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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 602: debated on Monday 23 November 2015

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Procurement

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that the UK defence industry benefits from his Department’s procurement decisions. (902257)

The strategic defence and security review will shortly set out for the hon. Gentleman and the House how we will invest more in bigger and stronger defence for Britain. The British defence industry plays a vital role in delivering more planes, ships, armoured vehicles and battle-winning capabilities for our armed forces. We are looking at how we can drive greater innovation into defence procurement, maximise the use of small and medium-sized enterprises, and ensure that investment decisions contribute to a more dynamic and productive economy.

The important Ajax armoured vehicle programme for the Army has been in the pipeline for years, yet it will use Swedish, not British, steel. We are told that our specialist steelmakers are up to the task, so when did the Government ask British firms whether they could produce the steel?

As with all major defence equipment programmes, the contractors determine the materials, which includes sourcing steel on the basis of competitive cost, time and quality. In 2010, no UK steel manufacturer was able to meet the prime contractor’s requirements, so no UK bids to supply steel for the Ajax programme were forthcoming. I can confirm for the hon. Gentleman, who takes a great deal of interest in this matter because the Ajax vehicles, after the 100th vehicle, will be assembled in Merthyr Tydfil, next to his constituency, that some 2,700 tonnes of steel—about 30% of the total requirement —remains open to competition, and that a competition is under way to supply sets of training armour that is open to applications from UK firms.

A number of colleagues and I visited our magnificent new aircraft carriers in Rosyth last week. It was therefore with some interest that we learned this morning that the Government apparently intend to order a large number of joint strike fighters to equip not only those aircraft carriers, but the Royal Air Force. Will my hon. Friend confirm the truth about that substantial increase in our fighting capability?

My hon. Friend is an experienced Member of the House and it will not be lost on him that after Defence questions, we have a statement from the Prime Minister, who I am quite sure will be able to address the question that he has just posed to me.

It was excellent to welcome the Minister to Barrow-in-Furness again last week and make another show of the bipartisan support across the House for renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent submarines. Is there still a prospect of having the maingate vote before Christmas?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House that on Thursday last week, I accompanied him to his constituency to recognise the signature of the contract for the fifth Astute boat, Anson. It was good to be able to thank many of his constituents who have been involved in its construction. With regard to the investment decision for Successor, I think that that subject will come up shortly.

Of course, it is true that the defence industry can no longer source its requirements from the UK steel industry in many instances because of a loss of capability. Will the Minister work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the defence industry and steel producers to put in place a long-term plan to ensure that UK steel develops the capability to meet the needs of the defence industry?

The Ministry of Defence is participating in the working group that was established last month by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General. Although steel is clearly a significant and important component in much defence manufacturing, the steel involved in all our current major programmes represented less than 1.5% of the steel manufactured in this country in 2013. Relatively speaking, although defence is important, it is a small contributor to the total steel output of this country.

We are a maritime nation, so I welcome the newspaper reports—we will see whether they are true shortly—that the Prime Minister is to reverse his own decision and procure maritime patrol aircraft that are able, among other things, to defend our submarine fleet. One of the most visible signs of the botched 2010 strategic defence and security review was the photographs of our Nimrods being cut up into pieces, which we all saw in the newspapers at the time. When will the first of the new Boeing P-8s enter service?

The hon. Lady may recall that the programme she refers to, which was commissioned by the previous Labour Government, was more than £1 billion over-budget. It was reduced in scale by that Government to nine aircraft—more than half what was originally procured—and the prototype aircraft that was produced had more defects than any previous aircraft in production. We were not sure whether it would ever fly. That was the right decision to take at the time, and now it is the right decision —if the Prime Minister is about to announce it—to have a replacement capability. We will have to hear when that will be available.

The UK has been without that vital capability for four years as a result of the 2010 decision—right or wrong—to which the Minister refers. Today we read that Britain had to call on our French and Canadian allies to provide aircraft to search for a Russian submarine off our shores. Can the Minister at least give the House a definite date by which we will again have our own maritime patrol aircraft?

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Lady. It is now twenty to 3, so she must be a little more patient and see what the Prime Minister announces in his statement later this afternoon. I am quite sure that she will be in her place to hear it.

Arctic and High North

The UK respects the sovereign responsibilities of the eight Arctic states while promoting our own interests in the region. We engage with the security of the region through the Arctic security forces roundtable, and directly with Arctic nations. We maintain naval and air assets capable of deploying to the region, and Arctic trained and equipped forces, including elements of 3 Commando Brigade.

