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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 616: debated on Monday 7 November 2016


The Secretary of State was asked—

Procurement Programmes: Supply Chain

1. What steps he is taking to ensure that SMEs are included in the supply chain for defence procurement programmes. (907088)

May I add my congratulations to Andy Murray? Having said those remarks, I am sure that Mr Speaker will be able to watch many more matches played by the world’s No. 1 tennis player. It is absolutely fantastic news.

Small businesses are vital for growth and innovation, whether they work directly with the Ministry of Defence or through our prime contractors. We have committed to increase our direct and indirect procurement spending with small and medium-sized enterprises from 19% to 25% by 2020.

It is good to hear from the Minister that our armed forces can benefit from the innovation and entrepreneurship of small businesses. However, one such business in my constituency tells me that dealing with the Department can sometimes be overly bureaucratic, including the need to apply to remain on a list of approved suppliers. Can the Minister take any steps to simplify the process and encourage even more small businesses to come forward?

We recognise that processes are overly bureaucratic. We have got rid of the idea of an approved suppliers list, and we are working hard to reduce red tape. We are introducing a shorter contract and a network of supply chain advocates. May I suggest that any businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency or any other contact the relevant supply chain advocate? I look forward to sending my hon. Friend those details later today.

Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to help British businesses? In that context, will she tell us why the Department decided to procure combat garments for the Army from a Spanish company rather than a Scottish one?

We welcome competition in procurement for all our contracts. We also recognise that our £178 billion equipment budget is being spent with more than 5,000 businesses here in the UK.

SMEs make up a large part of the helicopter manufacturing industry in my constituency and they are worried that the potential local closure of GKN foreshadows an erosion of that. What support can my hon. Friend provide to keep a full helicopter manufacturing capability in the Yeovil area?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s fantastic work representing his constituents in Yeovil and the magnificent work that they do. We took delivery of the most recent Wildcat helicopter just in the last month. We look forward to working with Leonardo in Yeovil as part of a major strategic partnership agreement. It is important that my hon. Friend puts such issues about helicopter manufacturing forward as part of the industrial Green Paper that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will produce later this year.

Last week’s announcement on the Type 26 frigate was good news for Scotland. What steps have been put in place to ensure that UK SMEs and larger companies, for example those based in the north-east of England, will gain work from this contract?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this fantastic news for companies up and down the country, including our shipbuilders on the Clyde. We have already announced contracts worth some £1.9 billion which are related to this programme right across the UK. Importantly, we will be publishing, alongside our prime contractor, the opportunities for the British steel industry to bid into this manufacturing opportunity.

One reason we have bureaucracy, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), is to ensure that SMEs stay in business during the whole course of a contract. The biggest enemy of any SME is a poor cash flow. What is the Department doing to ensure that SMEs are paid promptly?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that this is an important issue, which is why the Ministry of Defence is so committed to being able to pay our invoices promptly. We give that guidance to our prime contractors, and I would certainly like to hear of any examples from Members of where prime contractors are not passing on that prompt payment from the MOD to their suppliers.

The Minister will be aware of the fabulous job being done by SMEs and large companies to deliver the Royal Navy carriers at Rosyth, both of which are on time and on budget. How does she plan to reward Rosyth and its highly skilled workforce after the carriers are gone? What good news has she got for Rosyth today?

I would have thought the hon. Gentleman might have started by welcoming Friday’s announcement about the shipbuilding jobs on the Clyde, but he is absolutely right that it is a wonderful national moment as we complete these two fantastic carriers at Rosyth. I am sure he and I are both looking forward to seeing the Queen Elizabeth sail down the Forth some time next year. Given the ambitious shipbuilding strategy that we have and the national shipbuilding strategy that will be announced nearer to the autumn statement, I am sure that there will be great news for shipbuilding across Scotland and the whole of the UK.

Iraq and Syria: RAF Campaign

The RAF’s significant contribution to the fight against Daesh is second only to that of the Americans. To date, we have conducted 1,048 airstrikes in Iraq and 67 in Syria. In Iraq, the RAF has helped Iraqi security forces to halt and push back Daesh, with about three quarters of the current strikes now supporting operations to retake Mosul. In Syria, the RAF has struck oilfields and supported the liberation of al-Shaddadi and Manbij.

What further support is the Secretary of State going to give to the Iraqi Kurdish forces in recapturing Mosul? He has outlined an up-to-date version of events, but what further support can he give them?

We are supporting the Mosul operation through airstrikes, through surveillance and reconnaissance from the air and, above all, through the training that we have supplied to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. I can tell the House that British troops have now trained more than 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, including Kurdish.

