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House of Commons Hansard
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11 June 2018
Volume 642

The Secretary of State was asked—

Royal Navy Fisheries Protection

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1. What assessment he has made of the level of fisheries protection to be provided by the Royal Navy after the UK leaves the EU. [905742]

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21. What assessment he has made of the capacity of the Royal Navy to protect UK fisheries after the UK leaves the EU. [905763]

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The Royal Navy plays a crucial role in patrolling the seas around the United Kingdom. As we leave the European Union, the needs and level of activity will change, and we are working with other Departments to assess what is required. The Royal Navy will continue to play a vital role in protecting UK waters.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Given that fisheries protection will be an important component of a sustainable post-Brexit UK fishing policy, has the Secretary of State liaised with his counterpart at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what funds will be available to the Royal Navy for fisheries protection and whether the number of operational days will be increased?

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The Department received an extra £12 million from the Treasury that we prioritised for that area. We are in dialogue with our DEFRA colleagues to ensure that we have the right levels of policing and support in our territorial waters. The Royal Navy is absolutely committed to delivering that, and we will work with DEFRA to ensure that it happens.

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Will the Secretary of State consider basing the Type 26 and Type 31e frigates in Devonport to protect Cornwall and Devon, and to support the great inshore fisheries and conservation authorities that currently protect the waters?

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My hon. Friend is a great champion of the fishermen of the north Cornwall coast, and I imagine that the deployment of the Type 26 would certainly see off the French and Spanish swiftly. He will be pleased to know that Plymouth will shortly be receiving an extra Type 23 frigate, which will be based at Devonport, and while I am sure that she will do some fisheries protection work, she will also be doing other work right around the globe.

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Concerning the Royal Navy, SNP Members are most interested to hear whether the modernising defence programme will be grounded in the vacuous “global Britain” speak of Brexiteers, or if it will actually acknowledge the UK’s geostrategic location? Will the Secretary of State assure SNP Members that, unlike the 2010 and 2015 strategic defence and security reviews, the modernising defence programme will explicitly mention the north Atlantic and the high north, and their centrality to the assumptions made therein?

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And fisheries.

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And fisheries.

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Well done.

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The programme will mention fisheries, the high north and everything else that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would love to see in it.

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The Fishery Protection Squadron is the oldest established unit in the Royal Navy, but does my right hon. Friend agree that technology is moving on and that a combination of data analytics, satellite imaging and the protections that we are now able to deploy around the Pitcairn Islands marine protected area, for example, are the sorts of technologies that we can add to save costs?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to consider new technologies to assist the Royal Navy and its work. It is a large ocean and there are many threats involved in ensuring that it is properly policed, so we need to embrace new technology, working hand in hand with the Royal Navy, to ensure that our waters are safe from foreign fishermen intruding into our territory.

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Oh, very well; I call Martin Vickers.

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I am encouraged by what I hear from the Secretary of State about extra resources being made available. We anticipate an increase in the fishing fleet post-Brexit, so will he assure me that the fisheries protection fleet will expand accordingly?

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We will be examining what capability our fisheries protection fleet needs. Three offshore patrol vessels are currently engaged in this work, so we will be considering whether that needs to be expanded and how to fund it properly.

Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027

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2. What recent assessment he has made of the affordability of his Department’s equipment plan 2017 to 2027. [905743]

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22. What recent assessment he has made of the affordability of his Department’s equipment plan 2017 to 2027. [905764]

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We are taking steps to ensure strategic affordability through the modernising defence programme and our annual financial management processes. The cost of the plan is reviewed on an ongoing basis, and we expect to publish the equipment plan financial summary for 2018 to 2028 in the autumn.

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Can the Minister confirm that the Government still intend to procure the full 138 F-35s, as previously announced?

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It gave me great pleasure to be present at RAF Marham on Wednesday to welcome the first four F-35s. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the first 48 are fully paid for and committed to. We are looking at everything in the modernising defence programme, but the current situation is that we still anticipate the purchase of 138 F-35s.

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The Public Accounts Committee said in a recent report:

“The Equipment Plan for 2017 to 2027 is not realistic and the Department lacks cost control.”

Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about his Department’s equipment budget being in such an appalling state?

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I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that the Public Accounts Committee does an important job, but it is important to state that the assumptions made in the National Audit Office report, which underpin the report of the Public Accounts Committee, highlight the possibility that every single project will end up with no efficiency savings and that the worst-case scenario will be achieved on cost controls. We are very confident we have an equipment plan that is affordable but, as I have stated, we are looking at all issues as part of the modernising defence programme.

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How many drones will we have for the RAF, the Royal Navy and the Army by 2027, both for reconnaissance and for taking out our enemies?

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I am happy to concede that my hon. Friend has caught me on the hop. I am not able to give him a specific answer at this time, but I am sure that he will allow me to write to him to confirm those figures in due course.

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Can the Minister confirm that the Type 26 frigates are being built within budget and will continue to provide jobs for the Scottish workforce for years to come?

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I can confirm that the Type 26 project is going extremely well. The first blocks have been built, the steel has been cut and the first three ships have been named. The really important point, which was highlighted in a recent Westminster Hall debate, is the fact that the last apprentices to work on the Type 26 project have not yet been born. That shows the long-term commitment to shipbuilding on the Clyde that the Type 26 project represents.

