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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 657: debated on Monday 25 March 2019


The Secretary of State was asked—

Support for Veterans

1. What recent discussions he has had with military charities on improving support for veterans throughout the UK. (909987)

13. What recent discussions he has had with military charities on improving support for veterans throughout the UK. (909999)

Last year we published the first UK-wide veterans strategy, which looks at what more we can do to support veterans. We engaged with service charities for ideas on how we can enhance support for our veterans.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Vet Fest, an event that will be held in my constituency this summer, will be a celebration of camaraderie for our armed forces veterans and their families and will raise awareness and money for three important charities: Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion and SSAFA. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and thanking those who are putting on that event for their hard work and dedication, as well as all volunteers across the country who work to support our veterans?

I join my hon. Friend in expressing thanks for what they do, and I encourage volunteers across the country to do likewise through such a great initiative. We are always grateful for the many thousands of volunteers who contribute so much to supporting our veterans community, as I know he does.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware of the Royal British Legion’s excellent campaign to “Stop the Service Charge”. Can he update us on what the Government are doing on the possible removal of visa charges for Commonwealth UK armed forces personnel and their families?

I was delighted to visit the Heyford and Bicester veterans group with my hon. Friend just a few weeks ago and see the amazing work that it is doing to support so many of our veterans. The issue she highlights is vital. The Ministry of Defence continues to work with service personnel and their families to support them, and we are in discussions and working closely with our Home Office colleagues on that important issue.

In the United States, an impressive military charity called Soldier On has established housing co-operatives to give homeless ex-servicemen an affordable place to live and allow them to help control the running of it. Would the Secretary of State consider such an approach here in the UK?

That charity has also been looking at the United Kingdom. We are keen to work closely with it, to see how we can take the lessons learned from the United States and the positive experiences that have been created and ensure that it can benefit people here in the United Kingdom.

Although I certainly endorse the gratitude expressed for the support that many thousands of volunteers give to veterans, is it not time we accepted that it should not be left to charities to look after people who have been injured in the service of their nation? It is not charities that send people into war; it is Governments. What representations has the Secretary of State made to his colleague the Chancellor to ensure that health services, local authorities and other public bodies are adequately resourced, so that the welfare of veterans can be funded from the public purse, rather than relying on charity and volunteers?

This Government have put veterans and our service personnel very much at the heart of not just what the Ministry of Defence does but right across Government. Of course, devolved Governments play a vital role in delivering services. We all recognise the important role that charities play, and they provide a lot of services on behalf of Government, in order to be best able to reach out to people who have served in our armed forces.

I am the proud and entirely unworthy owner of a veterans badge, as my seven years were largely spent in the bar. Is there not an argument that people who truly deserve a veterans badge should have a much more visible symbol of their service, and that perhaps the title should be restricted more to those who truly deserve it, rather than people like me?

We all think that you truly do deserve it; we certainly would not want to take it off you. We are looking—

Order. I gently say to the Secretary of State that, in order for him to take something off me, I would have to have it in the first place.

Mr Speaker, we will have to see if we can get you one as well in the future.

We are constantly looking at how we can recognise those who have served. The veterans ID card is another important step forward in ensuring that there is true recognition of the service that so many people have given our country.

Armed Forces Recruitment and Retention

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces and a range of measures are under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all of their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

Having served in the Royal Air Force, I know how rewarding a life in the military is, and also how demanding it can be. I also know how difficult recruitment and retention is, particularly retention. Has my right hon. Friend considered free wi-fi for military personnel to help them and their families feel less isolated when they are serving away from home?

We recognise the importance of connectivity for our personnel. I reassure my hon. Friend that for those serving on operations, the Ministry of Defence will pay for internet connection to enable them to connect with family and friends. For those on non-operational tours abroad, the wi-fi costs are also covered through a welfare package.

One way to retain more Royal Marines is to ensure that their accommodation is of high quality. As Plymouth is no longer getting the superbase we were promised, could the Minister set out how the facilities at Stonehouse barracks will be increased, including making sure that all the accommodation blocks have hot water and good heating?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a complex programme was announced through the better defence estate strategy. On the specific issue he raises, I am told that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), intends to visit shortly.

The chief executive officer of Capita says that it will lose a lot of money on its recruitment contract on behalf of the MOD. In that case, I presume that the Government have a strong legal case for simply terminating the contract without compensation and taking it back in-house and doing it properly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has certainly made it clear that he has not ruled out the option of terminating the contract. However, in recent months we have seen dramatic improvements in the performance of that contract, partly because of the money that Capita has put in—its own money—to ensure that that is the case.

