House of Commons
Monday 30 January 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
US-UK Defence Relations
I had an introductory call with Secretary Jim Mattis last Monday. We discussed our joint leadership in NATO, including modernising the alliance and encouraging all members to meet the 2% spending commitment. On Friday, President Trump confirmed he is 100% committed to NATO. We also plan to work together to accelerate the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I look forward to meeting Secretary Mattis at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting in a fortnight’s time.
The new American President supports the torture of prisoners of war. We do not and neither does the new Secretary of Defence. May I ask the Secretary of State not to reiterate the Government’s position, but instead tell us why he thinks a proponent of torture is an appropriate recipient of a state visit?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the Government’s position absolutely clear. We do not condone the use of torture in operations and nor does the new American Secretary of Defence, Jim Mattis. As I understand it, the President of the United States has made it clear that he will be guided by those in his Cabinet. On this issue, they are taking a different view.
In my right hon. Friend’s discussions, did he mention Chancellor Merkel’s call for the remaining EU 27 to engage in closer military co-operation? Does he agree that it would be extremely dangerous and damaging to NATO if such co-operation was within the confines of the EU alone, and that co-operation between European countries should be in the context of NATO, not the EU?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. At the Warsaw summit in July last year, all NATO members agreed to improve collaboration between NATO and the European Union, particularly in areas such as hybrid warfare and strategic communications. EU Ministers have subsequently resisted the call for unnecessary duplication with what NATO is already doing.
If the hon. Lady is referring to the United States, then as the United States’ deepest long-standing ally we will of course make our views known. Our Prime Minister was the first foreign leader to meet the new President. We will continue to offer the United States our candid advice.
The Prime Minister securing the President’s 100% support for NATO, along with General Mattis’s support for NATO, is hugely encouraging, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that some of the less than helpful remarks the President might have made about NATO in recent weeks and months are actually quite a useful wake-up call to NATO? We need to modernise some aspects of the administration of NATO, and we need to say to our NATO partners that they have to step up to the mark and pay their 2% like we do.
Exactly. The new President has called for NATO members to fulfil the commitments we agreed—the UK and the United States agreed—back at the Wales summit in 2014. A number of other NATO members still have a long way to go to meet the 2% target. We also agree with the new President that we need to continue to modernise NATO to make it effective as a response and as a deterrent.
The United States and Russia already have an understanding on operations in Syria that they will de-conflict their air operations. Our own aircraft, where they are in similar areas, are covered by that understanding. We see no plans from the American Government, inside the coalition, to co-operate more fully with Russia.
Cover to the Baltic states has been extended to Romania, given Russia’s direct threat to that country. What reassurance can the Defence Secretary give to the Baltic states, which are very nervous about an assertive and aggressive Russia?
That is why we agreed, at Warsaw last summer, to deploy troops to all three Baltic states. Britain will be leading the enhanced forward presence by deploying a battalion there in Estonia, and contributing troops to the American battalion deployed in Poland, to deter Russia from any further aggression towards those countries.
This weekend, we have been shocked and appalled by the US President’s decision to impose a blanket travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim majority nations. To do this on Friday, which was Holocaust Memorial Day, only adds to the horror and outrage that we feel. Has the Secretary of State made clear to his US counterparts that there is no place for such measures in the fight against terrorism, and that such actions only inflame tensions and risk losing valuable allies, such as Iraq, who are with us in the fight against Daesh?
The hon. Lady and indeed the House may have the opportunity to discuss this matter a little later on, when a statement is made more formally about immigration policy, but let me be very clear that we look forward to working with a new United States Administration on the battle against Daesh. That includes, of course, measures to prevent and reduce radicalisation.
Many of us have also been embarrassed by and ashamed of our Prime Minister, who for all her rhetoric on Britain leading the world, decided to hold Trump’s hand instead of holding him to account. Her belated and limp reply of “We do not agree” was pathetic, especially when compared with Chancellor Merkel, who spelled out that even the necessary and determined fight against terrorism does not justify placing people of a certain origin or belief under general suspicion. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that if President Trump issues defence-related Executive orders that infringe national law or are an affront to humanity, the UK Government’s response will be prompt, robust and unequivocal?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister conducted a very prompt and successful visit to the United States, and was able to secure from the new President a 100% commitment to the NATO alliance and to work with him on a number of the issues that we deal with jointly, including the coalition against Daesh.
The Government and the Royal Navy recognise the benefits of supporting the Sea Cadets and provide support through a grant in aid payment. This is paid to the Marine Society & Sea Cadets through a memorandum of understanding, which also sets out further support with regard to the provision of personnel, accommodation and training.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting the Padstow Sea Cadets and their chairman, and fantastic work is done there. The chairman expressed concerns to me about some of their fixed costs, such as some of their utilities, insurance premiums, transport costs and tuition fees. Will the Minister look at this again, and see if he could make a contribution to the fixed costs of the service?
The grant in aid payment to the Marine Society & Sea Cadets is currently £10 million. The MOU between the Royal Navy and the MSSC, which is currently under review, will ensure that there continues to be Royal Navy support for the Sea Cadets. I would be more than happy to ensure that discussions on property issues will continue.
It must be said that female representation in the Sea Cadets is actually higher than it is in the armed forces, but it is a matter that the Government take very seriously. We have set several targets to ensure that our armed forces are viewed as being open to both men and women, and we will continue to pursue that over the coming years.
I think Milton Keynes may actually be further from the sea than Kettering, and we also have a thriving Sea Cadet unit. I am a great fan of the cadets. I started my military life in the Air Cadets some 32 years ago. It is something that I valued enormously. That is why I like to think that I am one of the greatest champions for the cadet forces.
NATO Spending Target
At the Wales summit, NATO agreed that security depends on both how much we spend and how we spend it. All 28 allies committed to meeting the defence investment pledge. The United Kingdom already meets NATO’s spending targets, and will continue to do so for the rest of this decade. I regularly encourage all allies similarly to meet this commitment.
