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Volume 627: debated on Monday 10 July 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Reserve Centres

1. What discussions he has had with local authorities and the devolved Administrations on reserve centre closures; and if he will make a statement. (900293)

At the first Defence questions of the new Parliament, may I remind the House of my interest, namely that I am in my 29th year of service in the Army Reserve?

The Ministry of Defence regularly holds discussions with local authorities and the devolved Administrations on reserves. That includes engaging with all stakeholders on sites that are earmarked for closure or for the establishment of new reserve units. The release of sites no longer required by the Ministry of Defence will free up land for new housing and raise money to reinvest in our armed forces.

Like the Minister, my father was a Territorial Army reservist, so I know the importance of the reserve. Would it not make more sense, rather than jumping to a closure and then contacting the devolved Administrations, to have a pre-consultation to make sure that where facilities are being reviewed across the board—ambulance stations, fire stations and so on—we have a single estates strategy for public sector assets?

Of course, we do engage with local authorities to the best of our ability, but no final decisions have been made in the Army Reserve Refine programme. It would therefore be premature to engage with local authorities to say which, if any, Army Reserve centres are closing. However, that piece of work on the reserves brings good news as well, so I am delighted to take this opportunity to announce the creation of two new infantry battalions as a result of it: 4th Battalion the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, whose headquarters will be at Redhill, and 8 Rifles Battalion, whose headquarters will be at Bishop Auckland.

May I offer my hon. Friend very warm congratulations on his promotion to Minister for the armed forces? As a distinguished and senior officer in the reserve, is he not perfectly placed to make decisions on reserve centre closures?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his warm words. As his former Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department for International Development, I know only too well of his contribution to the comprehensive approach during his tenure there. It is rare as a Minister to be appointed to a Department one actually knows something about. On that basis, I am delighted to be here. It is great to be in this position and I hope to use any experience I have.

May I, too, congratulate the Minister on seemingly knowing what he is talking about?

In recent days I became aware, via the office of the deputy lord lieutenant of the county of Dunbartonshire that he had informed the provost of West Dunbartonshire, as the local government’s civic leader, that armed forces veterans’ day would not take place due to there being no capacity in the armed forces to deliver it. As the Member of Parliament for West Dunbartonshire, it gives me grave cause for concern that veterans in local families in West Dunbartonshire, including those in my own family who have served, will not be given the appropriate thanks by their local community. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, advise me and other Members of the House whose local communities may have been unable to hold veterans’ day that this will not happen again?

Armed Forces Day has become quite a success, so I am disappointed to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I visited Bangor in Northern Ireland and my colleagues have visited other places in the United Kingdom. The Armed Forces Day centring on Liverpool this year was a particular success. However, I am concerned by what he says and would like to think that all our units, whether Army Reserve units, Regular units or cadet forces, will do whatever they can to support Armed Forces Day. I will certainly look into what he has said.

Does the Minister agree that a crucial criterion when considering dismissing or abandoning reserve centres is to ensure that our reserve centres are as close as possible to the reserve soldiers who will man them, so that they do not have to travel far?

Of course, our reserves have become very much a success over recent years. Over the last year, some 5,000 extra reserves were recruited—an increase of some 5% on the Army Reserve of 2016. One of the great challenges we face is to ensure that the footprint is equal across the country. That is why the Army Reserve Refine piece of work that is going on is so important. One of the principal aims is to ensure that the footprint is even across the country.

Abertillery in my constituency is home to the 211 Battery, which has the reserve’s only unmanned air systems operators. I understand that the Department is scrapping the Black Hornet unmanned aerial vehicle, but is still using the Desert Hawk model. Will that have an impact on the successful and popular Blaenau Gwent-based unit?

As I said earlier, I think that the reserves Refine piece is overwhelmingly a success story. I am sorry that I am not currently in a position to give the House the final details, but I will go out of my way to ensure that all Members are informed in advance of any changes in their local units.

My hon. and gallant Friend has referred to a footprint for the reserve forces. That is terribly important, because, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), they have to live near their bases. Reserve centres are also very useful as the outward face of the British Army throughout the nation where there is not otherwise any military presence. They are often co-located with, for instance, cadet battalions, and they have a huge usefulness quite apart from their military usefulness. Does it not concern my hon. Friend that what he described as a footprint may become a toehold?

I am quite confident that at the end of the reserves Refine process, the footprint will still be substantial across the United Kingdom. We are not considering major closures across the UK, and I would hate to imply that that is the correct impression. Indeed, today I announced the creation of two new reserve units. I think that, as we continue to increase the size of our reserves, the story is a positive one.

NATO: Estonia and Poland

The United Kingdom is supporting NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence, which is designed to defend our allies and deter our adversaries. About 800 UK personnel based on armoured infantry form the core of our battlegroup in Estonia. In Poland, a British reconnaissance squadron is part of the US-led battlegroup. Both deployments are defensive but combat-capable.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomed, as I did, the congressional vote that renewed the United States’ commitment to article 5. Will my right hon. Friend say a little about Britain’s commitment to it, particularly in relation to units such as the Estonian armed forces, alongside whom I—and many other Members—had the privilege to serve in, for instance, Afghanistan?