Every year my home town of Tain in the highlands hosts the Tain highland gathering. It has been a good number of years since I have seen any armed forces recruiting stands at the highland games. These stands have been very successful in the past—children and young people love them—but frankly, as has been said, Capita is not doing very well. May I encourage the Minister and the Secretary of State to get the stands set up again? In my own case, those people would be rewarded with a very large glass of our local amber nectar, Glenmorangie.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that recruiting opportunity. I might visit myself, given what is on offer. He makes a very sensible suggestion and I will ensure that it is fed into the system.

The size of the Army is in freefall under this Conservative Government. The number of fully trained regulars has fallen from 78,000 to 75,900 on this Minister’s watch. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has responsibility for defence people, is reported to have said that he will resign if that number falls below 70,000. What about the Minister for the Armed Forces—is he prepared to make that same commitment?

I am certainly not prepared to resign from my role as a member of the Army Reserve, because that would really not help matters, would it? The hon. Lady over-eggs the pudding slightly by saying that the numbers are in freefall. Yes, numbers have fallen but, with the highest number of applications on record in January, we have already explained why we are confident that the numbers will increase. Crucially, the Army remains at 93% manning and can meet all of its operational commitments.

Does that not say it all? The Minister does not even have the courage to put his job on the line. Time and again, he comes here and bluffs his way through with empty rhetoric, but the simple fact is that he has failed completely and Army numbers are falling month after month. At best he is complacent; at worst he has junked the stated target of 82,000 and does not have the guts to tell us. When is he going to accept that it is his responsibility to end this failure and get a grip?

I have been accused of many things in my life, but lacking courage is probably not one of them. If the hon. Lady knew anything about me, she would probably realise why that is the case. None the less, the issue remains a challenge and I am confident—as I have just said, recent figures show the highest number of applications on record in January—that the situation is improving.

Leaving the EU: Defence Industry

3. What steps his Department is taking to support the British defence industry after the UK leaves the EU. (909989)

The UK defence industry is globally competitive and creates and contributes to jobs across the United Kingdom. I am confident that it will continue to thrive in the future. The Government are seeking the best possible deal for UK industry after exit. We support European collaboration on capability development and are promoting the invaluable contribution of UK industry.

That was a standard complacent reply from the Minister. Ministers are still hanging on to the mythology that EU regulations prevent them from supporting British industry, most recently with the fleet solid support ships. Of course, no one else in the EU holds on to that view or, indeed, behaves like that. However, as leaving the EU looms, will the Minister now show some decisiveness and backbone, instruct his officials to scrap the old discredited dogma and start putting British industry first?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we are trying to make our defence industry the most competitive in the world so that we win those international competitions. It would not be right for me to comment on the decisions taken by other countries on FSS, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I note that the EU Commission has publicly questioned the legality of applying article 346 to the procurement of support ships by other member states, so I am glad that we have behaved properly.

20. Will the Minister confirm that even after we have left the EU, members of the British armed forces will continue to be based in EU countries, contributing towards their defence, and that therefore it is not unreasonable for us to expect their Governments to support the British defence industry and the British Government as we finalise negotiations with the rest of the EU? (910006)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Of course our commitment to EU security, European security and working with our NATO colleagues will continue after we have left the EU. That is why we are working on ambitious future arrangements. People know that they can rely on the armed forces of the United Kingdom.

The Minister knows that I am a huge advocate of the combat air strategy, and had the first debate on that in the Chamber. Given that we are about to leave the EU and Team Tempest is so far showing impressive signs of movement, when will we discuss a replacement for the Hawk so that we have a full package and a training aircraft, and can secure the jobs at Brough?

The hon. Lady is right about the future combat air strategy. We are in negotiations and discussions with other partner nations. When it comes to the issues around Hawk, we have done an enormous amount of work to try to get more orders for the Brough site. I recognise how important that is. I have visited Kuwait myself to try to get that order over the line. It is still a work in progress, but I hope that we will be successful.

25. Clearly, one of the ways we can encourage the UK defence industry is through using new and emerging technologies. Will my hon. Friend comment on use of the transformation fund, particularly the £30 million for new military apps and the £66 million for robotic programmes that will encourage the UK industry to develop further? (910011)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that. I went to see some of the small and medium-sized businesses that are working with our armed forces on some of the projects that have been funded through that, plus the innovation fund—the £800 million over 10 years that is encouraging as many businesses as possible, many of which have probably never worked with defence in the past, to come forward with their ideas.

