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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
22 October 2018
Volume 648

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans’ Access to Support Services

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1. What steps he is taking to improve veterans’ access to support services. [907158]

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13. What steps he is taking to improve veterans’ access to support services. [907171]

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I recently made a series of announcements on new schemes and initiatives designed to support serving personnel and their families throughout their military careers and beyond. Those include a further package to support armed forces personnel as they enter civilian life, a veterans ID card and a new fund dedicated to supporting the careers of the spouses and civil partners of those who serve.

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I am sure we all agree that more could be done to help veterans when they return to civvy street. Steps have already been taken to improve co-ordination and co-operation between Government Departments on the provision of services for veterans, but what more can be done to improve co-ordination between Departments and local authorities?

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My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The armed forces covenant, which I know his local authorities are members of, plays a vital role in ensuring that armed forces service personnel and those who have served are able to plug into health services, help with finding a home or any other support that it is so vital for local authorities to provide.

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Would the Secretary of State consider visiting the Heyford and Bicester veterans’ group, which meets once a month on Fridays in my constituency and provides a one-stop-shop for veterans and their families, where they can access all the services that they need?

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I was hoping that I would get such an invite in the near future, and one has just come along. I would be delighted to visit the group. I know that my hon. Friend does so much work there and is so supportive of them, and I look forward to seeing that at first hand.

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Many veterans who have come to my constituency surgeries are being subjected to unnecessary face-to-face medical assessments in order to access social security benefits. Will the Secretary of State speak to his ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions, to stop that happening?

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I would be delighted to do that.

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As we approach Remembrance Week, we pay tribute to all those veterans who have served Queen and country, as well as those personnel still serving.

Many of the support services that veterans rely on are delivered by local authorities, but councils across the country have faced deep cuts in recent years, with the Local Government Association estimating that in England alone they will face a funding gap of £7.8 billion by 2025. There is a similar picture in devolved nations, due to cuts to the block grant. Bearing in mind the vital role that local authorities play in supporting our veterans, will the Secretary of State join me in urging the Chancellor to rule out any further cuts to local authorities in his Budget next week?

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It is very important that all parts of government, whether local or national, play a role in delivering the very best services for our armed forces. The introduction of a veterans ID card will hopefully go a long way towards helping former service personnel to access the vital services provided by local authorities. That will be an important step forward.

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19. I welcome what the Secretary of State says about supporting veterans. My constituent, Lieutenant Colonel L.T., served with distinction for almost 30 years. Ever so typically for a man of his standing, he is more concerned about the investigations into the men he served with in Northern Ireland than where investigations may lead for himself. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those veterans also deserve our support? [907178]

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It is clear that both local and national Government, including the Ministry of Defence, owe those who are serving in the armed forces and those who have served a great deal of support, and we will continue to give them every bit of support that we can.

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Thankfully the vast majority of personnel and veterans have very good mental health, but we know that there are challenges, particularly for early service leavers. What more can the MOD do to ensure that service members are directed to support services when they leave the forces?

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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The actual mental health outcomes of service personnel are exceptionally good, but there are service personnel and former service personnel who do need a bit of extra support. The investment of £2 million in the veterans gateway is aimed at helping and supporting veterans and service leavers to access the type of support that they best need once they have left the armed forces.

UK’s Defence Capability

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2. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of using new and developing technologies to support the UK’s defence capability. [907159]

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I thank my hon. Friend for his time and for the opportunity to see the excellent Manufacturing Technology Centre in his constituency just the other week, which demonstrated to me that emerging technologies present greater opportunities but also more complex threats than ever before.

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In addition to the great work at the MTC, does the Secretary of State agree with me that an excellent example of new technology supporting military capability is the electric drive systems using anti-vibration technology being installed on our marine vessels, which were both developed in Rugby and built in Rugby, and does he agree with me that they represent a great future for British manufacturing?

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Such technologies do represent a fantastic future for British manufacturing. If we look at the success that the Type 26 has had not just with the eight Type 26 frigates that are going to be built in Britain, but with the success we have had in securing orders in Australia and Canada, we can see that it demonstrates this kind of technology is not only designed in Britain, but should always be built in Britain.

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rose—

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I am glad that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) has now timed her bobbing correctly. I call Emma Hardy.

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Workers at BAE Systems in Brough have always been at the forefront of developing technology and manufacturing, but after meeting some of the workers last week I am becoming increasingly concerned about their sole reliance on the Hawk orders. Can the Secretary of State do anything to encourage BAE Systems to diversify their manufacturing and to protect jobs at the Brough site?

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The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and I have been working very closely with BAE Systems, but also with the Qataris in securing a key order for Hawk trainer jets. The hon. Lady raises an important point about the diversity of the site. It is certainly something that I can raise with those at BAE Systems at my next meeting with them, and I will be seeing them later this month.

