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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 680: debated on Monday 21 September 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Helicopters: Domestic Manufacture

The Department is committed to supporting UK helicopters and the defence industry more broadly. Over the next decade, we plan to spend over £180 billion on equipment and equipment support, which currently includes around £10.9 billion on helicopter capability.

Many of my constituents in West Dorset work for Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil, where redundancies have recently been announced. That is of great concern to me, my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh). What is the Minister doing to support the company?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I am pleased to reassure him that those redundancies do not relate to any changes of plan on Ministry of Defence work, but rather to a decision taken by the company to ensure that it remains on a financially strong footing. We continue to work actively with Leonardo on its excellent Merlin and Wildcat helicopters, and I am pleased to support its export drives, as I did earlier this month in person, in Poland.

Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to step up to the plate and match the commitment made by the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), to procure “built in Britain”, hence ensuring that there are no redundancies in West Dorset, and to support the awarding of the £1.5 billion fleet solid support vessels contract to a British consortium, to recruit and retain 2,500 UK jobs, and to do so for the many other shovel-ready defence projects, to support British industry, British workers and the British economy to lead us through this covid recession?

We are proud to support many British companies and the entire UK defence sector. Some £19.2 billion was given to UK companies in 2018-19 to deliver on our defence needs. This has been brought out through our defence and security industrial strategy—DSIS—of which I look forward to sharing more details with the House when it is delivered later this year.

Armed Forces Capability: Future Security Threats

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that armed forces capability is adequate to tackle future security threats. (906250)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that armed forces capability is adequate to tackle future security threats. (906256)

The Ministry of Defence is examining its capability requirements through the integrated review, guided by Defence Intelligence’s understanding of the threats we face now and in the future. We are examining the evolving doctrines, structures and capabilities of our adversaries to ensure that we develop the capabilities required to deliver the operations of tomorrow.

The defence industry employs tens of thousands of people. Long-term investment in defence will drive economic growth and support highly paid, highly skilled jobs, all of which is in our national interest. Will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to ensure that the defence industry is central to plans for our economic recovery and that an ambitious strategy is reflected in the integrated review?

I am always happy to work with the Treasury on any number of subjects. Defence’s multibillion-pound investment in the UK powers the skills, innovation and capabilities that keep this country safe, secure and competitive. As a Lancashire MP, Mr Speaker, you will recognise how important the industry is to the skills base in our constituencies. Defence is leading a review of the defence and security industrial strategy to identify steps to secure a competitive and world-class industrial base that delivers investment, employment and prosperity across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Following recent media reports, what more can my right hon. Friend say about the role that Defence Intelligence plays in assessing threats and our ability to counter them? Will he consider meeting me about an issue concerning a former MOD intelligence training site in Beaconsfield?

Defence Intelligence uses its 4,500 exceptionally talented staff to collect, analyse and exploit intelligence. By working internationally and with other Departments, it is able to judge today’s threat and tomorrow’s, and ensure that that feeds into the future design under the integrated review.

May I start by paying tribute to the forces men and women who are working to help the country through the covid crisis? We may soon need to turn to them again, in the face of this renewed pandemic threat.

On the integrated review, I recognise that the cycle of defence decisions does not match the cycle of political elections. Britain still benefits from the skills, technologies and capabilities at the heart of Labour’s Drayson review 15 years ago. The Opposition want the Government to get this integrated review right, but given that this is the third Conservative review in just 10 years, how will the Defence Secretary avoid making the big mistakes of the last two?

The mistake of all the defence reviews—including the 1998 one, which was exceptionally good, and Lord Drayson’s review—was that they were not matched by funding. The Labour party had exactly the same problem with its last review, which is why in 2010 we inherited a black hole of billions of pounds, and indeed, there is a black hole now, identified by the National Audit Office. This is not unique to any political party. Selective picking of the last two reviews, when I could probably talk about the last five, makes no difference. The key is to ensure that our review is driven by threat. The threat defines what we need to do to keep ourselves safe at home, and the ambition defines how far we wish to go. All that then needs to be matched with Treasury funding. If we are over-ambitious, underfunded or both, we will in a few years’ time end up in the position we are in today and have been in the past. It has been my determination to support the men and women of the armed forces the shadow Secretary of State talks about by making sure that we give them something we can afford and tailoring our ambition to match our pocket.

Of course, the Labour Government invested in defence at a higher rate each year than that of the previous 10 years, but the Secretary of State is right about the big aims and challenges. He has previously described the 2015 review as over-ambitious and underfunded, and to over-promise and under-deliver has become something of a hallmark of this Government, but that most recent review left Britain with a £7 billion black hole for military equipment; 8,000 fewer soldiers than Ministers pledged as the minimum; and multibillion-pound contracts placed abroad when we could build in Britain. Of course, there is also a pandemic disease, which was confirmed as a tier 1 threat but no Government action was taken to prepare for it. For all the Secretary of State’s talk of the grand picture and grand strategy, does he accept that the British public and the Opposition will judge the Government by these tests?

