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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 598: debated on Monday 13 July 2015


The Secretary of State was asked—

Helicopter Fleets

The Government are investing to transform the helicopter fleets supporting our armed forces. Last week’s news of a bigger budget and confirmation that we will meet NATO’s target of 2% of gross domestic product reinforces confidence in our equipment plan, which sets out our plans to spend more than £12 billion on helicopters over the next 10 years.

I thank the Minister for the welcome investment in the helicopter fleet, which is underpinned by the commitment to spending 2% of GDP. The tactical supply wing of the RAF, which is based in my constituency of Stafford, supports UK, NATO and allied helicopters around the world by performing hot refuelling, which means that the rotors are running. Will he confirm that sufficient resources will be made available to TSW so that it can support the investment in the new fleet?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking such an interest in the tactical supply wing, which is based in his constituency. I believe that he has seen it on duty, supporting our training activities in Kenya. I join him in paying tribute to the unit, which provides invaluable support to deployed helicopter fleets, at extreme and very high readiness. It recently supported our Merlin helicopters on HMS Bulwark to assist in the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone and in the human trafficking efforts in the Mediterranean. I know that he takes a great interest in both matters.

The Minister will know that it is not only what we buy that is important, but where it is manufactured. What percentage of our helicopters are made in the UK, and what about the other defence industries that seem to be declining? We are relying too much on imported defence equipment.

I confirm that of the five principal helicopter fleets, two are manufactured by AgustaWestland and supported from Yeovil; one is supplied by Eurocopter, which has activities in Oxfordshire; and the Chinook and Apache fleets are Boeing.

Does the Minister agree that we want the best helicopters for our forces? It is right that there is a spread, but we want the best, not necessarily just ones that were made in this country.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who has some knowledge of this subject; I met his son flying one of the Chinook aircraft in his constituency. It is right that we invest in the best capability and provide our forces with the best equipment that is available across the world, irrespective of where it is manufactured.

Cadet Units: Schools

I am sure that my hon. Friend will have welcomed the Chancellor’s announcement in last week’s Budget of an extra £50 million to expand the number of cadet units in schools to 500 by 2020. That is excellent news and will ensure that more young people get to experience the life-enhancing activities that cadet service brings.

I do, indeed, welcome that excellent investment. I recently met members of the cadets and reserves association for Hereford and Worcester at the Three Counties show, where they told me about their excitement at more state schools being able to host cadets. Will the Minister update me on the progress of that project in Worcestershire?

I am delighted that, in addition to the existing combined cadet force units in Kidderminster and Stourbridge, four more schools in Worcestershire will give their pupils the chance to join a CCF unit as a direct result of the cadet expansion programme: the Tudor Grange academies in Redditch and Worcester have established new units; and North Bromsgrove and South Bromsgrove high schools have forged partnerships with the CCF unit at Bromsgrove school. This is a real success story and I am delighted that many more young people will reap the benefits of belonging to a cadet unit.

Community-based cadet forces heard with great envy about the £50 million of additional funds for school-based cadet units, but what will be the impact of that funding on community-based units? There is great concern that students will be seduced into staying in school, rather than attending community-based units. Some instructors in community-based units are extremely anxious that they will be wound down and lose their important role within their communities.

The hon. Lady is right that the cadet expansion programme applies to schools, and that there are two types of cadet unit. We are absolutely determined that the programme will not have a negative impact on community cadets, and to that end I am looking carefully at how we can continue to enhance the role of our adult volunteers, for example by considering the expansion of Frimley Park, where they are trained.

Reserve Forces: Recruitment

Six thousand, eight hundred and ten personnel joined the reserve forces in the last financial year, an increase of 65% on the year before. We have made significant improvements to recruiting processes, the offer to reservists and the support we give employers. As a result, recruitment continues to improve, and we remain committed to meeting our overall target.

I congratulate the Minister not only on the fantastic decision to spend 2% of GDP on our armed forces but on his decision to save William Coltman House, the Army reservist centre in Burton. Will he join me in commending Major Marvin Bargrove and everybody else involved for their work in increasing recruitment and showing people in Burton the opportunities that are available through being part of our reservist force?

I share my hon. Friend’s delight both at the announcement of the 2% commitment and at the fact that we have been able to save the centre in Burton. He will be aware that 4 Mercian, which has a detachment there, has recently been deployed in a number of interesting exercises, as well as providing two formed platoons for an operational deployment in Cyprus.

What progress has the Department made in getting employers to recognise the benefits of their employees becoming reservists, and of hiring reservists?

This year, we have already awarded 160 new bronze awards and 25 new silver awards for employers. We are also building links between companies in industry sectors and their equivalent reserves. For example, the Royal Signals is formalising links with BT, Vodafone, HP and Virgin Media; Defence Medical Services has an excellent arrangement with the NHS; and the Military Provost Service is partnering with Serco.

I, too, welcome the 2% commitment, which will ensure that the right level of reserves will be reached.

