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House of Commons Hansard
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18 April 2016
Volume 608

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trident

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2. What discussions he has had with the Leader of the House on the timetable for a vote in the House on replacement of the Trident missile submarines. [904478]

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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear on 10 February, we will bring forward a debate and vote in the House at the appropriate moment, and announce it in the usual way.

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Can the Minister tell the House where Trident falls in value terms in regard to the cost-benefit ratio using the Government’s own standard appraisal mechanism? Can he confirm that an appraisal has been conducted, and will he make it available to Members in the Commons Library?

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I will of course make available what figures I can to the hon. Gentleman, but let me be clear that the overall cost of the Successor programme was set out in the strategic defence and security review that we published in November. It is £31 billion, which should be seen in the context of a deterrent that will serve us for over 30 years.

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It is an open secret that the Ministry of Defence wanted this debate to take place in the spring, so I do not blame the Secretary of State for the fact that it has not happened. However, he is on record as saying that people are worried about the wavering position of the Labour Opposition on this matter. Would it not assist us to restore bipartisanship to the issue if the debate were to be brought forward, at least to before the Labour party’s conference, or do the Government—by which I mean No. 10—prefer dissension at a Labour party conference to bipartisanship on a particularly important issue?

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Well, no. The position is that in November we announced our commitment to replacing the existing four Vanguard submarines, and we would like that principle to be endorsed by a vote in this House. I would obviously like that vote to take place as soon as possible, respecting of course the periods of purdah that will exist this spring and summer.

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Does the Secretary of State understand that, unlike some on the Opposition Benches, we will not allow any individual questions over cost—valid though they might be in and of themselves—to be used as an excuse to wriggle out of our commitment to the British people? Those who remain true to the spirit of Attlee will do the right thing for Britain.

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I am very glad to hear that. I would certainly caution the Labour party against moving away from the moderate mainstream support for a deterrent that every previous Labour Government have expressed. Indeed, I note that the advisers of the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) told journalists that her review would be fudged, as the

“last thing we want…is another reason for those who oppose Jeremy to call for him to go”.

The hon. Lady seems to be the only person who thinks that defending our country means defending the Labour leader.

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Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Trident alternatives review concluded that there was no credible or affordable alternative to a Trident-based nuclear deterrent?

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Yes. The alternatives were looked at exhaustively as part of the Trident alternatives review three years ago, and I set out the principal arguments as to why we are making this replacement in a speech to Policy Exchange on 23 March.

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Last Monday, I had the privilege of visiting Rolls-Royce in Derby, which is working on the Successor programme, and meeting members of the unions and the management. The one thing that they all want is certainty on the decision on this programme and on provision for the future. Does the Secretary of State agree that any notion that we would have an easy option to cancel the programme at some point in the future—say, at the next general election—would be disastrous not only for our defence but for the workforces in Derby and other places that are reliant on it?

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It would be disastrous for our defence and for jobs in this country. It would also be disastrous for our relationship with all our principal allies. Let me be very clear that this programme is already going ahead. We have spent nearly £4 billion, as authorised by the House, on the Successor programme. Work is under way in Barrow, in Derby and in a number of other locations across the country, including those in Scotland, and the programme is already employing several thousand people in small companies.

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The Minister for Defence Procurement wrote in November 2014:

“The security requirement to source and sustain certain capabilities within the UK—for instance nuclear submarines…means that single source procurement is and will remain a significant activity… The taxpayer is entitled to know that this money is being spent properly…That is why the Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO) has been established”.

So can the Secretary of State please tell the House how many meetings his Department has had so far with the SSRO about the Successor programme?

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I am very happy to write to the hon. Lady about the number of meetings that may or may not have taken place. Let me be clear, however, that the programme is now under way and it is time she made up her mind as to whether she will support it or will we be taking a message to our allies, including the President of the United States, who visits on Friday, that the Opposition are no longer prepared to support a deterrent that they have always supported in the past?

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I dare say that we will find out who thinks what when the vote comes.

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I asked the Secretary of State specifically about the SSRO and the Successor programme. I appreciate that he does not know the answer, so let me tell him that there have been no meetings—I have a letter here from the Ministry of Defence. The SSRO was tasked with saving at least £200 million last year through its scrutiny of MOD contracts. However, because the Secretary of State will not allow it to do its job properly, it has agreed savings of only £100,000. Why is it not being allowed to scrutinise the Successor contract? Is it because, as the Department has said:

“The government needs a safe space away from the public gaze to allow it to consider policy options… unfettered from public comment about”

their “affordability”? That is not good enough. We demand that the Secretary of State reverse the decision and open up the Successor programme to the independent scrutiny that it requires.

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The hon. Lady appears to misunderstand completely the function of the Single Source Regulations Office, which is to supervise contracts once they are signed. This particular contract is still under negotiation, and I am certainly not going to go into the details with her or, indeed, in the House until it is signed. Once it is signed, we will of course ensure that it is properly scrutinised.