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The NAO estimates that, of the £9.6 billion shortfall in the equipment budget, £1.3 billion is for the new Type 31e frigate. Can the Minister assure the House that, in the autumn, the budget line for the Type 31e will be included in the financial summary?

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The key submission for the Type 31 is that the procurement is going extremely well. It is currently on target, and our expectation is that the £1.25 billion budget for five Type 31 frigates will be achieved.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the arrival of the F-35s on British shores is a signal to the world that “global Britain” is not empty rhetoric, as some would have us believe, but a demonstrable fact?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a statement of our aspiration, and it is also a significant statement on the contribution of defence to our national prosperity. Some 3,500 F-35s will be procured worldwide, and 15% of them will be produced here in the United Kingdom. That is equivalent to 525 platforms, which is a significant vote of confidence in UK industry.

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Can the Minister confirm to the House the details of a letter he sent to me saying that the fleet support vessels will be bound by EU rules on state aid?

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The situation, as per the shipbuilding strategy and as per the letter I sent to the hon. Lady, is that we are looking to procure the fleet solid support ships. The shipbuilding strategy aims to ensure that we have a strong shipbuilding sector, and a strong sector also needs a degree of competition. We are protecting warships as a national capability, but we are opening other elements of the shipbuilding strategy to international competition.

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Does the Minister agree that keeping our armed forces equipped to the very highest standard, well led and with a strong fighting spirit, is the best deterrent our country has?

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I could not agree more.

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“Not affordable”, “not realistic”, “not complete”, “unbalanced” and “unmanageable”—those are some of the politer things that have been said about the Government’s equipment plan. The comments have been made not by the Government’s political opponents, but by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. Not since the end of the second world war have there been such devastating criticisms of a Government defence programme.

This £20.8 billion black hole in the MOD’s equipment plan has arisen due to this Government’s shameful incompetence. How do they intend to get out of this mess, and can we look forward to extra resources from the modernising defence programme?

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I would say, at the risk of repeating myself, that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee do important work for this House, but I should highlight the fact—I have said this once but I will say it again—that the figures quoted in the NAO report were a worst-case scenario. It looked at every single project hitting the worst-case scenario and at no efficiencies whatsoever being created within the programme. We are considering all these issues as part of our modernising defence programme, but I genuinely say to the hon. Gentleman that he should read the report with a bit more care and understand it.

Cyber-attacks

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3. What recent assessment his Department has made of the threat posed to UK security by cyber-attacks. [905744]

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The Ministry of Defence takes cyber-threats very seriously, and we regularly assess our ability to defend against them. We are strengthening our defences against increasingly sophisticated attacks through a wide range of technical, operational and administrative measures, including close co-operation with the National Cyber Security Centre.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he clarify how much the Government intend to spend during this Parliament to improve UK cyber-security?

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I am grateful for that question as it gives me the opportunity to highlight that we have invested and continue to invest in cyber-capabilities, including with the opening of the defence cyber-school in March, a £40 million investment in a new cyber-security operations capability, and £265 million towards a new cyber-vulnerability investigation programme.

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The further east one goes, the greater the awareness of the cyber-threat in individual countries. Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Sweden have all published advice on how to deal with that threat. What do this Government intend to do to build resilience among the British people and understanding of botnets, hacktivists and all the other ways in which Russia is attacking our political and social institutions?

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I think that we are well on our way. The 2015 national security strategy reaffirmed cyber as a top tier 1 risk. That was precisely why we opened the NCSC, which helps to co-ordinate the work of government and the private sector. It is also why we now consider cyber to be essential in our armed forces’ core skills.

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The Minister’s reply shows astonishing complacency. We know that cyber-attacks are a key plank of Russia’s hybrid warfare, where fake news, Twitter bots and even ambassadors are used to create confusion, for example regarding the findings of the investigation into MH17. What steps is the Minister taking to educate the British public about the way in which Russia is systematically using our open, democratic, free society to weaken the European Union and to return to a Europe of nation states controlled by spheres of influence?

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Frankly, I am staggered that the hon. Lady thinks that £1.9 billion of investment somehow represents complacency from this Government. I have already outlined exactly how the MOD is investing in cyber. In case she has not visited—it would be interesting to know whether she has—let me say that we also have the NCSC, which is only a mile down the road. If she has not been, perhaps she should go to have a look for herself at what the Government are doing to respond to her request.

Security Threat: Russia

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4. What discussions he had with other NATO member states on the potential security threat posed by Russia. [905745]

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I met NATO Defence Ministers met last week to discuss progress towards next month’s summit. The UK wants NATO to strengthen its deterrence and defence capabilities while ensuring that dialogue with Russia continues as part of the alliance’s commitment to avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation.

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I tabled this question before the disastrous consequences of the failure of the G7 in Canada. Does it not seem as though this country is back in the 1939—isolated from Europe, with NATO under threat and with a big gulf between us and our traditional United States ally? What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

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In my discussions with the US Defence Secretary, he has been clear about the US commitment to NATO and European defence. Let us not underestimate how supportive the US has been of NATO, or its commitment over the next couple of years to pump resources, troops and money into ensuring that our defence is the very best we can possibly have.

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NATO is quite rightly concentrating on the Russian threat to the east and to the south-east of Europe, but what more can we do to encourage it to take an interest in the high north and the Arctic, where the Russians have recently built eight new military bases at enormous cost? They also have huge submarine activity coming out into the north Atlantic and have reinvented the old bastion concept that was left over from the cold war. Surely there is a huge threat there and NATO has to do something about it.

