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Topical Questions

Volume 652: debated on Monday 14 January 2019

As we start the new year, I want to pay tribute to the men and women who spent Christmas away from home in service of their country. Over the Christmas period, I visited UK armed forces personnel in Ukraine, South Sudan and Kenya. It was excellent to see the work they are doing in the security, peacekeeping and humanitarian fields.

What action is the Ministry of Defence taking to support the democratic Government in Ukraine? Will the Secretary of State update us on his recent trip to Odessa, and particularly the position of Ukrainian navy sailors held prisoner by Russia?

What we are seeing in Ukraine is the most dreadful of situations, where Russia’s aggressive acts include Ukrainian sailors being held against their will, and they continue to be held against their will. As an act to demonstrate their intent for 2019, Russia and the Kremlin should be looking at letting these men return to their families and friends at the earliest possible opportunity. We are supporting the Ukrainian people. We have already seen HMS Echo visiting Odessa, and the Royal Marines will start training with Ukrainian forces in the very early part of this year.

T4. Does the Secretary of State want to apologise to Scots Guardsman Stephen McWhirter, who was called a snowflake in Capita’s disastrous £752 million recruitment campaign, without his permission? Guardsman McWhirter has received torrents of mocking messages, and he has said on Facebook that he will resign from the Guards. (908549)

I am afraid what the hon. Gentleman says is simply untrue. The Guardsman concerned gave his specific permission for his photograph to be used on that poster and understood exactly the content of the campaign.

T2. Sexual violence against women has been an appalling part of the violence we have seen in South Sudan. Will the Secretary of State say a little bit more about what British troops have contributed as our part of the UN operations there? (908547)

I have had the great privilege of seeing our service personnel who are part of the UN mission, and the work that they are doing in combating sexual violence in South Sudan is something we can all feel rightly proud of. We have seen them take action to deal with some of the threats that many women and children are facing every day, but we have to look at how we can do more. Earlier last year, we saw the opening of a new training programme at Shrivenham, and we need to look at how we can step up that work.

T7. Tomorrow afternoon, the funeral takes place of Acting Corporal Iain Dodds, formerly of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. His family are obviously grieving. He died, very tragically, before Christmas, at the age of 39, following years of adjusting having left the service after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan. May I put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the Armed Forces for helping the family with the funeral arrangements? (908553)

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgment. In cases like this, it is absolutely right that collectively across the House we should act in the way we have. I am delighted that we have managed to put things in place to help the family.

T3. What measures have the Ministry of Defence taken to ensure that serving and former members of the armed forces suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues are given priority when it comes to the provision of social housing? (908548)

I am pleased to say that the majority of people make the transition into civilian life without a problem, but there are those who require our support, and we have provided a new programme through the mental health and wellbeing strategy to emphasise this approach. We are also focusing on the veterans strategy, which will provide for a consultation on what more we can do to support those affected by PTSD.

T8. Further to that question, Durham County Council has just won a gold award for setting up an excellent outreach programme for veterans, including guaranteeing job interviews. Will the Minister consider making that mandatory across the entire country? (908554)

First, I commend the programme. Before I go down that road, I would encourage more of a voluntary approach; I do not like mandating such things. I would be happy to visit the programme, which might be a starting point.

I call Ranil Jayawardena. Where is the chappie? What a pity. Very well—I call Nigel Huddleston.

Will the Secretary of State confirm when the final clean-up in Salisbury will take place, and what further training can be provided to the armed forces to prepare them for such attacks?

We expect the final clean-up to be completed by March. I pay tribute to all the service personnel across all three services who have done so much in dealing with the attack. Additionally, we will be training Royal Marines to be those best able to deal with the challenges of nerve agents, to make sure we deepen our resilience against future threats.

T9. The security review of 2015 identified cyber-attack, terrorism and climate change as among the greatest threats to the UK. As none of those are dealt with by replacing Trident, whose price-tag is soaring and which still has safety concerns, is it not time to change direction and invest in real cyber-security? (908555)

We have to recognise the need to invest in a whole spectrum of different capabilities, whether that is nuclear deterrence, conventional forces or cyber-security and offensive cyber.

