House of Commons
Monday 18 January 2016
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Defence and National Security (EU)
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Additional Reservists (Recruitment)
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?
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the steel sector. It is with regret that I find myself having to update the House on further job losses. This morning, Tata Steel announced plans to make over 1,000 redundancies across its UK strip business as part of its continuing restructuring plans. The proposals involve 750 job losses at Port Talbot, 200 redundancies in support functions at Llanwern, and 100 redundancies at steel mills in Trostre, Corby and Hartlepool. This will be a difficult time for all the workers and their families, and our thoughts must be with them. Our immediate focus will be on helping any workers who lose their jobs back into employment as quickly as possible. We will also continue to support the steel industry.
Given the United Kingdom’s devolution settlement, much of the support that can be offered in south Wales, both to the workers and to Tata Steel, will come from the Welsh Government, but the UK Government want to ensure that Port Talbot has a commercial and sustainable future. It is encouraging that the Welsh Government are to launch a taskforce this week—I believe that it is to meet for the first time on Wednesday—to support those affected by today’s announcement. We have offered our support to the chair of the taskforce, Edwina Hart, and we will continue to work with the Welsh Government. I welcome the commitment that the First Minister made today to work closely with the UK Government. I am confident that the Welsh Government will accede to our request to play a full part in the taskforce. I can assure hon. Members that we are also working closely with the Secretary of State for Wales—he is there today, which is why he is not in the House.
It is important to remember that the fundamental problem facing our steel industry is the fall in world prices, caused by the over-production and under-consumption of steel. We know, for example, that the price of slab has almost halved over the past 12 months, and that Tata has been losing £1 million a day as a result of the slump in prices. All that the industry has asked for—this includes the unions—is a level playing field, and that is what we are achieving. The Government have been working closely with Tata to do all we can to ensure a sustainable future for Tata Steel in the United Kingdom, both at Port Talbot and at Scunthorpe. We have offered our assistance to Tata as it seeks to find a buyer for its long products division. It is encouraging that it has announced that Greybull Capital is its preferred bidder. We remain in close contact with Tata as its commercial negotiations continue. The Government stand ready to play our part to help secure Scunthorpe’s long-term future.
Returning to today’s announcement, the same offer is there for Port Talbot. Tata is currently working with consultants to develop a plan to address the near-term competitiveness of its business at Port Talbot. We and the Welsh Government are in regular dialogue with Tata. This dialogue includes my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, as well as my officials and, of course, me. While the future of Port Talbot must be commercially led, we will help where we can within the parameters of state aid rules. I want to make it absolutely clear that, in the words of the Prime Minister, we are unequivocal in saying that steel is a vital industry. This Government are determined that steel is produced not just at Scunthorpe but at Port Talbot, and that it has a sustainable future.
As I say, we are creating the level playing field that the industry has asked of us. It set out five asks when we had our steel summit back at the end of last year. On dealing with lower energy costs, in December we secured state aid approval to pay further compensation to energy-intensive industries, including steel, to include renewables policy costs. We have already paid about £60 million to the steel industry to help to mitigate the costs of existing energy policies. The new state approval will enable us now to extend the scope of compensation. It will go live tomorrow, enabling steel and other energy-intensive industries to apply. That will save the steel industry about £100 million over the financial year—roughly 30% of its energy bills—but we are going to go even further and exempt EIIs from most of these costs. Our support for these industries will save them hundreds of millions of pounds over the next five years.
The sector asked for flexibility over EU emissions regulations, and that is exactly what we have secured. Derogations for Port Talbot have already been agreed by Natural Resources Wales. The Environment Agency has accepted Tata Steel’s proposals for derogations for improving emissions from Scunthorpe, subject to a current public consultation. Once approved, this will give it a further six years to improve emission levels from the coke ovens. Both of Tata Steel’s major power plants have been included in the UK transitional plan that the UK has submitted to the European Union. This gives it until June 2020—a further four years—to meet the emission requirements. These actions will save the industry millions of pounds.
We have further updated and published, specifically and properly, new guidance about procurement, of which mention was made during Defence questions. We are the first country in the European Union to take advantage of and implement these new flexibilities, so social impact, job impact and staff safety can now be taken into account. In short, there is no excuse not to, and every reason to, buy British steel. Having just met the Aluminium Federation, I want to make it clear and put it on the record that those procurement rules include aluminium.
