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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 637: debated on Monday 5 March 2018


The Secretary of State was asked—

Cyber-attack Protection

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s policies on protecting the UK from cyber-attack. (904151)

We take the cyber-threat very seriously. We are strengthening our defences against increasingly sophisticated attacks. Our approach to cyber-defence includes a wide range of technical, operational and administrative measures, as well as close co-operation with the National Cyber Security Centre. Indeed, this week we are opening a dedicated state-of-the-art cyber-defence school at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham to enhance the cyber- skills of our defence personnel.

With the National Cyber Security Centre recording 34 C2 attacks and 762 slightly less serious C3 attacks, will the Secretary of State outline the steps his Department is taking to shore up our defences as best as humanly possible against an attack that some watchdogs have described as “imminent” in the light of rising Russian aggression?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this increasing threat, which is why we have set out plans to spend £1.9 billion over a five-year period on making sure that our cyber-defence is right and that we develop the capabilities not just to defend against attacks but to be able to operationalise this ourselves.

Britain’s forces are a major part of the enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states. At a recent meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, we heard of some of the malign attacks on those forces, particularly on the German deployment in Lithuania. I am not asking my right hon. Friend to give me any great detail, because that is necessarily secret, but can he assure the House that we are learning from every attack and that we are training people, down to quite a low level, to make sure that our forces are best equipped to deal with this?

That is a very important point, because it is not just about the work that we do centrally; it is about training our forces to best understand the threats to which they will potentially be exposed as they operate in sometimes increasingly hostile fields. We have done that for all troops engaged in NATO operations, and more globally.

Local authorities can be vulnerable to cyber-attacks. One in four councils, including East Dunbartonshire, have experienced cyber-security incidents, yet many do not even provide mandatory training in cyber-security. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and indeed with the devolved Administrations, to make sure our local authorities do not become a soft target for cyber-attack?

Part of the reason why we set up the National Cyber Security Centre was to make sure that all elements of government are working together to tackle this issue. I will take up the hon. Lady’s point with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to highlight the threats and challenges that local government faces.

Young men and women traditionally joined Her Majesty’s armed forces, in large part, because of the physical challenge and the desire for combat experience. Should we not increasingly be recruiting young men and women because of their digital and IT proficiency, so that we can develop an elite cadre of cyber-specialists?

As we face new challenges, we have to be realistic that we need a whole different range of skills—not just the traditional skills that have been the backbone of our armed forces, but new skills—and we are looking at how we can best recruit those skills into our armed forces, and not just into the regulars but also into the reserves to boot.

Surely the Secretary of State knows that what Mr Putin announced a few days ago is basically a new cold war, and it is not just cyber-warfare but every kind of warfare. At a time when Europe seems to be fragmenting, our commitment to NATO is deeply hurt by Donald Trump moving into a new phase of withdrawal. What are we going to do about all this?

Putin has made it quite clear that he has hostile intent towards this country, and we have been seeing the build-up of his forces across the eastern front. Given what they have been doing over many years, we have to wake up to that threat and respond to it. Not just through nuclear weapons—although our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent is absolutely integral to maintaining the peace—but through conventional armed forces, we have to match what Putin is doing with his Russian forces. We have to be aware of the challenges we face, which is very much why we are engaging in the modernising defence programme to ensure that we can match the Russians.

Defence Co-operation

2. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the US Administration on strengthening defence co-operation. (904152)

7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in the US Administration on strengthening defence co-operation; and if he will make a statement. (904157)

The US and UK enjoy a strategic global partnership, which was forged through shared values and the belief in freedom and the rule of law and order, and reinforced by mutual history, partnership and military co-operation. UK-US defence co-operation is today the broadest, deepest and most advanced of any two countries. Our collaboration extends across the full spectrum of defence, including operations and flagship capability programmes. Our troops have fought alongside each other for more than 100 years, and 2018 will be another busy year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Currently, the UK’s defence trade partnership with the US is worth more than $3 billion and includes collaboration on projects such as the F-35 programme, as well as a common compartment for UK-US ballistic missile submarines. Does he agree that with the UK regaining its ability to strike free trade deals across the globe post Brexit, we have the opportunity to deepen the bonds of our special relationship with the US when it comes to our national defence interests?

We are already one of the world-leading countries in defence exports, and we have to seize the opportunity that exiting the European Union provides to expand our ability to export right around the world, making sure it is absolutely clear that Britain is a world leader in technology and science. So much of what we have historically done with the US we can do more and more right around the globe.

May I implore my right hon. Friend not to listen to the Trump-bashing from Opposition Members? There is absolutely no indication that President Trump is attenuating his commitment to NATO. Furthermore, NATO, not the European Union, is the backbone of this nation’s defence, and my right hon. Friend should be—I know that he is—going out there to Washington and speaking to his counterparts. Will he talk about precisely what he has achieved? [Interruption.] Sorry about that.

I thought my hon. Friend was incredibly eloquent.

