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Topical Questions

Volume 630: debated on Monday 23 October 2017

The Government have a strong record of supporting our armed forces and delivering a growing defence budget. Since July, we have led the response to Hurricane Irma, published a new national shipbuilding strategy, supported the defeat of Daesh in Raqqa and continued to lead in NATO. I congratulate all those service personnel and veterans who competed so well in the recent Invictus games.

Growing the supply of engineers is one way in which the Government can support both the armed forces and the defence industry. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what action his Department is taking to support next year’s Year of Engineering to ensure that we inspire the next generation of engineers?

We recruit, train and employ more than 55,000 engineers. We will work as a partner with the Department for Transport on its Year of Engineering 2018 initiative. Each of the single services will play a role in promoting that initiative through science, technology, engineering and maths outreach, helping to deliver a bright future for engineering in the United Kingdom.

Given the announcement of nearly 2,000 job losses at BAE Systems, will the Government bring forward their order for new Hawk aircraft for the Red Arrows to maintain industrial capacity?

May I use this opportunity to put on record what a wonderful job the Red Arrows do for the UK around the world? I congratulate them on the successful 11-country tour from which they have just returned. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Hawk is an important training aircraft for the RAF. We have 75 of them and expect them to last until 2030. We are pursuing a range of export opportunities around the world.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s commitment to NATO and to the collective defence of its members, which has kept the peace for more than 70 years? Will he condemn those who would withdraw from NATO and abandon our allies? (901342)

NATO is the cornerstone of our defence. We are leading the battlegroup in Estonia, we have sent troops to Poland and we have sent RAF Typhoons to Romania. By contrast, the Leader of the Opposition does not support collective defence and Young Labour has just voted to withdraw from NATO.

T2. Will the Secretary of State give us an up-to-date report on the implementation of the armed forces covenant, bearing in mind that it was a Labour Government who introduced it in the first place? (901340)

As I mentioned earlier, the covenant is very important. It is a bond between the nation and our armed forces; it makes sure that they are looked after and are not disenfranchised. It is in its infancy and we must remember that it has a long way to go. We look at how the United States, for example, looks after its veterans through practical measures. Our reverence and love are no different, but we have a long way to go practically to give our veterans the respect they deserve.

We will create two additional frontline squadrons from our existing fleet and extend Typhoon in service until 2040. The Typhoon’s capabilities are constantly evolving through initiatives such as Project Centurion. We will also upgrade our Chinook heavy-lift helicopter to extend its life into the 2040s.

T3. The Government’s intention to come out of the single market and the customs union will affect the complex supply chains in defence procurement. Has the Minister made a full assessment of the implications of Brexit for defence procurement, taking into account the complex supply chains? (901341)

I assure the hon. Lady that an extensive programme of work is under way not only in the Ministry of Defence, but with our colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union. We are very conscious of the importance of those supply chains.

T9. Given the concern on both sides of the House about the prosecution of Northern Ireland veterans up to 40 years after incidents occurred for which no new evidence is available, what would the Secretary of State’s reaction be to an approach from the main Opposition party to see whether some form of consensus could be agreed on how to prevent that from happening? (901347)

There is broad agreement within Northern Ireland that the current systems and structures for dealing with the legacy of the troubles are not delivering enough for victims, survivors and wider society. We are working with the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that investigations are fair and proportionate, and that they focus on terrorists, not the personnel who kept us safe. We think that there should be, and would welcome, further discussions.

I know you have already asked a question, but there is no bar on a second if the mood takes you. Don’t feel you need to apply a self-denying ordinance. Repetition in this place is not an uncommon phenomenon.

T5. I will try to avoid repetition, Mr Speaker. Is the Minister aware that national insurance records are failing to be handed over to veterans’ groups, so veterans cannot be identified when they are making a benefit application? (901343)

I was not directly aware of that point. I meet three or four charities every single week. I will raise that issue, which goes back to my point about veterans receiving the support they deserve. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me with more detail, I would be grateful to receive his letter.

T10. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the members of the armed forces who provided such brilliant support to those suffering at the hands of Hurricane Irma, and set out for the House what difference those efforts have made? (901348)

I am sure my hon. Friend speaks for the whole House. The military response to Hurricane Irma was swift. RFA Mounts Bay was pre-positioned. At the peak, we had nearly 2,000 troops on the islands, who were deployed very quickly. Through the use of helicopters and other support, they managed to get aid to areas that simply would not have received it had there not been military intervention. I take this opportunity, on behalf of the whole House, to thank the armed forces for their efforts.

T6. Will the Minister please confirm to the House when the outcome of the armed forces compensation scheme quinquennial review will be published? (901344)

As nobody else is getting up, I will jump to my feet. I look forward to presenting the armed forces quinquennial review in the very near future.

Five ships of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Exeter after Devon’s county capital, the first in 1680. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be entirely appropriate if one of the new frigates continued that great tradition?