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I am delighted that the Secretary of State has seen fit to protect our amphibious capability—HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion —and their related technologies, both new and conventional. These are such crucial tools for the Marines. On that note, will the Secretary of State fully understand and comprehend the importance of 40 Commando to my town of Taunton in his assessment of future capabilities?

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I thank my hon. Friend for all she did in raising her concerns about Albion and Bulwark. On 40 Commando in Taunton, I absolutely reassure her that there are no plans to move 40 Commando from Taunton: it will be there for a long time into the future.

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The Secretary of State surely knows that, in a world of cyber-warfare, we of course need to invest in new technology and great innovation. However, he should not forget the Cinderellas, such as David Brown Gear Systems in Huddersfield, which is making gear boxes for tanks and for our great vessels. Will he come to Huddersfield and see what we do there?

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I know David Brown very well. He is of course the man who saved Aston Martin, so there is a very famous industrial heritage there. If I am not able to visit David Brown, I am sure the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, will be able to do so. We will look to make sure that one of us does. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the amount of technology and ingenuity we have in this country, and we should be very proud of it. That is not always just through the prime contractors, but through the many businesses that are so dependent on defence contracts.

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I urge the Secretary of State to follow my very good example: I visited the Huddersfield constituency, and the hon. Gentleman who represents it is a very good host, as is the university to boot. It will widen the Secretary of State’s learning and cultural experience to go there.

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The UK’s defence capability has been immeasurably enhanced by the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth. We saw her in New York this weekend. Will the Secretary of State consider putting together a national carrier strategy, so that for the next 50 years she has a real, important global purpose?

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We do need to have a very clear national carrier strategy, because this is not just an important part of projecting power, but a key part of our national deterrence and of making sure that nations all around the globe understand that Britain has the capability to defend herself and to protect our international interests.

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Will the Secretary of State commend Cammell Laird for winning for the second time its support order for the Royal Navy? Given the level of technology in the yard, is it not well placed for the new frigate orders? Although we are careful about taxpayers’ money and will not give him the hospitality that Huddersfield has offered, will he please come?

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I am getting a lot of invites and feel privileged to have so many. I congratulate Cammell Laird very much on its successful bid. It goes to show how vital money spent by the MOD is to many local economies. I shall endeavour to visit Cammell in the near future, but if I do not, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, will certainly do so.

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The Government believe it is vital to future-proof technologies, so I was shocked to learn that the Ministry of Defence has given the green light—yet again—to an American company, Boeing, for the replacement of the Sentry AWACS aircraft. That has been done without any competitive process, and it has been said that Boeing is planning to use old aircraft and semi-obsolete radar. Clearly there are differences of opinion about what Boeing has to offer, so will the Secretary of State agree to an independent evaluation of all the options to be considered?

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not intentionally mislead the House by implying that we are going to have old aircraft. We will have new aircraft in terms of the potential procurement of Wedgetail. We are confident that this is the best capability; it is world leading and it has the best ability to bring it to our Royal Air Force at the earliest possible stage.

Armed Forces Pay

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3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of armed forces pay. [907160]

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As there is a bidding war, may I say that, as the last six generations of my family came from Huddersfield, I am definitely up for coming back there?

Our assessments are made with the support of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. In making recommendations, the AFPRB takes account of the need to recruit, retain and motivate suitable service personnel, affordability, the inflation target and the need for armed forces’ pay to be broadly comparable with that of civilians.

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Does the Minister share my concern that all three services are running below strength, and the Government’s delay in lifting the public sector pay cap has exacerbated the problem?

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I am delighted to say, and I am sure the House will wish to know, that the 2% pay award has now been paid retrospectively, and the 0.9% bonus element will be paid in two lump sums, one next month and one in March.

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The frontline of our country’s defence is increasingly in cyber-space, and the strength of that defence depends on the calibre of the people operating in it, such as my constituents at GCHQ. What steps are being taken to ensure that payscales are sufficient to attract and retain the brightest and the best?

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We take those factors into consideration, and I was delighted to open the new defence cyber-school back in March. We feel strongly that cyber-skills should become part of the core skills of all our armed forces.

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How many staff under the age of 25 are paid less than £8.75 an hour?

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It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I do not have that figure at my fingertips, but I will write to him.

Armed Forces Personnel Numbers

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4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [907161]

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7. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of armed forces personnel. [907164]

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We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. We have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention, and these are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

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The Armed Forces Pay Review Body reports that the outflow rates—personnel leaving the armed forces—are at “historically high levels” under this Government. Why does the Minister think that is?

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Retaining our service personnel is always a challenge, and that is precisely why we are focusing hard on the offer—the opportunity to train and to serve overseas. Only this month, some 5,500 personnel are serving on Saif Sareea 3 in Oman; equally, we have servicemen serving in Estonia and on Exercise Trident Juncture in Norway. We have perhaps not previously had those opportunities to train and to serve overseas, which are key to retention.

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The latest armed forces continuous attitude survey shows that 67% of personnel perceive the morale of their service as low. That clearly impacts on the retention of those who serve. Did it concern Ministers to read that, and when can we expect it to get better?

