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Topical Questions

Volume 623: debated on Monday 13 March 2017

My priorities remain operations against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence review.

Last Thursday, Her Majesty the Queen unveiled a monument to the service and sacrifice of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too long, those troops faced false allegations made by Mr Phil Shiner, and my Department supplied evidence that finally saw him struck off last month. I am therefore now pleased to confirm that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team will close by the summer.

Does Sweden’s announcing that it plans on reintroducing conscription signal an awareness in countries such as Sweden that there is an increasing problem from Russia and elsewhere, and should that be translated into an argument for spending 2% of GDP on defence?

Well, yes. Europe faces a wide range of threats, including those from Russian aggression and international terrorism. European nations need the capabilities to respond and the funding to provide those capabilities. I reminded a meeting of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers last week of the importance of all of us who are members of NATO meeting that NATO spending target.

The outsourcing of public services frequently results in lower levels of staffing, less continuity, less training and less vetting. Given that the MOD Guard Service was set up in the wake of the 1989 bombing of the Royal Marines building at Deal, when 11 marines died, and that failures by a private security firm were identified, will the Government recognise the sensitivity of the work done by the MOD guards and abandon plans to privatise the service?

Let me make it clear to the hon. Lady that we are currently considering the options for the future provision of an effective unarmed guarding service throughout the United Kingdom, which, at the moment, is being provided by a multiplicity of different services. The aim is to achieve maximum value for money to ensure that we can focus resources on military capability, but security remains a priority, and no decisions will be made that would compromise the security of our personnel, our information or our physical assets.

T5. Can my right hon. Friend recall a time when the deployment of British forces to a NATO ally has not had the support of the whole House? (909215)

This House has a long history of supporting our armed forces as they serve and protect our country and our allies. I am obviously disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition has described this week’s defensive deployments to Estonia and Poland as escalatory, and I hope the shadow Defence Secretary will take this opportunity to condemn those remarks today.

T2. The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment headquarters and museum, Fulwood barracks, is to be sold off, while its 2nd battalion will lose over half its complement of soldiers and move to Aldershot. That will leave just one regular infantry battalion in the north-west by 2020 in that regiment, which as it stands has no headquarters identified after 2022. What message do the Government think that sends to serving personnel in St Helens and to the young men and women who want to follow in their footsteps and join Merseyside’s county regiment? (909212)

The best message we can send to that unit—I know the hon. Gentleman will do this with me—is that it is one of the best units in the British Army. I have visited it on operations literally around the world. We will support it all the way through. At the same time, we must get the best estates for the best parts of the Army.

T8. Thirty-five years on, our armed forces still play a vital role in safeguarding the security of the Falkland Islands and other British overseas territories in the south Atlantic. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government are committed to maintaining a strong armed forces presence in the Falklands? (909219)

Thirty-five years on, we not only continue but will enhance the protection of the Falkland Islands. I know that many colleagues from the House have visited the Falklands recently and seen the excellent work that our armed forces do far away from home. We will continue to support that with the Typhoons, the Rapier, and the other battalions that are there now.[Official Report, 14 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 4MC.]

T3. Toolmakers in my constituency such as J. Adams Ltd have made high-quality military knives for the defence sector for six generations. The UK’s manufacturing industry is more than capable of supplying the sector, but new Royal Navy Trident submarines and offshore patrol vessels are being built using foreign steel. When is the Ministry of Defence going to publish a proper defence industrial strategy so that we can start supporting UK steel and manufacturing instead of buying off the shelf from abroad? (909213)

Of course we want UK steel to be used wherever possible. That is why last year we published the full pipeline of steel that we will need across the whole of Government. We work with our suppliers to encourage them to use British steel producers, where available, in that pipeline.

At Defence questions on 30 January, I asked the Minister how many people were currently working in defence procurement and what plans the Government have to reduce that number. She subsequently wrote to me to say that 11,500 people are currently working in procurement. Given that this equates to 149 people per ship in the Royal Navy, 14 people per aircraft in the Royal Air Force and one person per seven soldiers, will she now say what steps the Government are going to take to reduce this extremely large number?

I would like to emphasise to my hon. Friend that a lot of those people will in fact be uniformed. What often happens is that they rotate through the teams that are involved in procurement because there is no one better than our uniformed personnel to decide on the requirements that are needed. However, he is absolutely right that they are not immune to the need, across the whole of defence, to continue to find ways to spend more efficiently.

T4. Last week the Royal United Services Institute published a report demonstrating that the Royal Navy is no longer designed for sea control in the north Atlantic. Indeed, there is not one major surface vessel based in Scotland. Can the Minister confirm that the lesser spotted national shipbuilding strategy, if and when we eventually see it, will redress this strategic imbalance? (909214)

Yet again Scottish National party Members want to run down the Royal Navy and the fantastic work it is doing. What is important is whether the Navy is there and whether our submarines are there. They are, and this is exactly what the Navy will be expected to do.

HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the two largest warships ever procured for the Royal Navy, are currently being built and fitted out in Scotland. As Scotland is much in the news today, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind the House of the great defence benefits there are in Scotland remaining part of our United Kingdom?

