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Topical Questions

Volume 614: debated on Monday 12 September 2016

My immediate priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence and security review. Last week I hosted the first ever United Nations peacekeeping ministerial, the largest meeting of Defence Ministers in Britain since the Wales summit, where I underlined that the UK is stepping up its global commitments, backed by a rising defence budget and including additional troops to peacekeeping in South Sudan.

I am tempted just to ask the Secretary of State if he can name the French Foreign Minister and the South Korean Prime Minister, but can he confirm that, contrary to what he told the “Today” programme last week, it does in fact matter which budget conflict and security spending comes from, and if he is so strapped for cash perhaps he should be scrapping Trident rather than raiding the Department for International Development’s aid budget?

The French Defence Minister is Monsieur Jean-Yves Le Drian, whom I met last Thursday—I think it was the 21st time I have met him in two years—and the South Korean Prime Minister is Madam Park, whom I met during her most recent visit. The difficulty facing the shadow Defence Secretary is that none of my Defence Ministers know who he is.

However, on the budget, this is an increasing defence budget; we are committed to meeting the 2% target and the defence budget will also rise in real terms for every year of this Parliament.

T3. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to assist current and former personnel who are concerned about the health effects of being prescribed Lariam anti-malarials when deployed overseas? (906206)

The Ministry of Defence takes the health and wellbeing of its personnel seriously and acknowledges its duty of care to provide the best possible support to them. I am delighted to be able to confirm today that, as part of that care, we have introduced a single point of contact providing information on mefloquine and signposting a range of services to help those who have concerns having taken Lariam. Further details are available on the website.

I am sure that Ministers are fast learners and will get to know my name soon enough. Last week the MOD was accused of a terrifying error after accidentally publishing the details of 20,000 people online. Following a number of recent high-profile security breaches including the attempted abduction of an RAF airman based at Marham, many service members will understandably be concerned about their personal safety. What reassurances can the Secretary of State provide to those men and women in regard to the security, particularly online, of any personal information about them?

We have been doing everything we possibly can to protect people’s personal details online. I went to Marham myself two days after that incident took place—the police investigation there is ongoing—to give reassurance not only to the serving personnel but to their families that we will do everything we possibly can to protect them.

British military personnel in Saudi Arabia include a number of liaison officers stationed within the military headquarters of Saudi-led operations in Yemen. According to the Government, those officers are deployed to gain insight into those operations and to advise the Saudis on how to comply with international humanitarian law. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether any communications from those British officers—as opposed to reports from the Saudi authorities themselves—have revealed any concerns about the conduct of operations in Yemen, including the possibility that humanitarian law has been violated?

Let me make it clear that the United Kingdom is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, and UK personnel are not involved in directing or conducting operations in Yemen or in the target selection process. We have not assessed that the Saudi-led coalition is targeting civilians or is in breach of international humanitarian law.

T6. During the EU referendum campaign, the Government said that voting to leave would put the security of the UK and western Europe at risk, so will the Secretary of State tell me by how much the Government are increasing the defence budget as a result of the referendum’s outcome? Or was that in fact an example of scaremongering that we can add to the ever-growing pile entitled “Utter cobblers that the Government were spouting during the EU referendum campaign”? (906209)

My hon. Friend will know that the defence budget is increasing in any event, and it will go on increasing in each year of this Parliament because of our commitment to meeting the 2% target in NATO. I know that he will join me in reminding our allies that although we are exiting the European Union, we are not abandoning our commitment to European security, which is why we are leading a battalion in Estonia next year, why we have committed extra troops to Poland, why our Typhoons were policing the Baltic airspace this year and why we will be leading the very high readiness taskforce next year.

T2. Easat Radar Systems in Stoke-on-Trent is a cutting-edge business supplying coastal-based radar surveying UK waters and exporting round the world. This is the kind of British-based defence manufacturing we need as Russia continues to test our defences and security concerns about breaches to our coastline grow. The Minister for Defence Procurement is already coming to Stafford. I invite her to come to Stoke-on-Trent afterwards to visit Easat Radar Systems to give the business the support it deserves. (906205)

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty champion of businesses in Stoke-on-Trent. I know that the Secretary of State has already offered a meeting with businesses in that constituency, and I look forward to hearing more about the particular one he mentioned in his question.

