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Topical Questions

Volume 660: debated on Monday 20 May 2019

Full and effective global compliance with the chemical weapons convention remains a priority for the Ministry of Defence. The use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad regime has caused extreme human suffering. A leader who uses chemical weapons against their own people should face the consequences, and we remain firm in our resolve to respond appropriately to any use of chemical weapons by that regime.

I too welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role and wish her every success. Will she update the House on the timetable for bringing forward the legislation needed to renew our Trident nuclear and missile capabilities?

I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. No legislation is required, despite what she suggests. In 2016, this House, by an overwhelming majority, supported the assessment that the UK’s continuous at-sea deterrence posture will remain essential to the UK’s security.

Further to welcoming the Secretary of State to her position, I pay tribute to her for her service in our Royal Navy. Moreover, we on the Opposition Benches are committed to working constructively with her in areas where there is a clear consensus. One of those is personnel numbers. Every service is now smaller than it was this time last year. The Army alone has seen a drop of 2,000 trained personnel, which is a staggering failure after all the promises we have heard at the Government Dispatch Box. His predecessors completely failed to get to grips with this, so what is she going to do differently to turn things around?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks and for indicating that she wants to work constructively on issues on which we agree. I particularly thank her for her remarks following the announcement that I made about ending vexatious litigation and other such activity against our veteran community and members of the armed forces. I know that she took a huge amount of abuse for saying that, but I ask her to stick to her guns and not wobble on that, and I thank her for it.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has outlined the work that is being done to increase recruitment and retention in our armed forces, but part of that is about talking up and explaining what our armed forces do. I sincerely wish that more people followed the hon. Lady’s lead and supported our armed forces, saying why they are important to society, social mobility and everything that this great nation stands for.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. Another area where we have a consensus is spending. She said recently that she is determined that the commitments made in the 2015 SDSR should remain on track, yet according to the National Audit Office, the huge shortfall in the defence equipment plan is putting several programmes at risk. Despite her immediate predecessor’s well publicised theatrics, he failed to deliver sufficient additional funds to plug the gap. What will she do to guarantee the investment in defence that we want to see?

In addition to the budget, we need to look at the behaviours that have resulted in previous SDSRs not being fulfilled—I dwelled on that in my speech at the sea power conference. We need more honesty about the costs and what it will take to deepen our partnership with industry to ensure the long order books that reduce the cost of procurement. We know what needs to be done, and that should be our focus, as well as talking to the Treasury.

T4. Veterans of national service feel that their service has been unrecognised over many years. What plans does the Secretary of State have to recognise veterans who were forced to join up under national service? (910994)

If my hon. Friend has particular suggestions, I would be interested to hear them. Where the MOD recognises that things have not previously been done as they should have, it has a track record of rectifying those situations, so I would be happy to discuss this with him if he has particular proposals in mind.

T2. In January, the former Secretary of State paid a visit to Somaliland, which was very well received. Does the new Secretary of State share his opinion of the strategic importance of Somaliland—are we looking to set up a naval base there, for example? Moreover, does she agree that recognition of Somaliland is the way forward if we are to establish such a relationship? (910992)

I will not comment on future deployments, but I would say, having visited Somalia, though not Somaliland, that we need to understand the strategic importance to the UK of that part of the world, not least given its position on our trade routes—much of our trade does indeed go past that part of the world. That is why we remain committed to supporting the troop-contributing nations and the training for the peacekeeping mission.

T5. Will the Procurement Minister please confirm that the Type 31e frigate is still intended for export and, if so, that early defence export sales talks have been had at the Department for International Trade on specifications and timing, so that this “made in Britain” ship can boost allied fleets around the world in due course? (910996)

I can absolutely confirm that, hence why we put an “e” on the end—to show that this is a ship we want to export. We want to show what UK industry can do and the capability it can provide to other nations. I am sure the Type 31 will follow the success of the Type 26.

T3. The transition from employment to retirement is a critical time for the health and wellbeing of a worker—I should know because I tried it myself in 2015. If not handled properly, it can lead to mental ill health and even early death. What steps is the Minister taking to improve the wellbeing of armed forces personnel and civil servants as they make this important transition? (910993)

The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. When I served, there was no transition process; now, when someone puts their hand up and says they are departing, they go through what can be a two-year programme to get ready for civilian street. Thankfully, 95% of those who go through the programme end up either in work or back in education. That is a great statistic. He is absolutely right about mental health as well, and there is a focus on that. Mental Health Awareness Week last week was an opportunity to make veterans aware that if they required support it was there to be found.

