House of Commons
Monday 11 June 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Royal Navy Fisheries Protection
The Royal Navy plays a crucial role in patrolling the seas around the United Kingdom. As we leave the European Union, the needs and level of activity will change, and we are working with other Departments to assess what is required. The Royal Navy will continue to play a vital role in protecting UK waters.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Given that fisheries protection will be an important component of a sustainable post-Brexit UK fishing policy, has the Secretary of State liaised with his counterpart at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what funds will be available to the Royal Navy for fisheries protection and whether the number of operational days will be increased?
The Department received an extra £12 million from the Treasury that we prioritised for that area. We are in dialogue with our DEFRA colleagues to ensure that we have the right levels of policing and support in our territorial waters. The Royal Navy is absolutely committed to delivering that, and we will work with DEFRA to ensure that it happens.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of the fishermen of the north Cornwall coast, and I imagine that the deployment of the Type 26 would certainly see off the French and Spanish swiftly. He will be pleased to know that Plymouth will shortly be receiving an extra Type 23 frigate, which will be based at Devonport, and while I am sure that she will do some fisheries protection work, she will also be doing other work right around the globe.
Concerning the Royal Navy, SNP Members are most interested to hear whether the modernising defence programme will be grounded in the vacuous “global Britain” speak of Brexiteers, or if it will actually acknowledge the UK’s geostrategic location? Will the Secretary of State assure SNP Members that, unlike the 2010 and 2015 strategic defence and security reviews, the modernising defence programme will explicitly mention the north Atlantic and the high north, and their centrality to the assumptions made therein?
The Fishery Protection Squadron is the oldest established unit in the Royal Navy, but does my right hon. Friend agree that technology is moving on and that a combination of data analytics, satellite imaging and the protections that we are now able to deploy around the Pitcairn Islands marine protected area, for example, are the sorts of technologies that we can add to save costs?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to consider new technologies to assist the Royal Navy and its work. It is a large ocean and there are many threats involved in ensuring that it is properly policed, so we need to embrace new technology, working hand in hand with the Royal Navy, to ensure that our waters are safe from foreign fishermen intruding into our territory.
I am encouraged by what I hear from the Secretary of State about extra resources being made available. We anticipate an increase in the fishing fleet post-Brexit, so will he assure me that the fisheries protection fleet will expand accordingly?
Equipment Plan 2017 to 2027
We are taking steps to ensure strategic affordability through the modernising defence programme and our annual financial management processes. The cost of the plan is reviewed on an ongoing basis, and we expect to publish the equipment plan financial summary for 2018 to 2028 in the autumn.
It gave me great pleasure to be present at RAF Marham on Wednesday to welcome the first four F-35s. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the first 48 are fully paid for and committed to. We are looking at everything in the modernising defence programme, but the current situation is that we still anticipate the purchase of 138 F-35s.
The Public Accounts Committee said in a recent report:
“The Equipment Plan for 2017 to 2027 is not realistic and the Department lacks cost control.”
Does the Secretary of State share my deep concern about his Department’s equipment budget being in such an appalling state?
I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my view that the Public Accounts Committee does an important job, but it is important to state that the assumptions made in the National Audit Office report, which underpin the report of the Public Accounts Committee, highlight the possibility that every single project will end up with no efficiency savings and that the worst-case scenario will be achieved on cost controls. We are very confident we have an equipment plan that is affordable but, as I have stated, we are looking at all issues as part of the modernising defence programme.
I can confirm that the Type 26 project is going extremely well. The first blocks have been built, the steel has been cut and the first three ships have been named. The really important point, which was highlighted in a recent Westminster Hall debate, is the fact that the last apprentices to work on the Type 26 project have not yet been born. That shows the long-term commitment to shipbuilding on the Clyde that the Type 26 project represents.
The NAO estimates that, of the £9.6 billion shortfall in the equipment budget, £1.3 billion is for the new Type 31e frigate. Can the Minister assure the House that, in the autumn, the budget line for the Type 31e will be included in the financial summary?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the arrival of the F-35s on British shores is a signal to the world that “global Britain” is not empty rhetoric, as some would have us believe, but a demonstrable fact?
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a statement of our aspiration, and it is also a significant statement on the contribution of defence to our national prosperity. Some 3,500 F-35s will be procured worldwide, and 15% of them will be produced here in the United Kingdom. That is equivalent to 525 platforms, which is a significant vote of confidence in UK industry.
The situation, as per the shipbuilding strategy and as per the letter I sent to the hon. Lady, is that we are looking to procure the fleet solid support ships. The shipbuilding strategy aims to ensure that we have a strong shipbuilding sector, and a strong sector also needs a degree of competition. We are protecting warships as a national capability, but we are opening other elements of the shipbuilding strategy to international competition.
“Not affordable”, “not realistic”, “not complete”, “unbalanced” and “unmanageable”—those are some of the politer things that have been said about the Government’s equipment plan. The comments have been made not by the Government’s political opponents, but by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. Not since the end of the second world war have there been such devastating criticisms of a Government defence programme.
This £20.8 billion black hole in the MOD’s equipment plan has arisen due to this Government’s shameful incompetence. How do they intend to get out of this mess, and can we look forward to extra resources from the modernising defence programme?
