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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
08 July 2019
Volume 663

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans: Recognition

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1. What steps her Department has taken to recognise officially the sacrifice that veterans have made for the UK. [911762]

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My Department commemorates the contribution and sacrifices of our armed forces veterans through occasions such as D-day and Armed Forces Day. We keep such events under review and ensure that veterans are properly considered and represented.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Next year, the early May bank holiday will move to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Does she agree with me that we should do much more to recognise the service and sacrifices of our veterans, and that it would be a fitting tribute permanently to rename one of our existing UK bank holidays Veterans Day?

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We should always look to do more to honour the sacrifices that individuals have made. Armed Forces Day is supposed to be the day that we do that, and I have asked my officials to undertake some work so we can ensure that Armed Forces Day is a day for them, not just about them. It is incredibly important that we ensure that our veterans, our service personnel and their families can really enjoy the day, not have to do extra shifts. On that point, I would praise Salisbury, which held Armed Forces Day this year for the nation. It arranged some amazing events for the public and also put on some spectacular events for serving personnel, families and veterans, including free concerts.

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I know the Secretary of State would agree that there is a real need for a permanent memorial for veterans who have fallen in the two world wars and in all the wars that have followed. Will she join me in praising the communities of Evanstown and Gilfach Goch in my constituency, which have spent the last 18 months refurbishing the memorial and tracing veterans from the Gilfach valley? Will she ensure, where memorials have fallen into disrepair, as some have, that the MOD has funding to help refurbish them?

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I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating that organisation and all the organisations across the country that are not just looking after historic monuments to and commemorations of our armed forces, but ensuring that the history of those individuals is properly recorded. Support for different memorials is split across Government Departments, and local government is involved, as obviously is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for certain memorials. If he writes to me about the specifics, I will ensure that the relevant Department hears his plea.

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One group of veterans who undoubtedly deserve our respect are the veterans of Northern Ireland who served for years on Operation Banner to uphold the rule of law against the IRA, yet some of them now face subsequent investigation—even up to 50 years on, even including Chelsea Pensioners—while those in the IRA are off scot-free with letters of comfort from Tony Blair. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that, as some have recently suggested, to

“treat both sides the same”

is not only patently ludicrous, but a deep insult to all those veterans without whose courage there would never have been a Good Friday agreement in the first place?

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My right hon. Friend will know my views on this matter. Although we have obligations under the Stormont House agreement and have to approach these things in different ways, our obligations to our veterans—whether they have served in an operation on UK soil or overseas—are the same.

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Throughout his brave service in our forces in Northern Ireland, Germany and Kenya, my constituent Tony Pitt was exposed to asbestos that led to a cancer diagnosis in 2017. He is now in the impossible position that he has just six months before the immunotherapy treatment that is keeping him going runs out. Will the relevant Minister meet Tony and me to discuss his case, as surely the high standards set by the armed forces covenant do not envisage our veterans crowdfunding to stay alive?

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That sounds like an appalling situation, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising it. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), will be very happy to meet Tony, and I will get my officials to talk to her after this session.

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May I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that, all these years later, someone in the Ministry of Defence checks on veterans from Northern Ireland who were grievously hurt there—such as Lance Corporal William Bell and Private Mark Young from my own company, when 17 people were killed—to make sure that they are having a good life, or as good a life as possible?

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I would be very happy to look at the cases of those two individuals. It is vital that we have a clear line of sight on what is happening with individual cases. We still need to make improvements to veterans support, and part of the problem relates to the need for continuity and to ensure proactively that people are getting the care they need.

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The best way to recognise our veterans is to ensure that they are well served today, yet SSAFA research shows that only 16% of veterans believe they are well served by the armed forces covenant. How is the Secretary of State auditing the armed forces covenant, to ensure that local authorities are applying it proactively?

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The prime organisation that holds everyone to account for delivering the covenant is the Veterans Board, which will meet again very shortly.

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The whole of Wiltshire was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State, together with the Princess Royal and a whole host of other luminaries, to Salisbury last Saturday to celebrate Armed Forces Day. Of course, it is right that we think very carefully about veterans and their needs, particularly those suffering from the physical or mental after-effects of warfare. None the less, does the Secretary of State agree that the purpose of Armed Forces Day is to think very carefully about the 200,000 fit, healthy and committed young men and women who are today serving our armed forces, to celebrate their commitment to their duties, and to wish them well as they do it?

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I agree with my hon. Friend and again praise Salisbury for its work in ensuring that service personnel and their families had an amazing few days. As we take the event forward, however, we need to ensure that, as an additional Saturday on which to work, it does not put a burden on our armed forces. We should be doing more free events, and businesses across the land should consider how they can contribute to making that day special.

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The Secretary of State will know that one way to honour our veterans population is by fully implementing the armed forces covenant in Northern Ireland. She will also know that the reason why our Departments do not adhere to the spirit of the covenant is the sectarian intransigence of Sinn Féin. Is it not wrong that the people from whom our armed forces community protected us are precluding our offering service to our armed forces in return? Will she take steps to ensure full implementation?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. We are talking about the armed forces of the United Kingdom. Wherever they are serving, wherever they are based and wherever they are from, I want them to be able to take part in events, and I also want to ensure that the public services provided to them are as they should be.

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The importance of support for veterans should unite the whole House. Given the appalling track record of outsourcing, will the Secretary of State explain why her Government have invited private contractors to bid to run the medal office and certain veterans services?

