ spending but not defence spending?

I know of my right hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to defence and to defence expenditure. He is right, of course, that the first duty of Government is to defend our country and our people. I reminded him earlier of the commitments in the manifesto to protect the size and power of our armed forces right through this Parliament. However, I note what he has said. Those commitments are for the remaining three financial years, from 2016-17 onwards. These are matters for negotiation in the autumn.

Given the £500 million of cuts announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week in this House, will the Secretary of State advise us whether they will affect Trident replacement? If not, will that mean a cut to conventional forces?

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that the in-year savings that we have been asked to find for the current financial year are way below the original demand of the Treasury. They do not affect the 2% target that we are continuing to meet, they will have no effect on manpower numbers or on current operations—I have just explained to the House that we are extending one of our current operations in Iraq—and they will have no effect on the baseline of defence expenditure before the negotiations begin in the autumn. These savings will fall on some in-year expenditure on travel costs and on consultancy, and we will defer some spending on infrastructure and equipment from this financial year to the next—

Order. We are deeply obliged to the Secretary of State, but the answer is too long. We have to move on.

We are all waiting for the National Security Council risk assessment that the Government are carrying out at the moment. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be an intellectual and coherent thread from that through to the strategic defence and security review, and from that to the comprehensive spending review?

Yes, I can. The review will be based on the risk assessment that is now being updated from the 2010 assessment. That will take us through the work that is being done under the review, which is being undertaken at the same time as the spending review, so all these things come together in identifying the threats we face and the capabilities we need to address them.

Given the lack of success by the leader of the free world at the G7 in extracting the 2% commitment that he desired from the Prime Minister, I am realistic about my own chances, but will the Secretary of State at least accept that if the UK falls below 2%, it will do significant damage to our standing in NATO and our defence relationship with the United States?

It is nice to hear so many Opposition Members championing the cause of 2%. I did not hear that quite so loudly during the general election; perhaps I was listening to the wrong people, and perhaps the Opposition were due to explain exactly how they would finance it. Let us be clear what was agreed last September. In response to the threats from Russian aggression and the rise of ISIL—direct threats to us here in western Europe—the United States wants European members of NATO to shoulder a greater proportion of the burden.

Armed Forces Covenant

The armed forces covenant is one of this Government’s most important priorities; I will endeavour to drive it forward with the same passion and commitment as my predecessors. This year sees the implementation of a permanent commitment to the covenant through a £10 million per annum fund. Over the coming months, we will focus on how best to communicate the aims of the covenant and continue to work with industry and the voluntary sector to ensure that it goes from strength to strength.

Ensuring that our servicemen and women can buy their own homes is, rightly, a priority for this Government. How many people have benefited from the Forces Help to Buy scheme so far?

Forces Help to Buy gives service personnel the opportunity to get on the housing ladder, not only giving them and their families stability during their military service but helping them form a foundation for future life. I am pleased to say that since April 2014, more than 3,500 service personnel have received funds totalling £53.7 million. A further 1,800 service personnel have had their applications approved fully and are awaiting the completion of property purchases.

More than 20,000 skilled men and women, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, leave the armed forces each year. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that local skills and economic strategies work effectively to realise the full potential of that highly trained, well disciplined and adaptable workforce?

All those who join as junior ranks receive key skills training and complete professional apprenticeships. All personnel can access routes to higher and further education, are provided with some financial assistance and are given time to study. All personnel leaving the armed forces—about 20,000 a year—are entitled to resettlement provision to help their transition into future careers.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is rightly proud that Oxfordshire has led the way in delivering on our community covenant by being the first local authority to change its schools admissions policy to make it easier for the children of service families to secure school places by using base addresses before their postings. I know that she has played a key role in driving that forward, and I thank her for it.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that support for our veterans is fundamental to the armed forces covenant. There are 500,000 veterans in the north-west of England, many of them in my constituency, but not one penny of the £40 million veterans accommodation fund went to any organisation in the north-west. Will he ensure that funding for veterans organisations is fairly distributed across the country, and that there are mechanisms in place to do so?

Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that over the past three years, some £150 million of LIBOR funding has been used for the military covenant. I am determined that that should be spread equally across the country, and I will look into the matter that he has raised.