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I am confident that it will get better, partly for the reasons I have just outlined. We are focusing very hard on the offer to our service personnel to ensure that people stay. That is not only about pay—we have talked about the pay award—but the opportunities we give to our service personnel and the training they receive. There are very few professions in this country where one can join with limited qualifications and then leave with a degree-level apprenticeship. That is the sort of offer we make in the armed forces, and we are determined to continue.

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Capita’s Army recruitment contract has been an unmitigated disaster, so as a member of the Select Committee I was very relieved to hear the Secretary of State say in evidence to us last week that if necessary he would be prepared to sack it. The sooner the better. May I ask the Minister of State, who we all respect, whether there is any good news at all on Army recruitment that he can share with the House today?

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As my right hon. Friend says, the Secretary of State was very clear, in the evidence he gave to the Select Committee, that there is always the option of ending the contract. I am pleased to say that there is good news. This is a long process, from application stage to delivering a soldier who is trained perhaps a year later, but we are now seeing applications at a five-year high, so the hopper is being filled at a rate not seen for the past five years. Equally, the conversion rate—managing to get applications converted and on to training—is also improving. At the start of the pipeline there are very positive signs indeed.

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It is a regrettable fact that the legal pursuit of our veterans is a significant deterrent to recruitment. What concrete steps is the Department taking to bring it to an end?

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I have not seen any evidence that supports what my hon. Friend has just said, so I would be grateful if he could supply it. None the less, the point he makes about our veterans being pursued legally is an important one. I can only refer him back to the Adjournment debate, I think on 25 June, when over 50 right hon. and hon. Members came to the House to discuss the matter. There is a consensus across the House that this is an issue we simply must address. He will be aware that the Government have consulted on the issue and we intend to publish the results of the consultation shortly.

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A scathing report by the Public Accounts Committee has found that the Ministry of Defence lacks the strategy to remedy, before 2023, the skills shortages now apparent in over 100 critical trades. Those shortages are putting an unprecedented strain on servicemen and servicewomen, with morale in freefall. When will the Government face up to the fact that personnel numbers have been plummeting on their watch, and what specific action will the Minister take to respond to the recommendations in the Committee’s report?

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We already discussed some of the actions we are taking, but equally it is important to say that, while the hon. Lady likes to project a picture of gloom, the Army, for example, is actually over 93% manned and fulfils all its operational commitments. Our service personnel are getting opportunities today—the opportunity to train overseas, or, crucially, through training itself—that they may not have had five or six years ago. I already talked about the fact that the Ministry of Defence is the largest provider of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom. These are some of the things that the hon. Lady might like to champion and praise for a change.

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21. It terms of making a career in our armed forces a positive choice, many young people get their first taste of what life might be like in the armed forces by joining the cadets. The Scottish Government make it as difficult as possible for the cadets to recruit in Scottish schools. What will the Minister do to make it easier for young Scots to have the opportunity to join the cadets and gain the advantage of that experience? [907180]

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My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that in England and Wales, we will be increasing the number of schools with cadets, and I like to think that this is a good example. We do not recruit directly from the cadets—let us be absolutely clear. None the less, it is a fact that a large percentage of members of the armed forces were once cadets, and not only that, although the vast majority will not go on to joined the armed forces, the sorts of values that they are taught as cadets will set them up well for life.

CBRN Defence Capability

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5. What steps his Department is taking to increase investment in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence capability. [907162]

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The UK has world-leading counter-chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear capabilities. The MOD has committed around £950 million to maintain and improve these over the next 10 years.

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The Minister will know that following Salisbury, the armed forces played a vital role in identifying the nerve agent and helping to clear up the scene. Will he reassure the House that the MOD will do everything that it can to ensure that the investment in that capability will be maintained and increased?

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Absolutely, and I pay tribute to all those who worked so carefully and so hard in Salisbury and Amesbury on our behalf. As I said, the £950 million is there to improve this over the next 10 years. That includes £48 million to help to set up a new chemical weapons defence centre in Porton Down to make sure that we maintain our cutting-edge capability in chemical analysis and defence.

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Earlier this month, along with other Members of the NATO Parliament, I visited the Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Centre of Excellence in the Czech Republic. One of the training courses that it runs is a skills training course for first responders—for police and ambulance personnel—who may often, as in Salisbury, be the first on the scene. What efforts is the Ministry of Defence making to make sure that we have that capability in this country?

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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Of course, this is not just about the armed forces; we have to recognise that all the emergency services were there very quickly. We need to ensure that they have all the training that they need. I will speak to colleagues in other Departments to ensure that that is happening.

Capita Management of Army Recruitment

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6. Whether his Department has plans to cancel its contracts with Capita for the management of Army recruitment. [907163]

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The Army is working closely with Capita to deliver improvements to recruitment. While there are positive indicators that measures are having an impact, I continue to monitor the Recruiting Partnering Project very closely and hold regular discussions with my officials regarding the contract.

