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Commons Chamber

Volume 634: debated on Monday 15 January 2018

House of Commons

Monday 15 January 2018

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Covenant

The Ministry of Defence published the armed forces covenant annual report in December 2017, which outlined the progress made to strengthen the covenant. Notable achievements include the establishment of a new ministerial covenant and veterans board, which had its first meeting in October 2017. The next ministerial covenant and veterans board meeting is due in the spring.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Before Christmas, I visited the Community Awareness Project in Wakefield, and many of its homeless clients are former armed services personnel. The Veterans Association UK estimates that there are 13,000 homeless veterans. They are guaranteed priority access to social housing under the armed forces covenant, but it is impossible to know that unless they are counted in the census. Will he commit—here, today—to count armed forces personnel and veterans in the census, as recommended by the Office for National Statistics?

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what his Department is doing to support wonderful local charities, such as the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes, in helping veterans to tackle isolation and loneliness?

The point my hon. Friend raises is very valuable. We have to be reaching out to so many veterans, who have given so much to our country over so many years, and the work of Help for Heroes and the Leigh-on-Sea branch of the Royal British Legion is absolutely pivotal to that. We have recently seen investment of £2 million to create the veterans’ gateway, which is there to make sure that veterans are signposted to the charities, support organisations and of course Government organisations that can best support them if they are suffering from loneliness or need other additional help. May I take this opportunity to thank the Royal British Legion—at Leigh-on-Sea and at so many other branches across the country—which continues to do so much for our veterans, day in and day out?

The armed forces covenant is currently more of a statement of intent than a statement of action, and it does not guarantee the support that serving personnel and veterans require. Does the Secretary of State agree that putting an armed forces representative body on a statutory footing would be a bold commitment to ensure proper representation of personnel and veterans?

What we have done is to create the veterans board. It was previously co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and me, and it will now be co-chaired by me and the Minister for the Cabinet Office. We have found that the feedback about what we have been doing and trying to achieve in creating the board has been very positive. This is about not just the Ministry of Defence, but every Department, every local authority in the country and businesses helping and supporting our veterans and our service personnel.

Housing regularly tops the list of concerns expressed by the Army Families Federation, as my right hon. Friend will know. Since 2014, CarillionAmey has been responsible for 50,000 service homes, and its website boasts that 1,500 calls are taken from concerned service families every day. What will he do, given that Carillion is about to collapse, to ensure that those calls are responded to appropriately in the immediate term and that service housing is dealt with in the longer term?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There were some problems, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has done an awful lot of work with CarillionAmey to tackle these issues. We will be making every effort to ensure that the accommodation provided by the partners with which we work and from which our service personnel benefit is of the highest standards.

Housing for our armed forces families is indeed an important part of the covenant. I recognise that CarillionAmey is a separate entity from the parent company, Carillion, but, given the concerns about its capacity and performance and today’s worrying news, what contingency plans does the Minister have in the event of unforeseen knock-on effects on armed forces housing?

I assure the House that we have been monitoring the situation closely and working with our industrial partners. There will be a Cobra meeting later today to discuss addressing some of the most immediate issues, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East, will do what he can, working with Amey and the separate business, to make sure that standards are driven up and no one notices a fall in service.

Defence Industry

2. What steps his Department is taking to increase defence exports and protect defence industry jobs. (903256)

The strategic defence and security review created a national security objective to promote our prosperity, supporting a thriving and competitive defence sector. We have now published our national shipbuilding strategy and refreshed defence industrial policy; industry has welcomed both. Exports are now also a defence core task, and I was delighted last month to sign the biggest Typhoon order in a decade, worth £6 billion.

Our NATO allies should be living up to their commitment to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defence, including 20% of defence expenditure being on major equipment, as agreed at the 2014 NATO Wales summit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if all members of NATO lived up to their commitments, there would be a boost to the British defence manufacturing sector and therefore to high-skilled British jobs?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. He is right that, if everyone lived up their commitments on NATO spending and capital equipment, Britain could be a major beneficiary. I have made that point repeatedly to NATO Defence Ministers. It is about making sure that we have the right product on offer, so that we can sell it around the globe. That is something we in this country can be proud of as we continue to make significant and important deals across the globe.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, by 2020, 20% of our defence budget is set to be spent in the United States, not supporting UK jobs in design, engineering and manufacturing? Will he look again at defence procurement policy, which currently excludes social, economic and employment policies?

We are proud that we continue to sell more and more to the United States that is British designed, manufactured and built, and we will continue to do that. We have some world-leading companies that continue to lead the way in this field.

The defence industrial policy refresh was extremely disappointing, particularly in its failure to include a change to how the Ministry of Defence calculates value for money to include employment and economic impacts in cities such as Portsmouth, despite many defence companies urging the Ministry to make that change. Can the Secretary of State explain why?

The refresh has broadly been welcomed by industry. I am sure that it will be followed by further refreshes, and we will be happy to look at different options.

One way to support defence exports is to make more of the “Five Eyes” relationship and the sharing of platforms. A great way to do that would be to have three, or perhaps four of the “Five Eyes” powers operating the same platforms, potentially on the same frigates. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that every effort will be made at the top of Government to support Type 26 exports?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about exploiting the “Five Eyes” relationship in terms of defence exports. I have raised that with my Australian and Canadian counterparts. We need to create a platform that uses not just British products, but Canadian and Australian products, to encourage them to purchase the platform.

In any defence contract, what conditions do the Government put in to ensure the use of British labour, new apprenticeships and British components?

The Ministry of Defence has created 20,000 apprenticeship places in the past few years. Everything we do in our negotiations with firms, both UK based and international, aims to bring as much work content as possible into the United Kingdom.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the often innovative work done in this field by smaller UK companies? Does he agree that they have a valuable role to play in procurement?

We need to work out how to bring more small and medium-sized businesses into the MOD supply chain. Sterling work has been done in the past few years, but we have to double down on that and make sure that more small and mid-sized businesses benefit from MOD contracts.