I too welcome the Minister to his post, and I welcome his support for the armed forces covenant, but does the rhetoric match the reality on the ground? My local authority in Wigan is investing £500,000 to provide a veterans hub to create a single point of contact for veterans, in recognition of the current, confusing patchwork of provision. What is the Minister doing to ensure that such good practice is recognised and resourced throughout the country, ending the current postcode lottery for veterans?

The hon. Lady will be aware that all local authorities in Great Britain have signed the community covenant. In my new role, I am very keen to ensure that best practice is spread across the United Kingdom. This is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, other Government Departments. If the hon. Lady feels that her own local authority has best practices that can be shared more widely, I shall be delighted to talk to her.

The Royal British Legion was recently awarded £10 million LIBOR funding over five years to address long-term hearing issues. Work has already started with key stakeholders, and the Legion aims to launch the fund in early autumn. From summer 2015, the MOD will introduce new hearing protection measures for UK armed forces personnel, which will reduce the number of veterans with service-attributable hearing issues.

NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force

Significant progress has been made on the very high readiness joint task force. The interim force is established and the operational force will be ready by the Warsaw summit next year. We will contribute a battle group to the Spanish-led task force next year, and we will lead a fully operational task force brigade from January 2017. Our contribution that year will increase from 2,500 to 3,000 personnel.

Given reports in recent days of attacks against Ukrainian forces by Russian forces and separatists backed by Russia, what is NATO doing to deter such aggression, and could a rapid task force play an important role in that?

We are continuing to press for sanctions to be upheld against Russia. We are helping Ukrainian armed forces with trainers at six different sites in western Ukraine, training and improving the capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces. We have troops exercising in eastern Europe—in Romania and the Baltic—and our Typhoons are flying every day this summer to help to protect Baltic airspace.

23. The need for the development of a NATO very high readiness joint task force is reflected in the deteriorating wider security situation, particularly with the Russians. That is not wholly consistent with relying on 30,000 reservists as part of our armed forces. If the wider security situation continues to deteriorate, will the Secretary of State review that reliance? (900139)

We have not yet got to the stage where Future Force 2020 has been completed. We have time enough to ensure that our total of 30,000 reservists is reached, but my hon. Friend will recall our manifesto commitment of no further cuts in the size of the regular armed forces.

Type 26 Frigates

As my hon. Friend knows, in February this year the Prime Minister announced the awarding of a contract for the demonstration phase of the Type 26 programme, valued at £859 million, to complete the detailed design for the ship and engage the maritime supply chain to procure essential long-lead items. This is an incremental programme and detailed discussions with the contractors continue. We intend to award a contract for the manufacture phase next year.

That is welcome news for many manufacturers and specialist engineers. Can my hon. Friend confirm that there is no danger of falling behind our manifesto commitment for a 1% plus inflation equipment plan for our defence, and that that will not fall victim to any deferring of expenditure referred to by the Defence Secretary?

The current contract is completely taken into account in the equipment plan, which, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, is due to increase by 1% a year in excess of inflation for each of the next five years, and we have planned for it to do so during the currency of the 10-year plan.

Topical Questions

My immediate priorities are: our operations against ISIL; the strategic defence and security review; and delivering our manifesto commitments to maintain the size of the armed forces, build four successor ballistic missile submarines and increase the equipment budget every year, ensuring the shape and power of our armed forces to keep Britain safe.

Given the recent naming of the TS Royalist—the sea cadets’ flagship—what importance does the Secretary of State attach to our cadet forces in providing training and discipline to young people? Will he join me in visiting one of the cadet centres in my constituency?

Let me congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to this place. I am delighted that Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal recently named training ship Royalist. Cadet forces are hugely influential in the development of young people and in raising awareness of the armed forces. That is why I increased funding for 100 new cadet units in schools last year, and why we have committed to increasing the total number to 500 by 2020. I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend one day on a visit in his constituency.

The Defence Secretary recently attended a conference in Singapore, where the ongoing tensions in the South China sea were discussed. I recently visited Japan, where concerns were also raised. Does he agree that Britain has considerable interests in this area of the world, and that we all need to work together to defuse potential problems before they escalate? Is it not yet another example of where we need to be clear about what the Government’s actual strategy is in dealing with a very real potential problem?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Nearly half the world’s trade passes through the South China sea. When I spoke at that conference, I called on all those involved in land reclamation, not simply China, to exercise restraint, to pursue these claims through proper legal frameworks and to avoid the danger—the very real danger—of some local miscalculation that could escalate. He is right: this is a very serious issue, and this is a part of world in which we have a very strong commercial interest.

