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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
16 March 2020
Volume 673

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans

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1. What steps his Department is taking to support veterans and their families. [901524]

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3. What steps his Department is taking to support veterans and their families. [901526]

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I would like to start by paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, a reservist combat medic with the Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry, who was deployed to Iraq with the Irish Guards and was tragically killed when a coalition base was struck by indirect fire. It was a cowardly and retrograde attack on forces that are there to help Iraq. Lance Corporal Gillon’s death serves as a stark reminder of the dangers that our armed forces face on a daily basis, and of their extraordinary commitment and bravery as they continue to protect our interests and others overseas. My thoughts—and, I know, those of the whole House—will be with her family and loved ones at this difficult time.

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I join the Secretary of State and the whole House in those words.

The Government’s additional funding to eliminate rough sleeping is welcome. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could outline what is being done to support veterans who find themselves without a roof over their heads.

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My hon. Friend asks an important question about many people who have served our country. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of £112 million of additional funding to tackle rough sleeping. The Ministry of Defence works closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which leads on this issue. As well as the work that takes place across Whitehall, there are broad and deep networks of forces charities, regimental advisers and forces champions in local authority offices to offer support.

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There were some excellent measures in the Budget for veterans and veterans care. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on national insurance contributions for employers, and on how and when those plans might be rolled out?

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The Government will introduce a national insurance holiday for employers of veterans in their first year of civilian employment. A full digital service will be available to employers from April 2022. However, transitional arrangements will be in place in the 2021-22 tax year that will effectively enable employers of veterans to claim this holiday from April 2021. The holiday will exempt employers from any national insurance contribution liability on the veteran’s salary up to the upper earnings limit.

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May I start by joining the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was tragically killed in Iraq last week? The Opposition pay tribute to her service, and send our thoughts and prayers to her family and friends.

A report by the charity Forward Assist found that over half of the women veterans that it interviewed had experienced sexual assault while serving, with one in four having been physically assaulted. Will the Secretary of State agree to the charity’s recommendations by establishing an independent reporting system for women veterans who wish to report historical abuse and creating a women’s veterans department in the Office for Veterans’ Affairs?

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The hon. Member raises a really important point about how we treat allegations of sexual assault or misconduct in the armed forces. He will be aware of the Wigston report. We will look to do an independent review of that one year on, which I think will satisfy some of the recommendations of the charity he mentioned.

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May I echo the Secretary of State’s remarks about Lance Corporal Gillon, and go a bit further and thank all the uniformed and non-uniformed staff serving in his Department? We lean on them quite a bit, but we will be leaning on them even more over the coming time. In that vein, when it comes to coronavirus, I am happy to set aside the political sparring that we would normally have. Given that many veterans will fall into the category of those most vulnerable and at risk of contracting coronavirus, can he update the House on his Department’s strategy for supporting them?

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Veterans, like the rest of the wider population, will of course come under the current central Government plans for dealing with coronavirus via the NHS. However, my Department—not only people working in the Department, but the serving personnel—will have its own measures in place to ensure that we perform our duty of care towards that workforce. As the hon. Member says, many in that workforce are the very people we will be relying on in future to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, it is particularly important that our Ministers keep a close eye on their health.

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I welcome what the Minister has to say on that. Can he give the House an assurance that he will move every mountain in government to work in particular with the charitable sector that supports veterans and their families as coronavirus becomes a bigger issue? More broadly, as we approach the integrated defence review, will he assure us that this pandemic will lead to a broader, more total defence concept of thinking, so that, unlike with the 2015 strategic defence and security review, pandemics are seen not to be low-risk but higher-risk, and we should have better preparedness for them?

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As to the hon. Member’s point about the veterans community and keeping an eye on them, my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans is engaged with a whole range of those stakeholders on a daily basis. I cannot recommend enough the work he does in that area. Like him, I am a president of a Scots Guards association and, through that, keep an eye on some of the veterans in Lancashire who we have to cover that area. On the hon. Member’s broader point about coronavirus, we have lots of work to do. We will assess what we can deliver on the ground as we go, and I assure the House that we will leave no stone unturned in making sure we mitigate the impact on society, using all defence assets.

Vexatious Claims

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4. What steps his Department plans to take to tackle vexatious claims against armed forces personnel. [901527]

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17. What steps his Department plans to take to tackle vexatious claims against armed forces personnel. [901546]

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We are unstinting in our gratitude to the armed forces, who perform exceptional feats to protect this country. We rightly hold our service personnel to the highest standards of behaviour, but we also owe them justice and fairness. The Government will shortly introduce a legislative package to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and welcome the introduction of the Bill to this place next week. The tabling of that legislation within 100 days of this new Parliament really does show the Government’s resolve to crack on and do the right thing. Will my right hon. Friend join me in asking the Opposition to put party politics to one side, support our troops and back this Bill?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point about the importance of protecting our troops from vexatious investigations that go round and round in a circle. To put this in context, there were more than 300,000 veterans who served in Northern Ireland, 147,000 in Iraq and 148,000 in Afghanistan. Of those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 0.03% were convicted of any offence while serving. That shows that our armed forces around the world observe the highest standards when doing their job and upholding the rule of law.

