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Topical Questions

Volume 663: debated on Monday 8 July 2019

I welcome The Sun’s campaign. We will shortly bring forward the first stage to legislate on closing down litigation against our armed forces for historical allegations. Although we hold our armed forces to the highest standards, we have seen that so much litigation against them has not been in the pursuit of justice. Although I note and pay tribute to the work of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), on the veterans strategy and the veterans gateway, the MOD is not constitutionally responsible for veterans. The MOD, as a consequence, has not directly commissioned services and support for veterans, which has meant that some services we provide for serving members of the armed forces that could benefit veterans have not been available to them. I believe that needs to change, so we are consulting partners on changing the MOD’s constitutional role with regard to veterans.

The all-party parliamentary group on the British Council, which I chair, has been overseeing an inquiry into aspects of the UK’s soft power capabilities. How does defence diplomacy fit into the Government’s overall soft power strategy?

Defence engagement, in all its forms, is vital to promoting the UK’s influence, values and intentions around the world, whether it is promoting stability and prosperity, tackling environmental challenges or responding to natural disasters and humanitarian need. Our strongest relationships with some nations are military to military, and we need to make sure that the contribution of defence to the objectives of One HMG is really understood.

At a time when Army numbers are consistently falling, it is all the more important that we draw on the widest possible pool of recruits. Why, then, has there been a 45% increase in the number of officer cadets admitted to Sandhurst from independent schools, compared with just a 7% increase from state schools? I know the Secretary of State is personally committed to creating a level playing field, so could she set out what she will do to seek out the brightest and best from all backgrounds?

If the hon. Lady had listened to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces earlier, she would know that our trained and untrained strength is actually not decreasing. The number of recruits coming in is actually going up, but social mobility is important. Of course the MOD can always do more, but our armed forces are one of the greatest agents for social mobility in this country. They are one of the largest education providers in this country, and we ought to continue encouraging them to do more.

I am a little disappointed by that answer because when it comes to officers, there is a lot more that can be done. It is not just those from state schools who face barriers: just 10 of this year’s 600-strong cadet intake to Sandhurst are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds—just 10. According to the MOD’s own statistics, the regulars and the reserves are also missing the Government’s 2020 target for BAME representation.

Will the Secretary of State now commit to a root-and-branch review of recruitment barriers to ensure that we have properly staffed and fully representative armed forces?

We already have a very clear idea of the barriers that exist and of the barriers that existed in the past, which is why our community engagement programmes are so important and why, since coming to the Department, I have protected those budgets.

T3. Will my right hon Friend join me in thanking the North Staffordshire armed forces committee, the Queen’s Park Partnership and everybody who took part in the recent Armed Forces Day celebrations at Queen’s Park in my constituency? (911789)

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone who took part in Armed Forces Day at Queen’s Park. I understand that regular personnel, veterans, reservists and cadets were all represented in that celebration, and I applaud the county, too, for its work on several events held across Staffordshire.

T2. One area where the MOD has been performing well is on diversity in LGBT circles. I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in welcoming the contribution of so many armed forces personnel, and indeed MOD civil servants, at the Pride march in London on Saturday, where I was alongside them. Many of them were proudly wearing campaign medals. However, I have to share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), because when I looked at recruitment figures for my constituency. I saw that there was very little recruitment from black and minority ethnic, and ethnically and religiously diverse, areas. Does the Secretary of State agree that much more needs to be done on that if we are to have truly representative armed forces? (911788)

I agree that more needs to be done, and indeed Members of this House can help us do this as well. Community engagement is vital—[Interruption.] Indeed, I understand that the hon. Gentleman is doing his bit to ensure that that happens. We have to ensure that our armed forces look like the individuals they are there to defend and protect. They are there for us all; they are our armed forces, and that must be the view and sentiment in every community in the UK.

T4. Given the increasing threat that drones pose to our national security, as recently highlighted by the insightful BBC documentary “Britain’s Next Air Disaster”, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of our armed forces’ ability to respond to a potential drone strike, and what investment is her Department making in new technology to rapidly neutralise such threats? (911791)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and the MOD takes the threat of the nefarious use of drones very seriously. Using the defence transformation fund, we are working with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, international partners and industry to further develop our counter-drone capabilities, and of course they will be used to protect defence infrastructure wherever they are needed. More broadly, a lot of the responsibility for protecting other sites in the UK lies with the police, but we will always be there to help if needed.

