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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
18 February 2019
Volume 654

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Defence Relationship

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2. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s future defence relationship with the EU after the UK leaves the EU. [909265]

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May I take this opportunity to associate us with your comments about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? I remember having the privilege of serving with Paul on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. As you quite rightly stated, he was always incredibly passionate about his constituents and about his beliefs. As a former Chief Whip, I also agree that Labour Members not following their Whip is good advice, but the same is not necessarily true on the Conservative side.

The UK will pursue a distinctive, independent and sovereign foreign and defence policy that meets British interests and promotes our values.

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Mr Speaker, on my behalf and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members on the Opposition side, I would like to echo your words about Paul Flynn, whom I will always remember for his great independence of spirit and fantastic sense of humour.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. On 7 January his junior Minister said, in response to a written parliamentary question, that in the event of no deal,

“the UK would have to withdraw from Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations”.

What would happen to Operation Atalanta, which is against pirates, and Operation Sophia, which picks up refugees in the Mediterranean?

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Those missions will continue, and we will continue to have negotiations with the EU on how we can support those operations in the future.

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I would like to echo your kind tribute to Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.

Is it not the case that the vast majority of our industrial collaboration with other European countries is done on a bilateral basis, which will very much continue once we leave the EU?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point: 90% of all our collaboration with EU nations and EU defence programmes is done outside the framework of the European Union. I joined him in his constituency to visit Airbus and Boeing, and it was quite obvious how important those bilateral and multilateral relationships are to their growth. It is not through the European Union.

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What contingency measures will the Government put in place to protect the UK defence industry from losing the automatic right to bid for contracts within the European economic area in the event of a no-deal Brexit?

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As I touched on in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), most of our defence procurement and most opportunities in the defence industry are not through the European Union. We will continue to work with the European Union to have access to programmes. That is not only important for UK business; if the European Union wants to succeed in developing a defence sector, it needs countries such as Britain and the United States to be able to participate in these schemes.

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Mr Speaker, I associate myself with your eloquent words about Paul Flynn, whom we will all miss very much and whose book I read before becoming a Back Bencher, which I may remain.

Will the Secretary of State expand on how, in our future defence relationship with the EU in the north Atlantic, we will invest in and show continued commitment to protecting that northern flank of Europe?

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The high north is an important part of the development of our strategy. At the weekend, I had the opportunity to see our Royal Marines in Norway and what they are doing to support the Norwegian armed forces. We will be deploying our P-8s in 2020, along with Norway and the United States, to deal with the increased threat that we face from Russian submarines in the north Atlantic.

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I add the condolences of those on the Scottish National party Benches to the family of Paul Flynn and to the parliamentary Labour party on the loss of a thoroughly decent human being.

The Secretary of State and his predecessors have been clear that NATO is the cornerstone of the UK’s security, but many leading experts, including Professor Beatrice Heuser of the University of Glasgow, see something of a devil in the detail. Much of the recent debate on Churchill missed out the fact that he was one of the architects of the Western European Union—a security-focused grouping that saw all its functions wound up into the European Union post Lisbon. Can the Secretary of State tell us what analysis his Department has undertaken on the difference between the UK’s obligations under article 5 of the NATO treaty and article 42(7) of the Lisbon treaty?

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Article 5 is a mechanism that delivers security right across continental Europe and the north Atlantic area. That has been proven. Article 5 has only been used in one situation, which was following 9/11, and we feel that it is a much more substantial guarantee of European security than what is in the Lisbon treaty.

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I am grateful for that response. I am glad that the Secretary of State visited NATO and the Royal Marines during their winter warfare training, and I know that the Norwegians and many members of the Defence Committee will be too. Article 5 obligates members to respond to an attack with

“such action as it deems necessary”,

which, as put to me, could mean a conventional military response, just as it could mean a strongly worded letter. Article 42(7) of the Lisbon treaty, on the other hand, obligates states to react with

“all the means in their power”.

Does the Secretary of State understand that many of our European allies are unnerved by this dilution of the UK’s obligation towards the defence of the continent? What preparations are being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence to ensure that our adversaries do not exploit that loophole?

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We have never as a nation shied away from our obligations, and there has been a clear understanding that Britain will stand with our European friends and neighbours in delivering security. Our commitment to security on the continent of Europe was there long before the creation of the European Union or our membership of it, and long before the creation of NATO. We have always been there, and we always will be.

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Will my right hon. Friend clarify for the House that it is in fact NATO, not the European Union, that has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of European security and defence?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. When we speak to the new nations that have been created out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which organisation do they turn to guarantee their security? It is NATO.

Armed Forces Covenant

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3. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. [909266]

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21. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. [909288]

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I am pleased to say that there is broadening support for the armed forces covenant, which is a priority for the Ministry of Defence. We now have over 3,300 organisations participating in it, and the veterans strategy consultation, which was launched in November, is looking at further ways in which we can expand its support.

