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Volume 600: debated on Monday 19 October 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Cadet Units

Cadet forces offer young people the chance to develop character and essential skills in units based in schools and in the community. The coalition Government funded 100 extra units in schools, and this Government have committed an extra £50 million to increase the number by about 145, which will bring the total number in the United Kingdom to 500 by 2020.

I was fortunate enough to go to a state comprehensive school which was linked to an Army cadet unit. What plans has my hon. Friend to ensure that more pupils from state comprehensive schools have the opportunity to join the cadets?

Those 145 extra units will all be in state schools. One of the new school cadet forces that we have formed is in north-east England and started against a very difficult background, but it is now so successful that pupils are required to show that they have completed a full year of good attendance and good behaviour before they can join it.

As a former flight sergeant in a combined cadet force, I have benefited from the advantages provided by cadet forces in state schools that the Minister has described. Will the Minister join me on a visit to Brierley Hill Squadron’s air training corps in Brockmoor to see the excellent work that is being done with young people from a range of backgrounds?

I am most envious of my hon. Friend: I am afraid that I only made lance corporal in the CCF. His invitation is very tempting. I will be making a number of visits to CCFs—indeed, I was with the sea cadets yesterday, Trafalgar day, in Trafalgar Square —but I cannot promise an immediate visit to his constituency.

Lieutenant Commander Graham Townsend, RNR, has overseen a fivefold increase in the number of people attending Stafford and Rugeley sea cadets, and the Army and air cadets in Staffordshire are also thriving. May I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the experience gained from those existing units is spread to the new units, which I welcome?

My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. There are four community units in my constituency, as well as two CCFs, and another is being formed under the new programme. One of our key criteria for the new units is that they must not clash with existing successful community units. Some of the new units that we are setting up in schools are in the community rather than the CCF programme.

I am keen for as many young people as possible from as many different backgrounds as possible to have an opportunity to join the new cadet forces in their schools. What is the Minister’s estimate of the number of young people eligible for free school meals, or from black and ethnic minority communities, who will join the new groups?

That is a very good question. The short answer is that we are focusing the 145 new units in areas where there is the most deprivation and the least opportunity to join existing successful community units.

May I begin by making two declarations of interests? First, my wife is a national trustee of the Sea Cadets, as was the Minister. Secondly, I am honorary president of air cadet unit 31 at Mile End.

As the Minister knows, his presence at Trafalgar Square yesterday was very welcome and very well received. Can he assure us that the Ministry of Defence will support cadet units that are not necessarily attached to schools, but are general units consisting of local people?

I thank my dear friend opposite—I am not allowed to call him my hon. Friend—for his kind words. I was very pleased to meet his air cadets on the Terrace of the House of Commons with him last year. The answer to his question is very firmly yes. We support cadets both in communities and in schools, and the new programme will be designed to be complementary, filling in gaps rather than competing with existing community arrangements.

I am sure that those cadets were very excited to meet the Minister. I have no reason to doubt that.

Given that the community cadet forces enable young people, particularly those from disadvantaged communities, to gain confidence and skills that they might not otherwise have a chance to gain, what assurances can the Minister give that the cadet expansion initiative will not disproportionately benefit school cadet forces at the expense of community cadet forces?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place as shadow Minister and thank her for the support for cadet units. I am delighted to give her the assurance she seeks. The new units will be set up in areas where there is no existing community provision. They will not be in competition with existing successful community units.


2. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UK contribution to international efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. (901593)

11. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UK contribution to international efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. (901602)

18. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UK contribution to international efforts to degrade and defeat ISIL. (901609)

The UK is making a significant contribution to the coalition of more than 60 countries, supporting the Iraqi security forces to deny ISIL the freedom to operate in 30% of the Iraqi territory it once held, helping Syrian Kurds take 17,000 sq km from ISIL in Syria, and degrading ISIL’s ability to refine oil or to access the international financial system.

I am grateful for that answer. It has been truly horrifying to see the atrocities being committed by Daesh in Iraq. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House what difference the British training to counter explosive devices will make to the Iraqi security forces’ ability to recapture territory?

The UK military is focusing its efforts on areas where we can bring particular expertise and I am pleased to announce today that the new courses of counter-IED training for Iraqi ground forces are starting this week following the Prime Minister’s pledge in the summer that we would increase the number of personnel assisting the Iraqi Government’s counter-ISIL efforts. These 54 personnel, drawn mainly from 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) from Saffron Walden, are delivering life-saving counter-IED instruction to members of the Iraqi security forces at training centres in Bismayah and Taji.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of interrupting the flow of oil across ISIS borders over which ISIS holds a monopoly?