It is good that both Congress and, now, the President have committed themselves to article 5, the most important principle of NATO. In Washington on Friday, Secretary Mattis and I agreed to continue our work together to modernise NATO and give it more focus on counter-terrorism and hybrid warfare. As my hon. Friend has said, one of the reasons that our contribution to the enhanced Forward Presence is based in Estonia is indeed our good experience of working with Estonian forces in Helmand, Afghanistan.

Joint military exercises in the Suwalki gap are obviously very welcome, as are rotational deployments of troops in Poland, but when will the United Kingdom use its senior position in NATO to press that organisation for a permanent NATO base in eastern Poland?

Our defence relationship with Poland is close. Since the beginning of 2016 I have met Minister Macierewicz at least five times, and we aim to sign a defence treaty with Poland later this year. NATO, of course, already has a small permanent base in Poland, the Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin, to which the United Kingdom contributes personnel.

I very much support what the Defence Secretary has said about the contribution that we are making in respect of NATO in Estonia and Poland, but having spoken to a couple of constituents at the weekend, I believe that the Government, and all of us, have a job of work to do to explain to the British public the importance of NATO and the continuing need for us to be vigilant in eastern Europe.

I absolutely agree. We need to keep restating the case for NATO, and it is sometimes sad to see the case for it being questioned. We must restate its importance. It was good to hear the President reinforce that in his speech in Warsaw on Friday, but I think that all of us in the House have a responsibility to explain why our troops are being deployed to Poland and Estonia, why our Typhoons are based in Romania this summer, and why we are committing Royal Navy ships to the standing maritime groups this year.

One of the biggest threats facing all NATO member states is the growing sophistication and volume of cyber-attacks. What collective action are the Secretary of State and his colleagues taking to counter that threat?

As I said, Secretary Mattis and I have agreed that NATO needs to prioritise its work on cyber and other forms of hybrid warfare, which is just as important as its conventional deployments. We are now doing that; that work was agreed in principle at the Warsaw summit a year ago, and we continue to urge other members to do that, too. In addition, we have offered to put Britain’s offensive cyber capabilities at the service of NATO, if required.

These deployments are certainly defensive, as the Secretary of State stated, but they will be represented as offensive by the Russians. What measures are the Government taking to keep open a line of communication with the Russians, to make it absolutely clear to them that this would not be happening but for their own conduct in Ukraine and elsewhere?

NATO is, as my right hon. Friend knows, a defensive alliance and these deployments are defensive in nature. It is important in respect of Russia that we explain these deployments and the purpose of them, and we are transparent about the number of personnel and the units involved. To that end, we already have machinery in place whereby our vice-chief of the defence staff has regular discussions with his opposite number to explain the deployments and ensure that there is no misunderstanding about them.

As this is the first Defence questions of the new Parliament, may I begin by putting on record the Scottish National party’s welcome for the announcement on Type 26s, and also welcome the fact that Scotland is, of course, the only part of the UK that can build these complex ships?

On the issue of cyber, what is the Secretary of State’s assessment of what the President of America tweeted at the weekend on the idea of an impenetrable cyber security unit? What would that mean for a country such as Estonia, for NATO, and for the United Kingdom?

I will take for what it is the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for Type 26, on which there is a later question on the Order Paper. Of course, if the SNP had had its way on the nuclear deterrent we would not be needing the Type 26 frigates at all, because they are designed to protect a deterrent that the SNP voted against.

We have cyber expertise in this country, as do Estonia and other countries inside the alliance; we now need to bring that expertise together to counter the cyber-attacks made by our adversaries.

Former Military Personnel: Depression and Suicide

3. What steps he is taking to reduce rates of depression and suicide among former British military personnel. (900295)

We ask much of our brave service personnel and recognise that service life can cause stress, so we are absolutely committed to providing the necessary mental health and welfare support both during the time of service and on retirement.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but can he tell us more about the Veterans’ Gateway and how it will work alongside the young royals’ charity, the Heads Together campaign, to support veterans with mental health problems?

There are 2.5 million veterans in this country and the majority make the transition to civilian life without a problem, but some do not, and that is no fault of their own. There are over 500 main charities providing support, including the one my hon. Friend mentions. The Veterans’ Gateway is that initial portal to avoid the confusion of where to turn to. So I welcome this initiative, and would love to take credit for it myself, but I cannot as it was down to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), who is now the armed forces Minister.

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to those armed forces charities that work so hard supporting former military personnel facing depression and other conditions, but why will the Government not commit to the Royal British Legion’s “Count Them In” campaign so that the charities, the statutory services and everyone else can know where former military personnel live?

This is down to a data issue. We are putting together a veterans register, but there is a Data Protection Act issue. We work with Cobseo—the confederation of service charities—and we will be establishing a veterans’ board as well, to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our veterans.

