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Topical Questions

Volume 606: debated on Monday 29 February 2016

Our priorities are our operations against Daesh, which I reviewed earlier this month with some 40 of my international counterparts, and delivering our defence review commitments to increase the size and power of our armed forces to keep this country safe.

In the light of Russian aggression, the threat of Daesh and growing cyber-attacks, can my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence in every year of this Parliament? Does not the failure of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to match this commitment show that Labour is a risk to our security?

Order. Resume your seat, Secretary of State. I appreciate the earnestness and commitment of the hon. Lady, but questions must be about Government policy, for which Ministers are responsible—

Order. Be quiet, Mr Bridgen! Ministers are responsible for Government policy, not that of the Opposition. On the Government’s policy, the Secretary of State will comment; on that of the Opposition, he will not.

Let me confirm that this Government are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence every year in this Parliament. The defence budget will rise by 0.5% above inflation every year of this decade and additional funding will be made available to the armed forces and intelligence agencies through the joint security fund. We have the largest defence budget in the European Union and the second largest in NATO, and this investment keeps us safe.

Alcohol misuse and dependency continue to create serious health risks, including those that can lead to loss of life, in the armed forces, where its use is three times higher than in the civilian population. It is now a year since the Defence Select Committee highlighted the fact that the Government’s alcohol strategy for the armed forces had made no noticeable difference. What steps is the Secretary of State now taking to set targets to manage alcohol consumption patterns and to address this serious issue?

The Army is taking steps to address this problem, particularly under the new Army leadership code. If I may, I will write to the hon. Lady with further details.

T5. Can the Minister confirm that the last Government looked at all the alternatives to our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, and that none offered the protection that we need? Does he agree with the two former Labour Defence Secretaries who have said that it is “self-evident that a British nuclear deterrent will be essential to our security for decades to come”? (903799)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that in 2013 the Trident alternatives review concluded that no alternative system was as stable, capable or cost-effective as the current Trident-based deterrent. There is no alternative. The part-time deterrents and half-baked measures currently being suggested by some Labour Members could be ruthlessly exploited by our adversaries and would present a real danger to the safety and security of the United Kingdom.

T2. What role does the Secretary of State see the Russian bombing of targets and civilians in Syria playing in driving the refugee crisis to the shores of Europe? (903796)

Russia’s failure to halt airstrikes on the civilian population seemed designed to push that population towards the Turkish border and to make it Europe’s problem. That is why it is enormously important now that the ceasefire holds and that Russia returns to a more constructive path of working with us to get this terrible civil war ended.

T9. Given the rapid growth in the volume and sophistication of cyber-attacks, a number of which are thwarted by GCHQ in my constituency, what steps are being taken to ensure that our rising defence budget actually translates into enhanced sovereign capability in cyber? (903804)

I pay tribute to all my hon. Friend’s constituents who work to protect our country against cyber-attacks, which are indeed growing. We have increased spending in this area to £2.5 billion, and as 80% of cyber-attacks are preventable by some extremely simple, straightforward good practice, a lot of that investment will be going to protect British businesses and private individuals in that respect.

T3. The strategic defence and security review supposedly included £12 billion of additional expenditure on equipment, but with £16 billion extra allocated for nuclear submarines, massive cuts have been made elsewhere to support that. A written answer referred me to the defence equipment plan, but it has insufficient detail on the changes, so will the Minister commit to providing further clarity on the changes within the 2015 SDSR? (903797)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in the equipment plan, which is a bit of a specialist subject. We will be publishing the next annual iteration of the equipment plan, just as we have done for each of the past three years, and it will demonstrate that there will be an additional £12 billion committed to spending on military equipment over the next 10 years. That will take it up to £178 billion, but he will have to be a bit more patient before he sees how that is allocated.

In December 2014, the Secretary of State told this House that the legal aid wrongly claimed by Leigh Day and co—because of inadequate disclosure—should be reimbursed. Is it still his view that it will be reimbursed in full? Given the timescales that have passed so far, when does he think the money will be received?

We are awaiting the Legal Aid Agency’s response to our request to revoke the legal aid award on the grounds that it would not have been made in the first place had the agency been made aware of all relevant documentation in that case. We are still waiting on that judgment, but we believe it is imminent.

Not content with comparing himself to our country’s wartime leader—the greatest ever Briton and saviour of the free world—this weekend the Mayor of London compared his opposition to the EU to James Bond taking on a sinister supranational organisation. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether, in all his dealings with the intelligence and security services, and with the special forces, such a similarity has ever occurred to him?

I do not think it would be wise, and it certainly would not be proper, to discuss any conversations I have had with the intelligence and security communities.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Ministry of Defence has had to spend £100 million on legal claims? Will this Government make sure that we spend money on our troops, and on giving them the best support and equipment, rather than on filling the wallets of unscrupulous lawyers?