I have heard it said that the Government have blocked the reform of trade defence investigation, but they have not. I can assure the House that the Government have been acting decisively to safeguard the United Kingdom’s steel interests in Europe. In July last year, and again in November, we voted in favour of anti-dumping measures on certain steel imports. The United Kingdom lobbied successfully in support of industry calls for an investigation into imports of reinforcing steel bar. I hope that we will have an announcement soon on the result of those actions under the excellent leadership of the Business Secretary. The European Commission has taken this forward swiftly, including responding quickly to industry requests to register imports. The United Kingdom secured an extraordinary meeting of the EU’s Competitiveness Council and agreed faster action. Next month I will return to follow that up at a stakeholder conference where I will push for further progress.
The review of business rates in England will conclude this year. Of course, the Welsh Government, because this is devolved, have responsibility for business rates in Port Talbot and other parts of Tata’s workings in Wales.
We have seen today that the steel industry remains subject to unprecedented global pressures. While the immediate causes of these are beyond the Government’s control, I can assure the House that we continue to do all we can to help this industry, and we will stand by all the workers who face redundancy in south Wales and other parts of the United Kingdom.
It is welcome that the Government have come to this House to make a statement on steel rather than having to be dragged here, as they have been on so many other occasions, by urgent questions tabled by the Opposition. It is disappointing, given the seriousness of the issue, that the Secretary of State has not seen fit to make the statement himself, but I welcome the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise to her place.
I welcome the Minister’s intention to work closely with the Welsh Government to mitigate the effects of the job losses on local communities. I especially welcome the co-operation on business rates, but I note that the Government have taken no action on business rates in England.
Tata’s announcement of 1,050 job losses across Port Talbot, Llanwern, Trostre, Corby and Hartlepool is devastating news for all the workers, their families and the close-knit communities affected. Our hearts go out to them. This latest bombshell comes on top of job losses at Tata’s Newport plant last year, along with thousands of job losses across the sector in the UK, including the complete closure at Redcar.
At this time of crisis for the UK steel industry, all we seem to get from this Government is warm words but very little concrete action. In the three months since the Government convened the emergency steel summit last year, only one of the five asks raised with them has actually been delivered. Who would think that steel is the foundation of many of the UK’s most important manufacturing sectors, including aerospace, defence, automotive and construction? The existential threats facing it show no sign of abating, and yet the Government have been asleep at the wheel. They have not been tough enough with the Chinese or active enough with the European Union. They have made no concessions on the business rate system, which actively penalises those who invest in expensive infrastructure to improve productivity, and there is no sign that their technical change to procurement rules is making any difference in the award of Government contracts to help our domestic industry.
When are we going to get effective action from this Government and not just warm words? Countries such as China are engaging in ruthlessly uncompetitive practices that are destroying our steel industry. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that directly with President Xi when we met him in October, and we have raised it with the Chinese at subsequent meetings.
The slow response in the EU to the tsunami of cheap Chinese steel, which is snuffing out our industrial base, is a disgrace. I made that point in no uncertain terms at a high-level meeting with representatives of the Commission in Brussels last week. They need to take action now and this Government should be leading the charge to reform EU trade defence instruments, but they are actually resisting reform to speed them up.
This country desperately needs an industrial strategy so that our steel industry can survive and thrive. The Chancellor once declared that Britain would be
“carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
But five years on there is a yawning gap between his rhetoric and the grim reality. Manufacturing exports have slumped and manufacturing output is still below its level of seven years ago. Whether on the deficit, debt, exports or manufacturing, the Chancellor has failed every test he set himself. Despite the fanfare and flurry of Government press releases, there is no substantive industrial strategy in sight. Is that any wonder when we have a Business Secretary who will not even let the phrase “industrial strategy” cross his lips? Because the Government will not do it, Labour will create an advisory board of experts from business, industry and the trade unions to lead work on the development of an industrial strategy for the UK.
What size of steel industry does the Minister regard as sustainable in the UK? When will the Government stop cosying up to China and confront its role in dumping cheap steel on UK markets? Will the Minister assure this House that the question of market economy status for China will not be resolved until it stops dumping cheap steel in the UK?