I think that I misheard. I thought the shadow Secretary of State was talking about the position that we inherited in 2010, which was underfunded and over-ambitious—indeed, there was an equipment hole so big that many of the tanks could be driven through it. He could also point out that our men and women in the armed forces have been ready: they have delivered an excellent covid response and have not been found wanting in any way. That is partly because of the investment we have put into them, but also because of expert leadership through the officers and the civil servants in the Department and across the Government.

I assure the shadow Secretary of State that the best way to avoid the pitfalls of the past is to make sure that our ambition is matched by our pockets and what we put into the review. That is fundamentally the best thing we can do for all our forces. I would be delighted to hear the Labour party’s ambition on foreign policy and security; the previous Labour party leadership’s ambition for foreign policy was surrender.

I echo the comments of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), about the armed forces and the job they are doing in the current crisis.

We in Scotland know all about over-ambition and under-delivery when it comes to the Ministry of Defence, because six years ago we were promised a frigate factory, but that promise was broken, and we were promised 12,500 regular troops in Scotland, but the number has never even come close to hitting 10,000. Is it not time, if we are to avoid this cycle of over-promising and under-delivery, to move towards multi-year defence agreements that bring together the Secretary of State’s Department, the Treasury and parties in this House to prevent the £13 billion equipment-plan black hole from growing ever further?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Of course, he may have missed the Type 31 frigate and the Type 26 ships that are being made in Scotland. He may have missed Faslane, although I know they do not want to talk about that in the Scottish National party. He may have missed the recent basing of the P-8s in Kinloss. There will be more investment and more units placed in Scotland, because we believe that the United Kingdom is the best union in this country to deliver security for all its citizens. We do not believe in separation; we do not believe in putting borders between our two countries; and we do not believe in trying to kid-on people in Scotland that they will get something for nothing with a Scottish navy or Scottish armed forces. We are stronger when we are together—that is the United Kingdom and that is what will continue to invest in. There are plenty of troops and plenty of navy in Scotland supporting the security of us all.

The Government promised 12,500 and the Secretary of State has not once come close to delivering 10,000. He promised a frigate factory and his Department has never come close to delivering it. He must know the difference between the frigate itself and the frigate factory promised under the Conservative Government at the time.

Let us look at Denmark, a country that does use multi-year defence agreements. It does not have a £13.5 billion black hole in its equipment plan; it trebled its defence spending a little over one year ago. Why does the Secretary of State not answer the question? We can take the heat out of these exchanges if he takes our advice and moves to multi-year defence agreements. Will we see that progress, as we were repeatedly told we would, when the integrated review is published next month?

We are going to have a multi-year integrated review that sets the course for the next few years so that we can settle down and face tomorrow’s threat, not yesterday’s threat. Scottish National party Members always resort to “Let’s save one regiment or the other” rather than discussing what the threat could be to Scotland and how they are going to deal with it. Fundamentally, all these reviews are supposed to happen not annually but over a number of years. The hon. Member will know that the Treasury has already talked about a four-year spending settlement in the next comprehensive spending review for capital and a three-year settlement for revenue, so it is based on multiple years. Instead of arguing about the difference between a frigate factory and a systems integrator, supplier, subcontractor or supply chain supporter, it would be nice if he would recognise that in Scotstoun and Govan, and in Glenrothes and Fife alone, there are thousands of jobs linked to defence, many of which would not exist if Scotland took a separatist path and abandoned the defence industry and the security of these isles.

Could the Secretary of State say when this integrated review will actually be published? Following the briefings this morning in No. 10, arguably the biggest threat facing this nation is covid-19, with cases once again rising. We must learn lessons from the first spike. It is clear that the bandwidth—the capacity—of all Governments, including the UK’s, is being tested by this enduring emergency. I have said this before and I say it again: please will he encourage greater use of our senior armed forces to help to advance Whitehall’s strategic thinking, operational planning and delivery, as well as the clarity of the message? They are, after all, trained for crisis management and emergency planning; let us make full use of them.

On the timing of the review, it will hopefully report in the autumn—in October/November time. To ensure that our pockets match our ambitions, it is timed to coincide with the comprehensive spending review. Therefore, between the two, we have to make sure that we get the timing right.

On the issue of covid and Defence, we did a fantastic job in the first phase, in my view, through our men and women of the armed forces. We helped to thicken the response across Government by command and control, with senior officers and middle-ranking officers going in and helping people. We strengthened the logistics supply chain in the NHS. We provided mobile testing to make sure that testing went to where people were rather than expecting them to get in cars and go up and down motorways. Our response was excellently positioned. Because we were able to make that response, we have already, backed up by people like those in Defence Intelligence, started planning for any second eventuality, either a second wave or not a wave but an alternative challenge, whether that is winter pressures, floods or Brexit. All that is ongoing. I am confident that our men and women will be able to deliver, whatever demands are put on Government. I offer them to Government on a regular basis. I know that the Prime Minister is incredibly supportive of taking up that offer when the needs fit.

