The Secretary of State was asked—
Commonwealth: UK National Security
The national security capabilities review emphasised the importance of our bilateral and regional relationships, and our influence in international institutions. The Commonwealth is an integral element of our global approach.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Commonwealth troops made a vital contribution to our successes in the first and second world wars? Accordingly, what measures is his Department taking to encourage more Commonwealth citizens to join the British armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. More than 3 million Commonwealth and empire soldiers took part in the great war, serving alongside British servicemen, and 200,000 lost their lives. We are looking at increasing the number of Commonwealth nationals who can join our armed forces, as we recognise the important contribution they made to our international armed forces.
Does the Secretary of State agree that we owe a huge debt to the Commonwealth not only for conflicts of the past, but for those of the future? Is it not time that we started to use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to actually talk about big issues such as defence and the things that join legislators across the world, rather than as a meaningless talking shop?
We certainly do not want meaningless talking shops. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point; perhaps I should make him an honorary colonel to take the message right around the Commonwealth and get it across. He makes a valuable point about the important network of influence that the Commonwealth provides, which is demonstrated every time we visit Commonwealth countries. We are looking closely at how we can do more with Commonwealth armed forces.
Cyprus is a member of the Commonwealth and our sovereign base areas there are a vital part of Britain’s defence. Cyprus is also a member of NATO and the EU. When my right hon. Friend speaks to his Cypriot counterparts, does he find that they share our concerns about the development of the European army that is now being proposed, and how that might undermine NATO?
I have not had any conversations with my Cypriot opposite number about any European army, but let me be absolutely clear that Britain will not participate in a European army. The cornerstone of our defence in the United Kingdom, on continental Europe and in the north Atlantic is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, not the European Union.
Armed Forces: Mental Health
One third of us will be affected by a mental health condition or problem during our lifetime, and that applies also to those serving in the armed forces. The Prime Minister is very conscious of the issue and wants to remove the disparity between physical and mental health. It is why in 2017 we launched the mental health and wellbeing strategy, which is reaping dividends in removing the stigma attached to mental health issues.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the good work done by Combat Stress at its Hollybush House facility in my constituency? Will he consider what further assistance can be given to such organisations in providing mental health support to current and former members of the armed forces?
Combat Stress came about after the first world war, from which people were returning with conditions that we did not understand then. Today, 100 years later, Combat Stress continues to provide vital support, working with our armed forces to ensure that we provide the support necessary for those affected by such conditions, and I pay tribute to the work it has done. I recognise, however, that occasionally people do not get the treatment they are due. We are ensuring that all those who need it, no matter the circumstances, receive the support they deserve.
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is not just the armed forces who are subject to stress and other mental health issues. Our approach has been to promote better understanding of the issues he touches on to increase prevention, and better detection to provide early treatment. An awful lot can be done to compare notes and share best practice. I do that with the “Five Eyes” countries and I would be happy to sit down with him to discuss how we can do that for the blue light services, too.
I congratulate the Minister on Thursday’s debate, which was both informative and very interesting. Will he commit to write to every health body and local authority to explain exactly what they should be doing? I learnt an awful lot and they should be doing much more. I hope he will inform them of what they should be doing.
One reason we introduced the Veterans Board, which is chaired by the Defence Secretary, was to hold other Government Departments to account. They have a duty of care to our armed forces personnel and their families, and to veterans. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on the important debate we had last week. It is imperative that all clinical commissioning groups and local authorities recognise their duty to the armed forces covenant. We should have the same standards across the entire country.
The first responsibility of Government is the protection and defence of the United Kingdom and its citizens. Nuclear sits at the apex of our defence and deterrence strategy. It is there to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and our way of life.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the continuous at-sea deterrent and look to Trident’s renewal, what more will he do to ensure that new supply chains benefit British manufacturers most, especially those in Stoke-on-Trent South?
I am very much looking forward to joining my hon. Friend in a visit to Goodwin International, a brilliant example of a firm in Stoke-on-Trent that supplies the UK and operations right across the globe. It goes to show that the investment we are making in our nuclear deterrence not only benefits greatly the people of Barrow, but supports a global supply chain and an enormous supply chain in the United Kingdom.
For those who were not here on Thursday I reiterate, I hope on behalf of the whole House, congratulations to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) on her election as President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. It is with some joy that I call not only Mrs Madeleine Moon, but President Moon. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I wonder whether the Secretary of State agrees with me that the nuclear deterrent—I stress the word “deterrent”—is also a vital part of our NATO alliance security and defence strategy, and that it is vital not just for the UK but the whole of the alliance?