The medal campaign group for Bomber Command has identified that it is the only main campaign not to be recognised by the Air Crew Europe Star. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that the committee responsible considers its submission to address that issue?

I am very sympathetic to those calls. However, the award of the clasp rather than the medal for the aircrew who served with Bomber Command is consistent with the policy for other awards in recognition of service during world war two, which simply dictated that campaign medals would reflect involvement in broad theatres of war. Exactly the same policy applied to Fighter Command, who received a clasp for their service during the battle of Britain.

Further to that question, my constituent, Wing Commander Jim Wright, is a 95-year-old veteran who has campaigned long and hard for those changes to be made in respect of Bomber Command. I hear what the Minister is saying, but we owe these gentlemen a debt for their heroic acts. Given that time is marching on, surely they should be recognised in the way that they deserve?

As I say, I am sympathetic, but the aircrew have been recognised, through the award of the clasp to the medal. We are just being consistent in how the policy has been applied over many years.

Redevelopment of the REEMA sites in Carterton is an urgent priority for west Oxfordshire, not only for RAF personnel who depend on the housing, but because of its effect on west Oxfordshire’s housing stock. Will the Minister meet me again to discuss how we can progress this urgent matter?

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), may I press the Minister on recruitment? MOD figures reveal that in the first quarter of last year, Capita failed to bring in 90% of the recruits that the British Army needs. When I wrote to the Minister about this issue, he simply referenced old data. When will the Government recognise the crisis of failed privatisation and bring recruitment back in-house?

The reality is that there is a delay between people applying to join the Army and coming through the pipeline as trained soldiers. What I am trying to explain to the House is that, as a result of the recent recruitment campaign, applications to the armed forces, in particular the Army, are up significantly—indeed, they are at a five-year high. In time, that will work its way through into actual numbers serving in the Army.

The Russian annexation of Crimea has been followed by the construction of the Kerch bridge to the Russian mainland. To date, no NATO ship has entered under the bridge into the sea of Azov. When does the Ministry of Defence expect that situation to change?

We can be very proud that the Royal Navy was the first navy to enter the Black sea and go to Odessa in solidarity with our Ukrainian friends. Currently we have no plans, but we will continue to keep this situation under review; and we plan to make sure that further Royal Navy vessels visit the Black sea later this year.

What progress is the Minister making with the Home Office to help those Afghan interpreters who came here under the Government’s scheme but are now finding huge difficulties in being reunited with their families because normal immigration rules apply? They deserve our support.

What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the Secretary of State for Health about identifying and resourcing the health needs of veterans in the NHS 10-year plan, which was published last week?

We have regular discussions with the Department of Health. We recognise that properly supporting veterans is not something that the Ministry of Defence can do on its own; something has to be done right across Government. That is why the creation of a veterans board, working across Government and bringing the Department of Health together with other Departments, is vital. As part of the veterans board, the Department of Health for England, as well as the devolved nations, is working on how we can enhance the support that we give to veterans.

Order. I point out, as much for the benefit of our visitors as for right hon. and hon. Members, that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) not merely represents Bridgend and is a member of the Defence Committee, but is President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and we are very proud of that.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Civilian authorities and agencies are now often on the frontline in dealing with cyber-attacks, chemical weapons attacks and drone incursions. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence is stepping up training and resilience capability of our civilian agencies to ensure that the skills transfers are there, so that they too are able to defend our country?

Yes; of course we always have that backstop of being able to step in and support civilian authorities as well. Increasingly, as we touched on earlier, there is a growing grey zone where people who wish to do us harm are acting, and we need to consider how we support civilian authorities more in future to help them best deal with those threats.

Again, in the name of the intelligibility of our proceedings to those visiting, I point out that we are about to have a point of order—not just any old point of order, but a point of order from the Mother of the House, the female Member with the longest uninterrupted service, since 28 October 1982, if my research is correct or my recollection accurate.