Operation Arbacia has exposed international terror links running from Iran to Ireland and from Hezbollah to the Real IRA. When will the Government be in a position to proscribe the framework operation of that organisation—namely, the Muslim Brotherhood—here in the United Kingdom, and when will they be able to put that organisation out of business?

Hezbollah is proscribed—the political wing as well as the military wing. Real, New and Continuity IRA, and all the other dissident republican groups, are also proscribed. The point that the hon. Gentleman really highlights is that the malign activity of Iran has not stopped. People who think that that does not get back to us on our streets should look at that latest operation, which showed New IRA reaching out in Lebanon or working with Hezbollah and other actors potentially aligned to Iran to potentially inflict murder and death on these streets, either here or in Northern Ireland. We should not forget that. Old habits die hard. These people are now potentially subject to judicial trial, and I cannot do anything to threaten that, but we should point to the facts that he highlights and show that our adversaries link up around the world.

Beirut: Humanitarian Support

Within days of the explosion, Defence deployed HMS Enterprise, the first foreign ship to reach Beirut, in order to survey the blast zone and share crucial data on hazardous material blocking the port approaches. In addition, Defence provided targeted support for Lebanese armed forces who have been co-ordinating the humanitarian response. This included a field kitchen and tents for 500 people, two medical cold storage containers, and a team of advisers.

I welcome the MOD’s humanitarian response to the disaster in Beirut, but it is important that aid actually reaches the people who need it and is used for the benefit of the people. For example, a donation of tea by Sri Lanka for the victims of the blast was distributed to the families of presidential guards. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how he is going to ensure that aid reaches the people who need it, and also how important defence diplomacy has been in providing that support?

Defence diplomacy is incredibly important in making sure that, as my hon. Friend says, the assistance delivered on the ground gets to where it needs to go. It is also incredibly important in making sure we smooth the way in many countries after a disaster or, indeed, just in countries with a different system. That is why we invest in our defence diplomacy network, including our defence attachés. They were first on the ground in Lebanon, and they managed to make way for a number of our advisers, who are in place now. He is absolutely right: we need to make sure that the aid is always targeted to the right place. The defence attaché network does just that, and it will continue to get our full support.

Veterans: Covid-19 Support

The MOD has continued to provide a full range of veterans support services throughout the United Kingdom during the covid-19 pandemic. In conjunction with the £6 million provided to the armed forces charity sector, the Department has helped many veterans contribute to the response to the pandemic through veterans volunteering organisations, or working alongside the military contribution in the national interest.

Would my hon. Friend be able to tell me how the Ministry of Defence plans to continue to use the resources of the UK’s armed forces to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic?

We have seen members of the armed forces working alongside our infrastructure across the United Kingdom, whether they have been inserted in local resilience forums or, indeed, the planners we stood up here in London. UK defence has made a significant contribution to the national effort to defeat this virus, and that will continue in the months ahead.

Veterans Welfare Service

The Veterans Welfare Service continues to provide the full range of support services to veterans during the covid-19 pandemic.

Last year, the Crawley armed forces and veterans breakfast club was established, and I have enjoyed meeting it several times since then, most recently on the VJ75 anniversary. What specific support can be provided to such grassroots groups that support our armed forces and veterans personnel?

When LIBOR funding came to an end two years ago, it was replaced by something called the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. It is administered in a professional way, and all charities and such grassroots organisations can now bid into it for grants. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend with details of how we can pass that on to support the great work that those in Crawley do at their breakfast clubs.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure he will join me in welcoming the Royal Marines family centre at Lympstone, due to open in October, which will support serving Royal Marines, veterans and their families. The Commando Training Centre is a source of enormous pride for East Devon and the many former Marines who live nearby. Could the Minister outline what further support the Government have provided during the pandemic, particularly for those experiencing exacerbated challenges due to lockdown measures, such as mental ill health and alcohol addiction?

I pay tribute to the Commando Training Centre Royal Marines. I was down there in March, and it really is at the cusp, as it were, of family welfare. We have seen under this Government a significant transition to looking after our people through a number of schemes that they are benefiting from. When it comes to extra support, we have moved a lot of our veterans UK services online. We provide an extra £6 million in funding to the charity sector, but of course there is always more to do.

Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising was an inspiration to us all, reflecting the public’s continued strong support for our veterans. What additional welfare support is my hon. Friend’s Department providing to veterans in Havant and across the country to help them to access vital services and to find work?

There is an unprecedented number of options at the moment for two things that my hon. Friend mentions. One is dealing with mental health challenges and other is around work. On mental health, we brought online earlier this year the complex treatment service, which runs alongside our transition, intervention and liaison service. I am bringing the high intensity service online later this year, and I am comfortable that when that is there, we will have a world-class level of mental health support for our veterans. When it comes to getting people into work, there have never been more initiatives. I am clear that the single biggest factor that improves the life chances of our veterans is having a job. There are some extremely good examples around now, mirrored of course by the civil service with the guaranteed interview scheme.