T3. What help is being given by our forces to aid reconstruction in Nepal? May I commend members of the Gurkha regiment and the Gurkha welfare scheme for overseeing the excellent water project that I and other members of the International Development Committee saw this spring? Will Ministers liaise with their counterparts to discuss supporting additional, desperately needed projects? (900142)

I thank my hon. Friend for again allowing me to pay tribute to the work not just of the Gurkhas—the Royal Gurkha Rifles and the Gurkha engineers—but to the superb job done by the RAF in transporting 148 tonnes of aid and equipment. We are funding the engineers who remain in Nepal supporting the Gurkha communities, and we are working closely with the Gurkha Welfare Trust to deliver further reconstruction work in the area. We are very clear that we are there for the long haul.

T4. Will the Defence Secretary clarify something he said earlier about the number of boots currently on the ground in Iraq? He said 250 troops were currently deployed, whereas The Guardian reports that the deployment of an additional 125 troops will take the number of“UK military personnel involved in Iraq-related missions to 900.”The Daily Telegraph and The Independent mention similar figures. Will he clarify why those press reports are different from what he told the House earlier? (900143)

Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman. The figure of 900 relates to the total mission—all those involved in helping to defeat ISIL—which of course includes our air crews in Akrotiri in Cyprus and at other bases in the Gulf. We expect the numbers on the ground in Iraq to reach about 275, with the increase that was announced at the weekend. As he said, the total mission will then involve about 900 people.

T5. Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that post-conflict reconstruction and renewal costs borne by his Department do not currently count towards the 2% of GDP spending. Does he have any plans to lobby the OECD and/or NATO on this, and what is the Government’s position? (900144)

My hon. and learned Friend makes a fair and interesting point. We need to look at where expenditure from the defence and development budgets is security expenditure in the round. Where it is preventing conflict, helping to stabilise countries and avoiding the future commitment of British troops, there is a very strong case for looking at all these things together. The House will know that a sizeable part of our operation in Sierra Leone and indeed the humanitarian work in Nepal, to which the Minister for the Armed Forces referred, is classified as humanitarian assistance to those two countries and will be recouped from the overseas aid budget.

Given that hairline fissures and radioactive leaks from the test reactor at Vulcan have necessitated the expenditure of several hundred million pounds to render the current Trident submarine fleet safe, how can the Government possibly justify going ahead with another generation of nuclear weapons without a test reactor? Has not that cavalier attitude towards the safety of the Scottish population resulted in 57 of the 59 Scottish MPs being against the renewal of Trident?

I absolutely reject that. The safety of the reactors is paramount and is consistently assessed at every stage of their life, from design and build through to operation and disposal. That is independently regulated in accordance with the law and by our own independent nuclear regulator.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that some of the most severe threats we face emanate from cyberspace, and that the strategic defence and security review should include our cyber-security capability to ensure that we have both offensive and defensive cyber capability? (900145)

I agree with my hon. Friend. Following the 2010 strategic defence and security review, the Government put in place a national cyber-security programme backed by £860 million of Government investment up to 2016. It is for the current SDSR to decide where cyber sits in the overall prioritisation of security threats and responses. However, we have been clear that we will continue to invest in our cyber-defence capabilities, partly because, as he knows, it is a rapidly developing area and we need to keep up.

We all know that the French navy is being used to plug gaps in military operations in the Gulf, and that in that context the US military has taken to describing our country as “Great shrinking Britain”. Surely the Secretary of State is concerned about that view of this country. What is he going to do about it?

I must tell the hon. Lady that HMS Kent was recently part of the carrier screen around the Charles de Gaulle in the Gulf. We have worked with the French to help lift their troops into Mali, and the French in turn help us. That is part of the alliance—France, the United States, ourselves and the Norwegians work together on these threats.

T8. After the announcement last week of further troops to train indigenous forces in northern Iraq, and with the possible opportunities to stem the flow of economic migrants through Libya by building capacity in the security forces there, will my right hon. Friend confirm what resources are being made available to the Army so that it can develop that increasingly important capability? (900147)

I congratulate my hon. Friend not just on his election but on his magnificent maiden speech last week, in which he brought his own regimental experience to the House’s attention.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces told the House, our personnel are engaged in some 21 operations around the world in 19 different countries, and we are ready to expand those operations where necessary. Just this weekend, we have announced an enlargement of our mission and our work in Iraq, and I have today told the House of an enlargement of our contribution to the very high readiness task force. We are able to do that only because we have balanced the defence budget and set out the right priorities for it.

