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Topical Questions

Volume 604: debated on Monday 18 January 2016

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.