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Topical Questions

Volume 639: debated on Monday 23 April 2018

I would like to thank all our armed forces who played a leading role in the recent targeted strike to degrade and deter the Syrian regime’s ability to use chemical weapons. Their skill and professionalism, alongside our US and French allies, is second to none.

For reasons of development time and capability, the combat air strategy cannot come soon enough. Will Ministers please confirm that the modernising defence review will include consideration of potential national partners so that the export consequences, as well as the workshare ramifications of potential partnering with the United States, Europe or an eastern partner, can be assessed, and assessed in good time?

I am afraid that I probably will not be able to give my hon. Friend quite the answer he wants, as we probably will not be looking at that as part of the modernising defence programme but, as part of our combat air strategy, we are looking at how we can develop those alliances. We may have to start looking further afield and not just to our traditional European allies. There is a world market out there—how can we develop new relationships with different countries and develop our future sixth-generation combat aircraft with them?

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the welfare of armed forces personnel and their families is still a core responsibly of his Department?

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Taking that as a yes, how is it that more than half a million pounds of LIBOR funds has been spent by the MOD in support of armed forces welfare, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—the Minister for defence people—has said categorically that

“LIBOR funding should not be used to fund Departmental core responsibilities”?

Is it not time for the Secretary of State to admit that it was a serious misjudgment to use LIBOR funds in such a scandalous way? When will his Department be paying back that money?

I am sure the hon. Lady is very well aware that the Ministry of Defence does not actually administer LIBOR funding—that is the Treasury. So much of the LIBOR funding has made such a difference, not just to those who have ceased to serve in our armed forces but to those who continue to serve. We are very grateful for the positive impact of that funding on so many of our services.[Official Report, 24 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 6MC.]

T3. Will the Minister inform the House of how the new veterans gateway is rolling out the provision of support to those calling the helpline, now that it has been running for a year? (904887)

I pay tribute to the large number of charities that support our military sector and our armed forces community. There are more than 400 charities and it can be unclear where individual personnel should turn. The gateway has been fundamental in providing help to individuals who are unsure of where to turn for support. I am delighted that I will be visiting the gateway in the next couple of months.

T2. Given the historical and continuing defence ties between the United Kingdom and Korea, will Ministers do all they can to encourage the remarkable peace process that is gathering pace and the aim of ridding the entire peninsula of nuclear weapons? (904885)

We continue to work closely with our allies, not just South Korea, but Japan and the United States, in trying to bring about a peaceful solution to the challenges on the Korean peninsula. We are also proud that we have HMS Sutherland conducting operations in the theatre and supporting all our aims to get a peaceful resolution to the challenges we face in Korea.

T8. In addition to the 20,000 MOD personnel in Scotland and the £1.6 billion spent by the Department with Scottish industries, supporting 10,500 private sector jobs, we have had the Secretary of State cutting turf at RAF Lossiemouth. Will he confirm that the new Poseidon submarine hunters will play a vital strategic role for the UK and NATO alliance? (904893)

It goes to show our commitment to and investment in Scotland, which I know my hon. Friend and his colleagues on our Benches have been championing continuously. We have not only the investment in the Poseidon aircraft, but the welcome news that another Typhoon squadron will also be based at Lossiemouth going forward.

T4. All of us in this Chamber, across all parties, respect those who are willing to put their life on the line for our nation. I had a meeting a week or so ago with a homeless former veteran who had come down from the north of England to Eastbourne. Clearly, this man had served our country for many, many years and, sadly, he also had mental health issues. My office and I are trying to support him as best we can. I want to ask the Secretary of State, first, whether there is something within the MOD and the armed services that allows people in this situation to go directly for support. Secondly, is this tracked in any way, so that the MOD would know these individuals and their issues? (904888)

I must say to the hon. Gentleman, with all courtesy and friendliness, that I was about to offer him an Adjournment debate on the matter—until I realised he had just conducted it.

The support for veterans does not just come from the MOD; it comes from a wide variety of Departments across Whitehall. That is one reason why we have set up the veterans board, which is chaired by the Defence Secretary and brings together the other representatives—the Secretaries of State from those Departments. Clearly, we need local councils to do more to recognise the homelessness issue and the housing issue, to make sure that those who have served are not disadvantaged because of their service.