Let us be clear that there is one reason why we have had peace right across the continent of Europe since the second world war: NATO, and the fact that it has acted as a deterrent to those who wish to prosecute aggressive campaigns against the west. I am very proud of the work that has been done, and will be done in the future, with our allies.

Will the Secretary of State tell me what the pound-dollar rate was at the time of the commissioning of the F-35 programme, what it is now and how much extra taxpayers’ money is being paid as a result?

I am afraid I not have details of the exchange rates with me, but I will write to the right hon. Gentleman with them. I can tell him that exchange rate changes over the past few years have cost us about a quarter of a billion pounds extra for the defence budget, as a result of the movement of the pound.

The US nuclear posture review was met with an equal level of posturing by President Putin during his state of the nation speech last Thursday. What is the British Government’s policy response to these worrying developments, as the world slides needlessly into a second cold war? Does the Secretary of State believe the British Government have a role to play in trying to de-escalate the situation?

Let us be really clear: President Putin has been developing a much more hostile and aggressive posture towards the UK, the US and our allies for an awful lot longer than the past 12 months. Russia wants to assert its rights. We have seen increased Russian activity in the north Atlantic—a tenfold increase over the past few years. Do we sit submissively by and just accept that President Putin can do whatever he wishes to do? Or do we have to look at how we respond, making it clear that we are willing to stand up to bullying and the fact that nations are being subjected to attacks by Russia? We need to deal with that, and that is what we will do. That is why I am proud that we have the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent.

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House about what discussions he has with his US counterpart, so that we can work together to ensure that our other NATO allies pay the 2% of GDP that they should be paying towards our collective defence?

In this country, I am very proud that we are able to say that we spend 2% of GDP on defence. But we cannot outsource Europe’s defence to the United States: every European country has to play its part in defending Europe. That means spending the money required to defend the borders of western Europe.

I begin by paying tribute to the members of the armed forces who helped their country get moving, inasmuch as it could, over the past week.

How confident can the Secretary of State, his US counterpart or indeed any NATO counterpart be that we can bring to the table what we say we can bring, given that there is a £20 billion funding gap in his Department’s equipment plan?

We are looking at exactly what resources and everything else we need going forward. We carry considerable contingencies in our equipment plan, and we are very confident that we will be able to deliver everything we need for our armed forces.

I am afraid that that is a bit of a “head still in the sand” answer. The National Audit Office said that projects will have to be delayed, scaled back or cancelled. Will the Secretary of State ensure that no project in Scotland will be delayed, scaled back or cancelled?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that we are doing the modernising defence programme. He will also be pleased to hear that we will open up our public consultation as part of that programme. We are going to be looking at all we do—how best we can use our armed forces to deliver for the whole United Kingdom, and how to make sure that we are best protected against the threats from abroad. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to that.

Royal Navy: Fleet Size

The Royal Navy is growing for the first time in a generation, with the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers and new submarines, frigates, patrol vessels and aircraft. The Royal Navy continues to meet the demands we place on it and maintains its operational edge.

With the sale of HMS Ocean, Devonport and the nation have lost a third of our Royal Navy amphibious assault ships. In more and more uncertain times, can the Minister reassure people in Plymouth that Devonport will not see any more cuts to frigates, amphibious assault ships and survey ships such as HMS Scott in the upcoming review?

I certainly take this opportunity to underline our thanks to the people of Plymouth for their age-old commitment to and support for the Royal Navy. I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that Devonport will continue to be one of the cornerstone bases of the Royal Navy in future. As he will be aware, we only recently allocated the location of the Type 23 frigates. We are doing more work on the location of the Type 26 frigates, and we hope to be able to announce that shortly.

I must declare an interest, Mr Speaker: my grandfather and father both served in the Royal Navy, and both would be turning in their graves at the size of the Royal Navy. Although I quite accept the financial difficulty that the Minister has, does he accept from me that the threats from around the world—not least from China, which is talked about too seldom—are growing? We are sending one ship, I think, across the waters to the south of China. I ask the Minister, please, for an assurance that the Royal Navy’s size and capability will be increased.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the recent deployment of HMS Sutherland, and there will be further such deployments in future to that part of the world.

For the first time in a generation, the Royal Navy is actually growing. It grew in manpower last year and will continue to grow over the next couple of years, and not just in manpower—the size of its surface fleet is also growing. The latest of the offshore patrol vessels arrived in Portsmouth only this weekend.

Given everything that the Minister’s boss has just said about the importance of NATO, the deterrent and the threat from Russia, it would be absolutely unthinkable, would it not, not to order the full quota of seven Astute class submarines?

The hon. Gentleman is a champion of his constituency and repeatedly comes to the House to support the work that his constituents have done for generations in building our submarines. I am very confident that shortly he will have the news that he wishes for.

When HMS Queen Elizabeth puts to sea, it will need a fleet of frigates and destroyers to escort and protect it. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Royal Navy has sufficient vessels to perform that vital task while protecting our shores at home?

