COMMONS

Today's House of Commons debates - Monday 24 November 2014

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 19:58

House of Commons

Monday 24 November 2014

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Reserve Recruitment

1.

What recent progress he has made on reserve recruitment; and if he will make a statement.[906178]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Julian Brazier):

The programme to grow the reserves is on track. We have reversed 18 years of decline. Our more recent official figures, published on 13 November, show an increase in both recruitment and the trained strength of the reserves. Enlistment numbers are increasing and recruitment times are reducing, thanks to improvements that the three services have made.

Toby Perkins:

I am very concerned to hear that the net increase of just 20 reservists is actually a part of the Government’s plan. With our regular forces at their lowest numbers since the Napoleonic wars, the news that just 20 extra reservists have signed up is extremely worrying. Will the Minister tell us his assessment of why the almost £2 million spent on advertising and all the warm words have not led to the extra reservists that we desperately need given the huge reduction in the regular forces that we have seen?

Mr Brazier:

In the six months to 30 September, 2,770 people joined the reserves. That is an increase of 61% compared with the same period last year. The bulk of the difference occurred during the second half of that period, because it is only in the last few months that our changes in the recruiting process have come through.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con):

May I thank my hon. Friend for the important reforms that he has instigated and the fact that he has taken this back and we now look to substantial improvements? May I assure him that recruiting in the Yeomanry Squadron, with which I am associated, is going extremely well? The only problem that remains is for the Government to persuade employers that it is well worth letting their employees go for territorial service.

Mr Brazier:

I am most grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend, who is of course a distinguished former Minister for the Armed Forces. I was privileged to visit the unit he mentions, the Royal Yeomanry, which is now over strength. The point he makes about employers is well taken. We recently enhanced the package for small businesses, with a supplementary £500 a month, on top of the rest of the compensation package for small businesses that release people for operations. We also have a considerable initiative in the wider country.

22.[906199]

I declare an interest as a member of the Strathclyde-area Lowland Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Can the Minister say whether he has carried out any regional or national analysis of reserve recruitment figures, whether there are any problems in different parts of the country and whether a more individual and specific approach to recruitment requires to be taken as a result?

Mr Brazier:

I am most grateful for the service that the hon. Lady gives on the RFCA board in Scotland. The RFCAs are critical. To answer her question, we are looking at it. I do not have a comprehensive answer for her, but the four recruitment centres through which every recruit passes have a different track record. Some of them have had much tighter capacity constraints. We have taken measures to ease those. Scotland has had a number of interesting initiatives of its own, as well as leading the way on phase 1 training. We are trying to get best practice spread around the country.

25.[906202]

However these figures are dressed up, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures show that the trained strength of the Army reserve has actually fallen over the last 18 months. Given that the Government have had to throw more money at the reforms, including added incentives to join up, will the Minister answer the one question that the Government have so far ducked: how much extra are these reforms costing, over and above original estimates?

Mr Brazier:

Over the past six months, the trained strength of the volunteer reserves has increased by 400, and it is only in the last three months that most of the reforms we have introduced have bitten. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we are confident that the figure that we originally offered—1.8, over the 10-year period—will be adequate for the purpose. We are still aiming to reach our targets. Numbers are growing and recruiting is increasing rapidly.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab):

A key plank of the Government’s defence policy was to increase the number of reservists to make up for the reduction, by a fifth, of the regular Army, but the latest figures, however dressed up, show an increase of just 20 Army reservists in a year. The Government have had two years, spent millions on advertising and revised down their targets, and there has still been no improvement. It is becoming clear that this key plank is now dead wood. Does the Minister have a plan B, or is “Don’t panic!” the only answer offered by him and Captain Mainwaring there on the Front Bench?

Mr Brazier:

The size of the volunteer reserves, including the then Territorial Army, halved under the last Government, and we inherited a structure that had lost most of its officers and was falling apart. The size of the Regular Army was reduced because of cash constraints that arose from an economic crisis we inherited. Our plans to expand the reserves are not designed as a direct substitute for regular numbers; they are designed to provide the kind of reserve—the framework for expansion—that would be needed in a time of national crisis.

Vernon Coaker:

Permission to speak, sir—they don’t like it up ’em, do they? We need to see a clear plan to address concerns about future gaps in the armed forces’ capability, so why have the Government rejected recommendations by the Public Accounts Committee to put in place contingency measures if reserve recruitment continues to fall? Surely that is just plain common sense. Is this not further proof that when it comes to defence, the Government have no strategy and just make it up as they go along?

Mr Brazier:

I think the hon. Gentleman wrote that question before he heard my earlier answer. His premise is that reserve recruiting is falling, but reserve recruiting increased in the last six months by 61% compared with the equivalent period last year. We are confident that it will go on increasing, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is, I am afraid, wrong.

War Widows

2.

What steps he is taking to protect the pensions of war widows who subsequently remarry or cohabit.[906179]

16.

What steps he is taking to protect the pensions of war widows who subsequently remarry or cohabit.[906193]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry):

I am sure the whole House warmly welcomed the Prime Minister’s announcement on 8 November that from April next year, the armed forces pension scheme ’75 and the war pension scheme will be changed to ensure that war widows will be able to continue to claim the pension when they remarry or cohabit.

Andrew Bridgen:

I congratulate my hon. Friend on resolving this issue, ensuring that all those entitled to an armed forces pension retain it for life. But may I press her a little harder on what steps individuals affected by this most welcome change have to take to ensure that they benefit from it?