As the Defence Secretary will know, the Government recently signed a letter of intent with the Qatari Government for six new Hawk aircraft, but workers at the BAE Brough plant say that, even if that deal goes through, there will still have to be a headcount reduction in line with future aircraft production rates. What can the Government say to reassure these workers about their jobs?

Later this afternoon, I will be meeting the Qatari Defence Minister to try to push the issue of making sure that we deliver on the statement of intent and the deal in terms of the purchase of the six Hawk aircraft. I have also taken the opportunity to meet the Emir of Kuwait, as well as the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, to push the 12 Hawk aircraft that we are desperately hoping the Kuwaitis will look at purchasing. This will have an important impact on the hon. Lady’s constituency and so many others.

I congratulate the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), on his new job. I am sure he will do his best to ensure fairness in defence procurement. I very much hope that the Defence Secretary will dispel the rumours regarding the £3 billion contract for the new mechanised infantry vehicle. Will he take this opportunity to give a commitment that there will not be a cosy deal with the Germans, but a fair and open competition for the prime contract?

What we have been doing is working to get a clear idea of what the Army needs going forward. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, is new to the job. He will be looking at the options as to how we take this forward and making sure that we get the best deal and the best value, as well as the right equipment for the British Army. He will be looking at the details as he gets his feet under the desk.

Strategic Equality Objectives

The MOD increasingly strives to become a more diverse and inclusive organisation. The defence diversity and inclusion strategy is currently being reviewed to ensure it is continuing to have the desired impact on the organisation. I look forward to publishing a paper later this year.

Having more diverse armed forces clearly adds to their effectiveness, but, unfortunately, the latest figures show that the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic regular personnel has risen only 0.5% since 2015. What specific initiatives does the MOD have to improve on this?

The hon. Lady will be aware of the latest advertising campaign that is going through. She is absolutely right that, if we are to reflect society, we must be able to recruit from right across society, and that includes BAME people and women as well. We have this target of 10% for BAME and 15% for women by 2020, and I hope we will achieve that.

I strongly support the Minister’s ambition to encourage more BAME people and women to join the armed forces, but what has led him to the conclusion that the new advertising campaign to which he alluded a moment ago, which is rather less than robust in my view, will be any more successful in doing that than the good old-fashioned “Be the Best”?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He will be aware that the “Be the Best” campaign continues, but he will also be aware that we must recruit from a diverse footprint. That means that we have to dispel some of the messages that are out there, and that is exactly what this new campaign is seeking to do.

What assurances can the Minister give workers in Rosyth, in my constituency, about the future work programme for the dockyard there, following the carrier completion contracts? Would he be able to meet me in the constituency to discuss that future work programme with unions and the management?

Order. I struggle to identify the relationship between the question posed and that of which the House was treating, but I will charitably attribute this to my inability fully to hear the hon. Gentleman. If the Minister wishes to blurt out an extremely brief reply, I think we should indulge the fella.

I hope I never blurt out anything in this Chamber, Mr Speaker, but I will say with courtesy to the hon. Gentleman that, if he would like to meet my hon. Friend the new procurement Minister, I am sure they can come to some arrangement.

That all sounds very encouraging. Now, on the matter of equality and diversity, let us hear from a Lincolnshire knight.

Of course the armed forces should be welcoming and open to all, irrespective of their gender, race or sexuality, but is it not better to state this in general terms? After all, we are all part of a minority—as you have alluded to, Mr Speaker, I am part of many minorities in my views—and the armed forces should be representative of the whole nation.

They should be, and that is why, even within the time of this Government, we have seen the number of women in one-star postings or above increase from 10 to 20, for example, and why we have opened up every role in the armed forces to women as well.

Daesh (Syria and Iraq)

The Government’s policy on the use of remotely piloted air systems to target Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq is no different from targeting conducted by a manned aircraft. All UK targeting is conducted in accordance with UK and international law.

Our drones are piloted in the same way as fixed-wing strike aircraft, but the pilots do not have the same service life as pilots in frontline squadrons. Some drone pilots find it difficult to switch between being on live operations and being at home with their families. Will the Secretary of State confirm what support we give to drone pilots, and does it recognise the peculiar circumstances of their role?

We recognise that this is a new form of warfare, and we have been working very closely with those engaged in it, making sure they have that support and that it is put in place before they go on operations, during and after. We are also working very closely with the United States air force to make sure we learn the lessons they have learned over the past few years so that our service personnel might benefit.

The one thing above all else that gives us legitimacy in using force under these circumstances is the rule of law. Further to what he just said, will the Secretary of State confirm that UK operations will always comply with both the rule of law—the law of armed conflict—and the Geneva convention?

Armed Forces Compensation Scheme

6. When the Government plan to publish their response to the armed forces compensation scheme review, published in February 2017. (903260)

The Ministry of Defence is carefully considering the recommendations of the armed forces compensation scheme review. It has always been the intention to publish a response a year after the publication of the review, which came out in February 2017.

As part of the Government’s response to the consultation, will the Minister consider the fact that, since the establishment of the compensation scheme 11 years ago, only 56% of claimants have been given awards, that 96% of those have been in the lowest four levels of support and that 60% of those low-level awards that are then appealed receive an increase in award? That significant percentage demonstrates flaws in the original decision-making process. Will he commit to urgently improving that first-stage decision making to ensure that veterans are given the support they deserve?

I am happy to look at the concerns the hon. Lady raises. The quinquennial review took place in 2016, and overall we were found to have remained on track and fit for purpose. We are making some changes, but they will be announced later in the year.

The Opposition strongly welcome reforms to the compensation scheme to make it fairer and easier to access, but we are concerned at Government proposals to prevent armed forces personnel and their families from seeking legal redress where there are failings that need to be highlighted. Not only would this remove an important legal right for injured service members, but it could prevent the MOD from learning lessons from past decisions. Will the Minister agree to think again and preserve the right of redress for personnel and their families?