Defence Attaché Network

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3. What plans he has to strengthen Britain’s defence attaché network. [904479]

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Our growing defence budget allows us to expand the defence attaché network, including new posts in Finland, Albania and Senegal, also covering the Gambia, Mali and Niger. We are also creating new deputy posts in Qatar, Afghanistan, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia. The expansion of the DA network will increase our global defensive reach and influence and will strengthen our partnerships around the world, as set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. It is critical that we continue to be vigilant about the security threat coming from Russia. Will he ensure that there are sufficient numbers of defence attachés in the Baltic states, central Europe and, in particular, Ukraine and Poland to provide the analysis and expertise required to understand fully the security and defence dynamics of the region?

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Indeed. I am sure my hon. Friend welcomed the announcement of the new DA in Finland and the new deputy posts in two of the Baltic states.

On expertise, I should stress that we are expanding not only the number of DAs, but their career path and expertise. For example, we have opened a new defence attaché and loan service centre in Shrivenham and have reviewed and enhanced their terms and conditions of service.

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I am a big supporter of our DA network, but it is also important that defence attachés are robust in their relationships with their host countries. Will the Minister tell us what representations the defence attaché in Riyadh has made regarding the allegations of civilians being targeted in Yemen following claims that a UK-made PGM 500 missile was located at one of those sites?

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The Department gets a constant stream of advice from the DA and several other sources on the matter that the hon. Gentleman ingeniously managed to work into his question.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that Army 2020 and the creation of regional forces will help to grow future defence attachés and will enable officers to follow a career path that includes a substantial element of foreign service, allowing them to get the skills necessary to be effective defence attachés?

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My hon. Friend is exactly right on that matter, as he of course knows, having previously done the international brief in the Ministry of Defence. The new approach of having brigades facing particular parts of the world means that expertise and institutional memory on particular regions will grow. Combining that with the greatly improved career prospects for DAs should in the medium term greatly enhance our representation.

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May I, through the Minister, thank the DA to Tunisia and Libya for the excellent, candid and rigorous briefing he gave the Foreign Affairs Committee on our visit about a month ago? What can the Minister tell the House about any envisaged deployment to the Libyan international assistance mission? What British contribution is being considered?

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My hon. Friend has shown ingenuity in managing to work that question in as a supplementary. As he knows very well, this matter has not yet been decided, but I am delighted that he has received such typically excellent assistance from the DA who covers Tunisia.

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The Minister does not have to sound quite so surprised, because, as we have discovered, ingenuity is not an entirely novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

Defence Spending

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4. What estimate he has made of the likely change in the level of defence spending over the course of this Parliament. [904480]

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As from this month, the Ministry of Defence’s budget has risen to more than £35 billion—that is an increase of £800 million on the year just ended. This is the first real-terms increase in six years, reflecting the priority set out by this Government in the 2015 spending review to increase defence spending by 0.5% above inflation every year to 2020-21. This Government have clearly committed this country to meeting the NATO guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence each and every year of this decade.

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I welcome this increased budget. If we were to adopt the position advocated by some and not spend 2%, what would the impact be on the morale of our troops, their equipment and our security?

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My hon. Friend is right to identify that the threats we face are growing in scale, complexity and concurrency, and a failure to meet this commitment would have a significant adverse impact on our ability to deliver the capability we need to face those threats and would send a very wrong message to our adversaries. Our commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence enables us to deliver one of the most capable armed forces in the world; to spend more than £178 billion on equipment and equipment support over the next decade; and to fund an increase in the number of regular personnel for both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and of reservists for the British Army.

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19. But the Minister cannot pull the wool over our eyes on this one, because we all know that defence spending was set to fall below 2% of GDP, but for the Government including things that had never been included in the NATO analysis before, such as war pensions and the pension contributions of MOD civilian staff. Will he now come clean? Will he have to resort to these sorts of accounting gimmicks to be able to assure NATO that in future we will maintain 2% spending? [904497]

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The hon. Gentleman, in characteristic style, is looking for smoke where there is no fire. We use the NATO definition to make the calculation of our proportion of GDP spent on defence, and it assesses the figure and then publishes it. We have done that in the past under previous Administrations and we will do it again under this one.

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18. The Government’s defence review set out a £178 billion programme of investment in equipment for our armed forces over the next decade. Will the Minister ignore calls from the other parties to cut defence spending, which would mean smaller, weaker armed forces and the loss of highly skilled jobs in the defence sector? [904496]

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I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to rehearse again our commitment to increased spending on defence and security for each and every year of this Parliament—that will be a real-terms increase. We have published our 10-year forward equipment plan, which shows the contribution that defence will be making to the prosperity of the nation—that is another objective we have taken on in the defence review for the first time. That will benefit both the security of our nation and the economy as a whole.

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Despite the claims by the Minister’s Department, the reality is that, between 2010 and 2015, the Royal Navy has had a 33% decline in carriers and amphibious ships, a 17% decline in submarines and a 17% decline in destroyers and frigates. We are a maritime nation, and yet our Navy is declining. Is it not time that we placed greater investment in our maritime capabilities?

