House of Commons
Monday 20 May 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
UK-Saudi Arabia Joint Military Exercises
I would like to pay tribute to Guardsman Mathew Talbot of the Coldstream Guards, who was killed on duty on 5 May in Malawi while taking part in a counter-poaching patrol. Our thoughts remain with his family and friends at this difficult time. I also wish to pay tribute to my predecessor for all the work he did for our armed forces, and to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
In the past three years, UK armed forces have conducted four exercises with Saudi Arabia: in 2017 and again this year, Exercise Desert Soldier; and in 2018 a Gulf Co-operation Council exercise, Gulf Shield, and an exercise, Saudi-British Green Flag.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks and welcome her to her place? Saudi officers are being trained in the UK. Any UK steps to stop Saudi committing further human rights abuses must be seen in that context. Thousands have already been killed by Saudi forces—the UK influence did not stop them. Does she agree with me and with her colleague , the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who is the Minister for Europe and the Americas, that Saudi actions are “deplorable”? Will she review our training and co-operation with Saudi armed forces?
May I be the first from the Conservative Benches to congratulate my right hon. Friend on her very well-merited promotion and to wish her well for the future? Does she agree that it is in the UK’s interests to continue intelligence and security co-operation with Saudi Arabia, as with any other Gulf allies that feel threatened by Iran or Iranian proxies?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. I was Minister for the Armed Forces while he was Secretary of State and I learned a great deal from him. He is absolutely right to say that we have joint interests, and it is quite right that the UK continues our defence partnership with Saudi Arabia.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place—the first woman to hold the post. May I also associate my party with the comments she made about Mr Talbot and his family?
Saudi Arabia is one of the most human rights-abusing countries on the face of the earth, particularly for women and for other minorities. Of course, the right hon. Lady remains the Minister for Women and Equalities. Is it not time to start unpicking this close relationship, not least in the light of today’s revelations on the front page of The Times, which tell us that her Department is freelancing when it comes to torture policy?
An urgent question has been granted on the last point and I hope to provide the House with some reassurances at that time. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I feel very keenly that women around the world who need our support—human rights advocates and human rights defenders who are out there trying to get reform in their nations—need the UK to lean in to those nations, not retreat from our relationship with those nations.
The problem is that we are leaning in with the arms trade to those nations. All the stuff the Secretary of State has just outlined about continuing the nature of the relationship has not led to any change on women’s rights or gay rights, or for those who are members of different faiths, so is it not time that she stood at that Dispatch Box, nailed her colours to the mast, restated our values, unpicked that relationship and said that we will have no part with a regime that chops the heads and hands off people for simple crimes?
I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman with my track record in my previous post, when I went to Djibouti, got the shipping records of the traffic that was being held at Hodeidah port and then presented those findings to the commander of Saudi forces. Only by engaging and having dialogue with those individuals and those nations will we get better things to happen.
When I was in the Saudi air operations centre recently, I spoke to Saudi pilots, who were a very impressive lot. I asked them about their rules of engagement. I looked at those rules and they looked remarkably similar to rules of engagement the Royal Air Force would use. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they are pretty strict?
That concurs with what I have seen and, indeed, with reports that are in the public domain. We know that our training has assisted individuals in making judgments, while operations are going on, that have prevented civilian casualties. There is more to do with other nations as well, but it is absolutely right that the Royal Air Force and others in our armed forces are trying to get good practice to happen in targeting and other areas.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and echo her comments about Guardsman Mathew Talbot—all our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.
One reason why Labour opposes any future joint exercises with Saudi Arabia is what Amnesty International calls the “widespread” and “common” use of torture in the kingdom. As we have heard, today’s Times newspaper reveals that the MOD is willing to share intelligence with states like Saudi Arabia, where there is a real risk of torture, provided that
“the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences”.
Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position urgently and state categorically that the MOD is opposed to torture in all circumstances?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. I will go into more detail on the matter when I respond to the urgent question later, but that is the Government’s policy. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about our training with Saudi Arabia, just as the leader of the Labour party has been wrong on the Falklands, on Sierra Leone, on Syria, on Kosovo, on Russia and on Crimea, and wrong about Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and the IRA. That is why decisions about national security should remain with a Conservative Government.
Income Tax Rate: Scotland
Thanks to the surprising decision by the Scottish Government, our valiant armed forces are obliged to pay a higher rate of income tax than people in other parts of the country. As I hope the whole House would agree, the MOD sees armed forces personnel as a national asset, so we have introduced mitigation payments for eligible personnel to offset the unfair burden placed on our valiant soldiers, sailors and air personnel.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and, indeed, for the Government’s policy of ensuring that our brave armed forces men and women are not left out of pocket by the SNP Scottish Government’s bad decision to put up Scottish taxes—it has become known as the “nat tax” in Scotland—but I believe the damage has already been done. I have received anecdotal evidence from the spouses of armed forces men and women who are now not coming to Scotland because they fear paying higher taxes in Scotland if their spouses are serving there.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this issue affects not just those in uniform for whom we have responsibility, costing the MOD £4 million a year, but their spouses, partners and so forth. We are pleased to say that around three quarters of those partners, spouses and so forth are in employment—that is on a par with the civilian sector—but that means that they, too, face that tax burden if they move to Scotland.
As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome the Secretary of State to their new post.
It has now been a year and no payment has been made, so as the Minister is not paying so-called mitigation to armed forces personnel, will he say how long it took to pay the £17,000 golden bye-bye to the former Secretary of State?
I will not get drawn into the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I will clarify the first part. [Interruption.] If he can hold on to his seat for a second, I will answer the first part. It is a retrospective payment, and because the taxes have gone up even more, we have now increased the amount from £1,500 to £2,200. Taxes in Scotland are going up.
But of course about a third of armed forces personnel based in England, notably the lowest paid members of the armed forces, are paying more income tax than their counterparts in Scotland. Will the Minister give some information to the House on what plans there are to mitigate the lowest paid armed forces personnel in England?
There is a question later on armed forces pay, and I will touch on that matter then. Let me make it clear: we see our armed forces as a national asset. If they are to be based in Scotland, they should not have to feel that they need to question whether they should go there because of the increased taxes that they will face.
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. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her post. Last year, a National Audit Office report stated that it would be another 20 years before the RAF has enough pilots. Recent reports have shown that this problem has still not been fixed. With many trainee pilots stuck awaiting advanced training, how will the Minister commit to resolving this desperate situation?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. There is currently a review under the Military Flying Training System. We have, in part, been victims of our own success in this area, but the Minister for defence procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), has already answered questions on this. We are absolutely committed to streamlining this process to ensure that pilots are not waiting too long for that training. I can reassure the House that, while they are waiting, they are being suitably employed by the Royal Air Force; none the less, we are committed to speeding up that training.