As a veteran and a member of the Defence Committee, I would like to highlight the work undertaken by female charities, particularly by Salute Her, which is part of Forward Assist. Salute Her is a unique charity that offers and provides support to all three services. Does the Minister agree that, to some degree, women service leavers are a hidden population with certain unmet needs? Will the Ministry commit to working with me to tackle the problems faced by women in the armed forces today?

I thank my hon. Friend for her sterling work. I also thank groups such as Forward Assist for their work on this. I am clear that there are some very good veterans provisions in this country, but there are areas where we need to do a lot better. For example, the experiences of many females who serve are still not what I would like them to be, and similarly those of females who leave. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to continue my work with Forward Assist. I have seen the work that it has done recently. We are absolutely determined to make this the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran—for both females and males—and we are determined to continue our work on this.

The Wigston review of inappropriate behaviours was published in July 2019 and estimated that it would take from five to 10 years to make a measurable difference. Why then is a review taking place of the Wigston review that was published just over a year ago? Why are charities, community interest companies and external stakeholders excluded from this review of a review?

The reason we are doing that is very clear. I am aware that, within Government, we are very good at doing reviews, but seeing the impact of those reviews in the real world is something else. What I have asked to do with the Wigston review is find out where we are with it one year on. The review was not for external organisations; it was an internal report that addressed some serious shortcomings.

This review is very clearly shining a light on the Department, showing where we are doing well and where we are doing not so well, and I would be more than happy to share that with the hon. Lady.

I believe that Sunderland recruits more people into the Army than any other city in the country, so consequently has a lot more issues and high demand for services to veterans. Will the Minister join me in thanking Veterans in Crisis in Sunderland, which does excellent and incredibly important work in this area? Will the Government pledge to look at providing more financial support from central Government for services to veterans?

I pay tribute to Sunderland for the extraordinary commitment that it has made to this nation’s defence. We are undoubtedly going through a transition in veterans’ care. For too long we have over-relied on the third sector, and that responsibility is slowly shifting towards the state. I am comfortable that we are meeting that demand at the moment, but it is a dynamic process, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the case in her constituency.

In January this year, the Minister promised to meet Combat Stress and other organisations to assist with their funding that had been cut. What extra assessment has he made since the start of covid of the risks of serious mental health problems among our veterans?

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in this matter. I speak with the service charities on an almost daily basis, and, as I said in my previous answer, there is no doubt that, when it comes to veterans’ care, a shift is going on in this country at the moment from an over-reliance on the third sector to the state stepping up and assuming that responsibility, which is what I wanted. We have the transition liaison programme and the complex treatment service. There is a very small cohort of people who require the high-intensity service that will come on line later this year. I am absolutely determined to ensure that those three streams, as a pathway, are world leaders in veterans’ mental health care. I am monitoring the figures coming in on a daily basis. We are doing pretty well on meeting our timelines, but obviously there is always more work to do.

In June, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost one in five adults is likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the covid-19 pandemic. Given that service and veterans charities have reported an increase in demand since lockdown, and building on the previous answer, will the Minister tell us what steps the Department is taking to ensure that every veteran, all serving personnel and every service family member receive the support they need during this very difficult time?

I am acutely aware of the challenges around the denudation of the third sector at this time, and the other challenges it faces. I have talked about the veterans mental health care programme, and it is worth mentioning as well that we are looking to launch a strategy with the NHS later this year that clearly highlights a care pathway for service personnel and their families as they go through life: before they join, when they are serving and, crucially, what to expect afterwards, so it is a seamless pathway that both veterans and their families and service personnel can understand, but also that I can use to hold the NHS to account. It provides some wonderful services and I am determined to make sure that continues.

Wesley McDonnell, a 35-year-old veteran, decided to take his own life in the park opposite my home. This brave man served and defended our nation for almost 20 years and, sadly, there are still many others like him. Can the Minister please commit to further improving the spirit of the armed forces covenant by tasking the MOD to develop a health and wellbeing pathway, including the assessment and diagnosis of the mental health needs of our brave men and women prior to discharge, and commissioning so that they have the treatment ready?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and let me be absolutely clear on veteran suicide: any veteran suicide is a tragedy for the individual and for their family, but also for us as an institution. We want people to go away from their time in service enhanced, not damaged, by it. We have a job of work to do, and we have made significant progress over the past few years; by January, for example, mandatory mental health training will be delivered in every unit on an annual basis—that has never happened before. Through that, alongside a lot of our work with the Royal Foundation, we are changing the environment in which we find ourselves in delivering mental healthcare, resilience and fitness for our people. There is always more to do, but, working with partners, I am determined we will get there.

Hybrid and Cyber-enabled Threats: Covid-19

What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s ability to tackle (a) hybrid and (b) cyber-enabled threats in the context of the covid-19 outbreak. (906258)

The MOD is developing protective measures to rebut, contest and respond to foreign hostile state activity against UK interests at home and abroad. We continue to work with others in Her Majesty’s Government, including the National Cyber Security Centre, to ensure a fused approach. We take the threat seriously, as demonstrated by the £1.9 billion of cyber spending announced alongside the national cyber security strategy.

