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Topical Questions

Volume 600: debated on Monday 19 October 2015

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.