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Bury, being the home town of the Lancashire Fusiliers, welcomes my right hon. Friend’s commitment to tackle vexatious prosecution of veterans. What guidance has been or will be given to the police and Crown Prosecution Service to ensure that our armed forces personnel are protected?

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As a fellow Lancashire MP, I know the pride that Lancashire takes in its armed forces, and also the first-class men and women that the county contributes to our armed forces. Guidance to the police and Crown Prosecution Service is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are doing everything they can to provide our service personnel and veterans with the protections they deserve, and we will set out further details on Wednesday.

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I look forward to the announcement on Wednesday, but will the Secretary of State confirm that his announcement will cover operations and issues that arise both internationally and domestically?

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On Wednesday, we will introduce the Bill that deals with overseas operations. We will, however, accompany it with a statement from the Northern Ireland Office setting out what we will do to deal with the Northern Ireland veterans. They will be equal and similar to the protections we are going to look at for overseas.

Recruitment and Retention

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5. What steps his Department is taking to (a) recruit and (b) retain armed forces personnel. [901529]

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13. What steps his Department is taking to (a) recruit and (b) retain armed forces personnel. [901539]

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16. What steps his Department is taking to (a) recruit and (b) retain armed forces personnel. [901544]

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I fear that to list all the steps we are taking to recruit and retain armed forces personnel might take longer than you will allow, Mr Speaker. Suffice it to say, however, that I can assure the House that this country will continue to have the world-class armed forces that it needs. There are a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and, crucially, retention, and those are kept constantly under review.

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Carshalton and Wallington is home to 350 RAF Air Training Corps, and the cadets at the 350 Squadron are incredibly passionate about pushing themselves out of their comfort zone and achieving things that they did not think were possible. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that young people like those in the 350 Squadron see the value of the confidence, skills and experience that a role in the armed forces would provide?

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I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion of the air cadets, particularly in his constituency. All cadets learn many skills, but the cadet forces are not conduits into the armed forces. However, many cadets do go on to enjoy successful careers in the services, and long may that continue. As part of the cadets syllabus, we provide them with an awareness of the various career opportunities in the military and in other industries around defence.

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Burnley has a long and proud tradition when it comes to service and recruitment into the armed forces. With that in mind, will the Minister agree to look at the viability of reopening the Burnley recruitment office, which was closed in 2013? That would make a valuable contribution to keeping Burnley’s tradition alive.

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Armed forces career offices were reduced to increase efficiency and to reflect the modern society from which we are recruiting. Most recruiting activity occurs online, through chat facilities or through call centres, and it is vital that we maintain strong presences on social media and elsewhere on the internet, but we of course continually review the lay-down of our recruiting offices, and we will look again at the one in Burnley.

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The Army Foundation College is located in my constituency. It provides a high-quality route into the Army for younger people, as it focuses on personal development and has a very well-respected education service. Does the Minister agree that the college plays an important role in Army recruitment and will continue to do so?

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My hon. Friend is a champion for that fantastic college, and the Army is rightly very proud of it. The college provides an outstanding choice of qualifications and apprenticeships, as well as developing confidence, leadership skills and self-esteem. Whatever their background, young recruits become the Army’s future leaders, on average serving longer and providing more than half of our senior soldiers.

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There have been problems with Capita in Army recruitment, so may I ask the Minister whether there are any plans for outsourcing recruitment for the RAF and the Navy?

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Local authorities, the Ministry of Justice, the police and the Department of Health and Social Care all have the military mentioned in their contingency plans for tackling covid-19. Is the Minister satisfied that we have sufficient personnel to respond to the plans to tackle the virus here in the UK? If he is not, what plans does he have in place to bring military back from all non-essential operations overseas?

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The Ministry of Defence plans for all things, whether it be for flooding or, indeed, for pandemic. We are planning for all eventualities in response to covid-19, and we are content that we have what we need within our resources to meet the likely requirements of the Government.

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The proportion of all personnel reporting satisfaction with service life in general was 60% in 2010, but that has fallen to a mere 46% in 2019. Will the Minister set out what plans he has to rectify that, as we simply cannot afford to have more servicemen and women choosing to leave the forces because of a decline in satisfaction?

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The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. No matter what the successes in recruiting might be, without good retention performance, they are more than offset. To that end, we have been looking extensively at what we can do to improve retention, including through the excellent report recently written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois).