A second wave of coronavirus could be accompanied by a second wave of covid-19 disinformation, which, if not properly dealt with, could lead to an impact on the uptake of a vaccine and ultimately endanger life. What steps are the Government taking to improve the UK’s preparedness against further disinformation, and are they co-operating with online platforms to curb the distribution of this material in such circumstances?

The Government take disinformation incredibly seriously; that is to say, we focus on disinformation, not misinformation. Disinformation is deliberately laid, often by hostile states, to subvert us or undermine our policy. It is, however, a difficult subject to deal with given how it often uses its agents to deliver that into the mainstream, or indeed through the deep web and on to the surface web. That is a challenge; it is not easy for either local government or national Government, and I am sure that the Scottish Government find that similarly challenging.

Where we find disinformation, we will of course use all measures that we can to ensure that it is disrupted, or that it is pointed out to the audience that it is disinformation. However, I must be very clear that it is not for us to take a view on mainstream media, or on any other type of media’s slant on Government policy. That is the freedom of the press that we enjoy and we are here to protect.

Armed Forces: Recruitment and Retention

During the 2019-20 recruiting year the armed forces hit 93% of our inflow target despite covid disrupting the end of the year; recruitment was, however, 31% up from 2018-19. While the armed forces are doing excellent work to continue that success, covid has had an initial impact on training throughflow this year. In the short term, therefore, we expect to see lower throughflow, but early signs are that this will be mitigated by improved retention and, very encouragingly, a good flow of rejoiners.

As a response to covid, we have seen the unemployment figures start to rise, and that is particularly reflected in the 18 to 24-year-old demographic. Do the Government agree that this is an opportunity to recruit, and perhaps even to meet our full-time trained requirement for the first time since the year 2000? Does the Minister agree that a career in the armed forces represents an excellent career life choice, and that now is a better time than ever to sign up?

The Secretary of State recently said that

“the greatest asset we have is not our tanks or our aeroplanes, it’s people.”

Yet under the last 10 years of Conservative Government, the numbers of personnel in each of the tri-services have declined. With this in mind, will the Minister make it a priority under the integrated review to address the failure to maintain the strength of our armed forces?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to pre-empt the decisions of the Prime Minister and the integrated review. However, I can assure him that recruiting targets remain as they were, and that while the sun is shining we will be making hay.

Government Procurement: Covid-19

What steps his Department has taken to support Government procurement during the covid-19 outbreak. (906260)

Throughout the pandemic, orders have continued to be made and placed and suppliers paid. The MOD has to date paid £123 million in interim payments to ensure that critical defence outputs can continue uninterrupted, and engaged directly with 600 of its critical suppliers. In addition, as part of the Treasury fiscal stimulus programme, an additional £200 million of funding has been allocated to improve the defence estate accommodation.

Short-term support is great, but companies such as Leonardo in my constituency need long-term certainty on programmes as they fight back from covid. What can the Minister do to provide such certainty?

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for Leonardo and for military helicopters. The publication of the integrated review and, in particular, the defence and security industrial strategy will provide a great deal of certainty. In addition, in the case of Leonardo, through our strategic partnering arrangement we are establishing a joint working group to support future capability and understanding.

Private and Mercenary Military Forces

What recent assessment he has made of the level of threat of private and mercenary military forces to (a) the UK and (b) the UK’s allies. (906261)

The Department keeps all threats to the UK and its allies under regular review, including those from private and mercenary forces.

My right hon. Friend will agree that many of our adversaries deploy mercenaries and private contractors as cartels to achieve their nefarious goals around the world, particularly in Libya, where the Wagner group acts as a proxy for the Russian state. What steps are being taken in the integrated review, and also multilaterally, to assess and combat this threat?

Our adversaries’ use of mercenaries and proxies is growing and undermining stability in the middle east, north Africa and more widely. It is not just Russia’s widely reported use of the Wagner proxy military group in Libya, which of course we condemn, that is causing this instability. We see other actors such as Iran behaving in this way. The UK condemns all destabilising mercenary and proxy military activity. I am afraid I cannot comment on the individual actions we take to counter this threat, as to do so would prejudice their effectiveness.

Overseas Territories: Covid-19 Support

Since the start of the pandemic, Defence has provided a range of support to Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Ascension, Saint Helena and our overseas territories in the Caribbean. HMS Medway and RFA Argus remain in theatre and are standing by to provide logistical and medical support, whether in relation to covid-19 or to providing disaster relief during the hurricane season.

Afghan interpreters have provided an invaluable service to our armed forces, saving the lives of many British soldiers. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the Government’s progress on their commitments to the Afghan interpreters?

The Home Secretary and I announced at the weekend that the criteria for interpreters to relocate to the UK will be expanded to include those who resigned on or after 1 May 2006 with 18 months or more service on the frontline in Helmand, so that more may come with their families to build a new life in the UK. In addition, the Home Secretary and I committed to look even further at those criteria, and to look at where people suffer intimidation, to see whether those thresholds are in the right place as the peace deal progresses in Afghanistan. Standing by these people is an honourable thing to do. They helped to keep our men and women safe, and this is long overdue.

