I take the opportunity to wish our team who are taking part in the Invictus games the very best. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), is currently in Sydney supporting them, so sadly is unable to be in the Chamber today.
As we approach the centenary of the end of the first world war and this year’s armistice commemorations, we remember all those who have fought and died in the service of this country. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will go to the thousands of events up and down the country to remember those who have lost their lives and pay tribute to our armed forces personnel, both current and former.
I concur with the Secretary of State’s comments.
I welcome the finalised deal for the nine Hawk aircraft being sold to Qatar. It is important for the employees at BAE Systems at Brough, for skilled local jobs and for flying the flag for British defence manufacturing, but there is more to do. What further support could the Government offer to win export orders for the Hawk in places such as Kuwait?
As was touched on earlier, we have held discussions with the Qatari Government about the order for nine Hawks. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), was out in Kuwait furthering discussions about future orders for the Hawk. We will continue to work closely with BAE Systems to land more orders to sustain Brough.
The whole House will be united in complete disgust at what has happened. These are war graves. We would not tolerate the desecration of war graves on land, and we should not tolerate the desecration of war graves at sea. We have instructed a survey of the site and are engaged with other Governments to ensure that, where ships are under their flags, action is taken to ensure that such behaviour does not go unpunished.
At last month’s Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said that austerity is over, but we know that the Tories’ record on defence is one of deep cuts and falling budgets. In cash terms, defence spending has been slashed by £4.9 billion since Labour left office. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much his party has cut the defence budget in real terms?
With due respect, I have to correct the record. Between 2010 and 2017, the real-terms value of the defence budget fell by nearly £10 billion, which puts immense strain on the ability of the Ministry of Defence to meet its commitments. We welcome the long overdue pay rise for service personnel, but whereas Labour set out a clear plan to fund a fair pay rise, will the Secretary of State confirm that his Government is providing no new money to cover the cost and therefore that he will have to make additional cuts elsewhere to give our forces the pay rise they deserve?
The better defence estate strategy was published about two years ago, and the strategy remains in place as it stands. The strategy extends over some 20 years, and the Royal Navy continues to work to establish the amphibious centre of excellence in Plymouth.
We are currently in the pre-qualification process, which means we are making sure that we get the very best price for the ships we need. The FSS is not classed as a warship, and therefore it has to go out to international competition. We want to make sure that we have British shipyards competing for the contracts so that they become world competitors when other countries are looking to offer such contracts.
The hon. Lady is right that next year is a significant anniversary of the Normandy invasions, and it is important that we get it right. We are looking carefully at the right way for the Ministry of Defence to support the event, and an announcement will be made in due course.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work on mental health support for veterans and members of the armed forces. Does he agree that the 24/7 mental health helpline plays a vital role in supporting those personnel and needs maximum publicity?
We offer an enormous amount of support through the career transition partnership, and we offer mental health and, indeed, physical support to veterans. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with the details of that individual case, I am more than happy to look into it.
I refer the House to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I warmly welcome the combat air strategy, announced earlier this year. Will Ministers update the House on any potential discussions with future national partners?
We continue to work closely with industry, especially BAE Systems. As we develop this strategy, four companies are at the heart of it—BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA—but we are in discussions with other nations. I am afraid that I am not in a position to update the House on who they are.
This follows on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about the situation in the South China sea, as last week I had the pleasure to meet representatives of our allies in the region. HMS Albion gave a demonstration of freedom of waters and of navigation, and the importance of that cannot be overstated. Is this going to become a regular exercise, because our allies in the region would be very happy to see that?
We are committed to stepping up our presence right across the Indo-Pacific area. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot go into operational details at the moment, but we see our Royal Navy playing an important role in upholding our values.
Does the Minister not understand that to export defence equipment we have to have a strong home market, and that is why other European countries insist on building vessels such as the fleet solid support ships in their own yards, with their own workers. What blind dogma is stopping these Ministers and their Department doing the same and ensuring that we make them in Britain?
As I said a moment ago, we are making sure that we go out to international competition, because that gives value for money to this country, and we can also then invest the savings we make in other capabilities. It means that we attract the best and affordable solutions. It also brings competition at the heart of our shipbuilding strategy, because we want our shipyards to go out there and compete for international orders.
Captain Mainwaring’s doughty band of men who formed the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard are in danger of looking like special forces, on account of their ability to climb in and out of Lance Corporal Jones’s converted bread van, when compared with the modern Army, which has 18,000 clinically obese soldiers and servicemen, with 398 having type 2 diabetes, 160 being on prescribed diet pills and 16 having had liposuction. When is the Secretary of State going to do something about the state of the fitness of the British armed forces?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this matter, but, of course, as I look across this Chamber, I do wonder whether or not this was the right establishment to be criticising the British Army for obesity. Every year, all soldiers are required to carry out fitness tests. He will have realised, or seen, that from 1 April we are changing that annual fitness test to make sure it is more aligned with the combat roles our soldiers are required to carry out.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, let me say that I agree with the Secretary of State that we should be mindful of the armistice we commemorate this year. I will be joining family at Westminster abbey later this year to commemorate my great uncle James from County Mayo, who fell at Passchendaele.
Asbestos kills, and it is a silent killer. I represent a constituency with the highest rates of mesothelioma not only in Scotland or the United Kingdom, but in Europe. I was therefore dumbfounded at a recent Defence Committee meeting when senior members of the Ministry of Defence seemed to be silent and unable to answer questions on the use of asbestos in Sea King helicopters between 1969 and 2016. I have even heard that two of them have been brought back into service for training purposes. Will the Secretary of State please ensure that the report that has been brought about is fully published and that we ensure that those exposed to asbestos, both civilian and military, get due compensation, if affected?
The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) offers the Chamber on a regular basis a passable imitation of Demosthenes, but Demosthenes was not subject to constraints of time, whereas under our Question Time procedures the hon. Gentleman and other Members are. I advise him to plough through the pages of the textbook on pithy questions by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).