If I may address Madam President on that point, Mr Speaker, the hon. Lady is absolutely right. We are the only country that assigns its nuclear deterrence to the defence of NATO, so it plays a vital role. It also plays an important role in ensuring that Britain is an even more powerful voice within NATO and acts in a real leadership role in that organisation.
It is great to follow a president, for the first time in my life. Although we have strategic nuclear forces, we do not have tactical nuclear weapons. That is a gap in our strategic escalatory ladder. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we work very closely with our NATO allies, which do have such weapons, so we can ensure no gaps in escalation if, heaven forbid, that were to be necessary?
We always work very closely with all our NATO allies, looking at the broad range of threats that Britain and our NATO allies face. We often talk about nuclear deterrence, but we must not forget the importance of conventional deterrence as well, which is provided by all our forces, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the British Army, whether that is about our forces having the right capabilities or where they are deployed. We are leading NATO in terms of our deployments in Estonia, Poland and, through the summer, Romania.
In light of the press speculation about the financial position of Babcock plc, what assurances can the Secretary of State give not only that the company is able to carry out the current refits of our nuclear submarines, but about any threat that there is to our continuous at-sea deterrent?
The latest Russian aggression towards Ukraine shows the type of blackmail that western Europe could be subjected to if it did not have the protection of NATO’s nuclear shield. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that this is not just about the jobs up in Cumbria? My father spent a lot of time refitting and maintaining our deterrent class fleet at Devonport, which is where we expect the Dreadnought class to be refitted.
Workers in Devonport dockyard are world class, their nuclear skills are second to none, and it is the only place in the country that can refit our nuclear submarines, but there is much disquiet about the communications between Babcock and the Ministry of Defence. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that the MOD and Babcock have picked up their communications so that any refit problems on HMS Vanguard—that Trident sub—can be resolved, and without the pressure of it looking as though our Trident subs will not be refitted on time?
As I said earlier, we recognise not only the brilliant skills that are held at the Devonport dockyard, but the importance of having a strong relationship with all our suppliers. We always work very closely, whether it is with Babcock, BAE Systems or Rolls-Royce, on the availability and deliverability of all our military assets.
The Secretary of State was obviously missed at our CASD reception, but we understand that he had a rather important emergency Cabinet meeting and noted that when he emerged from it, he remained as the Defence Secretary, which was helpful. Will he pay tribute from the Dispatch Box to the work that has gone into ensuring that we have had the continuation of the deterrent for 50 years, and does he agree that the problems with the refits make it all the more important that we deliver Dreadnought on time?
I formally offer my apologies for not being able to attend the reception, which I sadly had to miss, but I look forward to attending a future one, and I would like to formally record my thanks to the men and women of Barrow, who have continuously worked so hard to provide us with the world’s cutting-edge submarine technology. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was very proud when I went through Barrow to see those Astute class submarines and the Dreadnought being built. It is absolutely integral to our national security. This is not just about the Royal Navy, but about the whole industrial supply chain pulling together to make sure that Dreadnought is delivered on time and in budget.
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
We have a close dialogue with the United States at all levels on foreign and security policy, including the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. We share US concerns about certain new Russian missiles. The treaty has played a valuable role in supporting Euro-Atlantic security. We want to see it continue to stand, but that requires all parties to comply.
The Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty has prompted Putin to say that it
“wouldn’t be left without an answer from our side.”
Many are now concerned that this may have recklessly opened the door to a chilling new nuclear arms race. Does the Secretary of State share this concern over such hardball diplomacy?
There is one nation that is in breach of the treaty, and it is Russia. It needs to start complying with that treaty, and it needs to comply immediately. It is a treaty between those two nations, and currently there is one nation that is not complying with it.
The intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty of 1987 was based on the zero-option offer, which was a great two-sided deal between the Soviet Union and the west. Does the Secretary of State think that there are any lessons to be drawn from the negotiations which led to that successful deal, in that the west faced down the Soviet Union, walked out—or, at least, allowed the Soviet Union to walk out—without a deal when the Russians refused to accept the zero-option offer, and waited for them to come back and do a genuine deal that benefited both sides? Does he think that that successful two-sided deal has any lessons to teach us for the purpose of certain other negotiations that have so far worked out a lot less happily?
