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Topical Questions

Volume 678: debated on Monday 6 July 2020

Since the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the world has changed. Our adversaries have invested more in their armed forces and have constantly been updating their doctrines. The threats to our interests and way of life are real and we therefore owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to ensure that we have a modern, capable and effective defence, able to tackle the threats wherever they present themselves. Only a fool starts the debate with numbers rather than threat. History is littered with generals and Governments who kept fighting the last war rather than preparing for the next one. This Government are committed to growing defence spending and we will use that money to ensure that we have a 21st-century capability, a modern workforce and a defence that matches our global ambition.

Given the worrying cyber-activities of the Governments of countries such as Russia and Iran, will the Secretary of State ensure that cyber-security is at the heart of the forthcoming integrated defence review?

Absolutely. If I think back to the days when I was at Sandhurst, in defence, there were really three domains: air, sea and land. Cyber is very much a real and new domain that we must not only defend in, but master. That is why in 2016, the Government committed £1.9 billion to the national cyber-security strategy. That includes investment in offensive cyber, which I hope we can announce more details of later in the year.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying full tribute to the military’s essential and continuing role in helping the country through this covid crisis? In the same spirit, he talked earlier of the lessons from covid for the integrated review. He is uniquely placed as the Defence Secretary and a former Security Minister to turn adversary into advantage, so will he use this period to consult widely in the armed forces and with the public, industry and experts, just as Labour did, on the challenges to creating a 21st-century armed forces? That is the way to banish any suspicion that this integrated review is driven from Downing Street, not by the MOD, or driven by financial pressures, not the best interests of Britain’s defence, security and leading place in the world.

First, I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that this is not driven by financial pressures; it is driven first and foremost by threat. As a former Security Minister, which he rightly referenced, I believe threat should define what we do and how we meet it. That is why, as I said, we gathered the chiefs together last week. It was not a financial discussion and, contrary to what was reported, it was not a numbers discussion, either. It was a discussion about how we meet the threat and deliver our future armed forces to match that, taking into account cyber and many other areas. The Government are determined to continue to do that. We stand by our pledge to increase defence spending in real terms, and we will use that money, spending it wisely to ensure we meet those very threats.

With Scotland being the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, what steps are the UK Government taking to protect our armed forces personnel who might be left out of pocket by any further tax increases in Scotland? (904273)

It is unfair that those soldiers, sailors, airmen and women required to live in Scotland should be made to pay more in income tax than military personnel living elsewhere. As we promised last year in our Scottish manifesto, we will announce soon how we will continue to mitigate the effects of higher Scottish income taxes on more than 7,000 of our service personnel in Scotland.

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), legislation can have unintended consequences, and I am concerned that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill could result in the MOD paying less compensation to servicemen and women. Will the Secretary of State therefore commit to publishing the likely impact of the legislation on the amount of compensation paid annually by the MOD? (904272)

An impact assessment will have been published with the Bill when it was brought to the House. We are hoping to get the Bill to Second Reading sooner rather than later, so the hon. Lady can see all those details and impact assessments. As my hon. Friend the Veterans Minister said, it is not the case that people will be prevented from seeking damages, through either tort—for damages against the MOD, rather than other people—or other processes. Obviously, from diagnosis is one of the key dates.

I have huge respect for my hon. Friend the Armed Forces Minister, who is a fellow rifleman. He mentioned that the Russia report cannot be produced because there is no Intelligence and Security Committee. Let us have that Intelligence and Security Committee. I hope you agree, Mr Speaker, that scrutiny by Parliament is very important indeed.The Defence Secretary is aware that lots of stories about 5G are kicking about. There has clearly been a change in approach because of sanctions by the United States. There are many security reasons why high-risk vendors should be removed from the UK’s telecom infrastructure, but there are also political ones. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to stand up to China’s competing geopolitical agenda? (904275)

First, on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is the Committee that would publish the report, I gave evidence for that report as Security Minister, and, in fact I have read the report. My right hon. Friend should not hold his breath for the great sensation he thinks it will be. However, as he has said and everyone else has noted, when the ISC is formed, it will be the body that will release the report. I think we are getting to a place where the Committee will come together, and then everyone can read it at leisure.

