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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 678: debated on Monday 6 July 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans’ Welfare: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the provision of a high-quality welfare service for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. (904209)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the provision of a high-quality welfare service for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. (904218)

Last week I spoke to Forces in the Community, a charity in Broxtowe that supports veterans re-entering civilian life. We agreed that one of the hardest adjustments is finding a rewarding job, and all too often veterans fall at the first application stage because they do not have the “traditional” experience that employers are looking for. The Government have delivered on their manifesto pledge to harness the talent of veterans, guaranteeing an interview if they are applying for a role in the civil service, but we should aim bigger and better. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss a pilot veteran confident employer scheme to be rolled out nationwide, so that more veterans’ skills are recognised and harnessed, and they are given the boost they need to thrive as civilians?

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his question, and I commend him on his maiden speech, in which he talked about these issues. I am very clear, and the Department is very clear, that the single biggest factor that can improve the life chances of veterans in this country is having a job. We have more veterans going into employment than ever before, but I would be delighted to meet him and hear about his specific efforts in Broxtowe.

Will the Minister look at ways to protect the funding in Clwyd South and the wider Wrexham area for the provision of armed forces liaison officers and housing and mental health support for our veterans in these difficult times?

I would be delighted to look at that. We have secured specific funding during this challenging time—£6 million out of the Treasury, which has gone to over 100 armed forces charities dealing with the unique challenges of this crisis. I am determined that we will realise this Government’s vision to make this the best country in the world to be a veteran. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and find out what more we can do.

I want to start by wishing the Minister and his wife a huge congratulations on the birth of their daughter, Audrey.

The Government’s ambition is to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran, and the Opposition obviously share that ambition, but for 10 and a half weeks, the telephone service of the Veterans UK helpline was closed. The Minister will no doubt say that there was an email service, but his own figures show that that email service saw an overall reduction of over 10,000 contacts on average per month between April and June this year compared with last year, proving that veterans were not emailing instead. What assessment has he made of the impact of the closure of the telephone service on those people who would normally have called the helpline?

I thank the hon. Member for her kind comments about my daughter. She is right—the telephone service was briefly suspended while Veterans UK, like every other organisation in the country, tried to reconfigure its services, to ensure that we met the demand out there. We have helped over 13,000 veterans since 23 March. Per month, we make 470,000 pension and compensation scheme payments. I am still unaware—as I was six weeks ago, when I spoke from the Dispatch Box—of a single veteran whose urgent need has not been responded to, but if she is aware of any, I would be more than happy to meet her and find out what we can do better.

Veterans: Vexatious Claims

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that veterans are protected from vexatious claims. (904219)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that veterans are protected from vexatious claims. (904236)

We rightly expect the highest standards of our service personnel. We also owe them justice and fairness. On 18 March 2020, I introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans.

I associate myself with the good wishes to the Minister and his wife. In my constituency, Workington, there is an active veterans hub, members of which I met earlier this year. What support can the Department provide for our veterans as they leave the forces to find alternative employment in Workington and other areas across Britain?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to talk about the options available in his area. More money and more opportunities than ever before are going into veterans employment. As I said earlier, it is the single biggest factor that improves the life chances of any veteran and their family. I am always looking to do more, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to go through what is available in his area.

A veteran with an exemplary record from his two tours in Afghanistan recently confided in me his concerns—and, more worryingly, those of soldiers he served with who come from towns in my constituency such as Arnold and Carlton—about being prosecuted as a result of vexatious claims in the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is our duty to ensure that we end the unfair trials of people who have served their country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This has been one of my driving missions since I entered Parliament. I am delighted to be part of the first Government to have really taken on a very difficult issue, carefully walking down the path of making sure that we can always prosecute those who break the law—uniform is no hiding place for those who do—but that the days of lawyers rewriting history in order to line their own pockets and run amok in lawfare come to an end.

Any action the Minister takes is likely to require a derogation from the European convention on human rights. Given that the ECHR is part of the apparatus of the Council of Europe, will he meet members of the parliamentary delegation to the Assembly, such as myself, so that we can help?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I have said time and again that this is a difficult issue and one that requires all of us to work together, both within parties and across parties. The House is united in the view that people who serve and who have done nothing wrong should not spend the rest of their lives fearing prosecution. I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend to discover what more we can do to make sure that measure is brought forward.