T9. What progress has been made on the roll-out of veteran-friendly services in general practices and hospitals as part of efforts to make sure veterans, particularly those suffering from mental ill health, get the help they need from the NHS? (911000)

I am grateful for that question, because it highlights the fact that it is not the MOD that provides veterans support but NHS services across the country. Each NHS authority should have a transition, intervention and liaison service designed to help those who require mental health support. If they need advanced support, there are complex mental health facilities as well.

T7. The Minister talked earlier about the rise in the total number of trained and untrained Army personnel. What proportion are trained and what proportion untrained? (910998)

Off the top of my head, I would say that about 75,000 will be trained and 7,000 untrained. However, it is important to understand that people begin by being trained to be infantry soldiers and then go beyond that. If, for example, they are joining a technical corps such as the Royal Engineers or the Royal Corps of Signals, the point at which they become fully trained can be even further down the line.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

Aircraft such as Poseidon and Rivet Joint that are coming onstream rely on a boom refuelling system. What assessment have Ministers made of the requirement for fitting a boom refuelling capability to the aircraft refuelling fleet at Brize Norton, either through retrofitting or with new airframes?

These aircraft have an endurance that will enable them to meet the requirement for core UK missions without the need for air-to-air refuelling. For extended endurance missions, they are fitted with boom refuelling receptacles, and our allies can also provide air-to-air refuelling as required.

T8. It was reported last week that the Government were enthusiastically trying to find an alternative to the Galileo space system. Will the Minister tell us where the £3 billion to £5 billion for that is coming from? (910999)

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, following the issues involving Galileo the Government announced that £95 million would be spent on exploring exactly what our future options and capabilities might be, and that work is still ongoing.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), was good enough to meet representatives of Rock2Recovery, which specialises in providing mental health coaching for veterans and current service personnel. How does he intend to use that solution as part of any future treatment?

I pay tribute to Rock2Recovery, and to my hon. Friend for his support for it. It is one of the more than 400 service-facing military charities that do such an excellent job, not only in providing activities such as sport but in giving veterans who require support a new chapter and a focus. I give thanks to it for the work that it has done, and I thank all the other charities that do exactly the same.

The Royal United Services Institute has confirmed that the UK will not be able to replicate many of the security benefits of EU membership if we leave. It has also been confirmed that Russian hackers have attacked media, telecoms and energy companies. Will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of the capacity that we will lose as a result of leaving the EU, and outline the Government’s costed proposals?

Although we are leaving the EU, European defence co-operation does not end. Recent deployments in Poland and Estonia demonstrate that we are continuing that co-operation, and it will be enhanced.

As my right hon. Friend knows, Care after Combat does amazing and successful work in rehabilitating veterans who find themselves in the criminal justice system. What role does she see for that organisation as part of the veterans strategy? How can we enable it to continue its work, and boost it as much as we can?

My hon. Friend has mentioned another of the excellent charities that do such a great job. The focus that the new Defence Secretary has given us is on seeing what more we can do to get veterans to support other veterans, and that is exactly what Care after Combat does. I am also pleased to see such charities working together more closely through the co-ordination of Cobseo.

Our armed forces personnel, like all public servants, have been undervalued for too long by this Tory Government. The value of their pay has plummeted in recent years, and now we are seeing another delay in their pay award. When will the Government recognise that those who are in the frontline of protecting our people can do without money worries? When will they lift the public sector pay cut and sort out this mess?

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body is about to report, and we will obviously look at that issue, but let me gently say to the hon. Gentleman that esteem for our armed forces is evident in all parts of the House, and I wish it were slightly more evident among some of his hon. Friends.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her post, and thank her for all the work that she has done for the Navy in Portsmouth, from which Fareham has benefited greatly.

I recently met serving members of our forces in Fareham, who raised serious concerns about service family accommodation and, in particular, problems with CarillionAmey and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Will the Minister meet me so that we can review these matters and our brave servicemen and women can be housed appropriately and with dignity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. If we are to look after our armed forces, if we want to achieve our recruitment numbers, and if we want to ensure that we have the armed forces we want and the country expects, we must look after them not just on the battlefield and not just through training, but off the battlefield and through welfare, and that means building the right accommodation for them.