Yes, indeed, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Royal Navy continues to meet all its operational requirements. As I said a few moments ago, the size of our fleet will increase in the years to come.

The Minister will be aware that the National Audit Office has produced a scathing report on the Ministry of Defence’s equipment plan for 2017 to 2027. It says that there is a £20.8 billion gaping black hole in the MOD’s budget. Can the Minister tell me why the Type 31e frigate is not even referred to in the equipment plan?

It is a little bit rich when the hon. Gentleman comes to the Dispatch Box to criticise this Government over supposed black holes in defence spending, given the previous Labour Government’s record in this area, but I am sure the Defence Procurement Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), will write to him to explain why that is the case.

Defence Suppliers: Innovation

With an equipment plan worth £180 billion over 10 years, a rising defence budget and an £800 million innovation fund, there are great opportunities for innovative suppliers to work with the Ministry of Defence. The Department recently took part in a Pitch@Palace event, reaching out to defence sector entrepreneurs, and the open call for innovation has been changed to increase opportunities to work with the Government.

Baltex, which is based in my constituency, is a leading supplier of high-performance fabrics, meshes and nets that are designed to keep our service personnel safe and well-protected in the field. What is my hon. Friend doing to support businesses in the defence supply chain that manufacture technical textiles, and will he and the Secretary of State consider visiting Baltex to see the innovative work that is being carried out in Erewash in support of our armed forces?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Indeed, I would like to take her up on her kind offer of a visit to Baltex, which is an important provider of services to the Ministry of Defence. It is a classic example of a company that is generating key supplies for the Ministry of Defence and for our armed services, and it is being innovative in the way that it does that. Indeed, we see that innovation across the board with Ministry of Defence contractors—they are innovative for the UK economy in addition to supplying our armed forces.

Does the Minister agree that the launch of the RAF’s first satellite, Carbonite-2, using British technology, is to be welcomed, and can he update the House on whether space technology will be part of the combat air strategy?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am very disappointed not to have been able to visit Surrey Satellite Technology, which developed that facility. Unfortunately, my visit did not take place last Thursday owing to the weather.

This is a significant development. From my perspective, it is an example of innovative thinking being developed by the MOD and the Air Force. Even more importantly, it was a concept only 10 months ago and it has now been procured. Obviously, as part of our combat air strategy, the way in which we interlink with satellite technology will be a key consideration for the Ministry of Defence.

The Minister’s predecessor recently paid a very welcome visit to BAE in Chelmsford, which has played a critical role in developing Britain’s radar capacity through the generations. Does the Minister agree that, when it comes to the next generation of ballistic missile defence radar, it is vital to maintain British capacity and make sure that these skills stay in Britain?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and pay tribute to BAE for the work that is being done in her constituency. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of keeping skills in the United Kingdom. Members from all parts of the House should be proud that the Ministry of Defence is responsible for more than 20,000 apprenticeship opportunities throughout the United Kingdom, as it highlights again that Ministry of Defence procurement leads to high-quality, skilled jobs in all parts of the UK, including Chelmsford.

What impact does the Minister see coming from his attempts to increase innovation in defence suppliers if the UK withdraws from REACH, the European regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, and if the free movement of scientists and engineers is not part of the Brexit agreement? Certainly, defence companies have expressed grave concerns to me about that.

This Government want to continue the free movement of people with relevant skills. The MOD is already engaging with the REACH issue. As it happens, I will be meeting relevant companies tomorrow to discuss the matter. I fully understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, but the MOD is on top of the issue and is looking at it closely. I am confident that we will have an agreement that will benefit both the United Kingdom and our European Union partners.

BCB International is a fantastic and innovative defence company, also supplying the civilian and humanitarian sectors, based in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Indeed, I have eaten ration packs cooked on its fantastic FireDragon fuel. The company needs support from all Departments to be able to export effectively. Will the Minister commit to speaking with his colleagues at the Department for Transport, and perhaps to meeting me, to ensure that it gets support from the whole Government to be able to export to other markets, including the United States?

I would be more than delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue in more detail. I was very pleased to visit the company in question in my previous position as a Wales Office Minister, and it is difficult not to be impressed by what it provides for our armed services. I am more than happy to take any opportunity to support the company and Welsh businesses.

The portfolio management agreement that the Ministry of Defence struck with MBDA offers the framework through which we can achieve innovation with defence suppliers. Is the Minister considering agreeing more portfolio agreements, and does he envisage that that will be any time soon?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. One of the first meetings that I had in my new position was with MBDA. Indeed, I also met its chief executive in Paris recently. The agreement is an example of what can be done to embed innovation in the way in which we do procurement. It shows support for UK-based companies and a degree of partnership between the MOD and the companies in question.