Anna Soubry:

The simple answer is, of course, that I always want to help people if I can, but if they call Veterans UK on 0808 1914 218, they will be able to receive all the advice they need.

Robert Jenrick:

My constituent, Mrs Stella Weatherby, herself a war widow, sends her sincere thanks to the Government, as does the Royal Air Force Association club of Newark, which wrote to me to say that, should the Secretary of State find himself again in Newark—not in a by-election, I hope—he should drop by for a drink or two. Having made this welcome decision, will the Minister encourage her ministerial colleagues to consider the same treatment for widows of police and emergency service workers who have been killed on active service elsewhere?

Anna Soubry:

The Secretary of State and I are always happy to go to the RAFA club in Newark to enjoy a couple of sherbets. Answering my hon. Friend’s question as posed, in blunt terms, the decision was made using the covenant. The view was taken, quite properly, that this section of our armed forces—those widows—suffered a disadvantage by virtue of, usually, their husbands’ service. That is why we did this under the covenant. No Government have ever supported retrospective changes—as would be required for the widows of police officers and members of our fire brigades—in pension plans. I understand the injustice—I absolutely get that—but it would require retrospective changes, which are not a good idea. As I say, the changes made were done quite properly under the covenant, which this Government introduced and put into law.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab):

What action have the Government taken to help local authorities identify ex-service personnel and their families, including war widows, who are entitled to state support?

Anna Soubry:

I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s question, as I did not quite understand all of it, but local authorities should always make sure that they invoke the covenant. Having all signed up, they are the ones who can deliver on it. I am keen to ensure that that happens.

Sir Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con):

As one who said some 10 years ago, when I was shadow veterans Minister, that the next Conservative Government would implement this welcome change, I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State on having delivered something that is of huge benefit and has righted an injustice. Is this not a very good example of the Government’s implementation of the military covenant?

Anna Soubry:

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I thank him for all the work that he did to support the campaign. These women have campaigned for decades for justice, and it has been possible to achieve it precisely because we put the military covenant into law and are now delivering on it.

ISIL

3.

What recent discussions he has had with his middle east counterparts on steps to counter ISIL.[906180]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):

During my recent visits I met the Iraqi Prime Minister, Defence Minister and national security adviser, the President and Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Government, and my counterparts in the region, including those in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I hope to meet the King and Crown Prince of Bahrain and the United States Defence Secretary at next week’s conference in Manama for further discussion of steps to counter ISIL

David Rutley:

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our partners in the middle east value the capability that the United Kingdom brings, and that we are making a substantial contribution to the coalition? What plans has he to do more in the fight against ISIL?

Michael Fallon:

Our contribution to coalition activity so far has been second only to that of the United States, in surveillance, intelligence-gathering, strike missions, and the supply of arms and ammunition. We plan to provide further training and assistance—specifically, further training for the Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi armed forces—and to advise and assist the Iraqi armed forces through the secondment of further advisory personnel to command headquarters. We also plan to make a significant contribution to the training of moderate elements of the Syrian opposition.

21.[906198]

How long does the Secretary of State expect the current action to last, and has he any plans to extend it?

Michael Fallon:

I cannot put a time frame on the current action, although I think the United States Secretary of State considered that it would take years rather than months or weeks. The present position is that the advance of ISIL has been halted, but pushing ISIL back out of the territory that it has gained will obviously present a huge challenge to the Iraqi and Kurdish forces, supported by the coalition.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con):

Given that British nationals are now known to be fighting with ISIL, with the Syrian army and with the Kurdish forces, what discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the Home Secretary to ensure that we have the legal instruments that will enable us to deal with those people appropriately on their return?

Michael Fallon:

I know that the Home Secretary has been considering that very actively during the last few weeks, and will present further proposals to the House. It is very important for those who go to fight against the interests of this country by supporting ISIL to understand that they are fighting for an organisation that is proscribed, and that if they are detained when they return, they can be charged and prosecuted.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab):

One of the reasons for the initial failure of the Iraqi army against ISIL was its inability to present itself as being part of the Iraqi nation as a whole, given that groups such as the Assyrian Christians and Kurds were excluded. Did the Secretary of State have any discussions about making the army much more inclusive, so that there can be a force that is united against ISIL and fighting on behalf of the whole of Iraq?

Michael Fallon:

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. The point that he has made is perfectly fair. I continue to make clear to the Defence Minister and Prime Minister in Baghdad that they must have the support of all interests in Iraq. I think that the recent agreement between three of the tribes in Anbar province and the Iraqi army to fight ISIL together, and the growing rapprochement—the interim agreement—between the Kurdish Regional Government and the federal Government in Baghdad, are pointers to the growing inclusiveness of the Government, which must be demonstrated in action. The reforms that are being made to the army, including the dismissal of some corps commanders and the recruitment of a genuinely inclusive national guard, are hopeful signs for the future.

Bilateral Training Programmes (Libya)

4.

What recent discussions he has had with his Libyan counterpart on bilateral training programmes.[906181]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):

Given the deteriorating security situation in Libya, I have not had the chance to discuss training with my Libyan counterpart, but I continue to discuss the situation in Libya with our regional partners. General purpose force training was designed in 2013 at the request of the Libyan Government. The majority of trainees met the required standards but some did not. That was unacceptable and work is already under way on the report that the Prime Minister has commissioned.