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We have seen a considerable increase in Russian activity in the high north, and we have seen an increase in our activity in the high north as well, with HMS Trenchant taking part in ICEX—Ice Exercise 18—and the announcement of the additional Astute class submarine, HMS Agincourt. This is all about how we invest to keep ourselves safe and the north Atlantic free from threats.

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Further airstrikes in Syria on Friday left civilians dead and injured. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with our NATO colleagues about how we can make sure that Russia upholds international humanitarian law?

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Syria is yet another of those areas of conflict where we see Russia so heavily involved. We have been working with the Syrian Democratic Forces to make sure that we give the level of support that is needed, and we will continue to have a dialogue with our allies to do everything we can to bring a peaceful solution to Syria. We need a diplomatic dialogue and Russia has to step up to the plate. It has to recognise that it needs to put pressure on the Assad regime to stop the dreadful, atrocious actions that are continuing to be carried out on the Syrian people. This has to be brought to an end.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm the role that Romania is playing in tackling the Russian threat and what resources the UK is putting into Romania?

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We have been working closely with Romania, with Royal Marines working closely with Romanian defence forces, but more recently the Royal Air Force has been deployed in Romania to deliver air policing over that country and its neighbours. As a result of that RAF support, there has been a significant drop-off in the number of Russian incursions.

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Just a couple of weeks ago, myself and SNP colleagues returned from the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, which is just two miles from the contact line of the conflict. We witnessed at first hand what Russian aggression really looks like against civilians, yet at the weekend President Trump made the astonishing claim that President Obama was to blame for the illegal invasion of Crimea. Will the Secretary of State set the record straight that this Government do not hold that view and that Russia is to blame for the illegal invasion of Crimea?

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Russia is solely to blame for the illegal invasion of Ukraine and the activities that have occurred there.

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I am extremely grateful for that answer.

Thinking of national security in the broadest context and Russian influence, of course we learned at the weekend of revelations concerning Russian influence operations as far UK electoral contests go, which showed that Russia’s operations are as widespread as they are pernicious. What action is the Secretary of State taking in government and with NATO allies to crack down on Russian money flowing through London and to reform Scottish limited partnerships? Does he agree that that is not only in our interest, but in the collective interest of our partners, including Ukraine?

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The hon. Gentleman has completed his disquisition and we are deeply grateful to him for doing so.

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A number of the areas that the hon. Gentleman touched on are probably more suitable for Treasury questions, but we continue to work with our allies to make sure that everything that we can do is implemented to stop the flow of Russian money into our country and others.

UK Defence Industry

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5. What steps he is taking to support the UK defence industry. [905746]

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We are committed to supporting a thriving and internationally competitive defence sector. We have published our national shipbuilding strategy and refreshed our defence industrial policy, and we are developing a combat air strategy. In March, the Defence Secretary announced he had invited my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) to conduct a review of the defence contribution to prosperity, and I look forward to the publication of that report shortly.

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The fleet solid support ship contract said that there would be the potential to bring jobs and work to shipyards across the UK. Does the Minister not agree that those ships should be built in Britain, and will he make this a UK-only competition?

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I have consistently argued that the national shipbuilding strategy should be supported across the House, as it offers real support for our shipbuilding industry. We designate warships as a sovereign capability to be built in the UK. Other ships are open to international competition, but I am confident that there will be British yards putting in bids for that work.

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17. When considering a replacement for the RAF’s airborne warning and control system fleet, will the Minister commit to holding an open competition so that bids from all defence partners—from the UK as well as abroad—can be considered? Will he also consider whether Sentry and Sentinel may in future be replaced by one aircraft type? [905758]

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My hon. Friend is well known for his championing of issues to do with the Royal Air Force. It is important to say that the Ministry of Defence is currently going through a process of considering the replacement for that capability, and we are also considering the situation with regard to Sentinel moving forward. A decision will be made in due course, and he will be informed at that point.

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When the Minister sits down after this series of questions, will he remind the Secretary of State, who I see is not listening, that he has been to a number of yards that will compete with Cammell Laird, but not to Cammell Laird itself? When he is deciding on the shipbuilding programme, he needs to be seen to be fair as well as awarding us orders.

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The process will be seen to be fair, because it will be fair. This is a real commitment that we are providing to the shipbuilding sector. We are absolutely committed to it, and we have adopted the shipbuilding strategy. I hope that he will have confidence in the process.

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Engineers in Great Baddow in Chelmsford have been designing world-class radar systems for generations. Will the Minister take into account local skills and jobs when awarding the next contract, to make sure that British capabilities are not compromised?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point about taking into account the whole contribution made to our economy when a contract is awarded. She will be interested in the new Treasury Green Book and also in some of the conclusions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow in his report on prosperity.

Afghanistan

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6. What plans he has for additional UK force deployments to Afghanistan. [905747]

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No decisions have been taken on sending additional UK troops to Afghanistan. The UK makes an important contribution to the non-combat NATO mission in Afghanistan, where our troop commitment is kept under regular review to ensure that it remains suited to the needs of the mission.