The Secretary of State will recall that the decision to launch airstrikes, both in Iraq and latterly in Syria, was taken not under the royal prerogative, but by resolution of this House. Does he agree that that precedent might well be useful in discussions in the months ahead?

My hon. Friend tempts me into a matter to be considered by this House a little later this afternoon.

Reports at the weekend suggest that the deployment and moves into Raqqa are imminent. Can the Secretary of State give us any update on what is going to happen and what support we will be providing to the efforts against Daesh in Raqqa?

Yes, I can tell the House that we expect operations to first isolate, then encircle and then liberate Raqqa to begin shortly. Our forces—the RAF—will be involved in a similar role there, providing intelligence and reconnaissance from the air, but they will also be providing close air support to troops on the ground.

The Royal Air Force is world renowned for the accuracy of its missile strikes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what I think is still happening, which is that innocent casualties are at an absolute minimum when the RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria?

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend on that, because we take great care to plan our missions in a way that will minimise the risk of civilian casualties in accordance with the rules of engagement that I laid down at the beginning of the campaign. In more than 1,000 airstrikes now conducted by the RAF as part of the campaign, we have found no evidence yet of civilian casualties, and we do carry out an assessment after each of the British strikes.

In the run-up to Remembrance Day, we think of all those who have served our country as well as those who are currently serving it around the world, and we remember the immense sacrifices that have been made to defend our freedoms.

We support the RAF’s involvement in the campaign to liberate Raqqa. Daesh has used the city as its headquarters to plot attacks against British citizens, and it is vital that that evil organisation is routed for good. Before launching the operation to free Mosul, the Iraqi Government made careful plans about exactly which groups would be allowed to enter the city to avoid the real risk of sectarian violence. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether similar plans have been made in respect of Raqqa?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Let me formally welcome her and her team to Defence questions, and echo the tributes that she paid—and that we will all be paying over the next few days—to the work of our armed forces here and around the globe.

The hon. Lady is right that a lot of work went into the preparation of the Mosul campaign to ensure that there was sufficient reassurance for its predominantly Sunni population that the way that it was to be isolated, encircled and eventually liberated would not further exacerbate the tensions in that already complex city. Raqqa is predominantly an Arab city, and it is the coalition’s view that its encirclement and liberation should be accomplished by a predominantly Arab force.

We are also all deeply concerned about Russia’s corrosive role in the Syrian conflict. Its planes have hit schools and aid convoys and now, as we understand it, the signs are that it is preparing for a devastating assault on Aleppo. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that what the people of Aleppo want is an immediate cessation of hostilities. What is the Government’s strategy for achieving a meaningful ceasefire agreement?

I think there is agreement across the House that Russia’s actions speak far louder than its words. The key is to stop the violence and return to the cessation of hostilities as originally agreed. There have been a number of these ceasefires and, in each case, they have been broken by the Assad regime and its Russian supporters. It really is time now that Russia called a halt to the slaughter and got engaged with us in finding a political settlement so that Syria can finally live in peace.

Mosul: Reconstruction and Governance

3. What plans the Government have to help support the reconstruction and governance of Mosul once Daesh has been removed from that city. (907091)

We encourage the Iraqi Government’s efforts to protect civilians, minimise the humanitarian impact, and support political reconciliation. A successful military operation must be followed by sustained stabilisation and reconstruction. The UK is providing £15 million to help secure liberated areas, clear explosives and support the renovation of power networks, clinics and schools. This year, we are also providing £90 million of humanitarian assistance to help people across Iraq, including those affected by the military operations in and around Mosul.

The Government spent £320 million on bombing Libya and only £25 million on its reconstruction when the campaign ended. Libya is now fragmented and lawless. In Mosul governorate, towns have been destroyed and people such as my Yazidi friend Elias Qirani have been displaced to camps in Sinjar, freezing and without adequate food this winter. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the lessons of Sinjar and Libya have been learned and that this Government have planned for peace and reconstruction in Mosul and Raqqa?

Yes, I think it is fair to say that we learn the lessons from each of these successive campaigns. This is a campaign being helped by the international coalition and led by Iraqi forces, but yes, we have made our contribution to the United Nations effort to ensure that there are sufficient tents, food aid and medical supplies for those towns that are liberated. I hope the hon. Lady supports the overall aim of the campaign, which is to allow the Yazidi people to return to their homes and to live in peace.

Given the complex ethnic make-up of Mosul and the split between Sunnis and Shi’as, what plans are there for some kind of international observer force to be on the ground in the city once it is liberated?