Today, we saw the ceremony for confirming the move of the EU anti-piracy taskforce from Northwood to a new location near Cadiz. All around us, we are hearing about the consequences of Brexit not only on the defence industry but on our security relationships. Despite there being a rather uncommon consensus in the House about the importance of those relationships, we have heard precious little from the Department. Not only our closest allies, but the defence industry, serving personnel and policy makers need clarity on the UK’s grand strategy. Will the Minister stop hedging their bets and tell us about the defence and security relationship that the Government want with the EU?

Part of the negotiations with the EU has heavily focused on our future relationship and the collaboration we want with EU nations. However, at the end of the day, the cornerstone of our defence is NATO, and those relationships, and our bilateral relationships with many other countries, will form the way that we do defence in the future.

As the Conservative party plays political games and the Cabinet seeks to oust the Prime Minister, the huge uncertainty for our defence industry continues. The Prime Minister’s Brexit deal has been rejected twice, so will the Minister accept that the Government must now do the responsible thing and work across the House to build a consensus for a better deal? Instead of treating this House with yet more disdain, will he confirm that the Government will work with MPs from across the House to determine the course of action?

I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that this is defence questions. The Prime Minister will be making a statement shortly. Perhaps that question would be best put to her.

Support for Veterans

I am sure they are all very genuine. The support we provide our veterans is a genuine subject. We owe our veterans a huge debt of gratitude, but it is important that that gratitude is reflected in the practical support we provide. That is exactly why we are investing in a new veterans strategy, which will be fundamental to improving the co-ordination of that support.

It has been gently pointed out to me—not that one wishes to be pedantic, merely correct—that one might not be able to pair something, particularly when there are four. A grouping, on the other hand, is perfectly orderly. Mr Merriman, let us hear it man.

We were waiting for you to finish, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] I know my place.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The charity sector plays an amazing role in enhancing support for veterans. What engagement has the Minister had with that sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is so important that we engage as much as we possibly can. There are over 400 service-facing charities. They are co-ordinated by the Veterans’ Gateway and Cobseo, forming themselves into clusters so we can provide the necessary support in the various areas required. Every second Monday, the Defence Secretary and I meet people from the charity sector. In the coming weeks, we will be meeting charities based specifically in the arts.

Recently, a monthly drop-in service has been established at Crawley library for veterans to get advice on the services supported by the Royal British Legion and SSAFA, among others. May I have a commitment from the Ministry of Defence that it will continue to work with the voluntary sector, which provides such fantastic support?

My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary underlined the importance of geographically locally based charities. It is so important that the message gets out that support is available to veterans. The biggest challenge we face is veterans not being aware of where to go for help, so I am very grateful for that work in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Veterans in Hull are very fortunate to have the support of incredible people like Steve from Hull Veterans Support Centre and Paul from Hull 4 Heroes. There is an ambitious plan to build a veterans village in Hull. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the best way that he can support it?

I am always delighted to meet hon. Members who want to pursue and support veterans’ initiatives. I would be delighted to visit. My mother-in-law lives just down the road from Hull, in Beverley, so perhaps I can tie in the two visits in one go.

Some 60,000 armed forces veterans are currently suffering mental health problems, in prison or homeless. What more support can be given to personnel as they leave the armed forces to help reduce that number in future?

My hon. Friend is right to focus on specific issues where we need to increase our support. One reason why we are putting together the veterans strategy is to understand where we can do more. The prison sector is one area. She touches on the transition process. It is so important that as people depart the armed forces they know where help can be provided. We are now getting back in touch with armed forces personnel and their families 12 months after they have departed to check on their progress.

Ubi-tech is a business in my constituency made up completely of ex-service people. It is expanding fast and provides services to the MOD and others. It also provides resettlement training and is a supporter of the armed forces covenant. Given that, does the Minister agree that it is not surprising that the business regards the decision to prosecute soldier F after 47 years with absolute dismay? How does the Minister respond to that?

The Northern Ireland prosecution service made an independent judgment on that. I think it would be wrong for us to make any judgment on the Government side. What my hon. Friend illustrates is another great example of veterans charities doing fantastic work on a local basis, and if there is an opportunity to visit her constituency, I would be delighted to meet it.

On return from his tour of Afghanistan in 2007, my constituent, Robert Duncan, experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. It has taken this long to have a conversation—that is all he wants—with those under whom he served. Why can he not have that conversation?

I do not know the circumstances of that particular case and I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to see what more can be done. As I touched on before, we are now far more engaged with the individuals—all service personnel—who served in Afghanistan and Iraq to track their progress and to make sure that we are in touch to give them the support that they need. If there is a case for an individual to be looked at again, I would be more than happy to do that.

While we know that the charity sector is doing a great deal of work, and we are extremely grateful for that, there is an absence of veterans-focused policies in areas such as welfare and employability. The transition to civilian life can be difficult, so does the Minister agree that the Government must be doing more in this area?