The Minister for the Armed Forces recently confirmed to me in a parliamentary answer that the Russian spy ship, the Yantar, passed through UK waters unhindered by the fleet ready escort. Scotland is on the front line of emerging threats from the High North, yet our defence footprint continues to shrink. Will the Minister confirm when UK naval surface ships will be rebased at Faslane and Rosyth, and say when we will see the re-establishment of RAF Leuchars?

I cannot confirm what the hon. Gentleman asks for about RAF Leuchars, but if he waits until half-past 3, he should hear some excellent news for Scotland.

There can be no question but that the retreating ice provides significant commercial opportunities, and that will lead to military stresses if we do not handle it correctly. The UK has a fantastic offer—namely, the Royal Marines who are trained in the Arctic; I have seen their work—so can we expand that capability? Secondly, we have not used under-ice submarines for a number of years. We have that capability so is it time that once again we used our submarines to operate under the Arctic ice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, but he will have to wait until half-past 3 for confirmation of the future of our amphibious capability. I take on board his point about under-ice submarines, and I will write to him about that.

Perhaps I can help the Minister with a question that does not involve waiting until half-past 3. A lot of our focus is currently on the middle east and north Africa. Does he agree, however, that with two Russian Tupolev bombers off our coast recently, as well as a Russian submarine, it would be naive for us to take our eye off the strategic risk to the UK from the High North and Arctic region?

May I gently implore Members to proceed a little more quickly? We have a lot to get through, and questions and answers have been lengthy.

One of the finest parliamentary answers in the course of the hon. Gentleman’s 28-year career to date.

Maritime patrol aircraft featured large in last year’s referendum, but does my hon. Friend agree that they are pretty pointless, either manned or unmanned, unless there is the data-gathering and analysis technology to go with it, and the wherewithal to respond to any threats that emerge—something that the SNP failed to offer last year?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) says, the High North is becoming one of the world’s strategic hotspots. Does the Minister agree that, for a nation with a maritime history such as ours, seeking the assistance of France and Canada in locating a possibly hostile submarine is deeply embarrassing? Will he confirm that this is the third time the UK has had to call on such assistance?

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until 3.30 pm for the detail, but I just remind him that the Defence Committee shared the Government’s view that the Nimrod programme was dying. I am very glad that it should be possible to give some better news a little later today.

The lack of naval capability in the High North is indeed a worry. Given that just 14 months ago the workers at Scotstoun and Govan were guaranteed a bright future should they vote no to independence, will the Minister like to take this opportunity to make sure the promise made to them of 13 Type 26 frigates, is kept? Does he agree that if, at 3.30 pm, that promise is not kept, it will be a shameful betrayal of that workforce?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I cannot give him a detailed answer. I can, however, say that the future for Scotland will look even brighter after 3.30 pm. We have just completed, in the past few months, the largest far north exercise in NATO history.

ISIL

The United Kingdom is already making a significant contribution to the international counter-ISIL coalition, with strike aircraft, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and in helping to train Iraqi forces. In addition to the intelligence co-operation and border security support we have offered to France, the House will wish to know that yesterday I authorised the use of RAF Akrotiri as a diversion airfield for French aircraft striking in Syria.

Many of us, on all sides of the House, will support the Government as they make the intelligent case for extending the air campaign into Syria, and we reject totally the accusation that such a move would be a gesture. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our allies—not us, our allies—have been diminishing ISIL’s command and control, restricting its ability to move en masse, and restricting its ability to take control of more ground? Is it not time to stop subcontracting our security to our friends?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We should not leave the fight against ISIL to French, American or Australian aircraft. While we are working through the Vienna talks, which aim to help to establish an inclusive transitional government to end the civil war and build more security for the Sunni areas of Syria, that should not either delay or deter us from degrading ISIL in eastern Syria, from where ISIL is directing the war in its region and directly threatening us.

The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that not striking ISIL in its heartland in Syria is like a football team trying to win a match without entering the opposition’s half. Is it not long overdue that we pushed up the pitch and stopped defending our goal line?

Yes. ISIL does not recognise the border between Iraq and Syria, and moves between both while the RAF can currently strike only in Iraq. It is illogical for us to be hitting ISIL targets in Iraq, while not targeting ISIL’s core leadership, its lines of communication and its oil revenue base, which are all to be found in Syria.

20 . What steps is the Secretary of State taking to squeeze ISIL’s supply chain, particularly with regard to munitions and ammunition? ISIL is not just supplied by organisations in the region; countries and establishments outside the region must be supplying ISIL with arms. (902276)

Yes, we are intensifying our effort to cut off ISIL’s sources of finance, in particular its ability to sell oil on the international market. We are also directly targeting its supply routes between Syria and Iraq, particularly in the region around Sinjar.