We are part of the international coalition of more than 60 countries, as I said, and the hon. Lady is right that we need to continue to degrade ISIL’s ability to export its oil or to trade in oil across the border areas. There is specific coalition work under way on that. We have more work to do.

May I press the Secretary of State on this? What progress has the UK and its coalition partners made in disrupting the ability of ISIS to raise significant funds? I understand it earns $1.5 million a day through selling oil.

Some of the military operations—the strikes—have changed the pattern of refining. ISIL appears now to be getting some of its oil from small-scale wells rather than the larger refineries, some of which have been put out of commission, but we are intensifying our efforts internationally to make sure that where ISIL is attempting to sell oil, it is not able to gain the proceeds from it.

ISIL poses a direct threat to our national interest as well as threatening the stability of the middle east, and Britain should not be a bit-part player in combating ISIL on the ground. Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come for Britain to extend its military operations beyond Iraq to take on ISIL in Syria?

I agree with my hon. Friend that ISIL has to be defeated in both Iraq and Syria, and we support the air strikes being conducted by the coalition against ISIL in Syria—air strikes which are now being carried out by Australian and French as well as American aircraft. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, there is a very strong case for us to be doing more in Syria to deal with the heartland of ISIL—its command and control—but we will only return to Parliament for authority to do so when we have established a sufficient consensus here in this Parliament.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that unmanned aerial vehicles have an important role to play both in intelligence gathering and in targeting in the effort against ISIL, and that the recent announcement of the 2% budget for defence over time will mean we can continue to invest in these vital modern technologies?

I entirely agree with my hon. and learned Friend. Our remotely piloted aircraft play a key role in current operations in the middle east and the 2% commitment enables us to obtain more of them. We have a moral duty to protect the lives of our servicemen and women to the best of our ability, and the use of remotely piloted aircraft avoids placing our aircrews in jeopardy.

ISIL is being directed from an area of north-east Syria where Assad has no control at the moment. That is where it has its command and control, its logistics, its personnel and the command of its supply routes from Syria into Iraq. It is well away from most of the civil war that is raging further west in Syria.

This is not just about Iraq and Syria. On 24 September, affiliates of Daesh claimed responsibility for the explosion in the central mosque in Sana’a in Yemen. ISIL is taking advantage of the civil war to extend its operations in that country. What is being done to stop it?

We agree that the legitimate Government of Yemen is that led by President Hadi, and to that extent we support the efforts of Saudi Arabia and its partners to ensure that President Hadi can again be recognised as president of the country. We also want the fighting there to stop so that we can get much-needed food aid and fuel into Yemen, where millions of people are now at risk of starvation. In the end, however, this is a war that must be brought to a conclusion through some kind of political settlement.

Will the Secretary of State tell me whether the year-long bombing campaign in Syria has improved the stability and security of the region? Does he think that it has brought peace closer?

As I said in my original answer, it has reduced the ability of ISIL to operate, particularly in Iraq. To that extent, the coalition strikes in Syria are useful to that campaign. Given that ISIL is a danger to the people of this country as well as to the security of that region, and bearing in mind that 30 of our holidaymakers, including four Scots, were slaughtered on a beach in an ISIL attack in Tunisia, it would not be right for the task of defeating ISIL in Syria in order to keep our streets safe to be left to French, Australian and American aircraft.

The Secretary of State says that military personnel from America, Australia, Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Libya, Egypt, France, Jordan, Iran, Belarus and North Korea are already in Syria, along with the peshmerga, the Free Syrian Army and Daesh. What does he think the UK dropping even more bombs is likely to achieve? Should not the United Kingdom be using its influence in the United Nations to pursue peace through diplomacy rather than gearing up for airstrikes?

ISIL has been butchering our own civilians, killing people of other faiths and throwing gay people off buildings. With respect, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I find the idea that it would suddenly cave in to diplomacy in the form of a United Nations resolution a little naive. ISIL has to be defeated in Iraq and in Syria, and the coalition would welcome the precision capability that our Tornado aircraft could bring in Syria, as they have done in Iraq.

When the Secretary of State was asked on “The Andrew Marr Show” at the weekend whether it was still his intention or his hope that RAF jets would be flying over Syrian airspace to tackle the threat of ISIL/Daesh before too long, he said that “the logic is inescapable”. Opposition Members will consider any Government proposal on this with the utmost seriousness, but in view of that reply, will he tell the House whether it is still his intention to ask for parliamentary approval ahead of any such intervention and, if so, when he expects any such vote to take place?