I am pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned that the Government must be doing more. That is absolutely correct. The veterans board was established for exactly this mission—to make sure that it is not just the MOD that does its bit, but that all Government Departments recognise their duty to honour the covenant to ensure that they provide the support that we need to give our brave veterans.

We now come to Question 5. [Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Mr Hamilton wanted to come in on this question. [Interruption.] We do like him, but whether we like him or not, he has a right to be heard.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for intervening before he had the chance to ask his question. At Defence questions on 18 February, I asked the Minister about the black soldiers of the East Africa Force, formed in 1940, after an investigation revealed that they were paid only a third of the wage received by their white counterparts. On 13 February, Her Majesty’s Opposition wrote to the Government about this issue and I wrote to the Minister on 28 February, but so far no replies have been received. The Foreign Office claims that this is a matter for the Ministry of Defence, but the Minister told the House last month that this was a matter for the Foreign Office. Will he please confirm that it is in fact his Department’s responsibility, and may I ask him again when the East Africa Force veterans and their families might expect, at the very least, an official apology and compensation for this scandal?

Perhaps it does feel like we are living an episode of “Yes Minister”, and I fully understand that, with Departments trying to establish who has responsibility. We need to iron that out, and we absolutely need to get the answers that the hon. Gentleman deserves. Perhaps I can speak with him afterwards and we can move this issue forward.

Armed Forces: Social Mobility

5. What progress his Department has made on promoting social mobility and equal opportunities throughout the armed forces; and if he will make a statement. (909991)

Armed forces careers are built on merit, creating an environment where potential is defined by effort and talent and not by background. The skills, education and training that they get in the armed forces give many people the chance to achieve so much not just while they serve, but when they leave.

With the appointment of Brigadier Janice Cook as head of regulation at Defence Medical Services in Lichfield and the very recent appointment of Sue Gray as Air Marshal, does this not demonstrate that there is no glass ceiling for women in the armed forces?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is no glass ceiling. He brings out two brilliant examples of where women in our armed forces can achieve so much and make such a difference. We all recognise that we need to get more women joining all three services. The contribution and value that they bring is enormous, and the opening up of all roles, including close combat roles, has been vitally important in doing so.

The Secretary of State must know that the British armed services used to be one of the greatest players in encouraging social mobility and equal opportunity. They used to be the greatest trainers in Britain in terms of quality, size and capacity. When will he go back to that mission of having a real training programme in the Army that is big, not tiny?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very strong point about maybe expanding our armed forces. We should feel proud that we are the largest employer of apprentices in this country—19,000 service personnel are currently in an apprenticeship—and that we continue to lead on this. The value that these apprenticeships bring is not just to the services; there is also the contribution to wider society, as service personnel often pursue a second career after they leave.

I thank the Secretary of State once again for retaining 40 Commando in Taunton. It is a momentous decision and great for Taunton. That said, only 9% of British soldiers are female. Does he agree that opening up all combat roles to women will make a real difference to our armed forces? I look forward to the first ones joining the Marines.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who did so much in campaigning to keep the Royal Marines in Taunton; they play an important role in the local community. I very much look forward to the first female recruits joining the Royal Marines. I am sure they will be welcomed by the whole corps.

In towns such as St Helens and Newton-le-Willows, the armed forces have always been a driver of social mobility and civic pride, but, like many places, we have lost our armed forces careers office. Would the Secretary of State consider reopening not just ours but others in many working-class communities across the country, upon whom the armed forces rely for their recruitment?

One of the key drivers of recruitment is increasingly online, but we need always to look at how we reach out into local communities. I remember how the Green Howards often used to visit my school in Scarborough sending out the message of what an Army career could deliver. We need to look at how we can get service personnel out into the community recruiting.

Service Personnel: Statute of Limitations

We take the prosecution of veterans very seriously. Our service personnel are of course subject to the law, but veterans should not have to face repeated investigations many years after the events in question. That is why we have a dedicated defence team looking at this complex issue. A statute of limitations, which presents significant challenges, is the subject of inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence, and we await its report with interest.

I recently met Field Marshal Lord Bramall, the former head of the armed forces, who is one of my constituents. Since last year when so many of my constituents signed the petition on this issue, how has my right hon. and gallant Friend been ensuring that the political context of the troubles, which Lord Bramall’s book, “The Bramall Papers”, describes, is taken into account in today’s politically motivated witch hunts?