It is right for all NATO members to meet the 2% spending commitment which we make sacrifices here to meet, but in the course of his discussions on spending and NATO deployments, has my right hon. Friend met anyone who believes that deploying troops to a NATO ally’s territory is escalatory?
The battalions that NATO is deploying to the Baltic states and Poland are combat-ready forces, but they are defensive in nature, and constitute a proportionate response to deter Russian aggression in the region. The only people who believe this deployment to be escalatory are President Putin and the leader of the Labour party. It is extraordinary that the official Leader of the Opposition is not prepared to back the deployment of British troops in Europe, but now favours some kind of demilitarised zone.
Discussions are taking place in the European Union about an EU defence system. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that commitments on the part of our European allies to this new so-called EU army do not contradict commitments to spending 2% of GDP on defence?
There is no agreement in the EU on the proposal for an EU army. We continue to make clear that nothing should undermine NATO, which remains the cornerstone of European defence, and we continue to press for closer co-operation between the EU and NATO. It is a fact, however, that 18 of the 22 EU members of NATO do not spend 2% of their GDP, and have much more to do to enable NATO to face the threats that confront it.
The Prime Minister played a blinder last week with the President of the United States in stiffening his sinews with regard to NATO, but President Trump’s vacillation in that regard over the last few weeks clearly exposes a weakness in NATO in respect of the many countries which do not pay that 2%. May I urge my right hon. Friend to make every effort that he can to ensure that those countries understand that we cannot always rely on the United States of America?
There we agree with President Trump. Since making the defence investment pledge, the majority of allies have increased their spending in real terms, but it is still too low: 19 of the NATO 28 spend less than 1.5%, and five NATO members—by no means the poorest—do not even spend 1%. We will continue, with the United States, to encourage all allies to meet those spending commitments.
As well as encouraging our NATO allies to maintain the spending of 2% of GDP on defence, will my right hon. Friend ensure that they do not achieve the 2% by including extraneous items such as pensions and other administration costs, rather than investing in frontline capability?
The expenditure that NATO classifies as meeting or not meeting the 2% is something for NATO to judge against its own guidelines. I note that our own Defence Committee commended the Government’s commitment to UK defence and found that our accounting criteria fell firmly within existing NATO guidelines, but ultimately, as I have said, this is a matter for NATO to judge.
Since the Wales summit, 22 NATO countries have increased their defence spending in real terms, and 20 of them have increased it as a percentage of GDP. The number of allies spending 20% of their overall defence expenditure on equipment modernisation has also risen from eight to 10. Is the real risk to NATO not, in fact, defence spending, but a move away from transatlantic solidarity, which the present President is in danger of taking forward?
Of course we welcome the increases in defence spending that have taken place—the baton is moving in the right direction—but I hope the hon. Lady agrees that a number of countries, including some that are quite wealthy, are still a long way from meeting the 2% target, and, in some cases, the 20% target as well. As for her latter point, I agree with her: this is a north Atlantic alliance, and it is extremely important for all of us to continue to assure the United States that that alliance is as much in the interests of the United States as it is in our interests here in Europe.
Now that the United States of America has clearly become a less stable and reliable NATO partner, how pragmatic is the 2% spending target, and what consideration has the Secretary of State given to allocating more time for European defence, or is European defence simply not fashionable any more?
So far as our partnership with the United States is concerned, it is the broadest, deepest and most advanced defence partnership in the world, and my aim is to continue to strengthen it with the new Administration, particularly in the shared programmes we have on the joint strike fighter aircraft and in the reinstatement of our maritime patrol aircraft capability.
So far as European defence is concerned, I believe that the President’s remarks during the campaign and subsequently are a wake-up call to all of us in Europe to make sure that when we make these commitments, we honour them.
The National Audit Office reports that the procurement budget will reach its peak in 2020-23, at a time when massive and vital projects such as the F-35, Ajax and the Type 26 and 31 programmes will reach their peak. Our NATO partners such as the United States have a much more thorough oversight of procurement projects, something that can be undertaken here only by the Defence Committee or the Single Source Regulations Office. What plans does the Secretary of State have to increase the oversight of these massive projects, to ensure that we not only meet the 2% GDP target, but our capability is delivered on time, on budget and—
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are increasing the equipment budget with a programme of £180 billion of spending over the next 10 years, and we have taken a number of steps to improve the delivery of that programme to ensure that, as he says, these major projects are delivered on time and to budget. We have also, of course, established the SSRO to ensure we get best value for money for the taxpayer.
Despite the Government’s huffing and puffing, it is now very clear that their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence is more apparent than real. The Government are only able to say that they are achieving the 2% goal because they are including areas such as retired MOD civilian personnel pensions in their calculations, and my question is quite simple: will the Secretary of State instead commit to using the same method of calculation as Labour did at 2010?
On the return we file to NATO, I have already told the House that it is for NATO to decide whether or not that expenditure is properly allocated, and the allocations we have made have been endorsed by a Select Committee of this House. Let me remind the House that our defence expenditure this year is £35 billion; next year it will be £36 billion, the following year £37 billion, and in the last year of this Parliament, £38 billion. It goes up every year.
The Government are certainly not breaking any NATO rules in calculating the 2%, but may I remind Ministers and hon. Members that 2% is a minimum? It is not a target, and we used to spend much more than 2% in the cold war years, as recently as the 1980s. Does the Secretary of State agree that even if all our NATO European allies were to meet the 2% pledge as a minimum, we would still be unable to deter an aggressive Russia without the wholehearted involvement of the United States, which is why the Prime Minister’s visit to President Trump was so absolutely important?
I had been hoping over the last few days to find something on which my right hon. Friend and I can agree, and we have now done so, because I absolutely endorse both legs of his proposition. The 2% is a minimum, and we comfortably exceed it at the moment, but it is important that other countries meet it, and, overall, it is important that the alliance continues to improve its investment.