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May I too associate myself with your comments, Mr Speaker? Any budding politicians out there should read the part of Paul Flynn’s book where he describes setting on fire his oven’s cooking instructions five years after moving into his flat.

On a more serious note, with an estimated 58 veterans’ suicides last year and the charitable sector saying that it is struggling to cope with demand, does the Minister agree that there is too much reliance on the sector to support personnel leaving the service with mental health disorders?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. We should not make the automatic assumption that because there is a suicide and the person is a veteran, it is because he is a veteran that there is a suicide. However, that should not prohibit us from understanding more about what is actually happening to those who serve and have served. We are working with the coroner’s department to get better data on this, and we also have a new programme to make sure that people are aware of the mental health support that they can gain once they leave the armed forces.

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The Minister will know that there are few very reliable statistics on veterans who are homeless. What does the Minister intend to do to improve that?

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This goes to the heart of what the covenant is all about. I want to see all homeless people looked after, and I want to make sure that if they are veterans, the covenant is recognised and enforced. However, if we are to do that, it is not the MOD that needs to do it; it is actually local government. Thanks to the veterans board, we are now enforcing the covenant and encouraging Government Departments to ask, “Are you doing enough?” Each local authority has an armed forces champion, who should be looking at these issues to make sure that the authority is tackling homelessness issues in its area. If there are any areas where there is a problem with that, please let me know.

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It is anecdotally alleged, although not necessarily backed up by statistics, that a disproportionate number of prisoners are veterans. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to making better use of the MOD prison estate—particularly Colchester Prison, for example, which I understand is relatively empty at the moment? Would that not be more appropriate housing for soldiers and veterans who are in civilian prisons?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the experience that he brings to the Chamber. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I would like to pursue these conversations—perhaps with the Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—to see what more can be done.

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Well, the Minister is going to pursue it with the Prisons Minister.

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It is stupid.

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Well, the right hon. Gentleman can make his own assessment.

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A recent investigation has revealed that black African soldiers in the East Africa Force, formed in 1940, which encompassed thousands of troops drawn from the British colonies and current Commonwealth countries, were paid only a third of the wage received by their white counterparts. Will the Minister tell the House whether there will now be a full and comprehensive Ministry of Defence investigation of this issue, and whether such an investigation would consider granting appropriate compensation to all surviving veterans?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, of which the Secretary of State is aware. It is a Foreign Office lead, and I hope that the FCO will be able to provide more detail on how to move forward given the information presented.

Warship Construction

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4. What progress his Department has made on its procurement exercise for the construction of new warships in the UK. [909267]

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In December 2018, the Department announced the award of three competitive design phase contracts for the Type 31e frigate programme. It remains our intention to award a single design and build contract for five Type 31e ships by the end of this year. Construction of the Type 26 frigates remains under way, with the second batch of five ships to be ordered in the 2020s.

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I thank the Minister for that response. Following the Secretary of State’s recent successful visit to Plymouth, he will know of the south-west’s military shipbuilding capabilities. May I suggest that Plymouth would make a fantastic base for the littoral strike group vessels?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an absolute champion for his constituency and the south-west. Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport and the south-west of England continue to be vital to the Royal Navy and, as we plan to develop a concept for the littoral strike ship, we will look at how it goes. At the moment, no decision on basing has been made.

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Many employees of GE Power in Rugby happen to live in the Warwick and Leamington constituency. Will the Minister update us on what discussions have been had with that company to preserve its quality manufacturing and skills in our country?

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I know that, for example, my colleague the Defence Procurement Minister has had several discussions with the constituency MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Although of course this is very much a matter for the company, the MOD will look to see in what ways we can provide support.

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20. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when decisions are made about the placement of orders for vessels for the Royal Navy, which have seen an encouraging increase in number, and about who wins them, contributions to UK prosperity will play an important role? [909287]

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I take this opportunity to thank him once again for the valuable contribution he made through his report last year? He made, off the top of my head, some 41 sensible recommendations, and we are looking to address them shortly.

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Since the start of the last Labour Government, we have seen a 39% decrease in the number of Royal Navy ships and a 46% decrease in the number of frigates and destroyers. If the Secretary of State wants a carrier in the south Atlantic and one in the South China sea, where is the drumbeat of orders coming from when we have just lost another 150 jobs at our shipyard in Rosyth?

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Let us be clear that we are committed to maintaining the numbers of our frigates and destroyers. Indeed, later this year we will see the second of our aircraft carriers come out of Rosyth. Equally, it is this Government who have secured shipbuilding jobs in Scotland all the way through to the 2030s. Indeed, there are probably some apprentices who will work on the Type 26 programme who are yet to be born.