Does the Minister agree that it is absolutely right that reservists who see action get the right equipment to protect them, which would include the use of drones manufactured by some of my constituents at BAE Systems?

The 2% commitment enables us to reconfirm the additional £1.8 billion for the reserves. All reservists today are routinely supplied with the same uniform and personal equipment as their regular counterparts, and last year we were able to bring forward earlier than expected £45 million of investment for dismounted close combat equipment. I am afraid that it is above my pay grade to answer my hon. Friend’s question about drones.

The Prime Minister has said today that he wants an increase in the number of special forces. Given our armed forces’ greater reliance on reservists, what are the Minister and the Government doing to ensure that we still have a good pool from which to pick our special forces?

As a former Defence Minister, the hon. Gentleman will know that Ministers of the Crown never talk about special forces in the Chamber. On his wider point about the size of the pool in the armed forces as a whole, our commitment, as shown most recently by the 2% announcement, is to outstanding armed forces in quality and equipment.

I understand that the coroner is due to give his judgment shortly, possibly tomorrow, in the case of the reservists who died in the Brecon Beacons. Will the Minister undertake to come to the House and make a statement following that judgment?

Two weeks ago the Secretary of State said that he was confident that the Government’s target for reserve recruitment would be met. He said that the programme was “now back on schedule”. However, last month the Major Projects Authority downgraded the Future Reserves 2020 project from “doubtful” to “unachievable”. Who is right, the Major Projects Authority or the Secretary of State?

The Major Projects Authority reviewed the Future Reserves 2020 programme almost a year ago, in September 2014. By convention the review is published six months behind, and because of purdah and the election it was published something like 10 months behind. A great deal of water has flowed under the bridge since then.

Indeed. Last week’s Budget Red Book committed the Government to maintaining a Regular Army of 82,000, but there was no mention of reserve forces. Can the Minister confirm whether the target of 30,000 reservists announced at the beginning of the process will be met?

The target of 30,000 Army reservists—indeed, 35,000 trained reservists across the three services—was firmly in the Conservative party’s manifesto, and this Conservative Government are committed to delivering it.

I warmly welcome the maintenance of that target, and I congratulate the Minister on what has been achieved so far. He will recall that the purpose of the target was to enable the reserve and regular forces to be interoperable—change backwards and forwards between each other. A reserve force was to do precisely the same job as the regulars who, in the case of the Army, we were then cutting by 20,000. Will he confirm that the excellent plan that he laid out before the last election—and which has been laid out consistently in the House since—will remain? Will there be any change in that way that we use reserves?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government do not accept that the expansion of the reserves was a direct swap with regulars in the way that he describes. The purposes of the reserve forces were set out in the commission—which, as he says, carried my signature—and were threefold: to provide extra capacity at slightly lower readiness; to provide skills not available to the military; and to rebuild the connection between the military and society. We are committed to all those things, and the commitment of £1.8 billion over the next 10 years for reserves, which was recently reaffirmed by the 2% commitment to defence spending, further underlies that.

If the Minister would look at the House we would all be deeply obliged to him. I understand the natural temptation to turn round, but if he could face the House it would be helpful.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to increase by 10% the number of our armed forces from ethnic minorities. Can the Minister confirm that that will include members of the reserve forces?

Yes, I can. We are strongly committed to our black, Asian and minority ethnic targets. It is a fact that the attraction of UK citizens from ethnic minorities—as opposed to Commonwealth citizens—to the reserve forces, has consistently run ahead of figures for the regular forces.

Aircraft Carriers

5. What assessment he has made of the potential contribution to the economy of the building of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. [R] (900910)

At its peak in 2013-14, the carrier programme created or sustained around 8,000 jobs at shipyards in Glasgow, Portsmouth, Devon, Birkenhead, Newcastle and Rosyth, with a further 3,000 jobs in the supply chain. These are the largest and most powerful warships ever built for the Royal Navy, and they will be flagships for British technology and innovation for the next 50 years.

The House will know of my special interest because my daughter is an officer in the Royal Navy, and I know that she and her colleagues will welcome the 2% commitment. The excellent initial sea training facility in my constituency at HMS Raleigh contributes to the economy of Torpoint and the surrounding area. Is the Minister confident that we are meeting the training requirements necessary to ensure that we have the manpower to run those ships?

I pay tribute to the service of my hon. Friend’s daughter in the Navy. Although three times the size of HMS Invincible, the new carriers will operate with approximately the same number of crew. The Royal Navy is already planning to ensure that it has the suitably trained and qualified people it needs, which includes training at HMS Raleigh in my hon. Friend’s constituency and at Devonport nearby.

As the Secretary of State points out, the Queen Elizabeth class was partly built on the Clyde where the Type 26 frigates are to be built. Can he explain a quote from the Cabinet Office, reported in yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Times, which stated that the Type 26 frigates will now be ordered in small batches

“to bring realism to the programme”?

What does that mean, and what was so unrealistic about the initial order?

