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Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Army Personnel

Halfway through the recruiting year, approximately 70% of the Army’s regular soldier requirement have either started training or are due to do so. In addition, direct entry officer and reserve recruitment targets are all expected to be achieved.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but he must be aware that since 2010 the number of service people has declined each year. The latest figures, which I believe are from 1 July 2019, show that the Army has 74,440 personnel against a target of 82,000; the Royal Air Force has 29,930 against a target of 31,750; and the Royal Navy and Marines have 29,090 against a target of 30,450. What will the Government do to address the shortfall?

I think we are doing a lot, actually. As I said, we need only look at this year, where all the signs are very positive. The real challenge we have faced recently has been in the other ranks in the Army. Officer entry is full, and the Army reserve is growing. The target for other ranks in the Army is 9,404. We have already achieved 70% of that target in the first six months. The second we get to 80%, Army numbers, assuming that outflow remains constant, will remain the same and will not fall. In every single other rank where we manage to recruit over 80%, that will mean an increase in Army numbers. Within the first six months, we have already achieved 70%, so we have 10% more to do within the next six months to maintain numbers, and everyone after that will represent an increase in Army numbers.

What progress has the Army made towards getting female soldiers into frontline units such as rifle platoons in an infantry battalion?

I am very proud that there are now no roles in the British Army that are not open to women, so all ground and close combat roles are open. We have seen the first women join the Royal Armoured Corps. We also have women in training to join the infantry. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact number, but I will write to him with that detail.

Is the Minister aware that in 1982, at the time of the Falklands conflict, we had 327,000 people in the armed services and now we are below 100,000? Is it not a fact that if Mr Putin came steaming towards us tomorrow we would not be able to defend this country?

No, that is certainly not the case. It is certainly true, to quote Stalin, that:

“Quantity has a quality all its own.”

However, the modern armed forces are very different from those of the 1980s. We need only look at the Queen Elizabeth, our new carrier, which, compared with Ark Royal, her predecessor, has a complement that requires just one quarter of the number of crew.

Kent is proud to host a number of Gurkhas across the country, including within the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, currently located at Invicta Park barracks just outside my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the number of personnel in the Brigade of Gurkhas, which has increased by 25% in the past four years?

I have to declare my interest: the first Army unit I joined was the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers back in 1988 in Hong Kong. I am delighted that, speaking off the top of my head, we currently have 69 and 70 Gurkha Field Squadrons serving in Invicta barracks in Maidstone. I am also pleased to be able to announce that the aspiration is to create 67 Squadron from 2021, and a second further Gurkha engineers squadron, 68 Squadron, from 2023, so the Brigade of Gurkhas continues to grow.

We all know about the Government’s disastrous record on recruitment of UK personnel, with the fully trained size of the Army, as we have already heard, having now just fallen to 74,000 personnel. But the Government are failing to recruit enough Commonwealth troops, too, and we now hear that they are cancelling plans to proactively recruit from overseas. Can the Minister explain how this decision guarantees sufficient recruitment to our armed forces, and how on earth he plans to meet the stated target of 82,000 soldiers?

I have already explained part of what we are doing. I sense that the hon. Gentleman wrote his question before listening to my answers and has not been able to adapt it, which is a shame but often the case in this House. Equally, I think he has fallen into the trap of reading a Daily Express or Sunday Express article which states what is factually not the case. We have always recruited from the Commonwealth, and over the last two years we have been increasing our recruitment from the Commonwealth.

I have listened to the Minister’s answers, and he intimated that we are replacing quantity with quality. Much of this problem goes back to the Capita contract for recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen, which was massively criticised in a Public Accounts Committee report earlier this year in terms of both quantity and quality. Today, 10% of our troops are incapable of deployment abroad for medical reasons. What can he do to fix those problems?

Let us be clear: the House is absolutely right to scrutinise this Government over recruiting into our armed forces. I welcome that, because it enables me to put pressure on our service chiefs. While there were, without doubt, challenges with that Capita contract, I have explained today how we have already reached 70% of our target within the first six months of this year. That contract is now performing in a way that it was not before. My right hon. Friend is right about medical standards, which is why there is a series of reviews at the moment of how we can prevent those injuries from happening in the first place.

Strait of Hormuz: UK Shipping

Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Ships transiting the strait of Hormuz are currently exposed to the threat of being harried by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and, in some cases, illegal seizure. While the international community is working to de-escalate tensions, up to four ships of the Royal Navy have been active in the strait since July.