I cannot imagine what my right hon. Friend is referring to, but I think that when it comes to the issue of Russia’s lack of compliance with its treaty obligations, we need to keep hammering home the message, with all our NATO allies, that it cannot ignore its treaty obligations and must start complying with them.
Will the Secretary of State make clear that there could be dangers here, with threats not only to the INF treaty but to the strategic arms reduction treaty—START—talks on strategic nuclear weapons? Will he also, along with his colleagues in NATO, present a united front on NATO’s assessment, and that of the United States, that Russia is in serious breach of the INF treaty? Will he urge the Americans—who have not, as far as I am aware, announced that they have withdrawn, but have announced an intention to withdraw—not to do so, but also make clear that this is not a reaction from Russia, but a reaction from the west to actions by Russia?
The right hon. Gentleman’s assessment is absolutely accurate. This is a US reaction to Russia’s lack of compliance with its treaty obligations. It is important for the whole of NATO to speak with one voice and make clear to Russia that it must start complying with its treaty obligations.
On 25 October, the Minister for Asia and the Pacific said, in response to an urgent question that I had tabled on US withdrawal from the INF treaty,
“clearly we are in discussions with all our allies to avoid that outcome”.—[Official Report, 25 October 2018; Vol. 648, c. 442.]
At the same time, however, the Defence Secretary appeared to be supportive of the United States’ decision. Will he clarify exactly what the Government’s position really is? Does he not agree that, while Russia has undoubtedly breached its obligations under the treaty, it would be far better for the United States to remain within the auspices of the treaty and work to improve Russia’s compliance?
A treaty that involves only two people and is not being complied with by one of the parties does not end up as the most successful of treaties. That is why we will continue to work with our NATO allies, and with partners around the world, to put pressure on Russia to start complying with its international treaty responsibilities. The United States is quite right to highlight the fact that Russia is in breach of its obligations.
Transition to Civilian Life
Every single year, 15,000 personnel depart from our armed forces, and I hope that I say on behalf of the entire House, “Thank you for your service.” They learn incredible skills while serving, and we need to ensure that the transition back into civilian life is as smooth as possible. I am pleased to say that 90% of those who participate in our transition scheme are either in education or back in employment within six months of departing the armed forces.
What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Office for National Statistics, or the Registrar General for Scotland, about the feasibility of adding the category “armed forces veteran” to the national census, to help us to identify the location of our veterans?
I am pleased to say that we have spoken to the National Audit Office, and we are proceeding with the census question to ensure that we have a better understanding of who is actually a veteran in this country. I think it would be very helpful in securing a better estimation. We understand that there are currently 2.5 million veterans, and that the figure will fall to 1.5 million over the next 10 years, but better data through the census will certainly help.
Does the Minister agree with me about the importance of the work done by small local charities, such as Hull Veterans Support Centre in Beverley Road, Hull, which works not only with the veterans, but with the family, and provide support, particularly at this time, around social security benefits and universal credit?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. When we think of the armed forces, we think of those in uniform, and when we think of the veterans, we think of those who have served, but around every person who has served there is a family—a unit that has been with them every step of the way—and we must make sure that their needs are looked after as well. I pay tribute to all the service-facing charities, including the small ones, that do such an excellent job. It is also important to recognise the work of the Veterans’ Gateway that allows access to help with understanding where this support can be provided.
Sleeping rough or being homeless is always hard, particularly at this time of year, and I pay tribute to my charity Open Door, which helps people in such circumstances. What assessment has the Minister made about the number of former personnel who have trouble accessing housing and are finding themselves homeless this Christmas?
This issue was raised in the debates on the veterans strategy that we had a couple of weeks ago and on the covenant. It is very important that all local authorities recognise their responsibility in meeting their objectives for the covenant, and I encourage every hon. Member in this House to visit their local authority and ask who their armed forces champion is—who the person is who is supposed to be there to make sure we are meeting the objectives, which include looking after those requiring housing or needing help because they are homeless.
I am sure the Minister is aware that the Secretary of State said recently that they are the armed forces shop steward, so I wonder why the Government disagree that armed forces personnel, including those transitioning into civilian life, would be better served by real shop stewards elected by an armed forces representative body.
I put my hands up and say that we still need to work further on this—I made that clear in the debate as well—but the covenant is moving forward; we are holding other Government Departments to account, and I hope that will be made clearer when we report back on our findings next year.
