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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 604: debated on Monday 18 January 2016

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence and National Security (EU)

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of UK withdrawal from the EU on defence and national security. (903050)

This Government believe we can and will succeed in reforming and renegotiating our relationship with the European Union. The cornerstone of our security, however, is NATO, while the EU plays a significant role in complementing NATO—for example, in imposing sanctions on Russia. Defence remains a sovereign issue.

The Prime Minister recently told us that he was

“in no doubt that for Britain the European question is not just a matter of economic security, but of national security too”.

Was he right or wrong?

The Prime Minister was quite right that our relationship with our European partners plays a very important role in defence.

Will my hon. Friend remind the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) how many times, in the 10 years since its inception, that the EU battle groups have actually been deployed?

The EU battle groups have not yet been deployed. The EU does have five significant common security and defence policy missions at the moment, complementing areas where NATO has chosen not to become involved.

Will the Minister comment on the impact of UK withdrawal from the EU on the Anglo-French military relationship? He will be aware that many joint programmes are under way. Are they likely to be affected if the EU pulled out of the EU?

The Minister will have seen in the press at the weekend that yet another veteran is struggling to access the care that she deserves. On top of the King’s College report last week, does he agree that now is the time for the Government, after having put so much in, to undertake a radical reform and address the care required in the veterans sector?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern in this area. He may wish to put a question on that to the excellent Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who has responsibility for veterans, shortly.

Well, he cannot do so now. The operative word is “shortly”, but how shortly remains to be seen. That is not in the mind of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), nor at the moment in mine.

Will the Minister advise the House what impact a Brit exit, if there is one this year or next, would have on our armed services personnel currently in operations with the European Union overseas?

The Minister is quite right to remind the House that the cornerstone of our national security is our membership of NATO. Does he agree that if the British people vote to leave the European Union, as I hope they do, there is absolutely nothing to stop this country working with our European neighbours and co-operating on defence matters, should they choose to do so?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We all agree—in fact, both sides of the House used to agree—that the cornerstone of our defence is a nuclear-armed NATO. He is of course right in saying that, in any scenario, we will continue to co-operate with the other members of the EU, the majority of whom belong to NATO anyway.

I am glad to hear the Minister give his support to what the Prime Minister said about European co-operation. On that note, will he describe a single way in which less co-operation with our EU partners is going to increase our national security?

Nobody is suggesting less co-operation on defence matters with our European partners or anyone else.

It is all very well for the Minister to say that, but the Typhoon Eurofighter project is just one example of how working together with our European partners creates thousands of jobs, boosts exports and secures crucial sovereign capability. Will the Minister, who is supposed to be a member of a Government that are looking to boost the UK defence industry, give us an example of a single UK defence industry manufacturer that boosts the UK leaving the European Union at the moment?

The Typhoon, which the hon. Gentleman gives as an example of collaboration, was a collaboration between NATO countries. I am not sure that I fully followed the remainder of his question. It was something about defence manufacturers. Let us be clear: NATO, and not the EU, is the central plank of our defence policy.

Military Assistance (Ukraine)

Our military training in Ukraine will continue throughout the year and we have plans to increase our footprint. I can announce today that we plan to gift a further 3,500 individual first aid kits to Ukraine’s armed forces. Our gift responds to a specific request from Ukraine and will be delivered in the spring.

Of course, when Ukraine gained independence, it voluntarily gave up the option of keeping nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. Aggression by Russia and destabilisation have been its sole reward. Following the NATO summit in Wales, British troops have been deployed in a training role in Ukraine. Will the Minister update us on the success in improving the training of the Ukrainian armed forces to make sure that they have a fair fight against Russian-backed aggression?

My hon. Friend is right to point out how our commitment to the continuous at-sea deterrence helps us to have influence. I assure him that we are on target for the training of 2,000 Ukrainian troops by the end of this financial year.

I am sure that the first aid kits are very welcome in Ukraine, but if we are serious about supporting Ukraine, which is under such pressure from the pernicious regime of President Putin in Russia, surely we should be doing much more visible work for it. For instance, we could tighten the sanctions on Russia. That is what it does not like and what has proven to be successful. We should tighten the sanctions week by week, month by month.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is what we are doing. We have argued for sanctions through our work with NATO. We are doing much more than supplying first aid kits. We are doing a huge amount of capacity building in those armed forces. We have given them a huge amount of equipment, particularly to protect them from the cold weather in which they are operating. They are very grateful for that. We stand ready to assist them further and I will be visiting the country shortly.

Ukraine has been on the frontline of the expansionist agenda of Putin’s Russia, but it is not alone in that in eastern Europe. What assistance is the United Kingdom giving through NATO and the European Union to a number of countries, particularly the Baltic states, to combat the expansionism they face from Russia?