As I alluded to in my previous answer, no firm decisions have been made, but I will be presenting the results in due course, and I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Royal Navy: Capability and Strength

The Government are committed to increasing our maritime power to project our influence across the world and promote national prosperity. Growing for the first time in a generation, we will spend £63 billion on new ships and submarines over the next decade. We are also committed to increasing the number of personnel in the Royal Navy.

As the Minister will know, the strongest arm of the Royal Navy is the Royal Marines. Will he update the House on the work that is ongoing to transform the Royal Marines home base in south Devon into a world-leading facility and how it will enhance our national amphibious capability plans to ensure that we continue to meet our NATO and national priorities?

In my previous role, I was responsible for the better defence estate strategy. I can confirm that it remains the intention to dispose of the Royal Citadel and Stonehouse in 2024 and Chivenor in 2027, and to provide units for the Royal Marines in either Plymouth or Torpoint. I cannot confirm exactly what form that will take at this stage, as further work is required, but I will update the House in due course.

The lack of clarity and the leaks and confusion surrounding the national security review are really hitting morale, and morale affects capability in the Royal Navy. Given the uncertainty over Plymouth’s HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and, now, the leaked proposal to merge the Royal Marines with the Parachute Regiment, will the Minister clear up the confusion and rule out those Navy cuts and the merger?

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I can only repeat what has already been said: the Government take the security of our nation incredibly seriously. I think it is far more important to ensure that the review is robust, comprehensive and detailed than to rush to make announcements simply to appease the hon. Gentleman.

May we take a moment to acknowledge the courageous service of Surgeon-Captain Rick Jolly, whose death has just been announced? He was the only person to be awarded a gallantry medal by both sides in the Falklands war.

Will the Minister please take back to those conducting the review the united opinion on both sides of the House that any loss of frigates and amphibious vessels before their due out-of-service dates would be totally unacceptable?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for highlighting the very sad passing of Commander Rick Jolly. He was indeed an absolute legend, and the service that he provided in the Falklands is worth reading about. It is unique to have been given awards for gallantry by both the United Kingdom and the Argentine forces. I also note my right hon. Friend’s other point.

Does not the passage of the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov through the English channel over Christmas prove that the Russians are intent on constantly observing our capability on the high seas, and is it not vital for us to maintain that capability at as high a level as possible?

Absolutely. The Russian activity in the north Atlantic is as high as it has been since the end of the cold war, which is why we constantly assess it and respond appropriately. I was delighted that, as ever, HMS St Albans accompanied that Russian vessel during its passage through the channel.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

May I reiterate what Members on both sides of the House have said so far, and add my concerns to those that have already been expressed about the future of the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy? I believe that any cutting of the Royal Marines or any further part of our amphibious fleet—HMS Ocean having already gone to the Brazilians—is absolutely out of order and totally unacceptable.

My hon. Friend is a champion of the armed forces, and I am of course aware of his own service. I can only repeat what has already been said, but I entirely recognise the contribution made by both the Royal Marines and the Royal Navy. I was deeply honoured to be able to award green berets to our Royal Marines back in 2016, having accompanied them for a short run across the moor. I am only too well aware of what they are capable of, and I note my hon. Friend’s concerns.

What assessments have been undertaken of naval capability in response to the inevitable arms race in weapons of mass destruction which would follow the implementation of the United States’ nuclear posture review?

I am sorry, but I did not catch the question. If I may, I will review it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

I think it would be fair to say that it was tangential to the subject of the strength of the Royal Navy.

We have heard from the Government ad nauseam that the Royal Navy is growing when that is demonstrably untrue. There continues to be a sharp divide between rhetoric and reality. It is utterly unacceptable that the House should hear about significant potential cuts from the newspapers, as we did yet again this weekend. Can the Minister refute those reports, and confirm that we will not see a repetition of the 2010 scale of cuts in our armed forces?

It is deeply disappointing that the hon. Lady once again comes to the Dispatch Box almost trying to talk down our Royal Navy. As is clear from the opening comments, we are absolutely committed to some £63 billion-worth of investment in our Royal Navy. Only shortly before Christmas we saw the Queen Elizabeth arriving in Portsmouth, after £120 million worth of investment in Portsmouth. We have now laid the first contracts for the first three Type 26s, and we are looking at Type 31s, and there are also nine new P-8 aircraft. The investment in our Royal Navy is significant, so for the hon. Lady to come to the Dispatch Box and simply try to talk it down is deeply disappointing.

Once again we do not seem to have very clear answers on that front. We also know that a lack of personnel is a driving factor for decisions in the Royal Navy. Capita is failing miserably on recruitment targets, failing to deliver savings, and is still bungling its IT systems, so what specific steps will the Minister be taking to get to grips with this situation?

We seem to be switching seamlessly from the Navy to the Army. [Interruption.] If it is in order, that is fine, but there is continuing work on recruitment in the Army. I am pleased to say that compared with this period last year, applications are up about 20%. There have been some minor glitches in the new computer system, but they are being ironed out and I am confident that we will see recruitment into the Army increasing.

Future Accommodation Model

The MOD is committed to giving personnel flexibility and choice in where, how and with whom they live. The future accommodation model programme is advancing a new way to offer choice to our armed forces, whether they wish to live on the garrison or rent or buy a house.

The families federations have made clear their concerns about the family accommodation model and a distinct lack of communication from the Department with forces families. When will this Government introduce some concrete proposals so that forces families have some clarity about their future?

I agree that it is very important that we work closely with the families federations to make sure that we look after their interests, and we have explained the proposals to them. I meet them regularly and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also met them recently to explain the roll-out of this pilot scheme, which will begin at the end of this year.

It has been suggested that this model has saved £500 million, but also that it will not reduce the total pot of money used to subsidise housing. Given that we are told that no decisions have been made, is it not true that this £500 million figure has just been plucked from the air and we do not actually know the financial implications of this?