I would say, at the risk of repeating myself, that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee do important work for this House, but I should highlight the fact—I have said this once but I will say it again—that the figures quoted in the NAO report were a worst-case scenario. It looked at every single project hitting the worst-case scenario and at no efficiencies whatsoever being created within the programme. We are considering all these issues as part of our modernising defence programme, but I genuinely say to the hon. Gentleman that he should read the report with a bit more care and understand it.
The Ministry of Defence takes cyber-threats very seriously, and we regularly assess our ability to defend against them. We are strengthening our defences against increasingly sophisticated attacks through a wide range of technical, operational and administrative measures, including close co-operation with the National Cyber Security Centre.
I am grateful for that question as it gives me the opportunity to highlight that we have invested and continue to invest in cyber-capabilities, including with the opening of the defence cyber-school in March, a £40 million investment in a new cyber-security operations capability, and £265 million towards a new cyber-vulnerability investigation programme.
The further east one goes, the greater the awareness of the cyber-threat in individual countries. Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Sweden have all published advice on how to deal with that threat. What do this Government intend to do to build resilience among the British people and understanding of botnets, hacktivists and all the other ways in which Russia is attacking our political and social institutions?
I think that we are well on our way. The 2015 national security strategy reaffirmed cyber as a top tier 1 risk. That was precisely why we opened the NCSC, which helps to co-ordinate the work of government and the private sector. It is also why we now consider cyber to be essential in our armed forces’ core skills.
The Minister’s reply shows astonishing complacency. We know that cyber-attacks are a key plank of Russia’s hybrid warfare, where fake news, Twitter bots and even ambassadors are used to create confusion, for example regarding the findings of the investigation into MH17. What steps is the Minister taking to educate the British public about the way in which Russia is systematically using our open, democratic, free society to weaken the European Union and to return to a Europe of nation states controlled by spheres of influence?
Frankly, I am staggered that the hon. Lady thinks that £1.9 billion of investment somehow represents complacency from this Government. I have already outlined exactly how the MOD is investing in cyber. In case she has not visited—it would be interesting to know whether she has—let me say that we also have the NCSC, which is only a mile down the road. If she has not been, perhaps she should go to have a look for herself at what the Government are doing to respond to her request.
Security Threat: Russia
I met NATO Defence Ministers met last week to discuss progress towards next month’s summit. The UK wants NATO to strengthen its deterrence and defence capabilities while ensuring that dialogue with Russia continues as part of the alliance’s commitment to avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation.
I tabled this question before the disastrous consequences of the failure of the G7 in Canada. Does it not seem as though this country is back in the 1939—isolated from Europe, with NATO under threat and with a big gulf between us and our traditional United States ally? What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?
In my discussions with the US Defence Secretary, he has been clear about the US commitment to NATO and European defence. Let us not underestimate how supportive the US has been of NATO, or its commitment over the next couple of years to pump resources, troops and money into ensuring that our defence is the very best we can possibly have.
NATO is quite rightly concentrating on the Russian threat to the east and to the south-east of Europe, but what more can we do to encourage it to take an interest in the high north and the Arctic, where the Russians have recently built eight new military bases at enormous cost? They also have huge submarine activity coming out into the north Atlantic and have reinvented the old bastion concept that was left over from the cold war. Surely there is a huge threat there and NATO has to do something about it.
We have seen a considerable increase in Russian activity in the high north, and we have seen an increase in our activity in the high north as well, with HMS Trenchant taking part in ICEX—Ice Exercise 18—and the announcement of the additional Astute class submarine, HMS Agincourt. This is all about how we invest to keep ourselves safe and the north Atlantic free from threats.
Syria is yet another of those areas of conflict where we see Russia so heavily involved. We have been working with the Syrian Democratic Forces to make sure that we give the level of support that is needed, and we will continue to have a dialogue with our allies to do everything we can to bring a peaceful solution to Syria. We need a diplomatic dialogue and Russia has to step up to the plate. It has to recognise that it needs to put pressure on the Assad regime to stop the dreadful, atrocious actions that are continuing to be carried out on the Syrian people. This has to be brought to an end.
We have been working closely with Romania, with Royal Marines working closely with Romanian defence forces, but more recently the Royal Air Force has been deployed in Romania to deliver air policing over that country and its neighbours. As a result of that RAF support, there has been a significant drop-off in the number of Russian incursions.
Just a couple of weeks ago, myself and SNP colleagues returned from the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, which is just two miles from the contact line of the conflict. We witnessed at first hand what Russian aggression really looks like against civilians, yet at the weekend President Trump made the astonishing claim that President Obama was to blame for the illegal invasion of Crimea. Will the Secretary of State set the record straight that this Government do not hold that view and that Russia is to blame for the illegal invasion of Crimea?
I am extremely grateful for that answer.
Thinking of national security in the broadest context and Russian influence, of course we learned at the weekend of revelations concerning Russian influence operations as far UK electoral contests go, which showed that Russia’s operations are as widespread as they are pernicious. What action is the Secretary of State taking in government and with NATO allies to crack down on Russian money flowing through London and to reform Scottish limited partnerships? Does he agree that that is not only in our interest, but in the collective interest of our partners, including Ukraine?