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As a long-term critic in this House of Crapita—sorry, Capita—I very much welcome the Minister’s emphatic answer that there are no plans to outsource royal naval or RAF recruitment. That is a wise decision. Will he bear in mind that, if we are to recruit and retain people in the armed forces, they must know that the Government will have their back if they ever get into trouble? Will the recently announced Bill on veterans protection fully reflect that principle?

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Army Equipment

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of Army equipment. [901530]

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The Army conducts annual assessments to ensure that it has the right equipment for the future. It is undergoing an ambitious capability transformation programme, including investing in new, fully digitised Ajax and Boxer vehicles.

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If the range and capability of our battle tanks and armoured vehicles are inferior to that of our potential adversaries, it is difficult for our world-class armed forces to continue to operate in that sphere. Will the Minister assure the House that the Challenger 2 and Warrior programmes will be brought forward at the earliest possible opportunity, to ensure that our world-class troops have world-class equipment?

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The hon. Gentleman is right: we need the very best equipment for our armed forces. As he is probably aware, the Army has no fewer than nine key projects for equipment modernisation, totalling some £17 billion over the next 10 years, and around 130 smaller projects. He mentions two in particular. On Challenger 2, we are well advanced through the assessment phase and will take decisions on that at a future date. On Warrior, we are on to the demonstration phase, which is going well, and we will be taking decisions in the future.

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The recent National Audit Office report on the Government’s defence equipment plan showed that there is a potential funding shortfall of £13 billion, which will no doubt affect Army equipment as well as Navy and RAF equipment. Given that this is now the third time that the NAO has deemed the plan unaffordable, when will the Minister get to grips with this funding crisis?

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We are getting to grips with it right now. We are grateful to the NAO for its work. I gently point out to the hon. Lady that the Department hit budget this year, last year and the year before. We constantly review budgets to make certain that the equipment plan is affordable. We have shrunk the gap significantly, and we had additional assistance from the Treasury last year. We will make certain that we are meeting the needs of the armed forces.

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I thank the Minister for his answer, but we know that the Army has cancelled various anti-armour projects and reduced the number of tanks it will upgrade. There have also been recent reports suggesting that the Army is to face further cuts in the integrated review. Can the Minister guarantee that the review will not be yet another cost-cutting exercise, leaving our armed forces short of the equipment that we need to defend the country?

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The integrated review is under way; it is nowhere near to bringing itself to any conclusions yet. The review looks at the totality of our place in the world, as the hon. Lady recognises, and how we operate as a country across the broadest spectrum. It is not a review designed to cut costs. It is a review designed to ensure that we know what we are doing in the world and that that is effected through really effective equipment—that is the purpose of the integrated review, and we look forward to its response.

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May I ask Ministers to extend the gratitude of the Defence Committee for our visit to Army HQ in Andover on Thursday? It was an illuminating visit, and the issue of Warrior and Challenger—now two decades old—came up. The Minister mentioned the integrated review. Given what we learned and the fantastic efforts that are being made to support the nation in tackling the coronavirus, may I invite the Secretary of State and the Minister to delay the integrated review until the new year, to ensure that we do it properly, rather than rush it when the focus is elsewhere at the moment?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to his Defence Committee for their work. The integrated review is important: it is important that we get on to it and move on with it at pace. We need to take firm decisions, and the swifter the better. However, as ever, we are mindful of events, and such things will obviously be taken into consideration if they need to be.

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I thank the Minister of State for his recent visit to Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land at BAE Systems in my constituency, following the award of part of the Boxer contract to that consortium. On the issue of Challenger 2 and the life extension project, does the Minister of State think that Shropshire defence manufacturing will feature in his decision making, and will the decision-making maingate still be this autumn?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It was a great pleasure to visit his constituency and see at first hand the extraordinary skills in that constituency, and it was a great pleasure to meet many apprentices. As I said earlier about Challenger 2, we are in the assessment phase, and a decision on any next steps will be taken at a later date. I thank my hon. Friend for the question and the interest he always shows in the defence manufacturers in his constituency.

Service Families

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7. What steps his Department is taking to support the families of armed forces personnel. [901531]

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Service families are an integral part of the armed forces community. Our support for them includes children’s education, mental wellbeing, partner employment assistance and improved accommodation. Following the independent review by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), we will refresh the UK armed forces families strategy for 2020. The aim is to raise the profile of service families and the issues they face resulting from service life.

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Some 48% of those responding to a survey from the Army Families Foundation said they had received no information about the MOD’s future accommodation model. Will the Minister commit to doing much more to make sure that personnel and their families are aware of changes to their accommodation?

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The hon. Member is right to raise the challenge of the future accommodation model, or FAM. This is the future for military accommodation in this country, but we have a job of work to do to make sure people understand exactly what it is and, crucially, what it is not. That piece of work is ongoing in the Department at this time.

