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Topical Questions

Volume 648: debated on Monday 22 October 2018

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.

T5. A constituent wrote to me about his father, who served on HMS Repulse and survived both its sinking and his imprisonment in Japan. More than 500 of his fellow sailors died aboard the ship, which is their final resting place. Today, many warships have been partially or completely destroyed by scavengers. What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to prevent further destruction of our maritime war graves? (907202)

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?

The defence budget is going up in real terms year on year. We have a commitment for it to go up every year by £1 billion up to 2021.

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?

We all welcome the increase in service personnel pay. When I meet service personnel, whether in the UK or abroad, they particularly point out that this is the largest pay increase they have experienced since 2010.

T6. My right hon. Friend is well aware of the strength of feeling in North Devon on securing the future of Royal Marines base Chivenor. When will we receive a decision? (907203)

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.

T2. The Defence Secretary has said that for every £1 spent on defence, we get £4 in return. How can the Government square such comments with their willingness to see the fleet solid support ship built in foreign yards? (907199)

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.

T7. Earlier this year, cadets in Arbroath embarked on a new era with the opening of a new £600,000 joint facility in the town. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), will the Secretary of State underline the Department’s plan for increasing investment in cadet units across the UK? (907204)

We will be doing everything we can to increase cadet units right across the United Kingdom. Cadet units play a vital role in everything we do by sending out the message that our armed forces are important to every community in the United Kingdom.

T3. York has four remaining Normandy veterans who fought in the second world war. LIBOR funding will be needed to give them, and their carers, the opportunity to make one last visit to mark D-day on 6 June 2019. How will the Minister ensure that they are able to pay their respects next year and that they will be able to take their carers with them to attend fully? (907200)

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?

The helpline is an important part of everything we do, but we can never rest in looking at what more we can do to support those who are serving and those who have served.

T4. My Jamaican constituent applied for leave to remain after serving with the Royal Marines for seven years. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and found it difficult to cope with the increasing demands for information from the Home Office. What is the MOD doing so that service members are directed to support services when they leave the armed forces? (907201)

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.

T8. Can the Secretary of State inform the House about what has happened to the modernising defence programme? (907206)

We will continue to keep the House informed and we will update the House with the findings in due course.

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.

The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) deserves some encouragement at this very early stage of his parliamentary career!

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.

Gosh, there is something of an internal Scottish National party competition. It is an invidious choice between three celebrated individuals, one of whom is a member of the Select Committee. I call Martin Docherty-Hughes.

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. Gentleman is quite right to bring this issue up. I am starting to look at it in more detail. If he would allow me, I would like to write to him with further details, once I have had more information from the Department.

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).