On 1 July 1918, 134 workers, mainly canary girls, were killed in a terrible explosion at the national shell-filling factory in Chilwell, in my constituency. Will the Minister please ensure that the Defence Infrastructure Organisation makes good the memorial at the Chetwynd barracks in good time for the centenary commemorations, which the community very much wants to support?

It is appropriate for the whole House to pay tribute to all those who supported the war effort, including the canary girls. They were known as that because putting together the munitions turned their hands, and indeed their complexions, rather yellow. It is important that we pay that tribute, and I will certainly endeavour to look into where the memorial is and get back to my right hon. Friend.

T6. Although ships are no longer built in the north-east, many companies in the engineering supply chain are based there. What steps will the Government take to ensure that work comes to the north-east in future defence contracts? (904890)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. One example we can offer is the current Boxer programme, which is at the assessment phase. Currently, we expect more than 60% of that to be onshore and going to the UK, but there are opportunities to increase that further. I have already had discussions with several companies based in the north-east on that very project.

Following on from what has been said earlier about the cadet force, does the Minister agree that the cadets are a great introduction to military life, because as well as giving children positive role models, they help to promote social mobility? Will he update the House on what steps the Department is taking to encourage the participation of state schools in the cadet movement?

What our cadets do is extraordinary, right across the country, and we have had a roll-out of 500 new cadet units this year. This is about the ability to promote social mobility and giving youngsters an opportunity to really succeed in life—that is what our armed forces do. The cadet units are a brilliant way of giving young people the opportunity to get a taste of military life and they provide those role models. The question we need to be asking is: can we be doing more to inspire young people in our schools? I think the answer to that is a most certain yes.[Official Report, 24 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 6MC.]

T7. In their future partnership paper, the Government said:“The UK will remain a committed partner and ally to its friends across the continent”. Does the Secretary of State think that the decision to withdraw the offer of leadership of the EU battlegroup reinforces or undermines that statement? (904892)

Let us be absolutely clear: Britain has been guaranteeing the security of continental Europe since long before the creation of the European Union. Let us also be clear that the foundation of Europe’s security is NATO, not the European Union. Our commitment to the security of continental Europe is unwavering, and we will play a leadership role in European battlegroups in the future, but another country will have the opportunity to do that this coming year.

I was delighted to welcome the Secretary of State to RM Condor in my constituency last week to see the fantastic work of the Royal Marines. I was equally delighted at his recent announcement about trying to mitigate the tax from the SNP Government in Scotland that is unfairly put on our brave service personnel. Can my right hon. Friend give me an update on progress in that area?

I thank my colleagues who have campaigned so hard to highlight the fact that 70% of service personnel based in Scotland will be worse off as a result of the Scottish Government’s “Nat tax”, which they are placing on our brave service personnel. We hope to be able to report back on the conclusions to that in the next six weeks. We do not want anyone who serves in our armed forces to be worse off as a result of the taxes being placed on them by the SNP.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to review the misguided policy of his predecessor to close the Dale barracks in Chester, which has only recently been refurbished and enjoys high satisfaction rates among the soldiers stationed there and their families?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a tough rationalisation programme going on. The MOD owns 2% of the UK, which is more land than we need, and there is a requirement for us to build housing on it as well. We are having to take some very tough decisions in certain areas that hon. Members will be concerned about. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his case one-to-one.

If it turns out to be a genuine point of order, I would have to imagine, albeit wrongly in this case, that it was a leap year, but we will have a go, if it flows directly, as I am advised, from Defence questions and is in no sense a cheeky continuation of existing argument, but is a genuine search for a ruling from the Chair on a procedural matter.

I can say that I have never been cheeky in my life, Sir. At the last Defence questions, the Minister of State was unable to answer my question about why the Type 31 frigates were not included in the MOD’s equipment plan. The Minister promised that I would receive a written answer. Six weeks later, I have still not received an answer. Mr Speaker, can you advise me what on earth I have to do to get a reply from the Government?

That is plainly unsatisfactory. No Member should have to wait six weeks for a reply. As colleagues of any experience in the House will know, the Leader of the House takes particular responsibility for chasing Ministers to ensure that replies are timely and preferably substantive. If the hon. Gentleman received an assurance on the Floor of the House that he would receive such a reply and all these weeks later he has not, that is completely unsatisfactory. I sense that he knows that he has probably found his own salvation by raising the matter on the Floor of the Chamber this afternoon in a way that will not go entirely unnoticed.