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Recent reports have again demonstrated the difficulties that our Commonwealth personnel have had in dealing with the Home Office, particularly with respect to bringing their families to the UK. Will Ministers now make the case to their colleagues in the Home Office to exempt Commonwealth personnel—as I am sure the Minister would agree, they serve our country with duty and distinction—from the minimum income requirements that prevent them from bringing their spouses or partners and children here.

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The Department is not going to start doing so, because this work started two years ago. This work is to alleviate the stresses, particularly the financial implications, for some of our Commonwealth individuals. I pay tribute to them: they add to our organisation in spades. We need to do more to make sure that they feel we treasure them, as we do. Conversations are ongoing with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) who is responsible for immigration; I met him again only last week. We are absolutely determined to meet this challenge—whether about the minimum income requirement or about visas—and I will have further details in due course.

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Many families of Northern Ireland veterans are rightly concerned about the treatment of their loved ones, with the ongoing witch hunt against our former service people. Will the Minister confirm to the House that, in the forthcoming legislation, Northern Ireland veterans will take the highest priority because of their age and the imminence of any potential prosecutions?

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Let me be absolutely clear with my hon. Friend: in line with our commitment, we are bringing in legislation within 100 days to start ending the process of vexatious claims and the cycle of investigations against our troops. As the Secretary of State has laid out, that will be accompanied by a written statement on Wednesday, giving equivalent protections to those who served in Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend well knows, Northern Ireland issues are for Stormont House, but in this Government we are clear that lawfare is coming to an end, and that extends to those who have served in Northern Ireland.

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One great support for armed forces families is the accommodation they live in. In Carterton, we have some REEMA housing that requires renovation and some MOD brownfield sites that need developing, which some Ministers at least have seen. Will the Department work with me to see how we can get this renovation and reworking carried out?

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Absolutely. Service housing is a real challenge, especially after taking over an antiquated estate, and the serious challenges in the budgets associated with that over many years. The future accommodation model will provide an answer for some, but the No.1 reason why people leave the military, and an area where retention is difficult, is still the impact of service life on their family. We are determined to tackle that, and I would be more than happy to go and visit with my hon. Friend.

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19. SSAFA found that 70% of all former forces personnel with whom it works feel unprepared for civilian life, and that is having a significant impact on their families. What more can the Minister do to help veterans prepare for civilian life once they have left the armed forces? [901548]

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The Government are doing more than any before to ensure that that difficult transition from service to civilian life is as seamless as possible. We must remember that 92% of service personnel who leave go into education, employment or training, but there are those who find that challenge particularly difficult. I met the chief executive of SSAFA last week, and I currently meet other chief executives and charity leaders on an almost weekly basis. The Government are shifting the bar in our offer to veterans in this country, and I pay tribute to SSAFA, which is at the front of that.

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Will my hon. Friend meet me, and others, to discuss a badge to be worn by members of the immediate family of those killed in action?

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My right hon. Friend will know that the immediate next of kin of those killed in action receive the Elizabeth Cross, which was introduced by the previous Administration. I am always willing to have conversations about medallic recognition, and to consider what more we can do, so that people in this country recognise that we match our actions with the words we say from the Dispatch Box, regarding the feelings of a service family who have been through that process, and often sacrificed the greatest on the altar of this nation’s continuing freedom.

Army Personnel

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9. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of Army personnel. [901533]

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Two weeks from the end of this recruiting year we are close to achieving 100% of the basic training starts that the Army set out to achieve. That reflects the much needed efforts made to drive improvements in the recruitment process.

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When Labour left office in 2010 there were 102,000 regulars in the British Army. In the subsequent decade of cuts and outsourcing, those numbers have fallen every year, down to 73,000 last October. Is the Minister confident that a full-time, regular British Army that could not fit into Wembley stadium a decade ago, but can now fit into the Old Trafford stadium, is sufficient to meet this country’s security needs?

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Army recruitment this year is up 68.6% on last year, which demonstrates what a fantastic career our young men and women can still have in the Army. I am confident that the Army is more than capable of meeting the nation’s needs, and I am excited to see what comes out of the integrated review, regarding what our Army will look like in future.

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Will the Minister join me in congratulating Yasmin Williams from Bangor on being the first female in the Welsh Guards Infantry? Will he suggest ways that the Army can meet its female recruitment target, and encourage other women, like me in my younger days, to take up that amazing career?

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My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for women in the armed forces, and I was pleased—as I am sure she was—to see so many fantastic female role models being put forward by the Army, Navy and Air Force, as part of our defence celebrations on International Women’s day. There have been some fantastic successes for women in our armed forces recently. My hon. Friend mentioned the first female soldier in the Welsh Guards, and recently we had the first female to pass the incredibly tough—far tougher than I could have done—P-company test for the Parachute Regiment.