I should like to begin by welcoming the shadow Secretary of State to her first Defence questions and by welcoming the team that she has assembled alongside her. I made it clear yesterday, as I have done today, that ISIL has to be defeated in both countries, not least if we are to support the democratic Government of Iraq and help to keep our own country safe. This is a new Parliament and we will continue to work with colleagues across the House to build a consensus that will allow the RAF to operate in north-east Syria and not have to turn back at the border. When we have established that consensus, we will come to the House for the authority to act.

Countless past campaigns show that air strikes are seldom, if ever, decisive unless they are in support of credible ground forces. What credible ground forces are fighting Daesh in Syria, other than the Kurds, in limited areas, and Assad’s, which are not also Islamist?

There are moderate opposition forces contesting against Assad, trying to protect their towns and cities from the brutality of Assad, who is of course dropping barrel bombs on them—on his own people. The coalition is helping these moderate opposition groups where it can, with training and with equipment. Our troops have been helping to train some of those forces, outside Syria.

If this Parliament were to approve an extension of UK engagement in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, that would be predicated on an understanding that we will be relying on reservists as never before, because of the changing shape of our UK defence capability. Will the Secretary of State therefore update the House on the roles currently being undertaken by reservists in operations against ISIL?

I understand that about 10% of the personnel operating in the middle east as part of our operations against ISIL are reservists, and they play an increasing part in our operations around the world.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft

6. What the rules of engagement are for the use of remotely piloted aircraft in tackling terrorism; and if he will make a statement. (901597)

The rules of engagement for remotely piloted aircraft systems are the same as those for manned aircraft, and take into account UK and international law, following the principles of military necessity, humanity, distinction and proportionality. A rules of engagement profile is developed for each operation, including counter-terrorist operations, and these rules are classified to ensure that they cannot be exploited to an opponent’s advantage.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. In response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State rightly explained the advantages of using remotely piloted aircraft, particularly in protecting our own forces. Members on both sides of the House will, however, have some concern about the use of these aircraft by our allies where collateral damage has occurred and innocent people have been hurt. What assurance can she give the House that there will be great protection for those not involved in the conflict?

I agree entirely that we have a moral duty to protect the lives of our servicemen and women in very unpredictable and difficult operational environments, and the use of these systems means we can do that without placing them in harm’s way. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the crews of these systems, who do a tremendous job in many places around the world. I assure my hon. Friend that although these aircraft are remotely piloted, at every stage of the targeting process and its initiation a human being is making those decisions. We have a record to be very proud of in terms of civilian casualties.

I wish to build on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) just made. Will the Minister confirm that, unlike what we have seen from Russian military intervention in Syria, our rules of engagement are very strict and seek to avoid civilian casualties where they can?

Absolutely; the UK undertakes all possible measures to protect civilians and ensures that UK targeting policy and rules of engagement provide clear direction for commanders. I will leave it to my hon. Friend to consider whether Russia follows similar practices, given the reports from Syrian search and rescue volunteer teams stating that 707 civilians have been injured and 274 killed by Russian strikes and regime bombing since 30 September.

The Defence Committee’s report in March last year on the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems stressed that we follow international humanitarian law and the international law of armed conflict. However, we did not use our RPAS to conduct strikes in Pakistan against those who implied threats to our armed forces. What has changed in the rules of engagement that we now feel that we can use our RPAS in Syria to target British nationals?

As the Prime Minister has clearly stated—he came to the House at the earliest occasion after that event—we reserve the right to use force if it is necessary to protect the UK from a clear and imminent threat. In that very clear statement, the Prime Minister said that if British lives are in danger and we can act to prevent that, then we will.

Some recent reports suggest a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in pilots of remotely piloted aircraft compared with that of conventional air crew. Will the Minister advise what steps are being taken to assess relative levels of PTSD and to address the reasons for any differences that are established?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important question. Just because someone is not deployed to a desert and is not in front of the people whom they are confronting directly, it does not mean that they are invulnerable to the things they see or to what we ask them to do. Our support for those people is very similar to that of conventional deployments. They have decompression and a pre-deployment build-up. Embedded in those teams are mental health specialists who can advise, support and assess the individuals.

19. The Department is currently involved in the Taranis unmanned combat aerial vehicle technology demonstrator project, which is a joint Anglo-French operation led by BAE Systems. Will the Minister tell us how many people in the UK are currently employed on that project and what the implications are for the UK workforce and supply chain as this welcome area develops? (901610)

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising that matter. A number of initiatives and reviews are taking place as part of the strategic defence and security review. I can write to her with the numbers of individuals and partners with whom we are involved on those projects, including the ones she mentions.