We do a huge amount of operational and practical work, such as on Baltic air policing. We have also been very active through our diplomatic channels, through both NATO and the EU, to hold Russia’s feet to the fire on these issues. Progress is being made. There has been recent progress, with fewer violations of the ceasefire. We will continue to act both practically and diplomatically.

Daesh

I hope you will allow me, Mr Speaker, to formally welcome the new shadow Secretary of State and her team, and to regret the removal of their mainstream moderate predecessors, the hon. Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for North Durham (Mr Jones).

In recent weeks, Kurdish forces have recaptured Sinjar and the Iraqi army is clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. In Syria, anti-Daesh forces have captured the Tishreen dam east of Raqqa. Air strikes, including by the UK, have inflicted significant damage on Daesh’s illicit oil industry, reducing its revenues by about 10%.

I am sure that the whole House will welcome what the Secretary of State said about the progress that has been made so far. Will he outline for the House whether any other measures are necessary to ensure that all members of the coalition intensify their efforts against Daesh?

On Wednesday I will meet my counterparts from Australia, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United States to review the overall direction of the counter-Daesh campaign. We have made good headway in Iraq and Syria in recent weeks, but it is now time to discuss how to maximise the coalition effort and exploit the opportunities that arise from the setbacks that Daesh has suffered.

A major contributor to Daesh activities and capabilities on the ground is the foreign funding that it receives. Will the Secretary of State outline what measures the UK is taking to curb the foreign funding that Islamist groups such as Daesh receive? In particular, what pressure is he putting on Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

That issue is one of the keys to Daesh’s survival, and it is important that we maximise our efforts to cut off its sources of revenue, including internal sources, such as its access to oil revenues and the taxes that it imposes inside Syria and Mosul, and external sources, such as the flows that the hon. Lady has described. We will discuss that issue in a wider meeting later on with all members of the coalition, including the countries that she mentioned.

The Secretary of State will be aware of suggestions that part of the way to constrain Daesh is to use back-door diplomacy. Does he agree with Canon Andrew White of Baghdad, who said in an interview:

“You can’t negotiate with them. I have never said that about another group of people. These are really so different, so extreme, so radical, so evil”?

Does that put into context the suggestion from the Leader of the Opposition?

Like my hon. Friend, I was surprised to hear the suggestion that somehow one could negotiate with Daesh, or even that Daesh has some “strong points”. The House will recall that those strong points include the beheading of opponents, burning prisoners alive, throwing gays off buildings, enslaving young women, murdering innocent British tourists in Tunisia, and slaughtering young people on a night out in Paris. I fail to see any particular attraction.

For the benefit of the Secretary of State, I do not think that Daesh has any strong points, but I would argue with the Prime Minister’s central argument about there being 70,000 so-called freedom fighters ready to take on Daesh on the ground in Syria. On Tuesday at the Liaison Committee the Prime Minister still could not defend that figure. Can the Secretary of State do so today?

Yes I can because it is not my figure or that of the Prime Minister: it is an assessment produced by the Joint Intelligence Committee, independently of Ministers. I say gently that if the right hon. Gentleman does not think that there are that many freedom fighters in Syria, how does he think that the civil war has lasted for five years, given that the Syrian army is more than 200,000 strong? People have been fighting the Assad regime.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a significant assault by ground forces, preferably local troops, is the only way to deal with Daesh in the longer term?

Yes. In the end, Daesh will only be prised out of cities such as Mosul in Iraq or Raqqa in Syria by local forces. We have already seen some success in the recovery of Baiji and Ramadi in Iraq, and I hope eventually we will see such success in other cities along the Tigris and the Euphrates. In the fullness of time I hope we will see similar action in Raqqa, but that does not mean that we should not now be getting on with a full deployment of airstrikes to deal with the infrastructure that supports Daesh.

I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her place and wish her well in her new post. I know that we are in agreement on important areas of defence, and I look forward to working constructively with her and her team over the coming years.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister, who told the Liaison Committee last week that in the case of civilian casualties,

“if people make allegations we must look at them”?

We do an assessment after every British strike of the damage that has been caused, and check very carefully whether there are likely to have been casualties. Of course, that is taken into account in planning and approving the strike in the first place. It so happens that, in the first year and a bit of operations, we are not aware of any civilian casualties so far in our strikes in Iraq or more recently in Syria, but they are military operations—we do everything possible to reduce the risk of civilian casualties, but it is not possible to eliminate it entirely.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but can he therefore confirm that the Ministry of Defence will accept evidence of civilian deaths from other sources outwith UK military personnel and local friendly forces? Will he assure the House that the evidence from highly credible organisations such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Airwars and the White Helmets—groups that work on the ground and that are very often the first people on the scene—will be considered when calculating civilian deaths in future?

