House of Commons
Monday 18 February 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Death of a Member
It is with great sadness that I have to inform the House of the death of the hon. Member for Newport West, Paul Flynn. A dedicated, principled, fearless and award-winning parliamentarian, Paul represented and championed the Newport West constituency and the wider interests, as he saw them, of Wales for 31 and a half years in this House. From drugs policy to pensions, from animal welfare to Europe, from parliamentary reform to the war in Afghanistan, Paul Flynn spoke with conviction, with total commitment and without fear or favour. He was every inch the exemplar parliamentarian whom he strove over three decades to be.
As many colleagues will know, Paul spent the vast majority of his career as a Back Bencher. I often teased him, affectionately and with respect, about that well-thumbed tome that he penned, “Commons Knowledge: How to be a Backbencher”. He was a fine parliamentarian, a dedicated socialist, and much loved in his constituency and beyond.
I hope that I speak for the House, in concluding my tribute to that very fine man, to whom I last spoke on Saturday 26 January, when I say this. Paul Flynn was a standing rebuke in his parliamentary service to two categories of people. The first are those who think that the only point of coming into politics is to become Prime Minister or a Minister—at the very least that shows a lack of imagination. Paul knew that there were so many other ways in which you could achieve real gains and derive fulfilment.
Secondly—I am sure that there are people on both sides of the House, who sit in certain positions, who will recognise the veracity of what I am about to say—Paul was a standing rebuke to those who thought that it was vital always to be in the closest possible regulatory alignment with one’s Whips Office. It was not. He spoke his mind. He did it his way. He did it with eloquence, with knowledge, with character, and often, as we all know, with mordent wit.
Paul will be greatly missed by his wife of the last 34 years, Sam, and by the wider family. We respectfully remember him, and I hope we always will.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Defence Relationship
May I take this opportunity to associate us with your comments about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? I remember having the privilege of serving with Paul on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. As you quite rightly stated, he was always incredibly passionate about his constituents and about his beliefs. As a former Chief Whip, I also agree that Labour Members not following their Whip is good advice, but the same is not necessarily true on the Conservative side.
The UK will pursue a distinctive, independent and sovereign foreign and defence policy that meets British interests and promotes our values.
Mr Speaker, on my behalf and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members on the Opposition side, I would like to echo your words about Paul Flynn, whom I will always remember for his great independence of spirit and fantastic sense of humour.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. On 7 January his junior Minister said, in response to a written parliamentary question, that in the event of no deal,
“the UK would have to withdraw from Common Security and Defence Policy missions and operations”.
What would happen to Operation Atalanta, which is against pirates, and Operation Sophia, which picks up refugees in the Mediterranean?
Those missions will continue, and we will continue to have negotiations with the EU on how we can support those operations in the future.
I would like to echo your kind tribute to Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.
Is it not the case that the vast majority of our industrial collaboration with other European countries is done on a bilateral basis, which will very much continue once we leave the EU?
My hon. Friend raises an important point: 90% of all our collaboration with EU nations and EU defence programmes is done outside the framework of the European Union. I joined him in his constituency to visit Airbus and Boeing, and it was quite obvious how important those bilateral and multilateral relationships are to their growth. It is not through the European Union.
What contingency measures will the Government put in place to protect the UK defence industry from losing the automatic right to bid for contracts within the European economic area in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
As I touched on in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), most of our defence procurement and most opportunities in the defence industry are not through the European Union. We will continue to work with the European Union to have access to programmes. That is not only important for UK business; if the European Union wants to succeed in developing a defence sector, it needs countries such as Britain and the United States to be able to participate in these schemes.
Mr Speaker, I associate myself with your eloquent words about Paul Flynn, whom we will all miss very much and whose book I read before becoming a Back Bencher, which I may remain.
Will the Secretary of State expand on how, in our future defence relationship with the EU in the north Atlantic, we will invest in and show continued commitment to protecting that northern flank of Europe?
The high north is an important part of the development of our strategy. At the weekend, I had the opportunity to see our Royal Marines in Norway and what they are doing to support the Norwegian armed forces. We will be deploying our P-8s in 2020, along with Norway and the United States, to deal with the increased threat that we face from Russian submarines in the north Atlantic.
I add the condolences of those on the Scottish National party Benches to the family of Paul Flynn and to the parliamentary Labour party on the loss of a thoroughly decent human being.
The Secretary of State and his predecessors have been clear that NATO is the cornerstone of the UK’s security, but many leading experts, including Professor Beatrice Heuser of the University of Glasgow, see something of a devil in the detail. Much of the recent debate on Churchill missed out the fact that he was one of the architects of the Western European Union—a security-focused grouping that saw all its functions wound up into the European Union post Lisbon. Can the Secretary of State tell us what analysis his Department has undertaken on the difference between the UK’s obligations under article 5 of the NATO treaty and article 42(7) of the Lisbon treaty?
Article 5 is a mechanism that delivers security right across continental Europe and the north Atlantic area. That has been proven. Article 5 has only been used in one situation, which was following 9/11, and we feel that it is a much more substantial guarantee of European security than what is in the Lisbon treaty.
I am grateful for that response. I am glad that the Secretary of State visited NATO and the Royal Marines during their winter warfare training, and I know that the Norwegians and many members of the Defence Committee will be too. Article 5 obligates members to respond to an attack with
“such action as it deems necessary”,
which, as put to me, could mean a conventional military response, just as it could mean a strongly worded letter. Article 42(7) of the Lisbon treaty, on the other hand, obligates states to react with
“all the means in their power”.
Does the Secretary of State understand that many of our European allies are unnerved by this dilution of the UK’s obligation towards the defence of the continent? What preparations are being undertaken by the Ministry of Defence to ensure that our adversaries do not exploit that loophole?
We have never as a nation shied away from our obligations, and there has been a clear understanding that Britain will stand with our European friends and neighbours in delivering security. Our commitment to security on the continent of Europe was there long before the creation of the European Union or our membership of it, and long before the creation of NATO. We have always been there, and we always will be.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify for the House that it is in fact NATO, not the European Union, that has been and will continue to be the cornerstone of European security and defence?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. When we speak to the new nations that have been created out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to which organisation do they turn to guarantee their security? It is NATO.
Armed Forces Covenant
I am pleased to say that there is broadening support for the armed forces covenant, which is a priority for the Ministry of Defence. We now have over 3,300 organisations participating in it, and the veterans strategy consultation, which was launched in November, is looking at further ways in which we can expand its support.
May I too associate myself with your comments, Mr Speaker? Any budding politicians out there should read the part of Paul Flynn’s book where he describes setting on fire his oven’s cooking instructions five years after moving into his flat.
On a more serious note, with an estimated 58 veterans’ suicides last year and the charitable sector saying that it is struggling to cope with demand, does the Minister agree that there is too much reliance on the sector to support personnel leaving the service with mental health disorders?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. We should not make the automatic assumption that because there is a suicide and the person is a veteran, it is because he is a veteran that there is a suicide. However, that should not prohibit us from understanding more about what is actually happening to those who serve and have served. We are working with the coroner’s department to get better data on this, and we also have a new programme to make sure that people are aware of the mental health support that they can gain once they leave the armed forces.
The Minister will know that there are few very reliable statistics on veterans who are homeless. What does he intend to do to improve that?
This goes to the heart of what the covenant is all about. I want to see all homeless people looked after, and I want to make sure that if they are veterans, the covenant is recognised and enforced. However, if we are to do that, it is not the MOD that needs to do it; it is actually local government. Thanks to the veterans board, we are now enforcing the covenant and encouraging Government Departments to ask, “Are you doing enough?” Each local authority has an armed forces champion, who should be looking at these issues to make sure that the authority is tackling homelessness issues in its area. If there are any areas where there is a problem with that, please let me know.
It is anecdotally alleged, although not necessarily backed up by statistics, that a disproportionate number of prisoners are veterans. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to making better use of the MOD prison estate—particularly Colchester Prison, for example, which I understand is relatively empty at the moment? Would that not be more appropriate housing for soldiers and veterans who are in civilian prisons?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the experience that he brings to the Chamber. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, and I would like to pursue these conversations—perhaps with the Prisons Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—to see what more can be done.
Well, the Minister is going to pursue it with the Prisons Minister.
It is stupid.
Well, the right hon. Gentleman can make his own assessment.
A recent investigation has revealed that black African soldiers in the East Africa Force, formed in 1940, which encompassed thousands of troops drawn from the British colonies and current Commonwealth countries, were paid only a third of the wage received by their white counterparts. Will the Minister tell the House whether there will now be a full and comprehensive Ministry of Defence investigation of this issue, and whether such an investigation would consider granting appropriate compensation to all surviving veterans?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, of which the Secretary of State is aware. It is a Foreign Office lead, and I hope that the FCO will be able to provide more detail on how to move forward given the information presented.
In December 2018, the Department announced the award of three competitive design phase contracts for the Type 31e frigate programme. It remains our intention to award a single design and build contract for five Type 31e ships by the end of this year. Construction of the Type 26 frigates remains under way, with the second batch of five ships to be ordered in the 2020s.
I thank the Minister for that response. Following the Secretary of State’s recent successful visit to Plymouth, he will know of the south-west’s military shipbuilding capabilities. May I suggest that Plymouth would make a fantastic base for the littoral strike group vessels?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is an absolute champion for his constituency and the south-west. Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport and the south-west of England continue to be vital to the Royal Navy and, as we plan to develop a concept for the littoral strike ship, we will look at how it goes. At the moment, no decision on basing has been made.
Many employees of GE Power in Rugby happen to live in the Warwick and Leamington constituency. Will the Minister update us on what discussions have been had with that company to preserve its quality manufacturing and skills in our country?
I know that, for example, my colleague the Defence Procurement Minister has had several discussions with the constituency MP, my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey). Although of course this is very much a matter for the company, the MOD will look to see in what ways we can provide support.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. May I take this opportunity to thank him once again for the valuable contribution he made through his report last year? He made, off the top of my head, some 41 sensible recommendations, and we are looking to address them shortly.
Since the start of the last Labour Government, we have seen a 39% decrease in the number of Royal Navy ships and a 46% decrease in the number of frigates and destroyers. If the Secretary of State wants a carrier in the south Atlantic and one in the South China sea, where is the drumbeat of orders coming from when we have just lost another 150 jobs at our shipyard in Rosyth?
Let us be clear that we are committed to maintaining the numbers of our frigates and destroyers. Indeed, later this year we will see the second of our aircraft carriers come out of Rosyth. Equally, it is this Government who have secured shipbuilding jobs in Scotland all the way through to the 2030s. Indeed, there are probably some apprentices who will work on the Type 26 programme who are yet to be born.
Armed Forces Personnel
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. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
Many people may see it as an incompetent accident that the Government continually fail to hit their supposed targets on Army recruitment, but is it not the truth that this is a Government without any sort of strategic vision for what they want our Army to do in 2019, and that their failure to get Army numbers up saves budget for the parts of the MOD that they do have a plan for?
I could not disagree more. I think we have a clear vision as to what we want our Army to do in 2019. Equally, the hon. Gentleman should be encouraged by the fact that as of January we have had the highest number of applications to the Army in five years.
I suggest that the Government should not take any lessons from Labour about manpower shortages, given today’s news about desertions.
The National Audit Office has recently confirmed that Capita has not recruited the required numbers of regulars and reservists in any year since the contract began in 2012. Clearly, extra resources are needed. May I also suggest that the Government consider reinstating 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which was the best recruited unit in the Army when it was disbanded?
I have been here long enough to be able to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his consistent defence of the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. The same National Audit Office report states that the Army has already conducted a full review of the current recruitment strategy. As a result, the contract with Capita was realigned and a comprehensive improvement plan introduced. That will take time to bear fruit, but as I said in answer to the previous question we are now beginning to see early signs of the improvement plan bearing fruit.
Will the Minister update the House on the results arising from the Army recruitment poster campaign last month? Has it enticed more women to apply? Has it enticed more people from ethnic minority backgrounds to apply to join the Army?