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Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), is the Royal Army Medical Corps—both regular and reserves—and other parts of the armed forces, fully recruited to deal with the coronavirus outbreak? Will the Minister be calling into full-time reserve service all those who are not NHS workers, for example, in their civilian careers?

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The hon. Gentleman asked me two questions. He asked whether we are recruited sufficiently in defence to meet the needs of coronavirus, and the answer to that is yes. I will write to him about what exactly will be the manning of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Mental Health Support

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10. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to improve mental health support for armed forces personnel. [901534]

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The Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs recognise that maintaining good mental health and providing treatment when required is fundamental to maintaining a fit, healthy and effective military force.

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Mental health problems can place a great strain on family relationships. There are fantastic organisations across the country, such as the Keighley armed forces and veterans breakfast club, that provide service personnel, veterans and their families with the opportunity to meet and talk on a regular basis. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that mental health support—particularly support to keep military families together—extends to service personnel families?

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There is a range of help available, particularly for our service families. I am aware that a lot of the debate at the moment is about veterans, but our service families absolutely are on that level; indeed, the armed forces covenant talks about this nation’s debt to her armed forces and their families. The armed forces breakfast clubs are a fantastic idea. I went to the one in Plymouth a week ago, and I commend them for their work. There are lots of organisations out there in different parts of the country; the Office for Veterans’ Affairs brings them all together so veterans know where they and their families can turn at a time of need.

Young Offenders and Vulnerable People: Rehabilitation

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11. What recent assessment he has made of the role of the armed forces in helping to rehabilitate (a) young offenders and (b) other vulnerable young people. [901535]

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The armed forces offer an exciting and fulfilling career, including to people from disadvantaged backgrounds and to young offenders who have completed their sentences. Outreach and engagement programmes include initiatives with young offender institutions to develop confidence and aspiration; the expansion of the combined cadet force, focusing on state schools; and enabling service personnel to volunteer with the Prince’s Trust to work with the most disadvantaged in our society.

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The Army’s youth rehabilitation programme does good work in the Windsor constituency and across the country. Sadly, however, it is sometimes unable to help recently released offenders due to the lengthy rehabilitation periods imposed. It would be great to see many more young people who would benefit the most from military youth engagement take part, so may I ask the Minister gently whether he will look again at reviewing the current policy?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this excellent programme that the Army offers. While on licence, offenders remain subject to automatic custody recall for failing to meet licence conditions or committing any arrestable offence and therefore cannot be recruited, as I am sure he appreciates. However, he asks me about a fantastic thing. The Army, Navy and Air Force are brilliant vehicles for social mobility, and I am sure we would be keen to expand that programme in any way we can.

Integrated Review

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14. What steps his Department is taking to prepare for the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. [901541]

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The Ministry of Defence is fully committed to its part in supporting the successful delivery of the Government’s ambition for the integrated review. The review is working on four main workstreams: the Euro-Atlantic alliance, great power competition, global issues and homeland security. Work in the MOD to support those workstreams has been ongoing since the election and is closely linked to this year’s comprehensive spending review.

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I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that current events reflect the need for the integrated review, to ensure that Britain plays its part on the global stage with our partners and in the spirit of international co-operation, but does he think it is feasible to conduct a review that is expected to result in the biggest reform of our armed forces since the cold war in the present climate and over the current timescale?

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I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. The review’s stakeholders are the Foreign Office, No. 10, the Cabinet Office and ourselves. We will regularly review that decision. There is no ideological block or determination to carry on come what may. With this coronavirus growing, if it is the right thing to do, we will absolutely pause the review if necessary; if not, we shall move forward.

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With cyber-security recognised as a tier 1 threat, it is important to ensure that all contracts outsourced by the MOD, whether defence procurement or service contracts, fully meet the necessary cyber-security provisions. Given reports suggesting that the cyber-security standards of some defence supply chains are low, what steps are Ministers taking to improve the situation as part of the integrated review?

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The hon. Gentleman highlights a critical part of our cyber infrastructure. That is why nearly two years ago we founded the National Cyber Security Centre to work alongside the MOD, business and other parts of Government to focus, exactly as he recommends, on the weak points that are often exploited by hostile states and cyber-criminals. We are one of the few countries with such an organisation and I am confident that we are on the right track. We work tirelessly to ensure that those vulnerabilities are patched and stopped, and indeed that prime contractors, who own the supply chain, take their fair share of responsibility too.

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If the integrated review comes to the conclusion, which it certainly should, that the defence part of the review requires more than 2% of GDP to be spent on conventional and related armed forces, will the Secretary of State and his team fight like tigers to ensure we get the extra money?