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The hon. Lady is very experienced in these matters, and she will know that, in 2010, the then coalition Government inherited a dire financial situation across the public sector, and especially in defence, and some very difficult decisions had to be taken to reduce certain front-line elements, including our aircraft carriers. She is also fully aware that we are in the midst of the largest shipbuilding programme that this country has ever known. Early next year, we expect to see the first of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers moved out of Rosyth to take up their position with the Royal Navy.

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I proposed a private Member’s Bill last year requiring the Government to enshrine in law that we spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. May I welcome today’s announcement and hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) is wrong and that this really does represent new money? May I also take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on the important work that he has done, under the lead of the Prime Minister, in promoting defence exports, and to welcome the 24 Typhoons that have been sold to Kuwait and hope that that will contribute to the Ministry of Defence’s budget?

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I thank my hon. Friend who, in a previous role, had responsibility for promoting defence exports. I also wish to say that I have even better news for him: the announcement last week of the sale of Typhoons to Kuwait was for not for 24 aircraft, but for 28.

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What defence spending can the Minister guarantee for the steel industry given that the procurement rules allow for community benefit?

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This Government have undertaken a new set of procurement guidelines for steel, which we have implemented through the Ministry of Defence through a combination of briefings to the Defence Suppliers Forum undertaken by the Secretary of State. I have also written to the chief executives of the 15 largest contractors. We are cascading that through the supply chain to ensure that, for future defence procurement, there is every opportunity for UK steel manufacturers to bid for tenders.

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Government Members appear to be insinuating that the Labour party is advocating a reduction in defence spending, which is entirely untrue. It is perhaps unfortunate that the hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) talked about the impact that defence cuts have on the morale of our armed forces, because I have here a letter from the Secretary of State confirming that the MOD agreed to make £500 million of in-year savings after the Budget this year. The Government, of which this Minister is a part, has overseen a 17% cut in those Royal Navy warships and now, for the first time since 1982, have left the Falklands without a Royal Navy frigate protecting it. Can he clarify the record that we have a Government who are cutting defence spending—massively in recent years—and leaving the nation less protected as a result of it?

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The hon. Gentleman really needs to read those letters more carefully. The reduction to which he referred related to the in-year spending of the Department, which ended at the beginning of this month. The defence budget for the current year, and for each future year, is going up, and the question that he and his colleagues need to answer is this: why will his party not commit, as our party has, to the 2% NATO commitment?

Daesh

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5. What assessment he has made of the progress of the international campaign to defeat ISIS/Daesh. [904481]

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11. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on progress in the campaign against Daesh. [904487]

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14. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on progress in the campaign against Daesh. [904491]

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15. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on progress in the campaign against Daesh. [904492]

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My next regular meeting with my counterparts in the coalition is on 4 May. The campaign against Daesh is making progress. With coalition support, Iraqi forces hold Ramadi, are clearing Hit, and have begun preparatory operations for the retaking of Mosul. In Syria, Daesh has been driven from al-Shadadi, cutting a key supply route from Mosul to Raqqa.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. With the advent of a new unity Government in Libya, does he believe that they are preparing the ground to request military assistance from the UK, and does he think that, as part of that request, they will require assistance with airstrikes against Daesh targets in Libya?

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It is early days. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli this morning in support of the new Government, and I and fellow European Union Defence Ministers will be meeting in Luxembourg tonight to hear directly from Prime Minister Sarraj as to how he thinks we can best help stabilise that new Government. We urgently need to engage with them, not least to help close down the very dangerous migration route that is seeing so many lives lost in the Mediterranean, and to help that Government tackle the spread of Daesh along the coast.

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Can my right hon. Friend confirm that contrary to its propaganda, Daesh has lost much of the territory that it held a year ago, and that now is the right time to back the Iraqi security forces in taking the fight to Daesh?

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My hon. Friend is right. With coalition support, Iraqi security forces have retaken around 40% of the populated areas that Daesh once held in Iraq, including Tikrit, Sinjar and Ramadi, and as I said, Hit is in the process of being cleared. We are continuing to provide vital air support, as well as specialist training and equipment.

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Experience tells us that unless we get civil institutions up and running quickly after a conflict ends, we can end up with a failed state. What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to make sure that that does not happen in Syria once Daesh has been driven out?

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Following the Syria conference held in London in February, there is now a stabilisation plan for Syria that we are working to deliver with our international partners. We are already working with existing Syrian institutions to try and restore stability, and we are working with communities on local government and civil defence, but stabilisation in Syria depends on a sustainable peace deal that protects communities from attack either by Daesh or by the regime. We are supporting that peace deal through the International Syria Support Group.

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Tomorrow the Mayor of London will unveil in Trafalgar Square a reconstruction of the arch of the temple of Bel from Palmyra, as the symbol of our defiance against Daesh and also of our commitment to protect culture in war zones when it is reasonably possible to do so. In December my right hon. Friend announced that he was commissioning a group within the armed forces of modern-day “monuments men” to lead this agenda and to bring the UK into compliance with The Hague convention, and I hope that will be in the Queen’s Speech shortly. Will he update the House on that?