We confirmed earlier this year that we are spending £859 million on the design of the Type 26 frigates and on some of the long-lead items for the first three.

I have no doubt that the Type 26s are on the order book, but could the Secretary of State explain the quote from The Sunday Times yesterday about the need

“to bring realism to the programme”?

What was so unrealistic about the initial programme?

Only the Scottish National party could regard £859 million as somehow half-hearted. We will finalise the design of the ships shortly, but we have to make sure that we get good value for taxpayer pounds.

Armed Forces Covenant

The Government are honouring their pledges under the covenant and encouraging wider society to think about its contribution. The Secretary of State has written to the chief executive of every company in the FTSE 350 asking them to consider what they might do better to support our armed forces community, including by signing a corporate covenant.

The demands of service life can impose obstacles for personnel, for example in credit ratings, mortgages and even mobile phone contracts. We are taking forward work to combat commercial disadvantage as a priority.

I am keen for companies in my part of north Yorkshire to sign up to the corporate covenant. Can the Minister update the House on what plans he has to extend the scheme across the country?

As I mentioned, the Secretary of State has already written to the chief executives of the 350 largest companies, but the House could do worse than follow the example set by my hon. Friend who is, I know, a champion of the armed forces in his constituency. In light of that, I intend to write to all hon. Members to offer them an information pack and to encourage them to engage with companies in their constituencies, so that we can extend the corporate covenant across the UK.

My constituents at Catterick garrison welcome the 2% commitment, but commercial disadvantage often bedevils them when it comes to areas such as insurance and mortgages. Can my hon. Friend update the House on how he is working with companies to tackle that disadvantage?

The Government have taken a number of steps to level the playing field for those in the military who seek financial products. We have secured a pledge from the UK Cards Association, the British Bankers Association and the Council of Mortgage Lenders to notify their members that those who serve in the armed forces should not be disadvantaged because of their occupation, and that applications for credit and mortgages should be treated fairly and consistently.

May I start by expressing my gratitude for the covenant funding that Somerset has received, including for the Tall Trees family centre in Ilchester, which serves the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton and their families? It has been brought to my attention that the criteria for fertility treatment for those serving in the Army can be more restrictive on the issue of existing children than those of some clinical commissioning groups. Will the Minister please look into that as a matter of urgency so that we can continue to ensure, in the spirit of the covenant, that no one is disadvantaged by serving in the forces?

The NHS has committed to providing fair treatment to the armed forces community. I would be concerned if any policies discriminate against our service personnel, but I am not aware that that is the case for the assisted conception policy. That said, if my hon. Friend has evidence to the contrary, I would be delighted to meet him in support of his constituents.

It is over a year since the Labour party called on the Government to undertake an audit of what local authorities are being asked to do and what resources they are being given to meet the expectations laid out in the community covenant—which we are all committed to. When will the Government carry out such an audit, so that we know once and for all what is actually happening on the ground and can start to take steps to rectify problems and meet the spirit of the covenant and the Government’s intentions?

I am delighted to say that all local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have now signed the covenant, and that is excellent news. I am keen that we should have best practice across local authorities, and we have the annual report to Parliament, which has now been published on three occasions. I am more than happy to look at this matter and come back to her.

Last Friday, I attended a military covenant event in Flintshire, organised by the county council, which brought together employers to look at how they could recruit reservists and provide employment to former military personnel. The outputs of that are very successful. Will the Minister give an indication not just of the number of those who have signed the covenant but of the outputs of their involvement with the covenant, through a proper audit?

I am delighted to hear the good news. Word is finally spreading across the land and we are seeing some areas of best practice. I recently awarded Barclays a gold award. Its AFTER programme is a fine example to other companies of the outputs the right hon. Gentleman desires.

The problem with the military covenant is that it is not being properly observed and veterans still remain a disadvantaged group in civilian society. A poll carried out for SSAFA last month makes it clear that seven out of 10 people believe not enough is being done to support ex-armed forces personnel. The same poll found that eight out of 10 people had never heard of the covenant. Many of the veterans who face the biggest problems are under 35 and, although that is not the group people think of when they imagine a veteran, they do struggle greatly. SSAFA says that one in 20 has been forced to take out a payday loan. What in particular are the Government doing to address the problems faced by younger veterans?

I am slightly disappointed by the hon. Lady’s tone. I think this Government have done more than any previous Government to address these matters: it was this Government who enshrined the military covenant in law; it was this Government who, for the past three years, had a report to Parliament; and we have invested nearly £150 million of LIBOR funding. Yes, these things do take time, but we are moving forward in a positive way. The hon. Lady seems to quote rather selectively from the SSAFA report. I would much rather come to this Dispatch Box and work with her to ensure that we can move this forward, rather than simply try to pick it to pieces.

Submarines: Irish Sea

7. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on submarine activity in the Irish sea in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (900912)

There have been no such discussions between the Secretary of State, or other Defence Ministers, and the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Minister is well aware that I have been in correspondence with her regarding an incident on 15 April, when a Northern Ireland-registered fishing vessel had its gear snagged. The Ministry of Defence confirmed that it was not a vessel belonging to the Royal Navy. Would it be possible for the Minister and the MOD to pursue the matter of jurisdiction and who undertook such activity, in order to obtain compensation for the loss of fishing days?