It is for the Iraqi Government in the first instance to determine the future local government of Mosul. It is, as my hon. Friend says, a very complex city and not entirely a Sunni city, and it is important that the administration there after liberation can command the confidence of all groups represented in that city. We have made our views on this known to the Government and military commanders of the operation.

We welcome the progress in the operation to liberate Mosul and we fully support this important offensive. I recently met the Iraqi ambassador, who reiterated the need to defend the border between Iraq and Syria to ensure that Daesh cannot return to re-establish itself in Mosul or anywhere else. What role will the UK play in securing the border and defending the territorial integrity of Iraq?

It is not for us in the west to question the territorial integrity of Iraq. In the end it is for the Iraqi people to decide their borders. One of the aims of the counter-Daesh coalition, which I shall be chairing at its next meeting next month in London, is to focus on the period after the liberation of Mosul and after the final mopping-up operations along the Tigris and in the Euphrates river valley, to see what more can be done by the coalition countries to help Iraq to reinforce its border and ensure that Daesh does not come back through it.


4. What recent support the armed forces have provided to the military campaign of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. (907092)

The UK is not a member of the Saudi Arabian-led coalition. British armed forces personnel are therefore not involved in selecting targets, carrying out strikes, or directing or conducting operations in Yemen.

The UK continues to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, despite repeated bombing of civilian targets and non-governmental organisation hospitals in Yemen. The most conservative figures from the United Nations Human Rights Council demonstrate that there have been at least 10,000 casualties and 4,000 confirmed dead in a country facing humanitarian disaster. Will the Minister and the Secretary of State heed the previous call by the Business, Innovation and Skills and the International Development Committees to end export licences for these arms, or are these casualties just considered a fair price to pay?

We will be responding to those reports imminently, but I want to put on record that we have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We are aware of the alleged violations that the hon. Lady mentions and we take alleged violations in this conflict extremely seriously.

I am sure the Minister will agree that in this situation we have to be careful what we wish for, given the alternatives. Will she outline what support the UK Government are giving to the parties involved to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law?

My hon. Friend is right to say that in this situation the UK particularly supports a political solution. We believe that this is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to end the conflict. With respect to ongoing support, the UK backed UN resolution 2216, as my hon. Friend knows, and we have an ongoing defence engagement relationship with the Saudi Arabian Government.

Last Monday, the Security Council discussed Yemen for the first time in six months. I observed the proceedings. There was unanimous support for an immediate ceasefire and the four-point plan put forward by Matthew Rycroft, our ambassador. Will the Minister speak to the Foreign Secretary in person or through the Defence Secretary to ensure that a new resolution is tabled as soon as possible so that it can be discussed and passed, and the humanitarian and military crisis can be dealt with?

The right hon. Gentleman, who pays such close interest to this subject, will be aware that the UK continues strongly to support the work of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and we strongly support a political solution. I will certainly pass on the sentiments he has just expressed to colleagues in the Foreign Office.

Armed Forces Covenant

5. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the provisions of the armed forces covenant are being implemented effectively in the UK. (907093)

The implementation of the covenant is overseen by the covenant reference group, chaired by the Cabinet Office. Next month’s annual report will detail the fact that considerable progress has been made across Government and with the wider public, private and third sectors, including on key areas of education, healthcare, accommodation and access to commercial services.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The head of the forces charity SSAFA has warned that the armed forces covenant

“provides excellent guidance but there is no guarantee of enforcement.”

Forces families often find themselves in real difficulty when seeking housing or school places. In this week, when our thoughts are with those forces families who have made the ultimate sacrifice, what are the Government doing to make it clear to service providers that the guarantees contained in the covenant are legal duties, not just optional extras?

The hon. Lady is right to raise that, because it was this Government who enshrined the covenant in law. We have made substantial progress in recent years, not least through the £22.5 million that has now been spent on the service pupil premium or the £20 million that has been invested in veterans’ accommodation. However, I do recognise that more needs to be done, and I feel that I have a duty to ensure that local authorities across the country are doing their bit to enforce the covenant.

Does the Minister agree that the recent report published by the Royal United Services Institute on the corporate covenant is a really important step in highlighting where the Government need to do much more to reach out to a much wider group of companies to get them to support those who are leaving the service and those families who need support.

Of course we recognise that the covenant is very much a partnership between Government, the third sector and the corporate world, which is why I was delighted to see that we recently passed 1,200 signatures on the corporate covenant.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to see the armed forces covenant enforced in Northern Ireland? What steps has his Department taken in the interim to work with veterans’ services in Northern Ireland until the scheme is fully implemented?

