Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 642: debated on Monday 11 June 2018

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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%.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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

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?

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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