Yes. I visited both carriers last week. This will be a huge asset for the Royal Navy and for this country. Let us be very clear: Scotland is getting all the Royal Navy’s submarines, a major Army base is growing at Leuchars, and there is huge investment at Lossiemouth with an additional Typhoon squadron and the deployment of our new maritime patrol aircraft. Scotland plays a huge part in the defence of the United Kingdom.

T6. The latest UK armed forces monthly figures show that while 6,690 people joined the reservists in the past 12 months, over 5,000 left. What more is being done to encourage the retention of reservists? (909216)

I am pleased to say that we remain ahead of target in recruiting our reserves. The key to retention—I declare my hand as a serving reservist—is to make sure that we continue to offer interesting and exciting opportunities and training in the reserves, and we aim to do that.

The Saudi-led Islamic military alliance to defeat Daesh has grown from 34 to 40 members. The role of Islamic countries in defeating Daesh, especially its poisonous ideology, is absolutely key. What update does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have from the Saudis on the progress made by the Saudi coalition?

We welcome the role that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken in leading the effort to discredit the so-called ideology of Daesh. We, too, are leading work on strategic communications, and we recently hosted the very latest coalition conference, which brings together all our international efforts. I am particularly pleased that this campaign is being strengthened by the commitment of Saudi Arabia to rid this religion of its appalling extremism.

T7. Following on from the answer that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), can she name the projects in which British steel is actually being used to safeguard British steelworkers jobs? (909218)

We are committed to building Type 26 frigates, and that forms part of the pipeline of defence procurement where we are going to need steel. Our main supplier is running a competition in which I believe five UK firms are participating.

Did Ministers see the evidence given to the Select Committee on Defence last Tuesday by four eminent professors of law, indicating that there is no legal reason why a statute of limitations cannot be brought forward to prevent the hounding of our service personnel for pre-Belfast-agreement-related matters? Will Ministers work with the Committee by giving evidence to us that might enable such a statute to be brought forward?

We have indeed been following the proceedings of my right hon. Friend’s Committee with close interest. We want any legacy investigations in Northern Ireland to be fair, balanced and proportionate, given that 90% of the deaths there were caused by terrorists, not by members of the security forces. We would also not want to see cases reopened unless there is new and credible evidence to do so.

T9. We continue to hear stories of our service personnel being forced to live without heating and sometimes without being able to take a shower for days, as detailed in recent reports about the Wellington and Baker barracks. Do the Government really think it is acceptable to leave our brave servicemen and women in such squalid conditions? (909220)

No, which is precisely why we invested £60 million last year and will invest £84 million this year to ensure that our service personnel’s accommodation is very good. It is also why service personnel are not allowed to go into any new service family accommodation home that does not meet the decent homes standard.

Carterton in my constituency has a large amount of Royal Air Force housing and land that will be available for much-needed housing. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss ways in which the land can be released for that urgently needed housing?

What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the US Government about the announcement over the weekend of the deployment of hundreds of US marines to northern Syria, what their purpose is and what co-operation will take place between us and the Americans with respect to that deployment?

I reviewed the campaign in Syria with the United States Defence Secretary at our meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago. We are not deploying combat troops to this particular campaign in Syria, but the United States is committing more support forces and working as part of the international coalition to ensure that the Syrian Democratic Forces have all the assistance and advice they need.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the deep maintenance and repair of the engines of all British F-35 fighters will be done in Turkey, and what, if any, security issues arise from this rather strange decision?

I will follow this up with the hon. Gentleman, but I can confirm—I am sure he shares my delight—that north Wales has been selected for the global hub outside the US for all the maintenance and repair of the avionics.

The Secretary of State will have seen reports of armed drones operated from RAF Waddington with a kill list targeting UK citizens. If those reports are right, what happened to the commitment to come to the House at the earliest opportunity if lethal force was used in self-defence, and does the kill list extend beyond geographical areas where military action has been authorised by this House?

Let me just make it clear to the hon. Lady and to the House that those involved in supporting Daesh in Iraq and in Syria are certainly liable to be killed by coalition forces, and those who pose a very direct threat to this country are also likely, if there is no other way of forestalling that threat, to be targeted.

According to the National Audit Office, even if the defence estate strategy was implemented in full, we would still have an £8.5 billion budget shortfall caused by the deterioration of the estate. Is the strategy fit for purpose?

The strategy is absolutely fit for purpose, and it is based on delivering military capability. Reducing the estate by some 30% means that we have less estate to look after, and that we can reinvest some £4 billion over the next 20 years.[Official Report, 16 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 8MC.]

Order. We must move on.

Before I take points of order, I am pleased to inform the House that we are being visited today by the Catholic Archbishop of Yangon in Burma, a country with which, as colleagues will know, we have a programme of parliamentary capacity building. It is a delight to see Cardinal Charles Bo viewing our proceedings today. It is the second time he has come in recent months—he clearly cannot get enough of us—and I am sure colleagues will want to impress the great man with the decency of their behaviour.