No matter how capable, a Royal Navy ship cannot be in two places at once. On this anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, given that 95% of our trade is seaborne, is it not obvious that we need a much larger surface fleet, including a larger number of cheaper ships, if we are to play our full part in keeping world sea lanes open?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend’s point, which is why this Government have invested in not only the new Type 26 frigate but the Type 31, which will be designed to be more affordable and will increase the overall number of frigates and destroyers that we are able to deploy. In this example, we very quickly managed to have four ships in the region to tackle the problem. We have now gone back down to supplying two ships there, but it was not the case that we could not get ships in the right place at the right time.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers thus far. Clearly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a constant threat to shipping in the strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that it is now time that the entirety of the IRGC was proscribed, with their assets sequestered and sanctions imposed on them and their leadership?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the threat that the IRGC poses to not only the region but countries such as ours. The Quds force is currently proscribed. Further proscription considerations are a matter for the Home Office. However, what is really important is that, where the IRGC poses a threat, like-minded countries around the world challenge that threat and ensure that it is dealt with.[Official Report, 24 October 2019, Vol. 666, c. 6MC.]

Trafalgar day has been mentioned, and later today, when “Up Spirits” is piped, we will all drink a tot to the immortal memory. I hope that the Minister will place on record his recognition and understanding that the Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel currently on active service represent the very finest tradition of our services. Let us put that on the record.

I am, of course, delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman about the amazing quality that they bring to our armed forces. I am a landlubber, as a former soldier, so I can only marvel at what I have come across so far in this job.

Happy Trafalgar day, Mr Speaker. Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing the sea cadets parade in a splendid fashion for Trafalgar day. I welcome the Secretary of State and the new Ministers to their posts.

The situation in the strait of Hormuz and the wider Gulf has significantly escalated in the past few months. We have seen unlawful aggression in the international seas, British flagged ships seized by the Iranian regime, attacks on Saudi oil facilities and a recent commitment by the US to send an extra 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. We need to de-escalate tensions. With that in mind, can the Secretary of State confirm that the UK will not be sending troops to Saudi Arabia?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we have to de-escalate the situation in the Gulf, but what we will do is make sure that our allies in the Gulf are able to protect themselves by offering advice about how they can protect their airspace and protect themselves from loss of life, which is incredibly important. One of the ways to make sure this is de-escalated is to ensure, if there was another Iranian attack, for example, on an oil facility or any other facility in that part of the world, that it does not lead to loss of life because that for sure would lead to some form of escalation. We stand ready to help our allies with knowledge on how to do that, and that is the best way we think we can proceed to keep calming the tensions.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but he will also be well aware of the catastrophic impact of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal. Sadly, this is not the only commitment that the Trump Administration have very publicly undermined—withdrawing from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and putting the chances of a new strategic arms reduction treaty in doubt—so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with his US counterparts on upholding and strengthening existing international security agreements?

On the joint comprehensive plan of action, dealing with the Iranian nuclear capability, I have made it clear to the United States, as have my colleagues in Europe, that we support the maintenance of that agreement. We think that is the best way forward to make sure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, but also to deal with the concerns that the Iranians have had over the years about their security. We will continue to press that, as we continue to press in the areas of Turkey and Syria for upholding international and human rights obligations.

The good doctor and the illustrious Chair of the Select Committee on Defence—Dr Julian Lewis.

23. I hope I get an extra-long question in the light of that introduction, Mr Speaker. May I take this opportunity to congratulate, for the first time, my right hon. Friend on becoming Secretary of State for Defence? May I return to the question of the tanker seizures and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Does not the fact that it was originally conceived that 32 frigates and destroyers would be necessary to complement the carrier strike forces and the amphibious forces mean that, at 19 frigates and destroyers, the size of the escort fleet is woefully too small? (900023)

I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend. I think I am going in front of his Committee later in the week, and no doubt I shall bow to his knowledge as he will no doubt grill me.

I understand the point that my right hon. Friend has made. All our defence capabilities have to match our ambitions across the board—that is the first point—whether that is land, sea or air. It is the case that our surface fleet is of over 50—of course, 19 are frigates and destroyers—and that means we do allow flexibility in our fleet to meet certain needs, such as disaster relief, which was done by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship. However, in case the threat changes, we must always be prepared to move to match that threat, and we will always keep under review the size of our fleet, but it is also why we are continuing to invest in new ships—more capable sometimes than numbers because of the very potency they pose. The Type 26 frigate will be a world-leading capability, and that in itself will be a deterrent to many of our adversaries.

Service Personnel: Recruitment and Retention

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

The Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is proud home to the Army Foundation College, which has 1,100 junior soldiers in training. Last year, the college received an “outstanding” classification from Ofsted. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the educational excellence on offer is a key part of the recruitment package for the college, and that the qualifications the junior soldiers receive set them up not just for their careers in the Army, but for the whole of their lives?

I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion of this outstanding college, and he is absolutely correct. There are a multitude of excellent opportunities, of which the Ministry of Defence and the Army are extremely proud. These are reflected not just in the formal qualifications and apprenticeships but in the self-esteem, confidence and leadership skills the junior soldiers gain.