Let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we will look at any evidence brought forward in open source reporting by other organisations in the assessment we make of each of the strikes in which our aircraft are involved. I have replied directly to one of the organisations he mentions—Airwars—pointing out that there is no particular evidence to back up the assessment it made in that particular case.

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update on the military and non-military support that is now being provided to opposition fighters in Syria?

Along with other countries, we have been supplying non-lethal equipment to those fighters and we played a part in the initial training programme that was organised by the United States, and we remain ready to do so. In addition, we are working with those groups on a route to a political settlement in the talks that are now under way under the so-called Vienna process.

I thank the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) for their generous welcome to this job. The Secretary of State has the honour of having perhaps the best job in Westminster. Mine is the second best. Hopefully we will change roles fairly soon. He can be assured that difficult questions will be asked and that we hope to work with the Government where we can for the sake of the security of people in Britain.

Senior military personnel have repeatedly warned that the RAF has been at full stretch, and that was even before the air strikes on Daesh began in Syria. A squadron of F-35s has only just been ordered, but will not come into service for several years. In the meantime, the air campaign against Daesh will be dependent on 40-year-old aircraft. Can the Secretary of State tell us how long he believes the air campaign can safely be maintained? What would happen if a new threat emerged? Would the RAF have capacity for any operations further than those to which the Government have already committed?

I thank the hon. Lady for her initial remarks. I note her ambition to move from the Opposition side of the House to the Government side, which was presumably shared by the two previous shadow Defence Secretaries that I have so far come across. Let me just say to her gently that a defence policy of nuclear submarines with no nuclear weapons, that regards Daesh as having “strong points”, and that wants to end the Falkland islanders’ right to self-determination, may be Labour’s defence policy, but it will never be Britain’s defence policy.

In respect of the hon. Lady’s question, the RAF is deploying a range of aircraft on Operation Shader in the middle east, including modern Typhoons and unmanned aircraft alongside the Tornados to which she referred. I can confirm that the RAF is well able to sustain that effort.

Successor Submarines

5. What assessment he has made of the effect on UK security and the economy of building four Successor ballistic missile submarines for the nuclear deterrent; and if he will make a statement. (903053)

The nuclear deterrent is the cornerstone of the UK’s defence security policy. Maintaining continuous at-sea deterrence requires four ballistic nuclear submarines. The UK’s defence nuclear enterprise is gearing up to deliver the Successor replacement to the Vanguard class submarines. It will not only keep Britain safe but support over 30,000 jobs across the UK in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It makes a significant contribution to the UK economy.

Thirty thousand jobs! I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Notwithstanding proposals for nuclear missile boats or submarines without nuclear missiles, does he not accept that there are something like 17,000 nuclear warheads around the world, with some possibly threatening us? What is my hon. Friend’s assessment of the likely risk to national security should we not proceed with the four missile submarines?

My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the importance of the deterrent to our national security. We have seen—I think he was referring to comments made in the past 24 hours—the most extraordinary contortion emerging from the champagne socialist salons of Islington. The idea of spending tens of billions of pounds to build but not arm a strategic deterrent betrays the new kind of politics from the Labour leadership: a lurch back to the discredited unilateralism of the 1970s and a breathtaking lack of understanding about how to keep this country safe, with consequent threats both to national security and to tens of thousands of jobs across the UK.

Does the Minister agree that the issue is about not just the number of jobs involved in the Successor programme, but the high-skill nature of those jobs? Despite ill-informed comments from my own party at the weekend with regard to those jobs, does he also agree that we cannot simply turn them on and off like a tap when we need them?

I would like to add my tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s stalwart work, both on the Government Benches when he was a Defence Minister and on the Opposition Benches when he was a shadow Minister; it is a sorry state of affairs to see him sitting right at the back of the Back Benches today.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, quite right to point out that this is a long-term endeavour: to design and build a nuclear-enabled submarine takes decades. This is a 35-year project from initial conception to commissioning. Those skills not only take a long time to develop; they cannot be switched on and off. They are at the very forefront of engineering capability in this country. Building a nuclear submarine is more difficult than sending a man to the moon.

19. In the light of the astonishing comments made yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition on having a submarine-based nuclear deterrent without actually have any deterrent involved, does my hon. Friend agree that in an increasingly uncertain world it is crucial to continue the decades-long consensus held on our nuclear deterrent? (903068)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the considered way in which he made the point that this House is here to deliver national security to the United Kingdom as a whole. It is in all our interests to share a common objective to maintain, at the cornerstone of our defence, a continuous at-sea deterrence posture. We very much hope that, when it comes to a vote, colleagues from across the House will be able to recognise the consensus on this issue.

The replacement of the nuclear deterrent is, of course, a sovereign decision of the United Kingdom and its Parliament. However, deciding not to proceed would have repercussions across NATO. Will the Minister tell us what he feels the repercussions would be for NATO, and for Britain’s standing in NATO, should we decide not to go to maingate?