Veterans’ Mental Health and Armed Forces Covenant
We have regular discussions with the Department of Health and Social Care and, indeed, the Secretary of State for Health. As we just touched on, it is an important requirement that the health matters and the concerns of both veterans and armed forces personnel are met. That is not a direct responsibility of the MOD; it is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care and we are working ever more closely with it.
Further to the issue raised by the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), a UK veterans’ assistance charity estimates that the number of armed forces veterans living homeless at present is in the region of 13,000. That is a figure that should give us all pause for thought, and should, I would suggest, cause us to unite politically rather to divide. Will the Minister speak to the health service, the councils and other Government Departments to get something done on this?
The hon. Gentleman shouts that it needs more than a champion; I invite him to go to his local authority and ask what it is doing about that. This is a matter that goes down to local authorities; they have responsibility. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) says that there are 13,000; we need to disaggregate between whether they are rough sleeping or homeless. In some cases there are places available, and often the veterans are not aware of the help that can be provided—and that is exactly where the armed forces champion comes into play.
Armed Forces: Statutory Association Body
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will group this with Question 18.
Armed forces personnel are prohibited from joining any such lawful organisation. Personnel may become members of civilian trade unions and professional associations. If they are a member of a trade union, they cannot participate in any industrial action.[Official Report, 28 November 2018, Vol. 650, c. 1MC.]
I do not think the grouping had previously been requested, although I would not go to the wall over that, but in any case it cannot apply for the very good reason that Question 18 has been withdrawn. However, I daresay the Minister will bear that burden with stoicism and fortitude.
Does the Minister not recognise that we owe our current and former personnel a voice in the development of the policies that serve and support them, and that that is what a statutory representative body would do? Does he agree that, at the very least, the House should have an opportunity to fully debate this? Will he therefore ask the Leader of the House to make time for the Armed Forces Representative Body Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes)?
I am obviously saddened that there is less time to debate this important issue right now, let alone on any future occasion. I want to make it clear that our armed forces prepare not for the world that we live in but for the world that we might find ourselves in. We are the ultimate backstop. We are the ones who step forward and fill the gaps when there is a necessity to do so. We cannot do that if there is a threat of industrial action or if we are in some way unable to provide those services. By all means bring that debate on; I will be more than happy to explain in more detail why the status quo is correct.
UK-EU Defence Relationship
All Ministry of Defence Ministers meet their EU counterparts regularly to discuss important matters of European security. I attended the October NATO defence ministerial meeting, which was also attended by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
For the record, Manchester’s armed forces champion is Councillor Tommy Judge, who was blown up twice by the IRA: once in the M62 bus bombing and once on the Falls Road. We know who are champions are. UK suppliers depend on just-in-time supply chains and therefore need frictionless trade. Does the Secretary of State agree that only a full customs union with the EU will ensure that?
The Royal United Services Institute has concluded that the collapse in the value of the pound against the dollar following the Brexit vote could lead to additional costs of £700 million a year to the MOD. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to mitigate this?
The withdrawal agreement would commit the UK to all the EU’s state aid prevention rules without giving our defence industry any exemption from those rules. On what planet could we possibly support such a measure, which would destroy jobs across this nation and make our defence industry uncompetitive?
We are looking to ensure that we have the freedom and independence that we need in terms of defence procurement, and that is integral to everything we are going to do. We will want to see whether there are options when it comes to having access to some programmes in the European Union, and if that works for Britain, we will consider it.
The Prime Minister has said that the UK is unconditionally supportive of Europe’s defence, and those of us on the SNP Benches welcome that, but the European Defence Agency has multiple associations for countries outside the European Union, including Norway and now Ukraine. Is it the Secretary of State’s intention to explore such an association membership for the UK after we leave the European Union?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Britain was involved in the security of continental Europe long before the creation of the European Union. We feel quite confident that the cornerstone of our security is NATO, not the European Union, and that is where our focus is going to be.
Last Thursday, I asked the Prime Minister what the cost would be of developing a British alternative to the Galileo project, given that she has failed to negotiate Britain’s participation in Galileo, post Brexit. I received absolutely no answer from her. The cost would in fact be between £3 billion and £5 billion. Given the support of the Defence Secretary for this move, will he tell me whether the Treasury has agreed to pay that sum?