The Government are the custodians of the armed forces covenant, which Labour has always been proud to support. The covenant rightly declares:

“Those who serve in the Armed Forces…those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services”,

so why are the Government now legislating to disadvantage our own armed forces personnel who serve overseas by blocking any injury or negligence claim against the Ministry of Defence if troops miss a hard six-year deadline?

With the greatest respect, I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Bill. Veterans and service personnel will still be able to bring claims against the MOD, even if more than six years have elapsed. The time starts when the condition is diagnosed or when it is first reported. I reiterate that the Bill is a difficult piece of legislation that will need help from all parts of the House to pass. It is worth reading and understanding it, so that we can find a way to make sure the injustice ends.

Of course, I have read the legislation, and the word “diagnosis” does not appear in it. The Minister is right about baseless and repeated claims; we want to stop those as well, but in part the Bill does more to protect the MOD than it does to protect British soldiers. The Bill may well breach our armed forces covenant; it certainly will deny those who serve our country overseas the same employer liability rights as everyone else enjoys at home. Why should those who put their lives on the line for Britain overseas have less access to compensation than the UK civilians they defend?

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect briefly on whether I would advocate a piece of legislation that would do that. The Bill does not do that. It is clear that we are bringing in various conditions to stop our service personnel and veterans repeatedly having to give evidence in relation to historical incidents or to respond to allegations. It has been a long time in the making; the injustice has gone on for many years. What he is saying is simply not in the Bill. I would be more than happy to meet him and Members from all parts of the House to discuss what is in the Bill. We need to work together to get the Bill over the line.

Armed Forces: Overall Size

What steps his Department has taken to maintain the overall size of the armed forces as set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review. (904211)

What steps his Department has taken to maintain the overall size of the armed forces as set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review. (904235)

Since 2015 we have introduced many measures to respond to a difficult armed forces recruitment and retention climate. These include financial incentives, flexible service, the recruitment partnership project, the future accommodation model, and improved childcare. We saw improved recruitment figures of 31% from 2018-19. The size of the armed forces should always be dictated by the threat, UK global ambition, and modern technology.

The Army’s strength, though, is still woefully short of the Government’s target. Those wanting to join our Army were faced with Capita’s bureaucratic processes, which could take up to 52 months. So will the Secretary of State tell us what is the average length of time taken to get through the Army recruitment processes now?

The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points. However, due to the extra effort we have put into the Army recruiting process, the Army has now in fact hit its recruitment target, and was on target to do so even before covid broke, to have depots full and to deliver an armed forces at the right strength, growing the armed forces, not shrinking them.

Can the Secretary of State categorically deny reports that No. 10 wishes to slash the size of the Army from 74,000 to 55,000 personnel? If he cannot do that, will he at least confirm to this House that he personally opposes any plan to reduce the size of the armed forces?

I can confirm that there is no plan to slash the size of the armed forces. The reports in The Sunday Times were completely erroneous, as was made clear to the journalist at the time. Our armed forces should always be defined by the threat we face as a nation, the capabilities we have, and Britain’s global ambition. That is why, in the integrated review, we will deal with those processes rather than start the debate about numbers.

Will the Secretary of State bring forward the integrated review? He is aware of the importance of this in confirming our capabilities, but also in terms of existing emerging threats, not least, Britain’s ambitions and place in the world. We are witnessing a seismic shift in power from the east to the west. Is it not time for us to recalibrate our foreign policy in order to recognise this changing threat, and the fact that China is rewriting the international global rules?

I feel my right hon. Friend’s sense of urgency about getting this review done. He will also know that SDSR after SDSR, under Governments of both colours, often failed because they were never in step with the spending plans of the Government, and we ended up with SDSRs that were over-ambitious and underfunded. It is really important that the integrated review reports at the same time as the comprehensive spending review, which is due in the autumn. We must also learn the lessons from the recent covid outbreak, which shows how important resilience is, and feed that into the review to make sure that it is as up to date as possible.

I would like to start by commending our excellent armed forces for their exemplary service to the public during the covid-19 period.

Over the past decade, this Government have severely cut the size of our armed forces. We have had three very good questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), and from the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), yet the Secretary of State has refused to answer the real question, which is this: will he increase the recruitment and retention of armed forces personnel—yes or no?

Recruitment is up, as is retention. That is the direction of travel. That is what we are delivering for our armed forces. It is very clear that our armed forces are growing, as is our defence spending, which is our commitment.

Personnel Stationed Abroad: Covid-19

What recent estimate he has made of the number of British armed forces personnel stationed abroad who have contracted covid-19. (904212)

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he further outline whether any personnel have had to return home due to covid-19 issues? If there is a facility to get our troops home as needed, are they hospitalised according to their regimental location, or are they hospitalised all together?