Special Forces: Independent Oversight

If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of establishing an independent body to oversee the operations of the UK’s special forces. (906264)

If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of establishing an independent body to oversee the operations of the UK’s special forces. (906283)

It has been the long-standing position of successive Governments not to comment on the operations activity of the UK’s special forces, as to do so would put personnel and operations at risk. All military operations are overseen and scrutinised by Ministers, who are accountable to this Parliament.

Special forces deserve the very best technological support. Swedish technology company Saab announced in July that it intends to establish a centre in the UK for forward combat air systems. The optimal location for that facility is in east-central Scotland, where Saab can benefit not only from clustering with leading industrial partners, such as Leonardo, Babcock and Raytheon, but from our world-class universities and more widely with BAE and Thales in Glasgow. What steps will the Secretary of State take to work with Saab to help it establish the centre in Scotland?

An interesting angle for special forces. I am not sure we are going to put a special forces base in Angus. We absolutely want the best technology. We recognise that international partners can also bring that technology, and when we work together in partnership, recognising that British prosperity is as important as anything else, we can get a good result for our forces, who get the best kit. It is also good for our economy, so that we get the good jobs and skills that we desperately need around the UK and ensure that the science base is strong and able to compete post Brexit.

The current Government’s adoption of a “no comment” policy prevents any parliamentary scrutiny of the role of UK special forces in defence and security strategy, even when their involvement in operations becomes the subject of media coverage. Will the Secretary of State commit to a review of the “no comment” policy for UK special forces, and enable parliamentary oversight of their activities, placing them on a similar footing to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ?

As I say, it is a long-held policy of many Governments not to comment on special forces. They are accountable to me and to the law, and where we see any issues, Ministers will of course intervene. I will not commit to a further review; that is a longstanding policy. Our special forces do an absolutely amazing job saving lives around the world and protecting our citizens. They operate in the covert world to achieve that effect and make sure their lives are not put at risk.

Army Reserves: Covid-19

Some 1,800 Army reserves were mobilised as part of Operation Rescript, the MOD’s contribution to the covid response. From distributing personal protective equipment in the NHS to delivering mobile testing units and helping build the Nightingale hospitals, our fantastic reservists and the unique skills that they bring have been invaluable in helping the country manage the covid pandemic.

I want to begin by thanking my constituent Josh Grant and others from Crewe and Nantwich who were mobilised as part of the Mercian regiment and were willing to step up and help our country at a time of crisis. What can we learn from the use of remote mobilisation as part of our efforts, and what more can we do to support employers and reservists whose deployment time is reduced from what they have already agreed with their employers?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to his constituent, and I thank him for his service. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, there is a balance between making the reserve as easily deployable as possible and reservists’ not unreasonable expectation to have some certainty about the duration of their mobilisation. My fantastic predecessor has now accessorised some ermine with his combats. Brigadier Lord Lancaster will be conducting a reserve forces review over the coming months, in which exactly these sorts of issues will receive his attention.

Veterans: Vexatious Claims

We rightly expect the highest standards of our service personnel, and we also owe them justice and fairness. We have introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations of our armed forces personnel and veterans. The Second Reading of the Bill will be on Wednesday, and I look forward to the House’s support.

Just as the Government launched their consultation on the Bill, my constituent who had served in the armed forces came to see me. He was concerned to ensure that no service personnel or veterans should be prosecuted for carrying out what they had been trained for. Can the Minister provide him with that reassurance?

I can categorically guarantee and assure all service personnel that, should they operate within the law, which is very clear and well understood, this Government will move beyond the warm words of so many before them and actually legislate to ensure that they are protected from the vexatious and industrial nature of the claims of the past few years. We are very clear, however, that uniform is no hiding place for those who cannot operate within the boundaries we ask them to operate in. The Bill is proportionate and fair in that respect.

Topical Questions

I would like to make a statement to the House on recent reports regarding an approach taken by my Department with a media outlet.

Managing information is challenging, particularly where hostile states use disinformation to subvert our security interests and our policymaking. As the House will be aware, all Government media and communication professionals must abide by the Government Communication Service’s propriety guidance and the civil service code. The Ministry of Defence is no different. However, I have been deeply concerned that those standards are alleged not always to have been met in the Department. I am treating the allegation with the utmost seriousness. The Ministry of Defence I lead will treat outlets with fairness and impartiality. I am today writing to defence communicators across the MOD and all services to emphasise that point. I have therefore asked former director general and communications professional Tom Kelly to lead an independent review to look into the allegations that have been made and establish what underlies them. I will report back to the House once the review has been concluded.

The Rolls-Royce distributed generation systems plant in Winsford provides mission-critical power generation for our armed forces and is now expanding into other sectors, including the rail industry, to help to maintain its 50 highly skilled jobs, as well as another 100 across the supply chain. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Rolls-Royce workforce on their sterling support of our defence capability, as well as perhaps recommending their services to other Government Departments?