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Subject to a legal challenge, Capita was awarded the MOD fire and rescue contract despite an MOD financial assessment that gave the company the highest category of distress and vulnerability. With shoddy finances and an abysmal record of delivery, does the Minister agree with the MOD fire and rescue staff from my constituency that private corporations should have no place in managing MOD services?

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No, I do not think I do actually. Successive Governments have involved the private sector and I am sure that that is set to continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a challenge to that particular contract at the moment, but I remain convinced that the use of the private sector in delivering the Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation is probably the right thing to do.

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The private sector has had enormous success in delivering huge efficiency savings to the Ministry of Defence over decades now, but on this particular contract, there seems to be an element of risk aversion in the management of it, not least on the medical side from the people making health assessments. Is there a case for getting more military back engaged in the delivery of this contract to make the right risk assessments about recruiting?

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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will be aware of recent work being carried out by the Ministry of Defence through a medical symposium to try to tackle these very issues. Sometimes, some of the medical reasons for not joining are frankly quite archaic. To give a brief example, if someone has had childhood asthma, they cannot join even if they no longer have it, even though the chances are that it will not return until that person is probably in their 50s, when, of course, 99% of service personnel will have left.

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The Minister is celebrating current recruitment levels. Will he explain why the Scots Guards is currently under-recruited by 36%?

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I am not celebrating current recruitment levels. What I am saying is that we are all aware of the challenges facing the defence recruiting system some months ago, but given that this is a long pipeline, I am confident that the hopper at the start of that process, which can take up to a year, is now at a five-year high. I hope and I am confident that we will then see that slowly come through the system, which will result in an increase in the number of our service personnel.

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The sorry saga of the Capita recruitment programme is made worse by the fact that the Ministry of Defence was told at the time that it would not work. I hope the programme will be sorted out in the short term, but until then will the Minister place a greater emphasis on retaining those superb personnel currently engaged in our armed forces?

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There are always two factors in the equation of armed forces numbers. One, clearly, is the number we recruit, and being a bottom-fed organisation, we have to keep recruiting, but equally, although we cannot retain everybody—the rank structure does not allow it—it is important that we continue to retain as many service personnel as possible for as long a career as possible. I have already highlighted some of the things we are doing to make that happen.

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May I send the best wishes of the Scottish National party to the UK team at the Invictus games? I cannot believe it has been left to the SNP to do that—but there we go!

Can the Minister tell me the total financial value of Capita’s contracts with his Department?

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Once again, it may come as a surprise, but off the top of my head, no I cannot, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

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According to a written answer from the Minister, the figure is £1.15 billion. This addiction to privatisation at the MOD, which I get he is ideologically attached to, is causing mayhem, from recruitment to the fire and rescue service. If he pledges to sack Capita, he will have the support of people behind him, of the people across from him and of the SNP Benches. Why won’t he do it?

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The Secretary of State has made it clear that that always remains an option, but if the hon. Gentleman had listened to a word I had said over the past 10 minutes, rather than preparing his question, he might have realised that there was hope. I am confident, at the start of this process, that things are getting better.

South China Sea

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8. What assessment he has made of the security situation in the South China sea. [907165]

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I pay tribute to the crews of HMS Albion and HMS Sutherland, which have played an important role in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China sea. Security in that region is vital to the UK and its global economic interests, and we shall not shy away from asserting our commitment to upholding the rules-based international system.

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The continuing expansion of Chinese military activity in the South China sea, particularly around the Paracel islands, should worry anyone concerned about stability in the region, hence it was welcome to see HMS Albion there, flying the white flag—[Laughter.] —I mean the white ensign, but more will be necessary to reassure our allies. What are my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on more forward deployment of Royal Navy assets in this region—flying the correct flag?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point about how our allies have seen our presence in the Indo-Pacific region. We have had the largest deployment of the surface fleet in a generation, and that will continue with HMS Argyll, which is due to be on exercise with our five power defence agreement allies, and also with HMS Montrose, which will be going to the region next year. It all goes to show that our passion and commitment to the region is growing, and we will be looking at how we can expand this in the future.

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It must be remarkably tempting as Secretary of State for Defence to look at the map and long for the days when a gunboat or two could be sent. Sadly, the days when the white ensign—the white ensign!—flew unchallenged are gone. Will the Secretary of State accept the fact that our friends and allies in Taiwan greatly value British maritime presence in those waters? Has he considered the possibility—I ask him for no more than an indication that he will think about this—of visiting a port in Taiwan, just to show our solidarity and friendship?

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There might be some challenges with that, but we will always consider all options and ideas. The actions that the Royal Navy has undertaken have brought in more allies in support of upholding the rules-based international order in the South China sea. That is what was so valuable about both Australia and France taking part in operations.