It is typical of the Labour party to want to hand over money continually to the European Union for nothing in return. When we look at the satellite technology, we see that it has been developed here in the UK with British money. We are more than capable of delivering the system with international allies. I hate to have to point it out to the hon. Gentleman, but there are more international allies around the globe than just the European Union, such as the United States, Japan, Australia, South Korea and many others we can work with.
I hold regular discussions with the Chancellor. The additional £1.8 billion being invested in the defence budget reaffirms our commitment to protecting national security.
There is an additional £200 million for the Ministry of Defence this year, and £800 million the following year, but there is still a massive black hole to fill in the MOD budget. When will the Secretary of State stop asking for an inadequate bail-out and secure the finances that the MOD requires?
Last year we saw £36 billion spent on defence, and next year we will see £39 billion, and we are investing £186 billion in defence procurement. We recognise that we have to look at how we make savings, which is why we have made £9.5 billion of efficiencies within our programme, to ensure that all three services get the equipment they need to safeguard the security of this nation.
The latest statistics show that Capita has managed to recruit only 10% of the officers and 7% of all other ranks that the Ministry requires for 2018-19. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the adequacy of funding for recruiting the officers that the Ministry needs and with the performance of this failing provider?
The £1 billion from the Chancellor does not nearly make up for the £10 billion of real-terms cuts to the defence budget between 2010 and 2017. What more does the Secretary of State plan to do to ensure that his Department, and by extension our armed forces, are adequately resourced to tackle the emerging and changing threats facing our country?
If we look at the choice between where Labour would take our defence policy and where we would take it, I know which would give Britain the greatest security. I think that all Government Members recognise the important role that our armed forces play, which is why we will keep investing in them.
The Government’s calamitous failure to manage the defence budget means that the MOD’s equipment plan is now completely unaffordable. The funding gap is somewhere between £7 billion and £15 billion. We all welcome the £1 billion that was earmarked for defence in the Budget, but the Secretary of State must realise that the sums just do not add up—unless, of course, he has been taking numeracy lessons from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). Can he tell the House what urgent plans he has to deal with this particular funding shortfall?
I really do not think that the efficiencies argument washes anymore—it is just not good enough. We have known for years that the plan is unaffordable. Ministers must accept their responsibility for failing to balance the books. The National Audit Office has said that the Government must decide which programmes to defer, de-scope or delete as soon as possible, in order to bring the plan back into the black. One of the programmes that could be at risk is the Warrior capability sustainment programme, which is now 13 months behind schedule and £62 million over budget. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that this programme will not be cut in the modernising defence programme?
What we actually see is the National Audit Office painting a worst-case scenario in terms of our equipment plan. What we continue to do, though, is to focus on driving efficiency. We are looking at investing in Warrior to make sure we can extend it out to 2040.
Defence Arctic Strategy
As the House is aware, on 30 September we announced that the MOD would produce a UK Defence Arctic Strategy. Officials are developing the strategy now, in consultation with key stakeholders at home and away. We expect it to be published early next year.
If we look at the here and now, the Defence Committee report, “On Thin Ice: UK Defence in the Arctic,” confirms that the UK should focus more on its operability and presence in the Arctic. Right now, there are currently no Royal Navy vessels in Scottish waters and no indication of any resources being applied. Should not the Minister be doing more to protect Scottish waters?
Let us be clear, there are lots of Royal Navy vessels in United Kingdom waters and, of course, any implementation of a Scottish strategy would be done within the realms of a United Kingdom strategy. I am pleased to say that earlier this year, for example, I visited HMS Trenchant on ICEX, in which it was the first British submarine in over 10 years to serve under the ice. Only this year we have had Royal Marines training in Norway. That will continue year on year, and they are training US marines. I am quite comfortable, and I am grateful for the Defence Committee’s report, “On Thin Ice,” as a result of which our activity is increasing.
I warmly congratulate the Government on recommitting the 800 Royal Marines who are to be trained in north Norway over a 10-year period. That training is world class; it is so good that we are training the US marines for cold weather. Does the Minister agree that not only is it first-class training but it is an extremely important strategic deterrent to Russia? Russia is only 200 miles away across an open border, where it has two brigades of ice-trained troops near Murmansk.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. Indeed, only last week I was in Oslo for a meeting of the Northern Group of nations. Collectively, we looked very carefully at what we can do together to complement each other, and I can assure the House that our Royal Marines are playing a valuable part in that training.