LIBOR funding has been a real lifeline for many charities across the UK, including in Plymouth, where we recently secured £80,000 for a veterans care navigation service. Beyond 2018 that LIBOR funding dries up, however; what thought has the Minister given to getting veterans care on to a sustainable model, so that we can do our duty by those who serve?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in this area. He is right to say that the LIBOR funding has been so useful in providing sources of revenue for a number of key projects, and we need to ensure that that continues. I would like to highlight one of those projects, Combat Stress, whose 24/7 phone line has been paid for by LIBOR funds, providing an important service.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) about voluntary groups, I would like to mention two wonderful groups in my constituency—the Veterans Association UK and Veterans in Communities—that do wonderful work with ex-service personnel. What guarantee can the Government give that they will support such organisations in the future?

These organisations play an important part in looking after not only the transition but the veterans themselves, who have given so much during their service life. This is part of our covenant commitment, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, and I am grateful that he has mentioned those charities. The veterans board will also help with that. All our commitments to do with the covenant are important, but the Veterans’ Gateway programme will ensure that such small charities get the publicity they deserve.

The role of all three services of the British armed forces in the liberation of Mosul in Iraq in recent days must be commended. Will the Secretary of State tell me what plans we have for further involvement in Iraq and whether he agrees that the British Army has a crucial role in mentoring and training the Iraqi forces, who are a hugely important ally?

I am a Minister in the Ministry of Defence rather than the Secretary of State, but I am glad that my hon. Friend has such confidence in me. I welcome him to his place. It was a pleasure to join him on the 35th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. He is right to ask what should happen next. As we have seen so many times in various conflicts, there has not been that important transition from war-fighting to peacekeeping, but I know that the Secretary of State is involved in this matter.

Common Defence and Security Policy

4. What discussions he has had with his European counterparts on the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the UK’s participation in the Common Defence and Security Policy. (900296)

While still an EU member, we will maintain our contributions to CSDP missions and operations. The Prime Minister has made it clear that after Brexit we want a deep and special partnership with the European Union that encompasses economic and security co-operation. Europe remains our continent, and we will continue to play our part in its security, through NATO, through our bilateral relationships and through collaboration on defence and research programmes.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Last week, giving evidence in the Lords, Baroness Ashton, Lord Robertson and Lord Hague all expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on our influence in the world. Does the Secretary of State agree with Lord Hague that we should be seeking permanent membership of the EU’s Political and Security Committee to ensure that we can lead a united response on issues such as sanctions on Iran and that we have a united voice on the Falklands?

After Brexit, we will still have the largest defence budget and the largest navy in Europe. We have a range of assets and capabilities on which other countries in Europe will want to continue to work with us. So far as foreign policy is concerned, we have not yet got to the point in the negotiations of sorting out exactly what the relationship will be, but let me assure the hon. Lady that I expect to continue our co-operation with my fellow Defence Ministers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be far better for our European friends to focus on their NATO membership and their commitment to defence spending of 2% of their GDP, rather than trying to create some sort of bogus EU defence force?

We all agreed—it was not just Britain—at the time of the Warsaw summit that the European Union and NATO needed to work together to avoid unnecessary duplication. We agreed to co-operate in areas where both could add value but to avoid the need to set up fancy new headquarters and duplicate what was already being done in NATO.

The European Defence Agency supports the improvement of defence capabilities and provides a forum for European co-operation on research and development. Will the Secretary of State be recommending that we remain a member of the EDA? If not, will he explain what our relationship with it will be, post-Brexit?

The European Defence Agency is an important forum, but it is not the only forum in which collaboration takes place. Some of that collaboration is outside the treaty, including some of the work that we have done together on Typhoon and on other major equipment projects. Obviously we expect to have some kind of relationship with the European Defence Agency after Brexit, and that will be discussed in the negotiating process that awaits us.

I am pleased to hear my right hon. Friend state that NATO is the cornerstone of our defence alliance. Will he assure me that the pan-European co-operation of defence contractors, such as Thales in my constituency, will continue?

Yes. Several important companies, such as Thales, Leonardo, Airbus and so on, are based both in Europe and in the United Kingdom, and it is important to ensure that their investment and employment here is fully taken into account after Brexit.

Service Accommodation

5. What discussions he had with contractors on their delivery of service accommodation; and if he will make a statement. (900297)

The national housing prime contractor is CarillionAmey and, with support from the MOD, performance levels for service accommodation have been met and sustained. Both organisations meet monthly to review performance, and the Department will penalise poor performance where necessary.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. What estimate has he made of the impact of renegotiating the lease in 2021? Will the costs fall on service families?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for calling me the Secretary of State; I hope that if enough people say that, it will actually—[Interruption.] I should not say that. I will say, however, that the hon. Lady raises the important issue of ensuring that service family accommodation is up to par. That forms part of our armed forces people proposals, which I will be speaking more about in the House. I hope that we will have the opportunity to review the contract in 2021, but I hope the hon. Lady understands that negotiations will take place and that we will we keep the House updated.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there are no plans to eradicate single-living accommodation for service personnel?

As far as I understand it, there are no plans to remove single-living accommodation, which forms part of the complex offering of service family accommodation. As we have heard, we need to rationalise the defence estate across the country, and we are returning officers and personnel from the Rhine, which will require building projects, including single-living accommodation.

As we have heard, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body’s 46th report found that there was an

“overwhelming view that the maintenance service provided by CarillionAmey was continuing to fall well short of the needs of Service personnel and their families.”