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I understand from a defence company in my constituency that the Taiwanese are looking for defence contracts in this country and that the Americans are about to spend a lot of money on ships out in Taiwan. Can companies in this country go for those contracts, or is there some difficulty with that?

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If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will write to him to clarify the matter.

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The Secretary of State has commended the work and the crew of HMS Albion, one of our landing platform docks in the South China sea. Bizarrely, however, the national shipbuilding strategy has defined it as not being a complex warship, unlike frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers. Can the Secretary of State explain why HMS Albion and other amphibious ships are not deemed to be complex warships?

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The national shipbuilding strategy highlighted the fact that the definition was to apply to aircraft carriers, frigates and destroyers, and the strategy was welcomed on both sides of the House.

Counter-Daesh Operations: Syria and Iraq

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9. What contribution UK forces are making to counter-Daesh operations in Syria and Iraq. [907166]

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RAF strikes in Iraq and Syria will continue until Daesh has been defeated in both Iraq and Syria. In Iraq we have about 500 personnel participating in the coalition’s programme of training.

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Can the Secretary of State give some indication of what we are doing to maintain the momentum against a fractured Daesh?

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It is important to remember that although Daesh has been considerably weakened and the amount of territory under its control has been massively reduced, it remains a great threat. In the last month alone the RAF has made 27 strikes against it, which goes to show that the tempo of operations is not actually slowing down. We cannot take it for granted that Daesh has been defeated, and we must continue to put pressure on it.

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It is a year since Raqqa was liberated from Daesh. There is still work to be done on securing all parts of the city, but attention needs to be given to how it will be rebuilt in the future. What plans are being drawn up, and what resources are being allocated to the reconstruction?

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The Department for International Development is leading this process, and the Ministry of Defence will continue to give it as much support as possible. We recognise the important role that must be played in respect of reconstruction following such a devastating conflict.

Defence Expenditure Commitment

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10. What assessment he has made of the effect on NATO capabilities of the NATO commitment to allocate 20% of defence expenditure to major equipment. [907167]

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The 20% target for major equipment ensures that investment is directed towards NATO’s capability priorities, which directly enhances the security of the alliance. The United Kingdom continues to spend more than 2% of GDP on defence, and to spend more than 20% of that on major equipment. That investment helps to keep the UK safe, and ensures that NATO remains at the heart of our defence.

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The NATO commitment opens up many potential opportunities for UK shipbuilders. Sadly, however, it comes at a time when Babcock International is considering the future of Appledore shipyard, which is very concerning. Will the Minister join me, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), in continuing to work with Babcock in committing ourselves to a long-term future for Appledore?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, for the work that they are doing on an issue that I know is important to them. One of the key aims of the national shipbuilding strategy is that UK shipbuilders should be competitive in overseas markets as well as domestically, so that we can secure their long-term future. I hope that they will engage in all the competitions that exist.

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Mr Gorbachev has said that the United States’ decision to withdraw from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is a mistake. He has said:

"Under no circumstances should we tear up old disarmament agreements...Do they really not understand in Washington what this could lead to?”

I am not naive about Russia and the threat from Russia, but what is the future of existing international nuclear non-proliferation treaties, and what additional effect will that have on NATO’s budget?

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I apologise for missing the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but we want to ensure that we are a full member of NATO.

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What are the implications for its budget?

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We have made a commitment to spend 2% of GDP, and we have never spent less than 2%. We are doing everything we can to work with other partners and encourage them to do exactly the same.

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NATO has always been the cornerstone of Britain’s defence, so does my hon. Friend agree that the worst thing that could possibly happen to NATO would be the arrival of a Government whose leader has said recently of NATO:

“I’d rather we weren’t in it”.

He has said:

“NATO, the father of the Cold War in the 1940s, should have shut up shop in 1990”.

That was from none other than the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn).

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. NATO is an important alliance that we are proud to be a member of, and it is part of our defence strategy. It is extremely alarming to hear some of the views from the Leader of the Opposition.

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The intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty was mentioned earlier. Is not one of the consequences of the actions of President Trump that short and medium-range nuclear missiles will have to be relocated on UK soil?

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One of the things that we have to make clear is that we want Russia to adhere to the treaty in the first place—that is incredibly important. The treaty was incredibly important at the time it was signed. We need to ensure that they maintain the treaty and stick to the values it presents to us.

UK Cyber Counter-measures: Russian Activity

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11. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the UK’s cyber counter-measures as a result of alleged Russian malicious activity in Europe. [907168]

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The Ministry of Defence takes cyber-security extremely seriously and co-ordinates closely with the National Cyber Security Centre. I cannot comment on specific measures that the Department has taken, for national security reasons, but I can say that the Government have identified a number of cyber-actors widely known to have been conducting cyber-attacks around the world, and who are in fact from the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. The cyber-attacks are a further demonstration of Russia’s disregard for international institutions and norms.