23. The Democratic Union party—the PYD—holds political power in all three provinces of Rojava, in northern Syria, including the war-torn province of Kobani. Will the Government be communicating or liaising with the PYD as it continues to resist Daesh in the region? (902280)

Yes. I discussed this matter in Ankara recently with the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of Turkey, who obviously want ISIL/Daesh pushed back from their own border in the remaining Manbij pocket between the two Kurdish areas. I emphasise, however, that all parties in Syria—Kurds, Shi’a, Sunni, Alawite, Christian and Druze—have to be brought into the process to deliver in Syria a more inclusive Government that can end this civil war.

History gives us practically no examples of a determined enemy surrendering in response to conventional air bombardment, so what ground forces are credibly and seriously fighting ISIL/Daesh in Syria, other than some unpleasant Islamist groups, the Kurds—in a limited area—and the Syrian Government army?

There are moderate forces fighting Daesh in Syria that have also been engaged in the civil war. The key is to bring the civil war to an end as quickly as possible so that we can focus on dealing with Daesh. Troops are already involved in the conflict. We have been helping to train them and supplying non-lethal equipment to them, and we will continue to work with them to ensure that Syria is rid of both Assad and Daesh.

The Secretary of State will be aware of a report published today in The Independent stating that in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Islamophobic hate crime in the UK increased by 300%, the vast and overwhelming majority of victims being young Muslim women. When will the Secretary of State join the cross-party consensus in the Chamber and follow the example of President Hollande, who refused last week to give the terrorists the legitimacy they craved and instead rightly described them as “Daesh”? Does he not accept that the language we use is important and that language connecting Muslims and terrorism is dangerous and misleading?

I agree with almost all of that, although I am afraid I have not had time to read the report in The Independent. I myself prefer the term “Daesh” because it is more accurate and does not embrace the word “Islam”, but “ISIL” and “ISIS” have become accepted terms in the British media, and it might be too late to make that change.

19 . Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a direct threat to the UK and that we should now consider all necessary steps to stop it, across military, diplomatic, domestic and, indeed, humanitarian fronts? (902275)

I agree, and I know my hon. Friend will have noted the UN resolution passed to that effect. We have to confront this terror organisation with all means at our disposal, not simply by defending our territory here but by striking at its roots and dealing with it politically, culturally, financially and ideologically.

People on both sides of the House will welcome the UN Security Council resolution passed on Friday night calling on member states to take all necessary measures against ISIL/Daesh, but will the Defence Secretary reassure Members on both sides of the House that, along with any proposed military action in Syria, there is also a parallel plan to secure peace, end Assad’s reign of terror over his own people, put in place a timetable for a transitional Government in Syria and for the protection of religious and ethnic minorities?

Yes, I fully accept we have to persuade those with doubts about military action that there is a political track as well. Towards the end of the week, the Prime Minister will be replying to the questions posed—quite legitimately—by the Foreign Affairs Committee that deal with exactly that point: how a transitional Government can be put in place that has the support of all sections of the different communities in Syria and how that can lead to the provision of security, particularly in the Sunni areas, in northern Syria. However, that should not delay our dealing with a terrorist menace that has already brought slaughter to the streets of Paris and resulted in the deaths of our own citizens on a beach in Tunisia and one in Paris itself.

24. Further to the answer given to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), it is dangerous to wound an enemy and not kill him, especially if fighting a wild beast. Given that no air campaign alone has ever dislodged a determined enemy, what is the plan after we have bombed Syria? Where is the strategy? What ground troops are we going to put in? (902281)

In Iraq, we are assisting the legitimate Government of Iraq, the Iraqi forces and the Kurdish forces to push ISIL out of Iraq, and we are having some success in that. Of course in Syria we will in the end need ground forces that are local and locally supported. Prime Minister Abadi in Baghdad does not want British troops or American troops on the ground; that would further radicalise opinion, particularly in the Sunni areas. On the ground, the battle has to be won by local forces that have the support of the local population, but that should not deter us from making a start in dealing with ISIL’s headquarters, from where this terrorism and slaughter is being directed.

Procurement: UK-produced Steel

4. What his policy is on ensuring the use of UK-produced steel in items procured by his Department. (902260)

10. What his policy is on ensuring the use of UK-produced steel in items procured by his Department. (902266)

Steel is sourced by our contractors from a range of UK and international suppliers, reflecting the need to ensure a competitive price and delivery at the required time and quality. UK suppliers have provided significant quantities of steel for major defence equipment procurement programmes, whenever they have been able to meet specified standards. Our new Government guidelines, published last month, will help UK steel suppliers to compete effectively with international suppliers for major projects, including those in defence.