Service families are tired of Government platitudes, so how bad do things have to get before the Government get a grip on the issue?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place and to the Dispatch Box. He is right to raise that issue. I have just inherited this brief, and there has been concern about standards, in which the Secretary of State has taken a personal interest. We are ensuring that performance levels are up to par, and there will be an opportunity to renegotiate the contract in 2021.

Armed Forces Pay

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Armed Forces Pay Review Body on levels of pay for the armed forces. (900299)

Ministers are in regular contact with the Armed Forces Pay Review Body as part of the annual pay round process. I gave oral evidence to the review body last November prior to its 2017 report, and I expect to meet it again prior to its 2018 report.

Given that every Minister, including the Defence Secretary, voted against lifting the pay cap, does that not prove that their praise is more hollow words than good deeds?

We all want to see people in public service, including in the armed forces, properly remunerated for what they do, but any pay settlement must obviously take account of taxpayers’ interests and be fair to our need to get our deficit under control. We are advised by an independent pay review body that, unlike some other pay review bodies, it is specifically required to look at comparability with the civilian sector and to take account of any evidence regarding recruitment and retention.

At times when general employment levels rise and unemployment levels fall, and with the continued strength of our economy, it gets more and more difficult to recruit and retain armed forces personnel. Will those be key factors in the consideration of this issue?

My hon. Friend is right. We are competing for the best of every generation against other sectors of the economy, which of course are growing. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body, in recommending a 1% pay rise in its last report, said:

“We believe that…an increase of one per cent in base pay…will broadly maintain pay comparability with the civilian sector.”

Further to that last question, figures released to me last week by the Secretary of State’s Department in a written answer show that recruitment to our infantry fell by 18% in the last year alone. Does he not accept that not giving a fair pay rise is having a direct impact on recruitment?

That is not the view of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. As I have just indicated to the House, the pay review body believes that its settlement, recommended last year, does maintain pay comparability with the civilian sector. Some 8,000 people joined the armed forces in the last 12 months, but when the pay review body comes to make its recommendation for next year, it will of course look specifically at the evidence on recruitment and retention—and it does that in a way that some other review bodies are not able to do.

After losing her majority at the general election, the Prime Minister has now signalled that she is prepared to work across the House with other parties on areas of agreement. In that spirit, I make a constructive offer. The Government have just introduced the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill in the other place. If the Government agree to amend the Bill to include a real-terms pay rise for our armed forces personnel, they can count on Labour’s support, so will they agree to work with us to give our armed forces the pay award they deserve?

We all want to see our armed forces properly remunerated for the service they give us, but it is also incumbent on the hon. Lady to make it very clear how any increase she favours would be properly paid for. That is something she has not done and her party has not done—it certainly did not do it at the last election. The pay review body system is beyond party politics in this House. It is an independent pay review body that looks at comparability with the civilian sector, looks at the issue of retention and recruitment and makes its recommendation, which last year we accepted in full.

On the contrary, our manifesto was fully funded, and the Government know that. They know how to raise taxes if they need them. The fact is that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is severely constrained by the overall 1% cap on public sector pay that the Government have imposed. If the Government will not legislate for a pay rise, will the Secretary of State at least allow the pay review body to carry out a mid-year review and report on what our armed forces should be receiving if the cap were not in place?

I am staggered that the hon. Lady thinks her manifesto was fully costed or, indeed, fully funded. There were billions in that manifesto that were due to be borrowed and paid for by future generations. We have implemented the pay review body’s recommendation in full for this financial year and, for next year, evidence is already being acquired by the pay review body. I will give my evidence to the pay review body later in the year, and we will see what it recommends.

Royal Navy: Personnel

8. What assessment he has made of whether the Royal Navy has sufficient personnel to operate (a) all vessels and (b) the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. (900300)

The Royal Navy is growing, with 400 more personnel, more ships and new submarines. The Royal Navy remains on track to achieve its manning levels for 2020 and will have sufficient manpower to continue to meet all its operational requirements. That includes ensuring that the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers can always operate safely and effectively.

Given concerns that we are hollowing out our armed forces’ manpower in favour of big-ticket items, what is the Minister, and indeed the Government, doing to ensure that we not only have the manpower to operate those big-ticket items but the ships to protect them when at sea? Global uncertainties abound, and over 90% of our trade is maritime borne.

My hon. Friend highlights the challenges we face in recruiting in our growing economy, and I am pleased that the Navy’s efforts to address shortages of engineers are beginning to show dividends, through the personnel recovery programme. He will also be aware of our investment in offshore patrol vessels, five of which are currently under construction, and in the new Type 26s—we will cut steel later this month.

In March 2017, total Royal Navy numbers were 710 below their liability, and it is reported that currently only six of our service escort platforms are at sea or fully operational. Given that last year we had a net manpower loss of 750, how can we be assured that we have the right retention policies to operate all of our platforms, when they are so desperately needed?

The Royal Navy is growing; I am pleased that for the first time in a generation the establishment of the Royal Navy will grow, by 400, as I said. I have mentioned the personnel recovery programme, an excellent programme that has sought to address the shortages of engineers through apprenticeships and through affiliation with university technical colleges. It is a long-term programme, but it is working.

