Defence Questions

12th December 2016

Mike Penning answers MPs’ questions on defence issues.

Armed Forces: Legal Claims

2. What progress his Department has made on protecting the armed forces from persistent legal claims. [907772]

 

We have made significant progress in recent months: we announced our intention to derogate from the relevant articles of the European convention on human rights in future conflicts where appropriate, and I have launched a consultation on enhanced compensation for soldiers injured or killed in combat, so that members of the armed forces and their families do not have to spend years waiting to pursue claims against the Ministry of Defence. We hope to announce further measures shortly.

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. My constituent 87-year-old Arnold Hustwick, himself a former soldier, will also welcome that news, because he has expressed his outrage about some of these claims. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if it was not for the MOD submitting evidence of malpractice by Mr Phil Shiner, of Public Interest Lawyers, and the Ministry of Justice cancelling Mr Shiner’s legal aid contract, this man would still be hounding our soldiers?

 

I was at the Ministry of Justice when we revoked the legal aid, and if it was not for this Secretary of State and my former colleague sending submissions to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Mr Shiner would probably still be pursuing our soldiers and servicemen. Mr Shiner should probably do exactly what the Secretary of State called for him to do in December 2014 and apologise to our former servicemen.

 

As someone who has served with distinction in Northern Ireland, the Minister of State must be disgusted by the industrial-scale abuse of the legal process against former soldiers, which has impugned the reputation of every single soldier who has served in Ulster over the last 40 years. Will he and his Department undertake to be a bulwark against that abuse and against that witch hunt, and will he stand up and make sure that it is stopped forthwith?

 

I had the honour of serving in the Province and—I hope—I was part of the peace process. The vast majority of our servicemen and women served with distinction in Northern Ireland. The MOD and I will continue to support the police force in Northern Ireland with its ongoing inquiries. That is what was said on the radio at the weekend: these are not new investigations; they are ongoing investigations. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done in the past, and I wish him a happy 50th birthday today.

 

I had thought that the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) was stirring in his seat. If he were standing, I would call him, but if he is not, I will not. He is not, so I will not.

 

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) for not standing.

In the last few years, some 3,500 soldiers have had their lives wrecked by the investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. That has been at a cost of some £90 million to Her Majesty’s Treasury, and I think one single prosecution has resulted from it. Surely, now that we have seen the back of Mr Shiner, it is time for the Government to bring to an end the dreadful IHAT organisation.

 

The Secretary of State and I are doing everything we can to get IHAT to come to its conclusions and decide what it is going to do. The vast majority of those investigations will be concluded, and we hope and expect that in the vast majority of cases, IHAT will feel that there is no action to be taken. We must make sure that the investigations take place correctly so that they do not end up in some European court somewhere.

 

It is not just a question of the IHAT inquiry and the disgraceful behaviour of the disreputable solicitor Phil Shiner; we are now faced with the prospect of hundreds of British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland again being brought before the court, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has just said. It is wholly unacceptable that nearly half a century on, men who have served their country to the best of their ability should face possible prosecution. Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is not good enough to say that this is a matter for the Police Service of Northern Ireland? This is a matter of public policy, for which Ministers must personally be accountable.

 

We must make sure that if the police decide—I repeat that this is for the police to decide—that they need to investigate something, they can do so. As we bring forward proposals, we will help the police, but we will also ensure that we protect as much as possible those who have served their country—alongside me and other colleagues—throughout the years.

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Battle Tanks

7. For what reasons his Department plans to reduce the Army’s number of main battle tanks. [907778]

 

The strategic defence and security review 2015 committed us to a more adaptive force to meet the range of future threats. This means having the best mix of Challenger 2 tanks and the new Ajax multi-purpose armoured vehicles to deliver the Army’s contribution to future threats. We are planning to spend £700 million to extend the Challenger 2 capability out to 2035.

 

I thank the Minister for that answer. While we should warmly welcome the very large order for Ajax fighting vehicles, does he accept that these will be no match for the armour and the armament of enemy main battle tanks? Will he therefore confirm how many of our existing 227 tanks will go forward to the Challenger 2 life extension programme, bearing in mind the need to have capacity for regeneration in the event of a crisis?

 

My right hon. Friend is the Chair of the Defence Committee and has taken a keen interest in defence matters for so many years. He knows very well that it is for the military to decide exactly what the capabilities are, but having £700 million available for Challenger 2 going forward to 2035 shows a clear commitment to Challenger.

 

While I support having a diversity of vehicles available, there are reports that the Army is planning to reduce its number of tanks by a third. At a time when Russia has announced a new generation of vehicles, ours will reduce from 227 to 170. Does the Minister agree that now is not the right time for this sort of announcement to be made, because it sends out completely the wrong message about our defence?