Defence Industry: Scotland
The Ministry of Defence spent nearly £1.6 billion with businesses in Scotland in 2016-17, supporting 10,500 jobs. I am personally delighted to see work progressing on the Type 26 on the Clyde, on the aircraft carriers at Rosyth and, of course, on the preparations for the new Dreadnought-class submarines at Faslane.
Scotland is one part of the UK that could benefit from the contract for the fleet solid support ships being awarded to a UK bidder. Research by the GMB union has found that, if the fleet solid support contract were placed with UK shipyards, it could create and secure up to 6,500 vital jobs—as has just been mentioned, the aircraft carriers at Rosyth are nearing completion. Is the Minister comfortable with the fact that his Department is following a plan that could undermine the creation of so many much-needed jobs like those at Rosyth?
As I have said on many occasions, the fleet solid support ships are not classed as warships. There is no compelling national security reason to consider UK shipbuilding capacity as part of that procurement, but we are working very closely with industry, because we want it to become very competitive so that it not only attempts to win those contracts but is more successful with other contracts from around the world.
The SNP continues to sow uncertainty and create business risk by threatening a second independence referendum in Scotland. Will the Minister confirm to the House that such talk will not deter the Ministry of Defence from placing orders with Scottish companies?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the short time I have been in this role, I have spent a considerable amount of time in Scotland. I have been pleased to see the extent of the work and the fantastic achievement of the defence industry there, and long will that continue as far as we are concerned and are in charge of the MOD.
The MOD regularly monitors the performance of all its contractors, including outsourced services. That is carried out through the robust monitoring of contract performance indicators and taking action as appropriate where standards are not met.
Despite the fact that Capita has failed to fulfil its contract for Army recruitment, letting down both the Army and the taxpayer, the Government are now tendering to outsource veterans’ services as well. Does the Minister consider that the Government should be directly consulting and rewarding our veterans rather than multinational defence contractors who have proved time and again that they are incapable of delivering?
I recognise there have been challenges in the Capita contract, but we are working closely with Capita on an improvement plan. We will always ensure that we do everything we can to support our veterans, and I know the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) will be working day in, day out to support that.
The Government’s ideological obsession with outsourcing MOD contracts to the private sector has led to appalling service for personnel and families, poor value for money for the taxpayer and a worsening of terms and conditions for MOD workers. Many of the private companies that hoover up these services are in a fragile state of affairs financially. Will the Minister therefore tell the House what possible justification the Department has for privatising veterans’ services, given that this contract is currently being delivered perfectly well in-house?
European Defence Co-operation
I hold regular discussions with my European counterparts on a wide range of issues, including strengthening defence co-operation. This is done not only through organisations such as NATO, but on a bilateral basis.
NATO has been at the heart of our efforts to ensure security and peace in Europe. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, as we leave the EU, we will continue to be just as keen to participate in NATO, right alongside our European allies and friends?
There is a misunderstanding that the European Union is the organisation that has delivered peace and security on the continent of Europe—we all know that for almost 70 years now that has been done by NATO, as my hon. Friend is right to point out. We will continue to liaise closely with all our partners, whether they are in the EU or not.
The Prime Minister has managed to unite the whole House in opposition to her half-baked Brexit deal, which, after two years of negotiations, is remarkably short on detail on our future relationship with the EU. One of the many questions that remains unanswered is the nature of our participation in the European defence fund, with just a cursory reference to it in the political declaration. This matters to the UK defence companies and research partners who want to have full access to the grants that the fund provides, so can the Secretary of State confirm that that will be the case?
As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, 90% of our collaboration with European countries is done not through the European Union, but on a bilateral basis. I imagine that is where the greatest amount of growth will be in the future. We have the option of being able to participate in the European defence fund, but it is not necessarily something we will choose to participate in.
Royal Navy Surface Fleet
In the 2015 strategic defence and security review and the national shipbuilding strategy, the Government committed to maintaining a surface fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers. HMS Queen Elizabeth, a powerful expression of national ambition and intent, is now in service and will be joined by new submarines, frigates and patrol vessels.
Are we not desperately short of coastal defence vessels at a time when our borders and restored fishing grounds will need to be policed properly for the long term? If we ordered new such ships from British shipbuilders, we would secure thousands of jobs for the domestic economy and restore the strength of our vital coastal defences.