Armed Forces Personnel

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5. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [909268]

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9. What steps his Department is taking to increase recruitment into the armed forces. [909273]

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11. What steps his Department is taking to improve recruitment and retention in the armed forces. [909275]

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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. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

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Many people may see it as an incompetent accident that the Government continually fail to hit their supposed targets on Army recruitment, but is it not the truth that this is a Government without any sort of strategic vision for what they want our Army to do in 2019, and that their failure to get Army numbers up saves budget for the parts of the MOD that they do have a plan for?

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I could not disagree more. I think we have a clear vision as to what we want our Army to do in 2019. Equally, the hon. Gentleman should be encouraged by the fact that as of January we have had the highest number of applications to the Army in five years.

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I suggest that the Government should not take any lessons from Labour about manpower shortages, given today’s news about desertions.

The National Audit Office has recently confirmed that Capita has not recruited the required numbers of regulars and reservists in any year since the contract began in 2012. Clearly, extra resources are needed. May I also suggest that the Government consider reinstating 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which was the best recruited unit in the Army when it was disbanded?

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I have been here long enough to be able to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his consistent defence of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The same National Audit Office report states that the Army has already conducted a full review of the current recruitment strategy. As a result, the contract with Capita was realigned and a comprehensive improvement plan introduced. That will take time to bear fruit, but as I said in answer to the previous question we are now beginning to see early signs of the improvement plan bearing fruit.

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Will the Minister update the House on the results arising from the Army recruitment poster campaign last month? Has it enticed more women to apply? Has it enticed more people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply to join the Army?

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The Army’s new campaign builds on last year’s successful “Belonging” adverts, which, as I said, took recruitment to a five-year high. The early signs are positive. At the moment, 12.4% of recruits are women and 6.5% are from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. We are yet to see the audited results for the campaign, but we are confident that progress is being made.

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The Public Accounts Committee has been looking closely at what skills we have in our armed forces. We know there are real shortages, particularly in cyber, with people leaving early. Will the Minister explain to the House how he is working with others across Government to ensure that we have the cyber skills we need in our armed forces?

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That is a very important question. The hon. Lady will be aware of the £1.9 billion investment in cyber across Government. I have taken a particular personal interest in this issue. I want to ensure that the career structure we offer in the armed forces matches these 21st century skills. Historically, it has not done so.

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In the past few years, Capita has been 3,000 recruits short. The chief of defence personnel, Lieutenant General Nugee, told the Defence Committee a couple of weeks ago that this year it will be over 4,000, maybe nearly even 5,000, recruits short. Applications are up, but enlistments—those actually joining—are down dramatically. The Secretary of State called its performance atrocious and it is. The Scots Guards are barely at 50% manned. I believe that Capita is so awful that its performance is becoming a threat to one element of our national security. When will the Government come out of denial and sack this useless, hopeless company?

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My right hon. Friend is entirely consistent in his views on Capita and I respect that. However, I would say that once again the signs are positive. Sandhurst is now 100% full in terms of young officers, an improvement on the past two years. The infantry training centre at Catterick is now 80% full. Yes, that is 20% lower than we need, but that is a significant increase and improvement on where we were last year. All the signs are pointing in the right direction.

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They are not.

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Yes, they are. The challenge we face is that while applications are up, the conversion rate is getting better and that will take time to feed through into the strength of the Regular Army.

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Having known the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for 35 years, I hope he will take it in the right spirit if I say that I really do wish he would tell us what he really thinks.

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Following on from what was said by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mark Francois), the reality is that the size of the Army has fallen in every year since the Conservatives came to power. For all the talk, the fact is that the initial applications are not turning into enlistments. Will the Minister tell the House what the trained strength of the Army will be at the end of this Parliament if the current trend and record we have seen so far continues?

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I am confident that at the end of this Parliament, assuming that that is 2022, the trained strength of the Army will be higher than it is now.

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I do not think that gives us very much reassurance. Let me tell the Minister now that, if the decline continues at the same rate it has been over the time the Conservative party has been in government, by May 2022 the Army will be down to just 68,000. Given that the promise to reach 82,000 soldiers was unceremoniously dumped from the Conservative manifesto at the last election, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are still committed to reaching that number? If so, what is his plan for how to do so?

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With respect to the hon. Lady, she talks about “the Army”. I assume that by that, she actually means the Regular Army—when she talks about 68,000. As far as I am concerned, the Army also includes the Army Reserve, giving a combined force of about 112,000. It also includes the approximately 3,500 soldiers who wear a uniform and are proud to call themselves soldiers but are currently under training. I think she needs to think about what definition she is using.

Veterans: Mental Health Support

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6. What steps his Department is taking to provide adequate mental health support for veterans. [909269]

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The provision of veterans’ mental health support is the responsibility of the NHS in England and the devolved Administrations, but the MOD is committed to ensuring veterans are aware of what support is available.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. The Covenant Fund Trust will play a vital role in providing important organisations such as the Shropshire armed forces community trust with additional resources to help veterans with mental health problems. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will update the House on how he and his other colleagues are lobbying the Chancellor for additional resources for the Covenant Fund Trust?