The Minister will be aware that Swedish steel was used in the construction of offshore patrol craft and also in Scout armoured vehicles. Many in the steel community feel that that is a betrayal. Does he, like me, feel that British-produced steel should be specified in defence procurement contracts in order to protect steel, a strategically important industry?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that the steel that is specified needs to be the steel that can do the job. We are open-minded about who can supply that, but we are adopting the new Government guidelines. For the offshore patrol vessels, some 20% of the requirement—about 775 tonnes—was sourced through UK steel mills.

Public procurement policies should seek to assist British industry, especially steel. It is clear that other countries support their own industries in that way. Why not Britain?

That is why the Government have set up the steel procurement working group, chaired by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. The Ministry of Defence is sitting on that group. We are seeking to ensure that future orders are open to UK firms to tender.

You can bet your bottom dollar, Mr Speaker—or rather, your bottom euro—that European countries will not be abiding by European Union law as far as procurement is concerned. Can my hon. Friend confirm—I am sure he can—that we will do all we can to procure British steel, providing it is of the right quality?

No one who has listened to the Minister’s answers today would have any confidence that he was going to take any serious steps to ensure that British steel was used in the purchase of the line of Type 26 frigates, which we expect to hear about shortly. Can he say a little more about what serious steps he will take, to justify the answer he has just given to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)? Let us support the British steel industry through this very important Government contract.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the Type 26 procurement programme as the next major platform where there will be a significant steel component. We are determined, as a Government who are keen to support our steel industry, that defence contractors will have the opportunity to source that steel from the UK, and we will do as much as we can to help them in that endeavour.

Lariam

5. What steps his Department is taking to monitor the effects of the Lariam form of mefloquine on service personnel who have taken that drug. (902261)

Clinical studies and audits have been undertaken by the Ministry of Defence to assess the effects of Lariam. Those reports and their conclusions are a matter of public record. Lariam is not our first-line treatment and makes up about 1% of our anti-malarial stocks, but for some people, deployed in certain parts of the world, it will be the best drug to protect them from malaria.

It is becoming patently obvious that those who have had Lariam were not assessed fully before using it. Some of my constituents are those who are suffering most. Given the high level of potential suicide among service personnel, increased mental health concerns and stress-related issues, can the Minister confirm that the MOD will do a thorough review of the use of Lariam and that all service personnel will be assessed before Lariam is used again?

Before any drug is prescribed, an individual risk assessment of the patient is undertaken. In addition, as soon as a prescription is entered on to the electronic records system, a warning is flagged to ensure that the prescriber is absolutely sure that the recipient has not had a mental health problem. That policy is audited by defence primary healthcare organisations. If Members have constituents about whom they are concerned, they should encourage them to see their GP or their medical officer.

I very much endorse what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said and I welcome the Minister’s reply. Having suffered the consequences of Lariam myself, I ask her to look at the alternatives, of which there are several that have far fewer negative side-effects.

I thank my hon. Friend and I can reassure him that Lariam is not our first-line drug. However, in certain parts of the world and given the particular medical history of some individuals, the drug is sometimes currently the only course of action. A new drug is coming on line, and it will be looked at.

Free Syrian Army

Supporting moderates is a key part of our work to resolve the Syrian conflict, so that they can take their place in the inclusive transitional Government needed to defeat ISIL and provide security throughout Syria. In the last 12 months, we have helped train vetted members of the moderate armed opposition and provided support to help save lives, bolster civil society, counter extremism and lay the foundation for a better future in Syria.

Do the Government not recognise that as part of the solution to the ISIS issue we need peace in Syria? Do they not recognise that what they are proposing is a failed policy, and that by investing in a client as a proxy in a civil war, all we are doing is simply escalating the war and perpetuating a greater number of deaths?

I do not wholly agree with that. The work we are doing in Iraq to support the democratic Government of Iraq at their request has stemmed the onrush of ISIL and has started to push ISIL back, north up the Tigris and west of the Euphrates. We need to do the same in Syria, coming to the aid of moderate forces there who want to be free both of Assad, who is bombing his own civilians, and of ISIL, which represents a threat to us all.

Following the Russian intervention, what evidence is there on the ground that the Free Syrian Army is recalibrating its efforts—increasing them against ISIL and reducing them against Assad?

The picture in northern Syria in particular is confused; it is not a simple conflict with front lines as we would normally understand them. It is our long-term objective for Syria to be free of both Assad and ISIL, and we continue to work with moderate elements in Syria to provide them with the equipment they need and, where we can, with training outside Syria.