The truth is that the Royal Navy has experienced catastrophic cuts in personnel over the past seven years and now the chickens are coming home to roost; the Navy is even asking 55 to 60-year-olds to rejoin on short-term contracts. Will the Government now recognise the error of their ways and recruit, on good wages, the personnel we need? The Prime Minister has asked for ideas from the Opposition, so will the Minister pass my suggestion on to the Prime Minister?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, this seems to be a common theme when we come to the Dispatch Box: he is always terribly negative. I am determined to try to support our serving personnel and, as I have tried to explain, an awful lot of effort is going in at the moment. This really is the year of the Navy, with more than £3 billion invested in the Royal Navy. We are seeing two new carriers; the fourth Astute class was launched recently; and we are seeing the contract launch for three Type 26s. The future is bright for the Royal Navy and I wish he would stop talking it down.

There is no doubting the comprehensiveness of the replies, but if we could make slightly more timely progress, that would be appreciated by Back Benchers.

Armed Forces Covenant

The Government are committed to ensuring that service personnel, veterans and their families are not disadvantaged, and that special provision is made for those who have sacrificed the most. We will continue to use the £10 million annual covenant fund to build partnerships that support our military and wider society, including the recently launched veterans gateway, which was mentioned earlier.

Some councils are much more proactive than others in supporting the armed forces covenant and in marking Armed Forces Day. Telford’s Labour-run council has more work to do in ensuring that warm words on a website translate into action. What does he suggest can be done to encourage increased participation in future?

I am really upset to hear that Telford did not join the hundreds of local authorities across the country on 24 June to pay tribute to our armed forces. I was in Plymouth; as we have heard, the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) was in Northern Ireland; the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) was in Woolwich; and the Secretary of State was with the Prime Minister in Liverpool. I am not sure whether the Leader of the Opposition was on that day. We are putting a package of measures together to be given to all hon. Members, so that they can talk to their local authorities and so that next year Telford’s council will join others around the country in paying tribute to our armed forces.

The armed forces covenant is a covenant between those who serve on the frontline and the Government. Those serving on the frontline have over the past six years experienced a real-terms pay cut of about 10%, so does the Minister not agree that that bond of trust is wearing a little thin?

The Secretary of State has already answered the question on the pay itself, but the hon. Lady is absolutely right in what she implies: we have to make sure that we look after our service personnel. We put them in danger and in harm’s way, and we must look after them. Armed Forces Day is one opportunity for the nation to show its appreciation.

The armed forces covenant covers equal access to healthcare. While on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I met many veterans and serving personnel who have issues relating to stigma and mental health. What more is being done about that?

I am pleased to be launching the new mental health strategy at the end of the month. We are bringing together the “Five Eyes”—New Zealand, Australia, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom—to share best practice on how best to look after our armed forces when they move, retire and become veterans.

I am a proud patron of the veterans charity Forward Assist. Back in March, it was promised just under £200,000 from the tampon tax fund to help its work with female veterans, but the money has yet to materialise. Will the Minister say why there has been a delay and when the money will be released?

I hope the hon. Lady will understand that I am not armed with that information, but I would be more than delighted to meet her to discuss the matter. I pay tribute to her for the work she does to support that important charity.

Armed Forces: Life Satisfaction

10. What steps his Department is taking to improve service life satisfaction rates in the Armed Forces. (900302)

The experience and morale of service personnel are central to defence. Both the Department and the new single services place the management of this as a high priority. As such, we have put in place a large number of programmes, namely the flexible engagement system—a Bill on which will come to the House shortly—the future accommodation model, the new joiners offer and the armed forces family strategy.

Currently, forces families are given special assistance by local authorities when they leave the Army. Is the Minister aware that, upon divorce or separation, an Army spouse is instantly no longer classed as part of an Army family and receives no such support? Will he look into this and consider amending the advice given to local authorities?

I am certainly happy to look into that, and I am grateful that the hon. Lady has taken the matter up. It is important that we get the package of measures right so that we can support our armed forces personnel and their families as they transition through their career.

A key part of improving service life satisfaction is ensuring that soldiers can get their children into a good school that understands military life. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Montgomery Infant School and Nursery and Montgomery Junior School, which are celebrating having served the military community in Colchester for 50 years?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. Those are two schools out of almost 500 around the country that are located near garrisons and that provide support for the children of armed forces personnel. It is important that that continues. The service pupil premium is important for making sure that we look after those pupils, particularly as they end up moving around because of their parents’ careers.

Would service life satisfaction rates be improved by job security? On that basis, will the Minister assure the House that the Army will be no smaller at the end of this Parliament than it is now?

That is absolutely the intention. The hon. Gentleman is right to look at the life satisfaction survey, which is one reason behind some of the initiatives that I have mentioned, including the various reviews that are taking place.

Defence Spending

Our defence budget for 2017-18 is £36 billion, and we are committed to increasing it by at least half a per cent above inflation every year of this Parliament. In addition, we are committed to continuing to meet the NATO guideline to spend at least 2% of our GDP on defence until 2022. Those two commitments will ensure that our armed forces can help to keep Britain safe.