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The Covenant Fund Trust has increased, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it forms a wider package of measures. I join the Secretary of State in saying that we would like to see the defence budget increase not simply because of procurement or training, but because we need to look after our people. This is an illustration of that. We introduced the mental health and wellbeing strategy a year and a half ago. This has helped armed forces personnel to be more aware of what mental health support is available.

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There is still confusion among clinicians and veterans over how the armed forces covenant guarantee of priority treatment for conditions related to the veterans service is applied, so what discussions has the Minister had with the Health Minister in Wales to support our veterans there?

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The Defence Secretary co-chairs the veterans board, which looks at precisely this. We need to make sure, no matter whether it is in England or in the devolved Administrations, that no veterans are left without the support that they need. It is important, no matter which hospital or organisation it is, that they are aware of their covenant responsibilities in looking after our brave service personnel and veterans.

Leaving the EU: MOD Preparedness

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7. What contingency planning his Department has undertaken for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909271]

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12. What recent assessment he has made of his Department’s preparedness for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909276]

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The Ministry of Defence has conducted extensive planning and preparation to ensure that defence is ready for a range of scenarios including that of a no-deal EU exit. We continue to work closely with other Government Departments, key suppliers and industry partners.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Cyber-security is designated as a priority in the Modernising Defence Programme, but given that we will lose the European arrest warrant, access to Europol and the sharing of data using EU frameworks, we face challenges that the programme simply does not seem willing to countenance. How is the Department going to replicate those vital benefits from day one of leaving the EU?

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The work that we are doing on cyber-security is done not through the European Union, but through NATO or bilateral agreements with other countries, so I cannot see that having any impact on our continued work on cyber-security.

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May I just echo your words about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? He was a brilliant, radical and reformist politician and will be greatly missed. A “No-deal Brexit will make tracking terrorists harder and British public less safe”. Those words are from the Minister for Security and Economic Crime, and this weekend we have heard another Defence Minister threaten to vote against the Government if they fail to rule out no deal. Will the Secretary of State put this country’s security first, and before his own leadership ambition, and rule out no deal here and now, today?

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The hon. Lady had an opportunity to vote for a deal just a few weeks ago, but she did not seem to bother.

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Whether we leave the European Union with a deal or without a deal, will the Defence Secretary make it clear to his Spanish counterparts that it is completely unacceptable for their warships to try to intimidate commercial shipping entering British sovereign waters around Gibraltar?

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I will make it absolutely clear that we will always be there to defend our sovereign interests and to defend Britain’s national interest.

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I know the Secretary of State will agree that throughout European history there has always been an issue when there has been a separation between defending North America and defending western Europe. Will he confirm that his contingency plan for our leaving without a deal remains the fact that with our NATO allies we will still come to the aid of our European allies if they need it?

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Our commitment to our European friends and allies is sacrosanct. The Prime Minister has been consistent in saying that as we leave the EU our commitment to European security is one they can truly rely on.

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The recent reports that the MOD has begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at overseas bases just in case of a no-deal Brexit are extremely concerning, so will the Secretary of State now rule out a no deal and urge his Cabinet colleagues to seek an agreement with the EU based on a permanent customs union and a strong relationship with the single market?

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We have legislated to exit the EU on 29 March this year, and the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to vote for a deal, but he chose not to. The Prime Minister will always deliver the very best for this country, and I very much hope that not only Government Members but the hon. Gentleman will support it.

RAF Marham: Tornado and F35

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8. What plans he has to visit RAF Marham to discuss the reduction in the size of the Tornado fleet and the introduction of the F-35; and if will he make a statement. [909272]

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I visited RAF Marham on 10 January. It has been the home of our Tornado force and is now the home of our F-35 Lightnings. It is obviously with a heavy heart but enormous pride that we bid farewell to our Tornados—it is truly the end of an era—but it is right that we now look to the future. The combination of our state-of-the-art F-35s and Typhoons will keep us a world leader in air combat.

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I thank the Secretary of State for paying tribute to the Tornado squadrons at RAF Marham. They have been at the forefront of every operation for the last 40 years and are about to start—this week, I think—their farewell flypast. Will he pay special tribute to the pilots and navigators who have shown supreme courage backed up always by their ground crew and their families at home in west Norfolk and elsewhere?

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It is a whole community that delivers the Tornado’s fighting capability. In countless conflicts around the globe—be it the first Gulf war, the second Gulf war, or taking the fight to Daesh over the skies of Iraq and Syria—the Tornados have been at the forefront, and the pilots, navigators and ground crew have all been part of it. RAF Marham has an exciting future, however, with the two new F-35 squadrons and the additional training squadron.