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Yes, the Government have announced that they will ratify The Hague convention at the earliest opportunity. That includes the establishment of a military cultural property protection unit, and my Ministry is already engaging with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the stabilisation unit to further develop plans for that capability to help better protect such important monuments in future. It is also important to deny Daesh the revenue that it has earned from selling artefacts and coins from archaeological sites.

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Does the Secretary of State believe that it is possible to stabilise Libya only by having ground forces there? Does he accept that that may include British forces?

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It is up to the new Government of national accord being established in Libya with our support, led by Prime Minister Sarraj, to make it clear what assistance he needs. A number of countries, including ourselves, have already indicated that we will be part of a Libyan international assistance mission, but it is far too early to speculate about what form that assistance might take, whether it is training, advice from the Ministries, or other support.

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22. My right hon. Friend will be all too aware of the evidence of atrocities being committed by Daesh against religious minorities and the destruction of antiquities in the areas that it controls. What specific actions have been undertaken in the military campaign against Daesh to prevent both of those? [904500]

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We have to continue to degrade and eventually defeat Daesh to bring to an end the horrific attacks that we have seen and the persecution of those of other faiths that we have witnessed, particularly the persecution of the Yazidi minority. In the end, Daesh has to be defeated so that we can have a tolerant and comprehensive settlement in Syria that protects all minorities.

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Let me begin by sending my sincere best wishes to the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which will celebrate its 10th birthday on Friday with a celebratory service at Canongate kirk. I am sure that the whole House will join me in passing on our congratulations.

Libya is increasingly becoming the focus of a campaign by the international community to defeat Daesh. Given that the UK’s last intervention in Libya was by any measure a catastrophic failure, what plans do the Government have to ensure that we have clear, stated objectives, an exit strategy and a coherent and transparent policy for rebuilding the country afterwards?

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I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in wishing the Royal Regiment of Scotland a very happy 10th birthday and acknowledge the enormous contribution it makes to the military tradition in Scotland.

Let me be clear that no decisions in respect of any involvement in Libya have yet been taken. We are waiting to hear from the new Government of national accord what kind of assistance they need. We have a very strong interest in helping them rapidly stabilise the country, not least because of the spread of Daesh along the coastline, which is a direct threat to western Europe and to ourselves.

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It has been widely speculated that the Government are considering sending ground troops to Libya. Can the Minister give us a cast-iron guarantee that any such deployment would be discussed on the Floor of this House and voted on by this House?

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First, let me be very clear that no such decision has been taken, and we are not contemplating at the moment a commitment of that kind. What I can say is that if we are, in future, to deploy military forces in a combat role into a conflict zone, we would of course, as the Prime Minister has made clear, come to this House first.

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This is a very important constitutional issue, as I am sure the Secretary of State understands. How can it be that we read in the media that the Government have already drawn up plans to send 1,000 troops to aid the Libyan unity Government in fighting Daesh? When asked whether or not they would be deployed in hostile areas, a defence source told the Daily Mail that that was not yet clear. Surely it is important that the Secretary of State, instead of briefing the media, commits to coming to this House and answering questions directly. I am very concerned that in a written answer published today he has said that he reserves the right to take military action without parliamentary approval. Does that mean that we will not have a proper debate on proposed deployment, or will he come to the House, allow us to have a proper debate, answer questions and allow us to have a proper vote?

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First, let me caution the hon. Lady against believing everything she reads in the Daily Mail. Secondly, let me make it very clear that we are not currently planning a deployment, as reported in that newspaper. Thirdly, I am always prepared to answer questions in this House, as indeed I am doing at the moment. Fourthly, the written answer published today makes very clear the circumstances in which we would of course come back to Parliament for its approval. However, I should also emphasise that the Prime Minister and I have to take decisions about the deployment of ships, planes and troops, and we do not want, as the House will understand, to be artificially constrained in action that would keep this country safe. We will keep Parliament informed and we will of course seek its approval before deploying British forces in combat roles into a conflict situation.

EU Withdrawal: Effect on National Security

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6. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of withdrawal from the EU on UK defence and national security. [904482]

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NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s defence, but the European Union has an important complementary role in addressing and managing international crises, especially where NATO cannot, or chooses not to, act. Our response to the complex security threats we face requires a united, comprehensive approach, including the European Union’s diplomatic, humanitarian and economic levers.

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Our most important defence allies, including a certain US President, who will visit this week, have recognised that leadership and membership of the EU are vital for Britain’s national security and place in the world. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the implications of leaving the EU for our transatlantic alliance and our national defence?

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I cannot think of one ally—never mind the United States—that thinks that the world would be safer or that we would be safer if we left the European Union. Let me be clear: our central defence rests on our membership of NATO, but there are things that the European Union can add to that—not least, for example, the recent action taken against Russia after its annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine. It was the European Union that was able to apply economic sanctions—something NATO cannot do.

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President Obama is indeed visiting the country later this week. Nobody doubts for a second the total commitment of the United States to NATO, and nobody claims for a second that, just because the United States is not in the EU, it is any less committed to national defence, NATO or anything else—indeed, it would never surrender a jot of its sovereignty. The fact is that our security depends on NATO, not the EU, and if we leave the EU, we will be just as safe as we are now.