Thomas Docherty:

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. As he has touched on, the Government’s much-heralded UK training programme collapsed after serious allegations about the behaviour of some of the individuals, but of course that does not mean we should abandon the moderate elements in Libya. Will the Secretary of State outline the practical steps he is taking to deal with what has happened, and when can we expect to see the details of the new programme, wherever that is carried out?

Michael Fallon:

This training programme was organised by the United Kingdom at the request of the Libyan Government and a number of locations were considered for it. The most cost-effective turned out to be here in the UK, but I think it likely that we shall learn from this and that this kind of training is probably better provided and organised in the country itself, or very close to it. That is difficult at the moment given the security situation in Libya, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to work with all parties in Libya, particularly the moderates in all three factions in Libya, to secure a political settlement.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab):

Three hundred and twenty-eight Libyan service personnel began their training in the UK in June 2014. Can the Secretary of State say how many remain in the country and how many have claimed asylum?

Michael Fallon:

Three hundred and twenty-eight signed up originally. Some 100 left during the course of their training by agreement with the Libyan authorities. The remainder have all now been returned properly to Libya, apart from five who remain in custody and a very small handful who have claimed asylum.

Afghanistan

5.

What recent progress has been made on the armed forces drawdown from Afghanistan[906182]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois):

On 26 October, our troops left Camp Bastion and, as confirmed by the Secretary of State, the final UK personnel left Kandahar airfield yesterday. All of our major equipment and matériel has now left the country. A few hundred UK personnel remain in Kabul, at the invitation of the Afghans, to train the Afghan army’s future officers and provide continuing support to Afghan security ministries. I share the Defence Secretary’s view that our armed forces can take great pride in the completion of their deployment to southern Afghanistan. Thanks to their courage and dedication, the country has the best possible chance of a stable future. Our departure from Kandahar airfield is therefore an historic milestone.

Paul Flynn:

Is not the need for a swift start to an inquiry into the Afghan war proved by the fact that today is the fifth anniversary of the start of the Chilcot inquiry, which planned to report within 12 months? Do not the loved ones of the 179 of our brave soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq need to know the truth and why they were sent there in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and the relatives of the 451 casualties need to know why we went into Helmand in the belief that not a shot would be fired? Can the Minister give us an assurance that these reports are not being delayed by those who will be judged guilty by them?

Mr Francois:

It was 453, and we honour them all. We have been learning tactical lessons through our operations in Afghanistan, such as better detection and defusing of IEDs. Of course we will want to look at broader lessons that can be learned from the campaign, but our focus has been on a successful draw-down and no decisions have been taken yet on any review. In making such a decision on a review, the Government will wish to learn how best any improvements could be made both quickly and practically.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con):

I welcome the Government’s role in bringing together the London conference on Afghanistan, which is taking place on 4 December. Will the Minister briefly update the House on what the Government’s aims are? How hopeful are the Government of being successful at that conference?

Mr Francois:

The conference will centre mainly on economic development, but it is worth recording that we should be very proud of what our armed forces have done. We have assisted in training the Afghans to deliver their own security and to protect their elections, which led to the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history and the election of a national unity Government. It is now for the Afghans to determine their own future, with our ongoing support. They have done this because of the hard work of our troops. We have given them a chance; we must hope they will take it.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab):

The position of Afghan interpreters is of great concern. Only a very few have been given the right to settle in this country. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the rest of them will be protected? After all, they sacrificed their lives on behalf of our country.

Mr Francois:

We have two schemes in place—those who served alongside UK forces for substantial periods are eligible to receive financial packages, and those who served alongside us on the front line have, in some cases, the option of resettlement in the United Kingdom. So far about 350 have opted for the resettlement package. There is a separate intimidation policy which protects those locally employed civilians at risk as a result of their employment with Her Majesty’s Government. In the most extreme cases that includes the option to resettle in the United Kingdom. The processing of those cases is ongoing, but it is important to remember that there are two schemes working in parallel.

Armed Forces Covenant

6.

What progress he has made on strengthening the armed forces covenant.[906183]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry):

In addition to doing the right thing by our war widows, I am pleased to report that 3,222 applications to the Forces Help to Buy scheme have been approved, and 1,864 service personnel have received funding totalling about £28 million.

Angie Bray:

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is encouraging that all local authorities and a growing number of companies have signed up to support the covenant? Does she further agree that the challenge now is to get those commitments turned into action?

Anna Soubry:

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend and I thank her for that supplementary question. I am in the process of writing to the chief executive and leader of every local authority because, as we know, most services are delivered locally. This is not about money. It is about putting into action everything that they have signed up to. There is a great deal of work that local MPs can do to make sure that local authorities have a forces champion and that they are delivering on the covenant.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab):

The Minister is well aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) and I have been raising the case of the late Corporal McLaughlin, who lost his life in the Falklands in 1982. We recently discussed this matter during a constructive Westminster Hall debate. Yesterday The Mail on Sunday reported that the MOD will make rigorous and extensive inquiries into this case on behalf of his family. I welcome that, if it is correct. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case and say what form those inquiries will take?

Anna Soubry:

I can confirm that. I pay tribute to Corporal McLaughlin, who was undoubtedly incredibly brave. What he did in the Falkland Islands was remarkable. I pay tribute to the debate that we had last week. I have met Lord Astor, who is the Minister responsible for medals. We had an exceptionally good meeting and there will indeed be such an investigation. We will report that accordingly.