A number of the areas that the hon. Gentleman touched on are probably more suitable for Treasury questions, but we continue to work with our allies to make sure that everything that we can do is implemented to stop the flow of Russian money into our country and others.
UK Defence Industry
We are committed to supporting a thriving and internationally competitive defence sector. We have published our national shipbuilding strategy and refreshed our defence industrial policy, and we are developing a combat air strategy. In March, the Defence Secretary announced he had invited my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) to conduct a review of the defence contribution to prosperity, and I look forward to the publication of that report shortly.
I have consistently argued that the national shipbuilding strategy should be supported across the House, as it offers real support for our shipbuilding industry. We designate warships as a sovereign capability to be built in the UK. Other ships are open to international competition, but I am confident that there will be British yards putting in bids for that work.
My hon. Friend is well known for his championing of issues to do with the Royal Air Force. It is important to say that the Ministry of Defence is currently going through a process of considering the replacement for that capability, and we are also considering the situation with regard to Sentinel moving forward. A decision will be made in due course, and he will be informed at that point.
When the Minister sits down after this series of questions, will he remind the Secretary of State, who I see is not listening, that he has been to a number of yards that will compete with Cammell Laird, but not to Cammell Laird itself? When he is deciding on the shipbuilding programme, he needs to be seen to be fair as well as awarding us orders.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The process will be seen to be fair, because it will be fair. This is a real commitment that we are providing to the shipbuilding sector. We are absolutely committed to it, and we have adopted the shipbuilding strategy. I hope that he will have confidence in the process.
Engineers in Great Baddow in Chelmsford have been designing world-class radar systems for generations. Will the Minister take into account local skills and jobs when awarding the next contract, to make sure that British capabilities are not compromised?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about taking into account the whole contribution made to our economy when a contract is awarded. She will be interested in the new Treasury Green Book and also in some of the conclusions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow in his report on prosperity.
No decisions have been taken on sending additional UK troops to Afghanistan. The UK makes an important contribution to the non-combat NATO mission in Afghanistan, where our troop commitment is kept under regular review to ensure that it remains suited to the needs of the mission.
The Minister will be aware that, just today, 12 civilians, including women and children, have been killed in a suicide bombing attack outside a Ministry in Kabul. This is part of a string of attacks that have happened despite ceasefire efforts by President Ghani. Does the Minister agree that we very much need to protect the gains that we have made at the expense of blood and treasure in Afghanistan over many, many years, and will he consider looking at whether we need to provide more support to the Afghan security forces?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. He will understand that, as I spent time in Afghanistan myself in 2006, this subject is very close to my heart. I am determined that we should not, as he says, lose that blood and treasure. Indeed, I raised that issue with Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of Afghanistan, when I met him last Thursday. We will look at the matter very carefully to see what further support we can offer.
The Secretary of State made a welcome concession on the issue of Afghan interpreters, but it may be small comfort to those with constituency cases if, as reported, only 50 additional interpreters and their dependants will be allowed to come to the UK. Instead, will the Government look again at the whole process of assessing interpreters and at every case? There are some very deserving cases out there.
On reflection, Mr Speaker, I think I did receive some message that you were heading there.
We can be extremely proud of our armed forces, but if we are to continue to recruit the brightest and best, we must continue to invest in our equipment and training, but also in the welfare of our people. I am pleased that we are moving forward with the future accommodation model, which will give our armed forces personnel three choices: to remain on the garrison in the unit, inside the wire; to step outside and rent accommodation; or to get on the housing ladder by purchasing property.
The Royal United Services Institute criticised the future accommodation model, saying that it was woefully inadequate and behind schedule. Will the super-garrison at Catterick be finished on time, to ensure that armed forces personnel can live on garrison? Does the Minister think that the sale to Annington Homes in 1996 was a mistake?
With due respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is mixing up a number of issues. The future accommodation model has yet to start, but the pilot scheme is on track to start in December. We have been working closely with the families federations, which have themselves recommended the locations for the pilot schemes. I very much look forward to this work taking place in December.
Recently, concerns have been expressed to me about the quality of grounds and buildings maintenance at armed forces accommodation at Woodhouse in my constituency. The Minister’s commitment to our armed forces personnel is well known and clear. Can he reassure me that the future accommodation model will include high-quality maintenance, and will he meet me to discuss that specific issue?
Accommodation is very important. As I have mentioned, equipment and training are one thing, but we must ensure that we look after our people. The level of accommodation is one of the reasons why armed forces personnel choose to leave, which is why we are investing in more modern accommodation. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue. The Secretary of State and I take very seriously the matter of upgrading the accommodation that we offer our armed forces personnel.
I call Christian Matheson—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) has been very courteous in sitting there quietly, but I believe that he actually wanted to come in on this question; I do beg his pardon. Have a go, man.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The affordability of the future accommodation model relies heavily on the present rent adjustment on the Annington Homes estate. As we know, that is due to be renegotiated for 2021, with expectations that rents will rise significantly. The Tories were warned in 1996 that the sell-off of married quarters was a mistake, and that is exactly how it has transpired. What urgent steps has the Department taken to ensure that the rent renegotiation does not further cripple the MOD budget?