My hon. Friend raises a good point: the money we are having to spend on dealing with malicious allegations against our armed forces would be better spent on equipment and training for them. I can assure him that commercial legal spending in the Department is down a third on last year’s. I think he was making reference to the amount spent on Iraqi historic allegations, and we are doing what we can to ensure that this works more effectively and efficiently. I have had some good conversations with the Attorney General’s office about this and he will be visiting the team shortly.

T4. Given the increasing double-counting of defence expenditure towards both the official development assistance and the NATO targets, through mechanisms such as the conflict, security and stability fund, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about the redefinition of ODA at the OECD level?


It is for the OECD to classify overseas development aid spending, and it is for NATO to classify what is acceptable as defence spending, which it will do after each member state submits its return.

Given the importance of our nuclear deterrent to our national security, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what representations he has had from the Labour party in support of this Government’s clear policy in this important area?

I have so far received some rather conflicting representations on the future of our nuclear deterrent. Like many Members across this House, there are mainstream Members of the Labour party who support—as every previous Government have done— the renewal of the nuclear deterrent that has helped to keep this country safe. There are some other Labour Members who seem to think that we can turn our nuclear submarines into water taxis.

T6. Germany and Sweden have stopped selling weapons to Saudi Arabia as a result of concerns over Saudi actions in Yemen. Will the Government do likewise and impose a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia? (903800)

All our defence exports to the King of Saudi Arabia or to any other country go through the same rigorous export control system that we have in place. We are proud of that system as it is more rigorous than that of any other country, and that will continue to be the case while this Government are in post.

I recently visited the Royal Marines on Arctic warfare training in northern Norway with my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth). Will my hon. Friend join me in applauding 1 Assault Group Royal Marines and 45 Commando, which are known as some of the most elite commando forces in the world, and explain how the strategic defence and security review will support the Royal Marines?

My hon. Friend is very brave to have joined the Royal Marines in the Arctic. I pay tribute to her and her colleagues for doing so. The SDSR is committed to maintaining amphibious capability. We will be making modifications to one of the two Queen Elizabeth carriers to ensure that that persists for the life of that platform.

T7. Under this Prime Minister, the number of RAF police personnel has dropped 340, from 1,480 to 1,140. Royal Military Police numbers have dropped 80, from 1,700 to 1,620, and Royal Navy Police numbers have dropped 40, from 340 to 300. Does the Secretary of State think that those cuts are acceptable? (903801)

The tasks that we allocate our personnel are there for operational reasons. That is how we allocate not only the liability of each of our services, but the trades that sit within them.

Along with many of my colleagues, I also went away during the recess. I had the pleasure of visiting the Falkland Islands. People there expressed concern about leaving the EU from an economic point of view, but will my right hon. Friend confirm, from a national security point of view, that a Conservative Government will always defend the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and reject calls from the Leader of the Opposition for a power-sharing deal?

As I said earlier, it was a pleasure to be the first Defence Secretary to visit the islands for more than a decade and to meet many of the 1,200 service personnel who are based there and to confirm our investment programme of £180 million over the next 10 years. Unlike the situation with the Labour party, nobody can be in any doubt about our commitment to the right of the islanders to determine their own future, and not to have it bargained away by a possible Labour Government reaching some accommodation with Argentina.

My constituent, Chris Hartley, was wounded while serving with our armed forces in Sierra Leone in 2000 when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded next to him, resulting in the loss of his right leg above the knee. He is unable to get funding or NHS support for a life-changing operation that would allow him to work and to restore some of the pride that he had before his injury. Will the Minister convene a meeting with a colleague from the Department of Health and me to explore what can be done to help my constituent who gave so much in the service to this country?

Is it not the case that, if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, France and Germany are more likely to dominate Europe’s defence structures, which means that, in the medium term, over the horizon, we are more likely to see European defence structures compete with, rather than complement, NATO?

My hon. Friend has made his views in this great debate very clear. As I said to the House earlier, NATO is the cornerstone of our security and the European Union complements that, with a number of other levers and weapons at its disposal—humanitarian, diplomatic and economic. There is no doubt in my mind that the fracturing of either the alliance or the Union would not aid the collective security of the west.

Since the parliamentary vote on Syria at the beginning of December, there have been 319 RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq and 43 RAF airstrikes against Daesh in Syria. As we are meant to be targeting the head of the snake, why have there been seven and a half times more airstrikes in Iraq?

There were more airstrikes in Iraq than in Syria in December and January because we were engaged in assisting the Iraqi forces in liberating Ramadi, which was where most of the military action was, and assisting the Kurdish forces in the liberation of Sinjar, further north. As I discussed with my fellow Ministers in Brussels, it is also important to continue to attack the infrastructure that supports Daesh, including the oil wellheads from which it derives its revenue, and some of our strikes have been on those oilfields in eastern Syria.