The Army’s new campaign builds on last year’s successful “Belonging” adverts, which, as I said, took recruitment to a five-year high. The early signs are positive. At the moment, 12.4% of recruits are women and 6.5% are from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community. We are yet to see the audited results for the campaign, but we are confident that progress is being made.
The Public Accounts Committee has been looking closely at what skills we have in our armed forces. We know there are real shortages, particularly in cyber, with people leaving early. Will the Minister explain to the House how he is working with others across Government to ensure that we have the cyber skills we need in our armed forces?
That is a very important question. The hon. Lady will be aware of the £1.9 billion investment in cyber across Government. I have taken a particular personal interest in this issue. I want to ensure that the career structure we offer in the armed forces matches these 21st century skills. Historically, it has not done so.
In the past few years, Capita has been 3,000 recruits short. The chief of defence personnel, Lieutenant General Nugee, told the Defence Committee a couple of weeks ago that this year it will be over 4,000, maybe nearly even 5,000, recruits short. Applications are up, but enlistments—those actually joining—are down dramatically. The Secretary of State called its performance atrocious and it is. The Scots Guards are barely at 50% manned. I believe that Capita is so awful that its performance is becoming a threat to one element of our national security. When will the Government come out of denial and sack this useless, hopeless company?
My right hon. Friend is entirely consistent in his views on Capita and I respect that. However, I would say that once again the signs are positive. Sandhurst is now 100% full in terms of young officers, an improvement on the past two years. The infantry training centre at Catterick is now 80% full. Yes, that is 20% lower than we need, but that is a significant increase and improvement on where we were last year. All the signs are pointing in the right direction.
They are not.
Yes, they are. The challenge we face is that while applications are up, the conversion rate is getting better and that will take time to feed through into the strength of the Regular Army.
Having known the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) for 35 years, I hope he will take it in the right spirit if I say that I really do wish he would tell us what he really thinks.
Following on from what was said by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mark Francois), the reality is that the size of the Army has fallen in every year since the Conservatives came to power. For all the talk, the fact is that the initial applications are not turning into enlistments. Will the Minister tell the House what the trained strength of the Army will be at the end of this Parliament if the current trend and record we have seen so far continues?
I am confident that at the end of this Parliament, assuming that that is 2022, the trained strength of the Army will be higher than it is now.
I do not think that gives us very much reassurance. Let me tell the Minister now that, if the decline continues at the same rate it has been over the time the Conservative party has been in government, by May 2022 the Army will be down to just 68,000. Given that the promise to reach 82,000 soldiers was unceremoniously dumped from the Conservative manifesto at the last election, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are still committed to reaching that number? If so, what is his plan for how to do so?
With respect to the hon. Lady, she talks about “the Army”. I assume that by that, she actually means the Regular Army—when she talks about 68,000. As far as I am concerned, the Army also includes the Army Reserve, giving a combined force of about 112,000. It also includes the approximately 3,500 soldiers who wear a uniform and are proud to call themselves soldiers but are currently under training. I think she needs to think about what definition she is using.
Veterans: Mental Health Support
The provision of veterans’ mental health support is the responsibility of the NHS in England and the devolved Administrations, but the MOD is committed to ensuring veterans are aware of what support is available.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The Covenant Fund Trust will play a vital role in providing important organisations such as the Shropshire armed forces community trust with additional resources to help veterans with mental health problems. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will update the House on how he and his other colleagues are lobbying the Chancellor for additional resources for the Covenant Fund Trust?
The Covenant Fund Trust has increased, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it forms a wider package of measures. I join the Secretary of State in saying that we would like to see the defence budget increase not simply because of procurement or training, but because we need to look after our people. This is an illustration of that. We introduced the mental health and wellbeing strategy a year and a half ago. This has helped armed forces personnel to be more aware of what mental health support is available.
There is still confusion among clinicians and veterans over how the armed forces covenant guarantee of priority treatment for conditions related to the veterans service is applied, so what discussions has the Minister had with the Health Minister in Wales to support our veterans there?
The Defence Secretary co-chairs the veterans board, which looks at precisely this. We need to make sure, no matter whether it is in England or in the devolved Administrations, that no veterans are left without the support that they need. It is important, no matter which hospital or organisation it is, that they are aware of their covenant responsibilities in looking after our brave service personnel and veterans.
Leaving the EU: MOD Preparedness
The Ministry of Defence has conducted extensive planning and preparation to ensure that defence is ready for a range of scenarios including that of a no-deal EU exit. We continue to work closely with other Government Departments, key suppliers and industry partners.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Cyber-security is designated as a priority in the modernising defence programme, but given that we will lose the European arrest warrant, access to Europol and the sharing of data using EU frameworks, we face challenges that the programme simply does not seem willing to countenance. How is the Department going to replicate those vital benefits from day one of leaving the EU?
The work that we are doing on cyber-security is done not through the European Union, but through NATO or bilateral agreements with other countries, so I cannot see that having any impact on our continued work on cyber-security.
May I just echo your words about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? He was a brilliant, radical and reformist politician and will be greatly missed.
A “No-deal Brexit will make tracking terrorists harder and British public less safe”. Those words are from the Minister for Security and Economic Crime, and this weekend we have heard another Defence Minister threaten to vote against the Government if they fail to rule out no deal. Will the Secretary of State put this country’s security first, and before his own leadership ambition, and rule out no deal here and now, today?
The hon. Lady had an opportunity to vote for a deal just a few weeks ago, but she did not seem to bother.
Whether we leave the European Union with a deal or without a deal, will the Defence Secretary make it clear to his Spanish counterparts that it is completely unacceptable for their warships to try to intimidate commercial shipping entering British sovereign waters around Gibraltar?
I will make it absolutely clear that we will always be there to defend our sovereign interests and to defend Britain’s national interest.
I know the Secretary of State will agree that throughout European history there has always been an issue when there has been a separation between defending North America and defending western Europe. Will he confirm that his contingency plan for our leaving without a deal remains the fact that with our NATO allies we will still come to the aid of our European allies if they need it?
Our commitment to our European friends and allies is sacrosanct. The Prime Minister has been consistent in saying that as we leave the EU our commitment to European security is one they can truly rely on.
The recent reports that the MOD has begun stockpiling food, fuel, spare parts and ammunition at overseas bases just in case of a no-deal Brexit are extremely concerning, so will the Secretary of State now rule out a no deal and urge his Cabinet colleagues to seek an agreement with the EU based on a permanent customs union and a strong relationship with the single market?
We have legislated to exit the EU on 29 March this year, and the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to vote for a deal, but he chose not to. The Prime Minister will always deliver the very best for this country, and I very much hope that not only Government Members but the hon. Gentleman will support it.
RAF Marham: Tornado and F35
I visited RAF Marham on 10 January. It has been the home of our Tornado force and is now the home of our F-35 Lightnings. It is obviously with a heavy heart but enormous pride that we bid farewell to our Tornados—it is truly the end of an era—but it is right that we now look to the future. The combination of our state-of-the-art F-35s and Typhoons will keep us a world leader in combat air.
I thank the Secretary of State for paying tribute to the Tornado squadrons at RAF Marham. They have been at the forefront of every operation for the last 40 years and are about to start—this week, I think—their farewell flypast. Will he pay special tribute to the pilots and navigators who have shown supreme courage backed up always by their ground crew and their families at home in west Norfolk and elsewhere?
It is a whole community that delivers the Tornado’s fighting capability. In countless conflicts around the globe—be it the first Gulf war, the second Gulf war, or taking the fight to Daesh over the skies of Iraq and Syria—the Tornados have been at the forefront, and the pilots, navigators and ground crew have all been part of it. RAF Marham has an exciting future, however, with the two new F-35 squadrons and the additional training squadron.
Aircraft Carriers: Phalanx Weapons
Three Phalanx close-in weapon systems will be fitted to each new aircraft carrier. Two are being fitted to HMS Queen Elizabeth during her current capability insertion period, with the third to be fitted towards the end of 2020. Three will be fitted to HMS Prince Of Wales in 2020.
May I add to the tributes to Paul Flynn by noting the remarkable physical courage he showed in battling crippling arthritis over many years?
In relation to the Phalanx systems on the aircraft carriers, I agree that, if nothing goes wrong, the fitting of three will offer 360° coverage and protection, but, given that there is a fourth station on each aircraft carrier that could take a fourth system, and given that there are spare systems in storage following withdrawal from operational theatres, would it not be sensible to give some extra insurance by fitting a fourth system, so that if one is lost, there will still be total coverage and protection for these vital naval assets?
My right hon. Friend is, of course, right in his assessment that three Phalanx systems offer a 360° capability, and that there is scope, potentially, for a fourth. We have the ability to adjust that according to the threat. I should also remind the House that the carrier will be at the centre of a carrier group. Protection for that carrier will consist of different layers of security provided by both the frigates and the destroyers, so it will not rely solely on the Phalanx system.
We have had a series of debates about the future of RAF Scampton, not just in the Chamber but in Westminster Hall, and the hon. Lady is aware that it is, I am afraid, due to close. I can assure her, however, that the RAF footprint in Lincolnshire will increase.
As the Minister knows, RAF Scampton is very close to my constituency. It employs more than 600 people, many of whom live in Lincoln and contribute to the local economy as well as to our communities. What specific assurances can the Minister give MOD workers in Lincoln, and throughout Lincolnshire, who fear that they will be made redundant or forced to relocate should the closure go ahead?
The hon. Lady is right to wish to ensure that we look after those workers—who are committed to the RAF—and, indeed, their families. However, as I mentioned earlier, Lincolnshire does well from an RAF perspective. It has RAF Waddington, with its intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability, and RAF Cranwell, with its training capabilities, not to mention RAF Coningsby, with its fast jet capability. I hope that most of the people who are transferred or moved will be able to remain where they live now, although their work will take them elsewhere in the county.
As a Member of Parliament representing RAF Scampton, I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has done in trying to secure a future for it with our district council, West Lindsey. May I urge him, however, to consider the desire of all Lincolnshire people, which is based not on emotion but on sound, grounded fact, that the Red Arrows should stay in Lincolnshire? We can provide good employment for those 400 people. The three bases that he mentioned are within 15 or 20 miles of each other. We have superb airspace and a great RAF history, so please can we keep the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s determination to ensure that this place recognises the work, the heritage and the history of RAF Scampton, which will, I think, be noted by his constituents and others. It is important for the museum there to continue.
As my right hon. Friend will know—[Interruption.] Is that okay Mr Speaker? As my right hon. Friend will know, the location of the Red Arrows is partly due to an operational capability to ensure that they are serviced. The airspace is run by the Civil Aviation Authority, and that is the subject of a separate discussion to be had with them.
We want to enjoy the benefits of the Minister’s mellifluous tones. That was my only exhortation. It is quite understandable that a Minister looks back at a Member, but the rest of the House wants to savour the experience of hearing him.
NATO: National Security
Last week I joined NATO Defence Ministers to discuss progress made towards fairer burden-sharing and increasing the readiness of all our armed forces.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we leave the European Union, we will of course continue to co-operate with our European friends and allies, but that it is NATO that is the bedrock of European security? Does also he agree that all talk of an EU army is an unhelpful distraction?
My hon. Friend has put his finger right on the issue. Talk of an EU army is indeed a distraction. It does not help; it does not build security. As we leave the European Union, 80% of NATO forces will be contributed by non-EU countries, but there is also a bigger point to be made. All European countries should be contributing more to defence, and they should all be spending 2% of their GDP on defence.
May I, too, echo your generous words about Paul Flynn, Mr Speaker? He was a good socialist, and I therefore disagreed with nearly everything he said, but that is the nature of parliamentary debate.
As my right hon. Friend knows, the political declaration talks of co-operation with Europe on future defence operations. Surely, however, the most effective way of keeping the peace in Europe is to concentrate on the primacy of NATO, and in particular to encourage our American partners to keep paying 50-60% of the budget.
We will always co-operate with all organisations right around the world, but my hon. Friend is so right: NATO is what delivers security in Europe. That is where our focus will be; that is what we will be focusing our time and resources on in delivering our security with our NATO allies.