Our deterrent is a NATO asset, so the NATO alliance depends in part on our ability to make that asset available should the need arise. Our NATO allies are taking a very intense interest in the deliberations of this House and the hon. Lady is right to highlight that.

Does the Minister agree that all NATO countries are part of the NATO nuclear alliance, which is based on the three members who are in possession of weapons; and that to spend all the money on a nuclear deterrent, but not actually have one at the end, would be the worst option of all?

I have already indicated that I think it is completely farcical to spend tens of billions of pounds on a weapon that can never be used and therefore can never fulfil its deterrent objective. I completely agree with my hon. Friend.

I think this gets to the heart of the confusion that lies at the centre of Scottish nationalist party policy. The deterrent has been in use every single day—and night—for the last 53 years.

Flooding

6. What support the armed forces provided for the response to recent flooding (a) in Lancashire and (b) elsewhere. (903054)

Approximately 1,700 soldiers were mobilised to support the flood response efforts in Lancashire, Cumbria and Yorkshire. Additional support was provided by an RAF Chinook helicopter, a Royal Navy search-and-rescue Sea King helicopter and the use for temporary accommodation of Victoria barracks in Scotland. This was a tri-service response and included both regular and reserve forces. I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the tremendous effort of our armed forces and for the support they provided, especially over Christmas and the new year.

I associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments about giving support to our armed forces, who provided a fantastic response to the Boxing day floods in Lancashire. Will she explain what further steps are being taken to ensure that the armed forces are held at a heightened state of readiness in case we see a return of the floods later this winter?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about our armed forces, which afford me an opportunity to thank the public, too, for the great efforts they made to express their gratitude—largely in calorific form, I understand—to all of our armed forces. I assure my hon. Friend that we remain engaged with other Government Departments and with our network of regional liaison teams with local authorities, which is something we do permanently. The UK stand-by battalion remains at high readiness and we are able to provide further support very quickly if the need arises.

I witnessed for myself the crucial role that the services played during the floods over the Christmas period. Without their intervention, the situation would have been far more serious. The British Army and the rest of the forces were seen yet again at their best, despite being overstretched. In the light of the fact that the Army has been cut by 20,000 personnel in the last five years, that there is a 10.6% shortfall in the number of reservists, and that the civilian staff will be cut by 30% before the next election, will the Government explain how they can ensure being able to provide a comprehensive response to future national emergencies, let alone international crises?

I must correct the hon. Lady. It is not true that we have a shortfall in reservists; we are actually ahead of target in recruiting them. Close to 9,000 individuals have stepped forward in the last year alone, so we have a very strong pipeline in recruiting. We can give assurances to the British public up and down the country when such terrible events happen because we have taken the decision to invest in defence—in our kit and in our people—and keep our armed forces strong. That is how to reassure people. As we saw over the Christmas period, we were able to generate enormous numbers of people when the need arose in short order. They did a terrific job, and I think any suggestion to the contrary fails to take account of the facts.

May I start by thanking you, Mr Speaker? The feedback from the Beckfoot school students who attended the session you ran last week in my constituency has been universally positive, and I am most grateful to you for that.

I ask the Minister to pass on my sincere thanks and those of my constituents to the armed forces for their magnificent support for my constituents during the recent flooding. They came over Christmas at very short notice to help out on a whole range of tasks. They were a lifeline to many of my constituents, and we would all like to place on the record our sincere thanks for everything they did for so many people at that difficult time.

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. They will have been heard by those who went to his constituency, but I will also pass them on.

Soft Power

The strategic defence and security review made defence engagement a funded, core MOD task. We are building our capacity to address global security concerns at source by influencing partner countries. This includes strengthening the defence attaché network and developing a professional defence engagement career stream, to attract the very best. Furthermore, each Army adaptable brigade is now aligned to a specific region for training and influence purposes.

Will the Minister make a comment about increasing our security in the Baltic region in relation to soft power?

In the context of soft power, may I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), the Chair of the Defence Committee? My right hon. Friend cannot be here this afternoon because he is attending a memorial service for Lieutenant Commander David Balme, the hero who boarded U-110 during the war and got the code books and the Enigma machine out. They were then sent to Bletchley Park, which interests me because my parents met at Bletchley at that time. Lieutenant Commander Balme was a hero who probably shortened the war, and I hope that the Minister will pay tribute to him.

We are very conscious of the importance of the Baltics. Most of the ministerial team, including the Secretary of State and me, have been to visit them. My hon. Friend will be well aware of the air patrols and everything that we have done there, and of our programme of exercises.

As for Lieutenant Commander Balme, Churchill once famously said that the only campaign that kept him continuously awake at night was the convoy campaign in the western Atlantic. Without Bletchley Park, we would almost certainly have lost it.