My right hon. Friend makes a very compelling case, as have many other colleagues from all parts of the House. I am sure he will welcome the fact that an offshore patrol vessel, HMS Tamar, is currently being built.

T8. It must be in the national interest to retain domestic military aircraft manufacturing capability. If the Government do not bring forward a replacement for the Red Arrows, how will they guarantee that domestic capacity while military orders are secured for the long term at BAE, given the current shortage of orders? (901346)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because we have such strong leadership in this area. What I would say is this: it is also important that we show cross-party support for the many export campaigns BAE Systems is involved in around the world. I urge him to do what he can with his leader and the Opposition Front-Bench team to do that.

Given that Typhoon is scheduled to leave service in 2040, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to procure the next generation of fighter aircraft given the potential opportunities for export, and to preserve and maintain our sovereign defence capability?

Again, a very important question. On the support we are giving to Typhoon exports around the world, I was delighted that recently my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to sign a statement of intent with Qatar. We will continue with that effort, as well as considering our options on a replacement.

The Secretary of State was most welcome to my constituency four weeks ago, albeit to name a ship that was built in Glasgow. When does he intend to visit Glasgow to announce naval shipbuilding in Belfast?

I hope the hon. Gentleman shared my pride in restoring again the name of HMS Belfast to a warship of the line. I will certainly bear his suggestion in mind next time I am in Glasgow.

My constituent, Aiden Aslin, has just returned to Newark after fighting with the Kurdish peshmerga and helping to defeat IS in Syria and northern Iraq. He is one of hundreds of British citizens who have done the same. Will my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary note the contribution and bravery of these British citizens but seek strongly to dissuade other young people from taking that extremely dangerous course in future?

I certainly note that. I advise any British citizen wanting to go to fight against Daesh/ISIS that the way to do so is to join our armed forces, and to get the professional training necessary and the respect for international humanitarian law that goes with it.

It is 35 years since HMS Sheffield was sunk in the Falklands war, and my constituents believe it is about time that another Royal Navy ship was named after our great city. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the relevant committee gives full consideration to ensuring that we can enjoy the third HMS Sheffield?

The hon. Lady makes a poignant appeal for another ship to be named HMS Sheffield, and I am sure that her representations will have been heard by the relevant committee. I am pleased we are building so many new ships in this country that we can have all these new names.

Engineers at BAE in Chelmsford were critical in developing the Sampson multi-function radar, the Sea Wolf missile tracking radar and the highly innovative T994 two-dimensional radar. When it comes to the next generation, the ballistic missile defence radar, will the MOD consider employment as well as capability and make sure that these skills stay in Britain?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we do not have to distinguish between the two things, because the radars made by BAE Systems are unrivalled around the world.

I agree with what the Secretary of State said about Daesh, but he will know that one thing that separates them from us is that we are bound by the rule of law, specifically rules of engagement. Will he confirm that our conduct will always be bound by the Geneva convention?

Absolutely. That is one of the things that distinguishes our armed forces from Daesh—the way in which it has unscrupulously used civilians to prosecute its case.

The Secretary of State’s own permanent secretary said last Tuesday to the Defence Committee, on the subject of the F-35 programme:

“We will not be in a position to be able to give a precise view as to what the whole of this very complicated programme will be until 2035”.

Does that not put paid to the Secretary of State’s incredible claim that eight Type 26 frigates would provide work on the Clyde till 2035?

It puts paid to the idea that anyone can forecast a budget two decades out and get it down with pinpoint certainty, which is something I know the Scottish Government might also find difficult.

Exceptionally, I will take this point of order now. It is germane and should be heard by occupants of the Treasury Bench.

It is now more than four months since the general election, but still the Liaison Committee cannot meet formally to carry out its functions on behalf of the House. Will you assist us, Mr Speaker, because I am afraid that repeated representations from across the House by Select Committee Chairs are not yet making a difference in ensuring that all Select Committees are properly constituted?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order. It is absurd and indefensible that more than four months after the state opening of Parliament, that Committee, which, of course, consists of the Chairs of the Select Committees, has yet to be constituted. I might add—almost in parentheses, because I am sure that the hon. Lady will feel empathy with other colleagues on this front—that the same situation, I think, applies to the European Scrutiny Committee, and also to another Committee which is not a Select Committee but which is a Committee of Parliament, and a very important Committee at that, namely the Intelligence and Security Committee. Those Committees are there to scrutinise the Executive branch.

I discussed this important matter in a most co-operative exchange with the Leader of the House at the start of the summer recess, and I know that she used her best endeavours, with others, to ensure the constitution of many of the Select Committees some little while ago. However, the fact that the remaining Committees are as yet unconstituted is simply not acceptable.

It would obviously be most unfortunate if it were necessary for Members to keep raising points of order day after day after day after day before those Committees were established, and, as I am sure the whole House would want to avoid such an embarrassing fate, I can only assume that proper action will now follow. However, the hon. Lady is always attentive to her responsibilities, and I am certain that, in the grisly event that it is necessary for her to raise a further point of order, she will not hesitate to do so.