Defence Procurement: UK Prosperity
Since 2015, we have published a national shipbuilding strategy, refreshed defence industrial policy to help strengthen UK competitiveness and launched the future combat air strategy. We engage with global primes to create opportunities for all tiers of the UK supply chain.
In the light of the Ministry of Defence decision to open up the procurement process for the fleet solid support ships to international competition, will the Minister explain what weighting will be placed on national prosperity in awarding those contracts?
The one thing we are clear about is that we are constrained in that process because the fleet solid support ships are not warships; they are not frigates, destroyers or indeed aircraft carriers. However, I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that that competition will be judged not solely on price but also on various other factors, and I am delighted that a UK consortium will be bidding.
Order. As we are constrained for time, I advise the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) that his inquiry on missile defence capability can be shoehorned into the current inquiry.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and he is also absolutely right to cite his constituency company as a fine example of how we can continue to compete on the world stage.
First, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kind words about our former colleague Paul Flynn, who was a great comrade over the years?
Following on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), why does the Minister not defer any action until after 29 March, when we will not be under EU procurement rules and we can award this ship—a £1 billion British taxpayers’ order—to a British shipyard?
The hon. Gentleman seems to have a crystal ball—I simply do not—to see exactly what the situation will be post 29 March.
Ex-service Personnel: Employment
Some 15,000 armed forces personnel leave the Army, Air Force and Navy every single year. We have invested significantly in resettlement provision, and the two key organisations that help provide that are the Career Transition Partnership, which helps individuals in that preparation, and the Defence Relationship Management organisation, which partners with businesses to make them aware of what skill sets are available.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Copernicus Technology, based in Moray, was set up in 2008 with ex-RAF engineers and it provides excellent work for the US Department of Defence on an intermittent fault device. Will the Minister consider looking at the benefits of this in the UK, because it increases the availability of the elements that it is used on and reduces support costs for the US, and we could surely do with that here in the UK?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In this and many other areas, we can learn from our US counterparts about what support we can provide for veterans. I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend afterwards and discuss in more detail how we can move this forward.
Will the Minister join me in commending the work of Only A Pavement Away, which helps homeless ex-service personnel find employment particularly in the hospitality sector, and what else are the Government doing to help ex-service personnel who have fallen on particularly hard times?
I pay tribute to the charity my hon. Friend mentions. There are over 400 service-facing charities out there providing support for ex-service personnel. It is important that those who require support know where it is to be found, and I am pleased that more charities are working through the Veterans’ Gateway, the single portal that allows veterans to know where help can be found.
Common Security and Defence Policy
Europe’s security is our security. Co-operation with our European partners and allies through NATO, bilaterally and through a security partnership with the EU will enable us to address shared threats and defend our shared values.
May I also pay tribute to Paul Flynn? I suspect that he was less surprised than I was when I had to read out the words to suspend him from the House of Commons after he had accused a Secretary of State—the then Secretary of State for Defence, as it happens—of lying. On the subject of the European Union, the Secretary of State will know that the “National Security Capability Review” stated:
“As we leave the EU, we want a partnership that offers both the EU and the UK the means to combine efforts to the greatest effect, both operationally, and in developing capabilities.”
By what means will we achieve this partnership once we have left the common security and defence policy?
What we set out in our negotiations with the European Union is the opportunity for Britain to opt into various programmes if it is in our national interest to do so. But it still keeps coming down to the most important point: what delivers our security in Europe is not the European Union; it is NATO. It is that framework that will continue to deliver that security.
I announced to NATO Defence Ministers last Wednesday a significant increase in our commitment to the alliance, making the UK contribution to the enhanced forward presence in Estonia the largest of any nation. At the Munich security conference, I met counterparts from the global coalition of countries tasked with defeating Daesh, and in Norway, I had the opportunity to further our discussions with the Norwegian Government about how we can enhance our security in the high north.
The Secretary of State is far too modest: I was sure he was going to tell us about his dip in the icy Norwegian waters.
On a very much more serious issue, the Secretary of State knows that there are between 200 and 300 war widows who lost their war widows pension on remarriage and who, if they were to divorce or lose their husbands now would have it restored and it could not then be taken away, but who have not had it restored and are therefore in the perverse situation that if they want to get quite a few thousand pounds a year more, they should divorce and remarry their husbands. Everyone agrees that that is an absurd and indeed disgraceful situation, and I know that the Secretary of State wants to do something about it. The war widows have been to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and she has expressed sympathy. When will this matter be dealt with? What is holding it up?
The next time I go to Norway, I will be sure to bring my right hon. Friend along so that we can go for a dip together.
My right hon. Friend raises an important issue, and it is one that has been ongoing for a very long time. I have had the opportunity to meet a large number of those affected, and we are keen to work across the Government to find a solution. This is a burning injustice, and I know that those women feel it very deeply. I am committed to finding a solution, and I very much hope that we can deliver that across all Departments.
The Public Accounts Committee’s damning report has found that Ministers have made “little progress” in solving the affordability crisis at the heart of the Ministry of Defence’s budget. Despite a year of bolshie headlines, the Secretary of State has completely failed to get a grip of the equipment plan in the modernising defence programme. Instead of spending his time causing diplomatic rows, when will he come forward with a costed plan to give confidence to the armed forces and our allies that we will be able to afford the equipment that his Government have committed to?
The hon. Lady has been saying that we will not hit our budget for over a year now, yet last year we delivered the Ministry of Defence budget on target and sort of within budget, and we will do that again this year. Over the past few years, we have made more than £9 billion-worth of cost savings, and as part of last week’s announcements, we made a commitment to invest a further £100 million to ensure that we work more efficiently and that we can make more efficiency savings so that we can meet our commitments in the future.
The Government’s own analysis shows that a no-deal Brexit would cause serious and lasting damage to our GDP. On the basis of sticking to our NATO 2% commitment, that would mean a massive cut of some 9.3% just because of the hit to our economy. With the Government failing so abysmally to manage the defence budget at present, will the Defence Secretary now drop the bravado and finally admit that leaving the EU without a deal would be so harmful to the UK that we must absolutely rule it out?
Whether or not Britain has a deal with the European Union, we will continue to succeed and thrive. We did so before we were a member of the EU and will do so after we leave. We should have the confidence and belief in our nation that the Labour party obviously does not have.
Order. I do not want to be unkind to the hon. Lady, but she has taken too long to ask a question about Opposition policy, and we really cannot get into that. Questions are about Government policy, not that of the Opposition.
I am not in a position at present to give that timeframe, but I will ask the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the plan. Portsmouth plays a vital role in all that we do with the Royal Navy, and we are incredibly grateful to the city for the support that it offers our servicemen and women.
I call Ross Thomson. Where is the fella? He is not here. I am sorry that he is not here, but Leo Docherty is.
The Brigade of Gurkhas has given courageous and loyal service to this country for two centuries. Does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea for us to recruit more of them?
I started my military career in the Brigade of Gurkhas, so I declare an interest in that I am biased for obvious reasons. My hon. Friend’s question is timely. We recruit once a year and recruited 400 Gurkhas last year, which is within our agreement with the Government of Nepal. I am travelling to Nepal later this week for further negotiations with the Nepali Government about the future use of Gurkhas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising something about which we all need to be concerned because the numbers are worrying. We do what we can to offer a far greater relationship as people depart the armed forces. There is a cohort of veterans who served around the Falklands era who are not benefiting from the education that people receive as they leave the armed forces today. We need to do more, and the hon. Gentleman provides an example of one thing that we can do.
Will the Royal Navy continue with freedom of navigation operations in the South China sea?
Like so many nations, such as the United States, Australia, France, New Zealand and Canada, we believe in the rule of law and the international rules-based system. We will always be a nation that does not just talk, but one that acts to uphold the rule of law that has benefited so many nations right around the globe, so yes.
The pilot training programme has remained unchanged for many years. That is why we are looking at a complete review of the system, which will speed up the process and should rectify the current shortfall in pilots.
The Minister for the Armed Forces has already referred to the expertise of GE Energy, located in my Rugby constituency, in the manufacture of propulsion systems. Does he agree it is important to retain that capability as an important part of our manufacturing base?
My hon. Friend and I have met to discuss this on a number of occasions, and my Department, along with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, is doing everything it can to help. We are working with GE to see if there are different ways to pull work forward. It is an important capability, and I would very much like to see the technology, which was developed in the UK, continue to be manufactured in the UK. We have been very successful in selling the Type 26 around the world, including to Australia and Canada, and it would be great for Rugby to get that benefit.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I am delighted that we are committed to buying nine new P-8 aircraft, which will be arriving from next year. Because of the work we have done with the US before they arrive, they will have an almost immediate initial operating capability.
Snowflakes and gamers are being recruited into the Army, in recognition of the wide variety of talents that people have. In that light, my constituent Zach is interested in joining the armed forces but feels that his autism would be an impediment to his application. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether the armed forces recruitment drive will consider a similar campaign for people with autism?
My hon. Friend is right to champion this issue. Over the past year, we have held a number of medical symposiums in which we have been looking very carefully at what medical standards we actually require in the military, not least because of the length of military service. Many conditions do not actually become an issue until later in life, when recruits would potentially have already finished their military service.
I feel this is a monthly exchange between the hon. Gentleman and me. All I can do is refer him to the answers I gave earlier in this session. The visible signs of progress are now there for all to see.
Will the Secretary of State update the House on how the carrier strike strategy is coming along in terms of the relationship on building it together with other Departments?
As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, when we make major announcements, including on the delivery of carrier strike, they are shared across the Government. The deployment of the Queen Elizabeth and the carrier group to the Mediterranean, the middle east and the Pacific is an important sign that Britain is a global nation and a nation that wishes to play its role in upholding our interests and, of course, our values. As we have invested so much in our global carrier forces, it is important that we put them to sea and demonstrate Britain’s global presence, our involvement and our ability to act when required.
No, I do not, and, crucially, I sense that there is no appetite within the armed forces for such a body.
The MOD’s announcement that all posts in the military would be open to women was certainly welcome. Will the Minister kindly inform the House what specific measures are being taken to ensure that women and girls in school are made well aware that there are no no-go areas for them in the military?
I refer my hon. Friend to the Royal Air Force advert that aired this week, which almost exclusively featured women, as a clear demonstration that not a single role in the RAF, or, now, in the other services, is not open to them
We have heard this afternoon about Capita’s abject failure in recruitment. While we are haemorrhaging personnel, there are clearly issues in the armed forces that have to be addressed, so will the Secretary of State support the Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), which will be heard on 8 March, to give personnel a voice, through an armed forces representative body with a statutory footing?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a few moments ago.
Rock2Recovery provides mental health support to service personnel from those who have already served. Does the Minister agree that they can play an important part in solving mental health problems?
I was delighted to meet Rock2Recovery not very long ago and I pay tribute to the work it does, along with all the other charities, as this is so important. No one size fits all in supporting our veterans; there are many avenues by which we can ensure that they get the support and credit that they deserve.
Is the Secretary of State in favour of other Departments spending a few million so that he can save hundreds of millions from his budget? If he is, will he put the weight of the Ministry behind our drive, with BAE Systems and the community, to make Barrow even more attractive a place to come and stay in, so that we can improve the productivity of the workforce?
Having had the opportunity to visit Barrow a number of times, I know that the town offers so very much. We are very dependent on the residents of Barrow for the amazing work they do in developing our nuclear deterrent. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss how we can work across the Government to deliver that vision.
Following conversations at the recent Munich security conference, does the Minister believe that all European countries are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence?
It is fair to say that some are more committed than others, but we have to hammer the message home. We need European countries to be spending a minimum of 2% of their GDP on defence, not because it is an issue raised by the United States, but because they should be spending that money on defence for their security and for Europe’s security. That is the reason they need to be spending a minimum of 2%.
UK Nationals returning from Syria
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if he will make a statement on Government actions in dealing with UK nationals returning from Syria.
May I start by paying my respects to the hon. Member for Newport West? Our sympathies are with his loved ones and all those in this House who were close to him.