Let us turn this around: this is not about saving money; it is about offering choice to those whom we want to keep in our armed forces. One of the reasons why individuals choose to leave is that there is no choice; they look over their shoulders and see people in civilian streets able to invest in a house, or to rent or to buy and so forth, and that is exactly what we want to offer those in the armed forces.

The Army Families Federation found that if service family accommodation was replaced with the rental model, only 22% of personnel surveyed would definitely remain in the Army. Does the Minister not agree that the future accommodation model risks having a devastating impact on already shaky retention rates?

I do not quite recognise those figures. We have worked with the families federations to establish exactly what the armed forces want, and they want choice, particularly the youngsters who come in. Some will want to continue living on the garrison, but others will want to get on the housing ladder, and we need to help them; that is what we need to do for our armed forces.

The most pressing worry of service personnel tonight in terms of the future of their accommodation will be that the parent company of the company that provides the maintenance of their quarters has just gone bust. Given the great importance of its service to service personnel, particularly in the middle of winter, may I press the Minister further and ask what plan B has the Defence Infrastructure Organisation come up with to make sure that maintenance will continue for service personnel throughout the winter?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise this important question. There will be questions about the future of Carillion, and I understand that a statement on the matter will follow Defence questions. From the Defence perspective, we should recognise that a plan B was inherent in all the contracts. These are joint ventures, and if one of the companies steps back, there is an obligation on the other company to move forward and fill the space. We have been working on this for some time, and we have been prepared for this moment.

I am fortunate enough to have visited several airbases recently as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and many airmen and women have expressed their concern about the significant differences in off-base accommodation across the country. How can we address this concern if there is no differential in pay in the future accommodation model?

First, I pay tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Looking round the Chamber, I hope that there is not a single person who has not either done the course or signed up for it, because it gives a fantastic and valuable insight into what our brave armed forces personnel are doing. In relation to the future accommodation model, it is important that people should not be disfranchised because of funding, and we need to ensure that, no matter where someone might rent, it will be about the same up and down the country. That will be the plan.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), to his place. In response to an earlier question on CarillionAmey, it was stated that military families should not see a difference in the service they receive. Is it not the case, however, that they should see a difference? The 1,500 calls per day that the hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) mentioned earlier should tell us that something is deeply wrong with this private contract.

First, I extend my welcome to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, the new procurement Minister. He is very welcome indeed. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s question, we need to understand what those calls are. If someone is phoning up to get a lightbulb replaced, does that mean that they are dissatisfied with the service, or do they simply need a new lightbulb? Let us be honest about what those calls actually are. A process also exists so that when someone is prevented from, say, getting a new lightbulb, they are compensated for the inconvenience caused.

Let us be serious here. We know that this is not about lightbulbs. It is about people’s hot water going off and their having to wait weeks to get it fixed. Is it any wonder that fewer than half our service families are happy with the current accommodation model? When does the Minister plan to get a grip of this and end the dreadful service that companies such as CarillionAmey are giving to military families?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it should not be flippant about something that is so important. I should explain, however, that an awful lot of calls come through that relate to the everyday management of these locations. Yes, there are occasions when someone’s boiler has gone and we need to ensure that the individual family is compensated. Under a former Defence Secretary a couple of years ago, we called the company in to say that standards were slipping and needed to be improved. The satisfaction surveys that have come back since then show that there has been a dramatic increase, but yes, we still need to keep working at this.

We know that the Conservatives have a poor record when it comes to making decisions on armed forces housing. The 1996 sell-off is the prime example of that. The Ministry of Defence is planning to sell a number of sites as part of its changes to the defence estate, but it is unclear what will happen to the housing stock on those sites. Will the Minister tell us what plans are in place for that housing when the sites are sold?

Stepping back from Defence questions, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the need for more housing in this country. The Ministry of Defence owns 2% of UK land, and it is important that we do our job in freeing up land that we no longer need and that is surplus to requirements in order to make way for new housing. That is exactly what we are doing, and we have started off with an announcement on 91 sites.

European Defence Agency/Fund

9. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the UK’s future participation in the European Defence Agency and the European Defence Fund. (903263)

I thank Members on both sides of the House for their warm welcome. I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor for the work that she has done in this role for the past two years. Ministerial colleagues and I regularly discuss defence co-operation with our European partners. The Government are clear that they are seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU, including on security matters. It is important that UK and European industry can continue to work together to deliver the capabilities we need to keep us safe, and we look forward to discussing options for future co-operation during the next phase of the negotiations.

I thank the Minister for that response, although he does not make it clear whether we will still be part of the European defence fund or whether that is our ambition. He will be aware that negotiations on the next stage of the European defence industrial development programme, which is part of the EDF, are taking place, so what assessment has he made of the impact on jobs in our aerospace, defence and security industries if we do leave?

The impact would be significant, and everybody would recognise that. However, going back to my previous point, the Government’s intention is to ensure that, despite leaving the European Union, our relationship with our European partners on security and defence is enhanced and strengthened.

The Minister surely knows of the deep concern among our friends and allies across Europe, not just about the European defence fund, but about the fact that this country is running down its defence capacity. Our support for NATO is under threat from our leaving the European Union, and people believe that we will soon lose our seat on the UN Security Council. What does he say to our friends in Europe?

The hon. Gentleman is making a statement that I do not recognise. This country is still one of the largest defence spenders in the world and still meets its obligations within NATO, and our European partners are well aware that the United Kingdom has a huge amount to offer them moving forward. The picture painted by the hon. Gentleman does not reflect the reality.

Munitions Workers (First and Second World Wars)

11. If he will take steps to further recognise the work of munitions workers during the First and Second World Wars. (903265)

I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the thousands who worked in munitions factories during both world wars. They produced vital equipment that helped us to final victory. For practical reasons, it is not possible to pursue individual awards, but the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would be happy to work with colleagues across the House to look at further ways of recognising the collective effort of former munitions workers.