As chair of the all-party group on the British Council, I am well aware of the importance of soft power. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only through a continuing investment in both hard and soft power that we can continue to play a leading role in protecting the world order on which our security and prosperity very much depend?

My hon. Friend is quite right. We are sending training missions which are doing vital upstream work in a large number of countries, helping to deliver the environment that is needed to prevent future wars and conflicts.

Human rights advisers do play a role. Specifically, the armed forces now contain a number of advisers who specialise in giving advice on gender matters, such as protecting women in conflict. One or two of them have put themselves very much in harm’s way by giving advice in dangerous theatres.

Since taking office in 2010, the Prime Minister has overseen the granting of more than £5.6 billion-worth of military licences to Saudi Arabia. Does that mean that he is exercising soft power or hard power?

We have one of the strictest regimes in the world for controlling exports. I would say that exporting to a key ally at a dangerous time in the middle east was smart power.

Additional Reservists (Recruitment)

9. What progress his Department has made towards meeting its targets for recruiting additional reservists. (903058)

Our programme to grow the reserve forces remains on track, and has reversed many years of decline. Central to that is an improved offer, including better training, equipment and remuneration, and an improved experience for reservists. A total of 8,640 people joined the volunteer reserve in the 12 months to 1 December, a 46% increase on the number who joined during the equivalent period a year ago. Trained strength has risen to 26,560, well ahead of target.

In fact, the Government are still nearly 8,000 short of their target number of trained reservists, and the shockingly poor recruitment figures have started to improve only since the Government raised the age limits, allowing some recruits to join until they are in their mid-50s. The Major Projects Authority has judged the plans “unachievable”. Do the Government now accept that the Army has been cut too far and too fast?

I do not accept that. The Major Projects Authority report to which the hon. Lady referred is more than a year old, and the figure that she identified as the target—35,000 trained reservists—must be reached by April 2019. We are moving fast in that direction.

23. Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book, does my hon. Friend consider that one way to recruit additional reserves —and, indeed, other members of the armed forces—would be to create a help to build scheme, so that service families find it easier to obtain a piece of land and build a house? (903072)

24. As the Government are still short of their target on trained reserves, does the Minister acknowledge the concerns raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who has warned that these cuts are leading to severe capability gaps in our armed forces? (903073)

We had to take some painful decisions when we took over in 2010 as part of the coalition Government, because the country was spending £4 for every £3 coming in. After the reshaping, we have now moved to a position where, despite there still being some tough decisions to take, this country has committed to spending 2% on defence and to a large expansion of its equipment programme.

My hon. Friend will recall his visit in June last year to a newly established reserve unit at D Company 4 Para at Edward Street in Rugby. Is he as pleased as I am to note that that unit is already beyond its section strength? In the past six months, 12 new reservists have started in Rugby alone. Does this not show that the offer to reservists is attractive?

Yes, it does. It was a huge privilege to be there for what was actually the re-inauguration of reserve paratroopers in Rugby, and, even more so, to have the opportunity to meet an Arnhem veteran there.

17. What impact have the changes to allowances and pay had on the reserves—and more importantly, on the regular forces? (903066)

The largest changes in pay have actually been to reservists, where we have introduced holiday pay for the first time. We have also introduced a pension for the first time; it was previously only available to those who mobilised. I think it is fair to say that the changes in the regular pay arrangements, which are basically a simplification, have also gone down well.

May I thank the Minister for the recruiting we are allowed to do in Northern Ireland? Just under 7% of the reserve forces are from Northern Ireland, which represents 3% of the population. Might the Minister look at recruiting more from Northern Ireland, so we can carry on being the backbone of the armed services?

Northern Ireland has always been an excellent recruiting ground for both regulars and reservists, and I am conscious also of the fact that, beyond the statistics, as the hon. Gentleman mentions, a higher proportion of people from Northern Ireland have been mobilised than from any other part of the UK.

Nuclear Deterrent

10. What recent representations he has received against replacing the independent nuclear deterrent. (903059)

My Department regularly receives representations covering a wide range of views on defence matters, including the replacement of the independent nuclear deterrent.

North Korea recently announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb and only yesterday boasted that it had the capacity to obliterate the United States. To what extent does my right hon. Friend think North Korea would be deterred in its nuclear ambition by the knowledge that somewhere below the surface of the East China sea an unarmed submarine was lurking?

First, let me strongly condemn the nuclear tests conducted by North Korea, which seriously threaten regional and international security. I can assure my right hon. Friend that this Government will not gamble with the long-term security of our citizens. We remain committed to maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent. The only thing a nuclear submarine without nuclear weapons is likely to deter is anybody who cares about our security from ever voting Labour again.

If the UK were to go down the route of decommissioning its warheads, in the so-called Japanese style, and then were to decide it needed to recommission them at some future point, is it the Government’s assessment that it could do so and remain compatible with the non-proliferation treaty?