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As the Secretary of State says, it appears that Russia has developed sophisticated cyber-espionage and cyber-warfare capabilities that it is utilising to pursue its strategic goals. Can he assure us that the Government will provide the dedicated leadership needed to co-ordinate the multi-agency response to this threat?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point about how we have to work right across Government, and also right across industry. That is why we have been committed to investing £1.9 billion in this area. It is about co-ordinating that, bringing people together and ensuring that vulnerabilities do not open up in the industrial sector, so we are working closely with the sector.

Syria

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12. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the security situation in Syria on the delivery of aid to that country by the armed forces. [907170]

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The UK supports the United Nations, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross to meet the needs of vulnerable people in Syria and refugees in the region. So far we have committed £2.71 billion since 2012.

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The situation in Syria is complex and unpredictable, and many civilians are at risk. Given what the Secretary of State has just said about the financial commitment that this country has made to vulnerable civilians, I ask him to keep all options on the table and to keep talking to his colleagues in the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office to ensure that we do everything we can to get basic supplies to the civilians who need them in Syria.

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Every time there is such a request, we consider it very closely, to see how best we can offer help and support. We recognise the dreadful plight that so many people are suffering in Syria. The Ministry of Defence and our armed forces will always be there to support important humanitarian work.

NATO

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14. What assessment he has made of the importance of NATO to UK national security. [907172]

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Earlier this month I met my counterparts in NATO to discuss efforts to strengthen the alliance, including further burden sharing and working with allies so that they can step up their efforts to tackle today’s threats, including by deterring malicious cyber-attacks.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK should continue to play a leading role in NATO, and that working with our allies to combat terrorism and the increasingly sophisticated threat of cyber-attacks should remain a priority?

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We should be incredibly proud of the leading role that we play; we were the first nation to commit our offensive cyber-capabilities to NATO, we have seen an uplift in troop numbers in NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, and we are second only to the United States in supporting NATO and the work it does.

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The Government’s counting within the 2% that we spend on defence things that would never have been counted under previous Governments undermines our voice when it comes to NATO. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm that current spending is simply inadequate if Britain wants to play a global role in the defence of the country?

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Britain has met and will always meet its NATO commitments, and we undertake to spend the money that is required by NATO guidelines.

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As I am sure you will vividly remember, Mr Speaker, on this very date 35 years ago the largest ever demonstration by the campaign for one-sided nuclear disarmament marched in London. Just under 100,000 people marched—although, typically, four times that number was claimed—and the then leader of the Labour party, a lifelong unilateralist, told the rally that NATO should not deploy cruise or Pershing II missiles. If that policy had been followed, we would not have had an intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. What assessment have my right hon. Friend and his Department made of whether that INF treaty, which has been successful for so long, has now been violated by Russia?

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It has been our clear and consistent view that Russia has been in breach of that treaty. We urge Russia to comply with the treaty.

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I do vividly remember the demonstration in question, not least because, as the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is keenly aware, at almost exactly the same time I made an absolutely splendid speech at the University of Essex student union that was based overwhelmingly on the sagacious briefing provided by the right hon. Gentleman.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for listening to Plymouth’s campaigns to base the new Type 26 frigates in Devonport, in the constituency that I represent, and to save Albion and Bulwark from being cut. Can he give any further reassurance to the workers in Devonport that we will be a base for future NATO operations by confirming that we will be the home to the Royal Marines super-base as well?

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I should like to pay tribute to all the Members of Parliament in Devon and Cornwall who have campaigned so hard on the basing of the Type 26s and on keeping Albion and Bulwark. We are not going to make any early comments on the future basing arrangements, but I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Uganda

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15. What military support the UK provides to Uganda. [907173]

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The majority of UK military support to Uganda involves training for the African Union mission to Somalia, which includes training officer cadets at Sandhurst and senior officers at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom.

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Ugandan soldiers recently tortured five Members of Parliament, including the pop star Bobi Wine, and dozens of others. Two of those MPs might never walk again. Why is the UK training those Ugandan forces at Sandhurst?

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We are not training those Ugandan forces. Let me be absolutely clear about this Government’s condemnation of the actions involving those Members of Parliament. The Ministry of Defence does not engage with the special forces command, which operates separately from the mainstream Ugandan people’s defence force. It was the special forces command that was involved in that incident.

Prosecution of Veterans: Northern Ireland

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16. What steps he is taking to ensure that veterans are given adequate protection from prosecution in relation to their service in Northern Ireland. [907174]

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Our service personnel perform exceptional feats in difficult circumstances to protect this country. The Government’s view is that the institutions set out in the draft Stormont House agreement Bill, on which public consultation has just concluded, are the best way to ensure a fair, balanced and proportionate approach to addressing the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland.

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Will my right hon. Friend comment on the case mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) in the Select Committee last week? If I understood this correctly, the case related to a 77-year-old veteran who is suffering from terminal cancer and whose case has already been investigated. The soldier was cleared in 1975, and I understand that everyone else involved in the incident is now dead. Can my right hon. Friend tell us why this has happened?