I am not aware of any individual circumstances in which someone has been recovered back to the UK as a consequence of having tested positive. The symptoms would determine whether they required hospitalisation. Medical facilities in all theatres of operation and on all ships are appropriate to deal with covid as it would normally stand. If an instance had been more serious, we would of course have looked at the need to recover the individual.

Our troops have rightly continued their duties overseas for the duration of the pandemic, keeping our citizens safe and helping to maintain international peace. However, there are concerns that in countries such as Iraq, where some British troops are stationed and there has been a surge in covid-19 cases over the past 24 hours, the worst may be yet to come. With that in mind, what contingency plans have the Government put in place to safeguard our troops operating in areas prone to further covid-19 outbreaks and their families?

The theatre commander can make a judgment about the degree to which the risk of exposure to a population with a large amount of covid within it is worth the operational needs. That is a decision for the operational commander. In theatre, all sorts of force-protection measures are available, ranging from personal protective equipment to the choice not to continue with operational duties if they are deemed to be too risky.

Overseas Territories: Covid-19 Support

The Ministry of Defence deployed a military medical team to the Falkland Islands; delivered supplies and logistical support to Gibraltar; provided planning advice to the Cayman Islands; and provided a security-assistance team to the Turks and Caicos Islands. As ever, the MOD will of course continue to support our overseas territories whenever required.

What steps are the Minister’s Department and his colleagues elsewhere in Government taking to enable our overseas territories to become more self-sufficient?

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. Her Majesty’s Government aim to build resilient overseas territories with good governance, diversified economies and prosperous communities that are all able to deal with and recover better from crises. For example, the Ministry of Defence is delivering maritime-security capacity building in the Caribbean and supporting the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands to establish new reserve defence regiments.

Armed Forces: Tackling Covid-19

What assessment he has made of the contribution of the armed forces in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. (904214)

At the peak of our covid covert response, some 20,000 troops were at readiness, and more than 4,000 of them were deployed at any one time at peak. Cumulatively, over the course of the pandemic more than 14,000 military and civilian personnel in the Ministry of Defence have been involved in the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Our armed forces have been invaluable in delivering for the whole nation during the pandemic, but for the second year running they have not received their pay award on time. Will the Minister put things right and say precisely when our forces can expect to receive their pay rise?

I join the hon. Lady in praising the response of our armed forces to the covid pandemic; they have been absolutely extraordinary. Armed forces pay is a matter for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. I will find out exactly what its recommendations are and when they are due to be implemented and write to the hon. Lady.

Veterans: Covid-19 Support

The full range of veterans’ support services, including the Veterans UK helpline and welfare service, have continued to be provided throughout covid-19 pandemic.

I declare an interest as a Royal Air Force veteran and as honorary president of the Royal Air Forces Association in Huddersfield. Will the Minister please update the House on the phase 2 roll-out of the ID card for military veterans? Having spoken to fellow veterans, they tell me that having this ID card will give them real confidence in trying to access support services, including NHS services.

I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for pursuing this issue. A new veterans ID card was launched in February 2019. Service leavers are currently getting that veterans railcard. There are challenges around future proofing and safeguarding against fraudulent use, which means that the process of rolling out phase 2 to existing veterans is taking longer than I had hoped, but I hope to have some progress for him by the end of the year.

We know that many veterans will have been affected during this coronavirus crisis. The older veterans, perhaps those from world war two, might have to shield, while the younger ones may have a range of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and this current crisis will no doubt put additional pressure on them. What support is being given to those younger veterans, or indeed to older veterans with mental health problems, to make sure that they do not come out of this situation worse than they went in?

I am acutely aware that the covid pandemic has placed extra and unique challenges on our veteran community, particularly those who have had to isolate and who find isolation difficult at the best of times. We have put more money in—£6 million from the Treasury has gone to 100 different armed forces charities, both large and small across the country. We are working hard with our NHS colleagues to ensure that we are providing services through the transition and liaison service and the complex treatment service. The numbers there are looking good, and I am confident that we have had a good professional service throughout this time.