First, let me make it clear that Japan does not have nuclear-powered submarines and does not have nuclear weapons, so talk of some Japanese option is entirely farcical. So far as the hon. Gentleman’s question is concerned, we have no intention of decommissioning.

Nigerian Armed Forces (Training)

11. What plans he has to increase training support to the Nigerian armed forces to help to tackle Boko Haram. (903060)

We are fully committed to supporting Nigeria in its efforts to defeat Boko Haram. During his visit in December, the Secretary of State committed to a major increase in UK support to the Nigerian armed forces with the intent of more than doubling the number of British personnel deploying on training tasks in the coming year.

The strategic ties between the United Kingdom and Nigeria are of the first importance to our country. Will the Minister provide more details of the UK troop deployments she envisages over the next 12 months to assist Nigeria in combating terrorism?

We expect up to 300 military personnel to provide assistance over the forthcoming year, including 30 RAF personnel who have been deployed this month to deliver force protection and training to the Nigerian air force, and more than 35 personnel from the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment who will deploy later this month to train Nigerian personnel specifically to combat Boko Haram.

The Minister will be aware that Boko Haram operates not only in Nigeria but across the borders in the region. We have also seen Daesh and al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations coming down from the north. Given the horrific events in Burkina Faso over the weekend, will she tell us what support is being given to that country by the UK armed forces and what steps are being taken to co-ordinate action against Islamist violence across the region?

A huge effort is going on, not just from the UK but from our partners. We are doing a range of things, as well as maintaining bilateral relationships to build the capacity of those countries’ own armed forces. We provide a huge amount of training, particularly on the issue of winning peace and security, as well as providing practical support. We keep all this under review, but a huge amount of work is being done.

Homeless Veterans

13. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of using empty Ministry of Defence properties to house homeless veterans. (903062)

Ministry of Defence housing supports serving members of the armed forces and their families. A margin of unoccupied properties is retained, but housing that is no longer needed is released. We provide significant support to facilitate the transition to civilian life, and we have allocated £40 million from LIBOR fines to support projects providing veterans with accommodation, including £8.5 million for Mike Jackson House.

Colchester is a garrison town, and we currently have a number of MOD properties standing vacant. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how some of those properties could be used for temporary accommodation for military veterans?

Approximately 10% of our service family accommodation is unoccupied, but we keep it at that level to ensure that we can cater for trickle postings and for people returning from overseas. I am not convinced that the use of service accommodation is a sustainable way of supporting veterans. However, there are a number of excellent projects around the country and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss how we might pursue them in Colchester.

20. Can the Minister advise the House on the Government’s support strategy for homeless veterans with comorbid substance use or mental health problems? What more can be done? (903069)

We continue to provide support for veterans, particularly with their mental health. We have invested an awful lot of money in recent years, but we accept that the job is certainly not done. There has been a rise in mental health problems, both in society and in the armed forces, and this is something that we keep under constant review and are determined to tackle.

Of course it will be difficult for the Minister to respond to a question on supporting veterans, given that 30% of the MOD’S estate has been sold off. We are also concerned by the Government’s intention to lay off 30% of the MOD’S civilian workforce, which could include significant job losses at Defence Equipment and Support. At the same time, spending on buying in outside expertise has rocketed to some 30% of the DE&S budget. Does the Minister accept that further lay-offs will not only drive up extortionate consultancy costs but exacerbate the skills shortage that the Public Accounts Committee has identified as a key reason for the increases in the cost of military equipment overall?

No, I do not accept that, and I make absolutely no apology for continuing, as a result of our strategic defence and security review, to optimise our defence output.

F-35 Programme

14. What discussions he has had with his US counterpart on the cost, operational capacity and reliability of the F-35 programme. (903063)

I had a successful bilateral meeting with Bob Work, the US Deputy Secretary of Defence, only last Friday, at which the F-35 programme came up. Aircraft costs are in line with estimates, operational capability is expanding and fleet reliability is improving as more aircraft come on stream and into the programme, and logistic support increases. The aircraft remains on schedule to meet our initial operating capability in December 2018.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he reassure the House that he will not bring the current fleet of Tornado aircraft out of service until the F-35 has proven its operational reliability after several years of active service?

The outstanding air-to-ground capability of our Tornado squadrons is being steadily migrated on to the Typhoon platform initially. In November’s SDSR, we secured considerable investment in the RAF combat jet fleets, including the extension of our Tornado squadrons’ out-of-service date to 2018-19, an increase in our Typhoon fleet by two squadrons, and the extension of the Typhoon out-of-service date to 2040. In addition, we reaffirmed our commitment to acquiring a total of 138 F-35s during the life of the programme and buying more aircraft earlier, so that we have 24 F-35 Lightning IIs by 2023.