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I acknowledge the work that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has done on veterans support, including through the gateway and the veterans strategy, on which we are currently consulting. I have also been doing work in the Department, looking at our obligations and how we are constituted.

Veterans: Universal Credit

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2. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for armed forces veterans in receipt of universal credit. [911763]

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As veterans are civilians, the majority of care comes from other Government Departments and devolved Administrations. The Ministry of Defence works closely with other stakeholders to target and improve veterans’ access to services, including those who are eligible for universal credit.

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The Minister has just spoken about the relationship between the MOD and other Departments. A study by the Forces in Mind Trust charity has found that ex-service personnel have an overwhelmingly negative experience of universal credit and the fit for work test. What is he going to do about that?

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When those who have served in uniform depart for civilian street it is very important that they are aware of the benefits for which they may or may not be eligible. Our transition programme now includes making sure that we improve the understanding of what armed forces personnel veterans can receive. I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State is working with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to make very clear that universal credit is available for those who are eligible.

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Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss further how we can create the position of an armed forces covenant ombudsman, who would be an advocate for those who, like the constituent of the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), cannot get the resources they need from our public services and whose MPs are also unable to make progress?

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I am aware that my hon. Friend has done a huge amount of work on this important matter, not least by lobbying me many times. She will be aware that the armed forces covenant is growing—we now have almost 4,000 signatories—but it is important that if somebody signs the covenant it meets their expectations. If it fails or falls foul of that, we need a system to recognise that. She raises a very interesting idea. I have spoken to the Secretary of State about it and we would be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.

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Does the Minister recognise that the question raised by the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) is an addition to the litany of failures for those leaving the armed forces trying to access universal credit? Let us bring this issue to a head. Does he not now agree that it is time to support my Armed Forces Representative Body Bill to ensure that the armed forces can speak with one strong voice when they leave the armed forces as veterans?

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The hon. Gentleman raises this matter almost weekly, but he misses the point. We ensure that we look after our veterans and they know whether they are eligible for universal credit. We do that by ensuring synergy and joint working between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence, not just in this area but in health and education and right across the piece. The armed forces can push these issues forward. We need to hold Government Departments to account and we do that through the Veterans Board.

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For the benefit of people observing our proceedings who are not Members of the House I would simply add, non-pejoratively, that raising something weekly in the Chamber is a very modest effort. Raising things daily, or in some cases several times a day, is by no means unknown in, or condemned by, the House of Commons. It is perfectly normal.

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Has the Minister had the opportunity to discuss with the Department for Work and Pensions the symptoms and expectations relating to post-traumatic stress disorder, and how it impacts on veterans applying for benefits and occasionally having to visit offices to receive the benefits they deserve?

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I am grateful for that question. It has been raised many times and it is important to put it in context and in perspective. Not everybody who joins the armed forces will be affected—just two in every 1,000 people —but they need the attention and support that they absolutely deserve. The Secretary of State is meeting the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss that very matter.

Outsourced Contracts

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4. What recent assessment she has made of the quality of service provided through contracts outsourced by her Department. [911766]

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The Ministry of Defence regularly monitors the performance of all contractors, including outsourced key services. This is done via the use of contract performance indicators and action is taken when standards are not met.

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Capita has completely failed to fulfil its contract for Army recruitment. This service should now be brought back in-house. When will the Government accept that their dogmatic insistence on outsourcing everything imaginable to the private sector is failing our armed forces and the taxpayer?

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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment. The Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend right hon. Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) may have the opportunity to speak on this matter in a little bit more detail in a later question, but we are seeing a change in the trend. More people are showing an indication of interest in the armed forces. It is important we translate that into ensuring they actually sign up, but last year alone we had 77,000 applications of interest for the armed forces. I think that is a good step forward.

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The Ministry of Defence has a target of spending 25% of its budget with small and medium-sized enterprises by 2022. What progress has been made towards achieving that target?

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My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is not just the big companies—aerospace and defence companies—we must look to support, but the SMEs, which are in every one of our constituencies. I am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), the Minister with responsibility for procurement, that that is exactly what is happening.

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It was good to see members of the armed forces and the Secretary of State herself at the Pride event in London at the weekend.

Last year, a departmental assessment of the privatisation of the fire and rescue service at the Ministry of Defence gave Capita the highest possible risk rate. Two months ago, following a court challenge and an £80,000 payment to Serco, the lead competitor, Capita was finally given a contract worth millions to deliver services all over the world, despite the huge financial risk. Why was £80,000 paid to Serco to allow that to go ahead? Does that not show up the whole problem with privatisation at the Ministry of Defence?

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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment; it is important that we provide value for money. The defence budget is under pressure, as are all other Government Departments. He is absolutely right to say that Capita was going to be given the contract. It is subject to a legal challenge and we have to wait to see that mature, but let us not forget that even on Labour’s watch we had the outsourcing of fire contracts to other organisations, not least in Cyprus as well as at other bases including Aldermaston. This is not new; it is something that we have to advance.

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A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee found that less than half of personnel would recommend the housing maintenance service provided by the company, Amey. Amey’s performance is so bad that the MOD has introduced a compensation scheme for maintenance issues, but unbelievably, the Department pays even when Amey is at fault. Will the Minister outline why hard-working taxpayers are expected to foot the bill when the MOD’s contract has failed to deliver?