Having served as Chief of the General Staff and then as Chief of the Defence Staff during the height of the troubles, Lord Bramall clearly brings a unique perspective to these difficult issues. The House will understand that prosecutorial decisions in Northern Ireland are taken by the Public Prosecution Service and that the PPS is independent both of the UK Government and of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Government recognise, however, that the current system for dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past is not working well for anyone, and that is why the Ministry of Defence is working closely with the Northern Ireland Office on new arrangements, including to ensure that our armed forces and police officers are not unfairly treated.

Members of the Defence Committee were very pleased by the way Ministers set up the dedicated unit to look into this question and by the work the Attorney General has been doing. Have the proposals that are apparently to be brought forward in the Queen’s Speech yet been finalised and accepted at Cabinet level?

My right hon. Friend highlights—because he understands them—the complexities of this issue, not the least of which is that it transcends not just Northern Ireland but different judicial systems in the United Kingdom. We are making progress, and we have applied to bring the subject forward in the Queen’s Speech, but we have yet to conclude this work.

Armed Forces Covenant

7. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. (909993)

16. What steps he is taking to encourage more commercial organisations to participate in the armed forces covenant. (910002)

17. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the effective delivery of the armed forces covenant. (910003)

The armed forces covenant not only obliges Government Departments to recognise their duty to support armed forces personnel and veterans and their families, but encourages organisations and businesses across the country to do the same. I am pleased to say that there are now more than 3,300 signings, and we are signing about 25 companies or organisations each week.

A recent Defence Committee report stated that

“some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”

We have heard about engagement with charities and mental health support, but a local charity that is doing great work in Midlothian, the Lothians Veterans Centre, has confirmed the sentiment expressed by the Committee, and told me that charities helping veterans are under a huge burden and huge pressures. What are the Government doing to encourage service personnel to report mental health problems without fear of reprisal, and to ensure that there is a greater focus on the provision of mental health care?

The hon. Lady has packed a lot into one question, and it is very important indeed. The critical aspect is removing stigma and enabling people to step forward and say “I’m not okay” without feeling that there will be reprisals, and, thanks to the mental health and wellbeing strategy of 2017, we are doing exactly that. It is taking a while to change the culture, but more people are now willing to step forward and say “Let me get checked out, let me get sorted, let me get back into the line” without fearing that doing so might damage their promotion prospects.

Why should commercial organisations take this matter seriously when the Ministry of Defence has not yet managed to change its demand for British meat so that our armed forces can be fed the finest meat in the world?

I understand that this issue dates back to a former armed forces Minister’s time many years ago. When we were back in office a couple of decades ago, we discussed it ourselves. I will certainly look into it, but I encourage all those organisations—despite their issues with meat—to sign the armed forces covenant and support our brave veterans and armed forces personnel.

The acute care for armed forces personnel who have had acquired brain injuries in the course of their duties is second to none—no one would doubt that—but the anxiety is that when they leave the forces, or sometimes even before they enter the forces, an acquired brain injury will go unnoticed and therefore untreated and uncared for, which is why so many veterans end up homeless and living on the street. What are we going to do about that?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the personal interest that he takes in this issue. He is absolutely right: people need signposts so that they know where to go. We are working far more closely with NHS England and the devolved Administrations to understand where the complex treatment services are, and to ensure that when people make the transition, they are handed across to the civilian agency that will look after them.

It is wonderful for me, as the founder of the all-party parliamentary group on the armed forces covenant, to see an Order Paper that is full of those three words, which did not exist a few years ago. This is a conversation that is critical to the House. Will the Minister meet me to move forward the discussion about the creation of an armed forces covenant ombudsman, so that when the issues raised by colleagues get stuck and we cannot find a solution, we have a real authority to fix things?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on this issue as chair of the APPG. I should be more than delighted to meet her. It is important that we carry out the necessary scrutiny and are seen to be doing so, and that we do what is best for our veterans.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Danielle Rowley), but does he not agree that when 0.01% of the NHS budget is spent on veterans’ mental health care, we have a great deal further to go? Will he at least endorse fully the recommendations of the Defence Committee on the issue?

I was delighted to address the Committee on this matter only the other day, and to discuss it. It is absolutely true that we need to follow the money. We know that £21 billion has been given to the NHS to cover the next 10 years, of which a proportion will go to mental health. The Prime Minister herself wants to see parity between mental and physical health and wellbeing, so let us make sure that we can identify where those funds are. I hope that I, or the Defence Secretary, will have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care as soon as possible to see what more can be done.


8. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Capita’s Army recruitment contract with his Department. (909994)

The Army continues to work closely with Capita with multiple interventions now in place and the delivery of improvements. Regular soldier applications remain at a five-year high with this year’s “Your Army needs you” advertising campaign seeing over 15,000 applications in January alone. It will take longer to see increases to trained strengths due to the length of the recruitment and training pipeline.