20.[906197]

I represent many constituents who work and do great service at DMS Whittington. They and I are fully aware which Government enshrined the armed forces covenant in law. Will my hon. Friend continue to build on the covenant to ensure that our armed forces get the best clinical staff and clinical support, as they deserve?

Anna Soubry:

Absolutely. It was a great pleasure to go to DMS Whittington back in October. This is where we now have to do the work—it is going to be quite difficult, because we have to get the message out right across the NHS that there should be no disadvantage to those who have served and that, in special circumstances, they should receive special consideration, based on bereavement and particularly bad injuries. GPs and all health professionals must be alert to that. We all have a role to play in making sure that in the NHS we deliver on the armed forces covenant.

Gemma Doyle (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op):

Two weeks ago I met a veteran in Preston who was injured in service and now uses a prosthetic leg. He is being treated in a regular NHS clinic, not in the specialist veterans prosthetics centre in Preston. He wants to know why, and so do I. The Minister reportedly says that her job is not demanding. When will she start doing it properly and make sure that there is some connection between what she says at the Dispatch Box and the treatment that our veterans actually get?

Anna Soubry:

I assure the hon. Lady that I never said any such thing. It is an absolute pleasure and a great honour to do the job that I do, and I like to think that I do it with total commitment. I, too, want to know why that man has not received the treatment he says he should have received, and I should be grateful if the hon. Lady met me so that we can discuss why that is. I have no difficulty whatsoever in taking up every single case and asking the questions. It was a challenge I threw down to the BBC; I said, “I want to know the names and I want to help.” I am waiting to hear of any of those details. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s supplying me with the details relating to her constituent; we will get it sorted.

Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD):

The armed forces covenant had all-party support, and we should remember that. The Minister referred to local government. Can she give an assurance that all Government Departments are signed up to the covenant, and particularly the Department of Health regarding general practitioners, veterans and hearing loss?

Anna Soubry:

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and good point. He has asked a couple of questions in one, and I hope to answer them as fully as I can. It is delivery that is important, which means that all our Departments have to sign up to it, but of course, they can play a part in delivering the corporate covenant as well. However, there is more that we can do, and we have to get the message out across the NHS and through the devolved Administrations. If we all do that—if I may say, working together to ensure that—we can absolutely deliver on the covenant in the way we want.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab):

Does the covenant offer an opportunity for local and national Government to respond to my constituent Sue MacLean’s campaign to ensure that veterans who pass away without anyone to deal with their affairs have something more than a pauper’s funeral to recognise their passing?

Anna Soubry:

I am more than happy to discuss this with the hon. Gentleman. We know that our forces charities play such an incredibly important part in the welfare of and assistance given not only to those who serve, but to veterans. We have a fabulous system in this country of which we should be proud.

Army Reserve

7.

What steps he is taking to promote service in the Army Reserve.[906184]

17.

What steps he is taking to promote service in the Army Reserve.[906194]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Julian Brazier):

Being a reservist is a great way to experience adventure with new comrades, develop leadership qualities, learn new skills and get paid up to £3,000 in the first year, while maintaining a civilian life and day job. Funding of nearly £2 million has been delegated to fund regional and unit initiatives, as we believe that it is from the unit level that the greatest impetus for recruiting should come.

Bob Blackman:

On Remembrance Sunday, I had the honour and privilege of meeting the commander of the reserve base in my constituency. He made it clear that capacity was available for new volunteers to come forward. What further steps does my hon. Friend suggest we can take to ensure that people locally can volunteer, should they wish to do so?

Mr Brazier:

The short answer is that we have a very considerable advertising programme and a programme of engagement with employers—from the civil service down to small businesses and the special measures for them that I mentioned. The best advocates of all are serving reservists themselves, who need to go out and talk about the new opportunities. Examples include the platoon from my own constituency which, with a reserve officer commanding it, is going off to serve in Afghanistan from February onwards; the company that has just been to Cyprus; and all the other opportunities that are available in reserve service.

Alok Sharma:

The fantastic 7 Rifles, based at Brock barracks in my constituency, will be encouraged by my hon. Friend’s answer, but could he please outline any specific incentives that employers are being offered to encourage their employees to become reservists? He has talked about the package for small businesses; can he provide a bit more detail, please?

Mr Brazier:

I in fact served in the unit to which my hon. Friend refers when it was 4th Green Jackets. The £500 a month on deployment available to small businesses is over and above the full compensation package available to all employers when soldiers are away on operations. It is estimated that the training experience gained from an average period of mobilisation is worth up to £8,000 for a private, £14,000 for a sergeant and £18,000 for an officer. We have a full employer recognition scheme for supportive employers, and I myself have signed off a number of the dozens of organisations coming through, large and small, that want to be part of this exciting initiative.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op):

I have had the privilege of meeting reservists and potential reserve recruits up and down the country, including in Wales. Many potential recruits are deeply disturbed by the length of time they are having to wait after their initial expression of interest. What is the Minister’s estimate of the number who are dropping out of the reserve recruitment process as a result of the delays that are being experienced by so many people?