I welcome the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). My priority as Home Secretary is to ensure the safety and security of this country. We cannot ignore the threat posed by those who chose to leave Britain to engage with the conflict in Syria or Iraq—more than 900 people took this path. Without the deradicalisation work of our Prevent programme, there could have been many more. Whatever role they took in the so-called caliphate, they all supported a terrorist organisation and, in doing so, have shown that they hate our country and the values we stand for. This is a death cult that enslaved and raped thousands of Yazidi girls and that celebrated attacks on our shores, including the tragic Manchester bombing, which targeted young girls. Now that the so-called caliphate is crumbling, some of them want to return. I have been very clear: where I can, and where any threat remains, I will not hesitate to prevent that. The powers available to me include banning non-British people from this country and stripping dangerous dual nationals of their British citizenship. More than 100 people have already been deprived in this way. We must, of course, observe international law, and we cannot strip someone of their British citizenship if doing so would leave them stateless. Individuals who manage to return will be questioned, investigated and, potentially, prosecuted.
Our Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, which received Royal Assent just last week, provides more powers to prosecute returnees. It extends the list of offences committed overseas that we can act on, and it creates new laws to ban British citizens from entering designated terrorist hotspots without good reason.
Our world-class police and security services closely monitor all who return if they pose any risk. We do not hesitate to use the range of tools at our disposal. That includes using temporary exclusion orders to put in-country restrictions in place, and managing risks through terrorism prevention and investigation measures—so-called TPIMs. Members will have seen the comments that Shamima Begum has made in the media, and they will have to draw their own conclusions. Quite simply, if someone backs terror, there must be consequences.
There is huge concern in this country about the return of Shamima Begum. This is an individual who willingly travelled to Syria to become a supporter of a terrorist organisation. She has shown no remorse about her decision, and it appears that she wishes to return to the United Kingdom only because of the benefits that this country can offer her. Many people are very angry about that. Her case highlights the problem facing this country and the Home Secretary: as a British national without any form of dual nationality, Begum cannot be refused entry. Does the Home Secretary accept that the removal of citizenship from Britons who travelled abroad to join Daesh is prohibited under international law?
Figures from the Home Office show that 900 British nationals travelled to Syria, and up to 400 have returned. On 11 June last year, the Minister for Security and Economic Crime told the House that of those who had returned from Syria:
“Approximately 40 have been prosecuted so far”.—[Official Report, 11 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 666.]
That is a reduction on the 54 that, in May 2016, Lord Keen advised had been prosecuted, and it is still only 10% of those who went to Syria and returned.
How many British nationals have returned from Syria? How many have been prosecuted for offences? What offences were they charged with? How many have been convicted? If we do not address this issue, not only do we risk the security of the United Kingdom but we put into doubt the safety of thousands of our Muslim constituents and we put them at risk of discrimination, abuse and violence. I make a great distinction between my hard-working, law-abiding Muslim constituents and the actions of a reckless child from east London. I ask the Home Secretary to take action on this vital matter.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising the important questions that he has just put to me. He asked me about the case of Shamima Begum, and I hope he will understand that I am not at liberty to discuss the case of any particular individual. As I have just said, however, we have all seen and heard the remarks that she made in the media, and we can all draw our own conclusions.
My hon. Friend went on to ask me a number of related and important questions. He said that in some cases we can remove British citizenship. That is what I have referred to as deprivation. As I have said, the Government have done so on more than 100 occasions. If someone who has more than one nationality—British nationality plus another, or perhaps more than one other—is deemed a threat, and I consider this to be conducive to the public good, we can deprive that individual of their British nationality, and thereby prevent their return to the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend mentioned some numbers. From the best numbers we have available, we estimate that, in recent years, 900 people who have been deemed of national security concern in some way or another went to Syria or Iraq to join terrorist organisations. Of those, we estimate that 20% have been killed in the battlefield, and around 40% have returned, leaving about 40% still somewhere in the region.
My hon. Friend asked about those who have returned in recent years. In all those cases, we would seek to make sure, first, that that individual is questioned, investigated and, where there is enough evidence, prosecuted. We would seek to manage that return, so even if they are a British citizen, we can issue temporary exclusion orders. That will remove their passport and require them to travel on a specifically issued designated travel document into a specific port of entry. At that point of entry, they are monitored by police and face a number of other restrictions. If appropriate, we can also use TPIMs to place further restrictions on them while we may or may not be waiting for prosecution. Of course, we will also work with authorities, particularly if young children are involved, to make sure they get the mental health, psychiatric and other types of help that may be necessary.
Finally, my hon. Friend rightly mentioned communities and making sure that, whatever we do, we work towards building more cohesive communities and winning the understanding of all communities, and that is something we always try to do.
May I begin by joining the Home Secretary in his tribute to the late Paul Flynn? Paul was the first person to show me around the House of Commons, and he was an inspiration to me and many others in terms of entering politics. My thoughts today are with his wife, Sam, and all his family and friends.
The public have a right to protection from anyone thought to pose a threat to this country, and paramount for any Government is the security of their citizens. Will the Secretary of State confirm, first, that UK citizens are entitled to return to this country under international law, but that they should be held to account on their return for their actions?
Under international law, as the Home Secretary said, the Government cannot make people stateless, but they can sensibly take a number of practical steps to safeguard people in line with our respect for the rule of law. The designated areas offence introduced by the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act has received Royal Assent in recent days. The Opposition worked with the Government on developing that mechanism, which provides the legal framework to deal with the issue of returning so-called foreign fighters. However, the Government now need to designate areas to ensure that those returning face justice and due process. Is the Home Secretary considering designating parts of Syria in line with that legislation?
Recently, attention has focused on those who have travelled to Syria to join the so-called caliphate. Given that people may start to return to the UK and will face legal proceedings, I will not comment further on individual cases. However, will the Home Secretary confirm that anyone returning to this country as a UK citizen should expect to face justice for their actions, in a legal process in which our police, our prosecutors and our courts will take into account the individual circumstances of each case?
I welcome the questions from the hon. Gentleman. First, he asked whether UK citizens are entitled to return. So long as they are still UK citizens, they will have a right to return, but even in that case it is possible to place certain restrictions on them. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, I mentioned temporary exclusion orders, which I have used on a number of occasions to put in place a number of restrictions by removing the passport but issuing different types of travel documents that control entry.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act and the measures in it to combat terrorism—especially the designated areas offence. I welcome the support of the whole House for the Act and particularly for that offence. He asked whether we are looking at designated areas, and of course we are. In anticipation of the Bill becoming an Act, we had already commenced some work on that. It would not be appropriate at this point for me to say which areas we looked at specifically—for an area to be designated, it has to come before the House and it has to be the will of the House to designate that area, and I do not want to prejudge that—but it is worth pointing out that it will not be retrospective, and the House should keep that in mind.
The hon. Gentleman talked of “if and when” people start to return. As I said a few moments ago, over the last few years several people have returned, and in all such cases I can assure him that we always seek first to try to control entry and question the individual. We investigate the individual, working with the police and the security services, and where appropriate we prosecute. That has always been the case and that will not change.
If we deem someone to be a serious threat to this country and it is in the public interest to prevent them from re-entering the UK and we can do so by legal means by depriving them of citizenship, or preventing entry in the case of a non-British national, we would always look to do that.
With regard to those terrorist fighters suspected of the most barbaric crimes, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to avoid British or other nationals ending up in a new Guantanamo, we may need a new international agreement about how such cases are to be handled, and perhaps even an international terrorist court to make sure that they are properly prosecuted?
My right hon. Friend speaks with experience of fighting terrorism and he is right. The issue of foreign fighters is faced by several countries, including our European allies, our American allies and others. We are working closely with them to see what more we can do to ensure that in every case justice is done and, where possible, is done in the region.
I echo the comments that have been made about the sad death of Paul Flynn: he was a one-off and will be missed by all of us.
The SNP share the concerns of everybody else in the House and the country about the terrorist threat from Daesh and other extremist ideologies. Nevertheless, the UK still has a responsibility to UK citizens who left to join Daesh and, as the Home Secretary said, the UK is obligated under international law to allow re-entry to UK citizens without claim to another nationality. Shamima Begum, whatever her degree of culpability, was a child when she left the UK and is thought to have been a victim of a grooming campaign, like many other UK children at the time. She is a vulnerable young woman with a newborn child, and the Government should follow international law and allow her to return to face the consequences of her actions.
By showing our commitment to the rule of law, we demonstrate the strength of the democratic system and help to prevent others from being radicalised. Can the Home Secretary confirm whether Shamima Begum was a target of Daesh grooming and whether he has information on the number of UK children targeted by Daesh? I have a particular interest in the issue after meeting Safaa Boular on a visit to Medway secure training centre: what steps is the Home Secretary taking to ensure that a similar wide-scale Daesh grooming campaign could not happen today or in the future?
The hon. Gentleman has asked me about a particular individual and it would not be appropriate for me to be drawn into that.
On a more general note, if individuals have left Britain to join Daesh or other terrorist organisations in that region, we can understand why they are considered a threat to individuals and to our values in this country, and to our allies across the world. Those individuals have made that decision, and the Government’s first priority is to protect this country and do whatever is necessary. If those individuals have more than one nationality—again, I will not be drawn on a particular individual—we have the ability where appropriate to strip them of their British nationality. I have done that on several occasions and will continue to do so where I deem it appropriate. If that is not possible, we have other ways to manage the risk.
The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the grooming of young people by extremists and terrorist organisations, which sadly we have seen in this country and elsewhere. The Government are working with other public bodies to try to stop that, for example through the Prevent programme, which has been very successful to date. It is about safeguarding vulnerable young people who are susceptible to extremists.
This is a controversial area for our constituents, but surely the Home Secretary has got the balance right in what he has said today. It is important that these people are not left stateless in ungoverned spaces, floating around or consorting with those of ill intention. We have in this country courts and judicial structures, the rule of law and the security institutions of the state. Will he confirm that we have to take responsibility for dealing with these people, and that we cannot just close our eyes and pull up the drawbridge?
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point. Of course it is very important that we take responsibility for doing what we can to reduce the risk to Britain and our people, but we also work with our allies to reduce the risk to them, for example through our deradicalisation programmes, and indeed through the work done internationally by the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to help stabilise those regions.
Not all UK nationals trying to return from warzones in the middle east have been consorting with terrorists; some are trapped there through no fault of their own. Will the Home Secretary work with his Foreign Office colleagues to make sure that people like my constituent, who is being held by Houthis in Sanàa and is a UK national, can get back to Britain as easily as possible, even though they do not have documents?
Obviously, each case is dealt with on a case-by-case basis and we must consider the individual issues raised. It is important to note that, as we have heard with other cases raised in the House, the travel advice for all British citizens is not to travel to Yemen or Syria. It is important that people realise just how dangerous those areas are. Even if they have some benign intent, they should really think twice about going into a danger zone. But if someone is not connected to terrorism or is not deemed a danger in any way, we should absolutely look at what options are available for offering assistance.
Although the law on treason is antiquated, the act of treason most certainly is not. From what the Secretary of State has been saying, it is quite obvious that there will be many people coming back for whom it will not be possible to establish by normal standards in a court of law that they committed crimes while volunteering and spending time in the so-called caliphate. I draw his attention to the recommendation by Professor Richard Ekins of Oxford University, published yesterday in The Sunday Telegraph, that Parliament should
“restore the law of treason, specifying that it is treason to support a group that one knows intends to attack the UK or is fighting UK forces.”
Will he seriously address that point?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. This is a complex situation and we should always be looking to see what tools we have at our disposal to ensure that those who are guilty of terrorism, or of supporting terrorist groups, are brought to justice. That means ensuring that we have the right laws in place. I referred earlier to the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which received Royal Assent only last week, which gives the courts more powers. There are already powers in existence, including those covering extra-territorial jurisdictions. He made another important point about something else we could look at. I have read that article and heard what Professor Ekins has said in the past, and I think that it is worth considering it carefully.
May I pay my party’s respects to the late Paul Flynn, whose contribution to this House and to British politics will be sorely missed?
Does the Home Secretary agree that our country’s long-term security is best served by understanding precisely why a young British girl would go to Syria in the first place? Is it not therefore better for UK security to interrogate and investigate this British citizen in the UK, rather than waste this opportunity to learn incredibly valuable lessons?