Armed Forces Recruitment
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
Let us be clear: our armed forces continue to meet all their operational commitments and remain at over 93% manned. We should put this into perspective. We are not complacent, and I am pleased to say that there are the early green shoots of recovery, with the number applying to join the armed forces at a record five-year high. We have to allow those people to work their way through the system.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I remain convinced that the armed forces continue to be an attractive proposition for young people. There are very few professions that someone can join with limited qualifications and leave with a level 6, degree-level apprenticeship.
Earlier this month, I visited British forces in Oman who are taking part in Saif Sareea 3, the largest western exercise this year, involving 70,000 personnel. As part of the same visit, I had the opportunity to visit HMS Albion, the Royal Navy’s flagship, and to meet the crew, who have completed a 10-month mission. That crew and all those I met who were taking part in Saif Sareea 3 are an example of the hard work and determination of our armed forces, representing Britain around the globe.
In response to a freedom of information request, the Ministry of Defence revealed that as of 2 November 2018, 223 civilian MOD employees based in Scotland were receiving less than £8.75 an hour. Some 81.6% of Scottish workers earn the real living wage—now £9 an hour—which is the highest proportion in the UK. Would not an impartial observer ask why these 223 civilian staff are being treated differently?
As a Department, we pay above the national minimum wage, and I am particularly proud of the fact that we are the largest employer of apprentices out of all organisations in the United Kingdom, employing more than 20,000 apprentices. I will certainly look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises and write back to him.
The UK remains unconditionally committed to European security by playing a leading role in NATO and maintaining our strong transatlantic links. The UK will retain sovereign control over its armed forces. The agreement simply allows us to work together when we think that is in our best interests. That will only be as a third-party relationship, respecting the UK’s sovereignty and the EU’s autonomy.
I think that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say how shocked we were to see Russia’s aggressive actions towards the Ukrainian navy. Just last week, I signed an agreement with my Ukrainian opposite number on how we can work closer together, and we will be having direct talks to discuss how we can offer assistance.
Mr Speaker, I did not actually hear the question, but, unless my hon. Friend is able to repeat it, I would be delighted to meet her afterwards to discuss the matter further. All I heard was a reference to the Falkland Islands.
I half agree with the hon. Lady. We do need to improve standards. It is so important that we think about our armed forces. We should not only equip them well and train them well, but make sure that we house them well, and that is something towards which I shall continue to work.
The whole world is in shock about what has happened, and I very much hope that this is something that can be looked at by the United Nations in terms of what action can be taken against Russia for displaying such aggressive behaviour against its neighbour.
The national shipbuilding strategy is there so that we do everything we can to make sure that we have an industry that is competitive not just in this country, but across the globe, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. By getting the fleet solid support ships through international competition, we can secure a good price for the British taxpayer, too.
The Poppy Appeal raised £49.2 million in 2017. Will the Minister take this opportunity to thank the hard-working poppy sellers up and down the country, including the incredible Gale Wood at the Morley branch in my constituency?
We are all incredibly grateful to the many tens of thousands of volunteers up and down the country who give so much of their time for this great cause. The Royal British Legion has been doing it for generations now, and it will certainly always have our full support in what it does and the impact that it has on service personnel and veterans’ lives.
Obviously, it is disappointing to see that there is industrial action, and we are also concerned about job losses. This is why we were pleased to announce that £619 million contract as part of a number of ongoing contracts that we have been giving to UK shipyards around the country.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the case of Gus Hales who has been on hunger strike outside Combat Stress in my constituency. What more can the Ministry of Defence do to work with Combat Stress to get Gus the help that he so badly needs?
I have spoken to Gus Hales. I am very sorry about what has happened to him. I have also spoken to Combat Stress. We need to make sure that people such as Gus who have served this country are looked after. I will make sure that this is not repeated and, working with Combat Stress, make sure that his needs are looked after.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), has met workers there. We had a very productive meeting with BAE Systems and the Qataris regarding the roll-out of the Hawk orders. I will write to the hon. Lady to update her.
The Secretary of State said that he recently visited the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Albion. Why is it that the Ministry of Defence defined it as a warship in 2009, but it is no longer defined as a warship in the 2017 national shipbuilding strategy?
As I have said before, we now have a national shipbuilding strategy that is ensuring that our shipbuilding industry knows exactly what the MOD will be building over the next 30 years so that it can plan accordingly and be competitive in the world market. Surely, we should be welcoming that.
It is important that we give veterans the opportunity to return to the battlefields. I think that my right hon. Friend is referring to a return to the Falklands. I will endeavour to see what can be done, and whether we can use the air bridge to allow veterans to return to that battle place.