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Topical Questions

Volume 577: debated on Monday 17 March 2014

My first priority remains the success of our operations in Afghanistan. Beyond that, my priorities are maintaining budgets in balance, developing our reserve forces, reinforcing the armed forces covenant and reforming the defence procurement organisation so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped.

The people of Wiltshire love the Army and will welcome the 4,000 soldiers who are shortly due to return there from Germany, but we also love Stonehenge and the mysterious mists and swirling druidical mysteries that surround the stones. Will the Secretary of State look carefully at reports that houses to be built to house the 4,000 soldiers will block off the rising sun at the summer equinox, and if they do, will he make sure that it does not happen?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of preserving important sites such as Stonehenge and of having a careful approach to the design of any development that might impact on them. I, too, have seen the press articles to which he referred. I am happy to reassure him that although Larkhill is an important element of our strategy for accommodating troops returning from Germany—we intend to invest about £800 million in the area to accommodate 4,300 service personnel—no decision has been taken about the location of additional service accommodation. A public consultation is about to close, and organisations such as English Heritage have very clearly expressed the issues that he has raised. We will make a decision in due course.

Although we welcome the events in France and, indeed, around the UK to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-day in 1944, does the Secretary of State not agree that it would be appropriate to hold a national event in London at that great symbol of sacrifice, the Cenotaph, to provide a real focal point for remembrance here?

I share the hon. Lady’s concern that we should mark the 70th anniversary appropriately and, indeed, that we should learn the lessons of the past in this respect. I know that considerable work is under way to make sure that the 70th anniversary in France is a huge success, and that veterans and their carers who want to go are supported in returning to the beaches to commemorate this huge anniversary. On anything more than that, we will have to wait and see, but the important thing is to make sure that veterans and carers who want to go can do so in the manner they wish.

T2. An attack on one NATO country is an attack on all of them. Can we therefore thank God that Ukraine never did join NATO, because otherwise we might now be involved in a European war? (903070)

As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), has already said, the status of Ukraine is quite different from the status of NATO countries—NATO countries enjoy the article 5 guarantee, which protects and assures their security—but we are doing everything we can to reassure our NATO allies about the protection that we offer. I am able to advise the House this afternoon that we have taken the decision this morning to offer NATO UK Typhoon aircraft from late April to augment the Polish contribution to the NATO Baltic air policing mission. I hope that will provide reassurance to our NATO allies in the east.

T6. In thinking about the importance of learning from the past, has the Secretary of State read “Why England Slept”, a little book by John Fitzgerald Kennedy? It is about Britain not being prepared in the 1930s for what was going to happen in Germany. Does he think that England, or Britain, is sleeping now, with an uncertain and unpredictable presence in the east of Europe? (903074)

I have not read the book, but I have said consistently in this House and elsewhere since I came into this post that we should not forget Russia’s very significant rearmament programme. Russia remains a major military force on the continent of Europe, and its interests are not always aligned with ours, as we have seen only too clearly over the past few weeks.

T4. Much as no one wishes to see the cold war return, do not recent events between Russia and Ukraine indicate that this is not some flight of fancy, but that it really could happen, and does that not mean that we must be extremely careful never to let down our nuclear or conventional defence guard? (903072)

What those events do show is that we have been right throughout in maintaining the need to continue with a strategic nuclear deterrent as the ultimate guarantor of Britain’s sovereignty and freedom of action. The world is a very uncertain place, while the time horizons for the provision of military equipment are very long, and we are looking forward 40 or 50 years in the planning. The events of the past months and years show that it would be a very brave man indeed who said that there would be no threat to our sovereignty and independence over that time horizon.

T7. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), admitted that he had wasted £50 million on the Cipher cyber-security project. This weekend, we heard that the NATO website and other websites came under attack following the recent actions in Ukraine. Will the Minister give us a timely assessment of the UK’s and NATO’s cyber readiness, particularly with regard to the situation in Ukraine? (903075)

The Cipher contract cost the MOD £46 million. Work under the contract ceased in June of last year at the end of a protracted assessment phase, which concluded that the project would not meet the full defence capability requirement at value for money for the taxpayer. I remind the hon. Lady that the contract was placed in November 2008. It is a classic example of the legacy of out-of-control procurement contracts that we were left when we took office in May 2010.

T5. To pick up the theme from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), between 1935 and 1939, defence expenditure doubled in response to the deteriorating security situation in Europe. Does the Department do any contingency planning to determine how our defence capability could be improved rapidly if there was a greater call on our nation’s defence resources? (903073)

As I have said before in the House, part of the outcome of the strategic defence and security review in 2010 was that we should focus, while consolidating our armed forces, on our regeneration capability in case the need arose, or the resources became available, for capabilities or scale of operations that we do not have.