On Friday, the National Audit Office placed a serious question mark against the Government’s 2% commitment. Its report revealed that in order to fulfil the defence equipment plan following the collapse of the pound post-Brexit, the Ministry of Defence will have to use all its £11 billion contingency fund and make a further £6 billion of savings in defence spending across the board. Given that Trident is ring-fenced, will the Secretary of State tell the country whether it will be hard-pressed defence personnel and our conventional capabilities that will bear the brunt of those cuts?
No. We have always been able to maintain conventional and nuclear forces in the past. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the scale and success of our equipment programme depends on our securing and releasing the efficiencies to which we committed at the time of the strategic defence review, and that work is now in hand.
The National Audit Office report cast further doubt on the Type 26 programme:
“Major changes to the requirement for the Type 26 Global Combat Ship mean that costings for this…will be unclear until 2018.”
With an ageing fleet in desperate need of renewal, a looming budgetary crisis and the uncertainty caused by Brexit, cuts to numbers, and delays, how does the Secretary of State intend to make good on the promise to maintain 19 destroyers and frigates in the Royal Navy? For how much longer does he believe that the Royal Navy can respond to global threats with its current fleet?
We set out our commitment to the size of the fleet in the strategic defence review. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the budget for the Type 26 frigate, which is designed to protect the deterrent that he does not want to keep; that seems an odd project to be worried about. The terms of that contract have yet to be finalised, but I can assure him that the expansion of the Royal Navy is fully funded.
Defence Suppliers: Innovation
With a rising defence budget and equipment plan worth £178 billion over 10 years, there are great opportunities to encourage innovation. We are spending up to 20% of our science and technology budget on research, creating an £800 million innovation fund and launching a defence and security accelerator to fund great innovative ideas fast.
Thales in Cheadle is a global centre for innovation and excellence in underwater combat systems and sonar. The delivery of that technology relies on the retention of high-tech skills. What steps is the Ministry of Defence taking to ensure that we continue to encourage the right environment for firms such as Thales and for smaller firms in my constituency by investing in complex engineering skills training and development to support innovation?
I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the recently launched skills strategy, which is called “Securing Defence Skills for the Future”. The Ministry of Defence and the armed forces are already the biggest provider of apprenticeships in the UK. I know that Thales also runs highly competitive apprenticeships and graduate training programmes, and that it is particularly committed to increasing the number of women with these skills.
I am sure that my hon. Friend noticed that, on Thursday, I launched the Enduring Challenge, which is run by the defence and security accelerator. It is designed to be a simple front door allowing anyone with a great idea that could benefit UK defence and security to enter into defence. The funding for that will be available throughout the year. On the other side of that door are helpful innovation partners who will guide small firms through a simplified procurement process, and I encourage firms from across the UK to visit the accelerator website on gov.uk to see how they can develop the next world-beating idea.
But in order to innovate, companies must have markets and customers. President Trump has clearly proclaimed that he intends to buy American, so will the Minister assure us that, whether it is high-tech equipment, cars or supplies, her Department will actually start to buy British?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are of course the industry’s biggest customer. He will also know that there are great examples of international collaboration. For example, we are purchasing 138 planes from the 3,000 in the F-35 programme, and 15% of each of those 3,000 planes is being built in the north-west of England. We have also been selected as the global hub for the repair and maintenance of those planes.
How are the UK Government helping defence suppliers to innovate and secure part of the £1.4 billion that is spent on repairing the UK’s nuclear weapons systems? Does the Minister agree that it would help those suppliers if there was transparency and accountability about the weapons not working effectively?
That is another example of where we work closely with companies in the defence supply chain on a range of ways in which they can innovate. We put a premium on innovation right across the defence industrial base, and the right hon. Gentleman draws attention to one of the areas where human innovation has been outstanding.
NATO Assurance Measures: Estonia and Poland
The UK has a leading role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence. In Estonia, we are providing the framework battalion of around 800 military personnel, which is based around 5th Battalion the Rifles, an armoured infantry unit from Bulford that is equipped with Warrior armoured fighting vehicles. The battle group will also have Challenger 2 tanks from the Queen’s Royal Hussars and tactical unmanned aerial vehicles.
I had the pleasure of meeting my Polish counterpart only the other week. Not only did we discuss the deployment of 150 personnel and Jackal vehicles from the Light Dragoons, but I congratulated them on their spending 2% of GDP on defence. I heard what they said about NATO, but that is a matter for our NATO colleagues.
I learned a great deal about NATO on my very first visit to the United States, when I became a green card holder, so I am particularly worried about what is happening with immigration in the US. In the 1960s, NATO was the bedrock of our defence in Europe; it still is today. We need a stronger NATO and must convert President Trump into a great, positive supporter of the defence of Europe.
I learned an awful lot about NATO when I was in uniform with the British Army of the Rhine back in the ’70s and ’80s. Our American allies were with us then, and they are with us today. We need to ensure that America is 100% behind NATO—that commitment has gone through—and the Labour party leadership should be, too.
Leaving the EU: UK Defence Policy
The Prime Minister has set out our commitment to continuing to work closely with European allies and partners on shared defence and security priorities. We are already making a significant contribution to a wide range of European security challenges, and this year, in addition to undertaking our normal exercises, we will deploy troops to Estonia and Poland, and fighter jets to Romania.
The UK has long played a leading role in EU missions, including Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean and Operation Atalanta off the horn of Africa. Given the renewed commitment expressed by the Prime Minister, to which the Secretary of State has drawn attention, does he intend us to continue participating in EU missions after we leave the EU?
These are voluntary missions in which we participate not simply because they are European, but because they are in our own national interest—curbing piracy off the horn of Africa, bringing peace to the Balkans and helping to stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. The right hon. Gentleman is right that we will have the opportunity, if we wish to do so, to co-operate with our European partners on future missions where it is in our national interest.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the answers to earlier questions illustrate that we punch above our weight compared with many of our European partners, both in terms of spending and in terms of deployments to protect the eastern flank of Europe? Does he further agree that that is something that our European neighbours would do very well to keep in mind as we negotiate a new relationship with them after Brexit?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his knighthood, as I should earlier have congratulated the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Sir David Crausby). My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to continue to improve the effectiveness of our work within the European Union and NATO.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review considered the pressures on allies, and the undermining of our military and economic alliances and institutions, to be possible risks. With the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that we will mitigate the economic risk, especially given foreign currency fluctuations? The National Audit Office pointed out that the fluctuations pose a “significant risk” to the national equipment plan.