I know that the hon. Lady is very concerned about this issue. She will know that the Royal Navy takes its responsibilities very seriously. Since 1993, it has adhered to the comprehensive code of practice and conduct for operations in the vicinity of fishing vessels, which ensures not only the safety of our ships and submarines, but other vessels. I can tell her that any NATO submarine under UK operational control would also have to conform to that code of practice, but obviously we are not responsible for other people’s submarine operations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that under the Scottish National party’s deeply flawed defence plans, this country would have far less ability to detect, intercept and deter potentially hostile vessels in the Irish sea and elsewhere? [Interruption.]

Order. Let me just remind the hon. Gentleman, in the most genial spirit but in terms that are unmistakable, that questions must relate to the responsibilities of Ministers, not of other parties. Let us leave it there.

Recruitment: Ethnic Minorities

8. What plans he has to increase the proportion of recruits to the armed forces who come from ethnic minority groups. (900913)

The Prime Minister has made a clear commitment to have at least 10% of armed forces recruits from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds by 2020. Increasing the diversity of our workforce is an operational imperative, which is why we have set up a diversity programme. Each service has developed a range of initiatives to achieve this aim. An increasing defence budget and the regeneration of our capabilities will be an attractive proposition to any potential recruit, no matter what background they come from.

Pendle residents have a strong tradition of service in our armed forces. I was pleased that the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment exercised their freedom of the borough of Pendle in May with a parade through the town of Colne. Is my hon. Friend aware of any outreach work being done by our armed forces to ensure that we are recruiting from all of Pendle’s diverse communities, including our sizeable Pakistani heritage community?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that a great deal is being done in the Pendle area in this regard. That same regiment also conducted an adventurous training event over a weekend in May with community leaders from Pendle and surrounding areas, including the chairman of Lancashire council of mosques. The Army will be holding a personal development engagement event at Burnley College and at the mosque in Nelson. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Army promotes regular and reserve opportunities at its annual jobs fair in Pendle, an event my hon. Friend has been instrumental in organising.


In addition to over 300 strikes, the Royal Air Force’s sophisticated intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft are making a crucial contribution—some 30% of the total intelligence effort—to the counter-ISIL coalition air campaign. We have trained over 1,600 members of the Iraqi security forces, and last month we announced that up to an additional 125 personnel will train Iraqi security forces in countering improved improvised explosive devices and in other vital skills.

It is clear that we need to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that if and when further action needs to be taken, Government time will be allocated for a debate and there would be a vote in this House?

RAF intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft are already operating over Syria at the moment. As the Government have made clear, we will need to return to Parliament for approval if we propose to undertake air strikes against ISIL in Syria. ISIL has its command and control centres in north-eastern Syria, from where it is directing forces against the democratic Government of Iraq and from where it is planning terrorist attacks against the west, including Britain.

A key part of defeating and degrading Daesh is to destroy its propaganda campaign and not to give it legitimacy by calling it Islamic or a state. Will my right hon. Friend join middle east countries such as Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other countries such as France, Pakistan and Turkey by calling it Daesh?

Understanding the appeal of ISIL and its recruitment approach is a key focus of the coalition’s communications strategy. The term “Daesh” is now regularly used by Ministers in our Government and officials within the middle east and when engaging with many of our coalition partners. However, the term “ISIL” is still used when addressing UK audiences as this, at the moment, is better understood.

It is good that the Government have invited the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to tomorrow’s National Security Council meeting to discuss these important issues—and I very much welcome that. In the same spirit of co-operation and in the national interest, will the Secretary of State commit to a comprehensive, transparent strategic defence and security review with full parliamentary scrutiny?

We are committed to a full and comprehensive strategic defence and security review. It is already under way, and at Question Time last month I invited any Member to contribute to it, and we will invite other stakeholders with interests in defence matters to make a similar contribution.

Does the Secretary of State agree that this Chamber has a great opportunity to set an example by using the terminology “Daesh” on each and every occasion that it is mentioned here?

I note what the hon. Lady says. As I said, I use the term “Daesh” when I am in the middle east, talking to our partners in the coalition or the media there. Until now, ISIL has been the term that is better understood here in the UK, but it is certainly worth reflecting on whether we should now seek to move on to using Daesh, which does not confer the sort of legitimacy that the title ISIL—involving the word “state”—does.

Clearly, we all wish to see this country defeating terrorists and terrorism. Let me say again that they must not win and cannot be allowed to win. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made so far of the actions we have taken to defeat and degrade ISIL?