Why are the Government blocking the modernisation of EU trade defence instruments, which would deal with unfair trade before, not after, the damage is done to our domestic producers? Although there was welcome progress on the UK’s state aid application on the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs, can the Minister confirm that until approval for its second application is received, it leaves some companies in the steel and other sectors without access to much needed compensation and still exposed to some 70% of climate change policy costs? When will there be any progress on business rates, which penalise new investment to increase productivity? When, in short, are the Government finally going to turn their warm words into real and urgent action to save our steel industry?
I am sorry the hon. Lady did not listen to what I said. While we are dealing with facts—actually, she was not dealing with facts—I remind the House that 68,000 people worked in the British steel industry in 1998; by 2010, that number had fallen to 33,000; and by 2014, it had risen to 35,000. It ill behoves Opposition Members, therefore, to lecture the Government about supporting the steel industry, which, I would contend, we have done more to support in the past few months than the last lot did in 13 years. It does not help anybody to make cheap political points—[Laughter.] It is so tempting, given the palpable nonsense coming from Labour.
The steel industry, including the unions, made five asks of us: energy costs—delivered; industrial emissions—delivered; procurement—delivered; dumping—delivered. [Hon. Members: “What?”] In July, for the first time, we voted to protect our steel industry. Such was the surprise of others sitting round the table that the EU officials went back to the UK delegation to check they had heard correctly, because never before had we voted to protect our steel industry. We did it again in November, and we have supported rebar, so we have delivered on that.
I confess—because I like to be honest with the House—that only on business rates have we not delivered. The review continues, and I hope, when it is finished, the Chancellor can say he will help all those who invest in plant and machinery so they are not penalised with higher business rates, which does seem rather perverse. Those arguments and discussions continue. I suggest, however, that we have done a good job in protecting our steel industry, and will continue to do so. We are not a party that has a problem and just sets up a committee; we are a Government who deliver and meet the demands and asks.
If I may, I will quickly deal with the allegation that we have been cosying up to China. Not at all: the Prime Minister was very frank with President Xi when he came over, and made our position clear. The EU will make the decision on market economy status. Yes, there is a good argument for our wanting China to have it, but we have also made it clear that if a country wants to be part of the game, it has to play by the rules. That seems a sensible approach.
People in Corby were concerned to hear the news about job losses this morning. My thoughts are with my constituents, and I will do everything I can to help all those affected. One question they have relates to Chinese dumping. What steps are Ministers taking to apply pressure on the EU to take the strongest possible line with the Chinese and to expedite these dumping investigations?
As I said, in July, and then again in November, we took that action for the first time. The Secretary of State went over to Brussels, and, as a result of his holding an emergency meeting, put pressure on the EU. We have already seen a big change in how China operates when it comes to dumping—it is not just from China, I should say; several other countries do it. China has taken action on rebar in a way not seen before, as a direct result of this Government’s work to protect our steel industry.
I thank the Minister for her statement and for giving me early sight of it. May I say how terribly sad these redundancies are, following on from the announcements last year, including the mothballing of Dalzell and Clydebridge? For our part, our solidarity and thoughts are with all those who face an uncertain future, wherever they are.
I welcome what the Minister said on derogations and procurement. I reiterate the fact that we have an exceptionally difficult trading environment for steel production, which is partly driven by the 645 million tonnes of excess supply this year. However, Chinese steel exports alone are likely to exceed 100 million tonnes this year. In that context, the governmental talks with the European Commission are vital. Will the Minister press for fast-tracking the investigation into Chinese steel exports?
At home, all Governments must support the workers and communities affected by all the announcements. In Scotland, the primary focus is on finding a viable future for Dalzell and Clydebridge, for which I understand there are serious interested parties. Will the UK Government be as positive and as forthcoming as possible, within the rules that apply, in support of any viable buyers for any of the plants?
May I briefly ask the Minister two specific questions? She said a number of things on energy costs that I welcome, but will her Department keep that under very close review to make sure that, should that be insufficient and additional help can be provided, such help is given at the earliest possible opportunity?
