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Topical Questions

Volume 608: debated on Monday 18 April 2016

My immediate priorities remain success in our operations against Daesh and implementing our SDSR commitments. This month, the defence budget increases for the first time in six years, and it will increase in every year of this Parliament. Our choice to spend more on stronger defence will help keep us safe.

The Secretary of State will know about the worrying number of cancers and terminal illnesses among groups of former RAF personnel working in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s who worked in a toxic soup of chemicals with precious few safety precautions, and he will surely know of the distressing inconsistencies in financial support for those affected. Will he confirm that the Government’s duty of care under the armed forces covenant extends to investigating this properly and to compensating victims fully and consistently?

Yes. When a veteran considers that their service has led to an illness or injury, they are entitled to make a claim for compensation through our legal claims department, or to apply for enhancements to their pensions. Let me assure the hon. Lady that the Veterans Welfare Service will listen and will provide all necessary support.

T2. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), responded to a debate in Westminster Hall secured by our hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) on air cadet training facilities. In Southend, 1312 Air Training Corps uses the facilities for gliding in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly). Will the Under-Secretary of State make sure that those facilities are still made available to our cadets? (904503)

Wethersfield, the facility to which my hon. Friend is referring, has been identified for disposal, and the new site is yet to be selected. However, I can reassure him that we are strongly committed to gliding, and 614 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, when it moves from Wethersfield, will expand into its new role as a regional hub. Our immediate priority is to get cadets back flying again, after a gap of about two years. That will start again this year, and should be fully delivered by 2018.

Those injured in the course of their duties should receive the financial support they need, but currently the value of compensation payments is being eroded by a comparative third under the armed forces compensation scheme’s guaranteed income payments and the war disablement pensions supplement. Applying the triple lock to military compensation payments would ensure that the highest of earnings, inflation or 2.5% was paid. When will the Government take evidence to review this payment and examine the impact of the real-term loss under the current system?

We always keep our payments systems under review. The hon. Lady will of course be aware that, in the recent Budget, the Chancellor decided that, for the first time, payments under the war pensions scheme would be set aside for care costs. These are the sort of positive measures that we keep under review in support of our veterans.

T3. Does my hon. Friend agree that Kuwait’s decision to buy 28 world-beating Typhoons is testament to the skill of the BAE workforce at Warton, many of whom live in my constituency, and this Government’s commitment to defence exports? (904504)

We welcome wholeheartedly this month’s contract signed by Kuwait for 28 Typhoon aircraft. Kuwait thereby becomes the eighth country to select the Eurofighter Typhoon and the third in the Gulf to do so. It is very positive both for our bilateral and defence relationship and, as my hon. Friend indicates, for jobs across the British aerospace and defence industry, including the thousands employed by BAE Systems at Warton in Lancashire, many of whom are her constituents. It is excellent news for the whole supply chain right across the UK.

T5. Following the Foreign Secretary’s statement that we“stand ready to provide further assistance to Libya and its people”,will the Secretary of State confirm what kind of assistance the UK would be willing to provide and how much notice this House would have before a vote on military action in Libya? (904506)

I have made it clear that we are waiting to hear from Prime Minister Sarraj and the new Government, who have only been established over the past few days, what kind of assistance they want, whether it be training or other support. On notice to this House, I repeat that there is no plan to deploy British troops in any kind of combat role. If there were a plan to deploy troops in a combat role in a conflict zone anywhere in the world, we would come to the House first.

T4. A particularly nasty Daesh force has seized territory at the top of the Bekaa valley in Lebanon. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British Government are doing everything they can to support the Government of Lebanon in tackling this particularly nasty group of people, who are inflicting misery on local people? (904505)

Yes. Last week, I discussed with the Lebanese Defence Minister, Samir Mokbel, the threats that Lebanon faces and the importance of its security. We recently committed to spend a further £23 million on equipment, mentoring and training to help the Lebanese armed forces secure their entire border with Syria. We plan to spend an additional £4.5 million on urban and rural operations training so that by 2019, some 10,000 Lebanese soldiers will have received British training.

T6. Will the Minister say a little more about what progress is being made to ensure that a very high percentage of UK steel is used in defence procurement? In particular, will he say what steps he has taken to ensure that there is the capacity and capability for UK steel to be used to build any Successor Trident submarines, should the House determine that that is what it wishes to happen? (904508)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government as a whole are committed to supporting the UK steel industry. The Ministry of Defence has issued new policy guidance to the prime contractors to address barriers to the open market. I am working closely with our contractors to ensure that they support the new policy. In relation to the submarine contracts, as and when they are placed, UK suppliers have an important role to play in the supply of some specialist steels, but at present we do not have manufacturers that are capable of supplying other specialist steels, so there is a balance.

T7. Is the Secretary of State aware that the standard of food for the military at HMS Sultan and similar naval establishments has become such a source of complaints that service personnel have been banned from taking photographs and using social media to critique it? What is he doing to ensure that our servicemen and women are properly looked after in such a basic area as food? (904509)

Defence personnel are offered core meals, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner, with set calorific and nutritional standards. That includes unlimited access to carbohydrates and vegetables. I confess that I experience the food that is served to our armed forces personnel on a regular basis, and I have not experienced a poor standard. The normal process is for complaints to be made via the chain of command, but I am more than happy to look into the matter for my hon. Friend.

