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Topical Questions

Volume 634: debated on Monday 15 January 2018

Since becoming Defence Secretary, I have asked the Department to develop robust options for ensuring that defence can match the future threats and challenges facing the nation. Shortly, when the national security capability review finishes, the Prime Minister, with National Security Council colleagues, will decide how to take forward its conclusions, and I would not wish to pre-empt them. However, as the Prime Minister made clear in the speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year, we face increasing and diversifying threats to this nation. Although the detail must wait until the NSCR concludes, I can assure this House that as long as I am Defence Secretary we will develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain a continuous at-sea deterrence; a carrier force capable of striking globally; and the armed forces necessary to protect the north Atlantic, to properly support our NATO allies and to protect the United Kingdom and its global interests. That is why I continue to work with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to secure a sustainable budget for defence to deliver the right capabilities, now and into the future.

Finally, I wish to thank all those service personnel who gave and did so much over Christmas and new year to make sure this country remained safe.

I thank the Secretary of State for his belated acceptance speech.

The Army recruitment centre in Oldham closed before the recruitment contract was handed over to Capita. Last year, only 7,000 of the 10,000 new entrants needed for the Army were recruited. Will the Department review the closure of those local offices to see whether it has affected the number of new entrants coming through?

Yes, we will certainly always review anything that has an impact on local recruitment. We are always looking into this issue. We have seen a 15% increase in the number of people applying to join the Army. We want to build on that and make sure that more people join our armed forces.

T2. As a proud civil engineer, I am excited by the prospect of this being the year of the engineer. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what plans his Department has to recruit more nuclear engineers for the Navy, more mechanical engineers for the Army and more aeronautical engineers for the RAF, to ensure that we will have sufficient numbers of these critical personnel in the years ahead? (903281)

I thank my hon. Friend for the passion with which he asked his question. The Ministry of Defence supports and attracts engineers across the services. That work includes focusing on undergraduate apprenticeships in the Royal Navy to target submarine engineers; the Army’s running science, technology, engineering and maths events to inspire young people; and enhanced digital marketing of the RAF to promote graduate engineering opportunities.

T3. Given the appalling state of some armed services accommodation and the amount of gold we have poured down Carillion’s throat, is not this week a great opportunity to directly employ some of the maintenance and catering staff, who could be automatically taken on by the MOD today to provide a good service without the requirement for a profit to be made for Carillion or any other private sector company? (903282)

As I said earlier, plans are in place to make sure that, with respect to what is happening with Carillion, obligations are met and we continue to provide the important accommodation for service families, as well as single accommodation.

T4. At this time, when there is so much pressure on the departmental budget, will the Minister make sure that cadets, who do so much to make sure that recruitment carries on, are properly protected and resourced? (903283)

My hon. Friend is a champion for the cadets. With more than 800 cadets and 125 adult volunteers in 20 detachments, the Hereford and Worcester Army Cadet Force demonstrates how the cadet experience provides opportunities for young people to develop self-discipline and resilience. I started my military career in the cadets, I am a great fan of the cadets, and we certainly continue to support the cadet expansion programme.

T7. The national shipbuilding strategy states that overseas nations will order 40 Type 31 frigates. It is nearly 40 years since we last successfully exported any frigates, so will the Minister explain how that figure was arrived at? Is there any fact behind it, or is it just optimistic spin? (903286)

Once again, the hon. Gentleman’s comments are disparaging of our ability as a nation. This country aims to deal with past failures by ensuring that we have a platform that will appeal to nations around the world. The MOD is confident that the platform that we are developing for the Type 31e will appeal around the world. It would be good if some Members who claim to represent British industry were willing to support rather than attack it.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State update the House on the Royal Navy’s Crowsnest system and join me in paying tribute to Thales, which is based in my constituency, for the delivery of the project? (903284)

The Crowsnest project will deliver instructor and initial crew training in 2019, and it will be operational from mid-2020 to support the initial operating capability for HMS Queen Elizabeth. We are on track for Crowsnest to enter service, and I thank Thales—a key subcontractor —for its positive engagement and its collaborative approach to supporting this vital Royal Navy project.

T8. When my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) pointed out that 20% of our defence procurement budget is spent in the United States, the Secretary of State replied by suggesting that we were selling lots of big contracts to the USA. Will he say what they are? (903288)

Just the other week I was learning about all the things that we do in terms of supporting the United States through the F-35 project. United Technologies Corporation, which employs more than 2,000 people near my constituency, is applying the actuators, as is Moog, another American company that employs a British workforce. We are making sure that we are an absolutely pivotal part of the supply chain for this important project that will generate many thousands of jobs.

T6. What estimate has my hon. Friend made of the threat to Britain from Russia in the north Atlantic, and can he assure me that the Royal Navy’s submarine service has the resources needed to meet any such threat and provide a continuous at-sea deterrent? (903285)

As I mentioned earlier in answer to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the level of naval activity that we see from Russia is at its highest since the cold war, but I am sure that the House will appreciate that I cannot go into too much detail. I can assure the House that our independent nuclear deterrent is continuously on patrol, as it has been every day now for nearly 50 years.

A constituent of mine and a veteran of two tours of Afghanistan, former Rifleman Lee Bagley, lost a leg after a non-theatre related injury incurred in February 2010. His subsequent complaint about delays to his treatment was dismissed in part because he was out of time. Will the Minister, under proposals to improve the armed forces covenant, ensure that, in any such circumstances again, the victim will have available a full explanation of what they may expect from treatment, and their rights?

Of course, the hon. Gentleman’s constituent was the subject of an Adjournment debate that the hon. Gentleman and I discussed some 18 months ago. The advice at the time was that he should put in a complaint to the service complaints ombudsman. I am not sure whether that has been done. However, if I may, I will take this opportunity to review the case and come back to the hon. Gentleman.

T9. The ability to communicate is clearly key to our national, economic and security interests. Will the Minister say exactly what plans he has to protect those on the basis of the new threat posed by Russia to undersea communications and internet cables? (903289)

This is a very delicate issue. However, I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that we do have the capability to protect these assets. It would probably be inappropriate to say any more in this House.

As the Secretary of State assesses the effects of the delays to the 2018-19 pay negotiations on retention to the armed forces, do they not agree that the Ministry of Defence is actually giving squaddies a real-terms wage cut, while the Scottish Government are in fact putting money in their pockets through the new progressive tax system?

I will be giving evidence to the independent pay review body next month, and we will be doing everything we can to ensure that members of the armed forces get paid as and when they expect to be paid. Let us not forget that the Scottish Government are taking money out of service personnel wages.

I very much welcome the establishment of the veterans board. Will my right hon. Friend task it with ensuring that there is greater awareness among local government and public bodies of their duties and obligations under the covenant?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that. So often, local authorities do not understand the duties and obligations that rest on their shoulders. We are not only creating intentions to improve the lives of people who are serving in our armed forces, but putting money behind them, such as with the premium to ensure that service personnel get the right type of education for their children. However, we do need local authorities to work with the Department to ensure that service personnel benefit.

In 2013, the regulatory reserve scheme was introduced. Since then, we have paid out more than £29 million and benefited by only 480 deployable reservists. Would it not have been better to use that money to improve the conditions, the pay and the benefits of those in our regular forces and to retain them?

I am not quite sure whether I agree with the hon. Lady’s figures, but I will go away and look at them, because I do not have them to hand. I absolutely defend what we have done quite successfully in increasing the size of the reserve. Compared with where we were three or four years ago, we now have a usable reserve, which is a very positive thing.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Army on its new recruitment campaign, which shows the changing face and culture of our armed forces? Does he share my confidence that the corporals and colour sergeants who await those recruits in our training establishments, and the esprit de corps in our regiments that awaits thereafter, will ensure that our Army is no less professional, no less robust and no less lethal?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The British Army is the best in the world. What we want to do is recruit from every walk of life and every background; it does not matter where someone comes from, their sexuality or anything else. We want the best in our armed forces, and that is what we will achieve.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said about his efforts to secure further Hawk orders. May I remind him that if we do not get those Hawk orders for BAE Systems and the jobs at Brough, his Department will not be able to renew the Red Arrows fleet, which flies Hawks, when the time comes?

I thank the hon. Lady for reminding me of that. We have, I believe, 75 Hawk aircraft, which the Red Arrows pull from and which are due to go until 2030. This is why we are working so hard to secure future orders for the Hawk aircraft and we will continue to do so going forward.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) to his ministerial role. Will he begin by considering boosting exports by pairing the national shipbuilding strategy with the national aerospace strategy?

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to my role. He makes a really important point; I will be more than happy to take his representations on board as we move forward.

It meets twice a year and has the ability to direct and ensure that Ministers right across the Government are doing what is needed. It will evolve and change, and that is what we want to see. I cannot remember such a body existing prior to 2010. I am very proud of what our party has done for veterans and we will continue to deliver for them, unlike other parties.