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The Minister will be aware that, just today, 12 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in a suicide bombing attack outside a Ministry in Kabul. This is part of a string of attacks that have happened despite ceasefire efforts by President Ghani. Does the Minister agree that we very much need to protect the gains that we have made at the expense of blood and treasure in Afghanistan over many, many years, and will he consider looking at whether we need to provide more support to the Afghan security forces?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. He will understand that, as I spent time in Afghanistan myself in 2006, this subject is very close to my heart. I am determined that we should not, as he says, lose that blood and treasure. Indeed, I raised that issue with Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, when I met him last Thursday. We will look at the matter very carefully to see what further support we can offer.

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The Secretary of State made a welcome concession on the issue of Afghan interpreters, but it may be small comfort to those with constituency cases if, as reported, only 50 additional interpreters and their dependants will be allowed to come to the UK. Instead, will the Government look again at the whole process of assessing interpreters and at every case? There are some very deserving cases out there.

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The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I chair a joint committee with the House of Lords on this issue, where we do indeed go through that process very carefully. We pluck out individual cases on a quarterly basis and review them for that very reason.

Accommodation Model

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7. What recent steps his Department has taken to develop the future accommodation model. [905748]

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rose—

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It is very good to see the Minister. I was in his constituency on Friday speaking to school students, and they spoke of him with great warmth and affection.

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I did not see the letter, but I am sure that it is on its way.

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I am sure that I told the right hon. Gentleman, but if I did not do so, I will be the first to apologise. I am pretty sure I did. Anyway, it was a great joy.

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On reflection, Mr Speaker, I think I did receive some message that you were heading there.

We can be extremely proud of our armed forces, but if we are to continue to recruit the brightest and best, we must continue to invest in our equipment and training, but also in the welfare of our people. I am pleased that we are moving forward with the future accommodation model, which will give our armed forces personnel three choices: to remain on the garrison in the unit, inside the wire; to step outside and rent accommodation; or to get on the housing ladder by purchasing property.

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The Royal United Services Institute criticised the future accommodation model, saying that it was woefully inadequate and behind schedule. Will the super-garrison at Catterick be finished on time, to ensure that armed forces personnel can live on garrison? Does the Minister think that the sale to Annington Homes in 1996 was a mistake?

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With due respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is mixing up a number of issues. The future accommodation model has yet to start, but the pilot scheme is on track to start in December. We have been working closely with the families federations, which have themselves recommended the locations for the pilot schemes. I very much look forward to this work taking place in December.

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Recently, concerns have been expressed to me about the quality of grounds and buildings maintenance at armed forces accommodation at Woodhouse in my constituency. The Minister’s commitment to our armed forces personnel is well known and clear. Can he reassure me that the future accommodation model will include high-quality maintenance, and will he meet me to discuss that specific issue?

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Accommodation is very important. As I have mentioned, equipment and training are one thing, but we must ensure that we look after our people. The level of accommodation is one of the reasons why armed forces personnel choose to leave, which is why we are investing in more modern accommodation. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. The Secretary of State and I take very seriously the matter of upgrading the accommodation that we offer our armed forces personnel.

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rose—

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I call Christian Matheson—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) has been very courteous in sitting there quietly, but I believe that he actually wanted to come in on this question; I do beg his pardon. Have a go, man.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The affordability of the future accommodation model relies heavily on the present rent adjustment on the Annington Homes estate. As we know, that is due to be renegotiated for 2021, with expectations that rents will rise significantly. The Tories were warned in 1996 that the sell-off of married quarters was a mistake, and that is exactly how it has transpired. What urgent steps has the Department taken to ensure that the rent renegotiation does not further cripple the MOD budget?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a number of matters. I agree with that there is a question mark over what happened in the past, but it did happen, and we now need to move forward to provide the necessary offering for our armed forces personnel. As I mentioned, we are working with the families federations to ensure that we get the deal necessary to make accommodation affordable for our troops.

Combat Aircraft Design

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8. What discussions he has had with the UK aerospace sector on collaborations for future combat aircraft design. [905749]

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The Ministry of Defence is working closely with other Government Departments, the UK aerospace sector, academia and international partners to explore the UK’s future approach to combat air capabilities. We intend to publish the initial findings this summer.

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We have a world-leading aerospace sector, but we cannot deliver the combat air strategy on our own. Does the Minister expect most of our future collaboration to be with Europe or the United States?

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I think it is fair to say that we are undertaking a combat air strategy because the UK is a global leader in the field. UK industry’s export capabilities in combat air are well known, with £6 billion of exports last year, so we are approaching partnerships across the globe. The Department has written to partners in the US, across Europe and further afield.

Leaving the EU: Aerospace Industry

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9. What assessment he has made of the effect on the defence and military aerospace industry of the UK leaving the EU. [905750]

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14. What assessment he has made of the effect on the defence and military aerospace industry of the UK leaving the EU. [905755]

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19. What assessment he has made of the effect on the defence and military aerospace industry of the UK leaving the EU. [905760]

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The Ministry of Defence is working closely with the defence industry to understand the implications and opportunities presented by the UK’s departure from the European Union. We want to explore how our industries can continue working together, but it is worth noting that current collaborative capability projects, such as Typhoon, are managed bilaterally or with groups of partners, rather than through the EU.

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Does the Minister agree that a clear commitment to stay in a customs union with the European Union would provide certainty to industry and investors that they will not be hit by needless tariff barriers after Brexit?

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What we need moving forward is a strong relationship with the European Union to ensure that we have as frictionless trade as possible with the European Union. I do not think that remaining within the customs union is a prerequisite for a successful defence industry.