The coalition, which involves over 60 countries, about two dozen of which are taking military action, has been assisting the legitimate, democratic Government of Iraq in checking the advance of ISIL, and has had some success in pushing it back—in the recapture of Tikrit, for example, and in other areas up the Tigris and west along the Euphrates. This is clearly going to be a long campaign, however, and it will involve further necessary reforms in Iraq itself, including reforms of its army and the introduction of a national guard that can give the populations that have been liberated the confidence and security that ISIL will not return.

What the Secretary of State has said shows that this is a complicated picture. As I have said, we stand ready to work with the Government to defeat ISIL and will consider carefully any Government proposals for further military action, but will the Secretary of State reassure us that any proposals that he does present will have clear objectives in respect of defeating ISIL? Will he, in presenting such proposals, also make it clear what support will be provided by other countries in the region, and explain how the proposals fit in with the Government’s overall foreign policy objectives in the region and beyond?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, and I welcome the approach that the Opposition are adopting. We do not currently intend to present proposals to the House, but we have a strategy to help the Government of Iraq defeat ISIL, which we are pursuing in Iraq. We are also flying reconnaissance flights over Syria, and helping to train members of the Syrian opposition. As I think the hon. Gentleman implied, the situation in Syria is very different from and more complex than the situation in Iraq, and any strategy in Syria must properly reflect that.

Future Reserves 2020

11. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the decision by the Major Projects Authority to give the Future Reserves 2020 programme a red rating. (900916)

My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier answer.

Since the MPA report, governance has been shaken up, with each service delivering its own programme alongside a defence-level enabling structure. My hon. Friend will know from many earlier answers that our improvements in recruitment, selection and training processes are bearing fruit. We remain committed to delivering the FR20 requirement.

The Minister will nevertheless know that the MPA declares as red projects that it believes risk being unachievable. Given the delays, cost increases and capability gaps, and given reports that superannuated reservists and those who do not regularly attend parades are remaining on strength, at what point will the Government consider scrapping their plans and increasing the size of the regular Army?

We recruited nearly 7,000 reservists across the three services last year. That was a rise of 65%, and the rise was even greater within the Army Reserve. As for my hon. Friend’s reference to superannuated reservists, I visited 3 Royal Welsh last weekend, and the average age of that battalion has dropped from 41 to 31 over the past three years.

Helmand Province

No decisions have been made about an inquiry, but we have been learning tactical lessons throughout our operations in Afghanistan. We will also want to look at the broader lessons that can be learnt from the campaign. However, combat operations have only recently ceased, and our focus remains on supporting the Afghan Government through NATO’s current mission.

Five of our brave British soldiers lost their lives in the first five years of the Afghan war. An additional 448 lost their lives following the decision to invade Helmand with impossibilist aims and a hope that not a shot would be fired. Do not the loved ones of the fallen, and the House, deserve to know the truth of what was a major blunder, certainly before we contemplate sending more troops into a four-way civil war in Syria?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. The matters to which he has referred, particularly the incidents in 2006, have been the subject of a Defence Committee report, and I suggest that he read the report and the Government’s response to it. Along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who is the reserves Minister, I served on the Committee at the time.

Having recently returned from Afghanistan, and having spoken to some of the next of kin at the recent Para memorial, I would say that we have a legacy to be proud of. Afghanistan has never had what it has now. There are millions of people in education, including girls; there is a strong army and a strong police force; and economic regeneration is taking place. Although it has cost us much in blood and treasure, we have a legacy to be proud of in Afghanistan, and the United Kingdom is safer.


The Eurofighter Typhoon is a dynamic multi-role combat jet whose capability is continuously evolving. Tranche 2 and tranche 3 aircraft are now fitted with the Paveway IV bomb. Integration of the Storm Shadow deep-strike weapon is under way. The Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile and the Brimstone 2 precision effect missile will add world-class air-to-air and precision strike capabilities to the aircraft.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response and I am sure he and the whole House will join me in welcoming the Chancellor’s announcement that this Government are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence. How will this improve our air force capabilities?

I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the importance of the 2% commitment, and I welcome him to his place. We have successfully intercepted all potential incursions that have been shadowed by our quick reaction Typhoon aircraft and we can be confident that the Typhoon’s exceptional performance makes it capable of combating any threats sent in the direction of our shores.

20. Typhoon jets fly from RAF Coningsby in my constituency, as does the Battle of Britain memorial flight. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the RAF on a magnificent flypast last Friday of Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Typhoon to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain? (900926)

I also welcome my hon. Friend to her place and she is right to highlight the importance of the magnificent flypast last Friday to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. I am very happy to join her in congratulating today’s RAF pilots on this fitting tribute to their predecessors in years gone by. These events highlight the bravery and professionalism of the men and women who have served and continue to serve our country so well. She might like to know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will be visiting RAF Coningsby to congratulate them in person later this week.

National Security

17. What recent discussions he has had with the Foreign Secretary on the relationship between the national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review. (900923)

I have regular meetings with the Foreign Secretary as well as cross-Government meetings such as at the National Security Council, where we discuss a range of strategic matters.