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I believe that my right hon. Friend is referring to the case of Dennis Hutchings, which has been discussed on several occasions in this Chamber. Indeed, Mr Hutchings has very much become the figure who demonstrates why so many colleagues across the House are so uneasy about this process. I would like to reassure my right hon. Friend that the Ministry of Defence continues support Mr Hutchings in every way we possibly can. This underlines why we are absolutely determined to put this right and sort out this issue.

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To echo the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), my constituent Mr Tom Lynch received a service medal that he asked me personally to return to the Prime Minister when he received a very distressing letter from the Historical Enquiries Team. Please can we have every assurance that these investigations, although necessary, will be carried out in the most sensitive manner, especially for those veterans who suffer from dementia and who are in their 80s?

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Frankly, in my 14 years in Parliament, I have found few issues on which the House is unified to such an extent. The consultation has recently closed. Speaking as a serviceman, I can only reassure the House how keen we are to try to address this issue. I am sure there will be an announcement in the House in due course.

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Order. We are about to move on to topical questions, but I advise the right hon. Members for Warley (John Spellar) and for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett), and the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen), that, having missed out on substantives, they can take their chance in topicals. I am trying to encourage them.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [907198]

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I take the opportunity to wish our team who are taking part in the Invictus games the very best. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), is currently in Sydney supporting them, so sadly is unable to be in the Chamber today.

As we approach the centenary of the end of the first world war and this year’s armistice commemorations, we remember all those who have fought and died in the service of this country. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will go to the thousands of events up and down the country to remember those who have lost their lives and pay tribute to our armed forces personnel, both current and former.

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I concur with the Secretary of State’s comments.

I welcome the finalised deal for the nine Hawk aircraft being sold to Qatar. It is important for the employees at BAE Systems at Brough, for skilled local jobs and for flying the flag for British defence manufacturing, but there is more to do. What further support could the Government offer to win export orders for the Hawk in places such as Kuwait?

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As was touched on earlier, we have held discussions with the Qatari Government about the order for nine Hawks. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), was out in Kuwait furthering discussions about future orders for the Hawk. We will continue to work closely with BAE Systems to land more orders to sustain Brough.

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T5. A constituent wrote to me about his father, who served on HMS Repulse and survived both its sinking and imprisonment in Japan. More than 500 of his fellow sailors died aboard the ship, which is their final resting place. Today, many warships have been partially or completely destroyed by scavengers. What steps has my right hon. Friend taken to prevent further destruction of our maritime war graves? [907202]

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The whole House will be united in complete disgust at what has happened. These are war graves. We would not tolerate the desecration of war graves on land, and we should not tolerate the desecration of war graves at sea. We have instructed a survey of the site and are engaged with other Governments to ensure that, where ships are under their flags, action is taken to ensure that such behaviour does not go unpunished.

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At last month’s Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister said that austerity is over, but we know that the Tories’ record on defence is one of deep cuts and falling budgets. In cash terms, defence spending has been slashed by £4.9 billion since Labour left office. Can the Secretary of State tell us by how much his party has cut the defence budget in real terms?

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The defence budget is going up in real terms year on year. We have a commitment for it to go up every year by £1 billion up to 2021.

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With due respect, I have to correct the record. Between 2010 and 2017, the real-terms value of the defence budget fell by nearly £10 billion, which puts immense strain on the ability of the Ministry of Defence to meet its commitments. We welcome the long overdue pay rise for service personnel, but whereas Labour set out a clear plan to fund a fair pay rise, will the Secretary of State confirm that his Government is providing no new money to cover the cost and therefore that he will have to make additional cuts elsewhere to give our forces the pay rise they deserve?

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We all welcome the increase in service personnel pay. When I meet service personnel, whether in the UK or abroad, they particularly point out that this is the largest pay increase they have experienced since 2010.

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T6. My right hon. Friend is well aware of the strength of feeling in North Devon on securing the future of Royal Marines base Chivenor. When will we receive a decision? [907203]

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The better defence estate strategy was published about two years ago, and the strategy remains in place as it stands. The strategy extends over some 20 years, and the Royal Navy continues to work to establish the amphibious centre of excellence in Plymouth.

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T2. The Defence Secretary has said that, for every £1 spent on defence, we get £4 in return. How can the Government square such comments with their willingness to see the fleet solid support ship built in foreign yards? [907199]

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We are currently in the pre-qualification process, which means we are making sure that we get the very best price for the ships we need. The FSS is not classed as a warship, and therefore it has to go out to international competition. We want to make sure that we have British shipyards competing for the contracts so that they become world competitors when other countries are looking to offer such contracts.

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T7. Earlier this year, cadets in Arbroath embarked on a new era with the opening of a new £600,000 joint facility in the town. Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), will the Secretary of State underline the Department’s plan for increasing investment in cadet units across the UK? [907204]

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We will be doing everything we can to increase cadet units right across the United Kingdom. Cadet units play a vital role in everything we do by sending out the message that our armed forces are important to every community in the United Kingdom.