Secondly—this mirrors the shadow Secretary of State’s final point—the steel industry is vital, but it has suffered from the absence over decades of an industrial strategy. We discussed that in a debate last week. Will the Minister bring forward, or have her Government bring forward, a credible, coherent industrial and export strategy centred on steel at the earliest opportunity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It has absolutely been a pleasure to work with Fergus Ewing—I think that is the correct way to refer to him—with whom I have had such discussions. I of course fully back all efforts to sell Dalzell and Clydebridge, and I very much hope that a buyer can be found. Any support that the UK Government can give will be given.
The hon. Gentleman made good points about energy costs, but as he will know, the state aid rules are really strict when it comes to any support we give the steel industry. He talked about the future, but I would say this. One of the things we have done as a Government—this has never been done before—is to look at all the huge infrastructure projects that we are rightly putting together, at huge cost to the taxpayer. That includes HS2, for example. We have assessed the steel needs of all those projects, and we have given that assessment to the steel industry, so we are already doing that sort of work. We are looking not just at the next five, 10 or 15 years, but right the way down the track, if I may use that expression, at the sort of work the Government are doing to invest in our infrastructure, and we have put our steel requirements to the industry.
I know that this may sound a little emotional, but it is our absolute intention and we are absolutely determined that the steel used in HS2 will be made in this country. That is not just at Scunthorpe; we also want to ensure that there are blast furnaces in south Wales. That is our determination, and we are working towards it.
The Minister is right that the Government need to ensure that every penny of public money spent, directly or indirectly, on steel procurement should be spent on British steel. Is she now saying she has secured such changes in European law and rules that she can actually specify that all railway and construction steel paid for by Britain will be British? That is what I want.
I am amazed that my right hon. Friend, who I thought was a real free enterprise chap, takes such a view. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is a gentle chide. We are two good friends who agree on many things.
The most important point is that we have changed the procurement rules. We are the first ever country in the EU to take advantage of doing so. There is now absolutely no excuse for any Government contract not to include buying British steel and, indeed, other metals such as aluminium.
I assure the Minister that the people of my constituency are listening carefully to what is being said today. I also assure her that there is palpable anger and frustration among my constituents. The claimed action on energy has still not been implemented. The claimed action on procurement amounts to so-called open advertising, while Hinkley Point has no British steel. The Government use the EU as an excuse for delay, while being China’s chief cheerleader in Europe.
Is it not clear to the Minister that urgent action to sustain a steel industry in Britain is of the highest national priority? No more excuses, dodges or delays. Will the Government confirm here and now that they will not support market economy status for China? Will the Government immediately establish a strong, long-term steel strategy with Tata and the unions? If they do that, there is a future; if they do not, there will be a wasteland.
Of course, this is all about all those men and women who work at Tata at Port Talbot and their families. Our thoughts are with them today. I pay tribute to some of the work that the hon. Gentleman has done. I met the leader of Port Talbot port and I hope that we can continue that discussion, because there is much that can be done.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that it would really help if we all worked together on this, because we all agree. I am not going to say what he said about China and market economy status at all. There is a good argument that it should have that status. [Interruption.] Yes, there is a good argument, but as I say, China has to show us that if it is in the game, it plays by the rules. It will be for the EU to look at all the evidence before it makes its decision on that.
Chinese steel manufacturers are offering added-value services such as steel polishing and finishing free of charge, making the UK steel industry and our businesses less competitive. Will my right hon. Friend outline what steps the Government are taking to support UK businesses in offering those added-value services?
The job losses that have been announced today are a huge blow to communities across south Wales. Workers in Llanwern in my constituency are directly affected, as are the workers who were seconded to Port Talbot when the hot strip mill in Newport was mothballed last year. We are thinking of those workers today. Steelworkers have made huge sacrifices over the years and have done everything they can to help the company during these particularly tough times. Can the Government say, with hand on heart, that they have done the same? Despite what the Minister has said today, the industry and the unions say that the action has been far too slow.
I am in danger of repeating all the things that I have said about what we have done. Where I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady is that we must not forget Llanwern and the huge impact that this news will have. As she rightly says, it follows the mothballing last summer. I pay a huge tribute to all those who work in our steel industry. They are highly skilled, highly prized workers. I know that for many reasons, but I am always reminded of my visit to Redcar and of the whole workforce that worked at SSI. These are highly skilled people.