Given the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget to spend 2% of GDP on defence, can the Secretary of State tell the House whether the single intelligence account and the £800 million-worth of military pensions spending are now to be included as part of the defence budget?

I hope the hon. Lady will welcome the announcement last week that we are going to continue to meet the NATO target. If pensions are on the defence budget, then of course they count as defence expenditure, and they have in fact been on the defence budget for a very long time now. So far as intelligence matters are concerned, money that is spent on defence should properly be counted as defence.

Is it not sheer hypocrisy by the Government to criticise others on maritime patrols and investment when it is their party that has downgraded and stripped our defences to the bone, to the point that we now have no maritime defence, and NATO sea patrols have had to come in and look for alleged Russian submarines that have been dragging Scottish fishing boats under the sea?

We have plenty of maritime defence, but when we took office we had to end the Nimrod programme, which was years behind schedule and about £700 million or £800 million over-budget. Some 23 Nimrods were ordered back in the 1990s by a Conservative Government, but when we came to office 13 years later not one had actually been delivered.

The point is that since the Government scrapped Nimrod the UK has been without a maritime patrol aircraft, so may I gently ask the Secretary of State to confirm whether the next strategic defence and security review will contain a commitment to an MPA?

First, I should make it clear that we do, through other means, still have some maritime defence capability without maritime patrol aircraft, but we will of course look at a whole range of capabilities as part of the current SDSR which is now well under way.

Military Co-operation: Saudi Arabia

18. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UK’s military co-operation with the Government of Saudi Arabia. (900924)

The UK has a long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is a key strategic partner of ours. I spoke with its Defence Minister, the deputy crown prince, only last week. Our co-operation helps to keep Britain safe from terrorism.

At that meeting, did the Secretary of State highlight the fact that last year 90 people were executed in Saudi Arabia and that figure was reached by the end of May for this year? Sweden has dropped its memorandum of understanding on defence co-operation over the mistreatment of the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and other human rights concerns. When will we see some urgency and action from the Secretary of State?

We do raise these cases at most senior levels with the Government of Saudi Arabia and we maintain a regular dialogue with them on a range of human rights issues. We strongly support the right to freedom of religion and belief. But let me be very clear: our relationship with Saudi Arabia is of long standing. It is based on a number of different pillars—trade, economy, education, defence, culture and security—and there is no other middle east country in which we have such a diverse and important set of interests to maintain.

Defence Spending

19. How existing and anticipated threats to UK interests will be taken into account (a) as part of the strategic defence and security review and (b) in future allocations of defence expenditure. (900925)

The SDSR will consider the broad range of threats we face, both now and in the future. The national security strategy is being reviewed and will draw on the latest version of the national security risk assessment. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made clear last week, this Government are committed to increasing the defence budget by 0.5% in real terms and meeting the NATO pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence each and every year of this decade.

I thank the Minister for his answer. When considering the SDSR, we are all aware of the highly skilled workforce on the Clyde who are waiting to build Type 26 frigates. Can he explain what was meant by the article in The Sunday Times which stated that the Government would be “bringing realism” to this programme? What does that mean for the future of this vital project? Can he guarantee that there will be no further delays or doubts cast upon it?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already answered that question in response to a previous one. The workforce on the Clyde are currently manufacturing three offshore patrol vessels commissioned by the previous coalition Government. We want to make sure that before we enter the full manufacturing contracts, the contracts’ structures are robust and we can hold the contractors to account, unlike what happened with the aircraft carrier contracts, which blew up to more than double their original cost.

I am a great fan of my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but we need a little more clarity on the question of defence spending. Paragraph 2.22 of the Treasury Red Book states:

“The Ministry of Defence budget will rise at 0.5% per year in real terms to 2020-21.”

Given that the economy is growing at about 3%, can my hon. Friend tell me how we are going to meet the 2% commitment when there is to be only a 0.5% increase in the budget? Is it to be done by raiding other accounts?

I am very much aware of my hon. Friend’s success in securing a position in the private Members’ Bill ballot to introduce legislation on this very subject. I have the privilege of confirming to him and to the House that I will be answering those debates, so we will have plenty of opportunities to discuss this issue. The bald fact is that we are meeting the 2% commitment this year, and as I have just said, we will meet it each and every year of this Parliament.


Once again, this Government, in stark contrast to what happened during 13 years of the Labour Government, have not relied on a wish list of unfunded equipment projects. Instead, we have balanced the budget and committed to a real-terms increase in the defence budget. We will be meeting our NATO commitments, not just—I will say it once more—on spending 2% of GDP on defence, but on investing 20% of the defence budget on equipment.

Colchester is home to 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Army’s rapid response unit. Will my hon. Friend ensure that it has the best possible equipment to tackle the many challenges that we may ask it to face?

