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Topical Questions

Volume 632: debated on Monday 27 November 2017

I start by paying tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), who has done so much for our armed services and was one of our longest-serving Secretaries of State for Defence. It is a true honour to be Defence Secretary, and I am proud to represent some of the finest armed forces in the world.

I also thank those involved in the UK contribution to the rescue operations for the Argentinian submarine San Juan. The UK contribution to the search includes HMS Protector, HMS Clyde, a C-130 and the Royal Navy’s submarine parachute assistance group. I also thank the volunteers and service personnel who did so much to raise money for the poppy day appeal. The appeal, which is valued by so many, has raised tens of millions of pounds and will make a difference to many lives. I also thank the Chancellor of the Exchequer for his kindness and generosity in the allocation of LIBOR fines. I hope that such generosity will continue into the future.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to the 150 British troops sent to north-east Poland, to the Suwalki Gap, on rotational deployment. What steps will he take to ensure that we increase those numbers and continue to support our Polish allies in a post-Brexit world through our NATO alliance?

I have already had a great opportunity to meet my Polish opposite number, who is incredibly grateful for our commitment to the defence of Poland. We constantly review troop numbers and are committed to the current rotation, but we are always open to the idea of committing more. We must not underestimate the threat that Russia continues to pose and must be ready to step up to such a threat. Although we are leaving the EU, our commitment to the collective defence of Europe is not diminished.

It is alarming that one of the scant references to defence in the Budget is to forces families in the private rented sector—a less than subtle hint that the future accommodation model threatens to fragment our forces communities. With the private sector characterised by high rents and variable landlord performance, what guarantees can the Minister give that under the future accommodation model, no service personnel will be forced out of service accommodation and scattered into the private rented sector?

I think the hon. Lady would agree that we need to provide an offering that attracts new recruits and retains those serving. We also have to recognise the competition we now face from within the private sector and the jobs sector. That is why we have an armed forces people programme looking not just at accommodation but at the offering right across the board. It is important that we roll out the new accommodation model. A pilot scheme will be introduced at the end of next year. It will provide an offering that gives people the choice between staying on the garrison, renting and owning their own property.

T2. Prince Harry has done tireless work to improve mental health support for our armed forces and veterans. Will the Minister update the House on what the Department is doing in that respect? Like all colleagues, I congratulate Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their great news today. (902573)

Mr Speaker, I join you and the Secretary of State in congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan on the announcement of their engagement. I had the privilege of working with Prince Harry in Toronto this year. The Invictus games are absolutely his project. They started in London and continue next year in Sydney. They give those who perhaps have given up on life a new chapter through sport. Prince Harry is to be hugely commended for the work he does, along with the rest of the royal family, in supporting our brave armed forces personnel and their families.

T5. The Secretary of State might be aware that in 2009 the terms of business agreement signed between the MOD and BAE Systems secured the future of complex naval shipbuilding in this country by ensuring a commitment to invest to create a shipbuilding infrastructure in the top quarter of all shipbuilding capabilities world wide. In the recently published national shipbuilding strategy, that commitment is no longer given. Will he confirm that the commitment in the terms of business agreement to creating a world-class shipbuilding industry remains? (902576)

Of course I can confirm that we have a commitment to a world-class shipbuilding industry. Indeed, the shipbuilding industry in Scotland has a pipeline of work going out two decades.

T3. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment. Will he confirm that he is committed to the development of the Dreadnought style of submarines, and reaffirm his commitment to ensuring that we retain our independent nuclear deterrent? (902574)

My hon. Friend has raised a valid point. Of the three major parties—us, the Labour party and the Scottish National party—the only one that can guarantee that we will have an independent nuclear deterrent is the Conservative party. Let no one forget that.

T8. Britain’s defence industry supports hundreds of jobs in the South Wales valleys. Will the Government support our armoured fighting vehicle industry and allow it to compete for the prime contract for the Boxer armoured vehicle? (902579)

The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the fantastic work that is being done on the 589 Ajax vehicles. This is the largest contract for military vehicles that has been awarded in the country for 30 years, and it involves a lot of work for the South Wales workforce.

T4. I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State express his steadfast support for NATO. What further steps will we be taking to support our NATO allies in Estonia in the face of increased Russian aggression? (902575)

My hon. Friend will be aware that at the Warsaw summit in 2016, NATO committed itself to responding to Russian belligerence through enhanced defence, deterrence and dialogue. I am delighted to have been able to visit our armoured battlegroup in Estonia this summer. About 800 personnel are delivering the enhanced forward presence, together with the Royal Air Force, which has already supported that operation on two occasions.

T10. Will the new Secretary of State get off to a better start than his predecessor by confirming that the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary orders will come to the Clyde, and that those vessels will not be built abroad? (902581)

I can confirm that—exactly as outlined in the recommendations of the national shipbuilding strategy, and as has been stated before in the House—that particular part of our shipbuilding programme will be open to international competition, including shipyards on the Clyde.

T6. Does the Secretary of State agree that as we leave the EU we must remain committed to all our European allies, and will he update the House on what we are doing through NATO to support our allies in Romania? (902577)

Having had the opportunity to meet my opposite number from Romania, I am aware that one of the real threats that it continues to face is increasing pressure from Russia. Britain has a long and proud tradition of locating troops and resources in Romania, and we are continuing to do so with Typhoons operating in Romanian skies. Our commitment to that, along with the standing NATO naval task group, is an important bulwark against increasing Russian aggression on the eastern flank.

This coming Thursday marks the 36th anniversary of the disappearance of a young toddler, Katrice Leigh, from a NAAFI complex in west Germany. As the Royal Military Police’s Operation Bute is still live, will the Secretary of State agree to review the case and meet me, and my constituent Mr Richard Lee, Katrice’s father, to discuss the matter?

