Defence Questions

13th September 2016

Mike Penning answers MPs’ questions on the armed forces.

 

Litigation Against the Armed Forces

5. What steps he is taking to prevent abusive litigation against the armed forces. [906243]

 

6. What progress his Department has made on protecting the armed forces from persistent legal claims. [906244]

 

We are determined to meet our manifesto commitment to ensure that our armed forces overseas are not subject to persistent legal claims that undermine their ability to do their job. I am continuing to explore the work that my predecessor did, working across Government to bring forward proposals in the very near future.

 

I welcome the Minister’s statement and urge him and the Government to press ahead with reforms in this area, in particular with regard to the extraterritorial jurisdiction of human rights laws and civil law limitation periods, so that we have accountability for rare acts of wrongdoing, but do not subject those risking life and limb for their country to vexatious litigation by ambulance-chasing lawyers.

 

My hon. Friend was in the same Department as me before I had the honour of taking on this role. It is very important that those who have done wrong are dealt with, but it is really wrong that tax-paid lawyers are chasing around the country trying to prosecute other people.

 

Our armed forces are the best in the world and we must do everything to protect them, both on and off the battlefield. Many soldiers are based in barracks at Sennybridge and Brecon in my constituency; will my right hon. Friend assure them and me that the Iraq historic allegations tribunal will look very carefully at the claims made against British forces personnel and whether to reject those allegations, particularly following the demise of Public Interest Lawyers?

 

I think we all welcome the demise of Public Interest Lawyers. It is for the regulatory authorities to look closely at what it did and how it earned its income. I trained at Sennybridge many years ago. I assure everyone in the armed forces that these Ministers and this Government are behind them and will make sure that we protect them as much as possible.

 

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and especially welcome his stance on this matter. He may have to spread his net even wider than he thinks. Is he aware that Phil Shiner, who has made so much money out of this situation, is trying to conceal his ill-gotten gains by threatening those editors who are threatening to expose him with recourse to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on the basis of so-called mental health problems?

 

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work—not just as Minister for the Reserves but ever since he came to the House—for the reserves, in which he has served honourably, as well. Let us let the regulatory bodies do their work first and see what comes out of the other side, and then see whether any other processes, including perhaps even legal action, are needed.

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Army Recruitment

11. What steps he is taking to address shortfalls in recruitment to the Army. [906249]

 

We continue to invest in recruitment to attract the diverse and talented workforce we need now and in the future for our armed forces. Over 8,100 new recruits joined the regular Army last year, an increase on the previous year. In July, the trained strength of the Army reserve was 23,400, which is very close to matching the 30,000 we need. We will continue to work very closely with all parts of the country, in particular Northern Ireland.

 

I thank the Minister for that response. I understand that this is the first time that a boy soldier or someone from the ranks has risen to the position of Minister of State. I think that that is worthy of note in the House. As a help to Army recruitment, reserves in Northern Ireland have met their targets. Can the number of reserves in Northern Ireland be increased to take into account our positive recruiting environment?

 

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. We were close when I was a Northern Ireland Minister, and I visited his constituency on more than one occasion. I shall visit the Province in the near future when I meet 38 Brigade. The ceiling we have is not a ceiling in the sense that we do not want any more people from Northern Ireland; it is a question of whether the operational units are able to take them. I shall look closely at whether Northern Ireland can take more, and I would like to congratulate Northern Ireland on serving the Crown so well over so many years.

 

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to address the shortfall to the Royal Navy, particularly among engineers? Has he had any discussions about providing short-term secondment to engineers from industry to serve on Navy ships?

 

That is exactly what we are trying to do—to be as flexible as possible with the contracts to allow short-term and long-term secondment from industry. We are also talking closely with other navies, and particularly the American navy. There is a shortfall in specific areas. What we need to do is make sure that the offer we make, whether it be for marine engineers or any other part of the armed forces, is suitable for the 21st century. That is something I am determined to do.

 

I welcome the Minister to his post. One big issue he is taking on is how to assist the Government to achieve the Conservative election manifesto pledge for the Army not to fall below 82,000. He has spoken a bit about recruitment, but does he also recognise the huge issue of retention in the British Army? Does he think that what he is saying recognises the scale of the challenge the Government face in achieving that manifesto pledge? At the moment, it looks unlikely that they will achieve it.

 

We are determined to fulfil the manifesto pledge, not only because it is a manifesto pledge, but because it is right for the Army in particular. I know how difficult retention can be because I purchased my discharge from the Army myself. I shall be looking carefully at what is making people leave. Are we offering them the right sort of service? Are we being as flexible as we can? For instance, when I left the Army all those years ago, I received a letter a couple of months later asking me whether I wanted to re-enlist. Let us make sure that that sort of thing continues to happen—when we have people in uniform, let us keep them in uniform.

 

I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to an inequalities audit across the public sector. Given that the younger demographic from which the Army recruits is increasingly ethnically diverse, will my right hon. Friend the Minister commit to pay special attention to the recruitment, retention and promotion figures for black and minority ethnic service personnel?

 

I would like to pay tribute to my hon. and gallant colleague for his service to Her Majesty when he was in uniform. If the armed forces are to work in the 21st century, they must represent the community from which they come. Whether we are talking about more BME people or more women in the armed forces—we have a 15% target for women, which is a very high level—we must be careful to make sure that we promote the armed forces to those people, whatever part of the community they come from, so that they feel comfortable working in the armed forces. That is something I am absolutely determined to do.

 

I add my voice to those who have welcomed the Minister to his post. He is, I think, in the hot seat on this particular issue. This Government might not be very good at meeting their own targets, particularly on Army recruitment, but Ministers at least deserve points for creativity. Their plan to grow the trained strength of the Army by changing the definition of “trained” might help with cooking the books, but it will not do a thing to address the actual problem. Will the Minister tell us whether he believes it is appropriate for personnel to be deployed on operations before completing their full training and, if so, how he can be confident that they will be adequately prepared?

 

Let me say that I know from experience that some duties can be done once people have passed their phase 1 training. That certainly was done back in my time in 1974 when there was a Labour Government. If we are trying to recruit people, we need money, but Labour wants to cut money, and we need to be part of NATO, but the Labour party leadership wants to take us out of it. That is something that we would never do, but if they want to undermine our armed forces, they should do just that.

 

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place, and I would like to touch on Navy recruitment, if I may. Will he quash these rumours that we will not have enough trained sailors to man both our aircraft carriers when they are launched?

 

We have not hidden the fact that it is very difficult to make sure that we do everything we possibly can, but we will do that. I was on the Queen Elizabeth only the week before last and I watched our other aircraft carrier being built. When the particular moment comes, we will have the crews and these carriers will be the pride of the Navy.

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Topical Questions

I am sure that Ministers are fast learners and will get to know my name soon enough. Last week the MOD was accused of a terrifying error after accidentally publishing the details of 20,000 people online. Following a number of recent high-profile security breaches including the attempted abduction of an RAF airman based at Marham, many service members will understandably be concerned about their personal safety. What reassurances can the Secretary of State provide to those men and women in regard to the security, particularly online, of any personal information about them?

 

We have been doing everything we possibly can to protect people’s personal details online. I went to Marham myself two days after that incident took place—the police investigation there is ongoing—to give reassurance not only to the serving personnel but to their families that we will do everything we possibly can to protect them.

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