Of course, we have unique challenges in Northern Ireland, but I am pleased to report that we estimate that 93% of covenant issues are being enforced in Northern Ireland. Clearly, we need to do better, and that is going to be my focus for the year.

While there are many examples of good practice across the United Kingdom, it is clear that not everyone in the forces community is experiencing the benefits of the covenant. A recent report by the Local Government Association found that nearly 40% of those who served in the armed forces felt that their service left them disadvantaged. What are the Government doing to ensure that the covenant becomes a reality for every serviceman and woman across the country?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post, and I encourage him to look at the last four covenant reports, which detail the progress we have made over the last four years. However, his point is well made, and it is precisely why, earlier this year, I commissioned the Forces in Minds Trust to do a review so that we can ensure that best practice from the various local authorities across the United Kingdom is shared.

Mental Health Services: Veterans

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of mental health services for veterans. (907095)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of mental health services for veterans. (907104)

I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), shortly. I had several such meetings with his predecessor at which we discussed mental health.

Part of the problem is that only about 50% of veterans who have mental health issues come forward with them because of culture, stigma, or whatever. What are the Government doing to reach out to those who do not seek treatment to ensure that they also do so?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. The problem is not specific to veterans; for some time, we have had problems in society whereby mental health has been a stigma and people are reluctant to come forward. We are working closely with the Department of Health, because ultimately this is its responsibility, but we also have a number of programmes within the Ministry of Defence, not least the veterans and reserves mental health programme, which ensures that veterans are contacted one year after they leave the service to be encouraged to seek support if they need it.

Servicemen and women are able to access defence mental health services for up to six months after they leave the military, but poor mental health can kick in at any time. Given that the NHS is frankly on its knees in relation to mental health services, will the Minister consider extending the access period to allow veterans proper priority in mental health services? That would also take the pressures off the NHS.

This is an interesting area. Ultimately, the national health service is responsible for our veterans because, as a society, we do not have a specialist veterans department; I think that is the right approach. Nevertheless, we have invested over £13 million of LIBOR money in this specialist area. We do indeed allow people access for up to six months, and I am happy to look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to see how we can perhaps do more.

The provision of a psychologist specialising in trauma services would be of huge benefit to the many veterans in Devon, particularly in East Devon, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Will my hon. Friend commit to having an early discussion with the Secretary of State for Health to make such a provision available to my constituents and others?

As I mentioned in my original answer, I have a regular meeting with my counterpart at the Department of Health, and I am happy to add my hon. Friend’s suggestion to the agenda.

While it is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan), she has already had a substantive question. She can have another go in topicals, but Members cannot speak twice in substantives, I am afraid.

18. Analysis by Combat Stress has found that reservists who have served in recent military campaigns were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder than regular service members. What are the Minister and the Government doing specifically to ensure that those who volunteer for the reserves will have the necessary mental health treatment and support options once they have returned to civilian life? (907111)

I should declare my interest as a serving reservist. From my own experience of being mobilised on three occasions over recent years, I can say that it has been interesting to see the extra support I have had on returning from mobilised service latterly compared with when I first did it in 1999 to 2007. Progress is definitely being made. As I said, we have the veterans and reserves mental health programme, which ensures that extra support is given to reservists. I fully recognise that when reservists are demobilised they do not always have the same support as those returning to a regular unit.

19. The armed forces covenant makes it clear that veterans have distinct health needs and should receive priority treatment, but given the fragmentation in the health service, what monitoring is being done to make sure that they actually receive the treatment that they require? (907112)

In certain circumstances, veterans should have priority treatment. That is precisely why, on 13 July, I announced the new integrated high dependency care system, which is a partnership between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health to ensure that those who need specialist support can continue to get it from Defence Medical Services.

Defence Spending

7. What estimate he has made of the increase in defence spending over the course of this Parliament. (907096)

This Government put our security first. The spending review confirmed that the Ministry of Defence’s budget will rise by 0.5% above inflation in every year to 2020. We will spend 2% of GDP on defence each year, and the defence budget will rise to almost £40 billion by the end of the decade.

Sentinel aircraft based at RAF Waddington in my constituency play a vital role in the fight against Daesh, so may I welcome the Department’s announcement of £130 million support contract funding from our growing defence budget? Will the Minister confirm how many jobs that will sustain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the important role played by Sentinel aircraft based in his constituency. The contract is good news for the UK defence industry and it will sustain about 120 jobs at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, and about 40 jobs at Hawarden airfield in Broughton in north Wales.