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The issue is to do with the key performance indicators, as I think the hon. Gentleman will agree. According to the standards that we see, 97% meet the requirements. We find that those indicators are set too low, and the Secretary of State is very conscious of that and of the need to raise them. We are reconciling the defence real estate to make sure that we improve accommodation, but I will not hide away from the fact that this has been very difficult, and we owe our armed forces personnel much, much better.

Veterans: Monitoring Schemes

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5. What steps her Department is taking to support mentoring schemes for veterans. [911767]

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Our resettlement programmes continue to develop to ensure that the transition from service to civilian life for all personnel is conducted as smoothly as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the fact that 95% of personnel who participate in our career transition programme are in work or education within six months of departure.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging reply. What case will he be making, as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, to increase support for charities that provide mentoring for veterans, including particularly those in the criminal justice system, such as Care after Combat, which does brilliant work in that area?

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My hon. Friend raises two issues. I join him in paying tribute to Care after Combat; what it does to provide support for those who find themselves imprisoned or on the wrong side of the law is absolutely brilliant, and we should all tip our hats to that. However, we must also recognise that the defence budget is under strain. It was affected by the spending review and austerity measures. In 2011 and 2016, we were obliged to find £5 billion-worth of efficiencies, which we did. We have subsequently been asked to find another £7 billion-worth of efficiencies. There is only so long that we can do this before it starts having an impact, and that is why it is important that we argue now, with the next spending review coming up, that we need more money for defence.

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If we are to get this resettlement programme right for all our veterans, do we not need to make sure that we have properly assessed the medical injuries that they sustained during their period of service? In that light, is it not a shame that while the United States of America makes sure that every single person in the perimeter of a bomb blast is assessed for brain injury, we are not yet able to do that? We may still be misdiagnosing people who are suffering from PTSD when they have actually had a brain injury.

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I know that the hon. Gentleman knows a lot about this issue. He is absolutely right to say that the advancement in the science now reflects the fact that even if someone can walk away from a blast, they can be affected long term by what has happened, and we are learning from the Americans on that. We have our transition programme, which can last up to two years to make sure that we manage the transition from the world of the armed forces to civilian life, but I absolutely agree with him that more can be done in this area.

Armed Services: Optimal Size

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6. What recent estimate she has made of the optimal size of the UK armed services. [911768]

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This Government have invested heavily in strengthening the UK’s armed forces so that we can deliver the tasks that we require of them, from maintaining the nuclear deterrent to defending against threats in airspace, and from supporting the police in counter-terrorism to providing disaster relief. We are committed to maintaining the size of the armed forces and Joint Force 2025 will offer us choice, agility and global reach.

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The Secretary of State might be aware that my father and two brothers served in the British Army, and I am very concerned at the moment should we be threatened with invasion. Our Army is down to 82,000 men and women, yet the Russians have 1 million in their army and 1.5 million in reserves. Could we really defend this country if push came to shove?

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I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s family members who have served, but yes we could defend ourselves. Just the other week, I was with HMS Albion and others from the nine Joint Expeditionary Force nations. There were 44 ships and submarines. It was the largest Royal Navy deployment in that region—just off Lithuania—for 100 years. Yes, we could defend ourselves, and the size of our trained and untrained strength is growing.

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It is positive policies that this Conservative Government have implemented, such as the armed forces income tax compensation for those serving in Scotland and the decision to secure the long-term future of my base, RM Condor in Angus, that mean we can continue to recruit in Scotland. Will the Secretary of State commit to visiting RM Condor to see at first hand the Government’s great work in Angus?

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These are the armed forces of the United Kingdom. We should celebrate them and ensure that our basing is spread across the four nations, and I would be delighted to visit at the earliest occasion.

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With Devonport-based HMS Montrose forward deployed, we now need to consider how we can rotate crews effectively, not just on the Type 23s, but on the Type 31s, which hopefully will also be Devonport based. What advances and learnings have arisen from the forward deployment of HMS Montrose that could be applied elsewhere?

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The hon. Gentleman is right. We can ensure that we are much more operationally effective and that people have a better quality of life while serving in the armed forces by enabling crews to be sent out and rotations to happen without their having to come back to base port. We continually learn from those exercises. It is another example of how the fleet is changing, and I think it suits everyone that it does.

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I call the good doctor, Dr Julian Lewis.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am pleased that the Secretary of State mentioned HMS Albion in an earlier answer. Does she recall that it is not that many months since her predecessor had to fend off moves to scrap HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark and to reduce the size of the Army by 11,000, the Royal Marines by 2,000 and the RAF by 1,250? Does she accept that there is a fight to be had with the real enemy here, and that is the Treasury?

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I should declare an interest, as HMS Bulwark was the last ship I served on. I am very glad that she and Albion are still going. We are approaching a spending review, and I think we need to do more to tell the Treasury and the nation how much defence brings to this country—to the prosperity agenda, social mobility, research and development, innovation, and many other things. We need to tell that story because we need to keep our armed forces strong.

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When the Treasury is up against the right hon. Gentleman, they ought to know when they are beaten. I say that having known him for 36 years in October.

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Not only have RAF personnel numbers fallen by more than a quarter since 2010, but the Government are consistently failing to train enough pilots. Some 350 are currently on the waiting list, and the problem is going from bad to worse, the backlog having doubled in the past year. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on this situation and ensure that things are put right?