Again, I cannot speak about a particular case or an individual, but I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is better in every case to talk to someone who has left to join a terrorist group to try to find out why; I do not think that that is the case. The driving factor on every occasion should be what is best for the security and the national interest of this country. He is right to point to the issue of why so many people—as I said, it is approximately 900 over a number of years, and many of them are British—have been drawn to leave these shores to go and join such a vile terrorist organisation. We at the Home Office and our partners in the police, the security services and others take that work very seriously. When we start to understand more why that happened, we must use those lessons to safeguard more people, especially young people.
It is time we heard from a Berkshire knight—I call Sir John Redwood.
How will the UK authorities go about finding the evidence concerning those UK citizens who went abroad to join a terrorist organisation and to fight or intervene in acts of brutality or support those who did?
My right hon. Friend highlights an important issue. Members will understand why it is very difficult to gather evidence when someone has gone to a completely ungoverned space where we have no consular presence and no diplomatic relations of any type, and nor do our allies.
That said, we put a huge amount of effort—I take this opportunity to commend our security services, the police and some of our international partners—into gathering battlefield evidence and having that ready to use whenever appropriate. If we can supply that evidence in some cases to our partners for cases that they wish to bring in front of their courts, we will try to work constructively with them. The UN has also been looking at this. New measures are being considered on battlefield evidence conventions, and Britain, through the Ministry of Defence, is making an incredibly important contribution to that.
I completely understand that the Home Secretary wants people who have gone abroad to commit terrible crimes to face the full force of the law, but if they are British citizens, they have the right to be brought back here. So too do their offspring. What steps is he taking to recover, safeguard and protect the newborn baby, who I believe may be a British citizen, now languishing in a refugee camp?
I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot get drawn into a particular case, but I will respond to her general point. As a father, I think that any parent would have sympathy for a completely innocent child who is born into a battle zone or even taken there by their parents. But ultimately, we must remember that it is their parents who have decided to take that risk with their child; it is not something that Britain or the British Government have done. They have deliberately taken their child into a warzone where there is no British consular protection, and there is FCO advice that no one should go there.
Furthermore, if that person is involved with a terrorist organisation, they have gone to either directly or indirectly kill other people’s children, and we should keep that in mind. Lastly, if we were to do more to try to rescue these children, we have to think about what risk that places on future children in the United Kingdom and the risk that they may be taken out to warzones by their parents.
The armed forces of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria have done most of the fighting and dying, as our allies, in liberating parts of their territory from ISIS. They now have custody of many foreign fighters, including British citizens who found themselves in those ISIS areas. What is our obligation to the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria?
We work closely with our allies in the coalition forces in northern Syria, and both through the Ministry of Defence and other means, wherever appropriate and sensible, we provide support. There is limited information exchange on detainees, but where we are supplied with information, we would of course look at that and try to use it to bring about justice and make sure justice is done. Our priority will always be to see whether justice can be done in the region.
I thank the Home Secretary for his strong stance and leadership. I have been contacted by a large volume of constituents on this matter—probably because I am a tender-hearted person, I believe. I usually believe that if people have made a mistake and are repentant, we should be forgiving. However, in this case there is no repentance and certainly no apology, and someone who is “unfazed” at decapitated heads in a bin shows no remorse whatever. This is not a mistake; it is a matter of national security. She married a Dutch national, and if we strip her of her citizenship, she will have weight for her and her child in that nation and will therefore not be left stateless. Will the Secretary of State outline his opinion on this case?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I cannot speak about an individual case—it would not be appropriate for me to do so at the Dispatch Box—although I do understand the points that he has made. As I said earlier, many people, including of course the hon. Gentleman, will have heard the comments of Ms Shamima Begum and they will be drawing their own conclusions.
On 1 September 2014, I raised the question of returning jihadists with the then Prime Minister—after the murder of Lee Rigby and before the murder of many other people in Manchester, Westminster and elsewhere. I did say that I thought this was not something that might happen, but would happen. I mentioned article 8(3) of the 1961 United Nations convention on statelessness, which does provide the tools to which my right hon. Friend has referred, if the Government are prepared to take them up. It says that a person may be rendered stateless if he has acted
“inconsistently with his duty of loyalty”,
behaved in a way
“prejudicial to the vital interests of the State”,
“allegiance to another State”
and shown evidence of repudiation of allegiance. Will my right hon. Friend be good enough to look at that again? I have raised it several times, including with the present Prime Minister when she was the Home Secretary. Will he take another look at this because I do think the situation is now becoming more than critical?
My hon. Friend, as we have heard, has long taken an interest in these issues and has contributed greatly in so many ways in trying to fight terrorism. He has raised another important point. In the past, our lawyers have looked at these issues, but he has asked me whether I would be willing to look again. I will certainly do that, and I will write to him.
When will this Government stop maintaining that they cannot liaise with British citizens until they leave Syria? They know that there are many British citizens, including one of my constituents, who cannot leave Syria because their jailers will not release them unless it is to the home country of that captive. Ultimately, these individuals should surely be taken back to the UK, where they can face justice in our courts, rather than our Government totally absolving themselves of any responsibility.
First, it is worth pointing out again that the Foreign Office’s advice when it comes to Syria, for many years now, has been that it is very dangerous. No British citizen should be travelling to Syria. If a British citizen has ignored that advice, they will know that there is no consular support there and that we have no diplomatic relations with Syria. If the individual concerned is a foreign fighter who went to join a terrorist organisation to kill, rape and cause enormous damage, there is no way that this Government will risk the lives of British personnel—British soldiers, Foreign Office officials or others—to go and rescue such a person. No way.
When we cannot prevent their return, what about internment until they have been sufficiently quarantined?
My right hon. Friend might be reassured to know that when we cannot prevent someone’s return, we will in all cases seek to question them, investigate them and, where appropriate, prosecute them. Even if they are mono-national, if they are British citizens, we can strip them of their passport, have temporary exclusion orders and manage their return.
Wonderful tributes have been paid to Paul Flynn, and few things demonstrated his place as a wonderful contrarian so well as the fact that he lent his support to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) in the 2015 leadership contest despite the fact that he seemed to disagree with all her major policy points. Amid those tributes, I am sure that the House will want to register its thanks to Sir Charles Farr, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who passed away last week.
The Home Secretary talks about people facing consequences for supporting terror, but he knows that far too many of them do not face consequences. He talks about doing whatever it takes to bring people to justice, so why is he not making the very valuable designated area offence, for which many of us campaigned, retrospective? Does he really think that the law as it stands, under which people can go to Syria, make themselves jihadi brides and offer their support to foreign fighters yet not have their prosecution guaranteed, is strong enough? Surely it is not. What measures will he take?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention Charles Farr, who has sadly passed away, and to point out the huge contribution that Charles made to the security of this country, both at the Home Office and as the chairman of the JIC. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned that, and he was absolutely right to do so.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the laws that are available and the tools for prosecution, and particularly about the new powers in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019. These are far-reaching powers, and we tried to prepare a Bill that had the support of the House while being well balanced and offering due process. As for the designated powers procedures, as I said earlier, we started work on that in anticipation of Royal Assent, which has now happened. We hope to bring an order to the House as soon as possible.
In the European Court of Human Rights, the case of K2 v. the United Kingdom was about taking away nationality in the context of terrorism, and that was found to be manifestly ill founded. Why does that not apply here, since the defendant in that case had only one nationality at the time?
I am not familiar with the details of that case, and I do not have them to hand, but if my hon. Friend wants to send me more details I will give a more detailed response. As I said earlier, the tools available to us to remove someone’s British nationality—to deprive them of it—can be used only when they have more than one nationality.
Thames Valley police has lost several hundred officers thanks to Government cuts. Will the Home Secretary tell the House how he thinks such cuts will affect the police’s ability to monitor returnees from Syria?
On security, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of resources for our world-class police, including those in Thames Valley. That is why I am sure that he would welcome the record increase of up to £970 million in England and Wales for the police. It is a shame, given his concern, that he actually voted against that increase.
With the collapse of ISIL we are going to see more cases like this. Could the Home Secretary remind us of how many fighters, whether male or female, have returned to this country already, and how many are being observed by our security services?
What my hon. Friend highlights is that this is not a new problem. We understand why it is so prominent right now in the press, but people have been going to join terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq for a number of years. He is right to point out that with the weakness of Daesh at the moment it is possible that more will seek to return. He asks me how many. We only have estimates. There is no accurate information, but as I mentioned earlier we think approximately 40% of the 900 who we estimate left the UK to join those groups have returned. In every case, we seek to manage that. He also asked me how many are under certain measures, such as TPIMs. That is not something that would be appropriate to discuss.
The case of Shamima Begum is of course highly emotive and any of us who have read the interview will find it difficult to be sympathetic. However, I have grave concerns that vulnerable young children or vulnerable young people who have been groomed by extremists could be left stateless. Can the Home Secretary assure us that that will not happen? Will he also detail to the House the steps his Department is taking to tackle online grooming by extremists?
I can assure the hon. Lady that we would not knowingly make anyone stateless.
The sight of decapitated heads lying in a rubbish bin did not faze Ms Begum. Should the British people be fazed if this individual is left to reap what she sows? No taxpayers’ money should be used in any way to repatriate this individual.
Again, I hope my hon. Friend understands that it would not be appropriate for me to talk about an individual or an individual case, but he makes a very important and powerful point. In many cases, the people who left Britain knew exactly what they were doing. They were full of hate for our country and hate for our values. They went out there to murder, to rape, to support rape and to commit many violent and vile acts. We can absolutely imagine why hardly anyone among the British public would have any sympathy for them.
I speak from the Back Bench because of the inimitable Paul Flynn, who in his superb book “How to be an MP” advised that one’s profile is best displayed from the Back Bench.
May I ask the Home Secretary how many returning combatants have been prosecuted and how many are subject to TPIMs?
A number of people have returned from the wars in Syria and Iraq. We have been able to gather evidence through questioning and other means, and they have been prosecuted for a number of offences. A number of TPIMs have been issued; I would not want to get into the exact numbers at this point. There are concerns about what might happen if we publish some of those numbers so readily, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that where we can, we do prosecute and will continue to prosecute individuals.
How effective has the Prevent strategy been in dissuading British people, especially young people, from travelling overseas to join organisations such as ISIS in the first place?
The Prevent programme is working; it has been successful. Since 2015, some 780 vulnerable people have been successfully supported away from terrorism. It is worth pointing out that the programme is voluntary and confidential. Over 180 grassroots projects support the Prevent strategy. The Channel programme, which is part of the Prevent process, supports those projects. If it is helpful, I should say that in 2017-18 over 7,000 people were referred. Of those, just under 400 received support from the Channel programme. If I may, Mr Speaker, it is also worth pointing out that, in the last year for which we have full information, about a quarter of referrals were for far right extremism.
Like the Home Secretary, I have little sympathy for those who headed out to the middle east—to Syria and Iraq—to support a form of medieval barbarism that sought to enslave an entire people and that committed genocide while they were there as well. Does he agree that the important point now is to ensure that those who have survived this murderous campaign are brought to justice either here or in an international tribunal?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The overriding aim with all these individuals, whether they are from Britain or have left countries that are our allies, is to work together to make sure that justice is done in every case. As I said earlier, we will seek to work with our allies to make sure, first of all, that justice can be done in the region, but if that cannot be done, we will look to work with our allies on other means.
Is it the case that the lawyer of the individual concerned has described British law as akin to that of the Nazis? If that is how it was described, will my right hon. Friend condemn that because we are a proud country with our traditions of democracy and the rule of law, and particularly given that ISIS itself was a Nazi, medievalist death cult?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. There are reports today that one of the lawyers who is representing one of the foreign fighters described British law as akin to Nazism. If that is true, these are absolutely outrageous comments. They will be found to be deeply offensive, for example, by holocaust survivors and their families here in Britain and elsewhere, and if this lawyer has an ounce of dignity, they should consider apologising for these wholly insensitive remarks.