The pound has dropped nearly 20% in value and the price of vital military kit that we buy abroad is set to sky-rocket, so will the Minister confirm that we have enough contingency to pay for the F-35 fighters planned for the new aircraft carriers?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a double lock in terms of the budget and that it is based not just on 2% of our economy, which I am pleased to say grew again in the third quarter. There is also a lock in terms of a rise of 0.5% above inflation every year to 2020.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that this issue arose from the first review for about 30 years to result in an increase, rather than a reduction, in the size of the armed forces? Does she agree that, as the world gets more dangerous, it is all the more important that we get more bang for the buck from every pound spent?

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his efforts during his time at the Department? They resulted in the settlement in the 2015 autumn statement, which I mentioned earlier. He is absolutely right to say that defence spending is going up every year, and that is so that we can invest in the new Type 26 frigates, aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, fast jets, armoured vehicles and, as we heard last week, our cyber-defences.

May I begin by sending my condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal Joe Spencer, who was tragically killed at RAF Tain last week?

On Friday, I warmly welcomed the announcement that steel would be cut on the Type 26 frigates in summer 2017. However, I repeat my point that the contract remains unsigned, so will the Secretary of State get a move on and sign it? The defence procurement Minister said last year that Type 23s would be replaced by Type 26s on a like-for-like basis. Is that still the case?

I think I detected in that question a sliver of a welcome for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on Friday two decades’ worth of shipbuilding work on Type 26 frigates in Scotland. I remind the hon. Gentleman that none of that shipbuilding would have happened if he had achieved his desired outcome in the Scottish referendum.

Is it not the case that only the original order for 13 Type 26s would have kept the yards working until 2035? Now that there are only eight and there is no confirmation of the general purpose frigates, how can an order for just eight Type 26s secure two decades’ worth of work on the Clyde?

Did you, Mr Speaker, detect any mention there of the five offshore patrol vessels that are also being built on the River Clyde? The hon. Gentleman’s comments are absolutely extraordinary. I am reminded of the P.G. Wodehouse phrase—[Interruption.]

Order. It is bad enough for the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) to ask a question that is too long, but for him to rant for too long and then, when the Minister gets up to reply, to continue ranting is not statesmanlike behaviour by the hon. Gentleman, for whom I previously had high hopes.

As P.G. Wodehouse said:

“It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.”

As the former Minister responsible for Type 26s, may I warmly welcome the order for them, although I and the nation could well do with more? I also welcome the decision to maintain defence expenditure at 2%, but may I remind my hon. Friend that last year that was done only by viring £1.2 billion of expenditure from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Minister of Defence? Why is it that I am hearing from senior officers that their budgets are being cut this year and that they are having to find in-year savings? Where is the extra cash?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his enormous contribution. He has always made the case for a growing defence budget. I am sure that he, too, will welcome not only the announcement we made last week about the Type 26 frigates, but the announcement made at last year’s strategic defence and security review that we would develop a general purpose frigate and commit to at least five of those.

It is right that the Government are sticking to our NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence, but as the Select Committee on Defence has noted, the Government are doing so only by including areas that were not previously counted. Can the Minister tell us what defence expenditure would be as a percentage of GDP if we used the accounting rules that were used in 2010?

We use exactly the methodology that NATO approves, and everything is consistent with NATO’s definition. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify whether the Labour party will also commit to spending 2% of the country’s GDP on defence.

Armed Forces

8. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the armed forces’ contribution to the range of operations in which they are involved. (907098)

British Forces are involved in 28 operations in more than 25 countries, protecting the United Kingdom and its interests from a range of threats and promoting security in key regions of the world. The Royal Navy deploys some 29 ships and submarines across the globe, supported by more than 8,000 sailors and Marines.

Women have served alongside men with distinction aboard Royal Navy ships in combat service for many years. Does the Secretary of State agree that opening up front-line roles to women in the Royal Marines, the Army and the RAF will enhance their effectiveness in operations?

The Royal Navy has been ahead, as one might expect of the senior service, in demonstrating how women serving in front-line roles improve the capability of our armed forces. Five Royal Navy vessels and one shore establishment are currently commanded by women, and some 9% of the Royal Navy is now female. Opening ground close combat roles to women will provide further opportunities to attract and retain talented women from the breadth of society. Doing so is fundamental to the successful delivery of operations now and in the future.