I have good news for the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, I hope for the House. In January, the total size of the Army, including trained and untrained strength, was 81,750. At the end of April, the total size of the Regular Army, both trained and untrained, had risen to 82,770. That is a rise of more than 1,000 personnel.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The issue is not only the application process, but the time of flight from doing that application to actually loading people onto training. I am pleased to say that there has been a recent trial in London and elsewhere looking at this very issue. We have managed to reduce the median time for that time of flight from above 200 days down to a median 109 days. That is a dramatic improvement, and it is just one of the things we are doing to speed up that process.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that those who are considering a career in our armed forces do not see old men in their communities being dragged into investigations for things that happened decades ago? For the sake of those who have served, who do serve and who will serve in the future, does he agree that these investigations must stop now?
For the avoidance of doubt, I do normally sit on this side of the House.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place. There are people holding down good jobs and contributing to society who are on the spectrum and might have Asperger’s. They are, as I say, contributing to society yet if they try to join the armed forces they are stopped at square one. Will the Government reconsider that policy because these people might make a very considerable contribution to the defence of the UK?
This is one of the areas—not specifically related to that condition but I am happy to look at it—on which we have had a series of medical symposiums. We feel that perhaps some of the medical requirements for joining the armed forces are out of date. One example that I have used before is childhood asthma. If it were to reoccur, it is unlikely to do so until the late 40s or 50s, at which point most people will have already left the armed forces. But I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board and will ensure that that is part of the study.
In Moray, we have seen a positive increase in the number of military personnel, which is down to the significant investment by the UK Government in the Poseidon P-8 aircraft at RAF Lossiemouth. Will the Minister take this opportunity to welcome those coming to my constituency in the next few years because of the arrival of the P-8 aircraft?
The Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, HMS Protector, has an icebreaking capability and can operate in the Arctic. We are aware of the importance of the high north region to our environment, security, prosperity and energy supply, and keep our requirements—including further icebreaking capability—under review.
Far too few women are engaged in defence, so may I welcome the Secretary of State to her position, as a fellow woman who has served with her on the Select Committee on Defence? The Arctic ice is melting, but during the winter its capability to freeze is still present. Both Russia and China are building large numbers of icebreakers. Will the Minister look at forward planning so that Britain can also have icebreaker capability in the north to protect British shipping when those sea routes begin to open up, as they will?
As I mentioned, HMS Protector does have an icebreaking capability. However, I take the hon. Lady’s points on board. As she will be aware, we will shortly be publishing the Arctic strategy, which builds on the House of Commons Defence Committee’s “On Thin Ice” investigation last year. The hon. Lady is quite right; we are looking very carefully at the Arctic—not least at potential trade routes—and her point is a reasonable one.
The report “On Thin Ice”, to which the Minister referred, plainly laid out the threat from Russia, which has significantly increased in the Arctic in recent years. Therefore, the call for either ice-strengthened or ice class ships—together with, for example, ice-strengthened submarines and increased training, such as the first-class training offered to our Royal Marines in the high north—is extremely important. In that context, when will the Ministry of Defence be publishing its long-awaited report, and will it take quite a robust attitude towards encouraging NATO to taking the Arctic very seriously indeed?
The report will be published shortly. I apologise to the House for the delay and ask that hon. Members do not read anything into it. Of course, my hon. Friend is quite right and has shown a keen interest in this part of the world for many years. This point precisely ties into the earlier question about the purchase of the P-8 aircraft. Only last year, I attended the Ice Exercise—ICEX—up in the high north, where I had the honour to go on board HMS Trenchant and spend two days under the ice. We are showing an increasing interest in this part of the world for the reasons expressed by the House.
Capita Army Recruitment
The Army continues to work closely with Capita with multiple interventions in place, and is delivering improvements. The year 2018-19 was the best for applications in five years. As expected, we are now starting to see those applications move through the pipeline. The last quarter of 2018-19 was the best performing quarter for enlistments since 2012-13. Although we cannot be complacent and continue to maintain close oversight of this contract’s performance, this does demonstrate early signs for cautious—I repeat, cautious—positivity.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. There is no denying that the Capita contract is an appalling failure, when the Army is still 8% below its par. This issue has been repeatedly raised during Defence questions, but the situation keeps worsening. Does that not show that the Minister’s Department has zero desire to resolve the problem?
I think I tried to address this point earlier. Obviously, we have seen a rise in applications, and we have now seen a rise—taking the Regular Army as an example—in people entering training, with an extra 1,000 in the first quarter of this year. It can take up to two years for a fully trained member of the armed forces to count as being trained and therefore to qualify as part of the figure we always use at the end, but the early signs are positive. Not only are applications up; we now have more people joining, wearing a uniform and being trained, and those people will slowly filter their way through the process.
I have been waiting two months now for an answer to a fairly straightforward parliamentary question about the number of applicants being rejected on medical grounds. Given the deeply unsatisfactory way that Capita seems to handle applications where a medical issue has been flagged, especially in the area of mental illness, will the Minister please look further into this to ensure that there is fairness in the system and the Army does not lose talent?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the fact that the one thing we do not want to do is to lose talent. I made reference earlier to the medical review process that we are looking at. We have already found areas where we think we can improve, and I look forward to those improvements being implemented shortly.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her post?
It is scarcely credible that after all Capita’s incompetence on the recruitment contract, its failure on the defence estate’s management contract and the assessment by experts that this company carried the highest possible risk factor, the Minister is still pushing ahead with plans to outsource the Defence Fire and Rescue Service to Capita. To make matters worse, his Department is now spending hard-earned taxpayers’ money on an expensive legal battle with rival company Serco. Is it not high time that the Government stopped throwing good money after bad in pursuit of an ideological fixation with privatisation, did the right thing and abandoned plans to outsource the Defence Fire and Rescue Service?
I do not think there is any ideological belief about having to use Capita. For reasons I have already explained, we are seeing progress in the one particular contract that I am responsible for. With regard to the Defence Fire and Rescue Service, which also falls under the Army, there has been a court case that is currently under review, as the hon. Lady knows.
Iranian Military Action: Deterrence
The United Kingdom shares United States, European and Gulf partners’ concerns about Iran’s destabilising activities in the region. We continue to work closely with our allies and partners to mitigate the threats to regional security.
Yes, we are, and we are already deployed in the region. This is a region where we have huge stakes and a huge amount invested. We are working with our allies and partners, first, to try to de-escalate things in the region, but also to truly understand the facts behind recent events.
May I welcome the Secretary of State to her new job? Some of us will miss her at the Department for International Development, where she really ploughed her own furrow and was very refreshing.
Are our defence forces capable of helping any of our allies, either in the middle east or if someone invaded one of our allies in Europe? We have minuscule armed forces. The 75-year D-day celebration is in June. We could not defend anyone with the size of the defence force we have at the moment.