May I also welcome the combat air strategy? Will the Minister please give a commitment that the review will look not only to ensure that the RAF has the aircraft that it needs to fight the conflicts of the future, but at how British industry will deliver them?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for the RAF and for his constituency. I believe that he called for the combat air strategy before the announcement was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. This is indeed about capability, but it is also about embedding the ability of UK industry to respond to the needs of the 21st century, and the combat air strategy will do just that.

There is crippling uncertainty about the customs arrangements that our defence suppliers will face after Brexit. This is threatening their ability to innovate and invest. Just today, Airbus, the RAF’s biggest supplier of large aircraft, has warned that trade barriers will seriously impede its ability to move parts across borders. It is clear that only a comprehensive customs union with the EU can guarantee frictionless trade, so will the Minister explain why the Government have ruled out this option?

The Government have been very clear that we want the most comprehensive free trade agreements possible with the European Union. A free trade agreement of that nature will respond to the concerns of industry, especially the industry supplying the defence sector.

The fact of the matter is that ADS, the trade body, has said that the Government’s preferred options are either incomplete or so complex that they simply will not be viable. Why will this Government not listen to the voices of industry such as ADS and the CBI? Why are they ignoring those voices and their support for a customs union? Is it not the case that the Government are putting ideology above the interests of defence suppliers and pursuing an extreme Brexit that will damage jobs, our sovereign capability and, ultimately, our national security?

I find it interesting that only a few weeks ago the hon. Lady was voting against a proposition from her own Back Benchers for the United Kingdom to stay within the customs union. It is also the case that the announcement made by the Leader of the Opposition was about staying within a customs union, not the customs union; in terms of listening to the voice of industry, there is not much in common between what was said by the Leader of the Opposition and the CBI.

Strategic Threats

Q5. What recent assessment he has made of the preparedness of the armed forces to adapt to new and changing strategic threats. (904155)

Our armed forces are among the very best in the world. Through the modernising defence programme, we will assess the ever-changing threats that this country faces and understand what we can do to make them ever more effective at keeping us safe today and into the future.

The Defence Secretary will recognise, given his earlier answers, that the threats that we face—both conventional and from new forms of technology—are massive and varied, and come not simply from Russia, but from many different sources. In that context, he talks about a fiscally non-neutral defence review. Will he tell us whether the Chancellor has agreed to sign up to that process?

When the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I met and agreed the terms of reference of the modernising defence programme, we were absolutely clear that it was not to be fiscally neutral. We were to understand what the threats were and understand the capabilities that were needed, and make sure that the Ministry of Defence leads a study to ensure that we are best equipped to deal with those threats.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress has been made on the modernising defence review, so that we can implement what is needed to ensure the defence of the realm?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are making good progress. As I said earlier, we are opening this up to public consultation. We are very eager to report back to the House as quickly as possible, and we hope that that can be done by June or July, before the NATO summit.

We have seen in this past week how our armed forces rise to the challenge in any weather, but despite our increased commitment to the Baltic states, cuts to training have left the Royal Marines with fewer opportunities to develop their cold weather warfare skills. In January, the Minister for the Armed Forces said of cuts to training exercises in Norway:

“I am confident that that was a one-off in-year saving.”

Can the Secretary of State confirm that training will return to normal levels this year?

We have already had 500 Royal Marines training out in Norway this year, and we look forward to continuing that collaboration going forward. It is absolutely right to say that our armed forces are always ready to serve, and when things are difficult, it is our armed forces who always step up to the plate.

Defence Co-operation

6. What recent discussions he has had with his European and US counterparts on maintaining defence co-operation between the EU and NATO. (904156)

I was trying to offload various questions on to my ministerial colleagues, Mr Speaker. Sadly, they were not willing to take them. [Interruption.] God loves a trier.

I have regular conversations with my European and US counterparts on maintaining defence co-operation between the European Union and NATO. EU-NATO co-operation is key to combating the breadth of challenges we face, and the institutions must work together in a way that is complementary and prevents duplication. The UK will continue to support better working between the EU and NATO while we remain in the EU and after we leave.

I thank the Secretary of State for taking my question. Following the recent signing of the permanent structured co-operation pact between 25 EU nations, what role does he envisage for the UK after Brexit in ensuring that the EU’s future defence co-operation plans enhance NATO rather than detract from it?

There have always been traditional tensions within the European Union as to which way it would like to take its role in defence. We want to work with our European Union partners. We must not forget, however, that 80% of NATO’s defence is provided by countries outside the European Union. We should not see leaving the European Union as a step towards making the continent of Europe less safe. Indeed, it is fair to say that in the decades before the European Union was invented, NATO was already keeping the continent safe, incredibly successfully. We want to have the opportunity to work closely with our European Union partners, but equally we want to make sure that that does not detract from the amazing work that NATO does.

The European Defence Agency does not envisage third-party countries joining, so is that one of the agencies that the Government will be seeking an administrative arrangement with?

We are very happy to discuss how best we can work with our European partners, but we do not want to do anything that diminishes what we agreed to on 23 June 2016, which is exiting the European Union. If we can work in a pragmatic way with European partners, that is good, but let us not forget that most of what we do in, say, equipment programmes is done through bilateral relationships, not through the European Union.