The Secretary of State has said he might re-examine the Capita contract in the next financial year, meaning we will have to wait another 12 months before any action is taken. All the while Capita is failing abysmally, with Army numbers falling year after year. Instead of endlessly kicking the can down the road, why do the Government not deal with the problem now: strip Capita of the contract and bring the service back in-house?

I answered that question earlier and, with respect to the hon. Lady, she clearly did not listen to the answer I just gave her. Applications are up; there is the start of a process. One of the confusions the House has is that we talk about trained strength, which is the number—93% manned in respect of the Army—but that is after a very long process of going through not only basic training but, for example, for Royal Engineers also combat engineer training and then trade training. So this can take up to 18 months from the first time somebody puts a uniform on and considers themselves to be part of the Army. Those in training do not go home and say “I’m not in the Army because I am not fully trade trained yet.” There are some 5,000 soldiers now in that process who are wearing a uniform but are not included in the numbers; in time they will join the Army and we are seeing that uplift. It is the time lag that this House is not fully understanding, but I understand why.

In terms of the effectiveness of recruitment, my right hon. Friend will know that we recruit many armed forces servicemen and women from the Commonwealth, but is he aware of the Royal British Legion campaign to eliminate the current high costs of their applications for indefinite leave to remain, to which they are eligible after four years’ service? This can cost almost £10,000 for a family of four; does my right hon. Friend agree it is time that this issue was tackled in order that we recruit more from the Commonwealth?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is engaging with the Home Office in an attempt to solve it.

Korean Peninsula

The security situation on the Korean peninsula has improved since North Korea adopted a self-imposed moratorium on missile launches. North Korea almost certainly wishes to avoid conflict; however the balance of hard military power on the peninsula has not altered substantively recently. North Korea needs to engage in meaningful negotiations with the United States and take concrete steps towards complete denuclearisation.

The failure of recent talks aimed at securing denuclearisation in North Korea was disappointing, although I welcome South Korea’s attempt to revive them. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that UK Government support for any agreement reached in future would be dependent on a commitment by North Korea to complete denuclearisation?

We have been absolutely consistent that there must be complete denuclearisation, and while it is disappointing as to where talks have gone we must remain hopeful that pressure can be applied for North Korea to come back to the table in order to be able to reinvigorate these discussions going forward.

Will the Government make it clear that North Korea cannot play games, as it has done for more than 20 years, just wanting to get sanctions lifted or get economic support from outside and then reverting to its old policies, and that there will be consequences internationally if it does that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I remember visiting South Korea with him back in, I think, 2010 or 2011 where we looked at this. It is vital that Britain stands shoulder to shoulder with our UN friends in terms of the imposition and enforcement of sanctions, which the Royal Navy has been leading on with our other UN partners.

We continue to monitor what is happening in North Korea. It is vitally important that we work with other allies, including the People’s Republic of China, to put pressure on North Korea in order to reduce the amount of nuclear testing it has in the past been conducting.

Air Defence Radar Systems and Offshore Wind Sites

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that air defence radar systems do not constrain the development of offshore wind sites. (909996)

The Ministry of Defence’s first priority is always to guarantee that the UK is able to meet its national security obligations, which include ensuring that our air defence radar systems can operate effectively. The Ministry is supportive of the offshore wind sector deal, and we remain keen to work closely across Government and with the industry to support this.

Over half the new offshore wind sites that the Government have announced they will build will affect aviation radar systems. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), responded to a written question of mine on 20 February, saying that the solution is

“challenging and requires upgraded or new technologies, which are not currently part of the equipment programme.”

Does that not simply mean that the Government’s ability to deliver on that sector deal is going to be hampered?

The hon. Lady raises an important point because the scale and size of the proposed wind farms are significant. I have been speaking to officials about how we might use the innovation fund, for example, to work closely with the industry to find a solution to this problem.

Defence Industry: Exports and Jobs

14. What steps his Department is taking to (a) support an increase in UK defence exports and (b) protect defence industry jobs. (910000)

In 2017, the UK won defence orders worth £9 billion, making us the second largest global defence exporter. We work actively with the Department for International Trade to support industry, and recent successes include the export of the Type 26 to Canada and Australia, and the US Department of Defence awarding a further £500 million-worth of support work for the F-35 programme in north Wales.

Supacat, the leading specialist in the design and development of high-mobility defence vehicles, is located in my constituency. If it wins a contract in Denmark, it has to offset 60% of that work in Denmark with supplying those vehicles to the Danish Government, yet that is not something that we do here. Will the Minister meet Supacat to discuss what more could be done to ensure that we secure high-skilled defence jobs in this country when defence contracts are lost to foreign companies?