My constituent Sue Wickstead wrote to me about her aunt, who worked in a munitions factory during the second world war, and I urge my hon. Friend to work with BEIS to ensure that munitions workers are properly commemorated for their bravery on behalf of our country’s freedom.

I am delighted to say that we are already in negotiations with the Department and will happily pursue that work.

Last year, I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Ethel Parker, a 99-year-old former munitions worker from Swynnerton. She is incredibly proud of her service and will be 100 in May—I am sure she will forgive me for mentioning her age. For her and many others, time may well be running out, and they would very much want to be at the opening of a memorial, which would ideally not be in London so that they could visit it. Can we progress this issue as a matter of urgency, just as we have with other memorials, so that those involved can actually see the testament to their work to deliver victory in world war one and world war two?

Once again, I can only pay tribute to those constituents who played such an important part in the second world war—those who took part in world war one are no longer around—and I absolutely recognise the urgency. We had a similar issue when it came to the French Légion d’Honneur, so mechanisms are in place, but I will pursue this as a matter of urgency.

War Widows

12. If he will reinstate the war widows’ pension for widows who were required to surrender that pension due to remarriage or cohabitation. (903266)

I think I might go out and buy a lottery ticket, Mr Speaker, as I seem to be doing well here—

I think the right hon. Gentleman is getting a little confused. I know that his responsibility is for defence rather than arithmetic, but the grouping was between Questions 14 and 21, so it is rather difficult to put Question 12 with Question 21. The right hon. Gentleman should satisfy himself with what I am sure will be a high-quality answer to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield).

Mr Speaker, that is why you are the Speaker and I am just a Minister.

While much attention in defence debates focuses on those in uniform, we must recognise the unique commitment that families make to our country in supporting those who actually serve. I have met the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain on several occasions and have listened carefully to its case for the reinstatement of war widows’ pensions for those widows who remarried or cohabited before 1 April 2015. The Secretary of State is already apprised of the issue, and we are now considering a way forward.

I should just say that the right hon. Gentleman is a respected Minister. On a very serious note, and in recognition of the fact that I will have the whole House with me, we discovered not that long ago that the right hon. Gentleman is also a very brave man.

As the Minister will know, arbitrary and unjust transitions in pension status can have dire consequences for those who depend on them, and it is particularly shameful when those affected are the families of those who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Members of my own family have been affected, so will the Minister please meet me directly to discuss this issue?

I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady, particularly given her experience of this matter. It is a very difficult issue, and we must recognise that war widows’ pensions are not compensation for the loss of a spouse but are paid to assist with maintenance. We must pay tribute to any family who have undertaken the burden of losing somebody in uniform to the service of this country.

Armed Forces: Pay and Retention

14. What assessment he has made of the effect of delays to the 2018-19 pay negotiations on retention in the armed forces. (903268)

21. What assessment he has made of the effect of delays to the 2018-19 pay negotiations on retention in the armed forces. (903277)

As the House is aware, pay rates are recommended by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and by the Senior Salaries Review Body for the most senior officers. The next set of recommendations are expected in the spring.

Does the Minister share my concern that all three services are running below strength and that the delay in lifting the armed forces pay cap and in prioritising recruitment will only exacerbate the problem?

I hope the whole House would agree that pay is not the reason why people join the armed forces. Nor is it the reason why people choose to leave the armed forces, but we do not want it to become one. That is why I am pleased that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body has been liberated from the 1% pay freeze that has existed for a number of years.

The 2017 armed forces continuous attitude survey found that satisfaction with the basic rate of pay and pension is at the lowest level ever recorded, with nearly half of service personnel stating that their pay and benefits are not fair for the hard work they do. How bad do things have to get before the Government take this seriously?

I repeat: the important situational change is that the 1% pay freeze has been lifted. It is up to the pay review body to make its recommendations. We should also recognise that it is not simple basic pay. There is a complex process involved in armed forces pay, including progression pay, the X factor and a variety of allowances that must also be incorporated and considered.

Armed Forces: Mental Health Support

17. What steps his Department is taking to improve mental health support for members of the armed forces. (903271)

There has been a comprehensive change in how we deal with mental health issues in the armed forces, as outlined in the mental health and wellbeing strategy, which I was privileged to launch last year. We are already seeing the start of a cultural change in removing the stigma that for so long has been associated with those wanting to raise mental health concerns during their service time.

I thank the Minister for that reply. A recent report found that just 31% of our armed forces personnel and veterans with recent mental health problems had accessed a mental health specialist. Does he agree that the high rates of medical discharge among UK personnel might prevent people from seeking help for fear it might end their career? What will the Government do to encourage service personnel with mental health issues to seek help?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and it is why we had to introduce such a fundamental change in our strategy. People were not coming forward. If someone has a knee injury, they declare it, they show it, they get it sorted out and they get back into the line. If they had something wrong with their mind, soldiers, sailors and air personnel were reticent to step forward. That is now changing. We are changing the stigma, and we are grateful to the support of the Royal Foundation for providing funding for extra studies on this important matter.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to be very careful with this narrative on veterans? If we go too far down the road of promoting the idea that we are all broken and contribute nothing, it will not help us to beat the challenge and to present mental health treatments on a fair and acceptable footing for our armed forces.

I shall take this opportunity to explain that the absolute majority of the 14,000 who leave the armed forces every single year make the transition into civilian life without a problem. In fact, 90% or so are either in education or in a job within six months. However, some require support, and often that they do not know where to find that support. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the armed forces veterans’ gateway, which is an important portal that opens up more than 400 military-facing charities that can provide that support for our deserving veterans.

Royal Air Force: Pilots

Does the Minister agree that the RAF needs to do everything possible to retain its experienced pilots, particularly in the light of competition from the civil sector? Will he look at the case of 100 experienced pilots who have been disadvantaged in relation to their peers by the latest change to pay and conditions?