Armed Forces Covenant

8. What steps he is taking to encourage more organisations to participate in the armed forces covenant. (904159)

The armed forces covenant annual report was published in December 2017. I am pleased to say that more than 2,000 organisations and companies are now signed up. The new cross-Whitehall body, the veterans board, chaired by the Defence Secretary, is used to ensure that all Departments meet their covenant commitments.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. What conversations has he had with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about ensuring that there is better understanding in local government of their duties and obligations and what they need to be doing under the covenant?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is important that each Department understands its commitments. That is why I stressed the importance of the veterans board, on which the Secretaries of State of all the Departments are represented. We now have proper assessment techniques to make sure that Departments’ commitments—in that case, to do with housing—are met.

Members across the House and people across the country were horrified to read last week that the Ministry of Defence had taken money raised from the LIBOR funds that was supposed to benefit forces charities and support the delivery of the armed forces covenant, and instead spent it on projects—although worthy ones—that should be part of routine departmental spending. We know that things are bad in the MOD, but it can hardly consider itself a charity. Can the Minister tell the House how that was allowed to happen? More importantly, will the Ministry be paying the money back?

I also saw those comments in the press. It is important to understand that LIBOR grants are there for additional facilities. The MOD has a responsibility to provide core activities. Obviously, there is a grey area between a core activity and an additional facility. I am more than happy to look at the details of what the hon. Gentleman raises, and I will write to him.

Conditions of Service

9. What plans he has to introduce greater flexibility in the conditions of service for the armed forces. (904160)

17. What plans he has to introduce greater flexibility in the conditions of service for the armed forces. (904168)

Members will recall that the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill passed its Third Reading on 29 January 2018 and has now received Royal Assent. It will allow Regular armed forces personnel to work part time for a temporary period, subject to the operational capability of the applicant’s unit.

I thank the Minister for his reply. To recruit and retain people in the armed services these days, it is important to have more flexible terms and conditions. How rapidly does he think that will happen? Will it be implemented now or in two or three months?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. It is important to recognise that we need to reflect the needs and aspirations of civilian society. Flexible capability has already been introduced, and the process is ongoing. The Bill has received Royal Assent, as I mentioned, and will come into force in April 2019.

It is extremely important that we continue to make careers in the armed forces desirable through measures such as flexible working. However, in Scotland, due to the SNP Government, personnel will be paying higher taxes than their colleagues south of the border. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to clear up the ill-thought-out mess that the SNP has created?

On the conditions of service, it is also right that servicemen and women who become unfit for duty should have a system that supports them that is fit for purpose. We know that currently, it is not. The Minister said that his Department would publish a response to the February 2017 review of the armed forces compensation scheme a year after publication. Where is it?

I will certainly write to the hon. Lady with the details of that. She is absolutely right; we want to see people recuperate, recover and get back on to the frontline. One of the big changes last year was our mental health and wellbeing strategy, which does exactly that—it removes the stigma that sometimes is attached to people coming forward, to make it clear when there is an issue that needs to be dealt with, so that they can get back on to the frontline. I will write to her.

Many constituents who have given outstanding service to our country have come to me with mental health problems. How can we ensure that the conditions of service also include post-service follow-up, to give these people the care they need?

That leads on nicely from the answer that I just gave. The mental health strategy was brought in. This was not working well before, and people were reluctant to come forward. We now have 11 major departments across Britain established in the main hubs of where our armed forces are based that are designed to assist people in stepping forward and dealing with mental health issues. We should also recognise that the armed forces 24/7 military mental health helpline, which allows direct access to support 24/7, was launched last week.

NATO Modernisation

10. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on NATO modernisation. (904161)

At last month’s NATO defence ministerial, we discussed NATO modernisation. This is a UK priority, and my ambition is for a modern NATO, fit to face the new global challenges and delivering against its commitments. We will take further decisions to modernise the alliance when Defence Ministers next meet in June and at the next NATO summit in Brussels in July.

UK defence equipment manufacturers can bolt on to EU defence programmes. For example, with its unmanned systems project with the MOD, Leonardo in Yeovil is well placed to help Leonardo in Italy with its recently awarded EU defence project in multinational unmanned systems integration. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that such co-operation will happen without the UK submitting to EU defence operational and equipment investment governance that may risk undermining NATO?

Pay and Retention

12. What assessment he has made of the effect of the delayed pay increase on retention in the armed forces. (904163)

Pay rates are recommended by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. We look forward to receiving its next set of recommendations later in the spring. We have made clear to all personnel that any award, once announced, will be backdated to 1 April 2018.

Is the Minister actually saying that the pay increase for the armed forces has been delayed, and if so, when does he intend to implement it?

As I say, we are waiting for the report to come through. It is unfortunate that we have had to introduce this pay restraint, but we should not lose sight of why pay restraint was introduced in the first place. It was because the previous Government were living beyond their means. [Interruption.] Only with the return to a strong economy can we responsibly increase public sector pay.