I know the Minister will agree that the armed forces have gone above and beyond throughout the course of the pandemic, particularly those charities that have been providing specific support to veterans. However, concerningly, one in every 10 charities believes that it will have to close in the next 10 months. Will the Minister explain what work he has been doing with the Ministry of Defence and with the Treasury to ensure that, if these charities do have to close, the support will still be there for veterans?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to focus on the output from these charities and what that care looks like from the veterans’ point of view. My determining concern is that, where these services are, regrettably, unable to continue, that service is still provided and that veterans can access them across the country. I have worked hard with officials in the Treasury to get money into the sector. There is no doubt that the veterans’ charity and care sectors are going through an accelerated process of reform as a result of covid-19, but I am determined to take the opportunities from that, making sure that we fulfil the Government’s ambition to make this the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran.

The Minister said that the veterans’ gateway app would put veterans’ care in the palm of every veteran in the country. Can he tell us how many people have downloaded and used this app in its first two months?

I have not formally launched the veterans’ gateway app at the moment. We are going through a process of working with users and so on to make it more user-friendly. That is an ambition of mine: to put veterans’ care in the palm of every single veteran in this country. We will have a formal launch and I would be delighted if the hon. Gentleman came with me to that launch. We can then look at the figures together and perhaps work on getting the app into more people’s pockets as we go.[Official Report, 13 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 7MC.]

The Minister said that the veterans’ gateway app will put veterans’ care in the palm of every veteran in the country. Will he tell us what estimate his Department has made of the number of veterans who do not have a smartphone and what his Department is doing to reach them?

It is a completely fair point that many of our veterans are of an age group who will not be digitally able to access this app. The app was never designed to be something that is all encompassing. It is simply another measure in the suite of options that we are offering to veterans in this country to make sure that this is the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran. There is a whole host of other ways of looking after our veterans, such as breakfast clubs that we all get involved in. When this app does come out, I will be looking at ways to make it even more user-friendly, particularly to our older veterans, to whom we owe such a great debt.[Official Report, 13 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 8MC.]

Overseas Personnel: Covid-19 Support

What support his Department has provided to service personnel operating overseas during the covid-19 pandemic. (904216)

My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to recognise that away from our response to covid in the UK, the armed forces have also been serving in many locations overseas, going about their normal duties. In my earlier answer to the shadow Minister, I spoke about the force protection measures we make available to theatre commanders, but it is important to recognise before the House that some of the operational requirements we place on our armed forces are so immediate that sometimes no mitigation is available, and they accept that risk on behalf of our nation. We are all very grateful to them for doing so.

On 10 June, I received a letter from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans in response to the cancellation of the overseas loan service allowance, which has significantly financially disadvantaged service personnel operating overseas. The letter also stated that the local overseas allowance would not be reduced from its normal rate. Sadly, it appears that this is no longer the case and that the LOA will now be paid at a reduced, residual rate. Since repatriation, any payments on the OLSA and LOA have been deemed as overpayments and are now being clawed back from service personnel. As people are the military’s greatest asset, can I please ask what will be done about this?

The Department has prepared a long answer to match my hon. Friend’s long question. The Secretary of State has just said he is gripping this.

Covid-19: Tackling Disinformation

What steps the Government is taking to help tackle disinformation in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. (904217)

The MOD is supporting the Government’s campaign against covid-19 disinformation by providing specialist personnel in advisory roles. This work is led by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Government are also working closely with social media platforms and academia to tackle this issue, and the Government’s focus remains on promoting factual public health advice and countering inaccurate content.

Disinformation by active promoting of falsehoods poses a significant threat, but so too does disinformation by omission. The National Security Council’s report on Russian interference in UK politics has been ready for publication since October 2019. To have trust and confidence in our democracy, the people of the United Kingdom need openness and transparency, so if the Government have nothing to hide, why do they continue to refuse to release this report?

As these are Defence questions, I am somewhat outside my portfolio in answering in this question, but the Secretary of State, who sits in the Cabinet, tells me that the security committee is not yet formed, which is why the report has not yet been published.

In many cases, disinformation about covid-19 can travel faster than the virus itself and pose just as great a risk to our security. Does the Minister agree with me and the majority of the public surveyed by the Open Knowledge Foundation that the Government need to urgently impose compulsory action on social media sites to clamp down on the spread of such misinformation?

Again, I am comfortable responding about disinformation, which the military has an active role in countering, but misinformation is the responsibility of my colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

US Deployment: Germany

What recent representations he has made to his counterpart in the US Administration on President Trump’s proposal to reduce the number of US troops deployed in Germany. (904222)

I met with my NATO counterparts, including Secretary Esper, on 17 and 18 June to discuss the alliance’s enduring role in European security.