Topical Questions

My priorities are our operations against Daesh, which I will be reviewing with my counterparts later this week, and the implementation of the SDSR decisions, in order to increase the size and power of our armed forces to keep Britain safe.

I thank the Minister for his answer. With growing threats to our national security, I welcome this Government’s commitment to defence spending. What impact will the SDSR have on the future size and power of our armed forces? He may recall that I serve as patron to the Military Preparation College, which has a base in my constituency, and so I have a keen interest in the next generation of servicemen and women.

I recall both that and my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency shortly before her election to this place. The commitment to increase the defence budget every year gives our armed forces certainty and stability. We are maintaining the size of the Army, and we are increasing the size of the Royal Navy, the RAF and the reserves. We will have more ships, more planes, more helicopters, more troops at readiness and better-equipped special forces to protect our people, to project our influence across the world and to promote our prosperity.

In the past few days, reports of the difficulties faced by veterans suffering from Gulf war syndrome have reminded us how important it is that we recognise the extraordinary sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform. We must ensure that our service people are not only properly rewarded while they are serving, but looked after properly when they leave. What sort of message does the Minister think it sends that the Government have chosen to freeze war pensions at a time when the basic state pension is to be protected by a triple lock and is set to rise by 2.9% this year?

The Government actually have a very good record on supporting veterans. Unlike what happened under the previous Government, in recent years we have seen major investment in mental health, veterans’ accommodation and veterans’ hearing. We have seen multimillion-pound investments in supporting our veterans—that was never done under the previous Government.

T2. I am sure the Minister will know that this year we are proud to mark the centenary of the Porton Down defence laboratory in my constituency. May I invite him to commend the work of Jonathan Lyle and his team, and to speculate on the challenges they may face in the next 100 years? (903040)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House that this year we do celebrate 100 years of the outstanding research effort at Porton Down, which was first established in response to the threat from chemical weapons during the first world war. Last week, I reported to the House that we have just decided to make the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory an Executive agency, and I am looking forward to visiting next month, when I hope he will be able to join me to thank all the folk who do such a fantastic job there.

T6. The Brimstone missiles currently being dropped in Syria are estimated to cost in the region of £150,000 each. Given such a massive financial commitment, will the Minister assure the House that the costs of this campaign are being monitored and that a similar financial contribution will be made towards rebuilding Syria? (903045)

The hon. Lady is right to identify the fact that precision munitions are costly, but I can reassure her that we are keeping a very close watch on stockpiles and ensuring that we have sufficient missiles in stock to meet our requirements. As the Prime Minister said in this House during the Syria debate, it is absolutely the Government’s intent to press for a rebuilding programme for Syria when this terrible civil war comes to an end.

T3. Cadet units across the country are keen to engage in target rifle shooting, and yet the rules surrounding transportation of rifles and ammunition make such participation all but impossible for schools and cadet units. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives of the National Rifle Association to discuss how we can get around those very difficult rules in a practical and safe manner? (903042)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the National Rifle Association. I should say though that, although handling youngsters on a rifle range is very skilled business, we cannot find any evidence from any of the four service organisations that there is a particularly acute shortage in that regard, although some individual cases have been brought to my attention. None the less I would be delighted to have the meeting that he suggests.

Commando Joe’s works in more than 500 schools across the country, placing veterans in classrooms to share skills and experiences with young people. Despite robust evidence of the success of its work, its Government funding is due to end in March this year, placing the organisation in jeopardy. Will the Secretary of State take representations on that and look at what can be done to allow this hugely important work to continue?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that matter and to see whether we can pursue it.

T4. Does the Secretary of State agree that any moves to weaken our commitment to an independent nuclear deterrent or to our leading role in NATO will make us less safe? (903043)

Absolutely. Our independent nuclear deterrent is the ultimate guarantee of our, and indeed of NATO’s, security, and a necessary insurance in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain world. Our conventional and nuclear capabilities, underwritten by our commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, support our leading role in NATO, which remains at the heart of our defence. This Government will not put our security at risk.

T7. The armed forces are facing serious personnel shortages in some of the most crucial specialist trades, including nuclear engineers and flight technicians. Given that a great deal of the expertise is in the Ministry of Defence’s civilian workforce, which the Government plan to cut by 30%, will the Minister explain how the Government plan to ensure that operational capabilities are protected when those cuts go ahead? (903046)

For particular pinch points in particular trades, there are ongoing programmes to ensure not only that we retain people, but that we recruit. We train up people, offer apprenticeships and allow people to move in from the private sector. Those principles are well established. We will also introduce into our armed forces more flexible working patterns to allow more of that to happen and to allow people to move from regular forces to reserve forces and into civilian contracts and then back into the armed forces. That is very much our direction of travel. For each trade, there is a particular plan, and that is going very well. In fact, this month we have started recruiting apprentices into nuclear engineering, with 35 starting this month.