I will not comment—the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to—on the current level of sterling vis-à-vis the dollar or the euro. Suffice it to say that the Ministry, like any other large organisation, takes precautions against fluctuations in currency rates. It is far too early to say—indeed, it is wrong to speculate—where those exchange rates will eventually settle down.
The Ministry of Defence’s permanent secretary has said that the European Union is “operationally irrelevant” to defence, but does my right hon. Friend agree with me that there are many areas where there is room for continued collaboration, particularly on a project-by-project basis, through the European Defence Agency?
The permanent secretary agrees with me on these matters. Of course, after we leave the European Union, we will still have the largest defence budget in Europe, the largest Navy in Europe and some major capabilities that our other partners do not have. We will continue to collaborate with our partners, including key allies such as France and Germany, but also northern European allies, on different programmes. Our leaving Europe does not mean that we will not continue to seek the efficiencies that come from future collaboration.
The Ministry of Defence has said, quite correctly, that co-operation with our European partners can both be cost-effective and achieve worthwhile results. I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments this afternoon, but can he specifically tell us whether he has had discussions with the Brexit Secretary about future European co-operation after we leave the European Union?
NATO: Role of US Administration
The new US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, and I have already discussed a range of NATO issues. I welcome his public support for the alliance. The Prime Minister and President Trump also had positive discussions about NATO last Friday. The United Kingdom and the United States will lead forward battalions this year in Estonia and Poland, and I will work with Secretary Mattis on ways to improve NATO’s effectiveness.
It is quite true that President Trump has said that he supports NATO 100%, but the American Administration have also said that they would like to see changes in NATO to bring it into the 21st century. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his opposite number about that? If he has not had such discussions, why does he not start them?
I have had those discussions, and I look forward to having further discussions when NATO Defence Ministers meet in a fortnight’s time, because we, too, would like NATO to continue to modernise; streamline its bureaucracy and decision making; improve the movement of troops, armour and equipment across its internal borders; and ensure that it can respond more rapidly and more effectively in times of tension.
Like the Secretary of State, I was pleased to hear that the United States remains 100% committed to NATO, the bedrock of the mutual defence pact. Does he agree that the best indication of the role of the US in NATO is the co-operation that we are seeing on bringing our carrier strike force capability back, rather than some of the commentary we are hearing in the media?
Yes. I was very pleased to be able to conclude an agreement with the US Government before Christmas on the US Marine Corps using the carrier to land its aircraft on. There are many more opportunities for deeper collaboration on that programme, and on the development of maritime patrol aircraft, where we are both using the same type of aircraft, as there are in the research and innovation areas that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), is leading on.
Royal Navy: Size and Capability
The Royal Navy is growing for the first time in a generation, with new aircraft carriers, submarines, frigates, patrol vessels and aircraft all on their way; 2017 is the start of a new era of maritime power, projecting Britain’s influence globally and delivering security at home. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Select Committee on Defence recently said, in a fairly damning report, that the Royal Navy’s fleet of just 17 usable frigates and destroyers is
“way below the critical mass required”.
Does the Minister agree with the many former Sea Lords who gave evidence to the Committee that the number of vessels is just not sufficient, given that we are island nations, to protect our interests on the high seas?
My sympathies to the hon. Gentleman. I wish to emphasise that the 2015 SDSR announced that we will maintain our fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers, and committed to eight Type 26 global combat ships, three new solid support ships and two new offshore patrol vessels. That is in addition, of course, to the two new aircraft carriers, which, as he knows, are well on their way.
I can confirm that as of 1 October 2016, some 9% of the naval service strength was female—the departmental recruitment target is 15% by 2020. The Royal Navy has a number of initiatives to encourage recruitment and address the retention of female officers, including having more focused career management and increased access to flexible ways of working.
In the 2015 SDSR, and again last December in the first annual report on the SDSR, the Government were very clear that the sea trials for HMS Queen Elizabeth would begin this spring, but in response to a parliamentary question last week, the Minister informed me that the trials would now take place this summer. What are the reasons for that? What will the operational service date be for HMS Queen Elizabeth?
The security situation in Yemen has been concerning since 2014, when Houthi forces and those loyal to former President Saleh took over the capital Sana’a and forced out the legitimate Government of President Hadi.
As the suffering in Yemen unfolds, the world watches in horror. Nearly 2.2 million people are internally displaced, half of them women and girls. Evidence from Amnesty International shows that partially exploded, UK-manufactured BL755 cluster bombs are lying unexploded, injuring and maiming many people. Despite the Foreign Office Minister denying their existence, the UK Government’s own investigations back up media reports that such cluster bombs have been deployed in the war in Yemen, so when will this heartless Tory Government wake up, do a proper investigation, take on Saudi Arabia and stop the sale and deployment of these bombs?
I think the hon. Lady must have missed the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave on this issue in December. I can confirm that the humanitarian situation is extremely serious. As a result, the UK is the fourth largest donor to Yemen and is committing more than £100 million this year.
The single biggest contributor to the humanitarian disaster in Yemen is the Royal Saudi air force, which has systematically destroyed almost the entire infrastructure of the country, leaving 7 million people in danger of starvation because food cannot be got to them. How much worse does the humanitarian crisis have to get before the United Kingdom stops selling £2 billion-worth of weapons per year to a Government who are accused of 250 different war crimes in Yemen?
The UK position is of course that a political solution is the best way forward to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict there. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the coalition in Yemen is supported by United Nations resolution 2216. He will also be aware that there are regular incursions into Saudi territory, and I am sure he will recognise the legitimate self-defence of the Saudi-led coalition under United Nations resolution 2216.
