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Topical Questions

Volume 627: debated on Monday 10 July 2017

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.