May I press the Secretary of State on the co-operation that we need to be effective? Is he happy with the level of co-operation we get across NATO, where many of our NATO friends are not spending sufficient amounts of money on their defence? Is he worried that if the presidential election in the United States went one way tomorrow, we would be hard put to be an effective force against Putin?

A number of NATO members have much more to do. Some of them still spend less than 1.5%, and a few of them even spend less than 1%. But in the deployments that are being agreed on the eastern border of NATO we are seeing more co-operation, with countries such as France and Denmark coming alongside the battalion that we will lead in Estonia next year.

Will the Secretary of State, in the context of the operational effectiveness of our forces, emphasise that such things are normally done in partnership with other countries? Does he therefore agree that it is vital that members of the US Administration and other NATO partners recognise that they are strengthened by the contribution that NATO countries collectively make to the defence of the United States?

It is probably the wrong day to comment on the position of the United States. Yes, NATO is a collective defence organisation, and we all, in that respect, rely on each other. I note, for example, that when Britain leaves the European Union, three of the four battalions on the eastern border of NATO will be led by non-EU countries.

Speaking as a ray of sunshine, may I ask whether the Ministry of Defence has made any assessment of how the Army’s new Ajax fighting vehicle would fare against Russia’s equally new T-14 main battle tank?

I do not think it is right to compare one particular armoured vehicle with a completely different type of armoured vehicle. What is important is to look at our armoured vehicles and our combat systems as a whole across the range that we have deployed and are going to deploy, including the new Ajax armoured vehicle.

Military Campaign against Daesh

In Iraq, operations to liberate Mosul are continuing to make good progress, with Iraqi forces reaching the outskirts of the city. In Syria, the Manbij pocket has been closed, restricting Daesh’s access to the Turkish border, through which they were bringing in fighters, and in September they were expelled from the culturally significant town of Dabiq.

The military success against Daesh in Iraq is to be welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that after the eventual liberation of Mosul we will continue to support Iraqi forces in their fight to defeat Daesh?

Yes. The Iraqi security forces, including the peshmerga, are playing the primary role in the fight against Daesh in Iraq, but the support and training provided by the global coalition, including the United Kingdom, has been a key contributor to their success. This fight will not end with the liberation of Mosul, nor will United Kingdom support.

What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with his counterpart in Turkey to ensure that the Turkish military and Turkish-backed militia are not working against the overall aims of the international coalition during the recapture of Mosul and, above all, that they are ensuring the protection of civilians and the provision of humanitarian aid?

I last met my Turkish counterpart a couple of weeks ago at the NATO Defence Ministerial. Key to the success of this campaign is that all the various parties involved in what is a complex situation in northern Iraq respect the sensitivities of the very complex make-up of the individual towns and villages. That applies to the encirclement and the liberation, but it will also of course apply to what we call the “day after”—the day after liberation—when we have to restore local administration and essential services.

Will the Secretary of State say what progress is being made in destroying and degrading Daesh’s capability to recruit and, indeed, to infect the minds of young people in this country? What success have we had on that front in recent months?

We have seen a reduction in the flow of foreign fighters from this country to Syria and Iraq. We have intensified the work we have been doing with other countries in strategic communications to lessen the appeal of Daesh by interdicting some of their material—taking down material from their websites and reducing the appeal they have through social media—and we will continue to work at that. Meanwhile, there are perhaps 200 to 300 British citizens still involved with Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We will have to make sure that they no longer pose a threat to this country and, indeed, are held to account for any criminal acts they may have committed.

I am sure the whole House is in agreement in hoping that Mosul can be decisively liberated from Daesh as quickly as possible. A devastating consequence of this ongoing conflict is the effect it is having on the city’s children. It has been estimated that about half of the civilians fleeing Mosul are children, while recent reports have found that Daesh are kidnapping boys as young as nine to use them as soldiers. What are the UK armed forces doing specifically to aid the children in this city?

Our armed forces are not involved in combat on the ground in and around Mosul. We have been supplying close air support, intelligence and training. It is important to remember that those children were suffering before the operation began—they would have been suffering in Mosul anyway—and I think we can best help by making sure, as these areas are progressively liberated, including the suburbs of Mosul, that UN agencies are ready to go in and provide the necessities of life and get those children out if they can.

Mosul has suffered deeply from cultural destruction. As we look forward to the ratification of The Hague convention, what will the armed forces do to limit further damage to the cultural heritage of Mosul and support the good work of Lieutenant Colonel Tim Purbrick’s cultural property protection working group, more catchily known as the monuments men?