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of matters. I agree with that there is a question mark over what happened in the past, but it did happen, and we now need to move forward to provide the necessary offering for our armed forces personnel. As I mentioned, we are working with the families federations to ensure that we get the deal necessary to make accommodation affordable for our troops.
Combat Aircraft Design
The Ministry of Defence is working closely with other Government Departments, the UK aerospace sector, academia and international partners to explore the UK’s future approach to combat air capabilities. We intend to publish the initial findings this summer.
I think it is fair to say that we are undertaking a combat air strategy because the UK is a global leader in the field. UK industry’s export capabilities in combat air are well known, with £6 billion of exports last year, so we are approaching partnerships across the globe. The Department has written to partners in the US, across Europe and further afield.
Leaving the EU: Aerospace Industry
The Ministry of Defence is working closely with the defence industry to understand the implications and opportunities presented by the UK’s departure from the European Union. We want to explore how our industries can continue working together, but it is worth noting that current collaborative capability projects, such as Typhoon, are managed bilaterally or with groups of partners, rather than through the EU.
What we need moving forward is a strong relationship with the European Union to ensure that we have as frictionless trade as possible with the European Union. I do not think that remaining within the customs union is a prerequisite for a successful defence industry.
American-owned Darchem in Stillingham is just one of the manufacturing firms in my constituency providing aerospace and other engineering products to the military. It really needs certainty about future tariff-free trading with the EU. Will it get that tariff-free trading?
The Government’s aim and aspiration is to ensure that there will be tariff-free trade with the EU. I think that the company referred to by the hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to see a Government who are proactively pushing forward the combat air agenda. We are world leaders in combat air—as I highlighted, 15% of every F-35 is manufactured here in the United Kingdom. We are leading on this issue, and the Government are supporting industry in that leadership.
I wish I could offer the guarantee that the hon. Lady requests, but it is not possible to do so, because the steel required for the parts of the ships that we are building is not currently available from the United Kingdom. In the work that we are doing on the Type 26 frigate, for example, well over 50% of steel, by value, is from the United Kingdom. However, I am sure that the hon. Lady would be the first to complain if we had defects in our capability as a result of buying incorrect steel.
That is a crucial question, because our involvement with Galileo is important not just for our own security but for that of the European Union. We have committed significant funds to Galileo over the years. We have an obligation to our industry and to our defence capabilities to ensure that we investigate thoroughly the possibility of remaining within the Galileo programme. However, work is being undertaken on potential alternatives in case they are necessary.
The UK defence industry was on show this week with Operation Catamaran 18, involving UK and French amphibious forces. Can the Minister confirm that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, two great examples of UK military endeavour, will not be cut in the forthcoming modernising defence programme?
Defence Procurement: SMEs
Small businesses play a crucial role in our defence capability. To support them, we have launched a supplier portal that brings together a range of information and advice for new suppliers, and we have appointed a champion for smaller businesses to drive engagement. We also now require our largest suppliers to advertise their subcontracting opportunities on Government platforms.
Anti-drone technology produced by an SME in Horsham has been used very successfully by US forces on operations for more than a year now. Will the Minister assure the House that the MOD will always go for best in class in procurement, and that this is open to smaller manufacturers, as it is with our allies?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point about the importance of SMEs in innovation and capability. Our refreshed defence industrial policy published last December highlights how we are encouraging competition within the defence sector, maximising opportunities for SMEs. For example, we have produced new short-form contracts that make it easier for SMEs to bid into MOD opportunities.
Does the Minister recognise that SMEs depend on main contractors for an enormous amount of their work, and that that is why his previous replies on the fleet support ships have been so disappointing? Can he imagine our European G7 partners, let alone President Trump, buying navy support ships from foreign yards? When is he going to shake off Treasury dogma, wake up to European reality, and buy British ships built in British shipyards by British workers, backing British engineering firms large and small, and backing British steel?
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor. The modernising defence programme will ensure that our armed forces have the right capabilities to address evolving threats. The Government are committed to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, and the defence budget will rise by at least 0.5% above inflation every year of this Parliament, taking it to almost £40 billion by 2021.
I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful reply. Would he like to take this opportunity to endorse the suggestion by his immediate predecessor that we should aim to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence by the end of this Parliament? Does he agree that that would be a useful staging post on the road to the 3% that we really need? Finally, would the forthcoming NATO summit not be an excellent opportunity to announce any such advance?
I think my right hon. Friend is saving that for the next Defence questions.
We need to be looking at the threats that are starting to evolve right across the world, including in Europe. Those threats are increasing dramatically, and we have to ensure that we have the right capabilities to meet them. That is why we have the modernising defence programme to look in detail at how those threats are evolving, and why we are leading that analysis in the Ministry of Defence rather than any other part of Government. We want to come up with the solutions and answers to ensure that Britain and our allies are defended to the very best of our capability.
The Secretary of State knows that it is about not simply the amount of money but when it is made available for key programmes. It was great to welcome him up to Barrow shipyard a couple of weeks back, but does he accept that unless he can persuade the Treasury to release more money for the Dreadnought programme in the crucial early years, we risk the programme being more expensive and potentially late, endangering the continuous at-sea deterrent?