T5. Will the Secretary of State explain what steps the Ministry of Defence is taking to release surplus land for housing? Will he also explain what progress the MOD has made in selling or renting the fire control centre at Waterbeach? (903044)

As part of the Government’s prosperity agenda, the MOD is committed to releasing land for 55,000 housing units in this Parliament. I am delighted to announce that the first 12 sites will contribute some £500 million of land receipts, which will be reinvested into defence, and will provide more than 15,000 potential housing units. I will place a full list of sites in the Library of the House, and I have written to the MPs concerned. I expect to be in a position before the end of this year to provide further details, including a full list of sites affected. With regard to my hon. and learned Friend’s own constituency, I can confirm that the whole of the Waterbeach site has now been transferred to our civilian delivery partner.

Does the Secretary of State have any moral concerns about the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, given its shocking record on human rights and the fact that Amnesty International and others have documented a clear risk of UK arms being used to breach international humanitarian law?

The United Kingdom has some of the strictest arms export criteria in the world, and where any of our arms are exported we are obviously concerned that their use should be in full compliance with international humanitarian law. That is something I discuss regularly with my counterpart, the deputy crown prince, the Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia, and my other colleagues.

T8. Can my right hon. Friend set out what support his Department is offering to soldiers and veterans who are still subject to legal claims purporting to relate to incidents that took place during the Iraq war? (903048)

We take very seriously our duty to provide support for people who may be facing proceedings arising from their past service. We pay for independent legal advice in all such cases. I am extremely concerned at the number of claims now being brought on an industrial scale and we are considering steps to stem that flow, with options including restricting legal aid, limiting the time in which claims can be brought, and limiting the territorial application of the rights of those claimants.

I am convinced that Trident has a crucial role to play in the defence of our country, but the economic aspects are important as well and there is a huge group of workers throughout the country waiting with some anxiety to see whether or not Parliament is prepared to give final approval for the Successor programme. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will not allow any unnecessary delay to get in the way of the need to bring the maingate proposals to the Floor of the House for debate and decision?

I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. It takes more than 10 years to build one of those nuclear ballistic submarines and we need to get on and replace the existing Vanguard boats, which will become obsolescent towards the end of the 2020s. In the strategic defence review at the end of November we set out our commitment to replace all four boats, and I hope it will not be too long before Parliament is asked to endorse that commitment.

Despite his obvious differences with Russia over Crimea and Ukraine, will the Secretary of State give me an assurance that he will redouble efforts to engage with his Russian counterpart on fighting collaboratively against Daesh in Syria?

I am not currently engaged in any discussions with my Russian counterpart. The illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Russia’s continuing support to separatists in eastern Ukraine do not allow a return to normal engagement. However, in the interests of air and maritime safety, I have authorised MOD officials to undertake limited military-to-military engagement with the Russians to ensure that our own airspace is properly protected.

Dalzell plate mill, Clydebridge quenching mill, the heavy sections at Scunthorpe and also Sheffield Forgemasters—the Secretary of State rightly said that the Government’s position is to maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, but will it be using British steel?

The hon. Gentleman will be interested in the statement relating to Government measures in connection with British steel that will immediately follow this Question Time. Clearly, we are keen to ensure that British manufacturers have an opportunity to compete for defence contracts with significant steel components, and that will continue to be the case.

Last Thursday I had the great pleasure of accompanying my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement when he visited the UK Defence Solutions Centre at Farnborough in my constituency. May I salute this innovation by my hon. Friend? The centre is doing fantastic work in assessing Britain’s defence needs as well as new technological opportunities, and in that context, will he give serious thought to continuing the Ministry of Defence’s support for Zephyr, the high-altitude record holder, which has fantastic surveillance capability, the technology for which my great and late friend Chris Kelleher did so much to develop?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the credit for establishing the UK Defence Solutions Centre, but I think it is only fair to the House, and indeed to my future career, if I place the credit where it is properly due: at the feet of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in his former role. I enjoyed our visit to UKDSC last week. It is doing a great job in placing UK innovation at the heart of the defence industrial supply chain globally. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noted that the strategic defence and security review referred to investing in a unique British capability for advanced high-altitude surveillance, which I know will be of interest to him.

How much do the Government currently estimate the replacement nuclear deterrent weapons system will cost, including the boats themselves, the missiles and the ongoing lifetime maintenance costs?

As we made crystal clear in the SDSR, we have recalculated the cost of manufacturing the four boats, which we now estimate will be £31 billion, and we have added a £10 billion contingency. We have no intention at this point of replacing the warheads; the decision on that will be taken later. Therefore, I urge the hon. Gentleman to focus on the £31 billion commitment for the submarines, plus the £10 billion contingency, as the cost that is relevant today.