We would not want to fall foul of the European Court of Human Rights, would we? However, as a member of the Council of Europe, I refer the Home Secretary to recent judgments of the Council and the Court that one cannot deprive somebody of citizenship in an arbitrary way. Without asking him to comment on any individual cases, surely as a matter of law, it would not be arbitrary to strip someone of a passport if they willingly go out to join the jurisdiction of a terrorist organisation that has beheaded people, and all the rest, so I urge the Home Secretary to be robust on this matter. He will have the support not only of the whole country, but even of human rights lawyers.
My right hon. Friend has raised an important issue, within which there are two separate issues. One is removing someone’s British passport, which is not necessarily the same as removing their citizenship. It is possible—I have done this on a number of occasions, as have my predecessors—to remove someone’s passport using the royal prerogative if that is deemed in the public interest. Separate to that but related, is, under some circumstances, depriving someone of their British citizenship—I mentioned this earlier at the Dispatch Box. In all cases, none of that can be done—of course it cannot—in an arbitrary way. There is a due process to be followed, but if either of those things are necessary to protect the public, that is exactly what I would do.
I am sure that it is the view of most people—it is certainly the view of the majority of my constituents who have written to me—that when someone has made their bed, they lie in it, but clearly the course of law must prevail here. My concern is with the children. Since 2013, more than 150 cases of children subject to threats of radicalisation have been heard in the family courts. That figure will rise and our courts are little provisioned to deal with them. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the family courts and children’s services to make sure that suitable and timely interventions are being, and can be, made with similar such children in future?
My hon. Friend rightly highlights the work we do with partners across Government and public agencies through the Prevent programme. That work is all about safeguarding—in many cases, young people and children of all ages—and working with authorities, including social services, local councils, schools and others, to safeguard those children. In terms of deradicalisation, it is one of the most important things we do, and we take it very seriously, which is why I welcome the commitment we made earlier this year to undertake an independent review of the programme to see how we can improve it even further.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those found guilty of the sort of sick atrocities he described will face a whole-life sentence?
My hon. Friend will know that when someone is charged, ultimately it is for the court and judge to decide any eventual punishment, but he can be assured that we want to ensure that justice is done in every single case, either in the region, by helping our allies or in some other way. Justice will be key in every case.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the safety of no British officials, civilians or military, will be put at risk in an attempt to extract those suspected of supporting terrorism in countries across the middle east?
I am very happy to confirm that to my hon. Friend. As I mentioned earlier, anyone who has gone to Syria in recent years will have known the huge risk they were taking, and we certainly will not risk the lives of any British officials or soldiers, or anyone else, to help or rescue those who went to support terrorism.
What powers and resources does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that any British citizen returning from the so-called caliphate in whose case the burden of proof does not permit a criminal prosecution will face mandatory and robust deradicalisation programmes?
As I have mentioned, this is not a new challenge—we estimate that one way or another more than 300 people have returned in the last few years. When someone manages to return, we first make sure, in the interest of justice, that they are questioned, investigated and, where appropriate, properly prosecuted. Where youngsters, in particular, are involved, however, we also make sure they get deradicalisation help through specific programmes; in some cases, through mental health support; and through support in other ways too. In each case, we will work with partners to create a bespoke programme for that individual and do all we can.
Hon. Friends have mentioned the possibility of withdrawing passports. If a minor has been counselled by Prevent or any other authority in this country and is still intent on going to ISIS or some similar organisation, is there not a strong case for withdrawing their passport for their own safety?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Generally in the circumstances he describes, if further action is needed, such as the withdrawal of the passport—other measures are available—we would not hesitate to take it.
Nine hundred British nationals have gone to support Daesh in Syria and Iraq; just 40 have been prosecuted. This simply is not good enough. Daesh may have been defeated in theatre, but Daesh and its sympathisers are in effect tying us up in knots in our own courts, and these people are getting away with it. The Home Secretary has admitted that 360 of these individuals are still at large and likely to return to this country. My constituents do not feel safe with the Government’s response to this threat. I urge him urgently to revisit the legal advice he has been given in several areas, because we need to do better, don’t we?
My hon. Friend is right. We do need to do more to ensure that we have more tools to prosecute people who have helped or supported terrorist organisations, whether they have actually gone to Syria—some examples have been mentioned today—or whether they are in our own country, helping those organisations in other ways. Since I became Home Secretary, I have been determined to provide more of those tools. I was pleased that my hon. Friend, and indeed the whole House, supported the Bill that became the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, which will give us far more tools that can be used for law enforcement. We have increased sentences in many instances. The Act will also enable us to step up the work that we have been doing with our allies across the world to gather more battlefield evidence, because evidence is also crucial, especially if we are seeking higher sentences.
My hon. Friend is right to issue that challenge and to say we need to do more, and I agree with him.
I, and the constituents who have contacted me, find it hard to understand how someone who has joined an organisation whose aims are to destroy the values that we hold dear can then cite those same values in an attempt to justify being repatriated to the United Kingdom. May I therefore urge the Home Secretary to stand firm and use all possible legal means to keep these people out of our country?
I will not talk about a particular case, but I absolutely understand the sentiments that my hon. Friend has expressed, and I think that they are the sentiments of the vast majority of the constituents whom we are all here to represent. We must indeed use all the legal means that we have to ensure that those who have supported terror groups, either at home or abroad, are always punished for that, and are brought to justice.
May I pursue the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and mention another—I would argue—ill-judged comment? In an attempt to build sympathy, the lawyer representing Miss Begum has also compared her to a first world war veteran suffering from shell-shock. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is deeply insulting to many thousands of former servicemen and their families? Those servicemen suffered deep trauma fighting for this country and defending democracy, rather than joining a terrorist group that was out to destroy it
That is another of the points that Members have made today about a particular case. Again, the solicitor should be very careful about the remarks that are made, and reflect very deeply on them. My hon. Friend has raised a good example of why that is so important.
To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on airline Flybmi going into administration.
On 16 February British Midland Regional Limited, the east midlands-based airline which operates as Flybmi, announced that it had ceased operations from that date and filed for administration. The group has surrendered its licence to operate in the United Kingdom, which means that it is no longer able to operate flights.
There has already been significant speculation about the reasons behind Flybmi’s failure. Ultimately, this was a commercial matter for the airline. Flybmi operated in a very competitive industry and was exposed to wider pressures faced by the global aviation industry, such as increasing fuel prices. It is very disappointing that it has gone into administration, and we know that this will be a very difficult time for those who have lost their jobs as a result. Many of those affected are highly skilled. We are confident that they will find suitable employment opportunities, and we welcome the moves by the sector to offer such opportunities.
The Insolvency Service’s redundancy payments service is working with the administrators of Flybmi to ensure that former employees’ claims from the national insurance fund, which may include redundancy pay, holiday pay, arrears of pay and compensatory notice pay, are assessed as quickly as possible. However, given that the sector is ready to recruit, I hope that new jobs will be found soon.
I also recognise that this is a disruptive and distressing time for passengers, and the Government’s immediate priority is fully focused on supporting those affected. We are in active contact with airports, airlines and other transport providers to ensure that everything possible is being done to help them. We and the Civil Aviation Authority are working closely with the travel industry to ensure that the situation is managed with minimal impact to passengers.
There are enough spaces on other flights for passengers to return home on other airlines, and we welcome the sector’s move to offer rescue fares for affected passengers. For example, Flybmi has codeshares across the Lufthansa group and passengers on these flights will be subject to the EU passenger protection rules. They will be provided with assistance and rerouted to their final destination. Travel insurance and credit card bookings are worth noting here, and most passengers were business travellers so will be covered through their work. In addition, the Civil Aviation Authority is providing detailed information for affected passengers on its website, including how people can claim back money they have spent on tickets.
The Government recognise the importance of maintaining regional connectivity, which is why we fund a public service obligation route from Derry/Londonderry to London, which was recently extended from 1 April 2019 for a further two years, the norm for PSOs. The chief executive of Derry council has the power to transfer the PSO contract to another airline for up to seven months to allow for a new procurement process to be conducted. Subject to due diligence we expect the council to sign contracts and appoint an airline later this week, and we expect services to resume swiftly. Derry City and Strabane Council takes forward that part; it is its responsibility.
All affected regional airports have been contacted, and while they are disappointed, we are confident that this will not cause them significant issues. A number of airlines have already indicated that they will step in to replace routes previously served by Flybmi. For example, Loganair has publicly announced that it will cover routes from Aberdeen, Bristol and Newcastle. Our priority is to protect employees, passengers and local economies. We are fully focused on supporting those affected and remain in close contact with the industry and the CAA to ensure that everything possible is done to assist.
It will not have escaped anybody’s attention that the Transport Secretary is sitting on the Treasury Bench yet has not come to this House to make a statement. He seeks to hide behind his Minister; she has been dropped in it. Perhaps he has been dealing with the bombshell dropped by Honda this morning.
Eighteen months ago Monarch Airlines left taxpayers with a bill for more than £60 million. Clearly the Government have failed to learn the lessons from that disaster. In fact, the Transport Secretary has dithered and delayed for nearly a year, allowing Loganair to cherry-pick the profitable parts of Flybmi before putting it into administration. The Government have clearly done nothing to stop a repeat of Greybull’s asset-stripping of Monarch.
Flybmi has been in difficulty for some time, so what plans did the Department for Transport have for an airline’s collapse? Have not the Government left both Flybmi’s passengers and staff high and dry? Why was the airline allowed to sell tickets only hours before administration? Why are the Government not helping people get home this time?
On Thursday last week, the Government agreed to extend the subsidy for Flybmi’s London to Derry route. Was the DfT aware that the airline was about to collapse when it agreed this commitment of public money? What checks did Ministers do on the airline prior to agreeing this? The Government’s aviation Green Paper boasts of growth and connectivity; in reality, Flybmi is the second UK airline to fail within months, while the UK’s direct connectivity has declined.
The Government’s complacency is staggering. Flybmi has said that
“the challenges, particularly those created by Brexit, have proven to be insurmountable”,
“Current trading and future prospects have also been seriously affected by the uncertainty created by the Brexit process, which has led to our inability to secure valuable flying contracts in Europe and lack of confidence around Flybmi’s ability to continue flying between destinations in Europe.”
So when will this Government wake up to the undeniable truth that their shambolic handling of Brexit is leading our country into an economic disaster?
I have never been a woman who has been “dropped in it”; it is my job and I am disappointed that the shadow Transport Secretary wanted to see a he and not a she at the Dispatch Box, but hopefully I can respond to his questions in the best way I can. I am also a little disappointed that the shadow Front-Bench team are all in their seats today considering the bold decisions their colleagues have taken to leave the Labour party because of a number of issues, including leadership and institutionalised antisemitism. We are talking about disappointment, but we should focus on the passengers.
We were made aware of Flybmi going into administration at the weekend. A number of conversations have been taking place. The Aviation Minister has spoken to the Cabinet Secretary responsible for transport in Scotland.
The Secretary of State has spoken to the Northern Ireland Secretary and to the local MP, the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). Information is being made available on the Civil Aviation Authority website to alert passengers about how they can get home. We must focus on the passengers who may be struggling to get home, but there are lots of alternative flights and that information is being made available. More than 300 staff have been impacted, but it is interesting to note that Loganair and Ryanair are making jobs available and recruiting heavily. The British Airline Pilots Association is also exploring options for pilots with partner airlines.
The hon. Gentleman noted the business case for Flybmi. It was possible to recognise, looking at its accounts, that it had been struggling for a while, including before Brexit and before the referendum. It is not an easy market for airlines to be in, especially regional and local airlines. He mentioned Brexit as a reason for Flybmi going into administration, but it is important to note that several other smaller airlines in Europe have also gone into administration, including Germania, VLM, Cobalt and Primera, and there are lots of different reasons why this takes place. We cannot always blame Brexit when we do not understand the business case.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the public service obligation and wanted to put the blame at the door of the Department for Transport. In case I did not make myself clear in my opening statement, Derry and Strabane Council is responsible for maintaining and managing the contract. We of course support the route via the public service obligation because it is a lifeline route. I know that that reply must come as a disappointment to him, but that is where the responsibility lies. Derry and Strabane Council has made it clear to the press and to us that it is very positive that an alternative airline will be in place soon enough. It is important to note that the aviation sector in the UK is thriving and that passenger numbers have gone up by almost 60% compared with the numbers in 2000, but it is a very tricky sector to be in, especially for the small regional players in this very large market. I hope that those responses will not be too disappointing for the hon. Gentleman.