Yes, I can confirm that the Government regularly urge Saudi Arabia to sign the cluster munitions convention. I can also confirm that, in his statement in December, the Secretary of State welcomed the announcement that UK munitions would no longer be used.
I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to my previous answer about how we welcomed the Saudi Government’s commitment. We do not routinely hold records of other nations’ use, storage or location of UK-manufactured equipment, particularly items that were supplied decades ago under previous Governments.
As the Minister knows, there are serious allegations that both sides in the conflict in Yemen have broken international humanitarian law. Those claims are particularly worrying to us in this country because we now know that United Kingdom-supplied cluster munitions have been used in Yemen. What action are the Government taking to push for a full, independent, United Nations-led investigation into the alleged violations of international law in Yemen?
We do not oppose calls for an international independent investigation into these incidents but, first and foremost, we want the coalition to investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law attributed to those groups and for the investigations to be thorough and conclusive.
Royal Navy: Size and Capability
This Government are committed to increasing our maritime power to project our influence across the world and to promote our prosperity. Over the next decade, we will spend £63 billion on new ships and submarines. The Royal Navy will have two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, new submarines, frigates, aircraft, patrol vessels, support ships and tankers.
When the Queen Elizabeth sets sail, does my hon. Friend agree that it will be testament to the skill of British workers and our superb Navy? It will show Britain as a global force, so will she make sure that Portsmouth gives the ship a wonderful welcome?
My priorities remain our operations against Daesh, strengthening NATO, and implementing our defence review. I can announce today that Her Majesty the Queen will unveil the new Iraq Afghanistan memorial, with a service in London on 9 March, as a reminder of the huge contribution that our armed forces, aid workers and civilians make to the security of the United Kingdom and to help build a more stable future for the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So far, 6,981 people from my constituency have signed the petition to cancel Trump’s visit, and minute by minute the figure is going up. Will the Secretary of State publicly condemn the entry ban that Donald Trump has imposed on seven majority-Muslim countries under the pretext of defence?
I think that the Government’s position on this has been made very clear. We do not agree with the way in which the ban is being applied to British citizens, and the hon. Lady may have an opportunity later this afternoon, if she catches your eye, Mr Speaker, to pursue this directly with my colleague the Foreign Secretary.
I can confirm that the Dreadnought submarine programme is a major national investment programme that will sustain thousands of jobs across the UK. The benefit will extend well beyond the major companies leading the programme.
Army recruitment levels are now worryingly low, due in no small part to the Government’s total failure to manage the contract with Capita, allowing that parasitic company to sponge off the public purse while bringing in only 6,900 of the target of 9,500 Army recruits? Will the Minister review Capita’s contract and improve his Department’s monitoring procedures to stop leech-like companies siphoning off taxpayers’ money for little or no return?
We need to be careful, because comments like that undermine the morale of our armed forces. Let us have some facts. On 1 December 2016, the fully trained strength of our regular forces was 143,680, of whom 29,400 were in the Royal Navy; 83,360 were in the Army; and 30,870 were in the Air Force. We have more work to do on retention and recruitment, but those sorts of comments are not helpful to our armed forces.
Our service leavers have many transferrable skills, and I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Defence is working with the National Offender Management Service to encourage service leavers to join the Prison Service as part of the Government’s recruitment of 2,500 new prison officers.
We already publish a huge amount of information about the number of strikes that the Royal Air Force has carried out. That information was updated today on the Ministry’s website. It gave details of operations last week in and around Mosul, and a strike to the west of Raqqa. That information has already been made public but I will, of course, look again into whether we can improve on it.
I was very impressed when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency earlier this month. Of course, Leonardo helicopters will support our existing Apache Mk1 helicopters until they are retired from service. I am delighted that Boeing announced last week that it will make the UK its European base for training, maintenance, repair and overhaul across its defence platforms. I am sure it will want to discuss that with Leonardo, which is well placed to secure subcontract work on the next generation Apaches.
When will the Secretary of State answer calls to grant an independent inquiry into the botched Trident II D5 missile test to inform this House and our constituents what went wrong? What plans has he made to ensure that the House can be confident that the procedure for providing information is reliable and timely?
I have no plans to commission the kind of inquiry that the hon. Lady proposes because, as I have made clear to the House, we do not on the Floor of the House comment on the details of nuclear submarine operations or on the details of the demonstration and shakedown operations, except to conclude that HMS Vengeance successfully carried out that operation last summer and has now rejoined the operational cycle.
As Iraqi forces become increasingly capable and are deployed across the country, we now need to deliver our training more flexibly. In addition to training in Besmaya, Taji and al-Asad air bases, I have authorised UK personnel to deliver training at other secured and protected locations in Iraq. This aligns with our approach in the Kurdish region and ensures that we continue to deliver the infantry skills, counter-IED, combat first aid and bridge training that the Iraqi forces require.
Ministers are well aware and, no doubt, very concerned that RAF serviceman Corrie McKeague has been missing since September. The hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) has done sterling work keeping Members informed of the work that is taking place to find him, but this is clearly a very distressing time for his family. Will the Minister place on the record the Government’s concern about Corrie’s whereabouts? Will he also give an assurance that all work is being done and all resources are being put towards the search to bring him home?
Naturally, there is an ongoing police inquiry, but I am sure that Members across the whole House will want to register that their thoughts are with Corrie’s family, loved ones and his service colleagues from the RAF Regiment who I had the honour of meeting at RAF Honington just after he went missing. On a daily basis, I have ensured that all available military kit, personnel and surveillance equipment are available should the police request them, and they have requested them on several occasions. I thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to my Parliamentary Private Secretary, who has done diligent work in Bury St Edmunds to ensure that the local community knows what is going on. We all want Corrie to come home safely, and the MOD will do all we possibly can.
Following the revelation of a very rare failure of a Trident missile test, will the Secretary of State confirm that our nuclear deterrent still meets what might be termed the Federer criterion of being able to deliver lethal projectiles at high velocity, in rapid succession and with total accuracy over a very long period of years?