Just last week I read that another veteran in Hull had taken his own life after failing to be supported adequately. Please will the Minister look to publish the statistics on veteran suicide on a regional basis, so that we can see the extent of the problem and how we can best support people who have given so much for us?

Every suicide is a tragedy, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right: we need to better understand the numbers that are coming through. I am pleased to say that those who join the armed forces are less likely to consider suicide and to be affected by mental health issues and drug issues and so forth, but if someone goes down that road—if they are affected by those issues—help must be available, and that comes with understanding the situation. We are working with Manchester University to better understand the statistics, and I will also be speaking to Justice Ministers to see how we can get the numbers from coroners, match them with our databases and see for sure the exact background of those who have taken their lives.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the men and women of the King’s Royal Hussars battle group in Estonia for the terrific work they are doing in reassuring our NATO allies of our full commitment to the NATO alliance?

I had the enormous pleasure of visiting that battle group only last week in Estonia and was tremendously impressed not least by the way it is demonstrating our interoperability with our NATO allies.

What steps is the Secretary of State going to take to minimise or indeed eradicate the practice of double counting spending in both the 0.7% aid target and the 2% NATO military spending target?

I think I will have to issue an explanatory note for the hon. Gentleman on this. If we are trying to spend ODA money on things that are not ODA eligible, it is not ODA; it is as simple as that. We do not mark our own homework on either ODA spend or the NATO 2% commitment, and instead of asking these questions repeatedly at both International Development and Defence questions the hon. Gentleman should take some pride in the fact that the United Kingdom makes both those commitments.

These are extremely important matters, and in the name of their intelligibility to people who are not Members of the House I should point out that ODA in this context is not “odour,” but rather ODA—official development assistance—for the avoidance of a scintilla of doubt.

What assessment has the Minister made of the mental health care services for veterans available in South Leicestershire and the wider east midlands?

Part of the purpose of Mental Health Awareness Week was to raise awareness of where veterans can seek help. As I touched on earlier, every regional NHS authority must have a transition, intervention and liaison service programme in place. What we need to do better is communicating that to our veterans so that when they are down in a very dark place they know where help can be found. We are working with the charities on that to make sure we can further improve the communication.

In Cranhill this morning I met an Afghanistan veteran who has profound mental health issues but has been found to be on the low rate of personal independence payment. Will the Minister work with me to make representations to the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure that we look after this veteran and get him justice and what he really deserves from the DWP?

First, we now keep track of those who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq in a way that we have not done before, so we are having a much better relationship with veterans after they depart service. I will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue in more detail. It is important that those who are affected by any aspects of mental health issues receive support from this country—from a very grateful nation.

Two notable parliamentary celebrities have risen to their feet: the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and a former Minister for the Armed Forces. It is very awkward—[Interruption.] No, you are too modest, Dr Lewis; I call Dr Julian Lewis.

As a naval reservist herself, will the Secretary of State personally look into the removal of the captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, apparently on the grounds of what might have been a misunderstanding about the use of a car supplied by the Ministry of Defence? If we lose talented people like this, surely it is not only unjust but a waste of all the investment made in someone’s 29-year unblemished career in the Royal Navy.

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I am fully aware of the situation and that I understand his concern when we have invested in an individual and they are unable to carry out the tasks for which they have trained. The officer remains within the Royal Navy and it is a matter for the Royal Navy to deal with, which it is doing.

The Secretary of State is very familiar with Portsmouth, but will she make sure that one of her first Royal Navy visits is to Devonport so that she can maintain a similar familiarity with the expertise and skills that we have in Plymouth?

If you are Royal Navy reservist, you cannot avoid being familiar with Plymouth. I would be very happy also to visit Faslane and Plymouth, our other navy bases besides Portsmouth.

We are well out of time, but we have to hear the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).

Bless you, Mr Speaker. Several weeks ago, I tabled a named-day question to the Department asking how many soldiers were enlisted into the Regular Army in 2018-19 but, unless I have missed it, I have not even had a holding reply. As this relates to my great friends Crapita, when can I expect an answer to that question, even though we all know that the answer will be embarrassing?