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My hon. Friend and I, although we have been friends for many years, differ on this matter. Let us be clear: the United States, as we do, shares its sovereignty by its membership of NATO—by being prepared to come to the aid of other NATO members under the obligations in article 5. There are many international ways in which we decide to share our sovereignty for the common good and for the better security of our country.

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Does the Secretary of State recognise the enormous value of EU membership to our defence industry? That was recently reflected in an ADS survey, which showed that 70% of companies want Britain to remain in the EU. Does he agree that access to the European funding—particularly in research and development—is critical for British defence companies to maintain a leading edge in the global market?

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I do agree with much of that. We heard earlier this afternoon of the success of the Typhoon sales to Kuwait. That European consortium was put together with four different European countries and is now successfully selling aircraft to eight separate nations. There are projects and programmes of such a scale that European collaboration is only beneficial.

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Should this country decide to leave the European Union, would my right hon. Friend undertake to use his best endeavours to secure as much of the £10 billion a year we would save to boost the defence budget?

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I do not anticipate this country actually taking such a dramatic step. Let me repeat: I do not know any of my Defence Minister colleagues around the world who would like this country suddenly to start leaving the international alliances and partnerships that it has entered, so I do not think the money my hon. Friend thinks might be available will be.

Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines

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8. What assessment he has made of the effects on the UK’s (a) economy and (b) security of building four Successor ballistic missile submarines. [904484]

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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State indicated earlier, the nuclear deterrent is at the apex of the UK’s full spectrum of defence capability. The UK’s defence nuclear enterprise is gearing up to deliver the successor to the Vanguard class submarines. Last month we announced a further £642 million of preparatory work ahead of the investment decision for this £31 billion programme. That investment in Successor submarines will not only help keep Britain safe but support over 30,000 jobs across the UK.

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With Russia openly menacing our allies, and with us on the cusp of the centenary of the greatest sacrifices ever made by our armed forces in defending this country, would it not be foolish and totally inappropriate for us no longer to be prepared to make a relatively small financial sacrifice to maintain the only asset that can guarantee the freedom of this country?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the Secretary of State indicated in his speech on nuclear deterrence before Easter, we have both a political and a moral responsibility to protect our people and allies. The nuclear deterrent is assigned to NATO, and as a leading member of NATO we cannot and should not outsource our commitments to others. There has been broad political consensus for decades in this House on the need to maintain the UK’s independent strategic deterrent. Government Members are clear where we stand. This remains the official policy of Her Majesty’s official Opposition, and it is in our view irresponsible that the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and her leader appear determined to put the ultimate security of our nation at risk.

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The Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State have referred to the long-held and well-known views of the Leader of the Opposition on this issue, but it is the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister who will put the resolution to the House. Given that there is overwhelming support for the renewal from the Ministry of Defence, the forces, industry, the workforce and the majority of this House, will the Minister get the message through to dithering Dave in No. 10 to stop playing party politics with this issue of national security and to put the vote to this House?

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The right hon. Gentleman, who speaks with some knowledge on these matters, has given a strong indication to the House that there will be a broad measure of support, which we thoroughly welcome. I will offer the Prime Minister his advice.

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Two weeks ago I had the great privilege of visiting Rolls-Royce up the road in Bristol, where I met apprentices and workers at the defence aerospace operations and turbine manufacturing facility. I witnessed the important work that Rolls-Royce is doing around the country on manufacturing nuclear engines for servicing naval vessels. Does the Minister agree that Trident stands to benefit the economy by virtue of the many jobs it will create?

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I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the fact that that programme will benefit not just those folks working for Rolls-Royce in various plants, particularly around Derby, or those employees of BAE Systems, the prime contractor, but companies in constituencies right across the breadth of this country, including his own.

Armed Forces: Protection from Persistent Legal Claims

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9. What steps he is taking to protect the armed forces from persistent legal claims. [904485]

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Although we will always investigate serious allegations of wrongdoing, we are committed to ending the large amount of opportunist litigation brought against our armed forces, which places great stress on them, undermines human rights and corrupts our operations. The Prime Minister chaired a National Security Council meeting on the subject in February, which looked at a range of options we have developed, and tasked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who has responsibility for human rights, and me to produce a comprehensive package to address the problem. We expect to make announcements very shortly.

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Two weeks ago Justice Leggatt said that Public Interest Lawyers showed

“a serious failure to observe essential ethical standards”

when it claimed that British soldiers were responsible for the death of a child. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is simply the latest example of the hounding of our forces—something we committed in our manifesto to clamp down on—and that it must now be investigated by the regulator?

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I agree with my hon. Friend and it is right that Public Interest Lawyers has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal. Justice Leggatt criticised them for failing to take action when they discovered inconsistencies between their claimants’ accounts and, worse, for ignoring those inconsistencies when they were pointed out to them and for continuing to advance the case. In his words,

“no responsible lawyer…conscious of their duties to their client and the court would have felt able to advance the original allegation.”