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American-owned Darchem in Stillingham is just one of the manufacturing firms in my constituency providing aerospace and other engineering products to the military. It really needs certainty about future tariff-free trading with the EU. Will it get that tariff-free trading?

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The Government’s aim and aspiration is to ensure that there will be tariff-free trade with the EU. I think that the company referred to by the hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to see a Government who are proactively pushing forward the combat air agenda. We are world leaders in combat air—as I highlighted, 15% of every F-35 is manufactured here in the United Kingdom. We are leading on this issue, and the Government are supporting industry in that leadership.

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The Government have often used EU rules as an excuse for not buying British steel for big defence projects. Can the Minister guarantee today that post Brexit, Royal Navy support ships and similar projects will use 100% British steel?

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I wish I could offer the guarantee that the hon. Lady requests, but it is not possible to do so, because the steel required for the parts of the ships that we are building is not currently available from the United Kingdom. In the work that we are doing on the Type 26 frigate, for example, well over 50% of steel, by value, is from the United Kingdom. However, I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to complain if we had defects in our capability as a result of buying incorrect steel.

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How are the preparations for the UK’s alternative to participation in Galileo going?

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That is a crucial question, because our involvement with Galileo is important not just for our own security but for that of the European Union. We have committed significant funds to Galileo over the years. We have an obligation to our industry and to our defence capabilities to ensure that we investigate thoroughly the possibility of remaining within the Galileo programme. However, work is being undertaken on potential alternatives in case they are necessary.

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The UK defence industry was on show this week with Operation Catamaran 18, involving UK and French amphibious forces. Can the Minister confirm that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two great examples of UK military endeavour, will not be cut in the forthcoming modernising defence programme?

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The hon. Gentleman is well aware of the situation. As I articulated in the Westminster Hall debate, Albion and Bulwark are currently expected to be in service until 2033 and 2034 respectively.

Defence Procurement: SMEs

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10. What progress his Department has made on encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to participate in defence procurement programmes. [905751]

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Small businesses play a crucial role in our defence capability. To support them, we have launched a supplier portal that brings together a range of information and advice for new suppliers, and we have appointed a champion for smaller businesses to drive engagement. We also now require our largest suppliers to advertise their subcontracting opportunities on Government platforms.

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Anti-drone technology produced by an SME in Horsham has been used very successfully by US forces on operations for more than a year now. Will the Minister assure the House that the MOD will always go for best in class in procurement, and that this is open to smaller manufacturers, as it is with our allies?

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My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the importance of SMEs in innovation and capability. Our refreshed defence industrial policy published last December highlights how we are encouraging competition within the defence sector, maximising opportunities for SMEs. For example, we have produced new short-form contracts that make it easier for SMEs to bid into MOD opportunities.

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Does the Minister recognise that SMEs depend on main contractors for an enormous amount of their work, and that that is why his previous replies on the fleet support ships have been so disappointing? Can he imagine our European G7 partners, let alone President Trump, buying navy support ships from foreign yards? When is he going to shake off Treasury dogma, wake up to European reality, and buy British ships built in British shipyards by British workers, backing British engineering firms large and small, and backing British steel?

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I listened very carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, but I would not think that we should take any lessons on trade policy from Donald Trump.

Departmental Funding

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11. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on future funding for his Department. [905752]

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I have regular discussions with the Chancellor. The modernising defence programme will ensure that our armed forces have the right capabilities to address evolving threats. The Government are committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, and the defence budget will rise by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament, taking it to almost £40 billion by 2021.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful reply. Would he like to take this opportunity to endorse the suggestion by his immediate predecessor that we should aim to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by the end of this Parliament? Does he agree that that would be a useful staging post on the road to the 3% that we really need? Finally, would the forthcoming NATO summit not be an excellent opportunity to announce any such advance?

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I thought the right hon. Gentleman was going to give us his usual mantra, “We need three to keep us free,” but it was incorporated in the gravamen of his question.

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I think my right hon. Friend is saving that for the next Defence questions.

We need to be looking at the threats that are starting to evolve right across the world, including in Europe. Those threats are increasing dramatically, and we have to ensure that we have the right capabilities to meet them. That is why we have the modernising defence programme to look in detail at how those threats are evolving, and why we are leading that analysis in the Ministry of Defence rather than any other part of Government. We want to come up with the solutions and answers to ensure that Britain and our allies are defended to the very best of our capability.

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The Secretary of State knows that it is about not simply the amount of money but when it is made available for key programmes. It was great to welcome him up to Barrow shipyard a couple of weeks back, but does he accept that unless he can persuade the Treasury to release more money for the Dreadnought programme in the crucial early years, we risk the programme being more expensive and potentially late, endangering the continuous at-sea deterrent?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. It is essential that we have the right resources at the right time to deliver that critical programme. That is why I was so pleased that we were able to secure an extra £800 million in this financial year to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is delivered on time and in budget.

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As my right hon. Friend will agree, we must adequately fund our armed forces to support those who selflessly put their lives on the line for our country—a concept that the Scottish Government do not seem to understand. Can he update the House on the measures that the UK Government are taking to mitigate Nicola Sturgeon’s Government’s tax hike for those brave service personnel?

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It is truly shocking to think that the Scottish National party decided to put that extra taxation burden on our service personnel in Scotland, especially when we asked them not to do so. That is why we are proceeding with a review rapidly, and we hope to report our findings to the House in the not-too- distant future.