The United Kingdom leads the way, with the biggest defence budget in Europe, but what more can be done to encourage other nations to play their part and increase their spending to protect our collective security?

Since the Wales summit in 2014, defence spending by our allies in Europe has been increasing. Three more countries now meet that 2% target and more than 20 are committed to meeting it by a particular date. We continue to press those allies that have not yet met or planned to meet the target to do so.

The Secretary of State will know that his Department recently stated that the trained strength of our armed forces is down below 140,000. If we are to keep people in our armed services satisfied, can we go back to what they were proud of—the tradition of taking in a lot of trainees and being one of the best trainers in the world?

We are one of the best trainers in the world, and our armed forces training is highly respected the world over. Other countries are constantly telling me that they want more places at Cranwell, Sandhurst and Dartmouth; they also want our armed forces to go out and train, as we are doing in Ukraine and Nigeria; and we have the largest apprenticeship programme in the country.

Dreadnought Submarines

Thanks to the vote a year ago, the Dreadnought programme to replace the four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines is on schedule. Construction on Dreadnought, the first of her class, commenced as planned in October 2016 at the BAE Systems yard in Barrow-in-Furness.

Certainly if I and the 80% of people who took part in the vote a year ago have anything to do with it, it will be. I gently draw the House’s attention to the fact that both the shadow Defence Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition voted in the opposite Lobby on that day.

Perhaps the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) would be good enough to circulate to all parliamentary colleagues his textbook on succinct questions from which they would greatly benefit.

The Dreadnought submarine programme is important to my constituents, many of whom work at the Rolls-Royce Raynesway facility which is building the pressurised water reactors that will go into those submarines. Rolls-Royce has been investing very heavily in the new facility to meet the demands of this programme. When will the Government make a decision?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that companies not just in Barrow-in-Furness but up and down this country are involved in carrying out highly skilled work in this incredibly elaborate programme. I had the pleasure of visiting Raynesway and her nearby constituency and I know how many people in Derby and in Derbyshire depend on that programme. I can assure her that we are making substantial investment in the site.

We were looking forward to discussing this very issue with the Minister during the general election campaign. I do not know what happened to her; perhaps she can come up to see us next time. Will she put the Government’s full support behind our campaign now to raise education standards in the Furness area where, for generations, school leavers have had below average English and maths results, which is simply not good enough if we are to remain on track for the Dreadnought programme?

The hon. Gentleman is very kind to invite me for another visit to his constituency. I shall look forward to it. He rightly raises the important issue of the skills that we need as a country for these highly skilled and important jobs. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), will be very happy to meet him to discuss what we are doing as we ensure that we put in place that pipeline of skills.

I welcome the investment in the Dreadnought-class submarines, which will bring investment to Devonport dockyard in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that we also need to deal with the legacy of current and previous submarines and accelerate the slow pace of the submarine dismantling programme?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is the son of a submariner, on his arrival in this place. It is wonderful to have someone taking such a close interest in the matter. He will be aware that it is the subject of ongoing commercial negotiations. We will keep the House informed.

Defence Spending

13. What estimate he has made of the level of defence spending required over the course of this Parliament. (900305)

18. What estimate he has made of the level of defence spending required over the course of this Parliament. (900311)

The Government have committed to meeting the NATO guideline to spend at least 2% of our GDP on defence until the end of this Parliament, and to increase spending by at least half a per cent ahead of inflation every year of this Parliament.

Is it not the case that we only need a growing defence budget if we are committed to leading in NATO, investing in our armed forces and giving them the equipment they need and maintaining our nuclear deterrent? Is it also not the case that this party is the only one that is committed to all three?

My hon. Friend is spot on. We are leading by example in NATO. We are the second biggest defence spender in the alliance—one of only six members spending 2%—and we are committed to investing £178 billion in equipment between 2016 and 2026. Our growing defence budget means more ships, more planes, more armoured vehicles and more cutting-edge equipment for our forces.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the Apache helicopter package worth £48 million to secure high-skilled jobs at Wattisham airfield in my constituency, and does he agree that that will help our armed forces to keep us safe, and that it is all due to a growing defence budget?

Yes, I was very pleased to announce this £48 million contract earlier this year, which will support jobs in my hon. Friend’s area and provide world-class Apache training for our personnel. The Apache is a vital part of the British Army’s fighting force and this investment is only possible thanks to a rising defence budget.

The UK was a central part of the European forces in Bosnia, Althea, and in the Mediterranean, Atalanta. Does this mean that the Government will be committing to remain part of such European forces in the future, after we have left the European Union?

That will become clearer after we leave, but we play an important part in Sophia, Althea and Atalanta not just because of our membership of the European Union but because it is in our national interest to help to deal with migration, to curb piracy off the horn of Africa and to help to stabilise the western Balkans.

15. The millions spent on technical innovation on bases around the UK is crucial, particularly on my own base of RAF Benson, where CAE is a big contributor. Does the Secretary of State agree with that and what will he do to continue it? (900307)

Yes, I do agree with that. That is why we have set aside a specific innovation fund to encourage more innovation in defence and to get more of our small and medium-sized businesses, of which I know there are a large number in and around my hon. Friend’s constituency, to help us find these cutting-edge solutions.