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The pipeline for our pilots is one of the first things I asked about when I entered the Department. The numbers are improving, but it is an area where we are fragile; it is probably one of the areas where we are most fragile. That said, I would gently point out to the hon. Lady and the Opposition Front-Bench team that last I heard the leader of her party wished to reduce the headcount of our armed forces to zero.

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20. Is it not the case that recruitment is very dependent on the state of the economy? It is very difficult to recruit when there is high employment, so, in a way, do we not need a Labour Government to get recruitment up, because only a Labour Government are guaranteed to create huge unemployment and a declining economy? [911782]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his cunning plan to get recruitment numbers up, although, given the Leader of the Opposition’s stance towards our armed forces, there might not be any places to be vacant.

UK Personnel: Local Support Services

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7. What recent assessment she has made of the availability of local support services for service personnel based in the UK. [911769]

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Every local authority has signed the armed forces covenant, and the MOD works with local authorities and partner organisations to ensure that there is fair access to local support services.

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MPs provide a valuable local service, not least for our military personnel, and I am grateful to Lieutenant Colonel Fraser McLeman and his team at Leuchars for the help that they have given me in that regard. The MOD recently sought to cancel one of my surgeries before the decision was overturned at the last minute. Will the Minister explain why there is a four-week wait following requests for surgeries by military families, and will he ensure that surgeries are cancelled only in exceptional circumstances—not least when they are held in local community facilities, where surgeries such as my own have been held in the past?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone in which he has raised this matter. He had the courtesy to raise it before questions. I should be delighted to meet him afterwards to see whether we can bring about some reconciliation, and make this work.

Armed Forces Personnel

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8. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of Army personnel. [911770]

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13. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [911775]

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16. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [911778]

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We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, including the Army. A range of measures are under way to improve recruitment and retention, and those measures are 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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The Minister, along with every other Conservative Member of Parliament who was elected or re-elected in 2015, was elected on a manifesto promise that there would be a standing Army of 82,000. That has never been achieved since 2015, and, indeed, on 1 April the size of the fully trained Army was down to 75,000. The Minister may claim that the Government are meeting their commitments, but one commitment that they are not meeting is the commitment to an Army of the size that they promised in their manifesto. Is that still their policy, and, if not, can the Minister tell us at what point the policy was dropped?

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Let us just see whether we can debunk this myth that Army numbers are somehow in freefall. On 1 May, the total size of the British Army, including the Brigade of Gurkhas, both trained and untrained, was 85,430. As of 1 June, one month later, according to the most recent figures that we have, the total size of the British Army, including the Brigade of Gurkhas, both trained and untrained, was 85,730. That is an increase of 300.

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In 2010, there were 30,000 more fully trained armed forces personnel than there are today. Does that concern the Minister and does it concern the Government, and if it does not, why not?

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As we enter the 21st century, we must accept that the armed forces are about more than simply mass. That is precisely why we are investing in technology, and it is why the battlefield of the 21st century will be a very different beast from that of the 20th. I am concerned about the drop below that figure that we have seen in recent years, but, as I have just demonstrated, we are turning the supertanker around. The size of the trained strength of the British Army can only be increased if it has untrained recruits. As I have demonstrated, we are now seeing an increase in the number of people joining the Army, and that is a positive development.

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By when does the Minister think that the size of the Army will reach the Government’s target of just 82,000 fully trained personnel?

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I am not going to predict exactly what that date will be. We are seeing an increase month on month, but that does not apply to all establishments: for example, Sandhurst has only three intakes per year and Harrogate has only one. I cannot give the exact date when the target will be hit, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would really expect me to, but I believe that we are now heading firmly in the right direction.

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I visited Carterton Community College last week and observed the striking success of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics programme set up there by RAF Brize Norton. Does the Minister agree that such programmes not only teach young people important life skills, but provide the inspiration that may lead them to take up careers in the Royal Air Force or other armed forces, which will help to increase service numbers?

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Indeed, there are many good reasons why young people would wish to join the armed forces, not least because our armed forces are now the largest provider of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom.

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In 2012 we had 220,000 armed forces personnel; that number is now 190,000. Are there things that we were doing that we are no longer doing, or have we maintained operational readiness with fewer people?

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That is quite a complicated question, particularly when we get into the question of readiness and the ability to hold people at the appropriate readiness for the threat that we face. As I have said, technology has changed significantly; for example, not every aircraft we have in the air is now manned by a pilot. We are investing in a number of things which mean that we require less overall manpower to deliver the effect we require in the 21st century.

Veterans: Education

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9. What steps her Department is taking to improve access to education for veterans. [911771]

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When armed forces personnel put their hand up and decide to leave the armed forces, most of them participate in a transition programme, and that includes the opportunity to complete examinations such as A-levels and GCSEs—or O-levels in our old language—as well as tertiary education. It is very important to give them the best opportunity once they depart into civilian street.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that veterans having better access to education could be of huge benefit to them and upskill them so that they are ready to get back into the workforce? Furthermore, it would help reduce the barriers many veterans face on their return to civilian life.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As the Secretary of State said, one of the advantages of having an armed force is that personnel provide such important skill sets while serving, but they can all be translated back into civilian street. It is important that we make people and society in general aware of the skill sets that are available—grip, tenacity, leadership and determination—and we must also make sure we translate military qualifications into civilian ones, to give personnel the best opportunity in life.