T8. Will the Minister support the recent application by the Magnus Church of England Academy for a new cadet force? Does he agree that schools such as that academy, situated within a deprived area and with a persistent problem of white working-class boys, are exactly where new cadet units will make a difference? (906211)

The Government have committed £50 million of LIBOR funding to increase the number of cadet units in schools to 500 by 2020. That manifesto commitment will establish some 150 new units in state schools across the UK and we have made it a priority to focus on cities and areas of high deprivation. I welcome my hon. Friend’s championing of the cause. Any school that wants to open a cadet unit through the cadet expansion programme should submit an expression of interest through the website.

T4. People in my constituency are worried about the UK Government’s plans for the army base at historic Fort George, which supports around 750 local jobs. Unhelpful comments from the Secretary of State for Scotland this weekend about the base’s condition have not helped that speculation. Will Ministers do the right thing, back Fort George and end the unhelpful speculation now? (906207)

The MOD continues to review its estate to ensure that it is smaller and more sustainable, allowing us to focus on delivering future defence capability and enabling considerable investment in sites such as Lossiemouth and Faslane. While no decision has been made on Fort George’s future, Scotland will continue to be a vital home for our armed forces. However, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, must expect some sites to close and some investment in other locations.

T5. Research from the Fraser of Allander Institute found that the number of defence jobs in Scotland is plummeting despite promises to the contrary in 2014. There are almost 3,000 fewer MOD employees and the number in military roles has gone down. In 2008, there were 23% more jobs in uniformed and MOD civilian roles. Can the Secretary of State tell us how Scotland is better off in the union given that reality? (906208)

I certainly can. Scotland is getting additional investment at Faslane, and Lossiemouth will be the home of the new Typhoon squadron. Faslane will continue to be the base for all the Royal Navy’s submarines. Scotland is playing a key part in the construction of our new Navy with the new aircraft carriers, the Type 26 global combat ship, and the offshore patrol vessels, all of which will contribute to more jobs in Scotland.

T10. Kurdish fighters, in part supplied with small arms from this country, have been among the most effective ground forces against Daesh, yet they find themselves under attack from our NATO ally Turkey. How can that circle be squared? (906213)

My hon. Friend is right that the situation is complicated, in particular in north Syria. We continue to urge the opposition groups in Syria to combat Daesh—although they are of course also under pressure from the regime. As a result of the ceasefire coming into force tonight, I hope that all the moderate armed groups in Syria can now concentrate their fire against the murderous ideology that is Daesh and allow humanitarian aid into the towns and cities that have been so long denied it.

T9. Our military charities do phenomenal good in Northern Ireland, and one, Combat Stress, has just received £400,000 to help it carry out its vital work. However, its plan to move to using triage nurses to handle calls, rather than the admin staff experienced in handling mental health cases, is what really worries me—those callers need sensitive handling. Will the Minister meet representatives to discuss how we can do that better in future? (906212)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the success of recent LIBOR funding bids from Northern Ireland. The issue he raises is of course important and I would be delighted to meet to discuss it.

The Royal Air Force has a long and illustrious history in Wales and the connection has been fostered and maintained by volunteer gliding schools. The MOD’s decision to denude Wales of such schools and make air cadets travel many hours to England has had nothing less than a devastating effect on young people and adult volunteers. What steps are being taken to return such schools to Wales?

I commend my hon. Friend’s tenacity in pursuing this issue. He knows that significant challenges surround the viability of aerodromes and former aerodromes in south Wales for future cadet gliding, but following his persistence and that of the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) I am looking to see whether other sites are financially viable. I hope to be able to update them shortly.