I am glad that the Secretary of State has been making representations to the US about the importance of not cutting conventional forces in Europe, but can we make such representations if we ourselves have any intention to do what is reported in the press—namely to inflict swingeing cuts on the Army and to revisit the argument we won two years ago about the Royal Marines’ amphibious capabilities? Does he accept that, although we have 21st century threats to meet, that is additional to, not a substitute for, the conventional preparedness we need to maintain?

My right hon. Friend has been in this House long enough to know that he should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers, especially around the time of an integrated review. We in the United Kingdom believe that, as the motto of Sandhurst says, we serve to lead. We lead by contributing and giving, which we have done over the history of NATO. We are the biggest contributor to NATO in Europe. We are the provider of NATO’s nuclear defence in Europe, and we will continue to be a main leader in NATO. That is how we believe we will see off the threats we face from the likes of Russia.

Tracked Vehicles

What assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of demand for tracked vehicles in the armed forces. (904223)

Armoured tracked vehicles remain at the core of Defence’s high-intensity war-fighting capability, and ongoing demand is evidenced in the Army’s investment in new fully digitised tracked Ajax vehicles.

Cook Defence Systems in Stanhope in my constituency makes the tracks for all the Army’s fighting vehicles and increasingly for fighting vehicles overseas. Will the Minister join me on a visit to Cook Defence Systems to see what export opportunities could be achieved in addition to its work with the British Army?

I am grateful for that invitation. I am speaking to north-east defence companies on a call next week. Our ability to make physical visits to companies has clearly been restrained by covid, but as soon as my diary allows, I would be delighted to visit Cook Defence Systems in person.

Official Development Assistance

What recent estimate his Department has made of the level of departmental official development assistance spend. (904224)

Back in April, the International Development Secretary commented that there should be regular reviews at ministerial level of what different Departments were doing with their official development assistance. In the light of the upcoming merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will the Minister set out what conversations he has had with the Foreign Secretary about ensuring that any official development assistance programming from his or other Departments is transparent and subject to scrutiny?

The hon. Lady is exactly right. Development and security sit hand in hand and, as such, knowing that a review is ongoing, we are looking at exactly where development activity is essential to the security function that our armed forces are seeking to provide overseas. We will be making the case for that spending to remain unchanged.

Defence Industrial Strategy

The Government are currently conducting work on the UK’s defence and security industrial strategy to identify the steps we should take to ensure a competitive, innovative and world-class industrial base. I will use this opportunity to ensure that, as well as delivering the best capabilities to the UK armed forces, we are driving investment, employment and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the defence industry in that answer. Investment by Defence in innovation often stimulates dual-use commercial opportunities. The Prime Minister is clear that he wants the UK to be a science superpower, so will the defence industrial strategy make the case that a great place to start would be to double Defence investment in innovation?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that defence procurement and innovation should be linked and should link into prosperity and alternatives, using that technology to enhance prosperity across the United Kingdom. During the financial year 2018-19, Defence invested £1.65 billion in research and development, which included £580 million spent on cutting-edge science and technology. Without trying to pre-empt the integrated review, it is absolutely clear that at the heart of it will be not only innovation but a recognition that prosperity is what our taxpayers, at local and UK level, should expect for their money.

Defence Capabilities

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the capabilities of the armed forces are adequate to tackle future security threats. (904227)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the capabilities of the armed forces are adequate to tackle future security threats. (904230)

The Ministry of Defence has rigorous ongoing processes to test and develop our capabilities and force structure to ensure that they are robust against current and future threats. During the integrated review, the Department is focused on reassessing our plans to ensure that we are delivering the right capability to keep the country safe now and in the decades to come.

The UK has some of the most elite and specialist armed forces in the world. Bearing in mind that we cannot compete with the number of boots on the ground of, say, China or Russia, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our armed forces are properly funded, that the very best people are recruited and that the very best training, skills and equipment are maintained?

We have the funds and plans in place to ensure that our armed forces are playing to their strengths. We are investing in the likes of the future combat air system technology initiative, in nuclear submarines and in cyber-technology to ensure that we are fighting the battle for tomorrow.

The work on the review of our foreign policy and national security—the largest of its kind—has been paused during this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when it resumes, he will continue to ensure that we frame our thinking around threat at every stage of the review?

My hon. Friend is right—but the review was slowed down, not entirely paused, during the covid pandemic. We did continue to work on it in the Ministry of Defence. Last week I gathered the chiefs of all the services and the head of defence intelligence together to hear about the threat and the doctrine of our adversaries, and about how the chiefs are going to deliver a solution to that threat. That is my starting point for the integrated review. It is not the budget or the bureaucracy; it is the starting point for meeting the threat and the demand on our forces, and for ensuring that we give the men and women of the armed forces the best equipment and capability that they deserve.