The hon. Gentleman makes a valuable point. It is essential that we have the right resources at the right time to deliver that critical programme. That is why I was so pleased that we were able to secure an extra £800 million in this financial year to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is delivered on time and in budget.
As my right hon. Friend will agree, we must adequately fund our armed forces to support those who selflessly put their lives on the line for our country—a concept that the Scottish Government do not seem to understand. Can he update the House on the measures that the UK Government are taking to mitigate Nicola Sturgeon’s Government’s tax hike for those brave service personnel?
It is truly shocking to think that the Scottish National party decided to put that extra taxation burden on our service personnel in Scotland, especially when we asked them not to do so. That is why we are proceeding with a review rapidly, and we hope to report our findings to the House in the not-too- distant future.
I am tempted to respond to that, but can the Secretary of State not convince the Treasury that building the Royal Navy support ships in-house at the likes of Rosyth would see a tax revenue gain for the Treasury and help us to retain skills, talent and investment in our shipyards? Is that not what the shipbuilding strategy is all about, or is the Treasury incapable of playing a team game?
I thought for a moment that we were going to have an apology to the 70% of service personnel who are having to pay extra taxes as a result of the Nat tax that the hon. Gentleman’s party has introduced.
This Government are absolutely committed to shipbuilding. That is why we will be building eight Type 26 frigates in Glasgow and five offshore patrol vessels in Govan. The hon. Gentleman should welcome that.
A recent profile by BuzzFeed revealed that some colleagues have likened the Defence Secretary to Francis Urquhart, although they suggest that the fictional character may be a bit more sophisticated—they might think that; I couldn’t possibly comment. With Ministers arguing in recent weeks that defence funding should rise north of 2.5%, can the Secretary of State tell us what sophisticated tactics he will be using to get the Chancellor to agree?
They are different in West Yorkshire.
What we are doing is taking the time to look at the threat and the challenges this nation faces. Over the past 10 years, we have seen the threat picture change so much. This is not just something we have noticed; from sitting down with our NATO allies, I know we are all seeing exactly the same. The world is getting increasingly dangerous, with state actors playing an ever greater role. It is right that we look at that closely, and make sure our armed forces have the equipment and resources they need to defend this nation against those threats.
In January, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is the Minister with responsibility for defence people, said that the cap on armed forces pay
“has been lifted…and we look forward to the recommendations that will be made in March.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 597.]
Given that it is now June and that this Government continue to be all words and no deeds, will the Secretary of State tell us when service personnel are going to receive the long overdue real-terms pay rise they deserve?
It was the Treasury that announced the changes on public sector pay, but we are working very closely with the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to get to the point where we can make such an announcement as swiftly as possible. I and my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will be working closely together to ensure that that is done as swiftly as possible.
Leaving the EU: Defence Policy
I hold regular discussions with my colleagues on this topic. Europe’s security is our security. We want to work closely with our European partners to keep our citizens safe and defend our shared interests and values, including through NATO and our future partnership with the European Union. Britain was committed to European security long before the creation of the European Union and our membership of it, and we will be committed to the security of continental Europe long after we leave.
What we are seeing with the Galileo project is, frankly, the European Union acting in a most unusual and strange way. Why on earth would it wish to exclude Great Britain from a project that is so integral to the security of the whole of the European Union and many other countries? As Britain is currently the largest spender on defence in the European Union, we would have thought that it welcomed our involvement in the project and that it hoped that we would continue to support it, but if it does not want us, we can do this independently.
The UK Hydrographic Office, which makes most of the world’s shipping charts, is the only fundraising arm of the Ministry of Defence. It is based in Taunton, and I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Defence has retained it and is now investing in and helping to support a new state-of-the-art facility. Is this not exactly the kind of asset on which we should be building as we leave the EU to increase our prosperity and influence in the world?
I know my hon. Friend fought a major fight to ensure that the investment came to her constituency and to preserve this important asset. It is a brilliant example of how the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces can play an important role not just in supporting defence, but in creating prosperity and jobs.
Armed Forces: Personnel Levels
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review.
Regarding Capita’s performance on the recruitment target, the Secretary of State was very clear when he said:
“do you have to give them a red card at some point if they don’t deliver? Yes, you do”.
Capita is not delivering, so when is it time for the red card?
There have certainly been challenges, particularly with the introduction of the defence recruiting system, but 12,360 recruits joined the British Army last year. I have met the chief executive of Capita on several occasions, and an improvement plan is in place at the moment—I think we need to provide an opportunity for it to be run through—but, absolutely, there is an alternative if need be.
Before the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Government promised to increase armed forces personnel from 11,000 to 12,500. As of October last year, there were fewer than 10,000 regular forces personnel stationed in Scotland. When will the UK Government keep their promise, or is this just another broken one?
I understand the SNP’s desire to get more service personnel in Scotland, as that is more service personnel they can tax under their Nat tax—[Interruption.] At least the hon. Gentleman finds it amusing. I am pleased to say that there are 14,000 regular and reserve personnel in Scotland. Also, let us not forget that all of the Royal Navy submarines will be moving to Faslane, and there is the new Typhoon squadron in Lossiemouth and our infantry brigade too.
Cadet detachments are an ideal training ground for those young people considering a future career in the armed forces. Can my right hon. Friend outline what he is doing to increase recruitment from cadet forces and will he consider visiting my constituency to see the hard work and dedication put in by cadets in Erewash?
