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Topical Questions

Volume 666: debated on Monday 21 October 2019

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.