Has the Secretary of State had an opportunity to speak to his American counterpart over the weekend, because many of us would hope that he would have pointed out to the Americans that Trump’s ban is potentially a massive recruiting sergeant for terrorism and is not going to protect anybody at all?
Yes, we are concerned at the rising tensions in the South China sea. We continue to encourage all parties that may be contesting the sovereignty of particular islands or other areas to take those disputes through the international forums that were established for that purpose, and therefore to de-escalate the situation as far as they can.
The whole country will welcome the memorial to our 625 brave soldiers who perished in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also welcome the Prime Minister’s admission that we will never engage in wars of that kind in future. Would it not be appropriate now to investigate why we went into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired, yet that resulted in 425 deaths of our soldiers? Should we not investigate that to make sure that we do not repeat it?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has long held these views, will take the time to read in full the Prime Minister’s speech in Philadelphia last Thursday, where she spoke of the importance of standing by the fragile democracies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have increased our troop presence and where we will stay until the job is done, which is to reduce the threat to our own people here.
I am sure that the whole House will have heard with some joy that the MOD’s procurement process is to be simplified and diversified. To help us to judge the success of this, will the Minister say how many people currently work in procurement at the MOD and whether that number will go up or down between now and the end of the Parliament?
The United States has always been a good partner to this country and has played a leading role in NATO, and is a key part of the nuclear alliance that we and the United States share together. It is worth remembering that NATO is a nuclear alliance. I look forward to working with the new Administration on precisely that.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the Heads of Government agreement signed at the weekend between the UK and Turkey, securing over 400 jobs in Lancashire? Does that not send out a signal that Britain post-Brexit is open for business?
It does. I, too, am delighted that the agreement has now been signed in principle on the TFX programme, which will combine Turkish and British technology and brainpower into the development of a new fighter aircraft. I hope that that will lead to many more jobs being created both here and in Turkey.
In October, NATO appointed its first ever assistant secretary-general for intelligence. If the new US President follows through with his stated intention to reinstate rendition and torture, the NATO allies would be legally obliged not to work with him on intelligence. Will the Government ensure that the alliance rules out the use of torture in all respects, for the good of NATO effectiveness?
I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend is referring to the Ajax programme, but I can confirm that we have taken extensive steps to ensure that a significant portion of the manufacturing processes of the Ajax vehicles takes place in south Wales, and we will continue to work with our suppliers to ensure that we get significant UK content in all our procurement.
It has always been our intention that HMS Queen Elizabeth should be accepted into the Royal Navy before the end of this year. We are not giving specific dates as to when the sea trials are likely to commence. Queen Elizabeth will set out on those sea trials when she is ready to do so.
In 2020, Plymouth will commemorate the Mayflower leaving in order to found the American colonies. Is my right hon. Friend willing to meet me and potentially some other people to discuss how we can put together a review of the NATO fleet, not only for Her Majesty the Queen, but potentially for the President of America?
Jobcentre Plus Offices: Closure
On Thursday 26 January, the Department for Work and Pensions published proposals for the future of its estate, including jobcentres and back-office sites.
The Government are committed to helping people who can work to get back into work. Since 2010, the claimant count has dropped from almost 1.5 million to about 800,000, and employment has risen by 2.7 million to near record levels.
Old office contracts that are held by our jobcentres and benefits centres are now coming up for renewal, and in the 20 years since those contracts were signed the welfare system has undergone large-scale reform.
The roll-out of universal credit and our reforms of Jobcentre Plus have increased the number of digital interactions that claimants now have with us. Eight out of 10 claims for jobseeker’s allowance are now made online, and 99.6% of applicants for universal credit full service submitted their claim online. That has resulted in the DWP buildings being used much less: 20% of the DWP estate is currently underutilised.
As we renegotiate our out-of-date contracts, we are merging some smaller jobcentres with larger ones and co-locating others with local government premises. That will help the DWP to offer a better service to people looking for work, while delivering a better deal for the taxpayer, saving about £180 million a year for the next 10 years. That means that we can bolster the support that we offer jobseekers, with a recruitment drive to hire 2,500 new work coaches.
Of course, DWP staff will be consulted on those changes and the vast majority will have the option to relocate or be offered alternative roles. For any vulnerable claimants that may be affected, we will put in place robust procedures, such as offering home visits or maintaining a claim by post, to make sure that they get the support they need.
The UK Government’s proposal to drastically cut the number of jobcentres and DWP offices across Scotland and, indeed, the UK, including in my constituency of Inverclyde, will have a profound impact on thousands of people desperately seeking work and the support to which they are entitled. It is an insult that there has been a distinct lack of consultation with the communities affected and with our Government in Scotland. That lack of consultation is against the principles of the Smith agreement. Can the Minister explain to me why no consultation took place before the announcement of the closures?
In my constituency, the proposal is to close Port Glasgow jobcentre and make people from Kilmacolm, Port Glasgow and the east of Greenock travel miles to access DWP services. Disappointingly, this model has been replicated across the UK. That is an utter disgrace and it could push vulnerable people further into crisis, what with the added travel distance and cost placed upon individuals, many of whom have little or no readily available funds to pay for that commute. What assurances can the Minister provide to my constituents that they will still have ready access to Jobcentre Plus and DWP services?
This should be far more than a spreadsheet exercise. I ask the Minister to put people first. Many Jobcentre Plus staff work hard to build good working relationships with service users, and they are aware of specific issues and needs. Can the Minister guarantee service users the continuity and quality of those working relationships? If the Minister is so certain that the measures are required, will she at least halt their implementation until a full equality impact assessment has been conducted and a full consultation of all sites has taken place; and if not, why not?
There are lots of points to reflect on. Most importantly, we want to see service delivery to claimants, and the hon. Gentleman was right to focus on claimants in his constituency. As he will be aware, the claimant count in his constituency is down by 39%. I believe it is critical that we seek to maintain the relationship between work coaches and the claimants they have been working with, which is why we will seek to replicate that when work coaches are moved to a new jobcentre.