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I am tempted to respond to that, but can the Secretary of State not convince the Treasury that building the Royal Navy support ships in-house at the likes of Rosyth would see a tax revenue gain for the Treasury and help us to retain skills, talent and investment in our shipyards? Is that not what the shipbuilding strategy is all about, or is the Treasury incapable of playing a team game?

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I thought for a moment that we were going to have an apology to the 70% of service personnel who are having to pay extra taxes as a result of the Nat tax that the hon. Gentleman’s party has introduced.

This Government are absolutely committed to shipbuilding. That is why we will be building eight Type 26 frigates in Glasgow and five offshore patrol vessels in Govan. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that.

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A recent profile by BuzzFeed revealed that some colleagues have likened the Defence Secretary to Francis Urquhart, although they suggest that the fictional character may be a bit more sophisticated—they might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. With Ministers arguing in recent weeks that defence funding should rise north of 2.5%, can the Secretary of State tell us what sophisticated tactics he will be using to get the Chancellor to agree?

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As a Yorkshireman born and bred, I know that we tend to be quite blunt and plain-speaking, so sophistication is not usually something that is attached to us.

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Speak for yourself!

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They are different in West Yorkshire.

What we are doing is taking the time to look at the threat and the challenges this nation faces. Over the past 10 years, we have seen the threat picture change so much. This is not just something we have noticed; from sitting down with our NATO allies, I know we are all seeing exactly the same. The world is getting increasingly dangerous, with state actors playing an ever greater role. It is right that we look at that closely, and make sure our armed forces have the equipment and resources they need to defend this nation against those threats.

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In January, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is the Minister with responsibility for defence people, said that the cap on armed forces pay

“has been lifted…and we look forward to the recommendations that will be made in March.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 597.]

Given that it is now June and that this Government continue to be all words and no deeds, will the Secretary of State tell us when service personnel are going to receive the long overdue real-terms pay rise they deserve?

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It was the Treasury that announced the changes on public sector pay, but we are working very closely with the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to get to the point where we can make such an announcement as swiftly as possible. I and my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will be working closely together to ensure that that is done as swiftly as possible.

Leaving the EU: Defence Policy

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12. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect on his Department’s policies of the UK leaving the EU. [905753]

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I hold regular discussions with my colleagues on this topic. Europe’s security is our security. We want to work closely with our European partners to keep our citizens safe and defend our shared interests and values, including through NATO and our future partnership with the European Union. Britain was committed to European security long before the creation of the European Union and our membership of it, and we will be committed to the security of continental Europe long after we leave.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer—I think. What discussions has he had with the Scottish Government regarding the potential exclusion and uncertainty surrounding future UK participation in the Galileo project?

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What we are seeing with the Galileo project is, frankly, the European Union acting in a most unusual and strange way. Why on earth would it wish to exclude Great Britain from a project that is so integral to the security of the whole of the European Union and many other countries? As Britain is currently the largest spender on defence in the European Union, we would have thought that it welcomed our involvement in the project and that it hoped that we would continue to support it, but if it does not want us, we can do this independently.

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The UK Hydrographic Office, which makes most of the world’s shipping charts, is the only fundraising arm of the Ministry of Defence. It is based in Taunton, and I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Defence has retained it and is now investing in and helping to support a new state-of-the-art facility. Is this not exactly the kind of asset on which we should be building as we leave the EU to increase our prosperity and influence in the world?

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I know my hon. Friend fought a major fight to ensure that the investment came to her constituency and to preserve this important asset. It is a brilliant example of how the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces can play an important role not just in supporting defence, but in creating prosperity and jobs.

Armed Forces: Personnel Levels

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13. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the size of the armed forces. [905754]

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16. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of personnel levels in the armed forces. [905757]

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We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review.

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Regarding Capita’s performance on the recruitment target, the Secretary of State was very clear when he said:

“do you have to give them a red card at some point if they don’t deliver? Yes, you do”.

Capita is not delivering, so when is it time for the red card?

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There have certainly been challenges, particularly with the introduction of the defence recruiting system, but 12,360 recruits joined the British Army last year. I have met the chief executive of Capita on several occasions, and an improvement plan is in place at the moment—I think we need to provide an opportunity for it to be run through—but, absolutely, there is an alternative if need be.

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Before the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Government promised to increase armed forces personnel from 11,000 to 12,500. As of October last year, there were fewer than 10,000 regular forces personnel stationed in Scotland. When will the UK Government keep their promise, or is this just another broken one?

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I understand the SNP’s desire to get more service personnel in Scotland, as that is more service personnel they can tax under their Nat tax—[Interruption.] At least the hon. Gentleman finds it amusing. I am pleased to say that there are 14,000 regular and reserve personnel in Scotland. Also, let us not forget that all of the Royal Navy submarines will be moving to Faslane, and there is the new Typhoon squadron in Lossiemouth and our infantry brigade too.

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Cadet detachments are an ideal training ground for those young people considering a future career in the armed forces. Can my right hon. Friend outline what he is doing to increase recruitment from cadet forces and will he consider visiting my constituency to see the hard work and dedication put in by cadets in Erewash?

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We do not directly target cadets for recruitment in the armed forces. However, it is a fact that nearly 18% of members of the armed forces were once cadets and 4% of cadets go on to join the armed forces.