Defence Suppliers: Innovation

With an equipment plan worth £178 billion and a rising defence budget, there are great opportunities for innovative suppliers. The £800 million innovation fund will provide the Ministry of Defence with the freedom to pursue innovative solutions in an open, competitive process.

Will the Minister ensure that there is greater risk appetite in which projects are selected for funding to ensure that our armed forces have the best technology available to them?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this issue. It is one of the things that we weight when we consider awards through the innovation fund to ensure that the projects with the highest risks but the biggest potential pay-off are the ones that are invested in.

Topical Questions

It is an honour to be reappointed as Defence Secretary. Our party has a proud record of supporting our armed forces and providing the budget to ensure that they have the capabilities they need. Since the election, our new carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, has sailed, Daesh has been defeated in Mosul with further RAF strikes in Syria and Iraq, and we have signed up Sweden and Finland to join our joint expeditionary force, demonstrating that Britain continues to step up in the world.

On that note, as the MP with RNAS Culdrose in my constituency, may I ask the Secretary of State for an update on airpower capability and training for the new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier?

The Queen Elizabeth is designed to operate the F-35B Lightning II aircraft. One hundred and twenty British pilots and aircrew are training on the first 10 of these aircraft in the United States ahead of their arrival in the UK next year. The carrier will also operate Royal Navy Merlin helicopters, specifically those based in my hon. Friend’s constituency at Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose.

We welcome the fact that Iraqi forces, backed by the coalition air strikes, have managed to retake Mosul, with only a small section of the city still under Daesh control. This has been a challenging and complex operation, and we pay tribute to the personnel who have played a part in it, including our forces working on Operation Shader. We know that the battle against Daesh and its evil ideology is far from over, so will the Secretary of State update the House on what further support our armed forces will be providing as Iraq’s ground troops advance westwards towards Tal Afar?

It is good to be able to agree with the hon. Lady about something today, and I join her in paying tribute to our services—the RAF, which has carried out more than 1,400 strikes in just under three years; the Army, which has helped to train more than 50,000 Iraqi and peshmerga troops;, and the Royal Navy, which has helped to guard the American and French carriers when they have been striking from the Gulf. The military campaign is not over with the fall of Mosul. There remain other towns—Tal Afar, Hawija, in Nineveh province—and there are remnants of Daesh coalescing around the Middle Euphrates river valley, so there is still more work to be done, but there are 4 million fewer people living under Daesh rule since this House gave us permission to engage in this campaign.

T2. Further to the Secretary of State’s update on progress against Daesh, I know that he will be as concerned as I am that as we defeat Daesh militarily on the ground, its threat seems to be changing as it attacks in other ways in other places. Will he update the House on what his Department is doing to counter those emerging new threats? (900319)

My hon. Friend is right that the military campaign up the Tigris and along the Euphrates is just part of the strategy. We need to continue disrupting Daesh’s online propaganda. We need to target its senior leadership and undermine its finances. The military campaign has to be combined, and seen as part of a broader coalition campaign to undermine this evil organisation and make sure that it never comes back.

Both the Defence and Foreign Secretaries seem to have suggested that UK forces may target others in Syria beyond the mandate that was given in this House in December 2015—namely, the Assad regime. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if he is to deviate from that mandate, it will only happen after a full debate and vote in this House?

I can confirm that our target in Syria is Daesh. Our strikes are in and around Raqqa and other Daesh areas, including Deir ez-Zor, that Daesh continues to hold. It is not our aim to collaborate with either the regime or indeed its principal sponsor, Russia.

T7. The Royal Navy has rescued hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean and taken them to Italy, but has the time now come to consider taking them to North Africa in order to remove the incentive for people to risk their lives and to prevent money being made by people traffickers? (900324)

As part of Operation Sophia, the Royal Navy and UK assets have saved more than 12,500 lives, destroyed more than 170 smuggling boats and apprehended 23 suspected smugglers. We are the only country in Europe that has provided at least one ship at all times. It is UK Government policy to tackle migration at its source, and we are pursuing a comprehensive response including training coastguards, providing sustainable alternatives to unmanaged migration and disrupting criminal gangs.

T3. Given the delays in procuring the full order for Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, and given that HMS Ocean is to be paid off because of acute staffing shortages, just how does the Minister envisage that the Royal Navy will be capable of discharging its duties of protecting the UK at home and abroad? (900320)

I would have hoped for a few more words of welcome for the announcement of the Type 26 frigates, which will be ready for the out-of-service dates and replacement dates of the existing Type 23s. As the hon. Lady knows, HMS Ocean was always due to come out of service next year, and other amphibious capability will obviously be available.

I know from my constituency casework that access to appropriate housing is often a big challenge for those leaving the armed forces. What steps are being taken to ensure that armed forces veterans are prioritised on waiting lists, and that the appropriate help and support is properly being provided?

We have touched on the importance of the veterans gateway programme, which we hope will provide a connection between the charities and those seeking that help. I also reiterate the importance of local authorities, and encourage all hon. Members to ask their local authorities what more they can do to provide the support our veterans need.