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T3. York has four remaining Normandy veterans who fought in the second world war. LIBOR funding will be needed to give them, and their carers, the opportunity to make one last visit to mark D-day on 6 June 2019. How will the Minister ensure that they are able to pay their respects next year and that they will be able to take their carers with them to attend fully? [907200]

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The hon. Lady is right that next year is a significant anniversary of the Normandy invasions, and it is important that we get it right. We are looking carefully at the right way for the Ministry of Defence to support the event, and an announcement will be made in due course.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work on mental health support for veterans and members of the armed forces. Does he agree that the 24/7 mental health helpline plays a vital role in supporting those personnel and needs maximum publicity?

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The helpline is an important part of everything we do, but we can never rest in looking at what more we can do to support those who are serving and those who have served.

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T4. My Jamaican constituent applied for leave to remain after serving with the Royal Marines for seven years. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and found it difficult to cope with the increasing demands for information from the Home Office. What is the MOD doing so that service members are directed to support services when they leave the armed forces? [907201]

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We offer an enormous amount of support through the career transition partnership, and we offer mental health and, indeed, physical support to veterans. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me with the details of that individual case, I am more than happy to look into it.

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I refer the House to my entry on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I warmly welcome the combat air strategy, announced earlier this year. Will Ministers update the House on any potential discussions with future national partners?

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We continue to work closely with industry, especially BAE Systems. As we develop this strategy, four companies are at the heart of it—BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA—but we are in discussions with other nations. I am afraid that I am not in a position to update the House on who they are.

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T8. Can the Secretary of State inform the House what has happened to the modernising defence programme? [907206]

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We will continue to keep the House informed and we will update the House with the findings in due course.

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This follows on from the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about the situation in the South China sea, as last week I had the pleasure to meet representatives of our allies in the region. HMS Albion gave a demonstration of freedom of waters and of navigation, and the importance of that cannot be understated. Is this going to become a regular exercise, because our allies in the region would be very happy to see that?

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We are committed to stepping up our presence right across the Indo-Pacific area. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot go into operational details at the moment, but we see our Royal Navy playing an important role in upholding our values.

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The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) deserves some encouragement at this very early stage of his parliamentary career!

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Does the Minister not understand that to export defence equipment we have to have a strong home market, and that is why other European countries insist on building vessels such as the fleet solid support ships in their own yards, with their own workers. What blind dogma is stopping these Ministers and their Department from doing the same and ensuring that we make them in Britain?

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As I said a moment ago, we are making sure that we go out to international competition, because that gives value for money to this country, and we can also then invest the savings we make in other capabilities. It means that we attract the best and affordable solutions. It also brings competition at the heart of our shipbuilding strategy, because we want our shipyards to go out there and compete for international orders.

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Captain Mainwaring’s doughty band of men who formed the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard are in danger of looking like special forces, on account of their ability to climb in and out of Lance Corporal Jones’s converted bread van, when compared with the modern Army, which has 18,000 clinically obese soldiers and servicemen, with 398 having type 2 diabetes, 160 being on prescribed diet pills and 16 having had liposuction. When is the Secretary of State going to do something about the state of the fitness of the British armed forces?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this matter, but, of course, as I look across this Chamber, I do wonder whether or not this was the right establishment to be criticising the British Army for obesity. Every year, all soldiers are required to carry out fitness tests. He will have realised, or seen, that from 1 April we are changing that annual fitness test to make sure it is more aligned with the combat roles our soldiers are required to carry out.

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rose

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rose

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rose—

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Gosh, there is something of an internal Scottish National party competition. It is an invidious choice between three celebrated individuals, one of whom is a member of the Select Committee. I call Martin Docherty-Hughes.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. First, let me say that I agree with the Secretary of State that we should be mindful of the armistice we commemorate this year. I will be joining family at Westminster abbey later this year to commemorate my great uncle James from County Mayo, who fell at Passchendaele.

Asbestos kills, and it is a silent killer. I represent a constituency with the highest rates of mesothelioma not only in Scotland or the United Kingdom, but in Europe. I was therefore dumbfounded at a recent Defence Committee meeting when senior members of the Ministry of Defence seemed to be silent and unable to answer questions on the use of asbestos in Sea King helicopters between 1969 and 2016. I have even heard that two of them have been brought back into service for training purposes. Will the Secretary of State please ensure that the report that has been brought about is fully published and that we ensure that those exposed to asbestos, both civilian and military, get due compensation, if affected?

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The hon. Gentleman is quite right to bring this issue up. I am starting to look at it in more detail. If he would allow me, I would like to write to him with further details, once I have had more information from the Department.

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The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) offers the Chamber on a regular basis a passable imitation of Demosthenes, but Demosthenes was not subject to constraints of time, whereas under our Question Time procedures the hon. Gentleman and other Members are. I advise him to plough through the pages of the textbook on pithy questions by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne).