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My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future, through the delivery of the military tasks for which the MOD is mandated; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks; and that we honour our armed forces covenant. In order to discharge those duties, I have a clear responsibility to ensure that the Department has a properly balanced budget and a force generation strategy and a defence equipment programme that are affordable and sustainable in the medium to long term.
I am deeply aware that our people are the greatest assets of the armed forces, and I am sure that all Members of the House will want to join me in wishing all of them, especially those who are away from home over the festive period, a happy and a safe Christmas.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Will he update the House on the status of the service chiefs' review of force generation and sustainability, which among other things was looking at harmony guidelines? I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware that if he adopted the Navy’s harmony guidelines, he would secure a significant saving across the MOD.
The single service chiefs are reviewing force generation issues in the light of the proposed change structure of the armed forces. The issues around harmony are different in the three services, and it is right that the individual services develop harmony guidelines that are right for their conditions and allow them to operate within their single service budgets.
The Minister with responsibility for veterans has confirmed the proposals to cut MOD police by 50%, which has been described by the Defence Police Federation as “irresponsible and ill thought out”. There will be real worries about the impact on the protection of munitions stores and barracks. Will he guarantee that there will be no cut in MOD police numbers at the most sensitive of bases, particularly Faslane and Coulport?
Security, particularly of our nuclear installations, is absolutely at the top of our list of priorities, but that does not mean that we cannot organise things better, which is what we are looking at. May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that we struggle with the huge black hole in the money that he left us?
Last week the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its support group were moored off the north-east coast of Scotland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that not a single fixed-wing UK maritime patrol aircraft was available and no appropriate naval vessels were able to deploy from a Scottish base because there are none in that category?
The hon. Gentleman rather narrowed the scope of his question at the end by saying “able to deploy from a Scottish base”. We operate the UK armed forces and our response is on a UK-wide basis. I will check the facts of the incident and write to him.
The Government’s policy remains one of both applying pressure and maintaining engagement with Iran in the sincere hope that the crisis can be resolved peacefully.
May I sing in unison with my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile in congratulating the military wives and crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, on this festive occasion by presenting an advance copy of the disc, via my hon. Friend Claire Perry who is sitting in front of me, to the Secretary of State for his enjoyment on one of the long car journeys that I know he enjoys so much?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had the great pleasure of meeting members of the military wives choir when they performed at Downing street a couple of weeks ago, and we wish them every success for a Christmas No. 1 next week.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the utility of military force as an instrument of UK foreign policy is more relevant or less relevant than it was, say, 30 years ago, and how does he intend to reflect that in future UK defence policy?
That is a very deep but helpful question. The Government are clearly committed to integrating defence diplomacy with our wider diplomatic effort to ensure that the UK’s Government-wide objectives are best delivered through the use of all the assets available, including our defence assets, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will publish our strategy for defence engagement in the new year.
I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement today that he is setting up a Cabinet Committee to deal with all matters relating to the armed services and veterans. I ask that the Committee prioritises housing issues, which are referred to often, and that there is an indication of how colleagues in this House and members of the armed services and their families outside can give evidence to the Committee.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, because I think that the announcement shows that we are prioritising the needs of our service, particularly ex-service personnel. I am absolutely certain that housing will be at the top of the list of matters that are discussed. It is a Cabinet Committee and so will not be taking evidence, but I am sure that it will receive representations and submissions, which will be very welcome.
One major gain of moving to the carrier-variant joint strike fighter is enhanced interoperability with our United States allies, in particular, but there will also be interoperability with the French. The change produces real opportunities for interoperability.
I have recently urged Hounslow council to review its banding criteria for council housing for ex-service personnel. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Minister for Housing and Local Government to ensure that there is provision for ex-service personnel, who have done so much for this country?
I am very pleased to receive that question from my hon. Friend. The Minister for Housing and Local Government, as she will know, has a committee—of which I am a member—that discusses those matters, and as I mentioned earlier he recently announced a consultation on priority for ex-service personnel on social housing lists. The community covenants that we are taking forward are specifically with local authorities, so that service personnel leaving the armed forces are given assistance and receive proper recognition in social housing, as elsewhere.
The previous Government established the St Malo agreement with France, and the previous Secretary of State for Defence took it further. Will the current Secretary of State have words with the Prime Minister to ensure that his current attitude to France does not damage our important programme of defence co-operation?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister’s attitude is that we have a commonality of interests in securing strong defence in Europe, and that bilateral relationships between Britain and France will be mutually beneficial to both countries. We are advancing our defence co-operation with France and expect to conduct a defence summit in February.