Aircraft Carriers: Phalanx Weapons

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10. How many Phalanx close-in weapon systems will be fitted to each new aircraft carrier; and if he will make a statement. [909274]

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Three Phalanx close-in weapon systems will be fitted to each new aircraft carrier. Two are being fitted to HMS Queen Elizabeth during her current capability insertion period, with the third to be fitted towards the end of 2020. Three will be fitted to HMS Prince Of Wales in 2020.

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May I add to the tributes to Paul Flynn by noting the remarkable physical courage he showed in battling crippling arthritis over many years?

In relation to the Phalanx systems on the aircraft carriers, I agree that, if nothing goes wrong, the fitting of three will offer 360° coverage and protection, but, given that there is a fourth station on each aircraft carrier that could take a fourth system, and given that there are spare systems in storage following withdrawal from operational theatres, would it not be sensible to give some extra insurance by fitting a fourth system, so that if one is lost, there will still be total coverage and protection for these vital naval assets?

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My right hon. Friend is, of course, right in his assessment that three Phalanx systems offer a 360° capability, and that there is scope, potentially, for a fourth. We have the ability to adjust that according to the threat. I should also remind the House that the carrier will be at the centre of a carrier group. Protection for that carrier will consist of different layers of security provided by both the frigates and the destroyers, so it will not rely solely on the Phalanx system.

RAF Scampton

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13. What plans his Department has to support workers at RAF Scampton to find alternative employment in Lincolnshire [909278]

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We have had a series of debates about the future of RAF Scampton, not just in the Chamber but in Westminster Hall, and the hon. Lady is aware that it is, I am afraid, due to close. I can assure her, however, that the RAF footprint in Lincolnshire will increase.

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As the Minister knows, RAF Scampton is very close to my constituency. It employs more than 600 people, many of whom live in Lincoln and contribute to the local economy as well as to our communities. What specific assurances can the Minister give MOD workers in Lincoln, and throughout Lincolnshire, who fear that they will be made redundant or forced to relocate should the closure go ahead?

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The hon. Lady is right to wish to ensure that we look after those workers—who are committed to the RAF—and, indeed, their families. However, as I mentioned earlier, Lincolnshire does well from an RAF perspective. It has RAF Waddington, with its intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability, and RAF Cranwell, with its training capabilities, not to mention RAF Coningsby, with its fast jet capability. I hope that most of the people who are transferred or moved will be able to remain where they live now, although their work will take them elsewhere in the county.

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As a Member of Parliament representing RAF Scampton, I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done in trying to secure a future for it with our district council, West Lindsey. May I urge him, however, to consider the desire of all Lincolnshire people, which is based not on emotion but on sound, grounded fact, that the Red Arrows should stay in Lincolnshire? We can provide good employment for those 400 people. The three bases that he mentioned are within 15 or 20 miles of each other. We have superb airspace and a great RAF history, so please can we keep the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire?

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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s determination to ensure that this place recognises the work, the heritage and the history of RAF Scampton, which will, I think, be noted by his constituents and others. It is important for the museum there to continue.

As my right hon. Friend will know—[Interruption.] Is that okay Mr Speaker? As my right hon. Friend will know, the location of the Red Arrows is partly due to an operational capability to ensure that they are serviced. The airspace is run by the Civil Aviation Authority, and that is the subject of a separate discussion to be had with them.

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We want to enjoy the benefits of the Minister’s mellifluous tones. That was my only exhortation. It is quite understandable that a Minister looks back at a Member, but the rest of the House wants to savour the experience of hearing him.

NATO: National Security

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14. What recent assessment he has made of the importance of NATO to UK national security. [909280]

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Last week I joined NATO Defence Ministers to discuss progress made towards fairer burden-sharing and increasing the readiness of all our armed forces.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we leave the European Union, we will of course continue to co-operate with our European friends and allies, but that it is NATO that is the bedrock of European security? Does also he agree that all talk of an EU army is an unhelpful distraction?

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My hon. Friend has put his finger right on the issue. Talk of an EU army is indeed a distraction. It does not help; it does not build security. As we leave the European Union, 80% of NATO forces will be contributed by non-EU countries, but there is also a bigger point to be made. All European countries should be contributing more to defence, and they should all be spending 2% of their GDP on defence.

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May I, too, echo your generous words about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? He was a good socialist, and I therefore disagreed with nearly everything he said, but that is the nature of parliamentary debate.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the political declaration talks of co-operation with Europe on future defence operations. Surely, however, the most effective way of keeping the peace in Europe is to concentrate on the primacy of NATO, and in particular to encourage our American partners to keep paying 50-60% of the budget.

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We will always co-operate with all organisations right around the world, but my hon. Friend is so right: NATO is what delivers security in Europe. That is where our focus will be; that is what we will be focusing our time and resources on in delivering our security with our NATO allies.