We were delighted that the Secretary of State and his Australian counterpart made it through the Barrow fog to visit the shipyard on Thursday to announce major new infrastructure investment to make the Successor programme possible and the cutting of steel on the seventh Astute-class submarine. Did his conversations with the company and the work force on that day maintain his confidence that the leak in the test Vanguard reactor will not affect the build of the Astute programme?

I am not sure that I discussed that matter with the work force at Barrow, although I did have some interesting conversations that reassured me greatly about their commitment to the programme. We are clear that the incident at Dounreay will not have any impact on the progress of the Astute or Successor programmes.

T8. Will the Secretary of State join me in paying tribute on St Patrick’s day to all the Irish citizens who currently serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces and the 100,000 who sacrificed their lives in the British armed forces during the first world war? Does he agree that our defence partnership with Ireland would be immensely strengthened if it considered joining NATO? (903076)

My hon. Friend will know that we are working closely with the Republic of Ireland to ensure that our period of shared history is commemorated appropriately. Today, we are operating with troops from the Republic of Ireland in Mali. He will know that the UK and Ireland stand shoulder to shoulder in EUTM Mali. It is a strengthening relationship and one that has great promise.

As the Secretary of State says, procurement times are long. Joint Helicopter Command has indicated that it requires a new fleet of Apache AH-64E attack helicopters for operational use by 2020. Has that contract been signed yet?

If the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the AgustaWestland contracts, he will be aware that last month the Secretary of State announced a contract for the sustainment of the existing Apache fleet for the next five years. Thereafter, we are looking to introduce a contract that will take the effective use of the helicopter up to 2040. Discussions on how we should go about procuring that sustainment upgrade are under way.

T9. In Budget week, will the Defence Secretary join me in commending Britain’s improved economic outlook, thanks to the Chancellor’s stewardship, which potentially gives rise to finding the annual £65 million required to run the second aircraft carrier? Does my right hon. Friend agree that operating two carriers would strategically extend and involve Britain’s diplomatic military influence in a manner not seen for a generation? (903077)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Chancellor on the remarkable recovery in Britain’s economic prospects. He knows well my own view, which is that having invested £3 billion each in building our carriers, it would look strange if we did not make every possible effort to find the relatively small amounts of money that will enable them to be operated, so that we can have a set of doctrine based on the continuous availability of a carrier at sea.

The Secretary of State gave a written statement saying that the armed forces complaints commissioner is now to become an armed forces ombudsman. Will he explain why an announcement of such importance to the House and the armed forces family was not made on the Floor of the House, rather than through The Times and through a written statement, as that would have given us far greater awareness of what was going to happen?

May I suggest to the hon. Lady that, as many of her colleagues have clearly understood, if Members wish to pursue a written statement further, they always have the option of asking an urgent question?

Given that Russia has effectively annexed Crimea, in contravention of the Budapest agreement signed by Britain, the United States and Ukraine in 1994, and that it continues to threaten eastern Ukraine, what consideration has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, or indeed NATO, given to mounting maritime exercises in the Black sea so that a message may be sent to Mr Putin’s Russia that any attack on Odessa would be a step too far?

We are clear that a graduated response to these unjustified actions by Russia is necessary, but it should be a diplomatic response in terms of economic and trade sanctions. Meetings are ongoing today across the European Union to try to agree the best way to deliver that response.

There is no doubt that the late Corporal McLaughlin of 3 Para demonstrated outstanding courage during the battle for Mount Longdon in the Falklands conflict of 1982. We know that a citation was put forward by his commanding officer, but it was apparently not considered by the MOD. Given that new evidence now casts doubt on the reason it was not considered, would it be reasonable for Ministers to look at the detail of the case and satisfy themselves that an injustice has not been served on Corporal McLaughlin, his unit and his family?

I have been to the Falkland Islands and visited the battlefield at Mount Longdon. Having done so, I can appreciate what a remarkable feat of arms it was for that assault to have taken place and to have succeeded. I fully acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s regimental links in all of this, but as he will know, the decision to give individual military awards is not a matter for Ministers of the Crown. Such things are examined through well-established procedures, and it is not down to Ministers to take individual decisions.

Is the Secretary of State aware that some Scandinavian armies are not allowed out after dark? This pernicious human rights culture is already infiltrating our armed forces. What will he do to exempt our armed forces from human rights laws?

There are issues about the encroachment of judicial processes into the operation of the armed forces. A number of cases currently before the courts, or pending, could have a significant impact, and we are watching them closely. We are clear that once we commit our armed forces to combat, they must be able to carry out operations without fear of constant review in the civil courts. If we find that the current cases develop in a way that makes that difficult, we will come back to the House with proposals to remedy the situation.