How does the Secretary of State reconcile his warm words about veterans with the fact that one of my constituents, whose hearing was profoundly damaged during his time in the Army, cannot get any financial support because the support available for the armed forces is very different from that for people who work in, say, a factory, and have their hearing damaged there? How can that be right?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the investment that we mentioned earlier of £10 million for veterans with hearing loss. I am unaware of the details of the specific case he mentions, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it.

T9. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the gap in provision in Northumberland to support the growing number of veterans on my patch who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? (900148)

I would be happy to discuss any cases my hon. Friend has in mind, but I am not aware of any gaps in service provision in the Northumberland area. A wide range of services is available to those suffering from PTSD in that region, including the Veterans Wellbeing Assessment and Liaison Service, run by the local NHS foundation trust, which provides outreach and assessment workers and utilises existing community, primary and secondary care mental health services across the north-east.

I am incredibly proud of the work carried out by local government, especially by the Greater Manchester authorities and the combined authority in my city region, to implement the armed forces covenant at a local level, but may I urge the Minister to speak to his colleagues in government to ensure consistency across all Government Departments? Too many decisions are still being taken by Government Departments and Government agencies that are not consistent with the principles of the armed forces covenant.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the community covenant is the responsibility of not just the Ministry of Defence but all Government Departments. That is precisely why the Government have instigated a new working group that cross-cuts Government Departments to address the very issues he raises.

Order. May I very gently point out that we are not in the reading room of the Bearsden public library and that hon. Members should not read a newspaper unless it relates to the matter currently under consideration by the House? I say that in a jocular spirit to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is a literate fellow. I am sure he will savour his enjoyment on a subsequent occasion.

I would not want to suggest that the hon. Gentleman was reading his horoscope. I do not think he was doing anything of the kind—that is a calumny!

Defence diplomacy is a major component of Britain’s soft power. What steps are the Government taking to foster and encourage this aspect of our international relations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: defence engagement is of pivotal importance. We are in the process of “upgunning” the role of defence attachés worldwide, with more language training and a proper career structure to make it more attractive. That is part of a wider attempt to raise the importance of defence diplomacy. Soldiers, sailors and airmen can so often reach parts of our allies that others cannot.

Will the Secretary of State give the total cost of Trident replacement so far? Could he confirm whether this House has approved every element of that expenditure?

This House voted on the renewal of Trident with an overwhelming majority back in January—I think the largest majority for some years. I am very happy to set out in the House the details of the current expenditure. I think about £3 billion has been earmarked so far. I think, from memory, about £1.5 billion has been spent so far, but if I am wrong I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

T10. What military assistance is being provided by the Department in the Mediterranean and north Africa to help with humanitarian disasters? (900149)

HMS Bulwark and three Merlin helicopters are conducting search and rescue in the Mediterranean. To date, they have rescued 2,909 migrants from the sea. I hope the whole House will pay tribute to the professionalism and bravery of those involved in this extraordinarily large rescue mission. As well as rescuing those at sea, we now need to address this problem further back by tackling the trafficking gangs who are making money out of this misery, and discouraging people from leaving their countries to make this long and very dangerous journey.

May I tell the Secretary of State how much I enjoyed our exchange of letters during the election campaign—less so the 20,000 letters he sent to my constituents? Now that he has finished unsettling the carefully constructed supply chain, will he give a statement on the timetable for maingate? Is there a prospect of bringing it forward?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on surviving the election campaign. It is good to see him back in his place; indeed, it is good to hear him championing the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. I hope he will continue to do so throughout this Parliament. We expect the maingate decision to be taken in this Parliament—next year, I hope.

The Secretary of State set out the importance of cadet forces around the UK, but cadets in Heanor, in my constituency, report that they lack the funds to get the full experience they want and deserve. Is there a way of squeezing out more money so that cadets can get the experience they need?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his commitment to supporting the community cadet force in his constituency. The Army Cadet Force receives £81 million a year distributed between the various detachments across UK counties. Derbyshire has a vibrant cadet representation. All three detachments in his constituency—Alfreton, Ripley and Heanor—see healthy attendance and are funded appropriately.