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Potential recruits may well be concerned about the issue of legal claims against personnel and veterans, especially in the light of the Iraq historic allegations team debacle. It is now more than a year since the Conservatives made a manifesto promise to tackle those claims, and the issue has been raised repeatedly by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Why has nothing been done?

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Actually, a lot has been done. I appreciate it is now some time since that consultation was completed, but it really is a reflection of the complexity of some of the legal issues. I can assure the House that we will come back in due course.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905767]

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I start by paying tribute to Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, who fulfilled his last day in the role of Chief of the Defence Staff before moving on to the role of chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Sir Stuart has served the Royal Air Force and his country for a long period and made such a difference to making sure that our armed forces have been properly represented.

I am also incredibly proud to be able to announce the four new cutting-edge F35s that arrived at RAF Marham just last week.

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The Secretary of State just confessed to being a blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, so will he give me a straight answer? He must be reeling from the events at the G7 in Canada. Are we prepared and would this country be able to defend itself if America takes its bat home and leaves NATO? Is he talking to the French and the Germans about this?

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The United States’ commitment to NATO is unequivocal. They are backing it not just with words but with deeds, and we should be incredibly proud of our long-term alliance with one of our very closest of friends and of the important role they have played in ensuring the freedom of Europe over the last 70 years.

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T4. Armed Forces Day in Lowestoft is a very special event, although since the Shoreham air tragedy it has not been possible to have air displays, which are very popular and bring much business to the town. Can the Secretary of State encourage the Civil Aviation Authority to take a proportionate approach to regulation and insurers to charge reasonable premiums? [905770]

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The Shoreham disaster was an absolute tragedy, but we have to move forward from that. Just at the weekend I was at RAF Cosford and saw the amazing air display that took place there. It shows how such displays can inspire future generations to join the Royal Air Force and play a role in their country’s defence, and I will certainly take the point up with the Civil Aviation Authority.

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The review of the defence fire and rescue service has been running in various forms for 10 years now. With neither of the final two bidders having exactly a glowing past record, does the Secretary of State share my concern that if the contract is outsourced and we see a repeat of the Carillion situation, the consequences could be disastrous?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has taken too long. I had a briefing on this only last month and we will make progress. I heed the concerns that he raises.

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T7. Chippenham constituency and wider Wiltshire have a large population of military veterans who sometimes feel isolated and suffer from mental health problems. In addition to the recent and welcome announcements in this area, what more can the Department do to reassure my constituents? [905773]

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My hon. Friend touches on such an important issue: looking after our veterans, in particular those who are homeless or who feel isolated. The Secretary of State moved forward with a 24/7 support helpline and is launching a new veterans strategy, which will be announced in November. It is important that every local council takes responsibility for having an armed forces champion who looks after those who are homeless and identifies what help can be given.

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T2. The Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme is incredibly important for our Army’s capability and for the UK defence industry, so when will we finally get to the production contract stage? [905768]

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We are at the demonstration phase, with 11 being manufactured. It is currently going through a trials programme and we will report back when that is complete.

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T10. The legal pursuit of our veterans and soldiers following combat operations is a national disgrace. The Secretary of State will be aware that many Members support a statute of limitations to protect those who have served. If a legally viable route towards such a statute can be found, will he confirm that he would support it and legislate for it? [905776]

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The House has a great duty towards all those who serve our country: not just our armed forces, but those who supported our country in Afghanistan and in so many other areas. I am certainly very keen to look at all options to see how best we can protect service personnel who have given so much in the service of our country.

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T3. Army numbers are at just over 77,000, rather than the 82,000 promised in the 2015 Tory manifesto. Is this due to Tory incompetence, Capita incompetence or a combination of both? [905769]

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It is an interesting fact that since the second world war I think there have been only two years when the Army has been fully manned. There are challenges, but I am confident that we maintain all our operational commitments. The Army is currently approximately 95% manned, which I think is pretty good, but I am determined to get it up to 100%.

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Reports suggest China is fast developing a new generation of military technology, focusing on artificial intelligence and autonomous weaponry, which will soon surpass the capability of the United States. Will the Minister outline what planning is under way with allies to keep up with those advances?

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What we are seeing is a number of state actors, not just Russia but China as my hon. Friend outlines, investing heavily in new technologies. It is absolutely right that we do the same, investing in those new technologies not only so we can defeat what they have but to have the capabilities ourselves for our armed forces.

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T5. During a recent visit to Iraq, a delegation from the all-party group on Kurdistan met British soldiers who have trained thousands of Peshmerga, helping the brave allies whose sacrifice and resistance to ISIS enhances our safety, and whose rights in a federal Iraq need international protection. Will the Minister confirm that the Department will continue that vital mentoring mission? [905771]

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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting just one of the many training missions the British Army and other services carry out around the world. Indeed, we are currently operating in excess of 20 countries to provide non-lethal training.

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I know that the Secretary of State will share my hope for a successful summit between North Korea and the United States of America tomorrow, which will hopefully reduce military tensions on the Korean peninsula. What assessment has he made of the role UK armed forces could play to ensure that any deal is successfully implemented and enforced?

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Our armed forces have already been playing an important role in ensuring that United Nations sanctions are properly upheld. The deployment of HMS Sutherland and HMS Albion has been a part of ensuring that UN sanctions are upheld. We want a diplomatic solution, and all our work and all our efforts have to go towards ensuring that a diplomatic solution is found.