Does the Minister agree that there is concern about the rules of engagement that terrorists might use? There is no doubt that, increasingly, drones will be used by terrorists. Once the technology exists it will not only be in the hands of people of whom we approve, and what will we do about that?

I am pleased to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that emerging threat and that there is a clear strand of work in the SDSR that is looking at counter measures for the situations he describes.

22. I voted against air strikes on the Syrian Government and would appreciate clarification from the Minister on whether drone strikes will be authorised on any other country where she believes that there is a similar threat to our security? (901615)

Again, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the Prime Minister’s statement that, if there is a clear threat to Britain, to our people and to our streets and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action against that threat, we will always try to take that action. The action we took in Syria was legal, necessary, proportionate and in response to a clear, credible and specific threat to the UK. I reassure him that that course of action is taken only in the last resort.

Following the drone strike that killed Reyaad Khan, will the Minister tell us whether there is in existence a list of individuals who are considered such a great risk to Britain that they can be targeted for killing by UK drones?

Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Prime Minister’s statement. If that set of circumstances exist and we can act to save British lives, then we will do so.

Legion d’Honneur (UK Normandy Veterans)

7. How many UK Normandy veterans have been awarded the Legion d’Honneur between 6 June 2014 and 12 October 2015. (901598)

The Government are grateful to President Hollande for his generosity in offering the Legion d’Honneur to all living veterans of the campaigns to liberate France in 1944-45. Although this is properly a matter for the French Government, Ministry of Defence officials are working closely with their counterparts and understand that French authorities have approved approximately 1,100 awards and that around 750 of these have been dispatched to UK veterans. I am confident that that number will increase significantly over the coming months.

Everyone will welcome the contribution of and the recognition given to those who fought bravely in the second world war from 6 June onwards, but does the Minister share my concern at the slowness and bureaucracy of the process? My constituents have raised with me the fact that more than 500 people who could have had the award died before receiving it. That is not acceptable.

I accept that what the right hon. Gentleman says is true historically, but he will be aware that since July the admin procedure has changed significantly. We are now submitting 100 awards a week and the turnaround time is between six and eight weeks. Recently, I met my French counterpart here in the UK and he absolutely reassured me that the French will continue to do what they can to ensure that these awards are sent to our veterans as quickly as possible.

Let me put matters into perspective. I have been in touch with the French ambassador who told me that they have been overwhelmed, with more than 3,000 of these heroes applying. They are doing their best and she has asked me to say that they want to hear from Members of Parliament if they know of any constituents who are likely to get the award. The ambassador will try to get them through as quickly as possible.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. By definition, the cohort of veterans receiving this award are elderly but if any hon. Member has a constituent who feels that we must speed up the process I would be delighted to receive those applications and I will treat them as a priority.

I appreciate the comments that the Minister has just made. Over the past year, two Normandy veterans living in my constituency have passed away without receiving the award and the situation is becoming even more urgent for the eight who remain. Will the Minister, given what he has just said, pledge to use all the persuasion he can with the French authorities to resolve this? Although these veterans could win the battle against Nazi oppression, they cannot win the battle with old age.

We accept the general concern being expressed in the Chamber today. I can simply repeat what I have said before: I am confident now that the turnaround time for these awards has increased significantly to approximately six to eight weeks. We are confident that we can get through the backlog relatively quickly, but if any hon. Member has a constituent who needs the award quickly I ask them please to contact me.

Investment in New Equipment

This Government are committed to meet both NATO pledges to spend 2% of GDP on defence and to spend 20% of the defence budget on equipment for each year of this Parliament. We intend to publish the latest annual iteration of the defence equipment plan shortly, which will show that we are investing more than £160 billion in equipment and support for the armed forces over the next decade.

I welcome the commitments to spend 2% of GDP on defence and 20% of the budget on equipment, but what is the Department doing to ensure that such equipment is appropriate for the full spectrum of potential future conflict so that we are equipping ourselves not for the last war but for the next?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on present and future threats, which are being assessed through the national security strategy and the strategic defence and security review. The UK remains one of only two European nations able to provide a full range of responses to threats posed to our security, and this full spectrum of capabilities will remain our posture throughout the SDSR. It is vital to maintain technological advantage over those who would do us harm and we are therefore investing in innovation in particular, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced earlier this month, and in cyber-defence to protect our capability edge and our supply chain.

Since the Nimrod aircraft were decommissioned in 2011, the north coast of Scotland has effectively been left wide open to potential threats. Will the Minister explain what plans there are to reinstate fixed-wing maritime patrol aircraft to ensure that the north coast is adequately defended?