The last time the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box, we discussed an internal MOD policy on torture that contravenes domestic and international law. She promised a review. Has the review happened? Has the policy been dumped?

T5. Inspirational charities such as Combat Stress and Greater Manchester-based Veterans Garage tackle issues such as depression and social isolation in our former servicemen and women. What assessment has the Minister made of the barriers veterans could face on their return to civilian life? (911792)

There is something unique about our armed forces: the sense of belonging, duty and pride one has in working in such a collegiate operation. Leaving that armed forces environment and going into the civilian world can be a culture shock, which is why we have our transition programme, which can last up to two years, to support people. Occasionally, however, extra help is needed, and I pay tribute to Combat Stress for the work it does in providing that support if it is required.

T7. For all the warm words from the Armed Forces Minister about Army recruitment moving in the right direction, is the truth not that for every single year we have had a Conservative Government the size of the fully trained Army has been smaller than the year before? Is it not time that he confronted the reality we are facing and stopped trying to kid people that this is moving in the right direction? (911794)

T6. Too many military personnel continue to live in substandard housing, despite the Government spending £135 million on refurbishment, so what more can they do to make sure our armed forces get the standard of accommodation they deserve? (911793)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have a rebuild programme, whereby £4 billion is being put in to make sure we provide that state-of-the-art accommodation for our future defence capability. However, I agree with him that we need to do more to make sure we provide the type of housing that the recruits we want to bring in to the force deserve.

T8. With the latest NHS statistics identifying that about 60 veterans a day are seeking professional assistance for mental health issues, what steps is the Department taking to ensure that our service personnel receive the tailored, bespoke mental health services they need and deserve? (911795)

I should just clarify the difference between those who are serving and those who are veterans. In the case of veterans, each health authority now provides the transition, intervention and liaison service, to give veterans the mental health support that they deserve. In the case of those who are serving, as I touched on before, our mental health and wellbeing strategy is doing far more, which is why more people are putting their hand up to say, “I need help.” That is a good thing.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the future role of our F-35 jets, given the successful completion of their first operation? (911796)

Having achieved initial operating capability from land in December 2018, and with the successful completion of its first operation, the Lightning programme is now focused on delivering initial operational capability for carrier strike, which is planned for December 2020.

Within four weeks of the Salisbury incident last year, Russia Today and Sputnik published 138 separate and contradictory narratives and 735 articles about the chemical weapons poisoning of the Skripals by Russian agents. There were dozens of different narratives on the rise of Novichok, its use, how it was not Russia’s fault and how Russia was the victim of a witch hunt. It is one of the examples that Russia is deploying in hybrid warfare. What plans does the Secretary of State have to announce the role of the cross-Government use of the Fusion doctrine? How able are the Government to expand the use of the 77 Brigade, if needed?

I declare my interest as deputy commander of the 77 Brigade, which means this is a subject close to my heart. Hybrid threats present themselves in many domains, so we utilise a whole-of-Government approach to protecting the UK against such activity. The MOD works collaboratively with other Departments, in line with the Fusion doctrine, to support that approach.

Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw the RAF livery on the first of the UK’s new Poseidon P-8 aircraft. Will the Secretary of State come up to RAF Lossiemouth to see how the base is preparing for the new aircraft and for hundreds of additional personnel? She will also be able to see the work done by Boeing and local firm Robertson to construct the Poseidon facility.

I would be happy to visit Lossiemouth. This is a critical capability that is returning to us. The manufacture of the second aircraft is on delivery for January 2020.

Will the Secretary of State commit to spend more to protect UK intellectual property, which is the underpinning of our high-tech defence industry?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We had that extra £1.8 billion in the most recent Budget because this is the exactly the sort of area we will look at. I assure him that I have regular meetings with industry and with the forces to talk about those very issues.

I am sure my right hon Friend the Secretary of State would agree that the reserve forces are a crucial component of our armed forces generally, so will she update the House on how retention and recruitment is going? Specifically, are we managing to get former regulars to rejoin as reserves and bring their expertise with them?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We continue to utilise reserves and now have a target to ensure that they are used on operations, which helps with retention. I am pleased to say that the size of our reserve forces continues to grow.