Claimants will be able not just to go to the jobcentre that falls in the catchment allocated by us, but to choose the one that works best for them. We are very conscious of the fact that many people in employment already travel significant distances to work. We are making sure that when changes fall outside the ministerial criteria, there is a public consultation, and we will use that to reflect on our public sector equality duty, which we take very seriously indeed.
Order. I am keen to accommodate the very considerable interest in this subject, but I should point out to the House—and remind those colleagues who previously knew—that there is a statement by the Foreign Secretary to follow, and thereafter other important business, which is likely to be well subscribed. There is a premium on brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike.
As my hon. Friend will have heard me say, the jobcentres that we are looking at are, in some cases, 20% under-occupied. It is absolutely critical and appropriate that we look at how we use our estate, and that we reflect on providing not only the best service that we can to jobseekers, but value for money to the taxpayer.
The Opposition strongly oppose the Government’s latest plans for the closure of one in 10 jobcentres in the UK. What assessment has the Department made of the impact of these closures on claimants, in terms of travel times and additional costs? Will the Department consider issuing guidance to staff to take into account increased travel times when issuing sanctions? Accessibility is a major issue for many disabled people. The Government have said that they aim to halve the disability employment gap in the lifetime of this Parliament. How do the planned closures fit with that aim?
From this April, lone parents will be obliged to prepare for work through interviews with work coaches once a child is three years old, rather than five years old as is currently the case. We are particularly concerned about the impact on women, children and people with disabilities. Will the Government publish an assessment of the impact of these proposals on equality issues?
The Government continue to roll out universal credit, and, for the first time, people who are actually in work will have to attend interviews at jobcentres. Will the Government delay their plans to reduce their estate until they have a clearer idea of what the demands on jobcentres and staff will be under universal credit? The Government’s hope seems to be that universal credit claims will be made and managed online, but many people are not confident using IT and they may not have access to a PC, laptop or tablet. What provision will be made for claimants who have difficulty using PCs and the internet in areas where jobcentres are earmarked for closure?
These plans have simply not been thought through, and they will have a damaging impact on the way in which vital employment support is provided. The Government should think again.
As the hon. Lady will have heard me say, the vast majority of our UC claimants now access services online, and we welcome and encourage such a relationship. We have made it very clear that vulnerable claimants will be able to make claims by post in some circumstances, particularly where they find it difficult to access a jobcentre or have childcare responsibilities, and it is very important to make that distinction. The hon. Lady talked about accessibility. Where there is a difference under the ministerial criteria of more than 3 miles or of 20 minutes by public transport, we will seek to hold a public consultation, which will then feed in to our equality analysis so that we can best understand the impact on claimants.
One of the things that really impressed me during my spell at the DWP was the quality of the work coaches and their capacity for supporting real, positive change in people’s lives. If there is an opportunity to spend less on near-empty bricks and mortar and to invest more in a greater number of work coaches, is that not exactly the right thing to do?
My right hon. Friend is of course right. Our work coaches are on the frontline of delivering services to claimants, not just helping them into work but helping those who are in work into more and better-paid work. That is why we are recruiting more work coaches and looking to make sure that our DWP estate both best reflects value for money for taxpayers and provides the services we need for claimants.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
May I tell the Minister that the Government appear to be making exactly the same errors as they did with the announcement of the Glasgow closure programme? Will the Minister tell us why the Scottish Government were not consulted, as per the Smith agreement? Why did she say in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) that jobcentres have catchment areas, when written answers to Members of the House have suggested that there are no catchment areas for jobcentres? Will she also tell us why the written ministerial statement indicated that redundancies may be required, and may we have further detail on that? Finally, what support, if any, will be available to claimants, particularly those with caring responsibilities, who have to travel greater distances?
The hon. Gentleman will of course be conscious that, as an employer, the DWP has sought to put its staff first and to make sure that they are informed first about the proposals. It is important to reflect that we need to make sure we have good working relations with the Scottish Government, and he will be aware that my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment travelled to the Musselburgh jobcentre the week before last. It does matter to us that people get to go to the jobcentre most convenient for them. That need not be the one allocated to them by the jobcentre, but could be one they choose for themselves. In every instance, we are seeking to make sure that claimants can work with their work coach and go to the jobcentre that is most appropriate for them.
I received notice on 26 January of a proposal to relocate the jobcentre from Red Lion Street in Chesham to Chesham library on Elgiva Lane. Will the Minister say what consultation has taken place with the 14 members of staff, and will she confirm that there will be no reduction in services for my constituents in the surrounding areas? We all want to see value for money, but will she send me the detailed analysis of the costs and savings that derive from this move, because it is just around the corner and we need to ensure that it makes sense and provides the value for money that she is rightly seeking?
In many instances, co-location provides the best solution, exactly as my right hon. Friend has described, for claimants and indeed for our own staff. She will be aware that we have consulted jobcentre staff closely and looked at how we can best make sure that the new location for their roles fits with what they want, or, where essential, that they can be redeployed to other DWP roles.
In 2010, I had three jobcentres in my constituency. Old Swan was closed by the Minister’s Department at the start of 2010, and now she wants to close the other two, in Edge Hill and Wavertree. My constituency has the 39th highest level of unemployment in our country. Why does she want to make it harder for the 2,950 people who want to access support but will have to pay £8.80 every month to do so?
It is important to reflect that we are trying to make it easier for claimants who interact with the DWP online to do so. We are looking at instances where we can get involved in outreach projects, as has happened in various places around the country. When there are special circumstances and when people are vulnerable, we are trying to ensure that they can be given assistance with travel to jobcentres.
Shipley jobcentre has an excellent local rapport with the Salvation Army, which is situated next door and provides additional help and support for many of the people who go to the jobcentre. Will the Minister look again at such local circumstances before she goes ahead with her closure programme? In doing so, will she tell me what consultation will take place with the local community and staff at the Shipley jobcentre to ensure that any decisions taken are the right ones for my constituents and the people in the surrounding areas?