Is there any known interest from other aviation companies or entrepreneurs in buying assets and taking over the staff in greater numbers, rather than in just cherry-picking the routes?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The staff are all highly skilled and very professional, and it is important to note that Loganair has already made it clear that it is keen to recruit. I also believe that Ryanair has set up a stall in some of the regional airports to try to bring some of those professional staff on board. We are very positive that they will be able to secure jobs, although this must be a very distressing time for them, as it must be for the passengers. A number of airlines are showing interest in the routes, and Derry Council has made it clear to us that it has some interested parties lined up to take on the route from Derry airport. It will make that information public as soon as it can.
Our thoughts at this time are with the staff, whose future is uncertain, and with those who have had their travel plans thrown into disarray, who are out of pocket or who are stranded as a result of the collapse of Flybmi. I am pleased that Loganair has announced that it is stepping in to cover the routes from Aberdeen to Bristol, Oslo and Esbjerg from 4 March. At a time when Aberdeen is feeling the impact of the loss of easyJet flights, the news of Flybmi going into administration is deeply worrying, particularly because it explicitly mentioned Brexit uncertainty as one of the reasons for this happening. Recent studies have shown that Aberdeen is set to be the UK city that will be the hardest hit by Brexit. It would be helpful if the Minister told us what the Government are doing to protect slots at Aberdeen and other regional airports after Brexit and what they are doing to ensure that airlines are encouraged to use those slots and that our regional airports have access not only to hub airports but to destinations.
The hon. Lady makes some important points, focusing on passengers and ensuring that they can continue their journeys and on the staff involved. One of Flybmi’s issues was that its flights were not always full, but the number of people who could have been impacted has been reduced as result. However, everyone whose journey home or to work has become difficult must be taken care of, and I ask them to pay attention to the CAA website for further information. Flybmi’s business model was just no longer working in a competitive market. Its public accounts show that it was in trouble before the referendum, so putting the blame on Brexit really does not wash. The hon. Lady makes a powerful point about Aberdeen, and we will do what we can to ensure that we support all our regional airports.
While the failure of Flybmi’s business model and the loss of 100 jobs in my constituency is a setback causing obvious distress for employees and disruption for passengers, it comes at a time of considerable growth and development in and around East Midlands airport, with over 7,000 new jobs being created over the next two years. Will the Government do all they can to ensure that Flybmi’s highly skilled employees are returned to employment as soon as possible, just as they did in 2012 when Flybmi’s parent company, British Midland, ceased trading with the loss of 1,100 jobs in my constituency?
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for his constituency and makes some valid points, particularly about the loss of skilled jobs. We were only made aware that Flybmi was going into administration over the weekend, and it is interesting to note the number of other airlines that have nipped in to see who they can recruit. I am confident that jobs will be found. My hon. Friend refers to passengers. The UK has a healthy aviation sector, and we must not dwell on undermining it. We had 284 million terminal passengers in 2017—an increase of 6% on 2016—so the market is healthy.
The Government have been consulting on arrangements for airline insolvencies for almost a year, so will the Minister explain how yet another UK airline can fail without the Government taking any action? Can I press the Minister to explain why the airline continued to sell tickets just hours before going into administration?
An independent review of airline insolvency by Peter Bucks is due to report, and it will make clear what happens to airlines when difficult decisions are made. There is an interesting point to note about how airlines can continue to sell tickets when they are struggling, which is one of the peculiar things that happens in the sector. If an airline were to stop selling tickets, that would make it clear that it was about to go into administration, so airlines do keep selling tickets quite close to the point at which they are about to go into administration. The Peter Bucks review will no doubt examine that point.
I welcome the Minister’s restated commitment to the PSO in relation to Derry and Stansted. Given this latest news, what further assessment is necessary of the long-term viability of Derry airport and of the welcome improvements to the A6 between Londonderry and Dungiven, which will increase connectivity to Belfast International airport? What further support does the Minister anticipate in the light of the Derry City and Strabane regional city deal?
It is good that my hon. Friend notes the importance of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s role in procuring and maintaining the contract, and it is interesting to note the council’s positivity about other airlines taking on the route. I noted over the weekend that Ryanair was offering flights for less than £10 for those who wished to travel from Belfast, although that means making another journey. We are obviously committed to supporting our regional airports, to holding the CAA to account so that it monitors what airlines are doing when they are struggling and to examining what we can do to help passengers to continue their journeys across the UK.
It is quite frankly astonishing that the Minister did not mention Brexit in her initial comments, because the company certainly did. Flybmi said that uncertainty around Brexit and the possible costs of needing both UK and EU licences in the event of a no-deal Brexit were factors in its decision to go out of business. Will the Minister now make it clear whether all airlines should be planning for a no-deal scenario and looking at how to get dual licences?
The EU has been very clear that the UK aviation industry can continue as it is. We have been having good conversations with the EU on this, and we have tabled a number of statutory instruments and regulations to make sure we can continue flying. I just do not buy the argument that planes will not fly.
These won’t fly anymore.
No, but Flybmi’s accounts show that, as far back as 2014, it was not as healthy as it could have been. If a company undertakes flights that are barely at 50% capacity, it is making a loss. To make an assumption that it is all down to Brexit just does not wash.
As the Minister mentioned, Loganair has picked up many of the routes from Aberdeen International and is owned by the same holding company as Flybmi, Airline Investments. Will she join me in encouraging Airline Investments to give regional flights priority at this time? Will she reaffirm her commitment to regional airports? And will she make sure the slots are not reassigned to other routes, so keeping these vital regional routes open?
My hon. Friend makes three powerful arguments, and I agree with him. The Department, under my noble Friend the Aviation Minister, is undertaking the “Aviation 2050” consultation, which will no doubt reconfirm our commitment to regional airports.
This is clearly very bad news for staff and passengers. I know the Minister does not like mentioning the B-word—Brexit—but the fact is that Flybmi has said that Brexit uncertainty was a factor. Not the total reason but a factor, as it was for Jaguar Land Rover, Ford and, as we will no doubt find out shortly, Honda. Is it not time for the Prime Minister to do two things: one, rule out no deal; and, two, establish a Brexit redundancy fund to support businesses that have been put out of business as a result of Brexit?
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to rule out no deal, he should vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.
It is welcome news that Loganair is taking on some of Flybmi’s routes, but my constituents want assurances on their new nearest airport in Dundee. We do not want to see the airport taking on other routes and losing the vital routes from Dundee down to London.
It is a very competitive market, and no doubt my hon. Friend’s constituents will be well represented here today. If she would like to meet the Aviation Minister, I will ensure that a meeting takes place. We are committed to all our regional airports.
Aerospace is one of the most important and successful of our sectors. Although the Minister may be having lots of good conversations with our friends in the European Union, there is no regulatory certainty. Does she think that is a good thing or a bad thing for our aerospace industry?
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have 100% certainty, he needs to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal. [Interruption.] We have had assurances from the EU that the airline sector can continue to operate in the way it is currently operating. [Interruption.]
Order. The Minister is answering the question and there is quite a lot of sedentary chuntering on both sides, and no shortage of gesticulation, either. I am sure that Mr Knight will now behave with his usual statesmanlike reserve.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister is clearly deeply concerned about this collapse and the wider issues affecting aviation across Europe. Will she assure the House that she will do everything she can to support our regional airports— Birmingham airport, despite its successes, is running at 35% capacity—because they are so important to our country and our regional economic diversity?
My hon. Friend has my assurance, and I would be at fault if I did not mention Birmingham airport, which I grew up very close to and to which we are obviously committed, as he can no doubt tell by our commitment to High Speed 2 stopping at the airport. We are committed to all our regional airports, which is why we have the “Aviation 2050” consultation under way to make sure we do all we can to ensure the sector continues to remain healthy.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, there could be no expansion of airline routes from the UK to the EU. That is what is causing the huge uncertainty for operators in the UK. After two and a half years of negotiation, can the Minister not see the damage being done to the sector?
I believe the hon. Gentleman is mistaken, as we are working with the EU to deal with deal and no-deal scenarios: we have published no-deal technical notices; we have tabled a number of statutory instruments, which are progressing well; and the EU has confirmed that it will maintain the connection between the EU and the UK to allow flying to continue. But if he is concerned about a no-deal scenario, he should vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.
The collapse of Flybmi is to be very much regretted, but does the Minister accept that connectivity is about more than one airline and that she should continue to establish growth in airlines across the country?
Absolutely. Even though the airline sector is a tricky market to be in and it obviously favours larger airlines—for example, it is a little easier for them to buy fuel than it is for smaller airlines—my hon. Friend is right to say that competition is good and we should do what we can to support not only our airports, but our regional airlines.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) was in touch with the Minister to seek reassurances about this. Flybmi has said that its decision is predominantly an economic one; it was averaging only 19 people per flight, which is not sustainable for any company or business. The public service obligation air route, the first of its kind in Northern Ireland, has been in place since 2017, and the Minister has referred to it. I am thankful for the assurance that the Government will continue to subsidise the route until 2021. Will she please outline whether provision will be made to expand that commitment for a further two years beyond that to encourage other airlines to take on the contract and the route?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the PSO, but it does run for this specific period, up to 2021. He noted that the Secretary of State has spoken to the local MP, the hon. Member for East Londonderry, and made a valuable point about the number of passengers per flight, which would have had an impact on the airline’s business model.
Of course Brexit has been blamed for other ills. Will my hon. Friend confirm that in the three years leading up to the Brexit referendum in 2016, Flybmi was losing more than £25 million and that its failure has more to do with fuel costs, European regulation and market forces?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. If we look at Flybmi’s accounts, we see that they were not healthy for many years, even before the referendum. Smaller airlines across Europe are also struggling, and I mentioned some earlier: VLM in Belgium, Germania, Cobalt and Primera. So this is not a UK thing; it is tricky for small airlines to operate, especially if they are regional, in a global sector.
If I was the chief executive of a recently failed business, I would probably blame Brexit, too, but the reality is that Ryanair warned only last month of significant overcapacity in the budget airlines sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is far more about competitive markets than it is about Brexit?
Absolutely. The reason for Flybmi going into administration is that the business has just reached the end of its road. We have an overcapacity here and the power is with the passengers in the choices they make. Those passengers who are now struggling to get home and in distress must be recognised as well, but that is the market we are in.
I thank the Minister for her statement and the reassurances she has given those who are directly impacted. Does she agree that the UK aviation industry is actually a success story? We have the third largest aviation sector in the world and we would like that to continue to be the case. Will she therefore assure me that she and her Department are working with the industry to make sure that it is planning effectively for all Brexit scenarios? Perhaps the Opposition would like to help out on this by reducing uncertainty by voting for the deal.
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. People who are nervous about uncertainty need to vote for certainty, which would be the Prime Minister’s deal. We should not undermine the UK aviation sector. It is incredibly healthy, even though there are a number of challenges, especially in respect of how passenger numbers are going up. Interestingly, there is far more capacity than there are passengers, so shopping around for a good deal is important. What has come out of Flybmi going into administration over the weekend is that we should remember to make sure we are securing our tickets in a way that means they are insured, so that we can get compensation or refunds.
Flybmi’s 50-seater planes carried, on average, only 18 passengers per flight. No airline could carry on on that basis. Although Flybmi’s demise is regrettable and very sad, does the Minister agree that it is important to get it into context? East Midlands airport is a huge success story. It has an expansion programme, and passenger and cargo growth is 8% a year. The airport is located in north-west Leicestershire, which has the fastest economic growth of anywhere outside London and the south-east.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about his part of the world. He is absolutely right; East Midlands airport is thriving, competitive and nimble when it comes to the changes that passengers require and the kinds of services that they want. Even though it is regrettable that Flybmi went into administration over the weekend, it is important to note that the UK has a very healthy aviation sector.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following on from your very warm tribute earlier, which I know has been much appreciated, I wonder whether I might be permitted, as a constituency neighbour, to put on record condolences to Paul Flynn’s wife Sam and family following the very sad news of his death yesterday.