Mr Brazier:

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that there was a very considerable glitch in the pipeline, but we have taken a number of steps to solve it. People can now be enlisted even if their medical documents have not caught up with them, and they can be enlisted pending their security checks once they have done the initial interview. We have also very considerably increased the capacity at the assessment centres so that people are not caught waiting for places. All those changes are making a considerable difference. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise answer to his final question, but it is quite a number. I hope that that will not be the case in future, however, because the process has now speeded up so much.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):

Reports by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Select Committee into Army 2020 have all said that Ministers have not done the basic work necessary to bring forward those reforms successfully. Poor planning data have been used, and assumptions have not been properly tested. What is the Minister going to do to put right this shambles?

Mr Brazier:

The outline of the plan came from the original “Future Reserves 2020” review, which was chaired by the current Chief of the Defence Staff. The early blueprint was put together by General Sir Nick Carter, the Chief of the General Staff. The hon. Gentleman is partly right: there were some mistakes in the early stages relating to the way in which the recruiting pipeline was organised. Since those early glitches, we have made considerable changes—relating to meeting a common standard, for example—and recruits are now coming through in much greater numbers.

ISIL

9.

What recent steps the UK has taken against ISIL in Iraq; and if he will make a statement.[906186]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):

Since Parliament authorised military action in support of combat operations, the Royal Air Force has flown some 139 missions, gathering intelligence, providing surveillance and striking some 37 targets. We are already providing training and equipment to Kurdish forces and we are now preparing to provide further infantry, combat first aid, sharp-shooting and counter-improvised explosive device training.

Mr Gray:

Does the Secretary of State agree that if our policy aim in Iraq is the successful containment of ISIL, we are indeed making a fantastic contribution towards that, but that if our aim is the degradation or destruction of ISIL, as we were originally told, that will occur only if there is significant political engagement by the Baghdad Government, particularly with Sunni-friendly tribes? Does he agree that, unless we have that wider political engagement, what we are doing is either unnecessary or not enough?

Michael Fallon:

Let me confirm to my hon. Friend that it is indeed our aim to help the legitimate Government of Iraq to degrade and defeat ISIL in that country. I agree that the new Government of Iraq have to be inclusive, and they are: they represent Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds. The new defence Minister is a Sunni, and I have emphasised to him the importance of demonstrating that the Iraqi national army is there for all the peoples of Iraq.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):

May I remind the Secretary of State that, when I asked the Prime Minister about boots on the ground, he said that they would not be the boots of our own troops but other people’s boots? I have to tell the Secretary of State that, when representatives of my Kurdish community came to see me recently, they were angry that the Kurds fighting for us against ISIL were not being provided with enough machinery or weaponry.

Michael Fallon:

I have been to Kurdistan and I was in a training ground close to Irbil where I saw for myself the Kurdish forces training on the heavy machine guns that we in this country had donated to them. We are following that up with the supply of other arms and equipment and, just as importantly, the training to go with it.

23.[906200]

There have been recent successes for the Iraqi army and its associated militias of late, but those have been costly, both in lives and equipment. To what extent has the lost equipment been replaced and to what extent are the British Government assisting in that replacement?

Michael Fallon:

There have been losses to the Iraqi and the Kurdish forces, which is an indication that they are taking the fight to ISIL, and it is important that we support them in that task. The Iraqi Defence Minister handed me a list of some of the gaps in their capabilities. We are now looking at that and seeing what can be supplied from our inventory, and we are encouraging other countries to do the same.

Aircraft Carriers

10.

When (a) HMS Queen Elizabeth and (b) HMS Prince of Wales will set out to sea under their own power for the first time.[906187]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne):

In September the Prime Minister announced that he would bring both carriers into service so that we always have one carrier available 100% of the time. Final equipment installation and system commissioning plans are being developed for both the aircraft carriers, so we expect HMS Queen Elizabeth to proceed to sea under her own power for the first time in 2017 and HMS Prince of Wales to do so in 2019.

Ms Stuart:

Can the Minister confirm that British F-35Bs, not US marine corps planes, will be the first to operate from the carriers?

Mr Dunne:

What I can confirm to the hon. Lady and to the House is that we have today signed a contract for the first batch of four operational aircraft for the first squadron to operate, both from the aircraft carriers and on land.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con):

When the carriers are happily operational there will still be one other gap at sea, which will be in marine patrol aircraft. Can the Minister share with the House any moves as to how that gap is going to be filled?

Mr Dunne:

As my hon. Friend knows from his persistent challenging of the Front-Bench team on this and other equipment issues, we recognise the need to consider how to meet the maritime patrol aircraft capability gap as part of the strategic defence and security review 2015.

Army 2020

12.

What progress he has made on meeting the objectives of the Army 2020 programme; and if he will make a statement.[906189]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):

The Army 2020 programme will deliver the flexible and adaptable force the nation needs to defeat the threats of the future, and it is on track. The Army is in the middle of the busiest period of change in the programme, which will see the majority of units completing their reorganisation next year. Despite this ambitious change, the Army remains fully deployable to support current operations, including those in west Africa.

Mrs Glindon:

The Government significantly revised down their reserve target, but have made no equivalent changes to the programme of redundancies. With all the redundancies now complete but thousands of reserves still to be recruited, is the Army currently under strength and has Britain been left with a dangerous capability gap?

Michael Fallon:

Absolutely not. This is a five-year programme to restructure our forces, as they shift from focusing on the campaign in Afghanistan to being an Army that is sufficiently adaptable to be able to meet any threat the nation faces in future. For example, we currently have some 1,350 troops on exercise in Poland and more than 850 deployed to tackle Ebola in west Africa.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con):

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Department on what they have achieved towards this programme. Will he share with the House precisely how we are helping families who may want their loved ones to serve as reservists but have misgivings about what the implications will be?