Defence Equipment and Support procures for the Ministry of Defence, but constituents who work there tell me that morale has plummeted since it became a bespoke trading entity, and it is now the joint worst-performing department in the civil service top people survey index. Will Ministers look into this?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. The staff survey results were frankly disappointing, but I assure her that a tremendous amount of work has been done with the workforce to improve the situation. We look forward to seeing improved results in the next survey.

I think I should call a shy and understated Member who requires encouragement: Mr Mark Francois.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The A400M is an emerging procurement disaster. We have paid £2.6 billion for an aircraft with appalling reliability, bad engines, a virtually broken gearbox, problem propellers, massive vibration problems and an inability to deliver paratroops. There was recently a NATO ministerial meeting of the partner nations to decide what to do about the disaster. What was the outcome of that meeting?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the issues with the A400M. I can assure him that I attended that ministerial meeting: it was an extremely robust meeting with industry. The performance has been totally unacceptable. We are now expecting EuroProp International, the engine manufacturer, to be more empowered to negotiate the support solutions that we need. Airbus Defence and Space has also been held to account, but, following the problems with the engines and gear boxes, those parts will be replaced on each of the aircraft by the middle of next year.

Coming back to the fleet support ships, will the Minister tell us whether the savings from tax and national insurance of workers building these ships will be one of the criteria used for a successful UK bid?

As I have said on many occasions when answering these questions, we follow the Green Book rules with the Treasury, but we will continue to have those conversations with the Treasury about the wider prosperity agenda that our defence industry brings to the UK.

Rates of pay have an important role to play in retention and recruitment, particularly perhaps among the younger, newly recruited members. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to introducing the concept of the living wage to our armed forces?

I think that that is what we should be doing. Our armed forces have been exempt from that, so I have said that we must do it. It would mean a pay increase of a couple of thousand pounds for the lowest paid soldiers, sailors, airmen and women, but I think that that is what we should be doing. That is certainly my policy.

The Canadians and Australians are applying to build more Type 26 frigates than the United Kingdom now is. Part of the reason is that they have invested in world-class purpose-built new shipyards whereas the UK has not. Will the Secretary of State review our 2015 decision to cancel the purpose-built shipyard for Type 26 and ensure that we get the investment needed to make our industry world class?

The hon. Gentleman will know that that was a decision made by BAE Systems, and it is ultimately responsible for it. The fact is, as I said earlier, that we have 20 years of work at those shipyards. I cannot remember them having such significant orders under the previous Government.

There does not seem to be any lack of applicants to join the armed forces, so can the Minister tell us what progress is being made to shorten the time between application and the start of basic training?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. May I also thank him for inviting me to Armed Forces Day in Stirling last weekend? He was a wonderful host.

There has been a project to try to reduce what we call the time of flight. I am delighted to say that that has had good results, with the time of flight now being halved, and we are looking to roll that out across the whole of the recruiting programme.

If the future accommodation model is pushed through by the Government, which looks very likely, will the Minister guarantee that no member of the armed forces will be pushed into the private rented sector against their wishes?

No, the purpose of the future accommodation model is to provide opportunity and a series of options, whether people live inside the wire, rent or get on the housing ladder. That will enable us to attract more people to join the armed forces.

The number of service personnel in the highlands has fallen by 22% since 2012 and 10% over the past year alone. Is that a sign that the Government are starting the early rundown of Fort George?

The announcement on Fort George under the better defence estate strategy remains as it is, but the hon. Gentleman will know of our commitment to our armed forces personnel in Scotland. I am sure that he is delighted that he will shortly have the whole of the submarine fleet based in Scotland.

In a ministerial response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the Minister stated a whole raft of subjects on which armed forces personnel need support and advice. Did he not make the case for a representative body for the armed forces?

I do not need to do that, because we have had this question so many times that I have given the answer so many times.

Let me change the tone. A service is taking place in Tallinn today to commemorate the 107 members of the Royal Navy and the five members of the Royal Air Force who fought and died for the independence of Estonia and Latvia. I am sure that the Secretary of State wishes to come to the Dispatch Box to pay tribute to those who gave their lives and to reinforce the United Kingdom’s commitment to the Baltic states in their battles today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do exactly that. We owe those individuals a huge debt of gratitude. I was recently on board HMS Albion with the chiefs and Ministers of those nations and the other joint expeditionary force nations, discussing how we can take our partnership forward.