In Harlow, we have outstanding cadet forces and outstanding cadet leadership. They provide the training that young people need and they develop qualities of leadership. May I ask my right hon. Friend: what more can we be doing to support our cadet forces in Harlow and elsewhere to encourage young people into the services, and will he come and visit one of our great Harlow cadet forces?

How could I resist such a kind invitation? I should be delighted to visit. Indeed, I started life as a cadet, so I know the value of it. In accordance with the UN convention on the rights of the child, that is not a conduit for entry into the armed forces. However, it is a fact that while just 4% of cadet forces joined the armed forces, 20% of the armed forces were once cadets.

Our cadet organisations give young people an invaluable insight into the potential of a career in the armed forces, but they need places in which to meet. I understand that the Ministry of Defence will help to give financial support to buildings and other facilities for Army and air cadets, but not for sea cadets. Given that today is Trafalgar day, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can help to raise money for a new home for Chelmsford’s excellent sea cadets?

A training ship, Upholder, in Chelmsford is indeed an excellent base for the Chelmsford Sea Cadets. It is right that the sea cadets have a different funding formula from the other two services. They receive a mix of funding from the MOD and other sources. Each sea cadet unit is an individual charity. There has been much debate over the years as to whether or not that is the right way to move forward, but I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend.

In the past, the MOD has offered a number of bespoke packages to recruit people whose skills they need—for example, qualified doctors when the medical services have been short. Does the MOD intend to offer more bespoke packages to get people with a range of skills into the armed services?

My hon. Friend makes a really interesting point. As we move forward there are different specialist skill sets that we need—cyber is an example, as well as medical services—and have to consider whether or not we should look at different models for joining the armed forces. One area that we are looking at is greater use of the reserves for those specialist skills and, equally, whether or not we should have some form of lateral entry, as we do with medical services.

For the past two years, I have been honoured to be part of the wonderful armed forces parliamentary scheme. I graduated only last week. I have visited all three services, which are engaging people with amazing work to keep the peace and keep us safe. Overwhelmingly, they get great satisfaction and lead interesting lives, but I was shocked to hear that some universities are resistant to those terrific people visiting and advertising that unique career path to students. I should like to ask my right hon. Friend what more can be done to get our young people to engage with an armed forces career?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments about the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust. Indeed, that is a scheme from which many hon. and right hon. Members have benefited. When it comes to young people, we are the largest provider of apprenticeships in the UK, and when it comes to encouraging university students to join, we have a bursary scheme as well as an undergraduate scheme. There is also the university officer training corps, the university air squadrons and university Royal Navy units, in which undergraduates can participate.

12. My question relates to the quality of living accommodation and local facilities that make Army family life attractive. Will the Minister update the House on the new £125 million leisure complex at Faslane nuclear base, dubbed the “supermess”, which is being dismantled to remove combustible materials? (900012)

It is normally family pressures that are the No. 1 reason cited by members of the armed forces for leaving the armed forces, which is why it is absolutely right that we get this whole package correct. Faslane, as the hon. Lady knows, will soon be the home of the entire submarine force for the Royal Navy. It has been subject to large amounts of investment, and it has some of the best accommodation for the armed forces. The mess itself has faced challenges, and I will happily write to her to update her on exactly where we are on that issue.

The respected and celebrated president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mrs Madeleine Moon.

During visits with the NATO PA and, indeed, the Select Committee on Defence to Finland, Norway and Sweden, I have noted their highly selective and competitive attempts to recruit young people to national service schemes, to the armed forces, and Government defence agencies. Those are much sought-after schemes in all those countries, and are highly effective not only in recruiting young people but in retaining them in the reserves. May I ask the Minister to look at Elizabeth Braw’s excellent article on this in The RUSI Journal, and will he look at that as an example for the UK?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady—Madam President—for those words of advice, and indeed for that constructive suggestion. I am more than happy to consider any way we can encourage more people to join and, crucially—this is the other side of the coin—remain in the armed forces.

The north-east has traditionally provided a higher proportion of armed services personnel than any other region in England. Can the Minister confirm whether that is still the case following the recruitment shambles, and can he set out the improvements to pay and housing that he will make so that the sacrifices of our armed forces are in the interests of the country, not austerity?

The hon. Lady rightly highlights the important contribution that the north-east and the north-west have made to recruitment to all three services over many years. I am determined that our armed forces should reflect modern Britain, which is why we are trying to encourage more members from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities to join the armed forces and, equally, more women—currently we are achieving 7.3% for the former and 12.2% for the latter. Last year we saw a decent pay increase of some 2.9%, and we continue to invest an awful lot of money in improving accommodation standards for our armed forces.