Last week, we saw how our armed forces stepped up to help with the chaos caused by the very challenging weather conditions. Does the Minister not agree that these brave men and women therefore deserve more than a 1% pay rise—it is, in fact, a real-terms pay cut—and will he make that clear to the pay review body?

It actually works the other way around, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman in that I would like to see an increase of more than 1%. However, I go back to the rather delicate point, which was received with a bit of hostility by Opposition Members, that we cannot lose sight of the fact that they must have a sense of responsibility in making sure we have a strong economy, so that we can increase public sector pay across the board.

If I may, I will just underline the wider point I made last week that without strong defence in this fast-changing and, indeed, dangerous world, a strong economy cannot in fact be guaranteed. That is why I said that 2% of GDP on defence is not enough. Thanks to the efforts of this Defence Secretary, we now have an opportunity to make the case and to put the argument through the defence modernisation programme for the more robust defence posture that will ensure we retain access to the very vital international markets that will help our economy.

NATO Operations: Estonia and Poland

The UK has a key role in NATO’s enhanced forward presence by leading a battlegroup in Estonia and contributing to a US-led battlegroup in Poland. We have deployed about 800 personnel to Estonia and about 150 to Poland. These deployments are but part of our broader commitment to NATO and its assurance measures on the alliance’s eastern flank.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree with me that both our security and our economy rely on the confidence placed in us by our NATO allies that we will, in the event of an article 5 situation, be both ready and willing to support our eastern flank NATO allies?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is absolutely right that hard power is an important part of maintaining our defence and security. Indeed, the vice-chief of the defence staff said the same last week, and he made a strong case for spending more on defence. Our armed forces and our civilians in defence must and do work in partnership with other Departments in international development and, indeed, diplomacy.

Recruitment Partnership Project

14. What steps he is taking to monitor the performance of the recruiting partnering project with Capita. (904165)

Recruiting people into our armed forces today is more important than ever. The Defence Secretary said recently: “We’re working closely with Capita to make the contract work better”. Can the Minister give some specific examples of that work? How will he assess whether performance has improved, and in what timeframe?

Defence has been working closely with Capita on a recruitment improvement plan, which is now being implemented. Initial signs are promising. We now expect Capita to deliver on improvements in converting applicants to enlistees. We will monitor progress closely in the coming months, including ensuring that the new defence recruiting system reaches full operating capability as quickly as possible.

23. Although many of us believe that the Regular Army should be closer to 100,000 in strength, it appears that we are struggling to reach even the reduced figure of 82,000. What more can our Government do to ensure that we increase recruitment, and maintain at those levels, to get closer to 82,000? (904175)

There is an awful lot going on at the moment. We are working closely with Capita. It would be wrong to say that there have not been challenges in implementing the defence recruiting system. There is also a change in demographics in the UK. That is why we are working so hard to widen our recruiting base and have set targets to recruit from both the BAME—black, Asian and minority ethnic—and female populations. There has been an increase of some 2.6% over the year, but we must do all we can to continue to ensure that joining the armed forces is an attractive occupation. I am particularly proud that the Army is now the largest employer of apprentices in the UK, which is something that we intend to continue.

Mental Health Support

15. What steps he is taking to improve mental health support for members of the armed forces and veterans. (904166)

16. What steps he is taking to improve mental health support for members of the armed forces and veterans. (904167)

The Ministry of Defence works with a range of partners to ensure that service personnel and veterans receive the best mental health support possible. There has been a comprehensive overhaul of our approach to mental health, as I mentioned earlier, with our mental health and wellbeing strategy. However, I stress that the number of mental health cases dealt with in the armed forces is smaller than in the general civilian population.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that organisations such as SSAFA, which runs a weekly support group in my constituency of Southport, play an essential role in providing help and support to veterans, including any mental health support they may need?

There are over 400 military charities that support not just our armed forces and the veterans, but the whole veterans family—the community—and SSAFA is just one of them. It does immensely important work in providing the support that our armed forces and veterans not only deserve, but request.

Mental health problems place a great strain on relationships, while family breakdown can worsen mental health issues. Will the Minister ensure that mental health support extends to service personnel families, with a particular focus on providing support to keep military families together?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is often not the person themselves who steps forward to recognise there is a mental health concern, but the partner, or the husband or wife, a family member or maybe a comrade in their unit. It is important that we provide the necessary support, which we are doing. It is a very macho environment, and unfortunately there has been a stigma attached to putting one’s hand up and saying there is issue, but we are moving forward, not just in society but in the armed forces, in challenging that.

Order. I am sure the House will want to join me in welcoming the visit of a delegation of distinguished Canadian parliamentarians here in the House today: our very good friends from Canada—thank you—who are accompanied by, among others, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy).