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. I am sure he will continue his campaign on road traffic accidents and all that Britain can do to prevent them around the world.
I think that our armed forces are getting increasingly more capable, looking what we are doing in terms of operations. Increasingly, we are forward-deploying people. The Royal Navy is undertaking more activity. However, we must ensure that the budget, or what we are doing with the budget, is absolutely linked to the tasks that we require our armed forces to do because of the mission that we give them.
Last week, the British deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve stated that
“there has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.”
He was then rebuked by US Central Command. The Foreign Secretary later went on to declare that the UK and the US share
“the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran”,
and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office changed its travel advice for Iran. Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government’s position, and will she confirm that the UK will oppose any escalation of tensions in the middle east?
We want the increasing tensions to de-escalate. I think that the major general’s remarks have been clarified; he was speaking in a particular context. We are absolutely on the same page as the United States in terms of the assessment of risk, and we have always been clear-eyed about the threats that Iran poses.
Competition remains the cornerstone of defence procurement policy, except where other strategic considerations need to be taken into account—for example, national security, operational advantage and freedom of action.
I thank the Minister for his visit to defence companies in my constituency and for his helpful and inclusive approach when he visits. Does he agree that the ability of those companies in my constituency and of British companies in general will be greatly damaged by a hard Brexit?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments. It was a pleasure to meet a number of businesses in his constituency. We have been engaging a lot with the small and medium-sized enterprise supply chain. In fact, on 9 May, I held a roundtable with small businesses in north Wales, and they felt very optimistic about the future. Through our equipment plan, we are actively engaging with the supply chain to ensure that the opportunities in each of our projects will maximise the input that they can have.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. It is a pleasure to see such an amazing woman on the Front Bench, standing up for defence.
Last Thursday, myself and colleagues from across the House on the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding and ship repair launched our report on the national shipbuilding strategy. We have real concerns that competition, particularly for naval shipbuilding, is based on a model that does not include the economic benefits to the UK being recycled back in when we spend UK taxpayers’ money. Can the Minister give me an assurance that the Ministry is looking at that and will work with the Treasury to change our model, so that we can get the best value and ensure that our shipbuilding pipeline lasts in the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that Sir John Parker is currently doing a review of his initial report. International competition is also about encouraging UK industry and UK shipyards to be as competitive as possible, so that they can not only maximise the opportunities that UK defence offers, but take advantage of competition around the globe, too.
The Minister said that this is to make UK yards more efficient, but what they need is throughput of work. His Department has chosen to put the contract for the fleet solid support vessel into international competition. What weight was given in that decision to his Government’s prosperity agenda, our sovereign capability and the need to protect UK shipbuilding?
That is precisely why the Type 26s, Type 31s and aircraft carriers were built in the UK, so that we could maintain that capability here in the United Kingdom. The right hon. Gentleman might be aware of the speech that the Secretary of State recently made, and part of what she is doing is a review into the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—tankers, to ensure that we look at the exact experiences with that and take lessons from it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the involvement of small and medium-sized enterprises in defence procurement is essential in promoting innovation in the sector?
My right hon. Friend is right. One of the things I have noticed in this role and as I go around the country is that innovation really exists in the SME sector. We have to ensure that more SMEs feel they can do business with the Ministry of Defence, so that we can take advantage of that for our armed forces.
The Government’s procurement process for military equipment is a shambles, and nowhere is that better seen than in the way it is handling the procurement of the Type 31e frigates. Having started, then stopped, then restarted the procurement process for the Type 31s last year and imposed a totally unrealistic price ceiling of £250 million per frigate, will the Minister confirm that he has now effectively removed that financial ceiling?
I do not actually recognise the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of the competition. This is a challenging competition for the very reason that we want to ensure that UK industry is competitive—not just in the UK, but around the globe. We have taken a pragmatic approach to change the parameters to ensure consistency with all other competitions that have been happening. This is a challenge to industry, but we want it to be competitive. That was the whole point of the national shipbuilding strategy.
Commonwealth Servicemen and Women
As we discussed in an excellent Westminster Hall debate in the week before last, Commonwealth servicemen and women make an important contribution to our armed forces capability. The visa application process is Home Office-led, but I do agree that there is a moral case for abolishing the visa application fees, and we continue to have discussions with the Home Office to make this case.
In her first departmental questions, may I warmly congratulate our first ever female Defence Secretary?
I thank the Minister for his continued support on this cross-party cause, about which my letter has been signed by almost 150 MPs from five parties in this House. While I recognise what he has said about the possibility of precedents being set by changes to the immigration legislation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be perfectly possible to make an amendment to the armed forces provision in the Immigration Act 1971 so that our Commonwealth servicemen and women can apply free of charge?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, and we are certainly looking at that Act. The starting salary that someone receives when they come in to join the armed forces does meet the threshold that the Home Office requires. The trouble is when they wish to bring in a spouse or partner, or indeed their children, as that is when they run into the additional minimum income thresholds. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the fact that the over 4,500 Commonwealth members of our armed forces and the over 3,000 Gurkhas make such a valid and important contribution to our capability.
I agree with everything that has just been said by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). Could the Minister talk to his opposite number at the Home Office? I have had cases of constituents who have travelled halfway across the world, signed up for the armed forces and then, when they leave the armed forces, are not entitled to benefits because their immigration status has not been sorted out. That seems to me to be a fairly miserable way to treat people.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which also came up in the debate. It is important when such people embark on this journey—when they sign the papers and endeavour to come to the UK—that they are fully aware of the current situation. The families federations, with which we work very closely, have made the case that it is not even clear to those actually embarking on the journey that, although it is okay for them to come across, they will bump into a financial burden should they wish to bring in their family, and we need to move forward on that.
The RAF remains absolutely committed to Lincolnshire as part of our defence rationalisation programme. My hon. Friend is aware that we have had to restructure some of the assets in that county, but we do expect to see considerable investment in the near future.
I apologise to the Minister for banging on about RAF Scampton and its closure, but I will not be satisfied until it is engraved on his heart. Can he relieve the acute distress in Lincolnshire caused by the closure of RAF Scampton by announcing, very shortly, that he will keep the Red Arrows in Lincolnshire at one of the three remaining superb RAF bases—Coningsby, Waddington or Cranwell—and can he help the local community by continuing the heritage centre associated with the Dambusters raid?
I will take those points in reverse order, if I may. First, may I pay tribute to that incredible endeavour that took place in May 1943, with Barnes Wallis and Guy Gibson? Every child grows up knowing what the RAF is all about because of what those brave heroes did back in the middle of the war.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that this is also the home of the RAF Red Arrows. That gives me licence to say, if I may, that we look forward to seeing them participate in the air component of the land, sea and air effort to pay tribute on the 75th anniversary of D-day, starting from the Defence Secretary’s constituency.