I welcome the news that armed forces personnel will be used to aid security at the Olympics games, but will any of those returning from Afghanistan end up having their post-operational leave cancelled and, instead, be posted to Olympic duties?
Some of those returning from Afghanistan may at some point be involved in Olympic duties, but no one will lose their post-operational leave. Post-operational leave has to be scheduled anyway, and it will be scheduled around the requirements of the Olympic task.
May I press the Minister for more detailed figures on the capacity being built at Aldermaston for a possible new warhead? When will he announce the specific breakdown of costs associated with that and, in particular, with the Octans and Orchard programmes, and will he do so through a statement to the House, rather than by slipping it out in a written answer?
I do not know how often one has to say this: no expenditure at the Atomic Weapons Establishment is being incurred to enable a new warhead; it is to sustain the security of the existing stockpile. I do wish the hon. Lady would get this into her head: no money is being spent on new warheads.
The Secretary of State will understand the significance of the fact that only 3% of Afghan security forces are from the Pashtun south, particularly when it comes to how successful our handover will be in 2014. What progress is being made to improve the imbalance in ethnicities before our troops withdraw?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that continuing issue. The Pashtun percentage in the ANSF is very much higher than 3%, but he is right that Pashtun recruits tend to be northern rather than southern. The ANSF has strategies to address that, and the situation is slowly improving, but it remains one of the important issues that has to be addressed if we are to create a stable and sustainable Afghan Government.
In the past week I have intervened in the case of a constituent who is being made redundant from the Army in a few weeks’ time, to ensure that he is able to get social housing and an educational place for his child. He had little help from the MOD, so will the Minister look again at what help is being given to those who are made redundant? Specifically, I have been told that education legislation does not prioritise those being made redundant, as it does those being given a new posting, and that is completely wrong.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman wrote to me with the details of the case, which I will certainly take up. We remain committed to both social housing and educational benefits for those leaving the services, and I am not sure whether the situation to which he refers is correct, but I will pursue it if he takes it up with me.
We absolutely believe in the value of our cadet and youth organisations, and not just the armed forces cadet organisations. The Air Training Corps does fantastic work. We are looking to expand, if we can, cadet organisations, particularly the combined cadet forces in all schools. However, the cost is quite large and we are short of money. Nevertheless, we are looking into the matter at the moment—indeed, as I speak.
In his earlier reply, the Minister referred to the touching issue of homelessness. I spent the weekend with soldiers off our streets in my constituency; many homeless veterans are slipping through the net. What work will the Minister be doing, including with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that veterans on the streets are helped to adjust to civilian life again?
That is, of course, a matter for the devolved Administrations but we are in close contact with them, particularly over the covenant. The Scottish and Welsh devolved Administrations have accepted the covenant in full—I think the Northern Ireland devolved Administration have as well, although there are slight differences there. We certainly wish to see our ex-service personnel receive proper housing support in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as in England. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case in mind, I would be grateful if he wrote to me.
My hon. Friend speaks with some passion, and he has spoken to me about the issue before. I can confirm that reservist personnel will receive the diamond jubilee medal if they qualify. I believe that we have made sure that the anomaly that took place at the Queen’s golden jubilee will not apply next year.
On service pay, the Secretary of State for Defence has again prayed in aid the operational allowance. For my benefit, will he confirm how many, in percentage terms, of our service personnel will receive that operational allowance over the next three years?
I am doing the maths on my feet; there are about 9,500 people in Afghanistan on a five-cycle rotation, so the answer is about 45,000 or 47,000 of our armed forces personnel.
Following the failure of the congressional committee to agree savings as part of the deal to raise the debt ceiling, the US military faces automatic spending cuts of up to $500 billion from 2013. What reassurances have Ministers sought specifically about the impact that that may have on UK-US co-operation in intelligence and counter-terrorism?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are having regular discussions with US counterparts; I am going to Washington immediately after the new year holiday. Whatever happens, our strong security and intelligence relationship with the US will continue. It benefits both parties and is at the very heart of our strategy.
On Friday, I attended a ceremony to commemorate the 97th anniversary of the bombardment of the Hartlepools. It was the first direct attack on the mainland for centuries, and 118 people, including 37 children, were killed. Given the national and local significance of the event, what steps will the Government put in place to commemorate the centenary in three years’ time?
I pay tribute to those of my grandfather’s generation who did so much in the first world war—what they did is almost beyond our ken. The issue is to do with history, and for that reason the Department for Culture, Media and Sport leads on it. However, as the hon. Gentleman may know, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison has been appointed the special representative on the first world war and he will deal with all the commemorations. He will co-ordinate input from the Ministry of Defence, the DCMS and the Imperial War museum for the nation as we approach the centenaries of the 1914 to 1918 period.