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Topical Questions

Volume 602: debated on Monday 23 November 2015

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.