Potential recruits may well be concerned about the issue of legal claims against personnel and veterans, especially in the light of the Iraq historic allegations team debacle. It is now more than a year since the Conservatives made a manifesto promise to tackle those claims, and the issue has been raised repeatedly by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Why has nothing been done?
I start by paying tribute to Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, who fulfilled his last day in the role of Chief of the Defence Staff before moving on to the role of chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Sir Stuart has served the Royal Air Force and his country for a long period and made such a difference to making sure that our armed forces have been properly represented.
I am also incredibly proud to be able to announce the four new cutting-edge F35s that arrived at RAF Marham just last week.
The Secretary of State just confessed to being a blunt-speaking Yorkshireman, so will he give me a straight answer? He must be reeling from the events at the G7 in Canada. Are we prepared and would this country be able to defend itself if America takes its bat home and leaves NATO? Is he talking to the French and the Germans about this?
The United States’ commitment to NATO is unequivocal. They are backing it not just with words but with deeds, and we should be incredibly proud of our long-term alliance with one of our very closest of friends and of the important role they have played in ensuring the freedom of Europe over the last 70 years.
The Shoreham disaster was an absolute tragedy, but we have to move forward from that. Just at the weekend I was at RAF Cosford and saw the amazing air display that took place there. It shows how such displays can inspire future generations to join the Royal Air Force and play a role in their country’s defence, and I will certainly take the point up with the Civil Aviation Authority.
The review of the defence fire and rescue service has been running in various forms for 10 years now. With neither of the final two bidders having exactly a glowing past record, does the Secretary of State share my concern that if the contract is outsourced and we see a repeat of the Carillion situation, the consequences could be disastrous?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has taken too long. I had a briefing on this only last month and we will make progress. I heed the concerns that he raises.
My hon. Friend touches on such an important issue: looking after our veterans, in particular those who are homeless or who feel isolated. The Secretary of State moved forward with a 24/7 support helpline and is launching a new veterans strategy, which will be announced in November. It is important that every local council takes responsibility for having an armed forces champion who looks after those who are homeless and identifies what help can be given.
We are at the demonstration phase, with 11 being manufactured. It is currently going through a trials programme and we will report back when that is complete.
The House has a great duty towards all those who serve our country: not just our armed forces, but those who supported our country in Afghanistan and in so many other areas. I am certainly very keen to look at all options to see how best we can protect service personnel who have given so much in the service of our country.
It is an interesting fact that since the second world war I think there have been only two years when the Army has been fully manned. There are challenges, but I am confident that we maintain all our operational commitments. The Army is currently approximately 95% manned, which I think is pretty good, but I am determined to get it up to 100%.
Reports suggest China is fast developing a new generation of military technology, focusing on artificial intelligence and autonomous weaponry, which will soon surpass the capability of the United States. Will the Minister outline what planning is under way with allies to keep up with those advances?
What we are seeing is a number of state actors, not just Russia but China as my hon. Friend outlines, investing heavily in new technologies. It is absolutely right that we do the same, investing in those new technologies not only so we can defeat what they have but to have the capabilities ourselves for our armed forces.
I know that the Secretary of State will share my hope for a successful summit between North Korea and the United States of America tomorrow, which will hopefully reduce military tensions on the Korean peninsula. What assessment has he made of the role UK armed forces could play to ensure that any deal is successfully implemented and enforced?
Our armed forces have already been playing an important role in ensuring that United Nations sanctions are properly upheld. The deployment of HMS Sutherland and HMS Albion has been a part of ensuring that UN sanctions are upheld. We want a diplomatic solution, and all our work and all our efforts have to go towards ensuring that a diplomatic solution is found.
I warmly endorse the Secretary of State’s tribute to the Chief of the Defence Staff, but Sir Stuart Peach did say last week that he was deeply uncomfortable about the process of legacy investigations into veterans. I understand that several years ago, the Ministry of Defence did a lot of detailed staff work into the practicability of the statute of limitations. Would the Secretary of State promise the House that he will ask to see that work and perhaps be able to take it forward?
I am well aware of the campaign not just by the hon. Gentleman, but by others. I am certainly happy to look into it in more detail. He will be aware that there are two components to this—risk and rigour, and avoiding duplication of other medals that have already been given—but I am certainly happy to discuss it further with him outside the Chamber.
I am certainly hoping to be able to report before the summer recess. We are very conscious that so much investment has gone into Lossiemouth and we do not want people to be disincentivised from moving there as a result of the Nat tax that has been imposed upon them.
The EU has made it clear that we are not allowed to lead any operations after 29 March next year. However, we are continuing to negotiate how we might be able to take part—for example, Operation Sophia, Operation Atalanta or indeed, Operation Althea in the Balkans.
The Minister will be aware that I and the North Devon community have lobbied hard over the future of Royal Marines Base Chivenor. In the light of media reports over the weekend, is he able to confirm whether a decision is indeed imminent?
On the invitation of my hon. Friend, I visited Chivenor and was very impressed with what is happening there. No decision has been made on Chivenor, so please ignore the reports in the media, and I will be more than happy to discuss where things are going with him outside the Chamber.