RAF Stations

Any consolidation of Royal Air Force stations is being considered as part of the Ministry of Defence footprint strategy. The attacks in Paris remind us that the threats we face are growing in scale, diversity and complexity. We are therefore determined to configure our defence estate to optimise our support of military capability.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that Lincolnshire is the home of the RAF, and while I appreciate that he cannot give definitive answers today, he will no doubt agree that that should remain the case and that there are very good reasons for consolidating more personnel and assets in our great county.

My hon. and learned Friend is a champion, not only of his constituency but of Lincolnshire. He is right to say that that county has had a long association with the RAF. He is right that I cannot give any further details today—not even after half-past 3—but I hope to be able to provide further information in due course.

Military Veterans

The Government provide a comprehensive programme of support for ex-service personnel. For those returning to civilian life, that includes an excellent resettlement package, a high-quality pension and compensation schemes and measures to meet veterans’ health and welfare needs. The armed forces covenant stresses the importance we place on ensuring that veterans are not disadvantaged as a result of their service in the armed forces.

Research shows that veterans represent the largest single cohort in the overall prison population. What is the Department doing to address the issue, and will the Minister acknowledge the significance of charities such as Care after Combat, whose Phoenix project is intended to reduce reoffending in this important group?

As my hon. Friend will know, armed forces veterans in prison are the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice, but the latest figures that I have suggest that approximately 3.5% of the UK prison population are veterans. All prisoners with a military history are eligible for the full range of interventions and services that are available from the National Offender Management Service, and armed forces charities, including the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Care after Combat and Combat Stress, send caseworkers to support veterans in some prisons.

Members of our armed forces not only put themselves in great physical danger but subject themselves to great psychological pressures in order to protect our country and our people. What is being done to help veterans of my excellent local regiment, the Mercian Regiment, and others who are struggling with mental health issues?

The MOD is determined to ensure that veterans with mental health issues are given appropriate support. NHS England spends £1.8 million a year on mental health services for veterans, including the provision of 10 veterans mental health teams. Up to a further £18 million is funding the Combat Stress six-week intensive post-traumatic stress disorder programme. Subject to the forthcoming spending review, a further £8.4 million of Government funding will be provided over the next five years.

21. What conversations have taken place with the Chancellor to discuss the impact of tax credit cuts on military families, including the families of veterans? (902277)

I am sure that the issue has been discussed, and that it will be addressed later this week when the Chancellor makes his announcement.

What support is the MOD able to give local authorities such as my own, Sutton council, which are keen to establish “homes for heroes”?

I recently announced that we were about to undertake a review of best practice. Following conversations with the chair of the Local Government Association, we intend to carry out that review to ensure that best practice is spread across local authorities throughout the United Kingdom.

The social care crisis is affecting people all over the country, including those who have sustained an injury or condition while serving our country. Those who were injured on or after 6 April 2005 receive a payment under the armed forces compensation scheme, which local authorities disregard when assessing them for social care, but those who were injured before that date receive the war pension, which is not disregarded. When will the Government address this inequality?

That is primarily a matter for the Department of Health. I have been engaging in a series of negotiations with my counterpart in that Department, and I am sure that we will report to the House in due course.

Procurement (SMEs)

9. What steps he is taking to increase the proportion of his Department’s procurement expenditure which goes to small and medium-sized enterprises. (902265)

11. What steps he is taking to increase the proportion of his Department’s procurement expenditure which goes to small and medium-sized enterprises. (902267)

We expect small businesses to take an increasing share of our increasing defence budget, as they provide a vital source of innovation and flexibility in meeting defence and security requirements. In October, we announced a new target to increase the proportion of Ministry of Defence procurement spent with SMEs to 25% by the end of this Parliament. That target is 10% higher than the one that was set during the last Parliament.

What role are SMEs playing in the Trident replacement programme—for example, in the Rolls-Royce propulsion supply chain?

The Successor submarine programme will be one of the Department’s largest projects, and we expect about 850 suppliers across the UK to be involved. They will employ thousands of people in what is a very high-skilled domain, using cutting-edge technology. That will include the supply chain for Rolls-Royce nuclear propulsion systems based at Raynesway. Many of those companies will be SMEs, and I am sure that many of them will be from my hon. Friend’s constituency in Derby.

Will the Minister explain how the many small businesses in the defence supply chain in Lancashire can gain access to the £70 million innovation investment fund that the Secretary of State announced last month?

I pay tribute to the workforce in Lancashire, especially in view of the work that they will do in contributing to every single one of the F-35s. That is the largest defence procurement programme on the globe. Further particulars about the innovation fund will be announced in due course, and some may even be announced in the next hour.

