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Topical Questions

Volume 596: debated on Monday 8 June 2015

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.