I am not totally surprised to hear our friends in Scotland refer to the issue, as it seems to be the only one that they can talk about in the Chamber in relation to adding defence capability. It is a capability gap which, we acknowledge, was taken as a result of SDSR 2010, and it is one of the major capability challenges that are being assessed through this SDSR. I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to wait another few months before we know the outcome of those considerations.

I could not agree more with the Minister about needing to equip the country for the future and to fight the battles of the future, not the past. He will be aware that in August the Secretary of State signed off a document entitled “Defence in Numbers”, described as providing the key information on UK defence capability, including equipment such as Jet Provost trainers from 1955, obsolete and grounded helicopters from the 1960s, and battle tanks retired from service in 1991. Does he agree that revelations that museum pieces are considered defence assets risk making the Department a laughing stock, and suggest that the Government have attempted to mislead the country about the capabilities that our armed forces have at their disposal?

I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. I think that this may be his third Department, so he is one of the most experienced members of the new Front-Bench team. It is a pleasure to serve opposite him.

In relation to the report in the newspapers about the “Defence in Numbers” snapshot, which was recently published by the Ministry of Defence, and which I have with me, there is absolutely no intention to mislead anyone. The equipment referred to in the document covers a number of capabilities, which are still in use for training purposes, if not necessarily in use on the front line.

Type 26 Frigates

9. What progress his Department has made on procuring Type 26 frigates; and if he will make a statement. (901600)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in February this year we awarded a contract for the demonstration phase of the Type 26 programme, which was valued at £859 million and brings into force some of the long-lead items for the programme, including Rolls-Royce engines, the first of which will be delivered in the next month or so. Progress continues on commencing the manufacturing phase next year. I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman could witness our commitment to shipbuilding on the Clyde when I cut steel for the third offshore patrol vessel in Govan earlier this month.

The Minister noted my constituency interest and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) in the Clyde shipyard. Does he accept the concerns of shipyard workers and the trade union representatives on the Clyde who seek a speedier and stronger commitment from the Government? Will he meet me, my hon. Friend, and trade union representatives to ensure that there are no gaps in the order book and that jobs are maintained in this iconic industry?

I was pleased to meet local conveners when I was in the yard in Govan earlier this month, and I would be happy to meet them again if the hon. Gentleman chose to bring them to Parliament any time soon.

The Government have brought us aircraft carriers without aircraft, but even for them, warships without sailors would be going a bit too far. Can the Minister outline how the personnel requirements for the new Type 26 will be met? Will there be a reliance, as we have recently seen in the press, on overseas recruits to fill those capability gaps?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Type 26 global combat ship programme is designed to replace the existing frigate fleet—the Type 23. We generally find when updating naval capability that ships with more power and capability can be manned with fewer men, so we do not see any particular challenge with this programme, apart from the natural challenge of recruiting to the armed forces during periods of economic growth.

Procurement Spending (SMEs)

10. What steps he is taking to increase the proportion of his Department’s procurement spending that goes to SMEs. (901601)

That is me again. Small businesses provide a vital source of innovation and flexibility in meeting defence and security requirements. As I have already said, there was an announcement of a new target earlier this month to increase the proportion of MOD procurement to be spent with small and medium-sized enterprises to 25% by 2020.

Worcestershire hosts many small businesses in the defence, aerospace and cybersecurity sectors. How can these smaller businesses, such as Aeromet in my constituency, access the £70 million investment in innovation announced by the Secretary of State last week?

We see small businesses and academia as playing a vital part in developing technical innovation, so it is important that they can access this and other funding to maintain the operational advantage of our armed forces. We are doing this in a number of ways. Last month at Defence and Security Equipment International I announced the winners of one of the £10 million defence growth partnership innovation challenges. There were over 100 applications and 23 winners were announced, many of which were small businesses.

The UK steel industry needs support through Government procurement, and where we can we should always buy British. A functioning steel industry is crucial for our national security, so can the Minister assure me that that approach will feature heavily in our procurement policy in future?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the steel for the Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, a contract which was placed some time ago, came from British steel foundries. It is something that we consider, but we have to look after value for money when we place orders through our contractors, and steel supplies need to be available at a competitive cost, at a competitive time and at a competitive quality.

GDP/GNI Targets

13. Which elements of his Department’s expenditure will contribute both to the target of 2% of GDP for defence and to the target of 0.7% of GNI for overseas development assistance. (901604)

The Ministry of Defence directly funds overseas development assistance eligible activity up to £5 million a year, including disaster relief training and international capacity building. This counts towards the NATO 2% guideline. The costs of conflict, stability and security fund programme activities led by the Ministry of Defence, and security and humanitarian operations, which are partly refunded from the Department for International Development budget, will also contribute to the ODA target.