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T6. Is the Minister aware that most cleaners in Whitehall Departments are now paid the London living wage? Will he cut through PFI bureaucracy to bring the Ministry of Defence into modern times and pay cleaners the London living wage? [905772]

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I would be delighted to speak further with the hon. Lady on this matter to see what more can be done.

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I warmly endorse the Secretary of State’s tribute to the Chief of the Defence Staff, but Sir Stuart Peach did say last week that he was deeply uncomfortable about the process of legacy investigations into veterans. I understand that several years ago, the Ministry of Defence did a lot of detailed staff work into the practicability of the statute of limitations. Would the Secretary of State promise the House that he will ask to see that work and perhaps be able to take it forward?

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I can certainly make that commitment to my right hon. Friend.

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T8. It is now 60 years since Operation Grapple. Is it not time that we followed so many other countries and awarded our nuclear test veterans a medal? [905774]

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I am well aware of the campaign not just by the hon. Gentleman, but by others. I am certainly happy to look into it in more detail. He will be aware that there are two components to this—risk and rigour, and avoiding duplication of other medals that have already been given—but I am certainly happy to discuss it further with him outside the Chamber.

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rose—

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Mr Ross, deliver it as quickly as you raise your flag.

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Will the Secretary of State please tell my constituents at RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss barracks when this UK Government will mitigate against the Scottish National party’s Nat tax?

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Splendid.

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I am certainly hoping to be able to report before the summer recess. We are very conscious that so much investment has gone into Lossiemouth and we do not want people to be disincentivised from moving there as a result of the Nat tax that has been imposed upon them.

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T9. The UK Government have indicated that they want to carry on playing a leading role in common security and defence policy missions, such as Operation Atalanta, post Brexit, but there are currently no arrangements for third parties to be involved in the decision making, so how does the Secretary of State think that we will be able to continue this involvement while still having a say on whether to deploy our forces abroad? [905775]

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The EU has made it clear that we are not allowed to lead any operations after 29 March next year. However, we are continuing to negotiate how we might be able to take part—for example, Operation Sophia, Operation Atalanta or indeed, Operation Althea in the Balkans.

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The Minister will be aware that I and the North Devon community have lobbied hard over the future of Royal Marines Base Chivenor. In the light of media reports over the weekend, is he able to confirm whether a decision is indeed imminent?

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On the invitation of my hon. Friend, I visited Chivenor and was very impressed with what is happening there. No decision has been made on Chivenor, so please ignore the reports in the media, and I will be more than happy to discuss where things are going with him outside the Chamber.

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Further to an earlier question, can the Minister guarantee that by the end of this Parliament, the strength of the Army will be in excess of 80,000?

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That is absolutely our ambition, yes.

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I asked every Government Department how many contractors they had employed for over one year and five years, and how many they had paid over £1,000 a day to. Can the Secretary of State explain why his was one of only two Departments that was either unwilling or unable to answer that question, and can I urge him to go back and find out how many contractors are paid over £1,000 a day, so that he, and we, can see how well he manages his Department’s spending?

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I would be more than delighted to make sure that my hon. Friend gets that information.

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Will the ministerial team recognise the work of service dogs in the Army, Air Force and Navy, and in particular, welcome the establishment next week in this House of a memorial charity to those animals, to be based in Delyn constituency in north Wales?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valuable point. All too often, when we talk about our armed forces, we think purely of humans, but of course, for many centuries, animals have made a fine contribution, too.

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If we cannot protect our service personnel from the Northern Ireland campaign by a statute of limitations coupled with the truth recovery process, who is going to be next: the Falkland Islands veterans, or even the last few from the second world war?

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As I touched upon earlier, it is clear that this House has a simple and clear view that we should always do everything we can to protect those who have served our country. We will look at all options to ensure that that is done.

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Did the Secretary of State write to the Prime Minister about further deployment of troops in Afghanistan?

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We always keep our troop levels under review right across the world and this is something that we will always do going forward.

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Progress on the REEMA site in Carterton has stalled for far too long. Will the Minister commit to working with me to provide the housing the RAF in west Oxfordshire so badly needs?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point about making sure we have the correct accommodation, which is something we touched on earlier. I know there are big questions about what is happening in the Brize Norton area, and again I would be delighted to discuss the matter with him further.

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In its most recent report on the recruitment plan, the National Audit Office said that the plan was “not affordable”—full stop. The Secretary of State has been given seven recommendations. Which will have the most impact?

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Once again, we appreciate the work done on that report and are taking it seriously—it is being considered as part of the modernising defence programme—but we state again very clearly that the MOD does not recognise as likely outcomes some of the worst-case scenarios.

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rose—

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Time is against us, but my judgment is that proceedings would be incomplete and the House sorely deprived without an intervention from the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), which I trust will be of its usual poetic quality.

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I was thinking exactly the same, Mr Speaker.

On behalf of the British nuclear test veterans, and as their patron, I welcome the Minister’s warm words earlier. It is right that we finally remember those who gave so much. Nevertheless, I want a little more. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and the veterans to further the case that they should be awarded a medal? Some 1,500 of the 22,000 are left. This generation, by recognising and rewarding those brave people, would be doing a service to theirs—something of which we can be proud.

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I would be honoured to meet my right hon. Friend and the test veterans at the earliest opportunity.