As I have just indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the Successor submarine programme will be the largest UK procurement of military capability for decades to come. That will filter through; I have referred to the 850 suppliers that we think will be participating, but the number may be greater than that. It will be an enormous programme that will last for many years and sustain thousands of jobs across the breadth of the country.

Armed Forces Covenant

The covenant came into force under the Armed Forces Act 2011. Since then, the Government have undertaken a range of actions to build the covenant. Our fourth annual report to Parliament is due to be published in December 2015 and that will detail the progress we have made during the year. The Government are committed to continuing to honour our pledges and encouraging wider society to think about their contribution.

I welcome the fact that all local authorities have signed up to the community covenant. How will the commitments be measured so that Sutton council and others can learn from the best and most proactive and we can encourage others to up their game?

I, too, am grateful for the support that councils, including Sutton, have demonstrated to our armed forces community. All have signed the community covenant and many are extremely proactive. I recently had a meeting with the chair of the Local Government Association and the Minister for Housing and Planning to discuss what more we can do to encourage local authorities as they look to support our armed forces community. As a result, I understand that the housing Minister intends to write to all local authorities setting out examples of best practice and reminding them of the need under the covenant to honour their commitments.

A veteran in my constituency suffers from mental health issues as a result of military service. He is on the local council housing list, but is one or two steps away from priority status. May I urge the Minister to beef up the military covenant to ensure that our veterans are given priority status for housing as a matter of course?

The Government are determined to honour the commitments made by the armed forces covenant to ensure fair treatment of veterans and their families in need of social housing. That is why this Government changed the laws so that seriously injured serving personnel and veterans with urgent housing needs must always be a high priority for social housing. It is, however, for local authorities to make judgments about the competing housing priorities in their areas, but if my hon. Friend writes to me with the details of this case, I will of course raise it with my Department for Communities and Local Government colleagues.

Ten thousand of our homeless are military veterans, as are 10% of our prison population. How is the covenant tackling this problem?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the £40 million invested in the veterans accommodation fund. I work very closely with a number of charities to ensure that we address this issue. He can see for himself at the Beacon home in Catterick, for example, or the Mike Jackson House in Aldershot, if he wishes to visit, and I would encourage him to do so.

In the past five years, we have seen the pay and pension entitlements of service personnel cut in real terms, 30,000 redundancies and a failure to recruit the number of reserves that the Government planned to fill the gap. Now we read that annual increments and special allowances are also to be cut. Does the Minister accept that treating service personnel so shoddily will impact on morale and can be seen as a breach of the military covenant?

I was hoping to avoid these words, but the hon. Lady will have to wait until 3.30 pm. I am confident that the remuneration package will remain an excellent package for our service personnel, but she will just have to wait a few more minutes to find out exactly whether or not to believe all the press reports she reads.

EU Withdrawal

13. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of UK withdrawal from the EU on defence and national security. (902269)

This Government believe we can, and indeed will, succeed in reforming and renegotiating our relationship with the EU. The cornerstone of our security is NATO, but the EU plays an important role complementing NATO, for example recently in imposing sanctions on Russia. Defence remains a sovereign issue.

The UK, together with other EU partners, has worked hard in areas—such as in Mali on EU training missions—which have made a significant contribution to defence. Will the Government give close consideration to how such missions would continue if Britain were to withdraw from the EU?

I can only repeat my earlier answer. We are confident that the renegotiation will succeed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the mission to which he refers, and others including the anti-piracy mission off the horn of Africa, have been a success.

If this county were to vote to come out of the EU, would not the Minister welcome the tremendous advantage of that to the armed forces? The UK sends £350 million to the EU each week, and some of that money could be diverted to the armed forces. Would that not be a good thing?

My hon. Friend is not going to tempt me into speculating about what might happen after a withdrawal. I will say, however, that I am delighted to be part of a Government who are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence, and I think that he is going to enjoy the announcement at 3.30 pm.

ISIL

We have seen ISIL attacks in Tunisia, Ankara, Sinai and elsewhere around the world, including on British citizens, most recently in Paris, as well as plots to commit murder on our own streets. ISIL poses a very direct threat to the United Kingdom, which is why we need to work with the international coalition to degrade and destroy ISIL in Iraq and why we need to consider what more we can do to deal with its headquarters and heartland in Syria, from where this threat comes.

Given that ISIL is using its base in Syria to plan attacks on the UK, does the Secretary of State agree that it is absolutely absurd to restrict the British armed forces to acting only in Iraq, and not to empower them to act against those who threaten Britain and who are based in Syria?