The ministerial team will notice that that is not a question about defence of the north coast. When Back Benchers cheered the two commitments on aid and military spending, I wonder if they were fully aware that that is, in effect, double counting of expenditure. Does the Minister accept that although this may be technically permitted, morally it is a contradiction in terms? Will he do all he can to minimise such double counting in the future?

Rules for what is counted and what is not counted are set for NATO expenditure by NATO and for overseas development expenditure by the OECD, so these are international rules. However, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is expenditure—defence and overseas aid—that counts towards security. Stabilising countries, preventing conflicts, peacekeeping—all that contributes to the security of our country, as well as that of some of the more fragile regions of the world.

My right hon. Friend knows that I am so enthusiastic about the Government’s commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence that I have my private Member’s Bill to enable the Government to join me in enshrining support for that commitment in law. In advance of that, can my right hon. Friend confirm the figures given to me by the Library that in reporting to NATO to meet our 2% commitment in 2015-16, we have added items of expenditure not previously included under defence? They were provision for war pensions, £820 million; assessed contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, £400 million; pensions for retired civilian MOD personnel, around £200 million; and much of MOD’s £1.4 billion of income, which makes more than £2.5 billion.

I look forward to my hon. Friend making his case on Friday. Let me be clear that expenditure from the defence budget is, of course, defence spending. It is not spent by any other Department. But it is in any case up to NATO to rule on what is eligible and what is not eligible.

Syria (Military Intervention)

14. What lessons his Department has learned from military action in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq which will inform a decision on possible UK military intervention in Syria. (901605)

17. What lessons his Department has learned from military action in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq which will inform a decision on possible UK military intervention in Syria. (901608)

The Department has conducted a number of lessons-learned exercises during and after military operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, in particular that military action needs to be set in the wider political context. In Syria, for example, the long-term solution to the current conflict, and to the presence of ISIL, has to be an acceptable political transition, and we continue to work to support this.

I welcome the commitment that any military action in Syria will be combined with efforts to rebuild the country. The Secretary of State said in an earlier answer that efforts are ongoing to build a consensus about taking military action in Syria. Can he give us some idea of the progress in building a consensus about rebuilding the country?

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other leaders were recently in New York at the United Nations General Assembly pressing all their colleagues to search for a political solution that would enable the formation of a more comprehensive Government who would appeal to and attract from all parts of Syrian society, whether Kurdish, Shi’a, Sunni, Christian, Druze, or whatever. We have such a comprehensive Government in Iraq; it is time now to find one for Syria too.

What consideration has the Defence Secretary given to the financial and human cost of air strikes in Syria?

There is certainly a cost to military operations, but there is a greater cost in our not dealing with the growth and spread of ISIL across the middle east. We are doing this in response to a request from the democratic, legitimate Government of Iraq to come to their aid. We are also doing it for the greater stability of the region and, ultimately, to keep our own streets safe.

It is not a view I hold, but it is at least an entirely rational view, to say that Britain should never get involved in any military operations in the middle east. It is also rational to say that Britain should get involved in military operations across the whole area that our enemy occupies. Surely what is irrational is to do that just for part of it, and to recognise a border that ISIL, in this case, simply does not recognise.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Not taking action when one has the ability to do so also has consequences. I respect the position of various Members of this House in the previous vote two years ago, but a large number of people have died in Syria at the hands of Assad since this House was asked before to take action to stop him slaughtering his own citizens.

Low-flying Exercises (Rural Areas)

The Ministry of Defence takes its responsibilities to the general public very seriously indeed, and measures are taken to provide a balance between essential military training and the need to avoid excessive disturbance on the ground. Low-flying activity is spread as widely as possible across the UK to minimise the impact on particular communities.

People living in Meirionnydd have spoken to me of their concerns following what has been described as the worst single near miss in Britain. This happened on 27 August last year near Dolgellau and involved three Hawk jets and two Typhoons with a combined value of £300 million. What steps are being taken by Air Command to improve safety following the UK Airprox Board’s recommendation to review flying practices in the Machynnleth loop?

Of course, such near misses are very rare indeed. All low-flying activities are meticulously planned. I am sure that lessons will be learned. The Mach loop is, in effect, a one-way circuit that runs round an area just north of her constituency to try to minimise such events. We do take these things very seriously, and a review is under way.

Topical Questions

My immediate priorities are our operations against ISIL and the strategic defence and security review. July’s announcement that the defence budget will increase every year and that we will continue to meet the NATO 2% target means that we are now able to decide what further capabilities and equipment we need to keep this country safe.