My hon. Friend is also aware that we have had to rationalise, and Scampton will close, but let us not forget that Lincolnshire very much remains at the heart of the RAF. We have RAF Digby; Cranwell, where the training takes place; Coningsby, of course, where our fast jet component is; and RAF Waddington, which is home to our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability.
The Government already do much to support our brave veterans and their families, but for the first time we are mapping out a 10-year strategy to give greater clarity on how we want that support to develop.
I thank the Minister for that answer. What role does he see the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committee playing in the development of better care for our veterans? Is there not a case for renewing and revitalising the committee—after all, it is nearly 100 years old—so that it can play a more prominent and effective role?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He almost suggested—I am sure that he did not mean to—that the original members of the committee were still serving, but it has advanced and reformed, and I work with it very closely. It is important that when someone leaves the armed forces, they are supported by our country, which is indebted to them for their service. It is important that we use that committee and others to provide veterans with the support they expect.
It is difficult to put an exact figure on it, but we estimate that the MOD spends around £7 billion on our veterans. It is so important that we provide that support wherever it is needed across the country, whether through pensions, mental health support or simply comradeship, to recognise their service and thank them for it.
The right hon. Gentleman must not mean the veterans strategy, because we have not yet started it. We put it out to consultation and received over 4,000 replies, which we are now collating. I hope to make a statement to the House in the near future on how we intend to move forward with the 10-year strategy.
As my party’s defence spokesperson, may I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her new position?
The Minister knows my frustration about the unequal and inconsistent approach to implementing the armed forces covenant across this United Kingdom. As part of the veterans strategy, will he look again at the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced to try to ensure a duty of compliance across the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman touches on two important aspects. First, there is the obligation to honour the covenant, which is still in its infancy. There is so much work still to be done, because implementation is very disparate across the country. Secondly, there are specific challenges in Northern Ireland. I have had the pleasure of visiting Northern Ireland with him to see how we can ensure that the covenant is honoured there, given the very sensitive issues faced there.
On behalf of the Defence Committee, may I welcome the Secretary of State to her new position, for which she is well qualified indeed? May I also pay tribute to her predecessor, who not only saved our amphibious forces from premature dissolution, but won considerable battles with one of our real adversaries in defence: the Treasury?
Does the Minister, as a veteran himself, agree that part of the veterans strategy ought to be the protection of former service personnel against repeated re-investigation for their activities in past conflicts? I welcome the fact that the Government seem to be moving towards some sort of qualified statute of limitations approach, but may I urge them to bring their announcement to the Floor of the House, rather than simply putting it out as a written statement, as at the moment they are suggesting they intend to do?
Yes, but I think that I can say with confidence from the Chair that a written statement will simply not meet the needs of the case, given the appetite—I am grateful for the nod of affirmation from the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), the former Secretary of State for Defence. The House will clearly wish to question Ministers on the matter, and therefore it needs to be done in the Chamber.
I join the Chairman of the Defence Committee, as a fellow Committee member, in welcoming the Secretary of State to her new responsibilities, not least as she carries the Queen’s commission. May I emphasise the point made by the Chairman of the Committee—and indeed by you, Mr Speaker—that the most important issue with regard to veterans is protecting them from lawfare and legal witch-hunting? It is absolutely imperative that the Secretary of State makes an oral statement to the House tomorrow, so that all Members from across the House can question her on her proposals, which I am sure we will welcome given half a chance.
So many Members have rightly congratulated the Defence Secretary, but this is the first time that the fact that she is a reservist in the naval reserve has been credited. That leaves just one member of the Defence Front Bench team who is not in uniform at the moment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). So, no pressure on him to join one element of the forces. On my right hon. Friend’s substantive question, the point has been made and the Defence Secretary will be in her place tomorrow.
Safeguarding Military Technology
It is clearly important that we provide appropriate protection for sensitive research with defence or security applications, whether conducted in our universities or in industry. That is why we work closely with other Government Departments, agencies and international partners to ensure suitably robust arrangements which keep pace with developments in technology and the wider global context.
Recent media reports have highlighted increasing concerns about scientists linked to the People’s Liberation Army working in UK universities on research relevant to the development of sensitive military technologies. Does the Minister share that concern? Is he working with universities to mitigate the risk of financial dependency on, or the sharing of sensitive technologies with, China? Will clearer guidance be developed on academic areas deemed relevant to national security?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this very important issue. I can confirm that we work very closely with universities to inform them of the risk posed by military-civilian research fusion. Universities are subject to the UK’s strategic export controls, as is everyone else in the UK, and should consult the Department for International Trade before engaging in any relationships focusing on technology that could have a military application. Further guidance is available on the gov.uk website.
The 2015 strategic defence and security review introduced a new national security objective to promote UK prosperity. We subsequently published strategies for shipbuilding and combat air, and refreshed our defence industrial policy with a new emphasis on supporting growth and competitiveness. On 14 March, we provided an update to Parliament on our ambitious defence prosperity programme.
Last week, the Secretary of State described our Type 26 frigates as the envy of the world. They are powered by the most capable and quietest electric drive motors, which are designed and made by GE in Rugby. Is the Minister as delighted as I am at today’s news that the Ministry of Defence is bringing forward orders for the motors for the second batch of those vessels, which will enable this vital facility to remain here in the UK?
May I first praise my hon. Friend for the work he has done to fight for the factory in his constituency? I could not walk down a corridor without bumping into him and him lobbying hard. That was why I made sure that I met GE. I am pleased to inform him that this morning GE announced to its staff that it has reached an agreement with the Ministry of Defence that will enable the company to continue its work in his constituency. I also pay tribute to my officials, who have worked incredibly hard on this matter to ensure that the machines continue in Rugby.
Delivery of the Tempest programme, as driven by BAE Systems in Warton, is essential to managing the future military air requirements of the United Kingdom. Can the Minister confirm continued Government support for the combat air strategy, as outlined by the Prime Minister at Farnborough?
My hon. Friend secured a debate just last week on this very issue and is obviously fighting very hard for his constituents who work at BAE Systems. The Government continue to deliver the combat air strategy which, as he says, was launched at Farnborough last year. That is a big piece of work, which is looking at the future air combat system technology initiative. The Government will continue to look at all innovative technologies that will need to be available, while we explore a broad range of options to deliver capability.
The cross-party report on shipbuilding recommended that the new Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are built in British shipyards—that is absolutely vital and enjoys cross-party support. Has the Minister read the report, and will he meet the officers of the all-party group to take forward our recommendations?
I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and others who have shown an interest in this. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently conducting a review into the MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability—tankers to see how we can learn from that and maximise the opportunities that will exist for the supply chain in the UK.
