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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
15 January 2018
Volume 634

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Covenant

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1. Whether he has plans to strengthen the armed forces covenant. [903255]

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5. What progress he has made on establishing an armed forces covenant and veterans board. [903259]

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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.

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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?

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I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting that, and I assure her that, yes, we will do so.

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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

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13. What steps he is taking to support the defence industry. [903267]

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16. What steps he is taking to support the defence industry. [903270]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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3. When his Department plans to publish its new strategic equality objectives. [903257]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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”?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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)

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4. What the Government’s policy is on the use of drones to target Daesh fighters in Syria and Iraq. [903258]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Yes, they do.

Armed Forces Compensation Scheme

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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7. What recent assessment he has made of the capability and strength of the Royal Navy. [903261]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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I call Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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8. What recent steps his Department has taken to develop the future accommodation model. [903262]

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10. What recent steps his Department has taken to develop the future accommodation model. [903264]

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18. Whether his Department plans to replace service family accommodation with a rental allowance. [903272]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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)

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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?

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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

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

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May I group this question with Question 21?

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The answer is that it was not grouped, but I think we ought to indulge the fella.

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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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We now come to Question 14. I hope someone will now volunteer to group it with Question 21.

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No one else is stepping forward, so I will jump in.

Armed Forces: Pay and Retention

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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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19. How many pilots have applied to leave the Royal Air Force in each of the last three years. [903274]

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A total of 145 pilots formally applied to leave the Royal Air Force in the last three financial years.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [903280]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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How often does the Veterans Board meet and what powers has it got?

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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.