 

We should not believe everything we read in the press—as a former journalist, I might have written it in the past. We need to trust the armed forces to tell us exactly what they want. The Russian Armata tank, which I think is what the hon. Gentleman is alluding to, is an unmanned vehicle. We are making sure that innovation and adaptation is there. I would have thought that we would hear more cheers from Labour Members, particularly those in Wales, about the fact that the Ajax vehicle is going to be built in Wales.

 

The Minister mentions the Ajax vehicle. When David Cameron was Prime Minister, he announced that the new Ajax fighting vehicle would be a “boost for British manufacturing”. While I welcome the fact that many of the vehicles will be assembled in Merthyr Tydfil, they are being built using Swedish steel and will have their hulls built in Spain—and some are to be completely built in Spain. Does the Minister accept that Mr David Cameron was somewhat inaccurate in his statement?

 

No, I do not think so. The issue is about jobs in Wales, which are coming to Merthyr Tydfil, and making sure that the Army has the vehicle it wants. That is what this Government are going to guarantee. Unless the Labour party commits to spending 2% of GDP on defence, they are never going to reach this sort of expenditure.

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NATO

10. What steps he is taking to strengthen the UK’s commitment to NATO. [907781]

 

Next year, we are sending nearly 800 troops to Estonia and 150 personnel of the Light Dragoons to Poland. We are leading the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, and undertaking air policing, based in Romania, with the four Typhoons we are committing to NATO.

 

I welcome the Government’s commitment, particularly to the Polish Prime Minister last month, of additional UK troops and armoured vehicles in the face of concerns about the Russian threat. Does the Minister agree that we should stand shoulder to shoulder with our Polish friends, and that this shows how Britain can be an even stronger European ally—irrespective of Brexit?

 

On behalf of the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, I had extensive talks with the Polish Defence Minister and his colleagues, who were thrilled that we were committed to being with them, which is what came out from the statement afterwards. The Light Dragoons, which will have their Jackals in Poland, are really looking forward to going there as well.

 

On the day we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the end of the USSR, can we do more to educate our people about the importance of defending the security of the states—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—that regained their independence and were able to make a free, democratic decision to associate with NATO, and to end the nonsense we hear in some quarters, perhaps on both sides of the Atlantic, that NATO is not a voluntary alliance?

 

Order. I am sure the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) is as interested in hearing other contributions on his question as he was in hearing his own views. It is customary for colleagues to remain until the end of the exchanges on their own question, which does not seem unreasonable.

 

The whole success of NATO lies in the fact that countries join freely. The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is right that the countries he mentioned—Latvia, Estonia and so on—are particularly worried about their protection. It is not like the British Army of the Rhine, which I had the honour and privilege to serve with and which sat there, static, for long periods; what we and our allies in NATO are sending is a significant force to make sure the Russians know that we are serious.

 

Part of the strength of any alliance is sometimes being a critical friend of other members of that alliance. Will the Minister, on behalf of the Secretary of State, assure me that the next time they speak to the future leader of the free world, they might request that he starts reading his CIA briefings daily and so does us all a favour?

 

I am sure that the future President of the United States will read the CIA briefings when he becomes the President of the United States. I am sure the hon. Gentleman saw this morning’s press coverage showing that the future President of the United States does not believe everything that he is told by the press.

 

The additional support to NATO is welcome, but for our land forces that requires high-end armoured formations. Will the MOD be making new money available to properly regrow and train with that capability?

 

The armed forces, particularly the Army, have the money they require. Only recently, I visited the Light Dragoons and the Rifles, which will be deploying to Poland. The equipment they have is second to none, but we will keep their equipment under review, to make sure it is fit for purpose, particularly in view of the inclement weather in Poland.

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Royal Navy

11. What steps he is taking to increase the size and power of the Royal Navy. [907782]
 
What a busy time for me, Mr Speaker. I am proud to say that, for the first time in a generation, the Royal Navy is growing. This Government are committed to increasing our maritime power to project our influence across the world and to promote our prosperity. That can clearly be seen in the personnel numbers we are aiming to reach—30,600—as well as the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, 19 frigates and destroyers, and further offshore patrol vessels, new tankers and support ships by 2030.
 
Does my right hon. Friend agree that to fulfil the Government’s commitment to increase the size of the fleet specifically in relation to frigates and destroyers, we have to replace the Type 23 at a rate of one a year? Will he commit to that?
 