Does the Secretary of State understand that any intervention in Syria has to be part of a wider series of actions, including creating safe areas for the civilian population to try to stem the refugee crisis, increasing humanitarian aid, bringing those responsible for war crimes to account, and trying to build a plan for peace in the region?

I agree with that. We have to look at this across the board, and not simply focus on military action. That is why we are also pursuing the political track of looking for a wider political settlement in Syria. The hon. Gentleman is right about encouraging other countries to match the commitment we have made financially to helping refugees, on behalf of this country, in Syria. Safe havens would of course require quite significant military force to police.

T3. I am proud to be a member of a party that takes mental health seriously. One of its first acts in 2010 was to commission the Murrison report on mental health in the armed forces. How far have we got with that? Has an audit been conducted? If not, would now be a good time to do so? (901619)

The recommendations of the “Fighting Fit” report have been delivered by the Government, working in partnership with the NHS and service charity partners such as Combat Stress. I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the NHS in England is currently reviewing the services put in place following the report, with a view to ensuring that veterans with mental health problems are provided with the best possible support.

The national security strategy of 2010 identified cyber-attack, including by other states, as one of the four highest priority national security risks facing the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is still the case?

Yes, I certainly do. The cyber threat—not simply from other states, but from non-state actors—remains very real. We are investing heavily in this area and the responsibility for the cyber programme is being transferred from the Cabinet Office to my Ministry, to make sure it is properly co-ordinated.

That is an interesting answer. The Times has reported:

“A well-placed defence source said that senior military officers were very concerned by the prospect of China building a nuclear power station in Britain.”

The Financial Times reports that our closest allies in other western capitals regard the policy as

“bizarre at best and craven and dangerous at worst”,

and says that China specialists at the Foreign Office are “in despair.” The Ministry of Defence’s own policy adviser, Paul Dorfman, asserts:

“America wouldn’t dream of letting China have such a part in its critical national infrastructure. The idea the UK is prepared to do so is, frankly, astounding.”

Will the Secretary of State therefore explain to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, while there is still time, that they are putting our national security at risk in doing this deal?

I hope the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the President of China on his visit to this country this week. On Chinese participation in the Hinkley Point power station, let me be very clear that it is a financial investment. It is a French-designed reactor and a French-built power station, and it will be supported by Chinese finance. In any case, we have independent regulation of our nuclear sites, and that regulation includes all aspects of security as well as of safety.

T5. With other Departments facing budget reductions, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to make efficiency savings that can go back into the frontline? (901621)

Absolutely. Although my Department’s budget is rising again, there will be no let-up in getting more value for money. We have a strong record of delivering efficiency savings, including some £5 billion in the last Parliament. For the first time, as a result of the July Budget, every pound we save can now be reinvested in the frontline rather than handed back to the Treasury, so we can spend more not simply on ships and planes, but on cyber, as we have discussed, and on unmanned aircraft and the latest technologies.

T2. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the UK defence industry, as well as the multibillion pound domestic supply chain, benefits fully from the procurement decisions that will be taken and outlined as part of the forthcoming strategic defence and security review? (901618)

This Government have placed a considerable emphasis on maintaining a vibrant and healthy defence industrial supply chain in this country. That is why we set up the defence growth partnership and support British defence companies in major defence export exercises around the world. This Government are not embarrassed to do that and will continue to do so.

T6. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy disrupted and eventually halted the evil slave trade from Africa to other parts of the world. What action can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Royal Navy now disrupts and prevents evil people from trafficking people from Africa on unseaworthy boats, so that they do not lose their lives in the Mediterranean? (901622)

The United Kingdom was instrumental in securing the recent Security Council resolution 2240, which authorises all navies to take action against smugglers and human traffickers on the high seas in the Mediterranean. This will support the efforts of HMS Enterprise and HMS Richmond, which is taking up its station off the Libyan coast this week, in contributing to the naval operations in the Mediterranean and tackling this evil trade as it occurs.

T8. Will the Defence Secretary confirm what support our armed forces are giving to the people of the Philippines in this difficult time? (901624)

Our armed forces, in particular our Royal Navy, lend support to, on average, about one humanitarian crisis a year. We are doing a raft of things, and we obviously do them at the request of that country. I would be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with further details.

T7. Defence contractors and supply chain partners in my Havant constituency are proud to be part of the Government’s equipment upgrade programme. Will the Minister update the House on what progress is being made in introducing equipment, on time and on budget, into our armed forces? (901623)

The Ministry of Defence continues to make excellent progress in delivering equipment on time and to budget. That was recognised in the last National Audit Office major projects report, which reflected our best cost performance in 10 years and the best time performance in almost 15 years. I would like to pay tribute to the defence contractor in my hon. Friend’s constituency, Lockheed Martin, which has supported the Merlin helicopters outstandingly in recent years.