Defence Procurement: UK Prosperity

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15. What steps he has taken to promote UK prosperity in his Department’s procurement decisions. [909281]

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Since 2015, we have published a national shipbuilding strategy, refreshed defence industrial policy to help strengthen UK competitiveness and launched the future combat air strategy. We engage with global primes to create opportunities for all tiers of the UK supply chain.

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In the light of the Ministry of Defence decision to open up the procurement process for the fleet solid support ships to international competition, will the Minister explain what weighting will be placed on national prosperity in awarding those contracts?

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The one thing we are clear about is that we are constrained in that process because the fleet solid support ships are not warships; they are not frigates, destroyers or indeed aircraft carriers. However, I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that that competition will be judged not solely on price but also on various other factors, and I am delighted that a UK consortium will be bidding.

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Order. As we are constrained for time, I advise the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) that his inquiry on missile defence capability can be shoehorned into the current inquiry.

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17. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that MBDA, located in Bolton and manufacturing in Bolton, makes a huge contribution to our defence, especially by keeping one step ahead of the competition in terms of technology? [909284]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he is also absolutely right to cite his constituency company as a fine example of how we can continue to compete on the world stage.

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First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kind words about our former colleague Paul Flynn, who was a great comrade over the years?

Following on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), why does the Minister not defer any action until after 29 March, when we will not be under EU procurement rules and we can award this ship—a £1 billion British taxpayers’ order—to a British shipyard?

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The hon. Gentleman seems to have a crystal ball—I simply do not—to see exactly what the situation will be post 29 March.

Ex-service Personnel: Employment

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16. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of employment of ex-service personnel. [909283]

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18. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of employment of ex-service personnel. [909285]

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Some 15,000 armed forces personnel leave the Army, Air Force and Navy every single year. We have invested significantly in resettlement provision, and the two key organisations that help provide that are the Career Transition Partnership, which helps individuals in that preparation, and the Defence Relationship Management organisation, which partners with businesses to make them aware of what skill sets are available.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Copernicus Technology, based in Moray, was set up in 2008 with ex-RAF engineers and it provides excellent work for the US Department of Defence on an intermittent fault device. Will the Minister consider looking at the benefits of this in the UK, because it increases the availability of the elements that it is used on and reduces support costs for the US, and we could surely do with that here in the UK?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. In this and many other areas, we can learn from our US counterparts about what support we can provide for veterans. I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend afterwards and discuss in more detail how we can move this forward.

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Will the Minister join me in commending the work of Only A Pavement Away, which helps homeless ex-service personnel find employment particularly in the hospitality sector, and what else are the Government doing to help ex-service personnel who have fallen on particularly hard times?

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I pay tribute to the charity my hon. Friend mentions. There are over 400 service-facing charities out there providing support for ex-service personnel. It is important that those who require support know where it is to be found, and I am pleased that more charities are working through the Veterans’ Gateway, the single portal that allows veterans to know where help can be found.

Common Security and Defence Policy

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19. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect on UK defence capability of ending co-operation on the common security and defence policy. [909286]

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Europe’s security is our security. Co-operation with our European partners and allies through NATO, bilaterally and through a security partnership with the EU will enable us to address shared threats and defend our shared values.

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May I also pay tribute to Paul Flynn? I suspect that he was less surprised than I was when I had to read out the words to suspend him from the House of Commons after he had accused a Secretary of State—the then Secretary of State for Defence, as it happens—of lying. On the subject of the European Union, the Secretary of State will know that the “National Security Capability Review” stated:

“As we leave the EU, we want a partnership that offers both the EU and the UK the means to combine efforts to the greatest effect, both operationally, and in developing capabilities.”

By what means will we achieve this partnership once we have left the common security and defence policy?

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What we set out in our negotiations with the European Union is the opportunity for Britain to opt into various programmes if it is in our national interest to do so. But it still keeps coming down to the most important point: what delivers our security in Europe is not the European Union; it is NATO. It is that framework that will continue to deliver that security.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909289]

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I announced to NATO Defence Ministers last Wednesday a significant increase in our commitment to the alliance, making the UK contribution to the enhanced forward presence in Estonia the largest of any nation. At the Munich security conference, I met counterparts from the global coalition of countries tasked with defeating Daesh, and in Norway, I had the opportunity to further our discussions with the Norwegian Government about how we can enhance our security in the high north.

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The Secretary of State is far too modest: I was sure he was going to tell us about his dip in the icy Norwegian waters.