In recent days, we have heard of foreign shipbuilders pulling out of the bidding process for the fleet solid support ships. If the Government are being true to the national shipbuilding strategy, will the Minister accept that time is of the essence for not only the support ships but the bidding process for the Type 31 frigates? I know of a yard that has the skills, experience, talent and infrastructure to build those ships for the UK—we are good to go in Rosyth, so, for the sake of jobs and the industry, will the Minister start signing the contracts?
The hon. Gentleman mentions the Type 31. Of course, that is a UK-only competition and we will wait for the results later this year. On the fleet solid support ships, I am pleased that a UK consortium is in there. I can confirm that Fincantieri has withdrawn from the competition, but I am not going to comment on any other entrants, because it is purely speculation at this stage.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Use of Torture Overseas
The UK Government stand firmly against torture and do not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment for any purpose. Our policy and activities in this area are in accordance with domestic and international law. The Ministry of Defence’s policy is aligned with the Government’s policy on sharing and receiving intelligence, and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner has been satisfied with our activities and has not identified issues of concern. However, the Prime Minister has asked the commissioner to review the Government’s consolidated guidance and submit proposals on how it could be improved. Once it has done so and the Government have had the chance to consider them—I anticipate that this will be a matter of weeks—the MOD will review its internal guidance as necessary in the light of any updated guidance that is published.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Our most senior living soldier, Field Marshal Lord Guthrie, said 10 years ago:
“Torture is illegal. It is a crime in both peace and war that no exceptional circumstances can permit…We need to distinguish ourselves from our enemies. We must not, in the false name of moral equivalence, degrade ourselves to their level.”
He was right. The prohibition of torture is one of our few absolute incontrovertible rights. There can never be a reason or justification for torture; what is more, it does not work. It leads to bad intelligence and bad decisions. The decision to undertake the Iraq war, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, the destruction of the stability of the region and the destruction of the reputation of the west, was based on so-called evidence obtained on the basis of torture.
We cannot ignore the morality or the law. Paragraph 15.9 of the Ministry of Defence’s policy document states that information sharing should not proceed
“unless ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.
The fundamental problem with paragraph 15.9 is that it presumes that Ministers can overrule the law, even international law, including that on absolute rights such as the prohibition of torture: they cannot, they must not, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that they do not.
Given the Ministry of Defence’s claim that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, the investigatory powers oversight body, approves of this, will she publish the documents showing that? It seems to me that the IPCO might have approved the overall approach but not the precise policy document that I refer to, which I understand was published after the consultation. Will she ensure that that document, which appears to give Ministers the right to overrule the law, is published along with any commentary on it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for applying for this urgent question. It is a critical issue. I agree 100% with what he said, and it is worth reminding ourselves that these laws and norms protect not just the enemy but our own armed forces. We cannot overrule the law, nor can Ministers be advised to overrule or disregard the law.
As I said, we have an opportunity to review the matter. I want to wait until the commissioner’s advice has been received. I understand that will take only a few weeks, so I will update the House as we review our guidance.
I understand that following a freedom of information request one of the policy iterations has been placed in the public domain. The latest iteration, from 2018, introduces not any substantial changes but a minor change at the request of the IPCO. These matters should receive the full light of day and full transparency. If my right hon. Friend will bear with me, once I receive the advice I will of course update the House on these important issues.
Today’s revelations that the MOD has discreetly rewritten Government policy on torture are extremely concerning. Torture is not only morally reprehensible but prohibited under international law in the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, and the convention against torture.
There can be no justification whatsoever for torture. None the less, today’s reports suggest that, according to the Ministry of Defence, torture is acceptable if, and I quote from the policy document,
“ministers agree that the potential benefits justify accepting the risk and the legal consequences that may follow”.
Will the Secretary of State confirm what the Government consider those “potential benefits” to be?
In response to the reports, the MOD has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that the
“policy and activities in this area comply with the Cabinet Office’s consolidated guidance”
However, that guidance clearly sets out that
“in no circumstance will UK personnel ever take action amounting to torture”.
It further maintains that where the Government cannot mitigate the
“serious risk of torture at the hands of a third party”,
“presumption would be that we will not proceed”.
Will the Secretary of State therefore clarify how her Department has come to its conclusion? What legal advice has it received? Will she now publish this advice, if any?
We understand that the policy came into effect in November 2018. How many times since then has a Minister decided to authorise the transmission of intelligence that may have led to torture? No Minister should authorise any action where there is a serious risk of it leading to torture. Will the Secretary of State therefore now do the right thing and commit to scrapping the policy immediately, so as to ensure that basic human rights and international law are universally respected and upheld?
I can give the hon. Lady the assurances that she wants. It is not our policy to condone torture or to facilitate it—quite the reverse, as I set out earlier. No Ministers have been involved in decisions that would have led to that, and it is clear that that is not our intention. Again, I can check that, but that is the assurance that I have received from the Department. I can understand the concerns that have been expressed across the House. People will appreciate that I understand well why such laws and norms are in place. As I said, they are for everyone’s benefit, not just our enemies’.
I undertake to look at the guidance and review it, but it is prudent to wait for the commissioner’s feedback. If it was going to take a long time to arrive, I would take a different view, but it is imminent—a few weeks’ time.
Surely my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has done the House a big service in securing this urgent question because it touches on the reputation of our country.
You, Mr Speaker, will remember that on 2 July 2018 my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) led Members from both sides of the House in asking for a judicial inquiry into British complicity in torture, and the Government promised to update the House within 60 days. Now, it is day 323 and, in spite of that promise the House has not been given the explanation it requires.
Last Friday, the United Nations Committee Against Torture called on the UK
“to establish without further delay an inquiry on alleged acts of torture and other ill treatment of detainees held overseas committed by, at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of British officials.”
Given Britain’s leadership at the United Nations, it is a very sad day when the UN has felt it necessary to pass such a motion. I urge the Government to deliver on their promise to the House and come back on the issue of a judicial inquiry. As I say, it was promised within 60 days and we are now on day 323.
My right hon. Friend raises some important points. Although I completely agree with what has been said by everyone who has spoken so far, it is right to point out that we hold our armed forces, and the agencies that work with them, to high standards —we hold them all to high standards. We understand why that is important, we understand why people must be compliant and we understand why there must be accountability and transparency in these policies not just on matters of intelligence but in targeting them to reduce the number of civilian casualties.
Part of the reason we are grappling with the issue of “lawfare” is that we want to uphold the primacy of international humanitarian law. These things are incredibly important to us.
I have undertaken to review this policy, and I will look at things more widely and in the round, but I reassure the House that what I do not want to come from the scrutiny of MOD policy, which is quite right, is any suggestion that our armed forces are somehow not upholding international humanitarian law.