Of course I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and the company in his constituency. The UK and many of our closest international defence partners do not use offset because it can distort the market and lead to reduced value for money, but we look at alternative ways to encourage more inward investment. That is why we are working closely with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and we are aiming for 60% of the Boxer programme to be undertaken in the UK.

24. It was a pleasure to see the Minister in Glasgow on Friday for the naming of HMS Tamar, which, when it was ordered, was classified as a complex warship. Now, under the national shipbuilding strategy, it is no longer considered to be a complex warship. Leaving that bizarre situation aside, given the precarious situation faced by numerous British shipbuilders such as Harland and Wolff, which is facing administration, the further job losses at Rosyth and the closure of the Appledore shipyard, what are the Government doing to ensure that the consideration of the bid for the fleet solid support ships contract will be weighted so that the UK economic prosperity consideration is factored into the awarding of that contract, so that the UK consortium will prevail? (910010)

It was a pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in Glasgow. That was a great event and I was happy to be there. He will know that we are trying to make UK industry as competitive as possible. That is why we are putting this out to international competition; it is not described as a warship. That said, I am delighted that there is a team UK, a consortium of UK shipbuilders, bidding into that competition. There will also be lots of opportunities for the supply chain, which has benefited from other competitions that went international, such as that for the military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—ships.

Redundant Military Equipment

15. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the (a) transportation and (b) storage of redundant sensitive military equipment; and if he will make a statement. (910001)

When defence equipment becomes surplus to requirements, the Defence Equipment Sales Authority disposes of it using compliant contractors or by direct sale to other Governments. Contractors who process or dispose of sensitive defence equipment are subject to a strict ongoing security assurance programme.

The Minister will be aware of the serious allegations relating to the transportation and storage of defence technology from Leonardo by Used Equipment Surplus and Storage Ltd—UES&S—in my constituency. Ministry of Defence police visited my constituents and told them that prosecutions were likely to follow and that they would receive a copy of the investigation report. My constituents are still waiting. Every request I have made for a meeting with Ministers has been turned down for more than a year. Will the Minister meet me and will he give me a copy of the report, because there are serious concerns that there is a cover-up going on here?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there have been inspections at those premises and that nothing was seen to be of concern. However, I understand the issues that the situation is causing his constituents, so I would be more than happy to meet with him and them.

The hon. Gentleman is imploring me and has been sitting patiently in his usual statesmanlike fashion, so I want to hear from him.

Defence Manufacturing: Employment Trends

I thank the Minister for that response. He will be aware that Dowty Propellers, one of the world’s largest propeller manufacturers, had an unfortunate fire in my constituency four years ago. Owned by an American company, GE Aviation, it could have rebuilt the factory anywhere, but it has chosen to build it in my constituency, thereby securing 350 jobs. I thank the Government for their contribution through the digital propulsion scheme, which will contribute to the success of the company.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in this area and welcome the fact that GE Aviation’s investment is creating this new propeller facility. It will form part of the defence industry’s massive contribution to the south-west and provides the jobs on which many people rely.

Topical Questions

In this, the 50th year of the continuous at sea nuclear deterrent, the MOD is proud to continue to protect the security and stability not only of our nation, but of our allies. I will be attending the commemoration service at Westminster Abbey on 3 May, and I hope that many colleagues from both sides of the House will also be able to commemorate this important milestone.

In response to the Defence Secretary’s speech to RUSI on 11 February, particularly his remarks about the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth to the South China sea, George Osborne described it as a throwback to an era of “gunboat diplomacy” and Lord Dannatt described the Defence Secretary as wanting to

“use defence as a platform to develop his own career”.

Will the Defence Secretary therefore take this opportunity to explain exactly what he means by that deployment and to say whether he has managed to have discussions with the Chancellor about the finer points of international diplomacy and trade?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are the second-largest investor in south-east Asia. We have strong and deep links with many allies, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and, of course, the United States. It is therefore perfectly natural and expected to continue to operate and exercise alongside our allies.

T2. How does my right hon. Friend score his Department on its agreement with the Treasury to release land now considered surplus to the MOD’s requirements to the housing market? (910014)

My right hon. Friend is right that we need to release land that is surplus to requirements. The MOD owns 2% of Britain, and it is important to have a programme of disposal that works with local communities to free up land for important housing.

I am sure that the entire House was distraught yesterday to hear press reports of injuries sustained by UK special forces in Yemen and will join me in wishing a speedy recovery to those affected. I appreciate that the MOD does not comment on special forces operations, but the news certainly illustrates the engagement of UK forces in that part of the Arabian peninsula. Will the Secretary of State make a statement to the House to ensure that we and our constituents can know more about the UK’s ongoing role in that desperate, devastating conflict?