The final thing to say is that there is no debate about the fact that a large number of steelworkers have made considerable sacrifices. When I went to Scunthorpe, I met a group of workers who were represented beautifully and brilliantly by their excellent trade union leaders. It was striking that these men—the majority are men, so forgive me; it is striking that these men and women had taken pay cuts and made the ultimate sacrifices. This is a very sad day and that is not lost on us, but we are determined that steel will continue to be produced in south Wales and in Scunthorpe.
As one who was brought up in Sheffield, I ask the Minister whether she accepts that the deadly combination of EU energy law, EU subsidy law and EU dumping law means that, although the Government may want to achieve a solution to this problem, ultimately they cannot do so without leaving the European Union.
Here is a surprise: I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis, or his conclusions. When the Secretary of State went over to Brussels and led the charge, I found in the conversations that I had with my equivalent Ministers throughout the EU that we had all come together. I think that by working together, we can assure the future of the steel industry not just in our country, but throughout the European Union.
It is strange that Redcar did not meet the criteria for exceptional growth funds, but I am pleased the Minister has indicated that they will be used to assist the Greybull Capital interest in long products. The Foreign Secretary stood at that Dispatch Box and said that the Government will judge market economy status through “the prism of steel”. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no drawing back from that position?
I always try to be honest and helpful to the hon. Gentleman. I did not hear that comment from the Foreign Secretary, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will take it up with him. As he knows, we are working hard to secure the future of the blast furnaces at Scunthorpe, and we are determined that British steel will continue to be made in this country and that it has a sustainable future.
Today’s announcement will be a bitter blow to all communities affected, not least Port Talbot where relations between the unions and the Tata management have been excellent. My right hon. Friend mentioned that the Government will be participating in the taskforce that is to be assembled to address this issue. Can she confirm that the Department for Work and Pensions will be heavily involved so as to ensure, if at all possible, that those affected by redundancy will be redeployed?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend and his analysis of the effects of these events throughout south Wales. It is not just the workers who face redundancy, because we know that this will have a huge impact on the local economy right the way through the supply chains. I assure him that we will work with the DWP in these circumstances, and it will send in almost emergency teams to start work now, before any compulsory redundancies are made. That work will be, and is being, done.
The Minister owned up to the failure to implement reform of business rates as part of the toxic package that the steel industry is confronting. Will she examine that issue and provide assurances that in advance of next year’s business rates proposals, the Government will consider putting in place a special package to give some relief to this beleaguered industry?
I did not say that we had failed—we have a review going on and it has not come to any conclusion. The hon. Gentleman must remember that in Wales business rates are devolved, and it is up to the Welsh Government whether they want, or can, do anything to assist Tata. Of course we will do everything that we can to support our steel industry, but always within the unfortunate confines of the state aid rules.
With all due respect, I do not think that the Minister answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—she just said that she disagreed with him. It seems to me clear that if we were not in the European Union, we could have acted differently and more quickly. Will she at least agree with that?
Port Talbot and Trostre are situated within an EU tier 1 assisted area. What consideration has the UK Government made of a holiday for employer national insurance contributions to help Tata reduce its employment costs?
Following the collapse of the Caparo group towards the end of last year across the west midlands and other parts of the country, the administrator PWC has been able to salvage a considerable amount of the business and secure local jobs, including in my constituency in Cradley Heath. Notwithstanding the action that the Minister has taken on steel, does she agree that serious questions need to be answered about the financial management of the Caparo group that led to its collapse in the first place?
The people of Redcar and Teesside are still dealing with the repercussions of the tragedy of the loss of our steel-making facilities and our 175-year history of steel making. They will send their solidarity and their thoughts to the people of Port Talbot, Llanwern and other areas that have lost their jobs in the past few days.
The Minister has again refused today to acknowledge the impact that market economy status for China will have—it will destroy the future of British steel making because, in a sense, it will facilitate Chinese dumping. She says she has sorted that and ticked the box, but that is not the case. I urge her to think again about market economy status for China.
I listen to the hon. Lady’s arguments and it is always good to have that debate with her. I am not saying, “It’s all sorted on dumping,”—[Hon. Members: “Yes, you did!”] Well, we have ticked the box in terms of getting on and doing something about it, but no doubt the steel industry will raise more concerns. The industry raises its concerns with the EU but, for the first time—this is rich coming from the Opposition—we have voted in favour of taking that action, not just once but twice; and now we have rebar, so we are making good progress.