I know that Members on both sides of the House will know how much that is embedded in our armed forces’ education and training, and how it is given with rigour in everything they do before deployment. Where there is wrongdoing, they are held to account, and it is quite right that we should hold them and officials to account for wrongdoing where it happens. This is not a regular occurrence, and it is not something that occurs within our armed forces—they operate to the highest standards.
A tangled web has been woven that needs to be unpicked with the greatest transparency. Why did it fall to the non-governmental organisation Reprieve to get this information into the public domain? Why did no one in Government think it appropriate to pass it to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner?
The Secretary of State says she will review the policy, but will she not go one step further and rescind it? Will she clarify the MOD statement, which she repeated at the Dispatch Box today, that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner is “entirely satisfied” with the Department’s activities and standards in this area? Given that the commissioner had not seen the document until last month, how on earth can he be completely satisfied with something he knew nothing about?
Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to confirm whether she believes that, as per the guidance we are discussing, Ministers can authorise UK action where there is a serious risk it will contribute to torture? In the authorship of this policy, was the Attorney General consulted at any time? It is quite clear that the House will not accept any deviation from the strictest observance of domestic and international law.
Finally, with last month seeing a UK Defence Secretary sacked for leaking from the National Security Council, this month we find out that the MOD is potentially freelancing on torture and potentially breaking the law. Many of us are left asking, what on earth is going on in the Secretary of State’s Department?
I can understand the concerns that have been expressed about a policy, but it cannot be drawn from that that action is being taken or incidents have happened. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that this policy is not new, nor has it been secret. The Prime Minister asked the Investigatory Powers Commissioner to review the guidance, and the commissioner has seen the MOD’s policy. What I said is that he has no issue and believes the MOD’s current policy is consistent with that guidance.
I repeat that no Minister could break the law or be advised to break the law by an official—that could not happen. I hope that reassures the hon. Gentleman on that point. The Attorney General is routinely and regularly involved in forming policies of this nature, and is also a member of the National Security Council.
I endorse what my right hon. Friend has said: the idea that this is some extraordinary leak displaying some novel policy is wholly erroneous. If anybody wishes to read the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on detention and rendition, they will find a lengthy section on current issues that deals with this precise matter, setting out the consolidated guidance in virtually identical form to that which exists and, I understand, is currently being used in the MOD.
That said, I welcome the Secretary of State’s review, and I point out that in the detention and rendition report my Committee made it clear that this was one of those exceptional areas dealing with serious risk. You can never authorise or sanction the use of torture—it is wholly contrary to international law—but we pointed out that where there is a serious risk there was a need for some form of process by which an evaluation could be made. It was noteworthy that there appeared to be differences, at the time we reported, between the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the MOD on what criteria might be applied by individual Secretaries of State. May I urge my right hon. Friend, first, enthusiastically to rebut those who suggest that this is an extraordinary revelation and, secondly, to move to respond to what the Committee suggested in its report?
This matter might not be news to the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and his Committee, but it does appear to have been news to IPCO, which had to be informed about it by freedom of information requests through Reprieve. Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain that. Does it not show that the lessons from the whole so-called “war on terror” have not been learned? She gave a long answer to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), but she did not answer his actual question: when are we going to have the announcement on the judge-led inquiry?
First, the change to the policy introduced in 2018 was an amendment at the request of the IPCO. As I say, it is only a short number of weeks before we will get the review back from the Commissioner, and the Government will be able to look at the recommendations made. I will look at this in the round, as Members would expect of a new Secretary of State coming into the Department, and I will update the House. I fully hear what all Members in all parts of the House are saying. I understand, and I hope the House has confidence in the fact that I understand, how critically important these issues are, for, as I say again, the safety of our own armed forces, as well as other people, and I will give this my urgent attention.
If anyone ever tries to tempt the Secretary of State with the maxim that the end justifies the means, will she bear in mind the wise words of Sir Robert Thompson? He was probably the leading counter-insurgency expert of the 1960s and wrote about torture and other extrajudicial means:
“Not only is this morally wrong, but, over a period, it will create more practical difficulties for a government than it solves. A government which does not act in accordance with the law forfeits the right to be called a government and cannot then expect its people to obey the law.”
I quite agree with my right hon. Friend: it is absolutely fundamental to everything that we stand for and everything that our armed forces represent that we uphold the law, that we uphold international humanitarian law and that we abide by the rules. I could not agree with him more.
Although they are no longer with us today, in my time, I have known several people who suffered torture, both in the far east and in Europe. Although I was a young man when they recounted their tales, and they did want to tell me what happened, I have never—well, it was ghastly, let us just put it that way.
I want to be clear that I have every faith that our armed forces observe the very highest standards of conduct. I have no doubt about that whatsoever. Unfortunately, though, we are perceived—I use that word carefully—to be in a difficult situation at this point, so let me broaden this issue out. The UK talks about exerting its soft power; were we to be seen in the world as the champion of outlawing torture, we could strike a mighty blow for the getting rid of this horrible crime. It would do our reputation in the world no harm at all. Many years ago, we led the charge against the slave trade. Why do we not do exactly the same for torture?
I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. The Royal Navy played a huge role in the ending of the slave trade; our nation has a huge heritage in that respect. I should add to what has been said that this matter shows why we have also to tackle, in conjunction with this issue, which I will deal with, the wider issue of lawfare—that basket of issues that is corrupting our operational effectiveness and putting huge pressure on our armed forces in the field to take decisions that are the wrong thing to do. Let me give just one example from, I believe, Afghanistan. A member of our armed forces was sued for detaining a prisoner for longer than the prescribed amount of time in order to keep that prisoner safe from being put into a prison where they would have been tortured. That was the right decision to take. Currently, members of our armed forces are pursued for taking such decisions and upholding international humanitarian law, so we have to get that right, too. Our armed forces resist the immense pressures that are put on them when they are making those decisions in theatre, but we have to get that right too, and that is also receiving my urgent attention.
To follow on from what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said about the United Nations criticism, was the review prompted by that criticism, or by something else? Lots of my constituents are concerned about this issue and the direction in which it is going. Does the Secretary of State have a date for when she will come forward and tell us what the proposals are?
Just to clarify, it was the Prime Minister who asked the commissioner to review the Government’s guidance, which our MOD guidance follows—it is absolutely in line with that. I am told that it will be a couple of weeks before the commissioner is ready to report. When they do report, the Government will review it and I will review the MOD’s policy.
I invite the Secretary of State to respond specifically to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) about the Government’s response to the call for a judicial review. We cannot blame her for the failures of her predecessor, but we heard that the promise of a response within 60 days was made about 320 days ago. Will she make it clear that she will now put that right and that the House will hear her view on that and let us know when we should expect to hear it?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am a couple of weeks into this role. I am looking at this situation, but I will not make pronouncements at the Dispatch Box until I am apprised of all the issues. I do not think that hon. Members would expect me to do anything else. I can assure the House that I am looking at the issue and at policy in relation to that. From what I have seen and from the inquiries that I have made in the Department so far, I think that the House would be reassured about our conduct. I think that the decisions that have been taken in the Department have been correct and that hon. Members would be reassured by that fact. But I fully appreciate that the House wants to have an update as swiftly as possible and I undertake to do that.