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Would it not help to deter future legal cases against our soldiers if the House read the remarkable speech made in this House last Thursday by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who said, from his authoritative position as a former soldier and journalist, that many untruths by Ministers, civil servants and the military resulted in grave errors in the war in Afghanistan? When can we start a full inquiry into the reasons we went into Helmand?

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I know that the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about these issues. I point him to a number of investigations that have gone on, both very lengthy investigations by the Ministry of Defence and investigations by Committees of the House into Afghanistan and, in particular, Helmand in 2006. It is important that we learn the lessons from those inquiries. I hope that he will be able to see from operations today, in particular Op Shader, that we are acting on those lessons learned.

NATO Countries: Defence Spending

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12. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other NATO countries on spending 2% of GDP on defence. [904488]

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The UK is proud to be one of five NATO countries that meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Since the defence investment pledge was made at the Wales summit in 2014, progress has been made, with 16 allies increasing defence spending in real terms and 24 allies now spending more of their defence budgets on equipment. As it happens, the leadership role that the UK is given in NATO on this issue was warmly welcomed once again by the US Deputy Defence Secretary in my bilateral discussions with him last Friday.

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What signal would it send to our NATO partners, and to our adversaries, ahead of the Warsaw summit if the Government took the advice of some in the House and failed to commit to spending 2% of GDP on defence? Will my hon. Friend update the House on the Libya and wider middle east situation?

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Briefly.

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I am not sure that the Speaker will give me enough time to answer both those issues, so I will focus on the first, if I may. The NATO Secretary-General was here last week and he praised the United Kingdom for our leadership on defence spending and our contribution to NATO. By the NATO summit in Warsaw in July, we expect to see further progress on the part of our allies in working to meet NATO’s 2% guideline. By contrast, the deafening failure to match that commitment by the Labour party sends precisely the wrong message to our allies and, even worse, to our adversaries.

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The Minister and many other hon. Members make much of this 2%, but 2% in the United Kingdom is quite different from a measurement of 2% for other NATO allies. Does the Minister not agree that this process of self-assessment, which NATO seems to tick off, has profound implications for the alliance’s method of calculation of GDP expenditure on the military?

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As I indicated earlier this afternoon, NATO makes the definition and assesses the contributions that are made by each member nation to its return. It is not for the United Kingdom to make that determination; it is for NATO to do so.

Procurement

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13. What steps his Department is taking to support British jobs and industry through its procurement process. [904490]

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In the recent strategic defence and security review, the Ministry of Defence agreed a new strategic objective of contributing to the nation’s prosperity. We do that in many ways, not least by spending some £20 billion a year with industry, around half of which is in the manufacturing sector, and some £4 billion with small and medium-sized enterprises.

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Will the Minister tell the House just how much his Department has saved by buying cheap steel from Sweden? Does he think that that in any way offsets the devastating impact on our steel industry?

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I am in a position to update the House on the steel component of the aircraft carrier contract, which is much the largest defence procurement contract. Of the structural steel, some 95,000 tonnes have been procured from UK steel mills over the period of that contract.

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Can the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom works very closely with countries such as Pakistan on defence procurement? Will he join me in welcoming the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, who is sitting at the top of the Public Gallery?

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Order. First, one should not refer to the place to which the hon. Gentleman referred. After six years in the House, frankly, he ought to know that. Secondly, that was pretty wide of the question.

I call Stephen Phillips. Not—

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rose—

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Ah! Mr Phillips is here. Splendid. How could I have thought otherwise for a moment? It is only that the hon. Gentleman has perambulated to a different position in the Chamber. We are delighted to see him.

Service Housing

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17. What measures he has put in place to improve the quality of service housing. [904495]

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My Department is committed to improving the quality of service family accommodation provided to our service personnel and their families. We have been working closely with Carillion Amey to deliver those improvements. Work to improve accommodation has resulted in the upgrading of some 3,000 homes through complete refurbishment and the separate installation of around 10,000 new kitchens, bathrooms, and central heating systems.

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I will be short, Mr Speaker—which may be why you did not see me earlier.

Service housing is absolutely critical not only to the wellbeing of our servicemen and women and their families, but to their morale. Carillion Amey has been an appalling contractor, and I know that the Department has taken this issue seriously. May I encourage my hon. Friend to continue to be robust, and to take the contract away from it unless and until it starts to discharge its obligations properly?

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My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to highlight the poor performance of Carillion Amey to date. I am determined, as indeed is the Secretary of State, to improve this matter, which is why we will continue to work closely with Carillion Amey. I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend that Carillion Amey has committed to meet all the key performance indicators across the suite of the next generation estate contracts, including the national housing prime contract, by the end of May 2016.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [904502]

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My immediate priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our SDSR commitments. This month, the defence budget increases for the first time in six years, and it will increase in every year of this Parliament. Our choice to spend more on stronger defence will help keep us safe.

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The Secretary of State will know about the worrying number of cancers and terminal illnesses among groups of former RAF personnel working in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s who worked in a toxic soup of chemicals with precious few safety precautions, and he will surely know of the distressing inconsistencies in financial support for those affected. Will he confirm that the Government’s duty of care under the armed forces covenant extends to investigating this properly and to compensating victims fully and consistently?