I should be more than happy to review the case and meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it in greater detail.

T7. Last year it was announced that Royal Marines Base Chivenor, in my constituency, would be closing. The previous Secretary of State visited it subsequently, at my invitation, and announced a review of the decision. Will the Minister please update me on the progress of the review, and indicate when a final decision might be made? (902578)

I am aware that 24 Commando Engineer Regiment is based at Chivenor, and that the location has historical importance. As my hon. Friend will know, it is due to close in 2027 as part of the rationalisation programme, but I should be more than happy to sit down with him and discuss the situation a bit further.

The Minister has already spoken about the important trade role that the Red Arrows play as ambassadors for great British aeronautical engineering. Will the Secretary of State, who knows East Yorkshire well and knows how important those skilled jobs are to Brough, look again at the request from 142 Members on both sides of the House for renewal of the fleet for the Red Arrows?

I am glad that the hon. Lady pays tribute to the Red Arrows’ amazing trade promotion role. She will know as well as anyone that the current Red Arrows will be in service until 2030, so a decision to replace them will not need to be made until after the end of this Parliament.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend provide an update on the work being done by British servicemen and women to train local forces in Afghanistan? (902580)

We have already seen the announcement of an uplift of 85 personnel, who will be going to Afghanistan to support the work of the Afghan army. We will be supplementing that with an additional 60 service personnel, in order to continue the training and support that the Afghan army needs. While we have seen substantial progress made in Afghanistan, we cannot take that for granted. We must continue to support the Afghan Government as they continue to root out extremism.

Despite the dangerously depleted state of the service, the Royal Navy has for the first time ever been chosen to mount Queen’s Guard—and very smart and taut they looked too, in my opinion. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal Navy—in fact, to the senior service?

It would be a great honour to pay tribute to the senior service. Having been on HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Westminster and HMS Sutherland and seen the work they do, one cannot help but feel proud. I am very tempted to give you an honorary captaincy of a ship—[Interruption.] Sorry, and you, Mr Speaker; I think I have handed out two already. To be honest, Mr Speaker, I thought of you more as an admiral than as a captain, and if that gets me out of a slightly difficult situation, I will make you an admiral of a fleet.

I now realise something I had never previously known: that charm is the middle name of the right hon. Gentleman.

RM Condor in my constituency of Angus has been home to the elite 45 Commando unit since 1971. Over the last 46 years it has been the lynchpin of the local community, and the base is one of Angus’s major employers. Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to close RM Condor and that 45 Commando’s place in Angus is secure? Does he agree with me about the extremely reckless behaviour of nationalist politicians in scaremongering on this serious matter?

As I touched on earlier, there is a large area of Britain owned by the MOD. It is important that we rationalise this real estate, and that means looking at a number of locations. Ninety-one across the country have already been earmarked. If memory serves, I think it is just the airfield in this case that needs to be looked at—the remainder is staying in place—but I will be happy to sit down and discuss it with my hon. Friend.

Captain Speaker, the Secretary of State is fresh, new and busy, but can I beg him to read John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s little book “Why England Slept”? Does he not think that England has been sleeping while the world has become a much more dangerous place?

I think there has been a tendency since the early 1990s to think that the world is a much safer place than it actually is. There has been a tendency sometimes to sit back and believe that everything is just going to be safer and safer. The world is rapidly changing, and it is not just threats from terrorism; it is threats from peer enemies as well. We need to understand what those threats are and make sure that we are equipped to deal with them. I am looking forward to a Christmas break, as I am sure the whole House is, and if I get a few hours spare, I will be sure to read the book.

At the risk of being given an honorary captaincy, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his job? I am sure he will do it extremely well. In his ongoing and delicate discussions with the Treasury, will he remain aware, first, that there are those of us on this side of the House who believe that the defence budget has been pared back about as far as it can be, and secondly, that when it comes to Trident renewal many of us on this side of the House do not believe it should be part of the defence budget? Indeed, it distorts the defence budget, and if that is part of his argument, he will have considerably more support than perhaps he knows.

Everything that my right hon. Friend has raised will be part of the review. He has raised the important question of nuclear capability being part of the defence budget. It has traditionally not sat as part of the defence budget; that changed only post-2010. It is vital to look at all options as part of the national security and capability review, and I look forward to speaking to him and seeking his advice and thoughts on the issues that he has raised.

The Secretary of State began today by outlining the three places that he had visited in the early days of his appointment, on which I congratulate him. What reassurances can he give to the workers at Rosyth that their contracts will be secure following the departure of the Queen Elizabeth class carriers, and will he visit Rosyth?

I have already had the privilege of visiting Scotland, and I will be certain to visit Rosyth in the future. I am incredibly grateful for the amazing work that has been done on the construction of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, and we look forward to working with all our industrial partners to ensure that we have a robust industrial defence sector. I very much hope that we will have the support of the hon. Gentleman’s party for that and for the defence of the whole of the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State has had a foretaste from both sides of the House today of the furore that is likely to follow if HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are deleted from the inventory. May I humbly suggest that, given the relatively small saving that that would represent, the game is simply not worth the candle?

Someone once said to me that there was no such thing as a former Chief Whip, and I always listen with great intent and interest to the views of all colleagues.

I will take this point of order, colleagues, as I understand that it flows directly from these exchanges. Points of order would otherwise come after statements.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), I should like to clarify that the statement of intent for Qatar is for six Hawks, which gives 12 months of work at Brough.

I am most grateful to the Minister for that clarification—[Interruption.] Somebody is wittering from a sedentary position that he knew that, but he might be in an exclusive category of one. For others, however, the information is useful and we are grateful to the Minister for taking this opportunity to provide it.