I am very pleased to welcome my hon. Friend to the House. He has a considerable military interest in his constituency, not least the 16 Air Assault Brigade. The new A400M Atlas air transport aircraft is being introduced to replace the C-130 Hercules fleet, and the third of those aircraft was delivered to the RAF last week. The ongoing development trials of the Atlas will mean that parachutists and their equipment from the UK rapid reaction force will be able to parachute from both sides of the aircraft and the ramp, and it will become the air mobility transporter of choice for rapid reaction forces—

Topical Questions

My immediate priorities are our operations against ISIL and the strategic defence and security review. Last week’s welcome announcement that the defence budget will increase every year and that we will continue to meet NATO’s 2% target means that we can now decide the capabilities and force structure that we need to keep Britain safe.

In 2013, an estimated 9,000 ex-servicemen were classified as homeless. Can the Minister update us on how we are getting on with that problem, and what the current statistics may look like?

The Ministry of Defence does not collect figures on homelessness. However, it is a matter that we take very seriously, and I would be delighted to look into the matter and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

T2. The Gloucestershire-based, UK-led Allied Rapid Reaction Corps is deploying on NATO exercises later this year. I am sure that the Defence Secretary will join me in wishing everyone involved, including my constituents, a successful exercise at this sensitive time. Will he confirm both that the NATO mutual military support clause is sacrosanct and never to be diluted and that this Government take a cautious approach to any suggested proposal of expansion? (900947)

Our commitment to European security, including to article 5, remains unwavering. We stand by the open-door policy, which allows any European state in a position to contribute to the alliance to apply to join. That process requires consensus among all 28 existing allies, and there can be no short cuts to membership.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), will the Defence Secretary confirm that, according to the NATO definition, only intelligence operations in support of the military can be used to contribute to the 2% figure? Do the Government use that correct definition, and how much is it?

I was hoping that the shadow Defence Secretary might welcome the 2% commitment. Let me be very clear that it is for NATO to classify, according to its guidance, what is counted as defence expenditure. Money being spent on defence in our defence budget should of course count towards the 2% total.

T3. I welcome the additional training that my right hon. Friend announced last month for the Ukrainian armed forces. Will he tell the House what further support the UK is offering? Following the news that plucky Lithuania will become the first country openly to arm the Ukrainians, will he now consider providing anti-tank weapons, drones and other technology that the Ukrainian armed forces desperately require? (900948)

I can today update the House by saying that the RAF has now delivered more than 3,000 combat helmets, goggles and first aid kits to Ukrainian troops. We have already trained some 850 personnel. We will step up our training over the summer and we will be providing further equipment, although not of the lethal variety. We stand firm with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, and we continue to assist its defence of its sovereignty, independence and territory.

T4. The Minister will be aware of concern in my constituency about the implications of the expansion of the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre, particularly the threat of the closing off of the fishing grounds which would threaten the livelihoods of 70 fishing boats and 120 families in my constituency. Will the Minister tell us when the consultation exercise that we have long been promised will begin? (900949)

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman feels the need to raise this matter again, three weeks after his Adjournment debate in which I addressed those questions very directly. The consultation exercise is part of 200 defence establishments’ bylaws being consulted on—we will be beginning that later this summer. There is a separate exercise with the fishermen, who will not lose their livelihoods as he is suggesting, and that will be undertaken by QinetiQ shortly.

T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree with my analysis that the very welcome investment in both Typhoon and the joint strike fighter to provide the Royal Air Force with the best aircraft possible is a direct result of, first, a growing economy and, secondly, sorting out the basket case of an MOD budget that we inherited? (900951)

My hon. Friend lights on a very important point—that defence plays a part in the prosperity of this nation. ADS, the trade association, has estimated that some £22 billion of economic activity is attributable to the defence industry and it employs some 200,000 people in this country. The combat jet component of that is significant.

T5. Does the Secretary of State believe that after the invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan and Libya, we have less international fundamentalist religious terrorism or more? (900950)

I believe that our contribution in Libya to preventing an imminent massacre in Benghazi, the work that we have done in Afghanistan, which my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces described, and our support for the legitimate democratically elected Government of Iraq have all been worthwhile endeavours.

T7. BAE systems at Samlesbury is about to hit another milestone with the manufacturing of the 200th aft fuselage of the F35. Will the Minister come to BAE Systems at Samlesbury during this period to see at first hand some of the most dedicated and skilled workforce in the United Kingdom? (900952)

My hon. Friend is right. As the only tier 1 partner in the F35 programme, the United Kingdom is playing a very significant role. Every aft section of every F35 is manufactured at Samlesbury in his constituency, providing high-skill jobs to many of his constituents. I am quite certain that I or one of my ministerial colleagues will have the pleasure of visiting his constituency soon.

T10. The Government have given a commitment to implement my party’s policy and spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. This target has been achieved by including the single intelligence account as defence spending. When might the Government meet the 2% target without cooking the books? (900955)

I have already made it very clear that no books are going to be cooked. Anything that is included has to meet the NATO guidelines. Where there is expenditure on defence intelligence which comes out of the defence budget, it is right that that should be included in our defence totals. The NATO figures will be there for everybody to see.

