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Topical Questions

Volume 616: debated on Monday 7 November 2016

My priorities remain the fight against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence review. I am delighted to confirm to the House today that the United Kingdom has been chosen by the United States to become a global hub for maintenance and support services for the F-35 programme. The initial contracts will generate hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue and support thousands of highly skilled jobs. It is excellent news for the UK economy, and for Wales in particular, where the hub will be based.

May I welcome the fact that steel cutting will belatedly begin on the Type 26 frigates in the summer of 2017? However, the fact remains that, for the total of 19 frigates and destroyers to be maintained, each frigate will have to be replaced at the rate of one a year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the steel cutting begins in 2017, the first ship will be ready to enter service at the same time as HMS Argyll, the first of the Type 23 frigates, is due to leave service in 2023?

Yes, I can confirm that it is our intention to replace the anti-submarine frigates within the Type 23 force with eight new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates.

What assurances has the Secretary of State given to our NATO ally Estonia after a recent report by the US army-linked RAND Corporation showed that the current mismatch of forces in the Baltic region could result in Estonia being overrun by Russian troops within 36 hours in the event of an invasion?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman comes new to these matters, but he may have heard me announce three weeks ago that we are sending 800 British troops to Estonia next year, backed up by French and Danish companies. There will be similar battalions in each of the Baltic states from next year, along with a battalion in Poland, which is all part of NATO’s measures to assure and help to deter any possible aggression.

There is a still a large number of British nationals in Syria and Iraq fighting against Daesh on the side of the Kurdish forces, yet there seems to be no Government line on whether it is a criminal offence to do so under the Terrorism Act 2000, leaving a number of people, including my constituent Aidan Aslin of Newark, in legal limbo upon their return. Will the Secretary of State look into the matter and get a policy to help those British citizens on their return?

I am very happy to undertake to look into that particular matter, but our emphasis, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, must be on the 200 or 300 British citizens who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for Daesh and pose a potential threat to this country, and who may well have committed criminal acts in fighting alongside Daesh. They are the people who need to be investigated first.

T3. The hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) and I have been campaigning to bring opportunities to air cadets in Wales to experience gliding in Wales. We were promised at a meeting in the Ministry of Defence last week that a decision was pending. Is it good news or bad news? (907082)

It is good news. The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) have been absolute champions when it comes to pursuing the opportunity for cadets in Wales to glide in Wales, so I am pleased to announce that I will facilitate summer gliding camps at St Athan on a trial basis next summer, with a view to continuing them in future.

We have heard a lot this afternoon about the Type 26 frigate, but I should like to ask about our minesweeping capability. What progress and innovation in minesweeping technology has been made for the Navy?

I was delighted recently to announce, along with our French partners, an unmanned maritime minesweeping capability. We are building the demonstration phase, which will be an innovative and interesting investment in minesweeping technology.

T4. Shortly after the EU referendum, the Defence Secretary said that Britain could continue even after Brexit to take part in EU defence missions, such as the ongoing operations to tackle smuggling, people smuggling and piracy. We are now just months away from Britain triggering article 50 and our forces and our allies need certainty about what Britain’s continued participation might look like. Will the Minister or the Defence Secretary provide us with that certainty today? (907083)

Yes, and I provided that certainty at the recent meeting of the EU Defence Ministers in Bratislava. I made it very clear that while we remain members of the European Union, we will be full members of it. We will continue to participate in Operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, to which we currently contribute two ships, and in Operation Atalanta to curb piracy off the horn of Africa.

During the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State undertook to review the current policy that means that not all sexual offences are referred to service police. Will he provide an update to the House?

We have always made it clear that there is no place for sexual offending in the armed forces. However, following concerns raised in this House I have decided to bring before Parliament draft legislation to add the offences of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure to schedule 2 of the Armed Forces Act 2006. I will write to those who have previously raised such concerns shortly.

T5. Following publication of the highly critical marine accident investigation report on the collision between the stern trawler Karen and a dived Royal Navy submarine, and given the report’s urgent recommendations, what progress has been made on updating the Royal Navy fishing vessel code of practice? (907084)

Most of us in this place would welcome the announcement, made last week, with regard to the Type 26 ships. Does my right hon. Friend share my bemusement at the carping and pettifogging from some hon. Members about this rather welcome announcement?

It is extraordinary for a pledge of 20 years of work for the Clyde to be welcomed in such a grudging fashion. Let us be very clear that if Scotland was outside the United Kingdom, these frigates would not be built on the Clyde. If Scottish National party Members had been successful in defeating the renewal of Trident, we would not have needed anti-submarine frigates.

T7. When the Department decided to purchase the P-8A maritime patrol aircraft from the United States without competition, what arrangements did the Minister make to secure work for British companies and British workers? (907086)

The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about these matters, so, again, I would have thought he would welcome the fact that we are acquiring this capability, which will be based at Lossiemouth in Scotland. Discussions with Boeing are ongoing in relation to the substantial inward investment it is making in the United Kingdom.

The increase in Russian aggression is concerning many of our NATO allies. Can my right hon. Friend provide reassurance on what reassurance he has given to them in the face of this increased aggression?

Yes. We have, as NATO, agreed to the deployment of four battalions in the three Baltic states and Poland from next year. In addition, I announced two weeks ago that we would be deploying RAF Typhoons for the first time to assist southern air policing, based in Romania, from next year. That will provide considerable assurance to countries such as Romania and Bulgaria in curbing any Russian aggression in the Black sea region.

T8. When will the Government bring forward a proper reconstruction programme for Syria and parts of Iraq, so that we do not make the same mistake as we made in Iraq years ago? (907087)

This country has led the way in getting money assembled for the reconstruction of Syria. First, of course, we have to get the civil war brought to an end. So far as Iraq is concerned, we have contributed to the United Nations fund. That money is now ready to go in to the reconstruction of the towns that have been liberated and to provide as quickly as possible the power and hospital and school services that the population needs.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an update on progress in providing specific support and welfare provision for those of our armed forces in the Iraq Historic Allegations Team system to support their families and themselves through this traumatic period?

I am pleased to say we are making progress in this area. We expect the number of claims to go down quite substantially. We hope to report to the House shortly.

Last week I felt really powerful as an MP, given that the Secretary of State flew up to Glasgow to make an announcement just because I had a question on the Order Paper. I thank him for that. Instead of trading insults back at us, will he give a straightforward commitment that the five general purpose vehicles will be built on the Clyde as well?

Just on Friday, I announced that the first eight Type 26 anti-submarine frigates would be built on the Clyde. It is too early to say how the new general purpose frigate, which is still to be designed, will be manufactured and assembled, but of course BAE Systems on the Clyde will be in pole position.