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I could not agree more. I will absolutely fight for the right share, which is why we achieved 2.6% in the short spending review only last year, one of the highest departmental growth figures. The review is not cost neutral. Like my right hon. Friend, I have seen review after review, some of which are wonderfully authored but seldom funded, including one of the best reviews of my lifetime, the 1998 review by the then Member for Hamilton, Lord Robertson. He did an extremely good review and even that, according to the House of Commons Library, was not properly funded in the end. That is one of the big problems we are determined to try to put right.

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In light of travel bans across the world, with increasing numbers of British citizens stranded and reports of limited support from the Foreign Office, will the military be deployed to help people to return home?

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We have deployed military personnel on a number of return flights, for example from Wuhan. We have always made our assets available where possible, subject to medical advice and where the destination country is willing to engage. We always stand ready to help our citizens, wherever they are around the world. It is really important, however, that in this outbreak we ensure that we balance medical advice with an individual’s desire to come home. It may be that they are best suited to being treated where they are.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that the strategic defence and security review will be aligned to a defence industrial strategy that places British manufacturing at the heart of defence?

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It will certainly place prosperity and manufacturing at its heart. It will also place at its heart our very real obligation to give the men and women of the armed forces the best equipment we can, so they can fight with the best chance of success. There is always a natural tension where we are not providing that. The industrial strategy will hopefully indicate to industry where it should invest to ensure it competes with a competitive edge, so that the Ministry of Defence can buy from it for our men and women.

Social Mobility

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15. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of social mobility in the armed forces. [901542]

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We aim to attract talent from the widest possible base across the UK, regardless of socio-economic background, educational status or ethnicity. The skills, education, training and experience provided enable recruits to progress as far as their aptitude will take them, and benefit from promotion based on merit.

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New data reveals that there are nearly as many cadet forces in fee-paying schools as in the entire state system, despite just 7% of the UK population being privately educated. To ensure greater social mobility in our forces, will the Minister tell the House what his Department is doing to increase the number of combined cadet forces in state schools?

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The Government are committed to establishing 500 new cadet forces across the country, with a big focus on state schools. We are absolutely clear that people’s socioeconomic background has absolutely zero to do with their opportunity to serve. The opportunities of service are there for everybody.

Armed Forces Capability

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18. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the capabilities of the armed forces are adequate to address future threats. [901547]

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The Ministry of Defence has rigorous processes to assure, test and develop our capabilities to keep our country safe. This will be looked at again as part of a thorough wide-ranging analysis through the integrated review.

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There is no doubt that space will play an increasingly important role in defence. In Cornwall, we are excited about that opportunity, because we will soon be launching satellites from Spaceport Cornwall. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the space domain will fully be a part of the integrated review?

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We have established a space directorate, which is tasked with how to advance opportunities for the UK commercial space sector. I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that space and its potential will form a part of the integrated review.

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Over the past decade, £430 million has been spent on the Army’s Warrior programme upgrade. Despite that, it is still only at the demonstration phase. Can the Minister indicate when a contract will be let? And will that contract be let only when the battlefield assessment phase is complete?

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The right hon. Gentleman is right that there has been a long period—nine years—of assessment and demonstration of the Warrior programme. It is important that it is looked at and that we have the right kit to take the Warrior through to 2040 and perhaps beyond. I confirm that we are at the demonstration phase. Any future steps will be taken at the conclusion of that phase.

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Can the Minister reassure hon. Members and tell us what steps he will take to ensure that the continuous at-sea deterrent continues to function during the covid-19 outbreak?

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That is a perfectly reasonable question, but it will become familiar to my hon. Friend that we do not comment on CASD in this place. I thank him for his interest.

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Ciaran Martin, head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, confirmed recently that Russian hackers attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies. The Royal United Services Institute has confirmed that the UK will not be able to replicate many of the security benefits of EU membership. Will the Minister give the House an assessment of the capacity we are losing by leaving the EU and outline the Government’s costed proposals for how the UK can unilaterally develop that capacity?

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We have world-leading capabilities in cyber. I am comfortable and confident that, as part of the integrated review, we will put in place strong plans to further strengthen that work. In my contact with my European Union defence counterparts across the EU to date, they have been extremely keen to continue to work closely with the United Kingdom as sovereign equals. After all, we are the biggest spender on defence in western Europe, as the hon. Lady is aware.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [901549]

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The UK Government are working with the devolved Administrations, the World Health Organisation and international partners to keep the UK safe against the outbreak of covid-19. The men and women of our armed forces are deeply professional and always work to tackle threats to our security wherever they may be. This situation is no different. We stand ready to work with other Government Departments, secure in the knowledge that our armed forces bring calmness and resilience to any task. Meanwhile, the delivery of key operations and outputs will continue to be maintained.