Does my hon. Friend agree that UK companies that want to export their products need to source the cheapest steel they can if they are to be competitive in the world market, and that, realistically, the UK steel sector will always struggle in the long term if foreign competitors can produce steel cheaper than we can?
It is many years since the steelworks in my constituency closed. Some would say that the local economy has never fully recovered. My constituents therefore understand well the fear and worry that will exist in the community in south Wales and elsewhere in the country after the news today. Will the Minister be clear with the House on exactly where the Government stand on the question of market economy status for China and how it relates to anti-dumping rules?
The Prime Minister has spoken about the fact that we think it could be good for China to have market economy status, but the decision will be made by the European Union. We take the view—I am repeating myself, but this is important—that, for China to get that status, it must show that it will play by the rules and provide the evidence that it is playing by the rules.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the quality of British steel, but the quality of some imports leaves much to be desired. What work is being done on steel quality standards so that British steel can flourish both domestically and in export markets?
A number of companies—I am thinking, for example, of Celsa, a Cardiff-based company that I met—are keen to make the point about whether or not imports are of the same quality. Yes, we have looked at the standards. Sadly, we have not always made progress, because an independent body makes those decisions. It is not the job of the Government—unfortunately, we have no influence over it—but my hon. Friend makes an important point. It is one we advance all the time.
Job losses at Port Talbot and Trostre are devastating for the people and communities in south-west Wales. Many of my constituents in Neath who work at Port Talbot and Trostre will suffer. I endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and ask again what urgent action the Government will take to help, apart from offering warm words.
I am not going to go through all the things we have done again, but I assure the hon. Lady that we will work with the Welsh Government. We have asked to be part of their taskforce and I very much hope that they will have the UK Government as part of it—it is very important.
I thank the Minister for all the work and support she is providing to all of us affected in Scunthorpe—it is really appreciated—and for her commitment to support the sale of the site to Greybull, which I and other local MPs will meet later this week. On the specific issue of support to those who have been affected by job losses thus far, £9 million has already come our way. One question that has come up at our local taskforce is: how much of that money can be used, and how flexibly, to support new jobs as well as current ones? If we make a representation to her on that, can she assure us of maximum flexibility so that the money can be used to create new jobs as well as supporting existing ones?
The short answer is yes—that will please you, Mr Speaker—but, as the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) knows, when I find out about any difficulties I do not mess about in getting them sorted. We do not want any nonsenses. My hon. Friend knows my door is always open, so we can sort things out.
The Minister has spoken about the state aid rules, yet the Italian Government have perfectly permissibly provided assistance to their steel industry on the basis that it constitutes environmental protection. My father worked in Llanwern steelworks for nearly 40 years and I know at first hand the sacrifices that so many steelworker families made over many years. Do they not deserve a Government who are willing to do so much more than this one?
I pay tribute to all those, including the grandfather of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and, I think, my own great grandfather, who have worked in steelworks. None of these things matter. The important thing is to make this absolutely clear. We know the great value of all steelworkers. The hon. Gentleman asked me a question that I have now completely forgotten. [Hon. Members: “Italy.”] Italy—another huge myth. The Italian Government are in the process of selling their steel industry. We will see if there are any buyers.
I pay tribute to the Minister, as I am aware of the enormous personal effort she has put in to mitigate the impact of job losses. Will she reassure the House that the Government’s investment in retraining and reskilling workers will end up in the pockets of those workers, not of consultants or accountants?
Yes, absolutely. We know that in the past that has not always been the case. My hon. Friend and I come from coalfield areas, where there was always concern about whether taxpayers’ money in Government schemes was properly spent. I am hopeful—in fact, I am sure—that the money we made available for workers at Thoresby colliery will be properly spent. If it is not, I want to know about it and we will sort it out.
They wanted that as part of their devolution settlement, of course. There is a good argument that if one gets what one asks for, one has to take the consequences. At the moment, however, no such request has been made. If a request is made, whatever it may be, we will always listen.