T10. What steps have been taken to change section 104 of the Scotland Act 1998 to allow Scotland to legislate for fatal accident inquiries involving service personnel? (901626)

Such issues are the responsibility of the Government of the United Kingdom, and I would expect to lead on those service inquiries. I will, however, ask the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who has responsibility for that matter, to write with further details to the hon. Gentleman.

I think it is a case of one is enough. We had a most capable Minister at the Dispatch Box, so I am sure Mr Brazier is perfectly satisfied. It was a case of friendly fire.

T9. I am pleased that people across the UK are already benefiting from the Government’s home-buying initiatives, and I am sure the Secretary of State shares my view that it is important that the same opportunities are available to members of our armed forces. What steps is he taking to increase the number of servicemen and women who own their own home? (901625)

We are making sure that the unsung heroes, our service families, can enjoy the stability and security of owning their home. Our forces Help to Buy scheme has enabled 5,000 personnel to buy their home. We want to double that to 10,000 homes for heroes over the next 12 months.

Sensible people out there will think the world has gone mad if the Government allow companies controlled by the Chinese Government, and which helped to develop their nuclear weapons, to take a large stake in Britain’s nuclear power industry. The shadow Secretary of State was completely right to raise this matter. Will the Secretary of State tell us what assessment his Department has made of the risks and national security considerations of giving a communist dictatorship such a huge role in such a critical part of Britain’s national infrastructure?

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, we welcome the fact that there is Chinese investment in this country, just as there is British investment in China. As I have already made clear to the House, this is financial investment in a French-led project to build a new power station at Hinkley Point. Our independent nuclear regulator is well able to ensure that all security and safety aspects are considered.

My right hon. Friends know that I have repeatedly raised on the Floor of the House my concerns about the way in which the Chinese Government are building runways and port facilities on uninhabited and disputed atolls in the South China sea. Although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and, no doubt, the Prime Minister, who I am pleased to see in his place—will welcome the Chinese President, do the Government have plans to raise with China the way in which they are seriously escalating tension in the South China sea to the detriment of many of our allies in the region, to which we have a responsibility under the five power defence arrangements?

I hope that my hon. Friend, too, will welcome the President of China on his state visit to our country this week, just as we welcomed ships of the Chinese navy on their visit to Portsmouth earlier this year. We welcome the growing military relationship between the armed forces of our two countries. All countries that trade internationally have an interest, as he said, in the peaceful navigation of the South China sea.

Syria is not Iraq or Afghanistan, but this country made some poor decisions in those countries, particularly in Afghanistan, in operational and intelligence matters that we must learn from. Most of all, surely we need to learn from the lack of clarity in our strategic objectives that so badly affected the war in Afghanistan. Listening to the Secretary of State today, I think that such a lack of clarity is still evident when he talks about Syria.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, we are of course learning the necessary tactical lessons from that campaign, as we do with any campaign. I made the point much earlier that ISIL has to be defeated in both Iraq and Syria. It is somewhat illogical, when ISIL presents such a grave threat to the Government of Iraq, the stability of the region and our own streets, that our aircraft have to turn back at the Iraqi border.

I was recently appointed president of the 1206 Mercian air cadet squadron. Will my hon. Friend let me and, more to the point, the air cadets know what further opportunities there might be for them to obtain flying experience with the Royal Air Force?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his position. We are extremely keen to improve opportunities for flying. We currently have a recovery programme, following the temporary suspension of the gliding programme. I share his enthusiasm, as I too have an air cadet force in my constituency.

An article in the Washington Post said that the F-35s are not yet ready for “real-world operational deployments”. Is the Minister supremely confident that the F-35s will be ready to be fully deployed on the first carrier that leaves Rosyth?

As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the United States marine corps declared the operational capability of its fleet of F-35Bs—the same aircraft that we will be flying—in August. Our aircraft are engaged in testing, evaluation and training in the United States.

Does the Secretary of State agree that some of the concerns about Chinese investment in critical infrastructure in this country, which have understandably been raised, can be placated by reference to the work that has been done between our security services and Huawei in relation to investment in telecommunications? Will he look on that as a useful template that can be utilised as and when there is investment in the nuclear industry by Chinese investors?

I will certainly look at that example. However, as I said earlier, when there are security concerns about any of our power stations or other parts of the nuclear grid, it is up to the office of the independent regulator to ensure that they are fully protected.