Mental Health Provision

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10. What steps her Department is taking to improve mental health provision for service personnel. [911772]

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We can be proud of the changes we have introduced through the armed forces mental health and wellbeing strategy—which I inherited when I came into this job from my predecessor as armed forces Minister. Of all the things we have been involved in, we can be particularly proud of changing the stigma associated with mental health issues in the armed forces, getting more people to talk about it and moving it towards parity with physical injury. There is still much work to do, but we are heading in the right direction.

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I thank the Minister for that response and congratulate the Government on what they are doing. Will the Minister set out what steps his Department is taking in order to achieve that parity of esteem, which is so important to serving personnel?

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The challenge we faced was that people were reluctant to come forward. They thought that if they put their hand up and said there was something wrong with their mind, that would somehow impact on their ability to be promoted or hold them back in some way. They would keep their problems to themselves, which would then incubate and eventually they would have to quit the very thing they loved: the armed forces itself. We have changed that with our focus on promoting better resilience, prevention to stop these things happening, and earlier detection and treatment. From putting that all together we are seeing far better results with people staying in the armed forces and not being hindered or affected by mental health issues.

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According to the Centre for Mental Health, there is not a greater likelihood of veterans experiencing mental ill health than the rest of the population, but there is a significant increase in the likelihood of their having problems with alcohol, so can the Minister tell us what he is doing specifically on the issue of alcohol misuse among veterans, which is something I see in my community?

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I am really pleased that the hon. Lady has put this in context because a myth is perpetuated that those who join the armed forces will be affected by mental challenges, but she is right that there are other challenges that we face, not least with alcoholism. We work closely with a number of charities, and we are also doing work as part of the transition services so that people are aware of where they can get treatment early on.

Fleet Solid Support Ships

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11. When her Department plans to make an announcement on the award of the contract for the fleet solid support ships. [911773]

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19. When her Department plans to make an announcement on the award of the contract for the fleet solid support ships. [911781]

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Subject to normal approvals, we anticipate that a design and build contract will be awarded in 2020.

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This has been a shambolic process in which overseas bidders have dropped out and the Government have begged them to rejoin the bidding process. Have Ministers not read the report by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) on the importance of defence spending to the UK economy? Is it not about time that the Government stopped this whole process and started offering the bids to UK-based shipyards, so that we can get the benefits of this major Government contract?

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I remind the hon. Gentleman that we do have a team UK bid in there, and I am pleased to see that. As I have said on many occasions, we are trying to ensure that we get the very best price for all the capability we need. If we were to cancel this competition now, we would put at risk the services that we need for the carrier. That being said, we have been listening to all the debates and the many questions on this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union stating that the option to support onshore defence funding for shipbuilding should be a red line in our future relationship with the EU. Of course, that will apply only to future programmes.

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Other countries such as France and Italy classify these vessels as warships, meaning that they have to be built in domestic yards. Why will the Minister not just guarantee that a UK contractor will be the successful bidder and give a much-needed boost to UK industry?

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As I have said, the EU has raised questions about the classification of some of those countries and the decisions that they have made. Also, some of those vessels are manned by those countries’ navies, whereas ours will be manned by the auxiliaries.

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All of us on the Opposition Benches were heartened to hear the Defence Secretary say recently of the Ministry of Defence that

“we can and we must buy British”.

That would represent a welcome shift from her predecessor’s tendency to simply buy off the shelf from abroad, but the British shipbuilding industry needs action, not just warm words. So will the Minister now reconsider the Government’s short-sighted decision to put these ships out to international tender, and build them here instead?

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As I have just announced, my right hon. Friend has made that policy decision. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that we have significant orders in UK shipyards. There is 20 years of work on the Clyde, for example. I cannot think of any other industry in the UK that can say that it has 20 years of work on its order books.

VE and VJ Days: Anniversary

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12. What plans she has to mark the anniversary of VE Day. [911774]

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17. What plans she has to mark the anniversary of VJ Day. [911779]

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The nation will be forever grateful to the greatest generation, who lived and fought through the second world war. The Government will provide opportunities to mark the 75th anniversaries of both VE and VJ Days next year. The move of the May bank holiday to Friday 8 May has already been announced, and planning is under way for the commemorative events. Details will follow very soon.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. My father is a veteran of the second world war; he served in India and Burma. Like many other veterans, he will be unable to get to any of the national VE Day celebrations due to his fragility. What more can be done to ensure that all our brave veterans feel part of these important commemorations?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s father for his service. Those who have served in our armed forces must be able to take part in those commemorative events. Indeed, they make those events; it is their stories and their presence that make them what they are. My Department will be writing to local government, and particularly to the armed forces covenant champions, to remind them that events must be accessible and that we must think about how to include in those events veterans who are too frail to travel.

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I am absolutely delighted with my right hon. Friend’s announcement, but will she please reassure me that equal expenditure and prominence will be given to VJ Day? These heroes have been forgotten for too long, as the late Lord Louis Mountbatten said, and they suffered terrible atrocities in the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The events are tailored in regard to their tone and scale and the number of people attending them, and we might not be able to guarantee that the cost will be split exactly between the two events. That might differ, but the prominence of the events will not differ. That will be the same.

Defence Procurement: Jobs

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15. What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs that defence procurement supports in the UK. [911777]

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MOD official statistics show that our spending with UK industry in 2017-18 directly supported 115,000 jobs across the country.

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I thank the Minister for his work to ensure that the propulsion systems for the Navy’s Type 26 frigates will continue to be built in Rugby and for the security and future opportunities that that will give much of the workforce. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that we train up the next generation of skilled engineers to continue that vital work?

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I recognise the important role that my hon. Friend played in ensuring that the GE facilities were maintained in Rugby. I agree that it is absolutely vital to ensure that the defence sector has the right skills to meet all our needs. Many of our suppliers have well established programmes and schemes to ensure that that happens, and we continue to work through the Defence Suppliers Forum and the Defence Growth Partnership to ensure that those skills and training are maintained.

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rose

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rose—

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Ah! Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Or, as one might say, R2-D2 and C-3PO.

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The Secretary of State highlighted in an earlier answer the importance of the prosperity agenda for defence contracts. I know that the Minister has read the recent report on shipbuilding and ship procurement in the UK by the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding. Will he tell the House what weighting will be given to prosperity in awarding the fleet solid support contracts?

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I was looking at the two right hon. Gentlemen and wondering whether it was more like Waldorf and Statler, but I will not be so rude—although I have just have been. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: when we look at the contracts, not just for the shipbuilding but for the content within, there are huge opportunities for the UK supply chain, where much more of the value exists. I recognised that in his all-party group’s recent report, and his and other right hon. and hon. Members’ work will inform much of the decision making on our future policy.

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Come, come, young Spellar—your turn now.

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I hope that the Minister will also acknowledge the great role of the Defence Committee, under the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) as Chairman, and the trade unions in maintaining the facility at GE Rugby and seeing off GE’s attempts to close it. May I bring the Minister back to the solid support ship contract and ask him to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? What weighting is given to prosperity? Will he please stop blaming the European Union, when every other country in the European Union looks after its own industry and supports its own yards and its own steel industry? Why will he not show some gumption and do the same?

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I thought I had shown some gumption. As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that the policy will be changing—

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Why don’t you change it now?

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I have just explained that the timelines are critical in the current competition, because the existing fleet that will offer support to the carrier will be coming to the end of its life. We have to have that capability. Surely he thinks that is more important than just trying to score a political point.

Royal Fleet Auxiliary

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18. What steps she is taking to improve (a) pay and (b) industrial relations in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. [911780]

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Members of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary are MOD civil servants. Their terms and conditions, including their pay, are subject to civilian rules for the wider public sector. As such, pay is subject to HM Treasury civil servant pay guidance. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary continues to engage with the maritime trade unions and has further meetings planned to discuss pay.

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I point out to the Minister that in 2018 the Royal Fleet Auxiliary carried out about 64% of the tasks credited to the Royal Navy. Nevertheless, the pay cap, which has been lifted for Royal Navy personnel, is being maintained for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. We in this House value the contribution and dedication of the seafarers who keep our Royal Navy at sea. What steps has the Minister taken to resolve the current dispute?

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I think it is fair to say that the whole House values the role of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Indeed, last summer I spent the most fascinating week on board RFA Mounts Bay in the Caribbean to see the work being done in preparation for the hurricane season. I have explained the conditions under which the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s pay is reviewed, as civil servants, but I reassure the House that of course we would like to see a constructive end to this dispute, and I am confident that that will be the case.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [911787]

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I welcome The Sun’s campaign. We will shortly bring forward the first stage to legislate on closing down litigation against our armed forces for historical allegations. Although we hold our armed forces to the highest standards, we have seen that so much litigation against them has not been in the pursuit of justice. Although I note and pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), on the veterans strategy and the veterans gateway, the MOD is not constitutionally responsible for veterans. The MOD, as a consequence, has not directly commissioned services and support for veterans, which has meant that some services we provide for serving members of the armed forces that could benefit veterans have not been available to them. I believe that needs to change, so we are consulting partners on changing the MOD’s constitutional role with regard to veterans.

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The all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, which I chair, has been overseeing an inquiry into aspects of the UK’s soft power capabilities. How does defence diplomacy fit into the Government’s overall soft power strategy?

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Defence engagement, in all its forms, is vital to promoting the UK’s influence, values and intentions around the world, whether it is promoting stability and prosperity, tackling environmental challenges or responding to natural disasters and humanitarian need. Our strongest relationships with some nations are military to military, and we need to make sure that the contribution of defence to the objectives of One HMG is really understood.

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At a time when Army numbers are consistently falling, it is all the more important that we draw on the widest possible pool of recruits. Why, then, has there been a 45% increase in the number of officer cadets admitted to Sandhurst from independent schools, compared with just a 7% increase from state schools? I know the Secretary of State is personally committed to creating a level playing field, so could she set out what she will do to seek out the brightest and best from all backgrounds?

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If the hon. Lady had listened to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces earlier, she would know that our trained and untrained strength is actually not decreasing. The number of recruits coming in is actually going up, but social mobility is important. Of course the MOD can always do more, but our armed forces are one of the greatest agents for social mobility in this country. They are one of the largest education providers in this country, and we ought to continue encouraging them to do more.

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I am a little disappointed by that answer because when it comes to officers, there is a lot more that can be done. It is not just those from state schools who face barriers: just 10 of this year’s 600-strong cadet intake to Sandhurst are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—just 10. According to the MOD’s own statistics, the regulars and the reserves are also missing the Government’s 2020 target for BAME representation.

Will the Secretary of State now commit to a root-and-branch review of recruitment barriers to ensure that we have properly staffed and fully representative armed forces?

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We already have a very clear idea of the barriers that exist and of the barriers that existed in the past, which is why our community engagement programmes are so important and why, since coming to the Department, I have protected those budgets.

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T3. Will my right hon Friend join me in thanking the North Staffordshire armed forces committee, the Queen’s Park Partnership and everybody who took part in the recent Armed Forces Day celebrations at Queen’s Park in my constituency? [911789]

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I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone who took part in Armed Forces Day at Queen’s Park. I understand that regular personnel, veterans, reservists and cadets were all represented in that celebration, and I applaud the county, too, for its work on several events held across Staffordshire.

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T2. One area where the MOD has been performing well is on diversity in LGBT circles. I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in welcoming the contribution of so many armed forces personnel, and indeed MOD civil servants, at the Pride march in London on Saturday, where I was alongside them. Many of them were proudly wearing campaign medals. However, I have to share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), because when I looked at recruitment figures for my constituency I saw that there was very little recruitment from black and minority ethnic, and ethnically and religiously diverse, areas. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done on that if we are to have truly representative armed forces? [911788]

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I agree that more needs to be done, and indeed Members of this House can help us do this as well. Community engagement is vital—[Interruption.] Indeed, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is doing his bit to ensure that that happens. We have to ensure that our armed forces look like the individuals they are there to defend and protect. They are there for all of us; they are our armed forces, and that must be the view and sentiment in every community in the UK.

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T4. Given the increasing threat that drones pose to our national security, as recently highlighted by the insightful BBC documentary “Britain’s Next Air Disaster”, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of our armed forces’ ability to respond to a potential drone strike, and what investment is her Department making in new technology to rapidly neutralise such threats?> [911791]

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My hon. Friend raises an important point, and the MOD takes the threat of the nefarious use of drones very seriously. Using the defence transformation fund, we are working with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, international partners and industry to further develop our counter-drone capabilities, and of course they will be used to protect defence infrastructure wherever they are needed. More broadly, a lot of the responsibility for protecting other sites in the UK lies with the police, but we will always be there to help if needed.

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The last time the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box, we discussed an internal MOD policy on torture that contravenes domestic and international law. She promised a review. Has the review happened? Has the policy been dumped?

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That review has concluded. I have looked at it and the policy will be changing.

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T5. Inspirational charities such as Combat Stress and Greater Manchester-based Veterans Garage tackle issues such as depression and social isolation in our former servicemen and women. What assessment has the Minister made of the barriers veterans could face on their return to civilian life? [911792]

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There is something unique about our armed forces: the sense of belonging, duty and pride one has in working in such a collegiate operation. Leaving that armed forces environment and going into the civilian world can be a culture shock, which is why we have our transition programme, which can last up to two years, in order to support people. Occasionally, however, extra help is needed, and I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the work it does in providing that support if it is required.

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T7. For all the warm words from the Armed Forces Minister about Army recruitment moving in the right direction, is the truth not that for every single year we have had a Conservative Government the size of the fully trained Army has been smaller than the year before? Is it not time that he confronted the reality we are facing and stopped trying to kid people that this is moving in the right direction? [911794]

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I think the figures I have quoted speak for themselves; we are now increasing the size of the British Army.

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T6. Too many military personnel continue to live in substandard housing, despite the Government spending £135 million on refurbishment, so what more can they do to make sure our armed forces get the standard of accommodation they deserve? [911793]

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have a rebuild programme, whereby £4 billion is being put in to make sure we provide that state-of-the-art accommodation for our future defence capability. However, I agree with him that we need to do more to make sure we provide the type of housing that the recruits we want to bring in to the force deserve.

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T8. With the latest NHS statistics identifying that about 60 veterans a day are seeking professional assistance for mental health issues, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that our service personnel receive the tailored, bespoke mental health services they need and deserve? [911795]

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I should just clarify the difference between those who are serving and those who are veterans. In the case of veterans, each health authority now provides the transition, intervention and liaison service, to give veterans the mental health support that they deserve. In the case of those who are serving, as I touched on before, our mental health and wellbeing strategy is doing far more, which is why more people are putting their hand up to say, “I need help.” That is a good thing.

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T9. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the future role of our F-35 jets, given the successful completion of their first operation? [911796]

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Having achieved initial operating capability from land in December 2018, and with the successful completion of its first operation, the Lightning programme is now focused on delivering initial operational capability for carrier strike, which is planned for December 2020.

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Within four weeks of the Salisbury incident last year, Russia Today and Sputnik published 138 separate and contradictory narratives and 735 articles about the chemical weapons poisoning of the Skripals by Russian agents. There were dozens of different narratives on the rise of Novichok, its use, how it was not Russia’s fault and how Russia was the victim of a witch hunt. It is one of the examples that Russia is deploying in hybrid warfare. What plans does the Secretary of State have to announce the role of the cross-Government use of the Fusion doctrine? How able are the Government to expand the use of the 77 Brigade, if needed?

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I declare my interest as deputy commander of the 77 Brigade, which means this is a subject close to my heart. Hybrid threats present themselves in many domains, so we utilise a whole-of-Government approach to protecting the UK against such activity. The MOD works collaboratively with other Government Departments, in line with the Fusion doctrine, to support that approach.

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Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the RAF livery on the first of the UK’s new Poseidon P-8 aircraft. Will the Secretary of State come up to RAF Lossiemouth to see how the base is preparing for the new aircraft and for hundreds of additional personnel? She will also be able to see the work done by Boeing and local firm Robertson to construct the Poseidon facility.

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I would be happy to visit Lossiemouth. This is a critical capability that is returning to us. The manufacture of the second aircraft is on delivery for January 2020.

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Will the Secretary of State commit to spend more to protect UK intellectual property, which is the underpinning of our high-tech defence industry?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had that extra £1.8 billion in the most recent Budget because this is the exactly the sort of area we will look at. I assure him that I have regular meetings with industry and with the forces to talk about those very issues.

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I am sure my right hon Friend the Secretary of State would agree that the reserve forces are a crucial component of our armed forces generally, so will she update the House on how retention and recruitment is going? Specifically, are we managing to get former regulars to rejoin as reserves and bring their expertise with them?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. We continue to utilise reserves and now have a target to ensure that they are used on operations, which helps with retention. I am pleased to say that the size of our reserve forces continues to grow.

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Defence Equipment and Support procures for the Ministry of Defence, but constituents who work there tell me that morale has plummeted since it became a bespoke trading entity, and it is now the joint worst-performing department in the civil service top people survey index. Will Ministers look into this?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. The staff survey results were frankly disappointing, but I assure her that a tremendous amount of work has been done with the workforce to improve the situation. We look forward to seeing improved results in the next survey.

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I think I should call a shy and understated Member who requires encouragement: Mr Mark Francois.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The A400M is an emerging procurement disaster. We have paid £2.6 billion for an aircraft with appalling reliability, bad engines, a virtually broken gearbox, problem propellers, massive vibration problems and an inability to deliver paratroops. There was recently a NATO ministerial meeting of the partner nations to decide what to do about the disaster. What was the outcome of that meeting?

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My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the issues with the A400M. I can assure him that I attended that ministerial meeting: it was an extremely robust meeting with industry. The performance has been totally unacceptable. We are now expecting EuroProp International, the engine manufacturer, to be more empowered to negotiate the support solutions that we need. Airbus Defence and Space has also been held to account, but, following the problems with the engines and gear boxes, those parts will be replaced on each of the aircraft by the middle of next year.

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Coming back to the fleet support ships, will the Minister tell us whether the savings from tax and national insurance of workers building these ships will be one of the criteria used for a successful UK bid?

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As I have said on many occasions when answering these questions, we follow the Green Book rules with the Treasury, but we will continue to have those conversations with the Treasury about the wider prosperity agenda that our defence industry brings to the UK.

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Rates of pay have an important role to play in retention and recruitment, particularly perhaps among the younger, newly recruited members. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to introducing the concept of the living wage to our armed forces?

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I think that that is what we should be doing. Our armed forces have been exempt from that, so I have said that we must do it. It would mean a pay increase of a couple of thousand pounds for the lowest paid soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, but I think that that is what we should be doing. That is certainly my policy.

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The Canadians and Australians are applying to build more Type 26 frigates than the United Kingdom now is. Part of the reason is that they have invested in world-class purpose-built new shipyards whereas the UK has not. Will the Secretary of State review our 2015 decision to cancel the purpose-built shipyard for Type 26 and ensure that we get the investment needed to make our industry world class?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that that was a decision made by BAE Systems, and it is ultimately responsible for it. The fact is, as I said earlier, that we have 20 years of work at those shipyards. I cannot remember them having such significant orders under the previous Government.

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There does not seem to be any lack of applicants to join the armed forces, so can the Minister tell us what progress is being made to shorten the time between application and the start of basic training?

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I thank my hon. Friend for the question. May I also thank him for inviting me to Armed Forces Day in Stirling last weekend? He was a wonderful host.

There has been a project to try to reduce what we call the time of flight. I am delighted to say that that has had good results, with the time of flight now being halved, and we are looking to roll that out across the whole of the recruiting programme.

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If the future accommodation model is pushed through by the Government, which looks very likely, will the Minister guarantee that no member of the armed forces will be pushed into the private rented sector against their wishes?

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No, the purpose of the future accommodation model is to provide opportunity and a series of options, whether people live inside the wire, rent or get on the housing ladder. That will enable us to attract more people to join the armed forces.

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rose

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rose

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rose—

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Ah, the three musketeers.

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The number of service personnel in the highlands has fallen by 22% since 2012 and 10% over the past year alone. Is that a sign that the Government are starting the early rundown of Fort George?

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The announcement on Fort George under the better defence estate strategy remains as it is, but the hon. Gentleman will know of our commitment to our armed forces personnel in Scotland. I am sure that he is delighted that he will shortly have the whole of the submarine fleet based in Scotland.

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In a ministerial response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the Minister stated a whole raft of subjects on which armed forces personnel need support and advice. Did he not make the case for a representative body for the armed forces?

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I do not need to do that, because we have had this question so many times that I have given the answer so many times.

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Let me change the tone. A service is taking place in Tallinn today to commemorate the 107 members of the Royal Navy and the five members of the Royal Air Force who fought and died for the independence of Estonia and Latvia. I am sure that the Secretary of State wishes to come to the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to those who gave their lives and to reinforce the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Baltic states in their battles today.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that. We owe those individuals a huge debt of gratitude. I was recently on board HMS Albion with the chiefs and Ministers of those nations and the other joint expeditionary force nations, discussing how we can take our partnership forward.