I asked every Government Department how many contractors they had employed for over one year and five years, and how many they had paid over £1,000 a day to. Can the Secretary of State explain why his was one of only two Departments that was either unwilling or unable to answer that question, and can I urge him to go back and find out how many contractors are paid over £1,000 a day, so that he, and we, can see how well he manages his Department’s spending?
Will the ministerial team recognise the work of service dogs in the Army, Air Force and Navy, and in particular, welcome the establishment next week in this House of a memorial charity to those animals, to be based in Delyn constituency in north Wales?
If we cannot protect our service personnel from the Northern Ireland campaign by a statute of limitations coupled with the truth recovery process, who is going to be next: the Falkland Islands veterans, or even the last few from the second world war?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about making sure we have the correct accommodation, which is something we touched on earlier. I know there are big questions about what is happening in the Brize Norton area, and again I would be delighted to discuss the matter with him further.
In its most recent report on the recruitment plan, the National Audit Office said that the plan was “not affordable”—full stop. The Secretary of State has been given seven recommendations. Which will have the most impact?
Once again, we appreciate the work done on that report and are taking it seriously—it is being considered as part of the modernising defence programme—but we state again very clearly that the MOD does not recognise as likely outcomes some of the worst-case scenarios.
I was thinking exactly the same, Mr Speaker.
On behalf of the British nuclear test veterans, and as their patron, I welcome the Minister’s warm words earlier. It is right that we finally remember those who gave so much. Nevertheless, I want a little more. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and the veterans to further the case that they should be awarded a medal? Some 1,500 of the 22,000 are left. This generation, by recognising and rewarding those brave people, would be doing a service to theirs—something of which we can be proud.
I note in passing that today is the 31st anniversary of the election to the House of a number of right hon. and hon. Members still serving, including—there is a piquancy about mentioning this—the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). I call Mr Keith Vaz to ask the urgent question.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the reports of an imminent attack by the Saudi-Emirati-led coalition on the port of Hodeidah and the humanitarian impact of such an attack.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on both his length of service and his question. Last Thursday, it was 35 years since I was first elected to the House—so there are a few of us old ones knocking around.
On these occasions, I am grateful that you have such a gift for words, Mr Speaker.
On a serious matter, reports have been circulating for some time of a possible assault on either Hodeidah or Hodeidah port. Information at the beginning of last weekend, including from troop movements, suggested that such an attack might be imminent. In view of our responsibilities to aid agencies, the Department for International Development issued a statement based on that information. It read:
“We are doing everything we can through diplomatic channels to discourage an assault on Hodeidah. However despite these actions, a military assault now looks imminent. The Emiratis have informed us today that they will now give a 3-day grace period for the UN [and their partners] to leave the city. Please take all precautions necessary to prepare for this and let us know if there is anything we can do to assist you in any way. We are thinking of you and your staff at this very difficult time.”
That is the email that was reprinted in The Guardian today.
The Government are and have been concerned about the potential impact of any assault on the city and port of Hodeidah for some time and have made their concerns clear to the Saudi and Emirati Governments. The UN assesses that an attack on Hodeidah could displace up to 350,000 people and leave hundreds of thousands of Yemenis without access to basic goods or healthcare. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Saudi and Emirati counterparts over the weekend, and we are in close touch with the UN humanitarian co-ordinator and the UN special envoy.
The majority of Yemen’s food and fuel imports enter through Hodeidah and Saleef ports and it is crucial that humanitarian and commercial imports continue to flow through the port. We urge all parties to facilitate access for essential imports of food, fuel and medical supplies into the country, including through Hodeidah. As with all aspects of the conflict, all parties must respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.
No attack has yet taken place. Accordingly, we continue to urge all sides to de-escalate as a matter of urgency and to engage in the political process in good faith. The UN special envoy has previously expressed concern that conflicts in Hodeidah could take peace off the table “in a single stroke”. It is essential for him to be given the time that he needs to facilitate a negotiated solution that avoids conflict in the city and we support his efforts to do so.
It is important to recall the wider conflict. The conflict in Yemen is now in its fourth year. Houthi rebels took the capital by force in 2014 and displaced the legitimate Government of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition action is designed to facilitate the restoration of effective governance. The Houthis have consistently failed to adhere to UN Security Council resolutions: they have, for instance, launched missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, prevented access to humanitarian supplies—which has led to significant damage to civilians—and prevented vital vaccinations.
We have been clear about the fact that there can be no military solution to the conflict. We continue to encourage all parties to show restraint, to return to negotiations and to engage in the UN-led political process in good faith, to work towards a comprehensive political settlement.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and for your kind words. I also thank the Minister for what he has said.
The port of Hodeidah accounts for the entry of between 70% and 80% of humanitarian aid. As we have just heard, it is at risk of an imminent military assault by forces supported by the Saudi and Emirati-led coalition—a coalition strongly supported by this Government, who, of course, supply it with arms.
The three-day period that has been given to the aid agencies is simply not enough. Hodeidah has been the last lifeline to Yemen’s civilians since the conflict began —2.2 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance—and an attack on the port would be a catastrophe. The United Nations estimates that it could lead directly to the deaths of a quarter of a million people, roughly the population of the city of Leicester. It would devastate the peace process. As we heard from the Minister, Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy to Yemen, who has just taken up his post, has said that such an assault
“would, in a single stroke, take peace off the table.”