Michael Fallon:

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend on that. It is very important that families understand the nature of service life, and there can be some misapprehension about the scale and length of reserve activity. If I may, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), the Minister responsible for the reserves, to meet her to see what further reassurance he can offer.

Compensation Claims (Injured Veterans)

15.

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of resources available to process compensation claims for injured armed forces veterans.[906192]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry):

We have taken on extra staff, including five accredited doctors, to make sure that we process complaints and cases quickly. On the armed forces compensation scheme, I assure the hon. Lady that 100% of the cases of those with the most serious injuries are cleared within 20 days. We are making good progress; I have the full figures available to me, and I will share them with her.

Sandra Osborne:

I thank the Minister for her reply. One of my constituents who was injured in Iraq tells me that she is caught up in a quagmire of red tape. She says that many of her queries go unanswered and that it takes years to settle claims. There is an online petition asking for an inquiry into the Veterans Agency in relation to those problems. What will the Minister do about it?

Anna Soubry:

If the hon. Lady writes to me directly, I am more than happy to take up her constituent’s difficulty and claim; I have no trouble with that. There have been difficulties, but good progress is being made. Unfortunately, some claims take much longer, because of their complexity and the changing nature of medical needs, diagnoses and prognoses. I can assure her that, in general, we are making good progress.

Ebola

18.

What steps his Department is taking to assist those affected by the Ebola outbreak.[906195]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois):

The Ministry of Defence is providing significant support to the Department for International Development-led effort to combat Ebola. We have deployed RFA Argus with three Merlin helicopters on board. We have also deployed more than 800 personnel for a range of tasks, including providing planning support to the Government of Sierra Leone; supervising the construction of six Ebola treatment units; training more than 3,000 local health care workers, which will increase to 4,000 by the end of the month, exceeding our original target; and manning a 12-bed treatment facility. I saw elements of all those initiatives when I visited Sierra Leone a fortnight ago. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending our armed forces personnel who are working to combat this terrible disease.

Craig Whittaker:

I join my right hon. Friend in praising our incredibly brave troops who are on the ground. Will he tell the House what contribution our reserves are making to this effort and how they are standing side by side with the full-time regulars?

Mr Francois:

Two reservists are already working in the joint civilian military headquarters in Sierra Leone, and another two are soon to deploy to the region. In a month or so, we expect 18 reservist medics to deploy to Sierra Leone to work alongside their regular counterparts in the 12-bed Ebola treatment centre at Kerry Town. We should also pay tribute to those NHS personnel who have recently mobilised and travelled out to Sierra Leone to join that effort as well.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):

A church in my constituency would like to send food parcels to Sierra Leone, the capital of which, Freetown, is twinned with Hull. However, it found the transport costs prohibitive, and asked me whether it could work with the Ministry of Defence to find ways of getting the food parcels over to Sierra Leone to help families who are affected by Ebola.

Mr Francois:

I appreciate the offer of the hon. Lady’s church. The most constructive thing I can say is that if she wants to write or e-mail me with the details, we will see what can be done to take up that kind offer.

Mr Speaker:

Mr Graham Allen. Not here.

Topical Questions

T1.[906168]

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):

My immediate priorities remain our current operations in Afghanistan and against ISIL and Ebola as well as the commitments reached at the NATO summit and the delivery of Future Force 2020. I want to build up our reserve forces and invest in the equipment that our armed forces need to keep Britain safe.

Mr Cunningham:

Has the Secretary of State noted the comments made today by the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) who said that he is very disappointed

“that there appears to be no public dialogue about the Strategic Defence and Security Review in advance this time round.”

Why are the Government so reluctant to have an open and transparent debate about the future of Britain’s defence?

Michael Fallon:

There certainly will be a public dialogue and debate about the security review, but the review is planned for next year, and it would be premature to start it before then.

T2.[906169]

The number of cyber-attacks against computer systems in the UK are increasing every year, and it is suspected that foreign Governments may well be involved in some of those attacks. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to deter such attacks, and what is being done to protect our critical infrastructure?

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Mark Francois):

The Ministry of Defence takes the cyber-threat very seriously. Indeed, I visited one of our joint cyber-units only last week. The priority is to keep our networks and systems defended and operational. Since 2010, we have invested several hundred million pounds to help maintain the UK’s cyber-security and cyber-defences. In July, the Prime Minister announced a package of investment for our armed forces, which included a further £75 million over four years to help maintain a leading edge capability in this vital field.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab):

Opposition Members were pleased that the Secretary of State took the opportunity, following articles that suggested the opposite, to confirm that the Type 26 will be built in Scotland and not overseas. However, he did not take the opportunity to allay fears about the slippage in the programme, with the approval date going beyond mid-2015. Will he do so today?

Michael Fallon:

Let me take the opportunity absolutely to reinforce the point the hon. Lady makes. UK warships are built only in UK yards. I do not think I can make the position on the Clyde any clearer, and I hope she will take some reassurance from that. I am aware of what she says about the timetable and we are addressing that. I hope that we can make some early decisions, at least on some of the longer lead items that feed into the Type 26 programme, in the very near future.

T4.[906172]

We are the only country in the world to pay legal aid to foreign nationals to sue our own soldiers. The MOD spends many millions more defending these claims. Is there anything more that the Secretary of State can do to divert these millions of pounds away from the legal profession on to the equipment budget?

