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.
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?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we neither confirm nor deny the use of our special forces.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A very senior parliamentary celebrity, Sir Edward Leigh.
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.
As satisfaction with—[Interruption.]
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.
Order. We must now move on to the statement from the Prime Minister.