I am dealing with the sad case of a young man in my constituency who was injured out of the Army, but did not get the treatment he needed. Apparently he slipped through the net because of his junior rank. Will the Minister review his systems to make sure that this does not happen in future?

The hon. Gentleman is very pertinent in what he says. We should have a robust system that can ensure that no person is left behind in any way. I would be more than happy to speak to him afterwards to see what more can be done to help that individual.

In the light of who our guests are, may I say thank you to the Canadians? We held a “Five Eyes” conference on mental health and veterans issues last year, where we compared notes from the “Five Eyes” community to improve all our contributions and better support for our armed forces personnel and veterans.

Sadly, some veterans return from service with mental health conditions and are faced with a shameful lack of resources to help them transition back into civilian life and find employment. I am very proud that a local Hull charity founded by Paul Matson, Hull 4 Heroes, provides them with that much needed support network and voice. Will the Minister join me in celebrating its work, and will he commit to providing our veterans with all the support for transition they desperately need?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Our transition intervention liaison service works specifically to ensure that the needs of individuals are met as they make the transition from being in the armed forces to being a veteran. I join her in paying tribute to that charity. All such charities across the country—some small, some large—do a huge amount of very important work.

Topical Questions

I thank our armed forces for doing an incredible job to support those affected by the recent treacherous weather across the United Kingdom. From Devon to Scotland, 328 service personnel, 124 vehicles and a Chinook helicopter, which is currently operating in Cumbria, have transported staff delivering critical care and services to and from hospitals, delivered medicines to vulnerable people in the community and assisted police in evacuating members of the public stranded in vehicles. My Department and the armed forces stand ready to assist with any further calls for support.

I would like to put on record my thanks to the armed forces who came out in Lincolnshire over the past few days to support us.

The physical fitness of our servicemen and servicewomen is extremely important, yet sports facilities at RAF Cranwell, used by the military and local communities alike, are currently in a poor state of repair. I have received correspondence from constituents with particular regard to the lights for the astroturf. Will my right hon. Friend confirm when they will be repaired, and will he ask the Minister responsible for the Defence Infrastructure Organisation to come and see for himself the fitness training and other facilities at RAF Cranwell that require repair?

Order. I gently remind colleagues that topical questions must be shorter. Forgive me. I am sure it was a very good question, but if people are going to have a script it needs to be much shorter. We have a lot to get through.

I can absolutely promise that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) is going to visit and take part in the assault course. Let me make it clear to Hansard that we are talking about my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East doing the assault course, not the right hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson).

T2. After the Secretary of State’s statement that terrorists cannot harm us and his ministry was forced to admit that its drone policy was misleading and erroneously drafted, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether it is the policy of the UK Government to kill people outside warzones? (904177)

Our Department and our armed forces always operate within the letter of UK and international law. Do our armed forces step up to keep our country safe from terrorist threats? Yes they do, and they will continue to do so. I am very proud of the amazing work they do to keep this country safe. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is also proud.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the British Army for all the work it has done, in conjunction with the Malawi Government, to protect elephants in Malawi? The ivory trade has seen a reduction in the number of elephants from 4,000 10 years ago to 2,000 now. Something must be done and thankfully the British Army is helping. (904181)

Our armed forces play an incredibly important role in training rangers to stop the vile trade of ivory poaching. I am very pleased that we have been able to extend the scheme and continue the amazing work with Governments across Africa to ensure that majestic animals such as elephants are protected.

T3. Uniformed cadets, like 241 Squadron air cadets in my constituency, do an amazing job of producing well-rounded, empowered young people. I invite the Minister to look at the funding provided across government to our uniformed cadets, which clearly offer much better value for money than some other Government-funded youth programmes. (904178)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to the 126,000 cadets that we have in this country. Being a cadet provides a wonderful introduction to our armed forces and what they can do, giving confidence to youngsters. I will certainly look at that individual case. Charities are involved in different ways in supporting our cadets and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman afterwards.

T7. I look forward to hearing the details this week of the new scheme offering £40,000-worth of bursaries to military veterans to retrain as teachers. Does the Minister agree that focusing on priority subjects is another example of how we are trying to plug the STEM skills gap? (904182)

We have the most amazing resource in the armed forces—our people—and we want to give them the very best opportunities as they leave the armed forces. The bursary scheme offering up to £40,000 for them to train as teachers is a great opportunity. Our armed forces often have some amazing technical expertise that they will be able to bring straight to schools to benefit future generations.

T4. Under “A Better Defence Estate,” the Secretary of State plans to close the state-of-the-art medical facilities in York and the upgraded First Division headquarters. Can he say how much this is costing the taxpayer? (904179)

The hon. Lady will be aware that the MOD owns 2% of the land in the United Kingdom. There is a rationalisation programme to make sure that we can provide the housing for the future, and therefore, bases are being closed. Others are being opened and being invested in as well. I am happy to look at the individual case and discuss what can be done for the future.

There is a contingency plan, which we are looking at very closely, where we will be moving probably about 150 personnel to act as role models on the frontline for recruiting.