Will the Secretary of State outline her understanding of the definition of torture, underline the position in a civilised society and, coming from a position of clean hands, confirm that the end does not and will not always justify the means?
I hope that I have given the House every reassurance. There is a legal definition of torture. At the beginning of my statement, I outlined all the descriptions and forms that that might take. It is never justified. It is also, as we know, not a reliable way of getting information or of being able to act on that information. We must not do it. Ministers should not do it, or allow it to be done. It is a breach of the law and no official could advise a Minister to take that course of action.
The Secretary of State seeks to reassure the House, but Members may be aware that the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office consultation into the Cabinet Office consolidated guidance on intelligence sharing relating to detainees closed on 28 November 2018, yet the MOD policy was simply dated November 2018. Therefore, was it introduced on 28, 29, or 30 November to avoid being included in the IPCO consultation?
My understanding is that it followed that updated advice and the changes made to the 2018 document were at the request of the IPCO. That is my understanding of the situation, but that should not be confused with the piece of work that has been ongoing with the commissioner and on which a report back is due, as I have said, in a few weeks.
As we heard from the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), in the course of its inquiry, the Intelligence and Security Committee asked a number of Secretaries of State whether they believed the policy allowed them to authorise action where there was a serious risk of torture and each gave significantly different answers. Can the Secretary of State explain how she will be able to ensure that there is a consistent approach to this from all Secretaries of State?
The confidence that the right hon. Gentleman and other Members can get is that the processes in the Department have to be right. Clearly, different people coming into office and holding ministerial office will have different views on a raft of subjects. They may have different experiences that they bring to bear in making a decision, but the key thing that should give us confidence is that no member of our armed forces and no civil servant working in defence could give advice that would get a Minister to decide on a course of action that could lead to an individual being knowingly tortured. That, I think, is very clear. That has been my experience of the calibre of individuals working in the Department, both in the past few weeks and also in my time as Minister of the Armed Forces. Those are the people we have to trust. A duty on Ministers, especially the Secretary of State, is to reinforce that in the Department through policies, transparency and clarity on what it is that we are trying to achieve and the law that we are trying to uphold.
Ebola Outbreak: DRC
Ebola is back—this time in the eastern DRC. This is the largest outbreak in the country’s history, the second largest in the world and the first in a conflict zone. So far, 1,209 people have died, and we must do much more to grip the situation. It is not a simple question of virus control. If it were, we could simply repeat what we were able, at huge cost and risk, to do in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and even to some extent what the DRC Government and the World Health Organisation were able to do in Équateur and western DRC over the first six months of last year—that is, to get out into village after village, identify all the cases, trace all their contacts and the contacts of those contacts, and contain the outbreak through preventing further chains of transmission. But this situation is not like that.
This outbreak is in North Kivu, which is the centre of a conflict and is dominated by dozens of separate armed groups, largely outside Government control. Such groups have begun to attack and kill health workers, meaning that key international experts have had to be withdrawn from the epicentre of the virus. The decision not to allow this province to participate in the recent elections—partly on the grounds that it was an Ebola area—has fuelled suspicion that Ebola is a fabrication developed by hostile political forces. As a result, communities are reluctant to come forward when they have symptoms, to change burial practices or to accept the highly effective trial vaccine. The Congolese army and Government, which have successfully contained nine previous Ebola outbreaks over the last 45 years, are struggling to operate in the epicentre of this outbreak, as are the UN peacekeepers and the WHO. Although this area is dangerous and difficult to access, it is not sparsely populated. The epicentre of the outbreak is Butembo, which has a population of 1 million people, and the surrounding areas contain almost 18 million people.
According to all our expert analysis here, the current disease profile poses only a low to negligible risk to the United Kingdom, so this statement should not be a cause for panic here at home. However, this outbreak is potentially devastating for the region. It could spread easily to neighbouring provinces and even to neighbouring countries. I commend all those—both in the Congolese Government and the international community—who are working in very difficult situations to bring this disease under control. My predecessor, the current Defence Secretary, paid tribute to Dr Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, who was killed in an attack by an armed group on 19 April while working on the frontline for the WHO’s Ebola response. I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Dr Richard and to all those who have lost loved ones as a result of this outbreak.
We now need to grip this situation and ensure that the disease is contained. As Members can imagine, this has been my key priority in the emergency field since I was appointed to this role just over two weeks ago. I spent the weekend in discussions with UN humanitarian co-ordinator Sir Mark Lowcock and with the Director General of the WHO, Dr Tedros, who has personally paid eight visits to the affected area so far. I have also spoken about the response to the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, Amina Mohammed. I am pleased to see that there has been a real step-up in terms of the UN staff on the ground regarding co-ordination and the seniority of those staff, particularly in places such as Butembo. Both the Health Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have been supporting this agenda in meetings over the past four days—the G7 health ministry meeting and the WHO meetings in Geneva.
I have convened a meeting with a number of international experts in the field, including Brigadier Kevin Beaton, who helped to lead the UK military response in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the chief medical adviser to the UK Government. I have concluded, on the basis of their advice, that we need to provide more money immediately, not only to support the frontline response—the health workers—but to support the vaccination strategy and to put more of our expert staff on the ground into the response. This is not just about recruiting doctors. We need people who understand and can work with the DRC Government, the military and even the opposition forces in order to create the space for us to work. We need people who know the UN system well so that they can drive and shape the UN response.
These people need to be not in London but on the ground, because they need to be able to learn and adapt very quickly as the disease spreads. We are already deploying epidemiologists through our public health rapid support teams, in partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care. I am also now considering deploying officials with specialities in information management, adaptive management, anthropology and strategic communications. It is, however, important for us all to understand that this is not a problem that the international community can solve from a distance. This is a political and security crisis as much as a health crisis, and the response must, in the end, be driven by local health workers and leaders.
There are some positive signs. DFID has been a key player in developing a new experimental vaccine for Ebola that is proving highly effective. Over 119,000 doses have been administered in eastern DRC—an achievement that has probably saved thousands of lives. Modelling from Yale suggests that the use of the vaccine has reduced the geographic spread of Ebola by nearly 70%. This is not just about statistics. It is about, for example, Danielle, a 42-day-old baby in eastern Congo who survived Ebola last week thanks to the inspiring work of community volunteers, themselves Ebola survivors, and frontline health workers, supported by UK Aid.