Paul was certainly one of a kind, and it is hard to know how to even begin to describe his contribution in this place and in his beloved city of Newport. His representation of Newport West spanned 31 years of unbroken service. He was a ferocious campaigner for many causes, in many of which he was far ahead of his time, and he was a tireless advocate for his constituents. He did so with a wit and a humour that cut through any tendency to pomposity in this place, although it is fair to say that he was not the easiest to whip; I say that having been his Whip.
Paul had a few stints on the Opposition Front Bench, most recently taking through the Wales Bill as the shadow Secretary of State for Wales—a role that delighted him not least because, as he said, octogenarians were under-represented on the Front Bench. His grasp of social media put most of us to shame, particularly his incisive tweets and blogging. However, as you said earlier, Mr Speaker, it was the role of Back Bencher that he loved most.
Above all, Paul was an absolutely passionate Newportonian who took every opportunity to champion our city. I know that this weekend he would have been especially proud of Newport County. Their manager is also a Flynn, which led Paul to declare that Flynns “always deliver for Newport”.
On a personal note, Paul was the most generous of constituency neighbours. He was genuinely the most wonderful company, and he was a huge support to me and others in Newport West, including Welsh Assembly Member Jayne Bryant. I know we will all miss him in this place—in the top corner of the Chamber, looking to catch your eye, Mr Speaker—but I know his legacy will live on through his campaigns, through those he inspired and through his books. We send our love to Sam and family and friends.
I must say to the hon. Lady that that was the most gracious and beautifully crafted and delivered tribute to Paul Flynn. I know that it will be warmly appreciated by Sam, by the family, by all his constituents, by people across Wales and by his many admirers in this House and indeed, for that matter, in Parliaments across Europe and around the world, where he was very well known. I cannot help but feel that after he left the Front Bench, he felt deep down that he had been promoted to the Back Bench.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be most grateful if you permitted me to add my own words about Paul Flynn. As Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I inherited him as a long-standing artefact of the Committee who had contributed to and had a huge knowledge of the Committee’s work over a great many Parliaments. I have to say that he and I contributed to some creative and very productive friction on the Committee. Nevertheless, every member of the Committee had a very high regard for his extraordinary commitment and his sense of principle—the fact that at times he was the conscience of the Committee, on issues such as conflict of interest—and we will greatly miss him from our work. I send my best wishes to his family.
That was a parliamentarian’s tribute; I do not think I can speak more highly of what the hon. Gentleman has said than to make that observation. I thank both colleagues.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I knew Paul long before he was a Member of Parliament, when he was a county councillor in Gwent in the 1980s. I would just like to add to the wonderful tribute from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) by saying that all of us fall into different categories as politicians: some are factory farmed, and some are free range, but Paul was the most free range, organic of politicians, and we should all aspire to follow his example.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I just wanted to mention that I served on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe with Paul Flynn, and he was highly respected in that body by people from all the countries represented in it—he was a very active member of it. He also teased me in his book, and we used to laugh about that quite a bit. He was a very nice man and a very effective parliamentarian, and I just wanted to put that on the record. Obviously, our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.
Thank you very much indeed.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I would also like to add to the very warm-hearted comments from the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden). I first got to know the hon. Member for Newport West when I came to this House in 2010. We had many issues we agreed on. There were also many things we probably did not agree on, but we agreed on one thing, and that was human rights. Whenever there was a debate in Westminster Hall, or a debate or a question on that in this Chamber, he would be there putting forward his viewpoints in support of human rights. I was always very pleased to be alongside him, taking the same stance on those things, which we agreed on. In later years, I wondered about his incapacity, and I said to one of my colleagues in the Chamber one day, “If that man was not in that chair, he would move this House by himself, such is his energy and his strength.”
The hon. Lady referred—you will know what is coming, Mr Speaker—to the Flynn of Newport County beating my team, Leicester City. They won against us at football, and I am sure Paul Flynn enjoyed every bit of that—I am afraid I did not, but that is by the way.
I just wanted to add to all the comments that have been made. I found Paul Flynn interesting and funny and a joy to be beside. I know we did not agree on things sometimes, but I was very pleased and honoured to have him as a friend in this House.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said. I spoke to Paul’s widow, Sam, on the telephone this morning. It is perfectly possible that she has listened live to these tributes to Paul. However, in any event, I hope the House will be reassured to know that I shall certainly be sending her a copy of the Official Report with a covering letter. In these very difficult and harrowing times, I hope she will derive some succour from knowledge of the affection and esteem in which Paul was held across the House of Commons.
I beg to move,
That the draft Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2019, which was laid before this House on 24 January, be approved.
It is a pleasure to seek the support of this House for the order. In doing so, may I immediately begin by paying tribute to those who have worn the uniform and who wear the uniform, both as reservists and as regulars? I also pay tribute to those who support those in uniform; it is those in the armed forces community that we must also pay respect to, and we should be thankful for the sacrifices they make in supporting those who serve in the Army, the Air Force and the Royal Navy.
In Defence questions, we spoke about the duty of care—something that is critical to making sure we continue living up to the standards we have shown over the years. We have an enormous standard of professionalism in our armed forces, as a deterrent. Our allies revere us and want to work with us, and our foes fear us because of who we are.
I entirely support what the Minister says about our recognition of those who support members of our armed forces; the armed forces community is very important. I know the Minister has that community very much in his heart and has their best interests in his mind, and he will be as concerned as I am that satisfaction with pay and pension benefits is the lowest ever recorded. What is being done in armed forces legislation and in the policies of the Government to try to increase morale and satisfaction among the people the Minister paid such warm tribute to?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that important point. I will be honest with the House and say that pay is becoming an issue. It was not before—people signed up because of what lay ahead of them, not because of the money. Today, however, the competition that we have in civilian life is such that when people make the judgment as to whether to step forward or not, pay is becoming an issue. We do not want it to be a deterrent to people joining the armed forces.
We are going through the armed forces pay review process, as we do every year, and I will do my utmost to make sure that we are able to pay our service personnel what they deserve, so that it does not become a reason for people not to step forward. I can say the same about accommodation. The reason I articulate these points is that we are shortly to have the spending review. When we talk about the spending review and the armed forces, the immediate assumption is that we are talking about equipment, training and operations. I do not take away from the fact that they must be invested in, but for my part of the portfolio it is critical that we look after the people, and pay is one aspect of that; accommodation is another. I am not able to build accommodation fast enough because of limits in funding.
As we make the case to the Treasury for further defence spending, I simply say that welfare issues must be considered in addition to the other big-ticket items that are normally discussed. Is the hon. Gentleman content with that answer?
It is the first time I have ever been positively encouraged to intervene—it could catch on.
I share the Minister’s views about the wider issues alongside pay. One of the other issues raised with me by members of the armed forces community is the sense of strategic vision on what the Army is for now. I challenged the Minister on this in Defence questions an hour or two ago and he said that there was a strong strategic vision for the Army in 2019. Can he tell us a bit more about what that is, because it is not entirely understood by some people who serve?
I apologise for intervening on the hon. Gentleman while he was in a sedentary position.
I will come to defence posture shortly, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear with me.
Before my right hon. Friend gets on to defence posture, can he tell us whether he has taken note of the Army Families Federation’s recent report, which suggests that the future accommodation model is a major cause of concern among Army families, and a disincentive to remain in the armed forces?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s service and the work that he has done in this area. I would not go so far as to say that the new FAM is causing the problems that he suggests. It needs to be rolled out faster. Those who are serving want to be able to get on the housing ladder, for example, and perhaps invest in a property outside the wire. We want to give individuals three options—to stay inside the garrison, which they might want to do when they sign up; to rent a property outside the wire; or to invest in a property, perhaps using the Help to Buy scheme, for example. My hon. Friend is right that it has taken longer than we wanted to roll out the pilot schemes to test the model, and I hope that will happen in the near future.
My right hon. Friend is right to talk about improving pay, conditions and accommodation. In addition, it is important that we collectively continue to say thank you and appreciate the work that our armed forces do. Will he join me in thanking the Royal Anglian Regiment, which happens to have the freedom of the town of Basildon, and all my constituents who serve in the regiment and across our armed services more widely?
I am more than happy to pay tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment. I served in the Royal Green Jackets, which was another infantry regiment—it is now the Rifles, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who served in the Scots Guards. The Anglians show the benefit of having a local relationship and recruiting from the community. That is how the Army has developed in strength, with reservist communities and so forth. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to that regiment.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Society of Conservative Lawyers recently published a pamphlet on the decision to go into a conflict situation. In its foreword, General Lord Houghton makes the point that it is very important for Army morale that a decision made by the Government can be implemented immediately, that the element of surprise over an enemy can be garnered in that way, and that therefore it should not always be necessary to have a parliamentary vote before committing armed forces. What does my right hon. Friend think?
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am probably going to get into trouble by saying that—thankfully the Whips are not listening at the moment, so I can get away with much. I absolutely agree. The main example in my lifetime is August 2013, when we invited Parliament to make a judgment on whether to send in troops. One MP—I will not say who it was—did not feel qualified to decide and so invited members of the public to inform them of which way to vote. We should be able to make such a judgment—an Executive judgment—ourselves. Sometimes the delay in making a judgment on whether to step forward allows the adversary to regroup, hide or move on.
Does my right hon. Friend also agree that we might want to commit forces for something like a hostage rescue, in which case it would be ridiculous to have to telegraph our plans in advance through Parliament?
I say this out of interest, rather than because it is where I want to go, but the United States has the War Powers Act, which obliges the President to go to Congress to seek to continue any campaign that he or she might implement. I think it is absolutely imperative that we get back to that point. It is almost a matter of opinion; I appreciate that. However, if we are to become less risk-averse, we often need to move very quickly. As I will say shortly, there are ever fewer nations that are ready to stand up and protect our values in a fast-changing world. We are one of them, and we should not be held back by having to go through a parliamentary process.
I would just like to dispel some of the gloom that has been spread by the Opposition in relation to the morale of our armed forces. I frequently meet members of the armed forces in my constituency of Aldershot, which is the home of the British Army. I meet fine young men and women from 1st Battalion the Scots Guards, 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, 4 Rifles and the Queen’s Gurkha Engineers, and their morale is extremely high because they are involved in an array of operational engagements overseas, and soldiers like to be busy. Young people watching this debate should be reassured that there is no better time to join the British Army, because they will be operationally deployed and morale is extremely high.
I am pleased to hear that, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in his constituency—I have joined him there and am aware of those important contributions. I also speak to the families federations, who ensure that my feet are kept on the ground and that I understand the reality of the challenges. Youngsters joining today expect different standards from those that he and I experienced when we joined—they want single-living accommodation and wireless internet access, for example. They want a different set of standards from those that we appreciated in our time. My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point.
I thank the Minister for what he has said. We are fortunate to have a Minister who has a heart for his job, understands the job and responds to the issues that Members across the House bring to his attention; he does that extremely well. He mentioned accommodation. I gently remind him of the issue of recruitment and the fact that Northern Ireland was able to recruit a greater percentage than the rest of the United Kingdom, which may be an opportunity. Some of the soldiers joining up tell me that they would like the opportunity to train overseas. I want to ensure that that opportunity will be in the strategy, as well as help for the families.
I pay tribute to those who serve and step forward in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have visited his neck of the woods a number of times, and I am very grateful for what they offer. He touches on our important commitment to improve accommodation. We have a £4 billion process of upgrade. That requires tough decisions to relinquish some of the armed forces’ assets that we have accumulated over the last couple of hundred years, but it also means that we can regroup and consolidate into super-garrisons, which are fit for purpose and, I hope, will attract the next generation to serve their country.
Will the Minister give way?
I am pleased that we are holding this debate in the Chamber, because I have never had such interest when we discuss these annual updates of support for the armed forces up in Committee Room 14.