T5. There is a still a great deal of confusion and concern around the future basing arrangements for the Army Reserve. Could the Minister tell us when we might expect more information to be published on this important matter? (904180)

One of the complexities of the Reserve estate is that much of it is owned not by the Ministry of Defence, but by the Reserve forces themselves. This is adding some complexity, but we hope to be able to update the House in due course.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the further set of defence commitments reached by the Prime Minister and President Macron at the summit in January represents not just the deepening of this important bilateral relationship, but a strengthening of NATO?

The co-operation that our country has with France is second to none. The Anglo-French summit signposts an important development in that relationship—not just in terms of operations going forward, but about how best we can collaborate in terms of our defence industries.

As I mentioned earlier, we have seen some improvement in recent weeks. The numbers are increasing and that is a positive sign.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Lockheed Martin, which is based in Havant, on having just been awarded the contract to build the new missile defence system for the Type 26 frigate?

I am very pleased to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the company. The Type 26 is a fantastic ship for the Navy, and I think the fact that, again, we see UK industry providing components for the Type 26 is an example of the way in which the Ministry of Defence is contributing to innovation and growth in the UK economy.

I call Carol Monaghan—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] The hon. Lady just did not how popular she was.

T9. I am enjoying the recognition, Mr Speaker. The National Audit Office has revealed that the cost of the Dreadnought and Astute programmes has now risen by nearly £1 billion. Can the Secretary of State confirm that there will be no further cuts to conventional forces to meet the rising costs of Trident? (904184)

I can assure the hon. Lady that our at-sea continuous nuclear defence programme is within budget, and there will be no impact on the rest of the defence budget as a result of the work that we are doing in relation to our submarine capability.

Today’s Daily Telegraph continues to report grave concerns about the Iraq fatality investigations unit. Will the Minister agree to urgently review the case of Major Robert Campbell and offer reassurance to our service community that the bond of trust between soldiers and the Government remains intact?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. This is not about process but about people and the Government’s obligation to look after them, and a balance needs to be struck between supporting our service personnel and veterans and the right of Iraqi families to find out what happened to their loved ones. I should add that an Iraq fatality investigation cannot lead to a criminal conviction, but I will look carefully at what he has said.

Can the Minister confirm that Carillion was the largest provider of facilities and management services for the MOD and whether there are any gaps in services at the 360 UK defence sites and establishments it reportedly had contracts for?

Our joint ventures included agreements put forward ahead of time to make sure that if one partner was to step back, the other would continue to work, and that is exactly what has happened right across the MOD.

I would very much like to pay tribute to the amazing peacekeeping work that our armed forces do in so many areas, South Sudan being a perfect example. It goes to show what an amazing impact our armed forces have in projecting Britain’s influence in all parts of the globe.

What assessment has the Secretary of State carried out of the preparedness of our armed forces for any expansion in the Syrian war, given the proxy conflict between Russia and America in that zone?

Conservative Members have always recognised the importance of being fully engaged in what is happening in Syria and Iraq, and we will continue to look at that exceptionally closely. I am incredibly honoured that our armed forces are playing a vital role in degrading the Daesh terror cult, and that is what we will continue to do going forward.

What assessment have Ministers made of the contribution of defence to UK plc in protecting the trade that forms such an important part of our economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that issue. The MOD is one of the largest customers of UK plc and supports over 20,000 apprenticeships throughout the UK. It is clear that the MOD contributes significantly to the prosperity agenda across the UK.

The incidence of traumatic brain injury among the armed forces is much higher than it is even in the general population. How will we make sure that every single member of the armed forces who has such an injury gets the full rehabilitation they require?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We want to make sure we provide the necessary support to all those affected, although I would question whether the incidence is higher than among the general population. The new process we are putting forward, including the helpline launched last week by the Defence Secretary, will make sure that we can meet our covenant promise.

Reports suggest that of the near 100,000 who wanted to join the Army last year, only 7,500 actually made it, in part because of time delays. What can be done to streamline the recruitment process?

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We have identified as a key problem the time of flight between application and enlisting in the Army. Shortening this period and making sure we get the maximum number of people through the system is the main focus of our work at the moment.

Why has the mechanised infantry vehicle programme not got an acquisitions strategy—never mind that the contract has only three years to go—when it could bring mechanised vehicles back to Newcastle?

I can assure the hon. Lady that announcements will be made before the end of the financial year.

The parents of Corporal Simon Miller are yet to receive justice for their son, one of the Red Caps murdered in Iraq in 2003. I have written to Ministers over many years on this issue. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the Millers to find some justice for their son?

Will the Minister follow the Scottish Government’s lead and commit to lifting the public sector pay cap for armed forces workers?

We are looking at how to reduce the effect of the Scottish Government’s nat tax on all our service personnel. Some 70% of service personnel serving in Scotland are seeing their pay reduced because of the Scottish Government’s actions; we need to look at how to deal with that.