I agree that there is a compelling case for us to do more in Syria, not least because it is illogical to tackle ISIL only in Iraq. Those borders are meaningless to that organisation. As the Prime Minister has said, we must tackle the head of the snake in Raqqa, and we will be making our case to the House and to the country, starting with his response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report later this week.

When major cities such as London are targets of terrorism, how is the Secretary of State collaborating with the Home Office to deal with out-of-London areas, including the shopping areas in constituencies such as mine, which could easily be under just as much threat as central London?

We work closely with the Home Office, particularly on counter-terrorism and on providing assistance to back up civil capacity. We have 5,000 troops trained and ready to support armed police officers at 24 hours’ notice, and we will be increasing that number shortly. In the end, we can guarantee the safety of the United Kingdom only by defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and I hope that my hon. Friend shares the new confidence of the Chairman of his Committee that the Committee’s conditions can be met following the murders on the streets of Paris.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the concept in international law that when a sovereign state is unable or unwilling to take action against a non-state actor carrying out acts of aggression from its territory, there may be a justification for action. To what extent does he think that that applies to Daesh, and what comparisons would he draw between this situation and the operation of the Taliban in Afghanistan when it was supporting al-Qaeda?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that there is already a clear legal basis for military action against ISIL in Syria which does not require a United Nations resolution. None the less, I hope he will welcome UN Security Council resolution 2249, which provides clear and unanimous political endorsement by the entire international community for the military action already being taken by the counter-ISIL coalition.

The Government are not turning a blind eye. On the contrary, we are doing our best to interdict those supplies of oil and to stop ISIL selling its oil on the international market. I have discussed this with Syria’s neighbours. We also need to stop ISIL selling its oil to the Syrian regime itself.

Topical Questions

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

In March, I was delighted to host the Secretary of State on a visit to MBDA in my constituency. Is it not a sign of the Government’s commitment to national security and economic security that they have signed a £300 million contract to equip our Typhoons with the latest missiles and that these will be manufactured at a new MBDA site in Bolton, thus safeguarding 400 high-tech jobs?

Yes. I do recall my visit and this is part of our now £178 billion equipment plan to provide the very best capabilities for our armed forces. These advanced, short-range, air-to-air missiles will equip our Typhoon jets with battle-winning technologies, helping to protect British airspace, to defend our NATO allies and to sustain hundreds of highly skilled jobs in MBDA’s new £30 million plant in Bolton.

One of the many things briefed officially to The Times and The Daily Telegraph this morning was that the MOD will only purchase five fewer frigates than planned. Does the Minister share my concern about needing enough frigates to protect our carriers on operations, with any reduction to this fleet meaning that the capability to operate the carriers will be impaired?

Yes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman, whom I am delighted to see in his place, that we will have enough frigates to protect the carriers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making the frigate replacement programme very clear in just a few minutes’ time.

T2. Will the Minister advise the House on how central innovation is to the work of the MOD? Will he take this opportunity to spell out the role he sees the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down playing in the future strategy of defence in the UK? (902283)

We fully recognise the importance of innovation, and DSTL does vital work with industry and academia in leading science and technology initiatives to provide capability advantages for our armed forces. We expect it to continue to do so, including through the support it gives the university technical college and the proposed Porton Down science park in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

T4. Médecins sans Frontières has reported that one of its hospitals in Damascus was hit in an aerial attack on Thursday, further increasing the number of civilian casualties from air strikes in Syria. In the light of Friday’s UN resolution on Syria, will the Secretary of State detail the additional measures that will be taken to provide safe passage and resettlement for civilian refugees should the UK vote to participate in air strikes? (902285)

Prior to that incident, I met a number of non-governmental organisations to discuss a range of issues that the hon. Lady touches on, and I can assure her that this is at the forefront of our minds. Part of the reason for wanting to do more in this space is to prevent innocent civilians from being brutally slaughtered.

T3. Given recent media coverage about the different views across this House on Trident renewal, will my right hon. Friend tell me who is responsible for deciding Government policy, specifically on that? (902284)

Let me reassure my hon. Friend that policy on this side of the House is decided by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet—indeed, the whole Government and the whole parliamentary party are united on the manifesto commitment we made to renew the deterrent. I urge moderate Labour Members to turn up tomorrow and vote to support a deterrent that every previous Labour Government have supported since it was introduced.

T5. What assessment have the Government made of Assad’s high-tech military capability, provided by Putin, for example, surface-to-air missile systems; where they are located; and what risk there is of those missile systems or other high-tech equipment falling into the hands of ISIS? (902286)

We make sure that our own aircraft are equipped with the defensive aids that are necessary in each particular theatre. What we need to do is bring the civil war in Syria to an end and then focus on the task in hand, which is degrading and destroying ISIL in its heartlands. Syria needs to be free of both Assad and ISIL.