On a very much more serious issue, the Secretary of State knows that there are between 200 and 300 war widows who lost their war widows pension on remarriage and who, if they were to divorce or lose their husbands now would have it restored and it could not then be taken away, but who have not had it restored and are therefore in the perverse situation that if they want to get quite a few thousand pounds a year more, they should divorce and remarry their husbands. Everyone agrees that that is an absurd and indeed disgraceful situation, and I know that the Secretary of State wants to do something about it. The war widows have been to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and she has expressed sympathy. When will this matter be dealt with? What is holding it up?

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The next time I go to Norway, I will be sure to bring my right hon. Friend along so that we can go for a dip together.

My right hon. Friend raises an important issue, and it is one that has been ongoing for a very long time. I have had the opportunity to meet a large number of those affected, and we are keen to work across the Government to find a solution. This is a burning injustice, and I know that those women feel it very deeply. I am committed to finding a solution, and I very much hope that we can deliver that across all Departments.

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The Public Accounts Committee’s damning report has found that Ministers have made “little progress” in solving the affordability crisis at the heart of the Ministry of Defence’s budget. Despite a year of bolshie headlines, the Secretary of State has completely failed to get a grip of the equipment plan in the modernising defence programme. Instead of spending his time causing diplomatic rows, when will he come forward with a costed plan to give confidence to the armed forces and our allies that we will be able to afford the equipment that his Government have committed to?

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The hon. Lady has been saying that we will not hit our budget for over a year now, yet last year we delivered the Ministry of Defence budget on target and sort of within budget, and we will do that again this year. Over the past few years, we have made more than £9 billion-worth of cost savings, and as part of last week’s announcements, we made a commitment to invest a further £100 million to ensure that we work more efficiently and that we can make more efficiency savings so that we can meet our commitments in the future.

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The Government’s own analysis shows that a no-deal Brexit would cause serious and lasting damage to our GDP. On the basis of sticking to our NATO 2% commitment, that would mean a massive cut of some 9.3% just because of the hit to our economy. With the Government failing so abysmally to manage the defence budget at present, will the Defence Secretary now drop the bravado and finally admit that leaving the EU without a deal would be so harmful to the UK that we must absolutely rule it out?

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Whether or not Britain has a deal with the European Union, we will continue to succeed and thrive. We did so before we were a member of the EU and will do so after we leave. We should have the confidence and belief in our nation that the Labour party obviously does not have.

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T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the former shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), when he questioned the Leader of the Opposition’s ability on defence by criticising his pursuit of policies— [909294]

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Order. I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but she has taken too long to ask a question about Opposition policy, and we really cannot get into that. Questions are about Government policy, not that of the Opposition.

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T2. The introduction of a dry dock in Portsmouth for the nation’s new carriers could create and protect hundreds of jobs in my constituency and be worth £1 billion to the local economy. I am keen to see the facility based in Portsmouth, which is home to the Royal Navy, so will the Secretary of State give a timeframe for the decision? [909290]

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I am not in a position at present to give that timeframe, but I will ask the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the plan. Portsmouth plays a vital role in all that we do with the Royal Navy, and we are incredibly grateful to the city for the support that it offers our servicemen and women.

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I call Ross Thomson. Where is the fella? He is not here. I am sorry that he is not here, but Leo Docherty is.

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The Brigade of Gurkhas has given courageous and loyal service to this country for two centuries. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea for us to recruit more of them?

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I started my military career in the Brigade of Gurkhas, so I declare an interest in that I am biased for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend’s question is timely. We recruit once a year and recruited 400 Gurkhas last year, which is within our agreement with the Government of Nepal. I am travelling to Nepal later this week for further negotiations with the Nepali Government about the future use of Gurkhas.

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T3. Suicide claimed the lives of 71 military personnel and veterans last year, and mental ill health is a clear and present danger to our servicemen and women and to our veterans. What assessment have Ministers made of making an automatic link between those leaving the service and their local Royal British Legion to help them to ease their way back into civilian life? [909291]

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising something about which we all need to be concerned because the numbers are worrying. We do what we can to offer a far greater relationship as people depart the armed forces. There is a cohort of veterans who served around the Falklands era who are not benefiting from the education that people receive as they leave the armed forces today. We need to do more, and the hon. Gentleman provides an example of one thing that we can do.

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Will the Royal Navy continue with freedom of navigation operations in the South China sea?

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Like so many nations, such as the United States, Australia, France, New Zealand and Canada, we believe in the rule of law and the international rules-based system. We will always be a nation that does not just talk, but one that acts to uphold the rule of law that has benefited so many nations right around the globe, so yes.

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T4. I associate myself with the tributes to Paul Flynn. He was a great Welsh patriot, devolutionist and campaigner, and we will miss him.According to a report by the National Audit Office, the RAF estimates that, at the current rate, it will be another 20 years before it has enough pilots. What urgent steps is the Minister going to take to rectify this? [909292]

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The pilot training programme has remained unchanged for many years. That is why we are looking at a complete review of the system, which will speed up the process and should rectify the current shortfall in pilots.