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Anna Soubry):

I agree with some of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend. There is no place, in my view, for European human rights law to come into any of this. We have a Geneva convention and we have good strong international law that should determine these matters. I am concerned, however, about how some solicitors act. All solicitors, like those in all professions, are guided by strict codes of conduct and if anyone thinks that a firm of solicitors or an individual is not by abiding by that code, they should absolutely report them to their professional body so that swift action is taken. They should at all times behave with complete integrity.

T3.[906170]

Official figures show that the Government granted 68 export licences for nearly £7 million-worth of military-use items to be sent to Israel between January and June of this year. What discussions did the Defence Secretary have with the Business Secretary about those licences and why did the Government refuse to suspend them during the offensive on Gaza this summer, when they clearly broke the guiding principle of being responsible exports?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Dunne):

The Government were concerned to look at any export licences that had been granted and undertook an initial review in August. We launched another review earlier this month and when it is available we will respond to the hon. Lady.

T6.[906174]

I sincerely welcome the Government’s recent decision to grant pensions to forces widows who remarry. However, there are still 126 divorced spouses, including one of my constituents, who are denied access to their anticipated pensions due to an administrative error by an agency of the Ministry of Defence. In the light of the recent decision, will the Minister reconsider these cases and see what can be done across government to put this right?

Anna Soubry:

The short answer is yes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done on his constituent’s case. He can be assured that I am aware of the ruling. Consideration is being given by lawyers from both the MOD and the Department for Work and Pensions. I am very happy to continue to work with him and to help his constituent.

T5.[906173]

Is the Secretary of State not concerned about what has happened in Georgia and Mr Putin’s record of expansion towards the rest of Europe? Does that not worry him? This is a time when the Government are weak on the European Union, in their relationships across Europe and in their partnerships in NATO. Are they not the worst Government? They are allowing Britain to sleep—[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, Mr Speaker. They are allowing Britain to sleep and they are a Government who remind me of the age of Neville Chamberlain.

Michael Fallon:

There was a reference earlier to Captain Mainwaring and I think the answer to the hon. Gentleman is, “Stupid boy.” That is not the position. We are a predominant member of NATO and I am as concerned as anybody by the actions of President Putin in destabilising eastern Ukraine and annexing Crimea. The northern members of NATO discussed that last week in the Oslo meeting and we are determined to continue a programme of large-scale exercises involving multiple countries in the territories of the eastern members of NATO precisely to provide reassurance to those countries and to deter Russia from any further aggression.

T7.[906175]

My hon. Friend recently signed an £800 million contract for the development of a state-of-the-art radar system for the Eurofighter Typhoon. What are the implications of that decision for the protection of our skies and for British jobs?

Mr Dunne:

The contract signed last week in Edinburgh is a major step forward in developing radar capability for the Eurofighter Typhoon. It will increase operational effectiveness by simultaneously tracking air and ground targets at range. It also represents a significant investment in the UK defence industry, sustaining jobs in BAE Systems in Lancashire and in the whole radar supply chain, including some 500 jobs in Scotland, half of which are for highly skilled engineers, which would not have happened in the same way had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab):

The construction costs for the second aircraft carrier have been identified within the MOD equipment budget. However, Government Front Benchers have been reluctant to identify the operational costs. As well as having a second carrier, would it not be a good idea to be able to put it into operation? Will they take this opportunity to clarify the position?

Mr Dunne:

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to explain once again to the House that it is this Government who have decided to make both carriers operational, unlike the previous Government, who were going to leave the second one tied up. The Ministry of Defence is now conducting a detailed analysis to develop how best to utilise the capability, including man power and aircraft numbers, which will become clear as part of the strategic defence and security review 2015.

T8.[906176]

In addition to Army Reserve numbers going backwards over the past 18 months, recent answers to written parliamentary questions show that there has been no improvement in the age profile of the existing Territorial Army/Reserve, with the average age of the infantryman being stuck at 35 and the average age of senior non-commissioned officers and junior officers being in the 40s. Why are the Government not tackling that?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Julian Brazier):

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for his question. On his premise, I remind him that over the past six months numbers have been moving firmly in the right direction as a result of the upturn in recruiting. On his question about age, I make no apology for a reserve force recruiting some older people, especially ex-regulars, who bring much experience. Fitness is a major requirement for all those people, and it is this Government who over the past few years have re-established a common standard for fitness across regulars and reservists.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP):

In the 2010 SDSR the UK Government committed to reducing the number of launch tubes from 12 to eight. A recent opinion poll issued by the US navy states that the American firm General Dynamics will build 12 Trident missile launch tubes for a successor UK submarine, something that has not yet been approved by this Parliament. Is that true? If so, why has the House not been informed, and why do we need to learn about it from US navy press releases?

Mr Dunne:

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, this Government have committed to spend up to £3 billion on the successor deterrent system, and that includes some preparatory work for the common missile compartment. There is nothing new in that announcement.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):

With 1,000 people killed since the Minsk accord in Ukraine, with up to 1 million displaced and with NATO countries such as Lithuania looking as though they might be prepared to be more deeply involved, can we be told what the latest news is from the European monitoring team on the state of the ceasefire and the risk of escalation involving NATO countries?