I absolutely recognise that we need to retain our experienced pilots, and of course a number of financial retention schemes are in place to do that. Equally, pilots have the choice as to whether or not they remain flying, by going into a specialist flying scheme, or stop flying, by going into the general scheme. Since the announcement that we would be buying nine P-8s, I have been deeply encouraged by the number of commercial pilots who have left the RAF and now want to re-join.

RAF pilots from Lossiemouth and other military personnel in my constituency have contacted me about the Scottish National party’s “nat tax”, which makes Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom and potentially a less desirable posting. Does the Minister agree that the SNP should drop these dangerous plans? If it will not, what support could the Government give RAF personnel in Scotland, who will face paying more tax than their counterparts south of the border?

Don’t bang on about SNP policy—we don’t need to do that. The esteemed Minister should focus on the latter part of the question, which was orderly and did relate to the policy of the Government, for which he is responsible.

I would not dream of banging on about the SNP, but it is of course for it to justify to our armed forces personnel its higher rate of income tax. I have yet to be contacted by any RAF pilots wishing to leave, and I will continue to do my best to ensure that they will want to stay in the RAF.

Fleet Solid Support Ships

20. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of holding a UK-only competition to design and construct the new fleet solid support ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. (903275)

The national shipbuilding strategy made it clear that, as non-warships, the fleet solid support ships will be subject to international competition. There are clear cost and value-for-money advantages from maximising competition, which remains the cornerstone of defence procurement. UK companies are welcome to participate in the competition.

Daewoo, of South Korea, which is currently building the Tide class tankers for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, has benefited from unfair state aid assistance from the South Korean Government. Will the Minister give assurances that for the next batch of fleet solid support ships, any shipyard worldwide that is benefiting from unfair state aid will be excluded from the competition? Even better, will he make a commitment that UK shipbuilders will be able to bid for that on that basis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The point I made in my initial answer is very clear: we believe that competition is a good thing. That means fair competition, so we will be more than happy to look into the details of his comments. However, we do believe that competition on this issue is the best way forward.

Topical Questions

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.

National Security Capability Review

(Urgent Question): I rise to request urgent clarification of the radical reductions in conventional military forces provisionally proposed by the national security capability review, together with an explanation of the reasons for undertaking the review and the financial constraints under which it is being conducted.

In the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the Government identified four principal threats facing the UK and our allies in the coming decade: terrorism, extremism and instability; state-based threats and intensifying wider state competition; technology, especially cyber-threats; and the erosion of the rules-based international order.

As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech to the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year, these threats have diversified and grown in intensity. Russian hostility to the west is increasing—whether in weaponising information, attempting to undermine the democratic process or increased submarine activity in the north Atlantic. Regional instability in the middle east exacerbates the threat from Daesh and Islamic—Islamist terrorism, which has diversified and dispersed. Iran’s well known proxy military presence in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere poses a clear threat to UK interests in the region and to our allies.

Like other Members, I have seen much of the work that our armed forces continue to do in dealing with these threats. It is because of these intensifying global security contexts that the Government initiated the national security capability review in July. Its purpose is to ensure that our investment in national security capabilities is joined up, effective and efficient. As I said in oral questions, since I became Defence Secretary I have asked the Department to develop robust options to ensure 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. I would not wish to pre-empt that decision.

Although the detail must wait until after the NSCR concludes, I can assure the House that as long as I am Defence Secretary we will develop and sustain the capabilities necessary to maintain continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence, a carrier force that can strike anywhere around the globe and the armed forces necessary to protect the north Atlantic and Europe; and we will continue to work with our NATO allies. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I will be doing all we can to ensure that we have a sustainable budget, so that we can deliver the right capabilities for our armed forces.

I thank the current Defence Secretary—[Laughter.] That is not meant to be funny. I thank him for confirming what the previous Defence Secretary told the Defence Committee, namely that the capability review resulted from intensified threats to the United Kingdom. If the threats are intensifying, why has the review provisionally proposed radical reductions in our conventional armed forces, and why is it required to be fiscally neutral, as the National Security Adviser recently told the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy? Who has imposed that financial restriction? The Ministry of Defence? Unlikely. The Treasury? Almost certainly.

If new threats have intensified, is not more money needed, unless of course previous conventional threats have seriously diminished? If previous conventional threats have diminished, why did the National Security Adviser claim to the Defence Committee in a letter:

“Because the main decisions on Defence were taken during the 2015 SDSR, this review is not defence-focused”?

If this review is not defence-focused, and if the 2015 plan therefore still applies, why should thousands of soldiers, sailors and airmen be lost, elite units merged or aircraft frigates and vital amphibious vessels scrapped, long before their out-of-service dates?

Finally, is it not obvious that we are bound to face such unacceptable choices as long as we continue to spend barely 2% of GDP on defence? Even after the end of the cold war and the taking of the peace dividend cuts, we were spending fully 3% in the mid-1990s. Defence is our national insurance policy, and it is time for the Treasury to pay the premiums.

I thank the current Chairman of the Defence Committee—I think we are only ever current—for raising those points. In the NSCR, we are looking at the threats that the country faces, and everything that was done in 2015 is relevant today. As I pointed out, the Prime Minister herself has highlighted the fact that the threats are increasing, and we are having very active discussions right across Government about how best we can deal with those threats. There is an awful lot of speculation and rumour in the press, but that is what we expect of the press.

As I mentioned earlier, we need to ensure that we have the right capability, whether that is a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, our special forces, or an Army, Navy and Air Force that have the right equipment and capability to strike in any part of the globe. That is what we have to deliver. I am afraid that I cannot be drawn on the details at the moment, but I will be sure to update the House regularly, as the national security capability review develops, on the conclusions of the review and how we can best deal with them.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this urgent question, because Members on both sides of the Chamber have had enough of constantly reading about proposed defence cuts in the newspapers while Government Ministers stonewall questions in the House.

May I press the Secretary of State actually to answer the questions posed by the Chair of the Defence Committee about the national security capability review? Is it the case that the defence element of the review is to be hived off? If so, when can we expect that part to be published? We live in a time of deep global uncertainty, and the risks that we face continue to grow and evolve. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the review will carry out a thorough strategic analysis of those risks, and make a full assessment of the capabilities required to deal with them effectively? It is complete nonsense to have a review without also reviewing the funding, yet that is precisely what this Government propose to do.

Although we must develop and adapt our capabilities as the threats that we face continue to evolve, this review must not become a contest between cyber-security and more conventional elements. Will the Secretary of State recognise that Britain will always need strong conventional forces, and that money must be made available for both? He must not rob Peter to pay for Paul.

There is significant concern about cuts to personnel, with numbers already running behind the stated targets across all three services. The Government still maintain that they aim to be able to field a “warfighting division”, but will the Secretary of State admit that this simply will not be possible if the Army is reduced to the levels speculated? What is the Government’s target for the size of the Army? They broke their 2015 manifesto pledge to have an Army of over 82,000, and they have now broken their 2017 pledge to maintain the overall size of the armed forces because, in reality, numbers have fallen.

Finally, will the Secretary of State tell us what specific steps he is taking to stop defence cuts, beyond posing with dogs outside the MOD and briefing the papers about his stand-up rows with the Chancellor? The fact is that we cannot do security on the cheap, and the British public expect the Government to ensure that defence and the armed forces are properly resourced.

I think that all Government Members recognise the importance of making sure that we maintain conventional forces, and the fact that we have to have a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent; but we cannot have one and not the other. We have to ensure that we have that ability so that, if we are in a point of conflict, there is deterrence at so very many levels. That is why having robust armed forces—the Army, Navy and Air Force—is so incredibly vital.

The Government and the Conservative party made a clear commitment in our manifesto to maintaining numbers. We are working to ensure that we get the recruitment methods right, so that we can give many people right across the country the opportunity to be able to join the Army, Navy and Air Force. I have to say that if we are choosing between parties when it comes to who will prioritise defence, and who will ensure that our armed forces and this country’s national interests are protected, I know which party I would choose, and it sits on this side of the House.

I will continue to work with the Army, Navy and Air Force to ensure that we get the very best deal for our armed forces. We have a vision as to what we wish to deliver for this country: a robust, global Britain that can project its power right across the globe. We recognise that that is done not just through cyber-offensive capabilities, but the conventional armed forces. As I said earlier, as the national security capability review starts to conclude, I will update the House on the conclusions and how it will be developed.

There has been speculation over the weekend that the defence element of the NSCR is going to be effectively broken out, and dealt with separately slightly later. Given the immense amount of speculation, will the Secretary of State confirm whether this is true? Is he also aware that if he continues stoutly to fend off the pin-striped warriors of the Treasury, he will have very strong support on the Government Benches and, I suspect, even among the Opposition.

I assure my right hon. Friend that we are working hard across Government and all Departments to make sure that we have the right resources for our armed forces not just this year and next year but going forward. On whether I can update the House, I am afraid that I do not have the ability to pre-empt the national security and capability review, but as soon as its conclusions have been brought forward and it has gone to the National Security Council, I will be sure to update this House as soon as I am able to do so.

Who would have thought that a national security review would become a proxy Conservative leadership contest between the Secretary of State and the Chancellor?

Will the Secretary of State answer the question that he has been asked by the Opposition and by Government Members? Is the review being split up into defence and security, is defence expected to come later in the year, and if so, when will that happen? What size will the Marines be by the time this concludes? Does he not agree that given all the speculation, and given that the SDSR is now effectively out of date because we are leaving the EU and because of major currency fluctuations, what is needed is a proper SDSR that he, at least, would be able to get a grip of?

I apologise, Mr Speaker, but the hon. Gentleman seems not to have been listening to my previous answers. I am not in a position to comment on his question, but I have promised the Committee that I will update the House as soon as I am able to do so. Quite simply, I am not in a place where I can pre-empt the decisions of the National Security Council, and the national security and capability review is ongoing. As soon as I am in a position to be able to update him, I will certainly do so.

When I joined a conventional infantry battalion in 1969, there were 780 officers and soldiers. Now, in the same conventional infantry battalion, there are just over 500. That is a loss of a third in number. Does my right hon. Friend agree that doing that and still calling something a battalion is a great loss of capability?

My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point, and I will certainly look into it. We want to make sure that battalions are properly and fully manned so that they are able to deliver the right capability with the right equipment and the right resources, but I take on board the points that he makes.

In 2015, the Conservative party was very clear that the size of the Army should be 82,000. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that on his watch the size of the Army will not drop below 82,000, and if it does, will he resign?

We are meeting all of our operational commitments. We have also made it clear that we want to deliver on the numbers that we outlined in the manifesto in keeping the forces at the levels that they are, and we will be doing everything we can to deliver on that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in some ways this is an unfair question for him, because given everything that he has said, he does not decide defence and security policy, as that has now been upped to the National Security Council and the National Security Adviser? At what point does the influence of the chiefs of staff come in? Is he able to veto any proposals being put forward by the Treasury or other Government Departments?

The Chief of the Defence Staff acts as the Prime Minister’s principal adviser on all defence issues. We will be putting forward our thoughts as to how best to make sure that our armed forces are best equipped to go forward. This national security capability review touches on 12 strands of work. I am keen to make sure that defence gets the very best deal. I will be very vocal in making sure that the interests of our armed forces are properly represented going forward.

Does the Defence Secretary not realise that he has a real opportunity here? Both in the debate on Thursday and today, Parliament is saying that he should go to the Treasury and tell it we will not accept merging the Paras with the Marines, cuts to amphibious warfare capability or cuts to the Army of some 11,000. We are trying to support and help him, so instead of retreating into partisanship, will he embrace what Parliament is telling him, and go and tell the Chancellor and the Prime Minister that we want more money?

I am always incredibly grateful for such cross-party support. In the arguments and the debates about our armed forces having the right resources, the fact that there is a real passion to make sure that they have the resources they need is apparent to everyone, not least me. As I have already said, I have made and will continue to make the arguments that need to be made to ensure we have the right resources to enable our armed forces to fulfil the asks that politicians in this House so often place on them.

First, I commend the Government’s commitment to defence: we spend the largest amount of money on defence in Europe. However, the money must be well spent if we are to deal with the security threat. Does the Secretary of State agree that for the Marines, such as 40 Commando in Taunton Deane, to function at the top of their game, they must have the correct amphibious capability, which includes retaining HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark? I know that he will give this due consideration, because it is very important not just for Taunton, but for the nation.

I will most certainly give that proper consideration, and I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I have just visited the commando training centre, and it is quite clear that exceptionally high levels of training go into preparing every marine, as they do into preparing every member of our services. It is absolutely vital to understand the capability we have—not just the Marines, but 16 Air Assault Brigade and so much more—and the benefits they can bring to and their immediate effect on the field of conflict. We will feed all these comments and thoughts into the national security capability review.

The Secretary of State says that he will not be drawn on the detail, and to an extent that is understandable. Is not the fundamental problem, however, that the review is already constrained in that we know it is fiscally neutral? Would not the best way to proceed be to look very carefully at the extensive range of threats we face as a country and to allocate resource and capability accordingly?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I know that the first thing at the forefront of the minds of the Chancellor and the Prime Minister is making sure we get the right outcome. Everyone is very keen to listen and to look at how to get the right solutions for this country’s needs. I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his contribution.

The Liaison Committee was unanimous in supporting the request of the Chair of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), to have the National Security Adviser appear in front of the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will know that there are precedents for the National Security Adviser appearing in front of the Defence Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and elsewhere, and Parliament has never accepted the Osmotherly rules, so will he give permission for the National Security Adviser to appear?

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is asking me something I cannot deliver. I can offer the Chief of the Defence Staff if she would like him, but I cannot offer the National Security Adviser. However, I will certainly pass on her request to Mr Sedwill.

There is danger, is there not, of an ever-diminishing spiral? Governments and political parties say they will have 82,000 or 80,000 in the Army, but fail to recruit that many and end up saying, “All right, there’ll be 75,000”, and then the figure will be 70,000, and so it will go on and on. If we fail to recruit enough and the Government fail to fulfil their promises, this country will in the end be left without sufficient defence.

Let us make it absolutely clear: the reason we are looking so clearly at how we go about our recruitment is to make sure we meet the target and fully recruit, and that is why we are changing our approach. As is often said, “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” We are trying to look at how to do this differently, so that we hit our numbers and get the right people who want to serve our country, and that is why we are going to do things differently. We have already seen a 15% increase in applications, and I hope that that will continue to rise.

It is perfectly reasonable that the Secretary of State cannot say much until the national security capability review has been completed, so when will that be?

I hope very soon, so that I do not have to sound quite so evasive. I hope it will happen in the very near future, but I am not yet at liberty to name a date.

Pursuant to a point made earlier, I would say to the Secretary of State that the appearance in the newspapers of briefings, which I am certainly not suggesting hail from him, is something that greatly irritates Members of the House. It is therefore very much to be hoped that before the conclusion of the review, there are no further such briefings. If there are, I rather imagine that I will be confronted with further requests for urgent questions, and I will feel unable, and in any case disinclined, to resist those requests.

On that point, I stand here as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant. The reality is that the leaks to papers are undermining morale and the confidence of families, and sending completely the wrong message to our allies. We need answers and we need them now, if only for the people who are serving. They need to know whether they will be serving in Plymouth, or be moved to Colchester.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point on morale in the armed forces. To read speculation in the newspapers is not good for anyone. That is why I hope we can conclude the national security capability review at the earliest possible moment; then, we can make clear some of the options and what we want to do to take our armed forces forward and to make sure that they have the right investment, so that they continue to be the successful, vibrant organisations in which so many people take great pleasure and pride in serving.

Does the Defence Secretary agree that the British Army headcount now is at an irreducible minimum? Does he also agree that the Sedwill review must deal principally with the threats that face this country—cyber and terrorism, and asymmetry—and will he reconcile the two?

We will continue to do everything we can to fulfil our commitment. I confess that, probably like all Defence Secretaries, I am a little greedy: I would always prefer to have larger numbers in our armed forces. In the coming months, we will do all we can to drive up the numbers through the new recruitment campaign. We hope that will attract significant uptake and an increase in the number of people joining our forces.

Had the Secretary of State been able to join us last Thursday, he would have heard across the House a cry for reassurance. Many of us here are also members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and represent this House and this country across the NATO alliance. I have to tell the Secretary of State that that cry for reassurance, that demand to know that we are able and capable and have the people, the personnel and the equipment to defend the NATO alliance, is shared by our allies. They are also desperate to hear the results of the national security capability review. Are the Secretary of State and the Government aware of that and of the need to reassure our allies?

Yes. We need to reassure our allies that Britain will continue to play a pivotal role not only in the defence of Europe, but in actions in every part of the world, where we bring unique capabilities—the ability to make a difference, as we have done throughout our history. I am as keen as the hon. Lady to bring the national security capability review to a conclusion, so that we can set out our clear vision for our armed forces. They are the best in the world. We have to continue to invest in them. We are increasing the amount of money we spend on our armed forces, and we need to make sure that the whole world understands our commitment to delivering a global Britain.

The Secretary of State took over in a difficult situation, because there were a lot of vacancies in the armed forces. I was pleased to hear him say that he wishes to bring the totals back up and that that is mainly a recruitment problem, which he thinks he may be able to resolve. Does he have the money in the budget if all those people come forward?

With Russia on the rise, our allies under threat and our northern flank vulnerable from Russian naval power, the threat from the Russian great bear is clear. Does the Defence Secretary understand that there is no support from any part of this House for any further cuts to our Royal Navy and our Royal Marines or for mergers that reduce the capabilities of our armed forces?