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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I call Ross Thomson. Where is the fella? He is not here. I am sorry that he is not here, but Leo Docherty is.
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?
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.
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.
Will the Royal Navy continue with freedom of navigation operations in the South China sea?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
No, I do not, and, crucially, I sense that there is no appetite within the armed forces for such a body.
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?
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
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?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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%.