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Yes. When a veteran considers that their service has led to an illness or injury, they are entitled to make a claim for compensation through our legal claims department, or to apply for enhancements to their pensions. Let me assure the hon. Lady that the Veterans Welfare Service will listen and will provide all necessary support.

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T2. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), responded to a debate in Westminster Hall secured by our hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) on air cadet training facilities. In Southend, 1312 Air Training Corps uses the facilities for gliding in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly). Will the Under-Secretary of State make sure that those facilities are still made available to our cadets? [904503]

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Wethersfield, the facility to which my hon. Friend is referring, has been identified for disposal, and the new site is yet to be selected. However, I can reassure him that we are strongly committed to gliding, and 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, when it moves from Wethersfield, will expand into its new role as a regional hub. Our immediate priority is to get cadets back flying again, after a gap of about two years. That will start again this year, and should be fully delivered by 2018.

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Those injured in the course of their duties should receive the financial support they need, but currently the value of compensation payments is being eroded by a comparative third under the armed forces compensation scheme’s guaranteed income payments and the war disablement pensions supplement. Applying the triple lock to military compensation payments would ensure that the highest of earnings, inflation or 2.5% was paid. When will the Government take evidence to review this payment and examine the impact of the real-term loss under the current system?

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We always keep our payments systems under review. The hon. Lady will of course be aware that, in the recent Budget, the Chancellor decided that, for the first time, payments under the war pensions scheme would be set aside for care costs. These are the sort of positive measures that we keep under review in support of our veterans.

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T3. Does my hon. Friend agree that Kuwait’s decision to buy 28 world-beating Typhoons is testament to the skill of the BAE workforce at Warton, many of whom live in my constituency, and this Government’s commitment to defence exports? [904504]

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We welcome wholeheartedly this month’s contract signed by Kuwait for 28 Typhoon aircraft. Kuwait thereby becomes the eighth country to select the Eurofighter Typhoon and the third in the Gulf to do so. It is very positive both for our bilateral and defence relationship and, as my hon. Friend indicates, for jobs across the British aerospace and defence industry, including the thousands employed by BAE Systems at Warton in Lancashire, many of whom are her constituents. It is excellent news for the whole supply chain right across the UK.

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T5. Following the Foreign Secretary’s statement that we“stand ready to provide further assistance to Libya and its people”,will the Secretary of State confirm what kind of assistance the UK would be willing to provide and how much notice this House would have before a vote on military action in Libya? [904506]

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I have made it clear that we are waiting to hear from Prime Minister Sarraj and the new Government, who have only been established over the past few days, what kind of assistance they want, whether it be training or other support. On notice to this House, I repeat that there is no plan to deploy British troops in any kind of combat role. If there were a plan to deploy troops in a combat role in a conflict zone anywhere in the world, we would come to the House first.

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T4. A particularly nasty Daesh force has seized territory at the top of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British Government are doing everything they can to support the Government of Lebanon in tackling this particularly nasty group of people, who are inflicting misery on local people? [904505]

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Yes. Last week, I discussed with the Lebanese Defence Minister, Samir Mokbel, the threats that Lebanon faces and the importance of its security. We recently committed to spend a further £23 million on equipment, mentoring and training to help the Lebanese armed forces secure their entire border with Syria. We plan to spend an additional £4.5 million on urban and rural operations training so that by 2019, some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers will have received British training.

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T6. Will the Minister say a little more about what progress is being made to ensure that a very high percentage of UK steel is used in defence procurement? In particular, will he say what steps he has taken to ensure that there is the capacity and capability for UK steel to be used to build any Successor Trident submarines, should the House determine that that is what it wishes to happen? [904508]

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government as a whole are committed to supporting the UK steel industry. The Ministry of Defence has issued new policy guidance to the prime contractors to address barriers to the open market. I am working closely with our contractors to ensure that they support the new policy. In relation to the submarine contracts, as and when they are placed, UK suppliers have an important role to play in the supply of some specialist steels, but at present we do not have manufacturers that are capable of supplying other specialist steels, so there is a balance.

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T7. Is the Secretary of State aware that the standard of food for the military at HMS Sultan and similar naval establishments has become such a source of complaints that service personnel have been banned from taking photographs and using social media to critique it? What is he doing to ensure that our servicemen and women are properly looked after in such a basic area as food? [904509]

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Defence personnel are offered core meals, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner, with set calorific and nutritional standards. That includes unlimited access to carbohydrates and vegetables. I confess that I experience the food that is served to our armed forces personnel on a regular basis, and I have not experienced a poor standard. The normal process is for complaints to be made via the chain of command, but I am more than happy to look into the matter for my hon. Friend.

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Ministers have been remarkably coy this afternoon about the timing of the maingate decision for the Trident Successor programme. I understand entirely the point about purdah, but will one Minister at least help the House by indicating whether we are likely to get a vote after 24 June and before the House rises for the summer recess on 21 July?