I am grateful to the Rolls-Royce workforce for their important support for defence and, indeed, during the covid outbreak. The Winsford distributed generation systems plant provides crucial capabilities to our armed forces. I am impressed by the company’s innovative solutions to the challenges we face, for example on sustainability. It is an excellent example of UK engineering and of high-quality jobs. I look forward to seeing Rolls-Royce developing its private and public sector customer base.

The House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his impromptu statement. I wonder whether he could place the terms of reference for the Tom Kelly review in the House of Commons Library. Can he confirm this afternoon when he expects that review to be completed?

Just 79 people were invited to yesterday’s battle of Britain commemoration inside Westminster Abbey, rather than the 2,200 planned. Remembrance Day ceremonies in seven weeks’ time are unthinkable without so many of those who have served in our armed forces. Will the Secretary of State say what special guidance he will give to make sure ceremonies at cenotaphs across the country can go ahead safely and respectfully?

On the first point from the shadow Defence Secretary, I will of course let him know and put in the Library of the House the terms of reference for the review and when we expect it to be completed.

On remembrance, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the lead. However, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is incredibly important for our Department and our men and women in the armed forces to contribute to it. I am working with the DDCMS to make sure we get that guidance. He is right to highlight the issue and I thank him for doing so.

Of course, some in the veterans community are the most elderly and vulnerable at present, and we have to ensure that whatever we do we protect them in services of remembrance. I took part in VE Day by ringing a number of veterans who could not attend those events. Talking to numerous second world war veterans is quite a moving experience. One raised a problem about being able to get to an optician and it was useful to ring his local regimental association to try to get him that help.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this issue. As soon as we have worked out the plans, I will share them with the House.

What else for Defence questions, Mr Speaker? My right hon. Friend has previously referred to Iran’s nefarious use of power via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Hezbollah and the harassment of UK shipping in the strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that unless its influence is curtailed, the IRGC will continue to be a major threat to the safety and security of British forces, and will he address that in the upcoming integrated review? (906310)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the malign activity of the Iran state in using both proxies and, indeed, the IRGC directly either to harass shipping going about its lawful business or to enable terrorist groups in the region. It does not help any of the peace we seek in that region; nor does it help Iran to join the table of civilised nations, which it aspires to join. The integrated review will look exactly at those things—at threat; defined around threat—whether that is Iranian malign activity, Russian activity on Europe’s borders or, indeed, terrorist threats around the world. It is important that that leads the review. That is what I have committed to, and right in the middle of that will be Iran and the IRGC.

My constituent David is currently serving in the Army. His brother Dan served for 12 years, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but last year Dan killed himself. David wrote to me about the lack of support that Dan had received while he was serving, and said that the Army really does wash its hands of former soldiers once they have left. I have heard the Minister lay out mental health support plans for the future, but David has written twice to the Ministry of Defence about this situation, and only an email from my office has been replied to, nine months after the first correspondence. Is this really the way we should treat our military personnel? (906312)

On unanswered communications, I will have an investigation into that this afternoon, but look, there has never been more help available for veterans and service personnel. Each individual suicide is a tragedy, and each one I take personally, but we have to be very careful about consistently driving home this narrative that there is no help available. Should we make it easier to access? Should we have better care pathways? Of course, but the reality is that there is help available and people must speak out.

As you are well aware, Mr Speaker, BAE Systems plays an integral role in the economy of Lancashire. May I ask the Secretary of State to continue to push for an integrated approach to acquisition in the air sector so that the groundbreaking work on Tempest, which is vital for the UK to retain its sovereign freedom of action, is at the core of future plans for our outstanding Royal Air Force? (906311)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the RAF must have the very best capabilities to meet future threats. This is naturally a focus of the integrated review, and I can assure him that Lancashire’s critical role in air combat, and the skills it represents, are very much recognised and understood.

The Ministry of Defence has a live firing range near Cape Wrath in the north-west of my constituency. Running through the firing range is a road, which, when the military is not using the range, is popular with visitors and locals alike, particularly because Cape Wrath lighthouse, at the top left-hand corner of our country, is one of the great destinations of the United Kingdom. The road is in bad nick. Would the Ministry of Defence be willing to put its hand in its pocket to help get the road done up? (906314)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, although that road runs through MOD land, it is an adopted road. Having said that, MOD contractors have filled in potholes and cleared ditches and culverts, and we will see what we can do. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Potholes are on the minds of my constituents, but they are not what I have in mind when I ask this question. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on the support that his Department has provided to the civil authorities in London in dealing with the covid outbreak? (906313)

Where to begin? Specialist personnel such as engineers, medical clinicians, logistics planners, advisers, and general duty soldiers and drivers have carried out a variety of tasks to help tackle the covid-19 outbreak in London. They have distributed personal protective equipment; critical care transfer teams for the London ambulance service have assisted in the movement of patients; and they have driven ventilators around London, as well as helping with testing. Finally, they helped build the amazing first Nightingale hospital at the ExCeL.