T8. Does the Minister share my concerns that a number of our ex-servicemen and women, having served our country with distinction, end up suffering from mental health issues, family breakdown and homelessness —yes, even on the streets of Dorset? What steps can be taken to help to prevent this? (900953)

Naturally, I want the very best for our entire armed forces community and I must emphasise that the vast majority of our service leavers make a smooth transition into civilian life. The Government have put in place a great deal of support for those who find the process difficult, including the allocation of £40 million to a veterans accommodation fund. The best evidence available suggests that the mental health of veterans is as good as that of the civilian population, but where problems do occur the highest standard of support is made available, and over £13 million from the LIBOR fund has been awarded to programmes.

I am sure the House will be as concerned as I am about reports that Daesh is now targeting Russian parts of the former Soviet Union as a recruiting ground. What action can the UK Government take as part of the international community to combat that?

A coalition of some 60 countries has come together to tackle ISIL in Iraq and in Syria, but the hon. Gentleman is right: ISIL is directing or inspiring terrorist activity in many other countries outside. That is why it is all the more important to ensure that it is degraded and ultimately defeated in both Iraq and Syria.

T9. Many of us in the House will welcome the commitment that the UK will meet the NATO defence spending target, but what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact that this will have on our defence capabilities? (900954)

Defence capabilities will be determined in the strategic defence and security review, which is now under way, in the context of the threats we face at the moment and an assessment of the threats we may face in future. Those choices will now be framed and made easier by the Chancellor’s welcome announcement that the defence budget will grow for the rest of this decade by 0.5% ahead of inflation.

I trust that the Secretary of State was impressed by the extraordinary engineering he saw in Barrow shipyard last week. Will the delay in Artful’s exit have any impact on Successor? Will he join the shadow Secretary of State here on 21 October for our wonderful submarine manufacturing enterprise day, to which all Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are invited?

I think I attended that event last year, and I look forward to attending it this year if I am invited. I was extremely impressed by my visit to Barrow to see HMS Artful, the latest of our super submarines, as she prepares to sail. She will join Astute and Ambush to help to keep the sea lanes open and contribute where necessary to the fight against terrorism. I hope the whole House will wish her well. We expect her to sail in the next few weeks.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is no question of ordering fewer than 13 Type 26 frigates? How much would we fall short of spending 2% of GDP on defence if we did not include items of expenditure normally borne on the budgets of other Government Departments?

As I have made clear, it is ultimately for NATO to classify from each member’s return what properly counts as defence expenditure in the table that is published each year. As far as the Type 26 programme is concerned, my right hon. Friend will know that we have already committed nearly £1 billion to the design phase and to the purchase of some of the long-lead items for the first three frigates in the series.

Bidders in my constituency report a worrying picture of the Crown Commercial Service’s handling of defence procurement contracts, with unreasonable timescales, inappropriate specification, and tenders being issued and then withdrawn. What steps are being taken to improve matters, especially for SME bidders?

The Crown Commercial Service is run through the Cabinet Office, and we are in a long series of discussions with it about transferring commodity-type procurement from Defence Equipment and Support to the CCS. I believe it currently has nine separate categories of activity accounting for over £1 billion of our spend. We are regularly in discussion with it to ensure that its processes are as smooth and efficient for the supply to our armed forces as they are for the contractors involved.

The Secretary of State will be aware that hundreds of Syriac Christians have been murdered by ISIL in Syria. What discussions could he have with the Kurds to see what non-lethal assistance could be given to the Syriacs? Certainly, the Syriac Military Council has four battalions of men who are prepared to fight ISIL in Syria.

Syria is already the focus of our largest humanitarian aid programme. I have had regular discussions with the authorities in the Kurdish areas about what more assistance we could provide in training and equipment to the peshmerga, who are taking on ISIL in the north of Syria. Of course, our RAF surveillance aircraft continue to fly intelligence missions in that area.

What assurances can the Secretary of State give that military spending in Scotland will increase proportionally following the departmental increase outlined in the Budget? Between 2007 and 2012, Scotland received £1.9 billion less than its population share of Government defence spending on major projects. Perhaps he should stop paying lip service and take the opportunity to put things right.

With respect, I do not think it is lip service that, as I said, we have committed nearly £1 billion to building the next generation of frigates in Scotland. We are already building offshore patrol vessels in Scotland. Scotland is getting the bulk of the work on the two aircraft carriers. It will be home to one of our three fastjet fleets, and it will constitute the entire home submarine base of the Royal Navy. Scotland does very well out of the defence budget inside a United Kingdom.

While I warmly welcome the 2% of GDP we have committed to spending on defence, which is excellent news, we must not be complacent, because although the quality of what we are ordering is brilliant, for future events—perhaps, God forbid, a serious and more widespread conflict—we are still down on the quantity.

My hon. Friend is right. The SDSR that is now under way has to evaluate not merely the current threats to our country but the future threats that may emerge over the next few years. It is only by sorting out the defence budget—the mess that we inherited—and putting it on a proper footing that we are now able to increase it and to spend on the equipment that our armed forces need.