We have consulted international partners on best practice and have tasked the Army with establishing a cultural property protection unit, which will help to ensure that cultural property is protected from damage and looting, will provide advice, training and support to operational planning processes, and can investigate, record and report cultural property issues from any area of operations. I know that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming our intention to ratify the convention, through legislation before the House, early next year.

15. Will the Secretary of State reassure me of the UK’s commitment to supporting the Kurdish peshmerga in the fight to defeat Daesh in Iraq? Will he join me in paying particular tribute to the brave Kurdish women of the peshmerga, who are playing such an important role on the frontline in defeating the death cult Daesh? (907107)

Yes. The United Kingdom is absolutely committed to supporting the Kurdish peshmerga in their efforts to defeat Daesh. I visited them while they were training recently. Our commitment is demonstrated by our participation in the building partner capacity programme. Among the peshmerga are the Kurdish women whose bravery and resolve have had such a tremendous impact on the campaign. I am sure the whole House will wish to join my hon. Friend and me in paying tribute to the female peshmerga for the contribution they are making.

Departmental Funding

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of funding for his Department. (907102)

The Ministry of Defence meets the Treasury regularly as part of its routine business. The spending review set out the Ministry of Defence’s spending plans for the rest of this Parliament. The defence budget is growing at 0.5% above inflation each year until 2020. We also have access to the new joint security fund. These commitments mean that the defence budget will rise to almost £40 billion by the end of the decade.

I thank the Minister for her answer. I listened carefully to the answer she gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) on the cost of the pound and the purchasing power of the Ministry of Defence. The Royal United Services Institute has suggested that the purchasing power of the UK’s defence budget could be cut by 2% as a result of the fall in sterling. What plans do the Government have to offset that?

Again, I put on the record the fact that defence spending will go up regardless of currency fluctuations because of the double lock on the defence budget. As part of ongoing management of the budgets at the Ministry of Defence, we pay and have paid regard to the currency risk in terms of our procurement programme.

When Ministers meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer will they remind him that although the defence budget is going up in absolute terms it is nevertheless at a lower proportion of GDP than ever before? We really ought to be looking at something approaching the 3% mark, bearing in mind the fact that the level of threat we face today is similar to that of the 1980s, when we regularly spent between 4.5% and 5% of GDP on defence.

My right hon. Friend was calling for 5% the other day—“Go for five and stay alive” was the catchphrase he came up with, I think. He is right that it is important that we continue to keep the Ministry of Defence’s budget under review, and we were very pleased that last year the spending review committed to a rise of 0.5% above inflation every year during this Parliament. Another spending review will have to look at the budget again in due course.

Topical Questions

My priorities remain the fight against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence review. I am delighted to confirm to the House today that the United Kingdom has been chosen by the United States to become a global hub for maintenance and support services for the F-35 programme. The initial contracts will generate hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue and support thousands of highly skilled jobs. It is excellent news for the UK economy, and for Wales in particular, where the hub will be based.

May I welcome the fact that steel cutting will belatedly begin on the Type 26 frigates in the summer of 2017? However, the fact remains that, for the total of 19 frigates and destroyers to be maintained, each frigate will have to be replaced at the rate of one a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the steel cutting begins in 2017, the first ship will be ready to enter service at the same time as HMS Argyll, the first of the Type 23 frigates, is due to leave service in 2023?

Yes, I can confirm that it is our intention to replace the anti-submarine frigates within the Type 23 force with eight new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates.

What assurances has the Secretary of State given to our NATO ally Estonia after a recent report by the US army-linked RAND Corporation showed that the current mismatch of forces in the Baltic region could result in Estonia being overrun by Russian troops within 36 hours in the event of an invasion?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman comes new to these matters, but he may have heard me announce three weeks ago that we are sending 800 British troops to Estonia next year, backed up by French and Danish companies. There will be similar battalions in each of the Baltic states from next year, along with a battalion in Poland, which is all part of NATO’s measures to assure and help to deter any possible aggression.

There is a still a large number of British nationals in Syria and Iraq fighting against Daesh on the side of the Kurdish forces, yet there seems to be no Government line on whether it is a criminal offence to do so under the Terrorism Act 2000, leaving a number of people, including my constituent Aidan Aslin of Newark, in legal limbo upon their return. Will the Secretary of State look into the matter and get a policy to help those British citizens on their return?

I am very happy to undertake to look into that particular matter, but our emphasis, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, must be on the 200 or 300 British citizens who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for Daesh and pose a potential threat to this country, and who may well have committed criminal acts in fighting alongside Daesh. They are the people who need to be investigated first.