May I first declare an interest, as my son-in-law will soon be going on active deployment with the reserves? I also wish to point out the magnificent contribution made by the Carlton reserve base in my constituency. I want to ask the Minister a simple but really important question. The reserves are a crucial part of our armed forces—I know he knows that—but there are really significant problems in recruiting and retaining reserve personnel and integrating them into our armed forces, so can he say a little more about what the Government are doing about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. It will come as no surprise to him that, having been a serving member of the reserves for 31 years, I take reserve service very seriously. I think that maintaining that offer is absolutely key, which is one of the reasons why I have imposed a target to ensure that at least 5% of our reserve community have the opportunity to go on operations, as his son-in-law is doing. It is that offer that is so key.

I congratulate the Minister on holding his post, and I welcome the new team to the Government Front Bench. His boss is, of course, a Scot, and he will tell him that Scots do not take kindly to broken promises from Tory Governments. At the Scottish independence referendum we were promised that there would be 12,500 personnel in Scotland by 2020, but at the last count the figure stands south of 10,000, so will that not be another broken promise from this Tory Government?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not seem to welcome the fact that Scotland will soon be home to all Royal Navy submarine personnel. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise that there will continue to be an Army brigade based in Scotland. I am sorry that he does not seem to recognise the important investment in Lossiemouth, as the P-8 is soon to be based there.

Outsourced Departmental Contracts

6. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of service provided under contracts outsourced by his Department. (900005)

The Ministry of Defence routinely monitors the performance of all contractors, including those who provide outsourced services. Performance against contract targets is regularly scrutinised and officials take appropriate action when standards are not met.

The latest figures show that the Army is currently more than 9% under strength, and that the full-time trade trained strength is now well below the Government’s stated target. It beggars belief that Capita still holds the contract for recruitment. Have the Government just given up trying to hold Capita to account?

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her new post, which is very well deserved. She is a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme—that is where she learned everything—so I am glad that she is now at the Dispatch Box. I very much welcome the fact that the new Type 31s are to be built in Rosyth, which should be a very good contract indeed, but what evidence can she bring forward that the contract will be delivered on time and within budget?

For the benefit of those observing our proceedings, so that they are intelligible, it ought to be explained that the hon. Gentleman is what might be described as the overlord, or the Gandalf figure, who oversees the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

You know that your comments may go to my hon. Friend’s head, don’t you, Mr Speaker? I thank him for his question. Indeed, one of the most exciting things that I have had the opportunity to do in this role so far has been to set running the new Type 31 class of general purpose frigate. It will be built in Rosyth under Babcock’s guidance. At the moment, the contract is being drawn through to the final details so that we can hopefully get cracking early in the new year.

I welcome the new Minister to her post. A report in the Financial Times today demonstrates that botched public sector outsourcing contracts wasted more than £14 billion-worth of taxpayers’ money just in the last three years, with the MOD found to be the biggest culprit, accounting for £4 billion-worth of the extra cost. At a time when our defences are badly in need of investment after nine years of Tory cuts, does the Minister accept that this Government’s ideological obsession with outsourcing is failing our armed forces and the taxpayer alike?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have had a chance to look a little at the Reform think tank’s paper, which highlights some issues. All of us would agree that contracts have not always been managed as tightly as possible. I direct her, most importantly, to the outsourcing review that was done by the Cabinet Office and was set in place by the former Prime Minister in February this year. It has been very clear and set some really good guidelines for all Government Departments on thinking more proactively about early market engagement, in particular—I think that has been a weakness historically—and being much more active in the management of contracts, so that when we have great contracts, such as with Leidos and a new contract that I have just signed with Atos, we make sure that we are responsible in the governance of those contracts so that we get the best for our money and that the contractors provide the service that we need.

19. Capita’s record of success in engaging with potential recruits has been particularly bad, as we see with the bureaucratic aspects of the recruitment process and the difficulty with the call centres. Does the Minister think that this is the appropriate way to go forward if we are serious about getting more folk into the armed forces? (900019)

I am sorry, but I did not quite catch the start of the hon. Gentleman’s question. In relation to call centres and Capita, we have to remember that those who are applying, who are 16 and upwards, live in a digital world. They live on apps and dealing with those systems is very much part of that. The call centre is one part of the whole. That service ensures that young people can really ask those questions and get to grips with their initial questions about whether joining the armed forces is for them. How that follows on from that is something that, as I think we would all agree, my colleague the Minister for the Armed Forces has spoken about at length this afternoon. We are making huge progress in making sure that we get the numbers that we need in the armed forces.

Defence Industry

We are committed to supporting the UK defence manufacturing industry. On 14 March, the Government provided an update to Parliament on our ambitious defence prosperity programme, which includes work to sustain an internationally competitive and productive UK defence sector. In 2017-18, the MOD spent £18.9 billion with UK industry and commerce, directly supporting 115,000 jobs.