T4. I declare an interest as a former serviceman who served in Afghanistan.The Secretary of State will have seen the recent coverage in The Sunday Times relating to alleged incidents that took place in Afghanistan and the subsequent Royal Military Police inquiry. Will he tell the House who took the decision to shut down Operation Northmoor? Why was that decision taken, when was it taken and was the Prime Minister kept informed? (900321)

Well, it will have to be a brief answer or it may need to be in writing. There are a lot of other questions to cover.

In answering, I have to declare the same interest, having served in Afghanistan.

Our armed forces are rightly held to the highest standards, and credible, serious allegations of criminal behaviour must be investigated. Op Northmoor has discontinued more than 90% of the 675 allegations received because there was no evidence of criminal or disciplinary offence. To date, no case has been referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority, but investigations continue.

Earlier, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) referred to evidence that Lord Hague gave to the House of Lords EU External Affairs Sub-Committee about the European defence arrangements after Brexit. He said that the best proposal was a paper written by the former Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Has my right hon. Friend seen that paper or would he like to?

I have not actually seen that paper yet, but I am very happy to procure a copy and read it. I made the position clear about common foreign and defence policy. We participate in those missions and operations at the moment, and we continue to press for a partnership with the European Union that encompasses economic and security co-operation.

T5. Recently, I attended the Grimsby veterans breakfast, and I was told about the problems that former servicemen and women have in accessing local mental health services. What representations did the Defence Secretary make to the Health Secretary regarding the dropping of the promised new mental health Bill from the Queen’s Speech? (900322)

This goes into the new strategy that is being launched in a couple of weeks’ time, and I would be delighted to learn more about what the hon. Lady learned at her meetings, but I can say that regular meetings take place between the Secretary of State and the Health Secretary.

One of the major concerns of servicemen in Carterton, which surrounds Brize Norton in my constituency, is the quality of service housing. What steps is the Minister taking to provide high-quality housing for our service personnel?

This relates to one of the key initiatives we are putting forward—the future accommodation model—and I would be delighted to write to my hon. Friend with more details.

T6. At least 603 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Iraq and Syria since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, according to the coalition itself, but the UK has claimed responsibility for none of these incidents. Will the Secretary of State commit to greater scrutiny and transparency for civilian casualties caused by UK airstrikes in Iraq and Syria? (900323)

Let me emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that we carry out an assessment after each of the RAF strikes. We investigate any allegation that civilians may have been caught up in these strikes. So far, we have not seen any evidence that civilians have been killed by an RAF strike, but, obviously, every single allegation is carefully investigated.

I hope the point about a sentence has been captured by colleagues—preferably a short one without all sorts of subordinate clauses.

Will the Defence Secretary join me in welcoming the new Combined Cadet Force at the Newark Academy and the Magnus school in Newark, and agree to continue the roll-out of cadet forces in this Parliament, particularly in schools that have suffered from poor educational performance in the past?

T8. Given that the Royal British Legion set out in the armed forces covenant annual report of last year its concerns about the mental health needs of veterans not being met as they should be, does the Secretary of State agree that we need a comprehensive approach to veterans’ mental health, not just in the weeks after they leave the service but throughout their lives? (900325)

We are providing a comprehensive approach. There is work that takes place, first, with those who are serving, to provide that umbrella of support, and then as they make their transition and, indeed, become veterans. We will be launching the new strategy in two weeks, and I look forward to making announcements to the House.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the RAF will retain its existing surveillance capability—Sentinel—which proved so effective in Mali, and that the existing fleet will be maintained and continued?

I can confirm that. I had the pleasure of going to north Wales recently to extend the Sentinel contract to 2021.

T9. Will the Minister reverse the decision to shut down Operation Northmoor, given the recent report in The Sunday Times on possible criminal behaviour by an SAS unit in Afghanistan? (900326)

It would be absolutely wrong for there to be ministerial interference in that operation. I am quite confident that Op Northmoor is appropriately resourced, both through personnel and finances, and I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago.

Will the Government consider reinstating ring-fenced funding for the BBC Monitoring Service, given that its absence is leading to the closure of Caversham Park and a considerable reduction in the service’s defensive potential?

T10. Given that the UK claims to support multilateral nuclear disarmament, will the Secretary of State tell the House why the UK boycotted the UN’s nuclear ban treaty negotiations and how the UK Government will respond to the nuclear ban treaty? Can he understand the disappointment of so many of my constituents at the UK’s boycott of these negotiations? (900327)

I think the hon. Lady is in pursuit of an essay, but, sadly, time allows only for a short answer.

Let me be very clear: we do not support this treaty. We do not think it should apply to the United Kingdom, and if it is voted on we will not accept it.

What conversations has the Minister had with British steel producers to maximise the use of British steel in the new Type 26 frigates, and what percentage of the steel that will be used to build those frigates will be British steel?

Again, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the news on the Type 26 frigates. He will be aware that we publish on the full pipeline in terms of our steel requirements. We do encourage our prime contractors to see where they can use British steel, and I am sure that in due course he will be pleased to see progress.