The GMB union estimates that placing the fleet solid support order with UK shipyards could see the Treasury returned up to £285 million of the £800 million contract in taxes. The award of the contract could have long-term benefits for the shipbuilding sector and the wider economy, giving companies the confidence to train new apprentices and plan for the future. Will the Government support GMB’s call for the FSS order to be placed in UK shipyards? (906315)

We have already started a market engagement exercise and have had a healthy response. I intend to announce the procurement timetable for the warships in due course, after market testing has been completed. We intend to encourage international partners to work alongside UK firms for the bid, which will build on the success of Type 31.

I am delighted to update my hon. Friend. Six months ago we signed a £25 million contract to digitise all the services that Veterans UK provides. I am clear that too many of our people have a poor experience, and the people in Veterans UK have to work in very difficult conditions with lots of paper records and so on. We are putting a lot of money into digitising that, the experience will be replicated in an application that people can download to their smartphones, and vets care will be in the hands of every veteran in the United Kingdom.

I must first declare an interest, as my husband is a veteran and South Lanarkshire Council’s veterans champion. The council has been doing fantastic work and has now agreed cross-party to implement a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans, as many find it very difficult to gain employment after leaving the forces. Is that positive development something that the Veterans Minister could take forward with local authorities—indeed, all levels of government across the UK, including potentially this House—to ensure that there is a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans? (906317)

I thank the hon. Lady for her continued work on this issue. I am clear that getting veterans into employment is the single biggest factor that improves their life chances when they leave. We now have a system that is light years away from where it used to be, but we can always do more. We are bringing in another manifesto pledge to ensure that there is a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans in the civil service, and I am always open to ideas to expand that where we can.

Earlier this year, I met councillors and residents in Kirton Lindsey who want to repurpose Vincent hall as a community gym. The Department has been incredibly helpful so far. Will it continue to work with me to bring forward that excellent plan? (906318)

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for her constituents. We have recently received a bid from the council for that asset of community value, and will be contacting it to discuss the offer and the value it would deliver for taxpayers.

May I press the Secretary of State further on the fleet solid support ships? Back in July in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), he said 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…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.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 660.]As EU regulations are no longer the excuse—if they ever really were the reason—why will the Secretary of State not commit today not only to build those ships in British yards, but to get a move on? (906331)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the challenges for our yards is not that they cannot make ships: it is simply that there is feast and famine. Sometimes we go from a pipeline that is full to a pipeline that is empty, and it is incredibly important that we schedule our shipbuilding to make sure we keep as much productivity and throughput in our yards as possible. On the point of the fleet solid support ship, as I have said, we have started discussions and the competition will be issued. He will know that the previous competition was stopped. I am keen to make sure that we get it right for our Royal Navy, and the right hon. Gentleman should wait for the competition to be issued.

Having served in the UK armed forces, I know what a rewarding career it can be. Covid has created many challenges in terms of not just health, but the hit on the economy and the pressure on employment. Many people are probably now looking at ways to supplement their income. Would my hon. Friend therefore redouble his efforts to encourage young people to consider a career in our reserve forces? (906319)

I absolutely would. Hansard will show an earlier pitch for joining the regular armed forces, and now it will show a pitch for joining the reserve armed forces. Over the last few months, we have needed all the skills and experience that our reservists bring, and as the integrated review seeks to draw ever more on the expertise of those serving in the reserve as we expand our capability into new domains, now is a great time for someone to go down to their local reserve centre and join.

The Secretary of State recently stated that the Ministry of Defence’s greatest asset was not tanks or aeroplanes, but its people. However, over the last decade, the Conservative Government have proceeded to make huge cuts in the level of armed forces personnel, and there has been a corresponding decrease in morale within the forces, going down from 60% in 2010 to 45% in 2020 so will the Secretary of State commit to finally putting a stop to these cuts in our brave armed forces? (906336)

The hon. Member is wrong to make a connection between morale and numbers in that way. In my experience, and in the case of the soldiers and sailors I have been meeting recently, morale is high. In my experience in serving, morale is mainly about when someone is used to do things usefully and when they are there on operations. He may like to reflect on the current operational decline in our activity in our forces, which may well have some effect on morale.

On the issue of numbers, it is important not to reduce any armed forces debate to numbers alone. We need the size of the armed forces to be fit to meet the threat. It may be more, it may be less, but the key thing is to make sure we meet the threat and invest in those men and women we have who are serving.

I have recently spoken with the founder of the Combat2Coffee project in Ipswich, which does vital work supporting local veterans’ wellbeing. One of the key issues that he and other veterans are facing is the bureaucratic and sometimes distressing health assessments that they have to go through to get the pensions and benefits that they are entitled to. Will my hon. Friend look at streamlining this process to make sure that veterans living with challenges such as PTSD are not put off accessing the support they deserve? (906321)

I pay tribute to the men and women who work at Veterans UK. They have been working with historical records—paper records—for a long time. It could be a fairly unloved part of what the Government do. We are completely changing that, and digitising all these records. It is our ambition that veterans’ care is in the palm of people’s hands, on a smartphone application by the end of this Government, and we will make sure that this is the best country in the world in which to be a veteran.

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 will suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.