T3. The hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) and I have been campaigning to bring opportunities to air cadets in Wales to experience gliding in Wales. We were promised at a meeting in the Ministry of Defence last week that a decision was pending. Is it good news or bad news? (907082)

It is good news. The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) have been absolute champions when it comes to pursuing the opportunity for cadets in Wales to glide in Wales, so I am pleased to announce that I will facilitate summer gliding camps at St Athan on a trial basis next summer, with a view to continuing them in future.

We have heard a lot this afternoon about the Type 26 frigate, but I should like to ask about our minesweeping capability. What progress and innovation in minesweeping technology has been made for the Navy?

I was delighted recently to announce, along with our French partners, an unmanned maritime minesweeping capability. We are building the demonstration phase, which will be an innovative and interesting investment in minesweeping technology.

T4. Shortly after the EU referendum, the Defence Secretary said that Britain could continue even after Brexit to take part in EU defence missions, such as the ongoing operations to tackle smuggling, people smuggling and piracy. We are now just months away from Britain triggering article 50 and our forces and our allies need certainty about what Britain’s continued participation might look like. Will the Minister or the Defence Secretary provide us with that certainty today? (907083)

Yes, and I provided that certainty at the recent meeting of the EU Defence Ministers in Bratislava. I made it very clear that while we remain members of the European Union, we will be full members of it. We will continue to participate in Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, to which we currently contribute two ships, and in Operation Atalanta to curb piracy off the horn of Africa.

During the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State undertook to review the current policy that means that not all sexual offences are referred to service police. Will he provide an update to the House?

We have always made it clear that there is no place for sexual offending in the armed forces. However, following concerns raised in this House I have decided to bring before Parliament draft legislation to add the offences of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure to schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. I will write to those who have previously raised such concerns shortly.

T5. Following publication of the highly critical marine accident investigation report on the collision between the stern trawler Karen and a dived Royal Navy submarine, and given the report’s urgent recommendations, what progress has been made on updating the Royal Navy fishing vessel code of practice? (907084)

Most of us in this place would welcome the announcement, made last week, with regard to the Type 26 ships. Does my right hon. Friend share my bemusement at the carping and pettifogging from some hon. Members about this rather welcome announcement?

It is extraordinary for a pledge of 20 years of work for the Clyde to be welcomed in such a grudging fashion. Let us be very clear that if Scotland was outside the United Kingdom, these frigates would not be built on the Clyde. If Scottish National party Members had been successful in defeating the renewal of Trident, we would not have needed anti-submarine frigates.

T7. When the Department decided to purchase the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft from the United States without competition, what arrangements did the Minister make to secure work for British companies and British workers? (907086)

The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about these matters, so, again, I would have thought he would welcome the fact that we are acquiring this capability, which will be based at Lossiemouth in Scotland. Discussions with Boeing are ongoing in relation to the substantial inward investment it is making in the United Kingdom.

The increase in Russian aggression is concerning many of our NATO allies. Can my right hon. Friend provide reassurance on what reassurance he has given to them in the face of this increased aggression?

Yes. We have, as NATO, agreed to the deployment of four battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland from next year. In addition, I announced two weeks ago that we would be deploying RAF Typhoons for the first time to assist southern air policing, based in Romania, from next year. That will provide considerable assurance to countries such as Romania and Bulgaria in curbing any Russian aggression in the Black sea region.

T8. When will the Government bring forward a proper reconstruction programme for Syria and parts of Iraq, so that we do not make the same mistake as we made in Iraq years ago? (907087)

This country has led the way in getting money assembled for the reconstruction of Syria. First, of course, we have to get the civil war brought to an end. So far as Iraq is concerned, we have contributed to the United Nations fund. That money is now ready to go in to the reconstruction of the towns that have been liberated and to provide as quickly as possible the power and hospital and school services that the population needs.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an update on progress in providing specific support and welfare provision for those of our armed forces in the Iraq Historic Allegations Team system to support their families and themselves through this traumatic period?

I am pleased to say we are making progress in this area. We expect the number of claims to go down quite substantially. We hope to report to the House shortly.

Last week I felt really powerful as an MP, given that the Secretary of State flew up to Glasgow to make an announcement just because I had a question on the Order Paper. I thank him for that. Instead of trading insults back at us, will he give a straightforward commitment that the five general purpose vehicles will be built on the Clyde as well?

Just on Friday, I announced that the first eight Type 26 anti-submarine frigates would be built on the Clyde. It is too early to say how the new general purpose frigate, which is still to be designed, will be manufactured and assembled, but of course BAE Systems on the Clyde will be in pole position.