When I walked through the Crossrail tunnels with the Transport Committee, the bosses stressed the high level of British procurement as part of the project. Does the Minister agree that we can win hearts and minds on the HS2 project, which is worth billions and billions of pounds, by putting British steel at its heart?
My constituency is next door to Aberavon. Many of my workforce travel into Aberavon on the A48 to work and have done so for many years. There is a real risk that the critical mass of the steelworks in Port Talbot will be endangered by the job losses. May we have an assurance from the Minister that there will at least be interim relief in business rates? That is the big issue that will make or break the viability of the works and the jobs there.
That is a good argument, but not one to put at my door. This matter is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, because, as the hon. Lady knows, it is devolved. There is other work we could do: we have been discussing with Tata for a long time whether the land is being best used, and there is a lot of work we can do with the port to make it much more viable. We can look at other ways to ensure we make full use of the port by Port Talbot.
Today is a sad day for the south Wales steel industry, particularly in Port Talbot. Many of its steelworkers live in my constituency. Over the weekend, there has been quite a lot of rhetoric from the First Minister of Wales about the responsibility for recovery lying at Westminster. There are many economic levers in Cardiff Bay that could be used, in particular business rates, which have just been mentioned. Does the Minister agree that the First Minister would be better off employing his time by ensuring that those levers are used, rather than by engaging in tribal politics?
The Minister just said that there is no excuse not to buy and every reason to buy British steel, so what discussions has she had with her colleagues in the MOD about procuring British steel for defence contracts? In particular, has she discussed the future of Sheffield Forgemasters, which is vital if we are to procure a new generation of nuclear submarines?
In an earlier answer, my right hon. Friend talked about playing by the rules and added that there was no reason why we could not use British steel. As I understand it, however, EU law means that my right hon. Friend cannot guarantee that. Is that not correct?
I do not think it is as simple as “cannot guarantee it”. We live in a free market economy. That means that anybody must be free to buy from whomsoever they feel will give them the best deal. My point is that when it comes to this Government’s own procurement rules and what can be done with taxpayers’ money, we have made those rules such as to provide no excuse for anybody not to buy British steel—and because it is so good, there is every reason why they should.
Although the measures announced by the Government are welcome, they are very limited. Does the Minister not accept that unless we tackle the issue of Chinese dumping, the whole future of the whole UK industry is at threat, and that the clock is ticking—we do not have much time left?
That is important, but it does not provide the answer. The price of steel has plummeted not just because of worldwide over-production, but because consumption of steel has not even reached where it was before the crisis. It is not as simple as merely dealing with Chinese dumping.
The Minister talks tough on procurement. Why, then, under the terms of the contract struck between this Government and EDF, are UK companies capable of producing the large forgings for the Hinkley Point reactor not being given the opportunity even to tender for the work? What independent evaluation has her Department undertaken of EDF’s assertion that there are no UK companies with the relevant experience?
As I say, the procurement rules apply not just to steel but to other metals. In fact, I think they apply to almost everything. I will need to go back and check all the way through that, but aluminium provides a very good example. Let us be absolutely clear: I am very proud of this Government’s and the last Government’s record. The fact that more than 2 million more people are in work—unfortunately, it is lost to most Labour Members—provides a proud record for this country.
The Minister provided details of the updated procurement guidance and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) pointed out, said that there was no excuse not to buy and every reason to buy British steel. Of course, the ability for the industry to do so is constrained by the fact that its range of capabilities has been lost and limited to a great degree over the last few decades. In other words, British steel does not make the range of components and specialised range of steel products that it did years ago. What, then, are the Government going to do to support the industry, as we propose with Forgemasters, to secure investment and develop a new range of capabilities? We will not see high UK content in our infrastructure projects until that issue is addressed.
The hon. Lady may have made a good point, but I think that what is most important is that, in the face of an unprecedented crisis affecting the whole steel industry throughout the world, the Government are absolutely determined to secure—and have already started working to secure—the long-term sustainability of the ability to produce steel, both in Scunthorpe and in south Wales. Members can chunter on about what other European Union countries are doing, but we have examined the evidence, and there is a lot of mythology. This country has taken the action that is needed, and is saying clearly to Tata and Greybull, “We will help you to secure this deal in any way we can”, and to Tata at Port Talbot, “We will do everything we can to support you in your determination to continue to produce steel in south Wales.”