T5. As a proud member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been privileged to visit a number of servicemen and women around the world. Does the Secretary of State agree it is a fantastic career for women, as well as men? Can he update me on what more he is doing to encourage more women to join our armed services? (910019)

As was touched upon earlier, we are very much showing and leading by example with the promotion of many women into some of the highest roles within the Army, the Navy and, of course, the Royal Air Force. We have been looking at how we do our advertising and how we reach out to encourage more women to understand there is a very positive career in our armed forces.

Normally it takes three years to train an RAF pilot. Will the Minister explain why it is now taking up to seven years?

We accept there have been issues with this contract, but we are working very closely with industry to try to resolve it and to make sure there are the training facilities needed for the people who want to take up that career.

That is a very interesting response, but is it not the case that there is this problem because there are shortages of planes and instructors, and that things are so bad that the MOD is paying a private contractor for phantom courses that never take place? On current estimates, it will take another 20 years before the RAF has enough pilots, so how does the Minister propose to remedy this totally unacceptable situation?

As I said a moment ago, I recently met industry and spoke to, for example, the chief executive of BAE Systems. I want those industries to work together to come up with a solution, which is the challenge we are giving them.

Of course, the reality is that NATO is the cornerstone of our defence. Although in the past we have participated in EU missions such as Operation Atalanta and Operation Althea, we will only do so in future if it is in our national interest.

T3. Our defence manufacturers are based in every corner of this country, many of them making a vital contribution to local and regional economies, but small and medium-sized enterprises have told me they feel disadvantaged because they cannot get down to London for many of the procurement briefings that take place. Will the Minister crack open the gates of Whitehall and get civil servants out around the country to see the brilliant work of manufacturers across our country? (910015)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and that is exactly what we are doing. I was very pleased to host an SME forum in Belfast, and the next one will be in Wales. We have officials all over the country engaging with SMEs, because we recognise the massive contribution they can make to the defence needs of this country.

T7. In England, one in six people report or experience a common mental health problem in any given week. In both the Ministry of Defence and in service veteran communities there is an additional stigma that prevents individuals from seeking help. What steps is the Department taking to reduce the stigma and to support military charities such as the RAF Association that are actively supporting these individuals? (910021)

My hon. Friend touches on such an important issue. If we are to retain people in the armed forces, we need to provide the necessary support on mental health issues. The Prime Minister herself has said that she wants to see parity between mental and physical health, which is exactly what the 2017 mental health strategy seeks to secure.

T4. In reply to a recent written question, I was told that the United Kingdom Government can deploy armed military forces on UK soil only at the request of, for example, the appropriate police force. Have responses to such requests been considered as part of the post-Brexit contingency plans? (910017)

We have long-established rules on military assistance to civilian authorities, and local authorities, police authorities and all Government Departments understand that. We always respond in any way we can to support and help.

If RAF Scampton is to close, which everyone in Lincolnshire naturally opposes, in deciding where the Red Arrows should go, will the Secretary of State bear in mind that we have three excellent airfields—Waddington, Coningsby and Cranwell—and, above all, wonderful airspace, and that we should not move the Red Arrows to an inferior county like Yorkshire?

I very much appreciate the strong campaigning that my right hon. Friend has been undertaking to keep the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire. We will certainly be listening closely to all arguments.

Order. I understand the air of excitement and anticipation of important matters, but the question from the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mary Glindon) is important and must be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As satisfaction with pay and pension benefits is at its lowest level ever recorded, does the Minister accept that seven years of below-inflation pay rises have had a severe effect on the morale of our armed forces?

We take the continuous attitude survey very seriously. We are concerned that there has been a fall in morale. I am pleased to see that the Chancellor is in his place, as I hope he will recognise that when the spending review comes around for allocation.

In our spend on defence, it is important that our armed forces get the best, and in respect of naval propulsion systems that means the low-vibration motors produced by GE Energy in Rugby. Does the Minister agree that it is important to maintain that capability in the UK?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue a number of times. I, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), who has responsibility for defence procurement, have also met him on this. We are working closely with GE to do everything we can to support the business going forward and this includes the enormous work that has been put into securing export orders as well.

No one in Broxtowe wants the British Army to leave the Chetwynd barracks, especially as we are so proud of our association with the Sappers—the Royal Engineers—but we understand that the land must be sold off. What we are concerned about is the delay in the sale. I would be grateful if the Minister would be agreeable to a meeting so that we can see how we can best dispose of the land for housing.

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend in order to discuss this. I know she has been passionate about this issue and we will see whether we can resolve the matter.