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Members across the House take huge pride in the people in their constituency who join our armed forces, but would it not give greater focus to our pride if figures were published regularly to show how many from each constituency join each year? Will the Secretary of State see if such statistics can be provided, so that the people of Chesterfield can take pride in the number of people from there who join our armed forces each year?

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I would be delighted to try to get that important data to hon. Members. I would also like to try to get the data on how many people are leaving our armed forces and going back into our constituencies. As president of an association, I know how hard it is to get in touch with soldiers from my regiment to make sure that they get the assistance they deserve. I take the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which I worked on for years but which was always blocked by data protection. Now I am the Secretary of State for Defence, I would be delighted to try to deliver it for him.

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T2. Does the Minister agree that British businesses, such as Martin-Baker aircraft company, based in Denham, are at the heart of our defence industry? Can I tempt him to join me for the opening of our new facility in the coming months? [901550]

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My hon. Friend is right. Martin-Baker produces the ejector seats for our F-35s that fly off HMS Queen Elizabeth. Diary permitting, I would be delighted to join her.

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This weekend there has been widespread concern about the Government’s communication strategy on the coronavirus pandemic, including a number of anonymous briefings to the media, such as one on the role of the Army. As well as providing more detail about Operation Broadshare, can the Secretary of State explain reports that the Government are working on the assumption that at least 20% of personnel will contract the virus? What arrangements are in place to mitigate any impact that that may have on operations?

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The hon. Lady raises an important point about media stories, some of which are entirely fictional. There is no Operation Hades, contrary to one report. There are absolutely no plans to send military personnel to guard supermarkets. However, despite our trying to clarify that with the media, there is still an intention in some parts of the media to continue to write these stories; indeed, there is some suspicion about where some of these stories are developed.

Of course we have made all sorts of assumptions that reflect, first, infection rates in the general population and, secondly, the unique aspects of the armed forces’ working life. We will make sure that we look after our armed forces and continue operationally.

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T4. I am proud to support the Royal British Legion in Blyth and Cramlington, which supports ex-servicemen and women all year round. Will the Minister please inform me what action is being taken to support personnel, and will he assure the House that the Government will do their utmost to deliver mental health support without delay to those who need it? [901552]

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This Government are doing more than any before in this area. We have set up the UK’s first Office for Veterans’ Affairs; we were the last Five Eyes nation to do so. I am clear that in the nation’s offering to her veterans, good mental health provision is absolutely critical. Next month we will launch, jointly with the NHS, a through-life mental healthcare plan, which I am sure my hon. Friend will be interested in.

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T3. I welcome the strong commitment from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans to supporting the mental health of personnel and veterans. He is probably aware of the interesting international research on the use of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Will he meet me and others to discuss how we can make it easier to carry out that research in the UK? [901551]

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I am very clear on two points. One is that we will stop at nothing to understand what is the best mental healthcare treatment that we can provide to our veterans in this country; the other is that obviously the classification of substances remains with the Home Office, and there are no plans to change that at the moment.

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T5. I very much welcome the Ministry of Defence submarine sonar contract being awarded to Crawley-based Thales. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about the employment possibilities that the contract brings? [901554]

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This £330 million sonar and mast contract is indeed good news. It will secure or create highly skilled jobs in Thales in Scotland, Greater Manchester and Somerset—and 30, I am delighted to say, in the constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour in Crawley.

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T6. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of Covid-19 on plans to commemorate Victory over Japan Day in August with surviving veterans, and in association with the Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission? [901555]

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I thank the hon. Lady for her very important question. Clearly, we are watching Government advice closely, and it will be taken into account when considering how to proceed with those commemorations.

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T7. David Brown Santasalo engineering in my constituency has been manufacturing engineering parts for the Ministry of Defence for many years, including propulsion gears for our Dreadnought submarines and our Type 26 frigates. It has shown a real commitment to quality apprenticeships. Will the ministerial team continue to show such commitment to great companies like it in the MOD supply chain? In fact, will the Minister visit David Brown Santasalo, and see at first hand its excellence in engineering? [901557]

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My hon. Friend has in the past raised this company, its work and particularly its apprenticeships with me. Diary permitting, I would be very pleased to visit it with him.

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If companies such as David Brown are to be sustained, they need orders, as does the shipbuilding industry. Once again I ask whether we can start behaving like every other country. Will the Minister tell us from the Dispatch Box when he will start the fleet solid support vessels programme again, and tell us that these ships will be built in British yards?

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The right hon. Member is a proper champion for British shipbuilding. After we ceased the competition, because it was delinquent the first time round, I have re-examined many of the terms and conditions of the contract, so he should watch this space.

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On the subject of social mobility, you and I know, Mr Speaker, that the Royal Marines ensures that training includes not only officers but enlisted men, together. I think it is the only organisation in NATO which does that. Is there a lesson to be learned, and should other branches of the armed forces also engage in combined training?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this important matter. Every service establishment where we conduct training is a mixture of enlisted men and women and commissioned ranks. We are always seeking to do more, although the division between the two is not a struggle that we persistently see.