Of course, we cannot do this alone. It needs grip and urgency, but it also needs humility. One of the reasons I have been talking in detail about this issue to Mark Green, my US opposite number, is not only that we share the US’s analysis but that the Americans will inevitably be major players in this response in terms of finance and expertise, as indeed they were in the Liberia Ebola outbreak. We need many more international donors to match our financial contributions and to sustain the international and local health operations in the field. That is why the UK has just hosted an event specifically on Ebola to build support for the response in the World Health Assembly in Geneva. It is also why I have agreed that my colleague, the Africa Minister, should visit eastern DRC immediately.
This is a very dangerous situation where the Ebola virus is only one ingredient in a crisis that is fuelled by politics, community suspicion and armed violence. We need to act fast and we need to act generously. But above all, we need the right people on the ground who are completely on top of the situation and able to come up with quick solutions and to guide us in keeping up the support for—and, yes, sometimes the pressure on—the UN system, on non-governmental organisation, on opposition politicians and on the Government of the DRC to get this done. The stakes are very high. I will keep the House updated on our response.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement and for its comprehensive nature. I would like to start by joining him in commending all those who are working to fight this outbreak, honouring Dr Richard Kiboung, who was killed last month, and expressing our deepest sympathies to all those who have lost their lives to the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC.
The death toll currently exceeds 1,000 people, and as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise, this deadly and cruel virus is certain to claim more lives in the days and weeks to come. The World Health Organisation has said it is unlikely that the virus will be contained, so its spread into neighbouring countries is not only possible but likely. This assessment from the WHO means that the world must act fast to prevent catastrophic outcomes, given the speed with which Ebola can contaminate and kill. David Miliband, who recently visited the region, confirmed that
“the Ebola outbreak is getting worse, not better, despite a proven vaccine and treatment.”
Through the Department for International Development, the UK is already playing its role in the response and making a difference on the ground, as it has done in previous outbreaks. Real credit is due to DFID’s staff and all responders for their tireless work and commitment. I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is discussing further action that DFID can take with other donor countries. Every day is crucial, and getting the response right is imperative. It is not simply a matter of issuing more money or resources. Given the complex security context laid out by the Secretary of State, a more hands-on and strategic approach is urgently needed.
It has been widely reported that one of the major barriers to delivering the necessary response is the breakdown of trust between the affected community and those trying to lead the response. A quarter of people in the region believe that the Ebola virus does not exist, and a third think that it was fabricated for financial gain. Foreigners have been accused of bringing Ebola to the DRC, and armed groups have stormed health centres and killed staff members.
Medical humanitarian agencies, such as Médecins sans Frontières, that have the expertise and experience to fight Ebola are being forced to suspend activities in the face of threats of further violent attacks. As a result, people are left untreated, vaccines are not administered, and the majority of Ebola-related deaths are now occurring within the community rather than health clinics. Lack of infection control and safe burials only speeds up the spread of the virus. In April, the country recorded its highest number of cases since the outbreak began, and we can expect this month’s caseload to be higher. Transmission is occurring in highly populated areas where health systems are weak and hundreds of armed groups operate.
What specific steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all agencies prioritise working with the Congolese community in their response? What urgent steps is he taking to gain the trust of the Congolese community? Can he tell us more about his discussions on supporting efforts to stop the current rumour mill of misinformation and secure negotiated access to the affected population?
What more can the Secretary of State do to reduce the problematic dependence on armed escorts and military involvement in the implementation of humanitarian activities? Agencies active on the ground report a major difficulty being that actors involved in the Ebola response are the very same actors who have played a long-standing role in the ongoing conflict in the region. Can he give an assurance that he will uphold the principles laid out in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee guidelines, which state that military and civil defence assets should only ever be employed by humanitarian agencies as a last resort? Crucially, while we want to see everything done to get this emergency situation under control, does he agree that prevention is better than emergency response and that we must provide long-term support to ensure that the DRC can build appropriate public health systems for the future?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his moving and well-informed response to the statement; it is clearly very well informed by some of the actors on the ground. I will reply specifically to two of his questions.
On stepping up co-ordination, an assistant secretary-general of the UN is now operating out of Butembo with a broader co-ordination role for the different UN agencies. We have reached out to opposition leaders, who yesterday made the first in a series of statements to communities to encourage them to come forward to report cases. This is really important because those opposition leaders were at least complicit passively in allowing the rumours to spread that Ebola was somehow an invention of the Government, so there has been a very important shift. We want to thank those opposition leaders for coming forward and making those statements, and we would encourage them to make more such statements. Clearly, the Ebola response should not be politicised and should not be caught up in people’s disagreements with this particular Government in Kinshasa.
On the military-security relationship, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should be using military personnel only as a last resort, but it is very difficult situation. Nearly 200 separate insurgencies are taking place in the DRC—in particular, the Allied Democratic Forces and the Mai-Mai groups, which are operating in North Kivu and the surrounding areas—which, as we have said, have killed a doctor, mounted at least two attacks on Médecins sans Frontières facilities and attacked up to 40 other health facilities. With these kinds of problems, and when we are protecting our health workers not just from the risk of getting Ebola itself—health workers are of course among the individuals most at risk of contracting Ebola—but literally protecting them from being shot or attacked, it is understandable that in certain cases we have to work either with UN troops or the army of the DRC to address this outbreak.
We need to be very realistic about what this whole situation means. Part of that is resilience and, absolutely, investment in the public health facilities in the DRC. However, we should remember that the DRC Government have dealt with nine previous outbreaks. In fact, Ebola is named after a river in the DRC, and it was first discovered because of an outbreak in the DRC. The Congolese army and the DRC Government actually have a huge amount of experience in dealing with this. Their failure to grip it here is specifically about the conflict in North Kivu, rather than necessarily about their having the skills and experience to deal with it.
Finally, we need to invest in resilience in the neighbouring countries to make sure that were the disease—God forbid— to move into Uganda, Burundi or Rwanda, we have the proper response in place to contain it in each of them.
Last time I was in Uganda, I was shown the preparations that were being made in case Ebola did come across the border, but I did not feel they were adequate enough. There was one bed, as part of a health facility, which just had a curtain around it. Will my right hon. Friend explain what we are doing to help, because this will not respect the border of a country and it will cross? Will the Secretary of State explain exactly what we are doing to help the countries bordering the DRC to stop it spreading into their country?
The answer is that we have much more experience now than we did 10 years ago of dealing with this, particularly because of the experience in Sierra Leone and Liberia. That means partly that we are giving money to agencies such as Oxfam so that it can provide its own experts in the field and support to the WHO both in resilience preparedness and in work with the public health authorities in those countries. We know what we are doing; we have the skills; and we know how to run a good technical Ebola clinic. I am very concerned to hear this news from Uganda and I am very happy to look at the individual case, but we certainly can do much better than that and we generally are doing much better than that.