May I send the best wishes of the Scottish National party to the Veterans Minister on the birth of his new child?

Will the Secretary of State outline what assessment the MOD has made of the threat picture in the Arctic, the high north and the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, and what capability will be needed to meet those future threats?

I fear that I have only a few seconds in which to answer that. I am very happy to meet the hon. Member to explore the last part of his question because it is significant and we are working on a strategy to reveal just how we are going to meet those threats. He is absolutely right that a number of nations including Russia —indeed, even China—are very keen on what they are going to do in the Arctic. The danger is that the environment is damaged and that we end up against traditional geographical rivalries that could tip conflict in that direction.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. Let me be clear: I want him to get the review and the capability right, but I am concerned, following what I think might have been the Tower of London away day that he and other defence officials went on, that there is going to be a pivot to the eastern Pacific, which is again going to leave us weaker in an area closer to home where the threat picture is growing, and where bad actors and the activity of bad actors are certainly increasing. Can he assure us that we will not be spread so thinly as to be sent far abroad while we leave our own defences closer to home wanting?

The hon. Member asks a logical and proper question. I can assure him that we will not abandon one threat to meet another. We work incredibly hard with our Scandinavian and Nordic colleagues—some in NATO, some not—through the joint expeditionary force. We regularly plan, and NATO itself acts, in that area. Only recently a US and UK naval flotilla went into the Barents sea—the first time for many years—to ensure that we dealt with the growing threat from that side of the Russian flank.

Defence Science and Technology: Covid-19

Defence Science and Technology is drawing on its unique range of specialist skills to support the covid response, including assistance on testing laboratories, statistical analysis, modelling support, decontamination trials, and experiments to understand how the virus survives in the atmosphere and on different surfaces.

Covid is certainly just one of many emerging threats that we have faced and will yet face as a nation, including other possible pandemics and unconventional warfare such as cyber-attacks. Can the Minister assure me that, in order ensure that we can continue to rise to whatever challenges the future may yet hold, Defence Science and Technology will have the investment and support that it needs to remain the envy of the world?

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory—through covid, through its response to the outrageous attack in Salisbury and in countless other ways—has shown its value to the country, and that is also recognised by our international partners. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest to meet the threats of the future.

EU Future Relationship Planning

What plans his Department has made in the event that the UK does not reach an agreement on its future relationship with the EU by the end of the transition period. (904231)

We want a relationship with the EU that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and is centred on free trade. We are developing plans to ensure that the critical work of defence continues regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.

What discussions exactly has the Minister had with counterparts in the EU on how the UK can, where it is in our interest, continue to co-operate with member states to further our collective security?

The whole ministerial team talks to our counterparts across Europe regularly in the context not just of Brexit, but of our bilateral and multilateral co-operations through a whole series of organisations and fora. That work will continue whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, because our military partnerships with friends and colleagues across Europe are vital to the security of this nation.

Northern Ireland: Vexatious Claims

What progress he has made on preventing vexatious claims against service personnel involved in the Northern Ireland campaign; and on what date he plans to complete that work. (904233)

This Government are committed to ending vexatious claims as quickly as possible. I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland towards this objective. As set out in the written ministerial statement laid on 18 March, he has committed to bringing forward legacy legislation that will deliver for victims and ensure that Northern Ireland veterans are treated as fairly as those who served overseas. We will engage with colleagues from across the House as part of this process.

I rise as someone who has done seven tours in Northern Ireland and as a member of the Northern Ireland Veterans Association. The Prime Minister, on 23 July last year in the 1922 Committee, promised me that this matter would be a top priority for the Government. This promise was repeated in the Conservative manifesto, so I ask my right hon. Friend: when will our veterans from Northern Ireland be treated properly?

My hon. Friend, like me, has been a long campaigner on this—in fact, I went on my first Northern Ireland veterans campaign for just as much in 1998. I have fought for a very long time for veterans of Northern Ireland. As he will be aware, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State are the lead in this. We have fed into the process. We are already committed to taking steps to protect our veterans. At the same time, my hon. Friend may not have missed this, but unfortunately, covid came along—a pandemic that no one predicted last year—and that has somehow certainly changed everything we are doing. It does not mean to say that the policy work has not been going on. We will deliver a policy that will get justice for veterans in Northern Ireland.

Topical Questions

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.