Does the Minister welcome the establishment of veterans’ breakfast clubs up and down the country as a way of providing support from veterans to veterans? Will the Minister ask his officials why these clubs have been denied the right to use the veterans’ logo on their official literature, as the only person who ever turns up to the Chester veterans’ breakfast club who is not a veteran is me?

I am a great fan of veterans’ clubs and I have visited several. They are a fantastic thing, which I am keen to encourage, and I am happy to look into the matter the hon. Gentleman raises.

As my hon. Friend knows, last week it was announced that the MOD was going to dispose of Stonehouse barracks in my constituency. Can he clarify the criteria to keep 3 Commando Brigade and the Royal Marines in my constituency?

The decision to close up to 30% of the defence estate is based on military capability; it very much is a military decision, but I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it, if he would like to do so.

May I thank the veterans Minister for meeting Hull resident Dereck Johnson, who set up the Hull veterans’ breakfast club, and may I ask what progress has been made in rolling out these breakfast clubs across the country, as they meet such a real need in that community?

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the hon. Lady’s constituent and I thought it was an excellent breakfast club. I have also met the national chairman and we are in discussions about how the Department can support this excellent initiative.

Thank you, good Speaker. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the service provided by BBC Monitoring to open-source intelligence is of vital interest to the MOD? Does he agree that it would be totally unacceptable if the BBC inflicted swingeing cuts in the Monitoring service, as is proposed, including the closure of Caversham Park?

It is always good to be able to find common ground with my right hon. Friend on a defence matter. I certainly confirm the first part of his question, and I will do what I can to convey the gist of the second part to the BBC, too.

An article in The Times today on the welcome news of the ceasefire in Syria states:

“The US and Russia have agreed to work together to target Islamic State and the FSF”.

Will the Secretary of State provide more detail on how that would work in practice, how the UK will be involved and how we can ensure that such co-operation results in no civilian casualties?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome the ceasefire, belated though it is, that we hope will come into force tonight. The situation in Syria is complex and we have continued to urge Russia to use all its influence on the Syrian regime to get humanitarian aid in and to stop the regime targeting particular opposition groups. As he knows, we do not have combat troops deployed in Syria, but the strikes we carry out on behalf of the coalition will, obviously, also now have to reflect the new reality on the ground.

The British Royal Navy is now smaller than the flotilla that we sent to take back the Falkland Islands. When will we have a date for Type 45 destroyer engine repairs and replacements, which are desperately needed, so that we can at least maintain the 19 ships of the line that we currently have?

I hope that the hon. Lady, who knows a lot about this, is not confusing number with quality or power. The ships we are now deploying—the aircraft carriers, the Type 45 destroyers and the forthcoming Type 26 frigates—are of course much more powerful than the ships that sailed to liberate the Falkland Islands. I know she will join me in welcoming the new missions of the two Type 45s, HMS Diamond and HMS Daring, which sailed in the past few weeks.

A serious issue for recruitment policy is service family accommodation, and I am sure the Secretary of State and the Department agree with the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee report on service family accommodation. Will he update the House on how they are dealing with CarillionAmey and its dubious failings for service personnel, and on how we make sure that this does not happen again?

I am delighted to say that as a result of the recent “get well” plan, CarillionAmey is now meeting all but two of its key performance indicators. However, let me assure the House that I do not take this recent improvement for granted. I am utterly determined that the poor standard that our service personnel received in recent years will not be repeated.

I do not want the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) to be sad or to feel isolated or excluded. Let him have a go.

Thank you; very kind. A few moments ago the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), said that we were procuring more warships and aircraft than ever before. That is far removed from reality. In setting the record straight, can she confirm whether such information is part of the induction into the Ministry of Defence team, or did she come up with it all by herself?

I recommend that the hon. Gentleman read the strategic defence and security review. He can see that we are increasing defence spending every year and we are investing in more ships, more planes, more troops who are ready to act, better equipment for our special forces and more for cyber, in contrast to the Labour party, which wants to scrap our nuclear deterrent, withdraw from NATO and abolish our Army. Labour cannot be trusted with our security.