Will the Minister ask the Prime Minister today, after her statement to the House, to speak to Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, and tell them that they must immediately stop the military preparations for the offensive? Will he instruct our UN ambassador, Karen Pierce, to convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss this matter? At that meeting or before it, will the Government make a statement directly condemning an attack on Hodeidah and calling for a ceasefire as a matter of urgency?
Will the Minister convene, as a matter of urgency, a meeting of the Quint nations on Yemen this week? That was promised several months ago. Finally, if an attack on the port does take place—against the wishes of our Government—will we reconsider our support for the coalition, or in what way will we ensure that the peace process succeeds?
I know that the eyes of the world are on Singapore at this moment, but they should be on Hodeidah. Failure to take this action will lead to more slaughter of innocent Yemenis, and will be a stain on the conscience of Ministers, the Government and the House.
Obviously, we share much of the concern expressed by the right hon. Member for Leicester East. That is why we have consistently made the case to the coalition that an attack on Hodeidah could have very serious displacement effects, and we have expressed our concern over a lengthy period. We will continue to do so. The Foreign Secretary did so over the weekend and those conversations will continue. I stress that no attack has yet happened and, even as we speak, the UN special envoy is engaged with both sides to see whether anything in the imminence of circumstances might move the negotiations along.
I have made the case to the House before that this is not a one-sided conflict. Areas under Houthi control have prevented humanitarian access. Abuses of international humanitarian law have occurred. The Houthis stop vaccinations and steal medical supplies.
The coalition came into effect to restore legitimate government to the people of Yemen. We have expressed our concern about any action taken by the coalition that might be in breach of international humanitarian law. We will continue to do so. The Foreign Secretary is in contact with other members of the Quint and those who are concerned about potential action. However, it remains the case that a negotiated solution could still be found. We are continuing to urge that the UN special envoy has the space to be able to do that. That has been our consistent approach over a lengthy period and we will continue to do that.
Order. A good many colleagues are seeking to catch my eye and this matter is urgent, which is why I granted the question, but there are two important ministerial statements to follow and, unusually, today it may not be possible to accommodate all who wish to take part. However, participation will be maximised if questions and answers are brief. To be blunt, there is no time for preamble.
My right hon. Friend is right: Iran does have a relevance to this conflict. It is engaged in supplying weaponry and support to the Houthis and we have consistently called on Iran to recognise the damage and danger done through its actions. It is still possible that Iran can be part of the solution and part of the answer to the conflict, as many parties that take part in conflicts clearly are.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the chair of the all-party group on Yemen, on securing it.
There is a bitter sadness in the fact that, less than three weeks ago, we were welcoming the publication of the all-party group’s latest report, a blueprint for bringing about a peaceful political solution to this terrible conflict and an end to the humanitarian crisis, yet here we are, 20 days later, facing the exact opposite—an attack on Hodeidah by the UAE, which according to the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, will
“in a stroke, take peace off the table. ”
And not just that but, as has already been observed by Members on both sides and by every aid agency working on the ground, this planned attack will not just threaten the lives of the hundreds of thousands of civilians living in Hodeidah, but turn the humanitarian crisis facing the rest of Yemen into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. Why is this happening? After all, we are used to hearing the mantra in these debates that “There is no military solution to the conflict in Yemen.” However, let us be clear what that actually means. What it means is that we take it on trust that the Saudis and the Emiratis have the good sense and humanity to understand that any conceivable military solution would cause such catastrophic loss of life that both politically and morally it would be impossible to pursue. But that, I am afraid, is exactly what we now face in Hodeidah.
Trusting to the good sense and humanity of the UAE and the Saudis is therefore clearly no longer a viable option, so may I ask the Minister today whether, at the emergency session of the Security Council due to take place in a matter of minutes, the UK will take action and table an immediate resolution demanding that the UAE stop this assault on Hodeidah before it is too late, and will he immediately suspend the sale of arms for use in this conflict?
The United Kingdom will continue to do what it has done for a lengthy period, which is to seek to discourage any attack on Hodeidah or on the port. The Foreign Secretary has been engaged in this over the weekend, we will continue to be so and that same case will be made through the United Nations.
In relation to arms sales and the like, I remind the House again that this is covered by international humanitarian law. Any suggestion of breaches of that will be subject to the law, as always, and the UK will continue to consider any possible risk of that in any future arms sales.
I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend joined on the Front Bench by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood); they demonstrate the joined-up effort that needs to go on here. However, has my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East had time to urge our defence attachés in the region to emphasise to the Emiratis that taking a city of 400,000 is not an easy task? Having served in the operation that captured Basra 15 or so years ago, I can assure him that the invasion is the easy bit; it is the governing it afterwards that makes life incredibly hard.
My hon. and gallant Friend speaks from experience. I can assure him that everyone who has been in contact with the coalition in relation to this has done exactly what he and everyone else in the House would expect in terms of expressing concern about how any assault might be carried out and the dangers involved. That is why we have sought to discourage an attack. The port and the city are separate—they may be separate targets—but our advice has been consistently the same in that we seek to discourage such an attack.