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I hope we will have an early debate and vote on the principle of supporting the replacement of our four existing submarines. I should explain to the hon. Lady that it will not be on the maingate decision, because there is not one maingate decision. We are obviously negotiating with our suppliers for four separate submarines.

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T8. The Secretary of State is a suave and polished parliamentary performer, which is why the Defence Committee would like to see a little more of him and why it is doubly disappointing that, despite trying since the beginning of March to agree with his private office to two two-hour slots before the end of May, so far we have achieved only one and the offer of a second on what happens to be local government election day, which is far from ideal. Will he kindly have a word with his private office, ask them to extract their proverbial digit, and thus avoid our two quite important inquiries on the middle east and Russia being either delayed or written without his valuable input? [904510]

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I always enjoy my appearances before my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee. It is not always easy to reconcile the dates he offers with some of my international travel commitments but I will certainly have another look at the diary today.

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We all know that the Secretary of State is a very busy man with many commitments and a very full diary, but the House’s Committees are very important, and I am sure that he will not forget that. Get it sorted, man.

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Hawk aircraft are built at Brough and flown by the Red Arrows, promoting the very best of British. Are there plans to procure new planes for the Red Arrows?

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I recently announced a new support contract for the Hawk aircraft that takes it up to November 2020. We have time to decide how to sustain Hawks beyond that. That is much as I can say. However, I will tell the hon. Lady that the Red Arrows are due to commence a substantial programme of displays in this country and overseas this summer. I hope that many Members have the opportunity to watch them.

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T9. One hundred years ago, Porton Down was established as a centre to deal with nerve gas attacks during the Somme; 100 years later, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory continues to do a fantastic job, now tackling the growing threats we face in this country from Daesh. Following the visit by the Secretary of State and other Ministers, what reflections do they have on the continuing role of DSTL at Porton Down in my constituency? [904511]

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DSTL’s remit to defend our nation and armed forces against a wide range of threats is just as crucial today as it was 100 years ago. We need to continue to invest in science and technology to stay ahead of our adversaries. I congratulate all our staff at Porton Down, Portsdown West and Fort Halstead, which is in my own constituency, on reaching this milestone and on the remarkable work they do to help keep our country safe.

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With both the existing Trident programme and the potential Successor programme in mind, will the Minister tell me what measures his Department is taking to identify unexploded ordnance in the River Clyde?

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The Department places the safety of our nuclear fleet at the highest possible level. There are continuous attempts to ensure that any potential threats to our submarines are monitored. If the hon. Gentleman has something specific he would like to draw to our attention he should do so, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

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Tata Steel developed three new types of steel to build the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that British steel manufacturers continue to innovate with as well as deliver for the Royal Navy?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the success of Tata Steel in supplying steel for the aircraft carrier. Other grades and types of steel are not currently available in this country and we would be happy to talk to the industry about what steps it can take to make such steel types available.

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The Army Reserve centre in Cobridge in my constituency is home to the A detachment 202 (M) field hospital. I have been in correspondence with the Minister but have yet to receive a response to rumours about its imminent closure, something that is yet to be confirmed or consulted about with the wider community. May I have a response from the Minister?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her letters on this issue; we have also had a word in the margins. We are looking into the matter. We have a robust system for appeals. I am so far unable to offer her any comfort but I will come back to her shortly.

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Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the 1206 Air Training Corps squadron in Lichfield is one of the biggest in the west midlands, but it too has been suffering from a lack of glider training provision. What hope can the Minister give my friends and corps members that that training will be resumed?

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I am delighted to answer a question from the distinguished president of that squadron. Nearly two years ago, all gliding had to be suspended for safety reasons. We have been unable to find a contractor who could credibly take on the repair of the Vigilants, but the Vikings are all on their way up, together with a very small number of Vigilants. By 2018 we will be delivering a full programme of gliding, with an enhanced level of powered flying with more Grob Tutors, and that will start this summer.

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Some 5,000 service personnel who serve overseas have applied for postal votes. They tell me that by the time the postal votes are sent to the regiment, those serving overseas are disadvantaged. How will the Minister ensure that postal votes are received by those serving overseas who wish to vote?

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We partook in the Government-wide scheme launched on 1 February to try to ensure that our service personnel were aware that they could register, and we will do the same again through a defence information notice on the EU referendum that will be issued in May. Ultimately, it is down to individual service voters whether they register or vote.

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May I ask the Secretary of State, or perhaps my hon. and very gallant Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces—[Interruption] Gallant because she is in the Royal Navy reserves—to assure the House that no investigator used by Leigh Day or Public Interest Lawyers is paid for by the Ministry of Defence for any service?

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I can give the assurance that, although the Ministry of Defence does not direct the investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, it is responsible for ensuring that public money is spent well and efficiently. While we can clearly justify investigations into wrongdoing and those that exonerate our armed forces, we cannot justify spending money on processes that frustrate those investigations. We have given clear ministerial direction that those agents are not to be paid with public money, and we have received assurances that that is the case.

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Order. I am sorry, but demand invariably exceeds supply and we must move on.