T6. With Blandford Camp at the heart of my constituency, will the Minister assure me that, with the evaluation of the defence estate being undertaken, its socioeconomic importance for Blandford Forum as an important market town in North Dorset is taken into consideration? (902287)

Although the defence estate is primarily configured to support military requirements, the Ministry of Defence does support local authorities in understanding any potential impact of changes, particularly when it comes to the opportunities to provide local resources as part of future town planning.

T9. Lockheed Martin submitted a bid for the new maritime patrol aircraft contract. With the proposed C130 multi-mission aircraft costing around 40% of Boeing’s, which also would have seen 80% of the project carried out by a UK workforce, will the Minister please enlighten the House about the process that was undertaken to award that contract ultimately to a costlier alternative that is not supporting British jobs? (902290)

Again, this is another occasion on which I have to tell the hon. Lady that she will have to wait for a few moments to be enlightened by the Prime Minister. What I can say is that, in the event that an MPA were to be procured as part of the P-8 programme, some billion dollars’ worth of the programme is supplied by British companies.

T7. I personally agree with the Government that ISIL/Daesh must be crushed in Syria as well as in Iraq, but the Secretary of State has made it clear that he wants to see the Syrian army forces defeated, too. We are reportedly being told to be more like Churchill than Chamberlain. Does the Secretary of State recognise that Churchill’s great strength was that he knew when to recognise which is the greater and the lesser of two evils, and that is why he was willing sometimes to fight alongside unsavoury allies against a common deadly enemy? (902288)

I have always thought that Churchill’s greatest strength, when confronted by a very direct threat to this country, was to be determined to do something about it.

T10. With the UK armed forces being the smallest they have been since the middle of the 19th century, will the Minister accept that, if the UK were to exit the European Union, it would significantly undermine our intelligence and security relationships with our European partners at a time when we need those relationships the most? (902291)

No, I do not accept that. Of course the membership of the European Union has enabled us to be as one in Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia for the action it took in Crimea and in the insurgency it stirred up in Ukraine, but the bulk of our defence rests on our membership of the NATO alliance.

T8. At a time when it is clear that our nuclear defence is key, will the Minister update us on the progress that the MOD is making in delivering our nuclear-powered Astute submarines? (902289)

Yes, as I have already said, I was delighted last Thursday to announce, in Barrow, the £1.3 billion contract to complete the build of the fifth Astute-class submarine. We will save money for the taxpayer and deliver the submarine ahead of the schedule of the previous one, and we are on track.

I agree with the Defence Secretary that ISIL poses a very direct threat to the UK, but does he agree that, if the Government are to take military action against Syria, that action should be framed within a wider strategy? Military action can serve as only one strand of that wider campaign. The Government will also need to leverage the political, diplomatic, economic and cultural tools that they have at their disposal.

I completely agree. Any military strategy to deal with ISIL in Syria as well as in Iraq has to be embedded in a wider campaign to win the struggle against ISIL, politically and diplomatically, to construct a moderate Government in Syria who have the support of all sections of Syrian society and to show how that will lead to greater security in the Sunni areas in particular in northern Syria once ISIL is defeated in its heartland.

What impact is our non-involvement in airstrikes over Syria having on our reputation among international partners?

Non-action—the decision to do nothing —has consequences, and, as my hon. Friend implies, has had severe consequences not simply for the reputation of this country among its allies but in Syria itself, where we have seen a vicious civil war with hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced as a result of a decision by the west not to get involved and begin to put a stop to it two years ago.

It seems strange that we give high-level British forces training to those fighting ISIL but we do not give them any of our equipment, so they end up fighting with Russian or other weapons. Will we look at changing that, so that they get body armour, medical supplies and, perhaps, more hardware?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that as well as providing excellent training, we are gifting non-lethal equipment.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to say that we can eradicate Daesh through negotiation alone is at best a dishonest diversion, and that if we want to tackle this issue we need to use all the force at our disposal?

I agree, and that is reflected in the United Nations resolution. ISIL made no demands of those whom it went to slaughter in Paris the week before last. This is not an organisation with which we can possibly negotiate or employ diplomacy; it has to be defeated using all means at our disposal, including military means.

Having seen at first hand the brilliant veterans breakfast clubs which were first established in Hull and run by Dereck J. Hardman and Peter Barker, what more can the Government do to support those initiatives started by veterans themselves?

Having been to several such events myself, I have to agree with the hon. Lady that they are an excellent scheme, and something on which I hope to make progress over the coming months.