Michael Fallon:

I will ensure that the Foreign Office updates my hon. Friend on the latest status of the monitoring. The best answer we can give is to make it absolutely clear that the sanctions will stay in place and, if there is any further destabilisation of Ukraine, they should be increased. In the meantime, it is important that all NATO members keep up their defence spending and commit to the very high readiness taskforce that was agreed at the NATO summit.

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP):

I have pressed Ministers previously about the increase in pension age for MOD police and firefighters, who merely want parity with their civilian counterparts. Will Ministers look at this again given the very high costs associated with redeploying older workers and people having to be retired early on heath grounds?

Anna Soubry:

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Negotiations continue, but the MOD Police Federation takes the view that it is looking for retirement at 65. It is not quite as simple as straight parity with the civilian forces, but we continue to negotiate with everyone.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con):

As a friend of the Forces Children’s Trust, which you, Mr Speaker, very kindly host in your apartments every year, may I ask the Secretary of State whether the children of service widows will have a guaranteed pension until the age of 18 despite the fact that their mothers may have remarried?

Anna Soubry:

I do not know if I can give an answer to that; it is a new one on me, if I may say so. No doubt my hon. Friend will want to discuss it further with me, and I am more than happy to do so. Again, this is where the power of the covenant comes in, because if people can establish a disadvantage, then the covenant can deliver justice.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab):

Today in Craigneuk in my constituency, the first sod will be cut on the building of new homes for ex-service personnel. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the local volunteers who have been working so hard to ensure that this much-needed project goes ahead?

Anna Soubry:

Absolutely. I congratulate my hon. Friend—I hope he does not mind me calling him that; he knows exactly what I mean, because he is a friend in this regard—on the work that he is doing to support such great schemes. These schemes are doing remarkably good work, not only in delivering better homes but, invariably, enabling the veterans who get involved to learn skills and helping those who have been damaged in any way to restore themselves and get back into the world of work.

Mr Andrew Robathan (South Leicestershire) (Con):

I read in the media that the greatest threat to the United Kingdom is considered to be so-called Islamic State and jihadism. While I am not a great fan of deploying troops to Syria, does the Secretary of State believe that NATO, the western powers or the coalition in Iraq—whomsoever—should be reassessing the help they are giving in Syria and in Iraq to defeat Islamic State?

Michael Fallon:

The Prime Minister has made it clear that ISIL can only be defeated both in Iraq and in Syria. There are now some 50 countries involved in a huge international and regional effort to support the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their action against ISIL in Iraq, but we also have to consider what more can be done in Syria. We support the United States in its strike missions in Syria, and we are looking at what more can be done to train moderate Syrian elements outside Syria itself.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab):

May I commend to Ministers the film “Kajaki”? It is a brutal but brilliant account of soldiering on the front line in Afghanistan, and, as such, should be seen by all in this House. Will the Secretary of State consider going to see the film?

Michael Fallon:

I understand the importance of the film, which conveys very dramatically the very difficult circumstances that our forces had to overcome. I will certainly take the hon. Gentleman up on that suggestion.

Mr Speaker:

Order. We are short of time—indeed, out of time—but we must accommodate Jackie Doyle-Price, who has been standing for a long time.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con):

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As we approach the 200th anniversary of Gurkha service in the British Army, will my hon. Friend look with sympathy on the recommendations made by the all-party group on Gurkha welfare so that we do right by these veterans of the British Army too?

Anna Soubry:

A short yes is the answer to that, but I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend and her group for the fantastic work that they have done and the excellent report they produced.

Mr Speaker:

I do not like seeing patient colleagues disappointed, so let us speed on. I call Mr Alan Reid.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD):

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that negotiations with defence police and firefighters are still ongoing, but time is running out because the Public Service Pensions Act 2013 comes into effect on 1 April. Will my hon. Friend ensure that these negotiations are concluded to the satisfaction of both sides well before then?

Anna Soubry:

Yes, we need to make good progress and we need to make it quickly.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con):

What are the base-porting arrangements for the remaining Trafalgar class submarines?

Michael Fallon:

My hon. Friend has been pressing me on this issue for some time and I can confirm today that while the Clyde will become our main submarine base from 2020, HMS Torbay and HMS Trenchant, which are both due to decommission shortly, will remain at Devonport in order to minimise disruption to their crews and the crews’ families.

Mr Speaker:

I am taking a relaxed attitude, the House should know, because there is protected time for subsequent business and I cannot bear to see colleagues disappointed unnecessarily.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con):

How much has been spent on advertising to support the current reserve recruitment, and how much is budgeted to be spent on advertising in future?

Mr Brazier:

I shall have to write to my hon. Friend in order to give him a full answer.

Sir Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con):

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for this unexpected boon. As he prepares for next year’s SDSR, may I commend my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on the merits of an open and inclusive process that maximises the involvement of the public, Parliament, industry and academics?

Michael Fallon:

I certainly welcome that suggestion. I think there should be a wide-ranging process. The point I made earlier was that we cannot start the review now in 2014—it is scheduled for 2015—but it is important, obviously, that we consult widely when it gets under way, not least with our international allies.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con):

In welcoming the announcement about war widows, may I ask whether it is the case that a war widow who lost her widow’s pension on remarriage but who has subsequently become single again is eligible to have it reinstated and never taken away under any circumstances thereafter?

Anna Soubry:

I believe the answer is yes, but I have to be cautious and say that if I am wrong I will, of course, inform both the House and my hon. Friend.