I thank the Minister for his response, but last week the former head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, said that the deal for Cobham, which is being taken over by Advent, the private equity company, should be blocked. The Business Secretary said that there would be guarantees, but we know that in the case of GKN and Melrose, those guarantees were worthless. If the US President can say that the US automotive industry is a concern that should be protected for national security, what sort of protections do we have in place for our industry?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point about protecting our sovereign capability and I take that incredibly seriously, as someone who worked previously in QinetiQ, in the UK aerospace sector. The issue with Cobham is ongoing. It is currently before the relevant Department in Whitehall. We have made our internal submissions on that and I therefore cannot comment on that particular issue. It is important that we maintain and keep our sovereignty, where that is viewed as necessary for our future, but we should also not forget that the reason we are the second biggest aerospace exporter in the world is that we take an international consortium attitude towards it.

Can the Secretary of State tell us the future value of contracts to British companies such as GKN and Rolls-Royce and the future cost of those contracts?

Given the recent increase in our settlement of £2.2 billion, of which a large proportion will go on investing in the capital part of our budget, the future for UK aerospace should be bright and looks bright. The Type 31 frigate, for example, will be made in Rosyth and will be delivered by UK yards.

Although the bulk of its work in the United Kingdom is civilian, Airbus also does some military work—for instance, on the A400M transport aircraft. More importantly, leaving aside the problems with that aircraft, which are dreadful and multifarious, the current chief executive, Guillaume Faury, and his predecessor both threatened to withdraw up to 14,000 jobs from the United Kingdom if we left without a deal and in a disorderly manner. Now that we have a deal and are not planning to leave in a disorderly manner, does the Secretary of State agree that the chief executive of Airbus should withdraw that threat and should start talking about investment into the United Kingdom rather than disinvestment?

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. My only advice to chief executives of aerospace companies is to invest where the skills are and where the customers are, and that is in the United Kingdom.

Although the order for the CVRT replacement, the Ajax tank, was placed with General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin and Rheinmetall—American and European companies—the hulls are being kitted out in Merthyr Tydfil and the turrets are being built in Bedford. How important is it that, if we place orders for the best equipment available in the free world, we should have as much UK content as possible?

Where possible, we should do all we can to ensure a huge proportion of UK content in all the contracts we deliver so that our forces get the kit they need.

I welcome the new Ministers to their posts. A little more than three months ago, a prominent Conservative Member of this House said:

“We must continue to hammer home the importance of sovereign capability”—[Official Report, 16 July 2019; Vol. 663, c. 277WH.].

That was, of course, the new defence procurement Minister, speaking before she was promoted. Thinking about the fleet solid support ships, for example, can I ask the Secretary of State why his Ministers do not practise what they preach?

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me to comment on an ongoing competition. As he knows, if we were to prejudice that competition, both the UK taxpayer and potentially UK industry would be at risk of being sued by the other consortium. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), whom I welcome to my team, was not the Minister at the time of that competition, so to hold her to account in that way is unfair.

Defence Manufacturing Capabilities

To help sustain future capabilities we have published strategies for shipbuilding and combat air and refreshed our defence industrial policy with a new emphasis on supporting growth and competitiveness, which are central to our procurement programmes, including, for example, the Type 31 frigate and Tempest.

The UK has a world-beating defence industry that is dependent on high-value design. How is the Department supporting the Government’s “Engineering: Take a Closer Look” campaign to ensure that people understand how vital engineering is to our defence industry?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being appointed engineering envoy by the Government. Engineering is incredibly important, which is why we support the “Engineering: Taker a Closer Look” campaign, which will form part of that legacy and focus on STEM youth engagement, targeting not only young people but the gatekeepers, such teachers and parents. We are fully supportive of the campaign objective, which is to increase consideration of a career in engineering with a specific focus on 11 to 16-year-olds, especially among under-represented groups, such as girls and black and minority ethnic groups.

To keep skills and innovation here the Government have been determined to invest in home-grown innovation. It is the best way to sustain UK capability in the long term. That is why the defence and security accelerator, launched in 2016, is so important, as is the defence innovation fund, under which £800 million will be spent in that sector over the next 10 years.

Thousands of people in north Hampshire contribute to the defence of our country, and the ability of companies such as Fujitsu, Harris and BAE Systems and their supply chains to recruit experts from across the world to work with our domestic home-grown talent is an essential part of our winning formula. How will the Government ensure that that recruitment can continue after we leave the EU?

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been very clear about the need for a points-based system to enable us to secure the skills that we need, but, again, the long-term solution is investment in our skills base. I was pleased about the increase in further education funding that was announced in the recent spending review, which will be important to ensuring that that happens. In my constituency in Lancashire, investment in schools and higher and further education colleges is the bedrock of BAE’s capability.

I know that the Secretary of State is reluctant to talk about the fleet solid support ship contract, but may I ask him what percentage of the bid is being taken into consideration in terms of support for UK jobs and manufacturing? Will he really be content to be the Secretary of State who is willing to export jobs to Spain rather than investing in this country?

I think that the last part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question anticipated the result of any competition that will take place, and I am not going to comment on who or what is going to win if we progress to that stage with competent bids. It will be important for all the bids to include an element of UK capability, and we will ensure that we take that into consideration. It is important to us, and to the skills in this country, for the customer—the MOD, which is spending all that money—to secure not only an export market but a UK base.

Project Tempest is delivering and investing in a future fast jet programme. However, given what we are hearing about the potential closure of Brough, may I ask what conversations the Secretary of State is having with BAE Systems about replacement training jets, and what investment he is planning to make in some new Red Arrows?

I shall have to write to the hon. Lady about the Red Arrows, because I was not expecting that question, but the Tempest project is an important signal to BAE Systems that the Government are committed to another generation of fast jets. I shall be meeting representatives of BAE soon, and I shall ensure that its desire to be part of the programme is reflected in the locations of its workforce around the country.

The Secretary of State made a very significant statement from the Dispatch Box a while ago when he said that companies should invest where the skills are and where the customers are. That only applies if the customers are prepared to use their buying power to insist that the manufacturing takes place in the UK. Why will the Secretary of State not change Government policy, even before Brexit, and insist that the solid support vessels are built in British yards? Make a decision, man!

The two aircraft carriers are built in British yards, the Type 26 is built in British yards, the Type 45 is built in British yards, the offshore patrol Batch 2 is built in British yards, the Type 31 is currently built in British yards, and we will continue to invest in our yards. The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) ask how we could ensure that BAE continued to invest in its workforce. It can continue to invest in its workforce because it also manages to export around the world When we export, we must recognise that we need an international consortium, because we cannot sell purely to ourselves; we have to export around the world.

Armed Forces: Capability and Strength

9. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the (a) capabilities and (b) strength of the armed forces. (900009)

Our armed forces have suffered decades of being hollowed out to meet short-term pressures. Eventually, that takes its toll on the men and women of the armed forces and the equipment and maintenance programme. The funds announced recently in the spending review will allow us to reinvest and to maintain our forces at their present levels. The adequacy of our capability is of course defined by the extent of our ambitions, and by whether we as a nation are willing to fund them.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that nothing in the European Union’s co-ordinated annual review of defence will affect the capability or strength of our armed forces in the short, medium or long term as we leave the EU?

My hon. Friend has raised some concerns about the engagement with Europe, and, indeed, about Europe’s ambition. I think it absolutely right that the European Commission has a strong ambition for a single defence capability. We have made it clear that we will only join any part of this European defence arrangement voluntarily, and on condition that there is a unilateral mechanism for exit. That is the key purpose. We will, of course, work with international partners often to face threats.

If the Secretary of State wants to assess the strength of the armed forces, does he now agree that it is about time that they had a trade union to stand up for ordinary members of the armed forces against his puny Government?

Coming from a party that would reduce the armed forces to a rubber boat in Scotland, I do not think we should take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman and the SNP. It is absolutely clear: the SNP is obsessed with trade union representation rather than investing in armed forces.

Service Personnel Families: Pupil Premium

11. What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that armed forces personnel with children eligible for the service pupil premium inform their child’s school of that eligibility. (900011)

I have already met the Schools Minister on this issue. We work hard to get the message out there through payslips, posters and an advertisement campaign. We can all, as MPs, play a role in making sure the families of those who serve receive the benefits they are entitled to.

There are over 400 serving armed forces personnel in the Wakefield district, and they make a huge contribution to our nation’s defence, but there are concerns from the Army Families Federation that the service pupil premium is not being used properly by schools to improve pastoral outcomes for service children. What discussions has the Minister had with schools on guidance?

I am very keen that the service pupil premium is used in the way that it has been designed for—pastoral care and things like that—and if the hon. Lady has evidence that that is not taking place, I invite her to write to me and we can look into it.

When the Minister next comes to visit the Royal Military College in Shrivenham in my constituency, will he pop into Watchfield primary school, where he will see a brilliant primary school that educates children from all over the world—the children of those of many nationalities who study at the military defence college—and when he gets back will he ask the Secretary State why the Ministry of Defence gives no financial help to this primary school for the language teaching it has to do for those children?

I pay tribute to the school in question, which does a great job of looking after the children of those who come and serve at Shrivenham, and I am more than happy to look into the case my right hon. Friend raises.

Commonwealth Veterans

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the minimum income requirements for Commonwealth personnel and veterans to bring family members to the UK. (900013)

15. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the minimum income requirements for Commonwealth personnel and veterans to bring family members to the UK. (900015)

All service personnel with non-EU citizen dependants are subject to the minimum income requirement when applying for visas to enter the UK. I recently met my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy), the Immigration Minister at the Home Office, to discuss the minimum income requirement for visa fees. This is now being taken forward by officials from both Departments, and I am very hopeful of a good outcome.

Penicuik in Midlothian is home to the Royal Highland Fusiliers at Glencorse barracks, and the battalion has had a number of serving Commonwealth soldiers, particularly from Fiji. Commonwealth citizens have made significant contributions to the defence of the UK throughout history, and continue to do so. I appreciate the warm words from the Minister and that he has had conversations, but is it not time that we repay their sacrifice by scrapping the minimum income requirement so they can be reunited with their families?

I pay tribute to those from Commonwealth countries for their sacrifice and service over the years, which is exactly why we are looking to recruit more people from those parts of the world. I am in conversations with the Home Office to try and work out ways to get over the minimum income requirement, and a lot of options are being looked at—such as whether we can work with credit unions or advertise on payslips—but I am more than happy to meet with the hon. Lady.

Much like ordinary civilians, Commonwealth soldiers are being unfairly treated by the Government under their hostile environment policies. Is the Minister aware of the significant difficulties that Commonwealth personnel have encountered in bringing their families to the UK, and will he engage with me to address these issues?

I will be delighted to engage with the hon. Gentleman, and I would reiterate my point about the sacrifice and the service of so many of our Commonwealth soldiers, who have contributed so much to the armed forces in this country and who make them such a diverse and incredible set of armed forces that do such a good job on our behalf.

Leaving the EU: Defence Exports

14. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for International Trade on potential defence exports after the UK leaves the EU. (900014)

Defence exports will continue to be supported, not just by the Ministry of Defence but by other Government Departments including the Department for International Trade, after the UK leaves the EU. Work is ongoing to explore how to strengthen the competitiveness of UK industry and to support exports, both to the EU and globally. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has regular conversations with the Secretary of State for International Trade, including through the defence security and exports working group.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment. I know that she is a fervent champion of the tremendous exporters that we have in the defence sector. She will know that they often face non-tariff barriers when they export to the United States. Can she reassure me that she will be championing their cause and ensuring that those non-tariff barriers are broken down when we have a new trade deal?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. I reassure her that, through our long-standing bilateral relationship with the US, we work closely across the full spectrum of defence, including on issues of shared economic interests such as reducing barriers. Free trade agreements are not used as a means of increasing defence exports. For non-sensitive and non-warlike defence goods and services, the UK may pursue greater access to US public procurement opportunities through the free trade agreement.

The 13 old nuclear submarines tied up alongside Devonport provide a really important case not only for generating jobs in Devonport but for exporting skills and technology around the world. Will the Minister put forward a strategy for how we are going to recycle those old nuclear submarines within the next year?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his optimism that anything so big as that project could be done in a year, but I will certainly take up the challenge. I have been described by some in the Department as a poacher turned gamekeeper on this particular subject, especially as I have made it a priority to move this forward. I saw the work being done on the Resolution project up in Rosyth a couple of weeks ago, and I have been encouraged by the progress being made there. We are starting to see a structured framework that will enable us to move this project forward and move our way right through our elderly submarines that are now in need of retirement.

Topical Questions

In the light of recent events at the Syrian border, the Government urge all parties to ensure that they comply with international law, including international humanitarian law and obligations on human rights. We urge a swift de-escalation of the conflict by all parties.

I note that changes were made last week to the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that no member of the British armed forces would ever be obliged to serve alongside any EU army without Ministers’ support?

My hon. Friend makes the key point when she suggests that this could not happen without Ministers’ support, or indeed without the intention of this Government to voluntarily join an EU task force, a NATO task force or any other type of international task force. I can absolutely reassure her that we will not enter into any of these European schemes without doing so voluntarily and without a unilateral exit.

As we approach Remembrance weekend and the launch of the Royal British Legion’s poppy campaign, we remember all those who have given their lives for our country and of course all the veterans who have served. Many veterans have accessed the veterans gateway for help and support, but there is significant concern that the funding for the gateway is not guaranteed. Will the Minister address that concern today and guarantee the necessary funding to enable the veterans gateway to continue its good work?

The veterans gateway received an initial period of funding, and it is supported by a consortium of charities. It has been a success in helping veterans access help in this country, and a long-term plan is being devised for it at the moment. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that in due course.

T2. Will the relevant Minister meet me as a matter of urgency to discuss the interminable delay in agreeing a lease for the Eastriggs site of MOD Longtown? This delay is causing a threat to important investment and job creation in my constituency. (900026)

I welcome the opportunity to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the Eastriggs site in his constituency. I am aware of the aspiration of Rail Sidings Ltd to develop its railway rolling stock storage business at MOD Eastriggs. Defence Medical Services continues to manage the site and may support initiatives to commercially exploit the rail infrastructure, provided that any increase in use does not conflict with the primary demands of defence.

Will the Secretary of State commit to publishing his Department’s analysis of leaving the European Union as far as forfeiting our rights and responsibilities under article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty is concerned?

T3. Given the surprise at the speed with which the Americans fled from the scene in Syria, what preparations are Ministers making for greater logistical independence for Her Majesty’s armed forces so that they do not feel abandoned? (900027)

The UK remains fully committed to the long-term security of the region and to the counter-Daesh coalition. We continually assess UK and coalition logistical capability to ensure that we are well placed to continue to contribute to the counter-Daesh effort, and we remain at the forefront of the coalition’s air campaign.

T6. It is just not possible to recognise the sacrifice and service of our armed forces in pay alone, but it is wrong that the salary of a new recruit is now worth over £1,000 a year less than it was 10 years ago. What is the Minister going to do? When will a new recruit’s pay match what it was 10 years ago in real terms? (900030)

I am delighted to say that my understanding is that, as a result of the recent pay review, the starting salary of a private soldier has risen to over £20,000 a year.

The issue of protecting our servicemen and women from vexatious and repeated prosecution in Northern Ireland is something that the Government take incredibly seriously. Regular meetings are now ongoing between me, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We are absolutely committed to the Prime Minister’s determination that there will be no vexatious or repeated allegations and prosecutions without new evidence, and we will achieve that objective.

T10. We heard earlier about Capita’s failures in Army recruitment and Carillion’s failures in Army accommodation. Is it not time to review the costly procurement process, under which the Government just last month signed a £1.6 billion contract to decommission Sellafield with Morgan Sindall Group, which was responsible for the Faslane leisure centre super-mess? (900034)

Sadly, I cannot speak about the procurement of other Departments, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that, in my new role, I take how we do procurement, who we do it with, and how contracts are managed extremely seriously.

T5. In London, some veterans are eligible for free travel under the veterans concessionary travel scheme, but Greater Manchester’s veterans do not have the benefit of year-round free travel on public transport. Transport is a devolved matter, and our veterans should be afforded gold-standard treatment on our transport network after years of service. What discussions has the Minister had with the Mayor of Greater Manchester? (900029)

I have not had any discussions with the Mayor on this issue. Transport is devolved to the Greater Manchester Authority, so it is a matter to be decided upon locally. However, as a supporter of the armed forces covenant, Transport for Greater Manchester provides free travel on Metrolink for veterans on important days, such as Remembrance Sunday. I am of course happy to meet the Mayor to discuss the matter further.

I recently met some veterans of the far east campaigns of the 1950s, and they impressed upon me the gross unfairness of the pension situation for some of them who served for 15 years. Will the Government change the rule that means that people who served before 1975 must have served for 22 years to get a full pension?

In respect of pensions for those who served pre-1975, there is a long-standing convention for which responsibility lies with the Treasury. We simply do not have the resources to backdate pensions, as has always been the case with pensions across the public sector.

T7. The recent attack on a Saudi oil facility was carried out using small pilotless drones capable of flying hundreds of miles. Will the Minister tell the House what defence the UK has against similar attacks? (900031)

The Home Office has responsibility for counter-drone activity within the United Kingdom. The MOD has a layered air defence capability, and we are happy to allow other Departments to use that capability when they specifically request it.

Ministers will be aware that Hawk manufacturing at Brough is due to end in 2020 after more than 100 years of aircraft manufacture. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), for agreeing to meet me on Wednesday, but ahead of that meeting will she please consider all suitable BAE MOD contracts and what pressure can be put on BAE to ensure that some of them are manufactured in Brough?

I have regularly met the unions from Brough over the years, and not only because I represent a site in Lancashire that also employs BAE workers. The key is for us to support BAE to get more export bids and, at the same time, to prepare for the next generation of fighter. With that, we will make sure that with our money and with taxpayers’ money comes a commitment from BAE that the jobs are as much based here, throughout the country, as they have always been.

T8. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) mentioned cadets in the community, but the cadet expansion programme is about establishing 500 new cadet units in state schools. What assessment has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made of the value of cadet units to some of our most disadvantaged children in some of our most challenging schools? (900032)

The University of Northampton’s research into the social impact of cadet forces, including those in state schools, suggests that membership can increase social mobility and help children reach their potential because of the activities they undertake. That is precisely why this has been such a successful process.

The Secretary of State will be aware of reports of the use of white phosphorus by Turkey in northern Syria. What is he doing to assist NATO allies with the investigation into this?

The hon. Lady is right that white phosphorus is permitted only for use in signals and markers; it is not allowed, under the Geneva convention, to be used as a weapon. A number of people are collecting evidence about that and many other incidents. When that evidence is presented either to me, to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or to the UN, we will consider together what the next step should be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome what the Minister has just said and what the Prime Minister has said repeatedly—in March, in July and last week—that we must not let politics trump justice. I trust that legislation is coming to stop vexatious prosecutions, but when?

The Department has completed a consultation—it closed only last week—brought forward by the previous Secretary of State on enhanced legal protections. We are now collating the responses and look forward to introducing a Bill early in the new year.