The RFA Fort Victoria will supply our carrier battle group until 2028. Most commentators say that that ship alone is not sufficient to support the carrier group. When will the Secretary of State bring forward the procurement of the fleet solid support ships? That would not only increase capability for the Royal Navy but be a big boost to UK plc, including the supply chain in the north-east of England, if that procurement were to be placed in UK yards. (904281)

The right hon. Member often campaigns for shipbuilding in the UK and he has heard my answers. First, I am keen that it gets under way as soon as possible; indeed, I have asked officials to bring it forward from the proposed date. The plus side is that such ships are not highly complex, so once the competition happens and it is placed, I do not think it will take long to build them. I therefore do not anticipate a capability gap at all. He is right that British shipbuilding and British yards produce some of the best ships in the world and we should support them as best as we can and ensure our navy gets some great British-made kit.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the Army and air cadets in Clwyd South for their amazing work during the coronavirus crisis in helping the vulnerable and in keeping up their training and recruitment activities, with virtual physical training sessions with the Welsh Guards and other such initiatives? (904278)

My hon. Friend is right to champion the activities of the armed forces cadets and Air Force cadets in Clwyd South. It is amazing to hear what they have done to support their community during the coronavirus crisis, but also the cadets in his constituency and across the country have done an amazing job, through the commitment of their adult volunteers, to keep virtual training going throughout the pandemic, which has been hugely valuable to young people across the country.

A recent freedom of information request revealed that the Ministry of Defence was found to have wasted almost £9 million on “fruitless payments”, and that was before it was committed to spending £900,000 on a paint job for the Prime Minister’s plane. What steps is the MOD taking to restore public trust in the management of its finances? (904286)

Only today, the permanent secretary and other officials attended the Public Accounts Committee to answer some of those questions, no doubt in detail. The point to be made is that the MOD spends £41 billion overall, and we make sure, where we can, that that is spent not only on the men and women of our armed forces, but on industry and equipment capability, such as, in Glasgow, buying two warships—both the Type 31 up at Rosyth and, indeed, the Type 26—which I never seem to hear the SNP ever really welcome.

In the last few weeks, we have marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the 205th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, just two of the many occasions on which Britain has led the fight against tyranny across the world. Labour-run Durham County Council has recently announced a review of all monuments and statues in the county, and my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield (Paul Howell) and for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) have joined me in asking that statues and monuments to anyone who fought for Britain be excluded from this review. Durham County Council has yet to agree to this request. Will the Secretary of State join me in writing to Durham County Council to support our campaign? (904280)

The Government will never forget the bravery of all former servicemen and women who served their country, and it is imperative that we do not forget the sacrifices that were made so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. The Ministry of Defence position is that memorials and statues that honour those who gave their lives should be protected.

Undiagnosed brain injury often leaves a lot of our armed forces personnel with long-term problems in terms of being able to retain memory or being able to work in another environment, whether in service or after they have left the armed forces. Does not the Secretary of State agree that it is now time that we screened everybody on their return from overseas work in the armed forces for brain injury, and in particular before they leave the service so they do not have those ongoing problems for the rest of their lives? (904293)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has some nappy duties he has had to return to, so I will reply on his behalf. I know the hon. Gentleman, who campaigns hard on this, especially given his own personal experience, has already met my colleague. The Minister for Defence People and Veterans has asked that the MOD-sponsored independent medical expert group continue to look into it and report on progress and issues relating to these types of injury. I am certain that he will want to meet the hon. Gentleman further to discuss the matter.

The Secretary of State has recently said that the Ministry of Defence’s“greatest asset…is not our tanks or our aeroplanes, it’s people.”Will he therefore commit to reversing the cuts that his Government have made to the armed forces over the last 10 years? (904294)

Forgive me, but 2015 was the last time we set the numbers for the armed forces. What we will do is make sure we give those men and women the best equipment, the best kit, the best leadership and the best purpose for why they are there to defend this nation. That is what we do, and we do it to make sure we meet the threat, not just to start the conversation about numbers, which I know the hon. Lady will be desperate to do.

Earlier this year, Staffordshire and Stoke-on Trent’s clinical commissioning group was awarded a bronze award for its commitment to support veterans, serving members of the armed forces and their families. Will my hon. Friend commit to ensure that in Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke our brave men and women have the same access to education, housing and healthcare as civvies like me? (904290)

Our work to support the armed forces community through the covenant and the employer recognition scheme continues with our partners at a local level across the UK. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, we will further incorporate the armed forces covenant into law to help prevent any disadvantage faced due to the unique nature of service life.

In the worst weather, Walney Island in my constituency of Barrow and Furness splits in two, which risks homes, jobs and our fantastic nature reserve. I know the MOD perhaps does not put nature reserves at the top of its pile of things to care about, but there is another threat—it risks sifting the channel that BAE uses to push subs out into the sea. I am raising this issue across Government: can I ask the MOD’s view on it? (904298)

Just to reassure my hon. Friend, we have 169 sites of special scientific interest in the defence estate, and we care very deeply about that and our role as a good champion of conservation. My hon. Friend is assiduous on behalf of the jobs in his constituency, and defence jobs in particular. I fully appreciate his concerns on coastal erosion, but I am happy to reassure him that it is not currently considered a risk to submarine movements, although I am grateful for his ongoing interest.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.