We are seeking to ensure that we consult our staff, local stakeholders and claimants to understand what is best for them. This is part of a process brought about because the prime contract expires in March 2018. It would be grossly irresponsible of us not to reflect on how we make best use of our DWP estate, particularly when up to 20% of it is underutilised.
Will the Minister give it a rest with the jargon about relocating or co-locating, because she is actually closing jobcentres? Hyson Green jobcentre in Nottingham, where we have twice the national average unemployment and are in the 5% least employed, was opened by Lord Heseltine after civil disturbances in the city. It has been important in matching people with vacancies. Please will she think again?
It is important to match people with vacancies, but it is also important to reflect on making the best use of our estate. This is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that 20% of our space is underutilised. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that this comes at a time when we should not be wasting taxpayers’ money.
I support the rationalisation and modernisation of any service, but Brighouse is the largest township within the Calder Valley, so relocating our jobcentre uphill and down dale out of the constituency will be a disaster to the long-term unemployed who rely on it for job advice and training. Will my hon. Friend assure me that those who have put forward the proposals have visited places such as the Calder Valley to understand the demographics and geography, or have they just sat in their offices in Whitehall using Google Maps?
This is not an exercise using Google Maps. We have engaged in the exercise over very many months to make the best use of our DWP estate. When we are not using the space we have but are paying for it, it is critical that we think very hard about how we can best provide services to our claimants.
The hon. Gentleman and I discussed this matter in Westminster Hall just a few weeks ago. It is important that we reflect not only on geographic location, but on travel patterns so that people can get to the jobcentre that is most convenient for them. We should not simply allocate them to the jobcentre that we want them to go to. They should have the ability to choose and work with their work coaches to ensure they have the best access to facilities.
In 2013, I sat on the Work and Pensions Committee when we produced a report on jobcentres. Overwhelmingly, we found that it is more important to have quality over quantity. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is more important to have modern and efficient services in our jobcentres, such as disabled access? At the end of the day, it is all about outcomes. We have more jobs than ever in our country, and it is all about getting the long-term unemployed into work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government have done a great job in getting people into work, but it is important that we do so through our work coaches, whom I have visited in many jobcentres up and down the country. They are working as hard as they can to help individual claimants. We must focus on those relationships.
Is there not a more sinister reason as well as some of the ones discussed earlier—namely, the operation of agency workers in most of the ex-mining areas, where people do not use the jobcentre, principally because as many as 500 people at a time can be brought in to work on zero-hours contracts? As a result, they do not go to the jobcentre at all. That is one of the reasons.
As I indicated, this review is part of the prime contract established in 1998. It is nearly 20 years old and expires next year. All the proposals are a part of our making the best use of that contract and looking forward to what we need to provide now and in the future.
Two jobcentres in my constituency are being relocated to another jobcentre in my constituency. I need to understand why that decision was taken. We have no evidence or anything on our equality duty. I am very concerned that in Lambeth there is still a problem with gang culture, and young people in particular do not want to move from one area to another. Will the Minister please look at this again and talk to people in Lambeth before the decision is taken?
The hon. Lady makes a really important point. We want people to be able to access the jobcentres they feel most comfortable with. In some circumstances, for example where people feel sufficiently vulnerable that they do not wish to go to a jobcentre, we send the DWP visiting. I have seen that at first hand, with claimants accessing services by telephone—perhaps in instances of domestic violence—where they feel vulnerable about having to go to a public building. I absolutely take on board her points about our public sector equality duty, which we take very seriously. That is why we are carrying out an equality analysis and talking to our claimants to understand how this will impact on them.
In my constituency over the past seven years, unemployment has more than halved. That is good news, but it means that the people who are still unemployed are the more difficult people to place and they need more intensive work. The good people of Edgware will be wondering what they have done to upset their public services, with the closure of two libraries and the jobcentre. Will my hon. Friend consider the potential for not only home visits but satellite visits using commercial premises so that job organisations can run them and workplace coaches can coach a number of people together?
I reassure my hon. Friend that the DWP is doing exactly that. Outreach is an important part of our suite of products to enable claimants to be get back into work. We will continue to look at the best ways to deliver that in the best locations across the country.
Closure of the last jobcentre in my constituency will require those who sign on fortnightly to pay an extra £6 a month in bus fares to get to a more distant jobcentre. Can the Minister reassure me that Jobcentre Plus will reimburse claimants with those additional costs?
Where claimants are required to sign on more frequently than fortnightly we will look to reimburse costs, but I remind the right hon. Gentleman that across London the claimant count is down 24.6% since 2010. There are fewer people claiming and we are trying to work with them more intensively.
It is all very well to talk about jobcentres in London, but in rural Lancashire my constituents in Edgworth will have to travel for over an hour to get to Blackburn if we close the Darwen jobcentre. They are supremely hardworking and supremely successful, and anyone who thinks they can get from Darwen to Blackburn in 23 minutes is living in la-la land.
Like me, my hon. Friend represents a rural constituency. Our constituents are used to having to travel long distances to access services. Where claimants will have to travel for over an hour by public transport, we are considering what arrangements we can put in place, including claiming by post.
Leytonstone jobcentre, which is bang in the middle of my constituency, is due to close. I deal with vulnerable people week in, week out for whom that centre is highly important. They will have to travel to either Walthamstow or Stratford to receive advice and sign on. What impact assessment was made before the announcement on the effects across north-east London?
The good news in Kettering is that the number of unemployed people has fallen from more than 2,000 in May 2010 to just over 900 today, and record numbers of local people are in employment. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key achievements of hard-working jobcentre staff is to get many people online for the first time, thus improving their employability?
Unemployment may be falling now, but numerous forecasts suggest that the effects of Brexit might reverse or stagnate this decline. What assessment have the Government made of the ability to scale up support in the already overstretched jobcentre pluses if, as many expect, unemployment begins to increase in the future if the cuts go ahead?
I would like to direct the hon. Lady’s attention to the National Audit Office report of 2005, which says:
“One of the Department’s main needs is flexibility in the amount of accommodation it uses.”
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are ensuring that we retain enough flexibility within the system to be able to cope with future changes in the jobs market.