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The Minister for the Armed Forces has already referred to the expertise of GE Energy, located in my Rugby constituency, in the manufacture of propulsion systems. Does he agree it is important to retain that capability as an important part of our manufacturing base?

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My hon. Friend and I have met to discuss this on a number of occasions, and my Department, along with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is doing everything it can to help. We are working with GE to see if there are different ways to pull work forward. It is an important capability, and I would very much like to see the technology, which was developed in the UK, continue to be manufactured in the UK. We have been very successful in selling the Type 26 around the world, including to Australia and Canada, and it would be great for Rugby to get that benefit.

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T7. Mr Speaker, I join you and other colleagues in paying tribute to Paul Flynn for his generous advice, which he gave all the time, especially to me when I was first elected in 2007.Given the Cameron Government’s decision to scrap our maritime patrol capability and this Government’s decision, several years later, to buy maritime patrol aircraft off the shelf, why do we not yet have a capability in place? What is the Ministry of Defence doing to patrol our territorial waters in the meantime, particularly in the North sea? [909296]

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am delighted that we are committed to buying nine new P-8 aircraft, which will be arriving from next year. Because of the work we have done with the US before they arrive, they will have an almost immediate initial operating capability.

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Snowflakes and gamers are being recruited into the Army, in recognition of the wide variety of talents that people have. In that light, my constituent Zach is interested in joining the armed forces but feels that his autism would be an impediment to his application. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether the armed forces recruitment drive will consider a similar campaign for people with autism?

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My hon. Friend is right to champion this issue. Over the past year, we have held a number of medical symposiums in which we have been looking very carefully at what medical standards we actually require in the military, not least because of the length of military service. Many conditions do not actually become an issue until later in life, when recruits would potentially have already finished their military service.

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T8. Paul Flynn was a funny, generous man, and we will miss him in Gwent.Capita’s performance on Army recruitment has been hopeless. When is the Secretary of State going to sack them? [909297]

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I feel this is a monthly exchange between the hon. Gentleman and me. All I can do is refer him to the answers I gave earlier in this session. The visible signs of progress are now there for all to see.

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Will the Secretary of State update the House on how the carrier strike strategy is coming along in terms of the relationship on building it together with other Departments?

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As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, when we make major announcements, including on the delivery of carrier strike, they are shared across the Government. The deployment of the Queen Elizabeth and the carrier group to the Mediterranean, the middle east and the Pacific is an important sign that Britain is a global nation and a nation that wishes to play its role in upholding our interests and, of course, our values. As we have invested so much in our global carrier forces, it is important that we put them to sea and demonstrate Britain’s global presence, our involvement and our ability to act when required.

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T9. Does the Secretary of State agree that a statutory association body, such as that provided for the police, would allow armed forces personnel to make representations to the Government on a wide range of issues—falling morale, for example? [909298]

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No, I do not, and, crucially, I sense that there is no appetite within the armed forces for such a body.

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The MOD’s announcement that all posts in the military would be open to women was certainly welcome. Will the Minister kindly inform the House what specific measures are being taken to ensure that women and girls in school are made well aware that there are no no-go areas for them in the military?

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I refer my hon. Friend to the Royal Air Force advert that aired this week, which almost exclusively featured women, as a clear demonstration that not a single role in the RAF, or, now, in the other services, is not open to them

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We have heard this afternoon about Capita’s abject failure in recruitment. While we are haemorrhaging personnel, there are clearly issues in the armed forces that have to be addressed, so will the Secretary of State support the Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), which will be heard on 8 March, to give personnel a voice, through an armed forces representative body with a statutory footing?

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I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago.

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Rock2Recovery provides mental health support to service personnel from those who have already served. Does the Minister agree that they can play an important part in solving mental health problems?

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I was delighted to meet Rock2Recovery not very long ago and I pay tribute to the work it does, along with all the other charities, as this is so important. No one size fits all in supporting our veterans; there are many avenues by which we can ensure that they get the support and credit that they deserve.

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Is the Secretary of State in favour of other Departments spending a few million so that he can save hundreds of millions from his budget? If he is, will he put the weight of the Ministry behind our drive, with BAE Systems and the community, to make Barrow even more attractive a place to come and stay in, so that we can improve the productivity of the workforce?

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Having had the opportunity to visit Barrow a number of times, I know that the town offers so very much. We are very dependent on the residents of Barrow for the amazing work they do in developing our nuclear deterrent. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how we can work across the Government to deliver that vision.

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Following conversations at the recent Munich security conference, does the Minister believe that all European countries are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence?

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It is fair to say that some are more committed than others, but we have to hammer the message home. We need European countries to be spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence, not because it is an issue raised by the United States, but because they should be spending that money on defence for their security and for Europe’s security. That is the reason they need to be spending a minimum of 2%.