Ministers have been remarkably coy this afternoon about the timing of the maingate decision for the Trident Successor programme. I understand entirely the point about purdah, but will one Minister at least help the House by indicating whether we are likely to get a vote after 24 June and before the House rises for the summer recess on 21 July?

I hope we will have an early debate and vote on the principle of supporting the replacement of our four existing submarines. I should explain to the hon. Lady that it will not be on the maingate decision, because there is not one maingate decision. We are obviously negotiating with our suppliers for four separate submarines.

T8. The Secretary of State is a suave and polished parliamentary performer, which is why the Defence Committee would like to see a little more of him and why it is doubly disappointing that, despite trying since the beginning of March to agree with his private office to two two-hour slots before the end of May, so far we have achieved only one and the offer of a second on what happens to be local government election day, which is far from ideal. Will he kindly have a word with his private office, ask them to extract their proverbial digit, and thus avoid our two quite important inquiries on the middle east and Russia being either delayed or written without his valuable input? (904510)

I always enjoy my appearances before my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the Select Committee. It is not always easy to reconcile the dates he offers with some of my international travel commitments but I will certainly have another look at the diary today.

We all know that the Secretary of State is a very busy man with many commitments and a very full diary, but the House’s Committees are very important, and I am sure that he will not forget that. Get it sorted, man.

Hawk aircraft are built at Brough and flown by the Red Arrows, promoting the very best of British. Are there plans to procure new planes for the Red Arrows?

I recently announced a new support contract for the Hawk aircraft that takes it up to November 2020. We have time to decide how to sustain Hawks beyond that. That is much as I can say. However, I will tell the hon. Lady that the Red Arrows are due to commence a substantial programme of displays in this country and overseas this summer. I hope that many Members have the opportunity to watch them.

T9. One hundred years ago, Porton Down was established as a centre to deal with nerve gas attacks during the Somme; 100 years later, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory continues to do a fantastic job, now tackling the growing threats we face in this country from Daesh. Following the visit by the Secretary of State and other Ministers, what reflections do they have on the continuing role of DSTL at Porton Down in my constituency? (904511)

DSTL’s remit to defend our nation and armed forces against a wide range of threats is just as crucial today as it was 100 years ago. We need to continue to invest in science and technology to stay ahead of our adversaries. I congratulate all our staff at Porton Down, Portsdown West and Fort Halstead, which is in my own constituency, on reaching this milestone and on the remarkable work they do to help keep our country safe.

With both the existing Trident programme and the potential Successor programme in mind, will the Minister tell me what measures his Department is taking to identify unexploded ordnance in the River Clyde?

The Department places the safety of our nuclear fleet at the highest possible level. There are continuous attempts to ensure that any potential threats to our submarines are monitored. If the hon. Gentleman has something specific he would like to draw to our attention he should do so, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it.

Tata Steel developed three new types of steel to build the Queen Elizabeth class of aircraft carrier. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that British steel manufacturers continue to innovate with as well as deliver for the Royal Navy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the success of Tata Steel in supplying steel for the aircraft carrier. Other grades and types of steel are not currently available in this country and we would be happy to talk to the industry about what steps it can take to make such steel types available.

The Army Reserve centre in Cobridge in my constituency is home to the A detachment 202 (M) field hospital. I have been in correspondence with the Minister but have yet to receive a response to rumours about its imminent closure, something that is yet to be confirmed or consulted about with the wider community. May I have a response from the Minister?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her letters on this issue; we have also had a word in the margins. We are looking into the matter. We have a robust system for appeals. I am so far unable to offer her any comfort but I will come back to her shortly.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the 1206 Air Training Corps squadron in Lichfield is one of the biggest in the west midlands, but it too has been suffering from a lack of glider training provision. What hope can the Minister give my friends and corps members that that training will be resumed?

I am delighted to answer a question from the distinguished president of that squadron. Nearly two years ago, all gliding had to be suspended for safety reasons. We have been unable to find a contractor who could credibly take on the repair of the Vigilants, but the Vikings are all on their way up, together with a very small number of Vigilants. By 2018 we will be delivering a full programme of gliding, with an enhanced level of powered flying with more Grob Tutors, and that will start this summer.

Some 5,000 service personnel who serve overseas have applied for postal votes. They tell me that by the time the postal votes are sent to the regiment, those serving overseas are disadvantaged. How will the Minister ensure that postal votes are received by those serving overseas who wish to vote?

We partook in the Government-wide scheme launched on 1 February to try to ensure that our service personnel were aware that they could register, and we will do the same again through a defence information notice on the EU referendum that will be issued in May. Ultimately, it is down to individual service voters whether they register or vote.

May I ask the Secretary of State, or perhaps my hon. and very gallant Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces—[Interruption] Gallant because she is in the Royal Navy reserves—to assure the House that no investigator used by Leigh Day or Public Interest Lawyers is paid for by the Ministry of Defence for any service?

I can give the assurance that, although the Ministry of Defence does not direct the investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, it is responsible for ensuring that public money is spent well and efficiently. While we can clearly justify investigations into wrongdoing and those that exonerate our armed forces, we cannot justify spending money on processes that frustrate those investigations. We have given clear ministerial direction that those agents are not to be paid with public money, and we have received assurances that that is the case.