What we will commit to is the new frigates that will replace the Type 23s. Having been on a Type 23 only in the past couple of weeks, when we were shadowing the Russian aircraft carrier in the English channel, I know we must not underestimate the capabilities of the Type 23s, not least because many other countries are looking to purchase them when we can sell them off. At the end of the day, the Type 23s are doing a fantastic job, and we will make sure that the new frigates do just as well.
 
24. Will the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships be built in the UK? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman give a further commitment to buying British in defence procurement, and guarantee the use of British steel to build those ships? [907795]
 
Importantly, last week’s report stated that what we needed to achieve was the best value for the Navy. We must make sure that shipyards bid for the work—previously, they have not done so. Let us see what bids come forward and who wins.
 
When does my right hon. Friend expect to be able to announce the basing and maintenance options for the Type 26 and Type 23 frigates? Will he confirm that Portsmouth is being considered for at least some of those welcome new ships?
 
Of course we recognise that bids are coming in. As soon as the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) who is responsible for defence procurement, has the ability to make that announcement, I am sure she will do so. We are looking forward to the new frigates, not least because, as I said earlier, we can sell off the Type 23s to countries that particularly want them.
 
Today I received my first Christmas present: a Royal Navy calendar. [Interruption.] A calendar showing platforms, obviously. January features HMS Ocean. Can the Minister inform us how its decommissioning in the next 18 months, after years of impressive service, adds to the strength and power of our Royal Navy?
 
While procurement does not fall within my bailiwick, I am reliably informed that HMS Ocean was always due to go out of service in 2018, and at the same time the new Elizabeth class carriers will come into force. She has done fantastic work, and we must praise the work the ship and, most importantly, her crew have done over the years, but her time is coming towards its end and she will go in 2018.
 
Well, I have to say that the answer from the Minister for defence procurement, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on the publication of the national shipbuilding strategy is simply not good enough—not good enough for our Royal Navy, not good enough for workers in our shipbuilding industries, and not good enough for our international allies. The fact is that on 29 November the Government only published Sir John Parker’s independent review to inform the strategy, when just last year the Government promised to

“publish a new national shipbuilding strategy in 2016”.

With just six parliamentary days left until the end of the year, will the Minister tell us exactly when are we going to see that strategy?

 
We will see it in spring 2017, but I do find it slightly difficult to be lectured on defence procurement by a party that will not even commit itself to 2% of GDP. The key to this is making sure that we get the ships built in the shipyards, that we get the apprentices we need, and that the whole community benefits from it.
 
I do not know where the Minister gets his information from; I do not know whether he reads Westminster Hall debates, and I do not know if he has been listening to what we have been saying very clearly from this Dispatch Box, but we are fully committed to a 2% spend of GDP to meet our NATO commitments and to spend it on defence, as is required.

May we now turn to a more specific issue to do with the naval fleet, and in particular the Type 26 frigates, which have faced very long delays with all the attendant risks to our naval capabilities? The Defence Committee recently said that the national shipbuilding strategy

“must include strict timelines for the delivery of the new Type 26 class of frigates and an indicative timeframe for the General Purpose Frigate.”

Will the Minister confirm that when we see this in the spring, it really will include those details?

 

I did a little bit of research and it appears that the Labour Government started looking at Type 26s in 1997; they had 13 further years in government, yet it will be us who will be cutting steel, in spring next year.

Several hon. Members rose—

 

I think we will hear the voice of Gainsborough on this matter.

 

15. With increasing demands for frigates worldwide, does my right hon. Friend agree with Sir John Parker that we should focus on building ships that other countries actually want to buy, something the Royal Navy has signally failed to do in the past? [907786]

 

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head: the Type 26 is not just for our Navy, but is for our allies around the world as well. It will be exactly the type of ship that will replace the 26 around the world if we get the build right and actually get it out there, which is something the previous Administration forgot to do.

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T2. I welcome the role that UK forces will play in Estonia as part of NATO’s forward presence. It is vital that we provide reassurance in facing the threat from Russia. What further steps will we take to bolster security in the Baltic states and in Poland? [907797]

 

Our allies in NATO look very carefully at what we can do and where we can do it. Other nations are also joining in. The French are coming with us into Estonia, with 200 troops in the first six-month tranche. As I said in response to an earlier question, as a coalition we will look carefully at what capabilities we need and where we need them, and we will step up to the mark as we always do.

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T8. As we approach Christmas, a time that many members of our armed forces will spend away from their families, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them and their families for all that they do to protect us in this country and for the sacrifices they all make? [907804]

 

As the Minister for the Armed Forces, or for ops, it is very appropriate for me to ask the House to join me in wishing everyone in our armed forces, and their families and loved ones, a very merry Christmas. We all hope that they will come home safe.

 

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