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Like the Minister, I attend our local armed forces breakfast clubs. One veteran there told me recently that he barely survives on benefit of £5 per week. Is the Minister not ashamed that those who have sacrificed so much are afforded so little by the Government?

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I shall be more than happy to meet the hon. Member and speak to her about this case. I find it hard to understand why an individual would be receiving £5 a week, but if that is indeed so, I am of course prepared to look into it. We are determined that this should be the best country on earth in which to be a veteran.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the world-class military training at RAF Valley in my constituency, which prepares our fighter pilots for mountain and maritime operations throughout the world?

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As my hon. Friend knows, she and I share a love of Anglesey and, indeed, RAF Valley, which is at the forefront of the training of our next generation of pilots. The priority that I have given the Chief of the Air Staff is to ensure that that operation is delivering on time and on target. As we know from the National Audit Office, it has a bad track record, having left a glut of some 250 pilots stuck in the system. However, I am pleased to report that that is improving, and I hope to have some better news in the future.

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What additional support can be given to vulnerable veterans who are forced to self-isolate?

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The Government are very clear about the fact that all possible help will be given to those who are self-isolating. A number of measures were released in the Budget last week, and there will be more in due course. We all have a duty to the most vulnerable in this country. However, I do not accept that that constitutes a large proportion of veterans, the vast majority of whom are greatly enhanced by their service.

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The coronavirus will test the nation in ways that we have not seen since the war. I think that it is about when, not if, the armed forces will be mobilised. We know that they will rise to the occasion to help other Departments, but the threats that are there today will continue to exist. Will the Minister ensure that we do not drop our guard so that those who mean us harm do not take advantage while we are distracted by the coronavirus?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the main task of Defence, which is defending the nation. Only this morning I held meetings with senior officials and military personnel to ensure that both our routine and our units were in place to deliver, first and foremost, the priority of defending the nation. When we see changes, they will be in areas such as exercising and non-essential travel, so that we can ensure that the personnel concerned are there to support the rest of the country when it comes to the coronavirus.

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In my constituency we have a number of veterans with mental health issues who find it very difficult to gain access to GPs who are equipped to deal with veterans’ mental health. What measures does the Minister suggest should be taken to ensure that GPs are equipped to do that?

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I pay tribute to the work done by Dr Jonathan Leach with the Department. He has doggedly gone around making sure that our GP surgeries are veteran-friendly, and I plan to audit them to ensure that when a veteran does engage with those services, he is treated as I would want him to be. However, there is still work to be done. I shall be launching a veterans’ mental health programme in April, which will highlight clearly where veterans can gain access to state mental health care.

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What future is envisaged for Team Tempest and the combat air strategy in the defence and security review?

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As my hon. Friend knows, the future of air combat, on which we have published a review, is an incredibly important aspect of our future defence, but I will not speculate on individual aspects of the integrated review, because it would be inappropriate to do so. We should be looking at the whole process of defence, and all the capabilities that we need to keep ourselves and our allies safe in the future.

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Her Majesty’s armed forces owe a huge debt of gratitude to Commonwealth citizens. On the issue of right to remain, can I ask the Minister what new protocols will be put in place between the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office?

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Last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is the immigration Minister, and I am absolutely determined to make sure that there are specialist teams—for example, there was an NHS cell in the Home Office that dealt with UK Visas and Immigration, and I am looking at measures to try to replicate that. We have made it clear that if those who have served their nation are entitled to remain we will facilitate that process.

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May I ask my hon. Friend, in relation to social mobility and the British Army, how many serving officers went to a state school, and what we are doing to increase that proportion?

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I recognise the question, but this simply is not the issue that it perhaps was 20 or 30 years ago. We have far more people from state schools going to Sandhurst and other military establishments. I am cognisant of the fact that we can always do more, but we have some extraordinary social mobility stories that I am more than happy to share with my hon. Friend. We are absolutely committed, regardless of someone’s socioeconomic background, ethnicity or anything like that, and the armed forces are perhaps the greatest exponent of social mobility in this country.

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Given that the Government are on track to deal with the hounding of our veterans within 100 days of taking office, how many days will it take to produce an ex gratia plan for the compensation of the estimated 265 war widows who lost their pension on remarriage or cohabitation?

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I have met my right hon. Friend a number of times to discuss this issue. Indeed, I have met the war widows groups. The Secretary of State made a statement to the House, and we continue to look at schemes on how we can help those who have lost their husband or wife in the service of this nation. We have made it clear that we owe them a debt of gratitude, and we will look to set up some sort of fund or payment that will rightly recognise their sacrifice for the nation.