Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have the best possible process for timely and effective investigations into serious allegations arising from future military operations overseas. That is why, building on the review of the service justice system conducted by His Honour Shaun Lyons and former chief constable Sir Jon Murphy, I announced on 13 October that I have commissioned a review to be led by Sir Richard Henriques. Sir Richard Henriques was appointed to the High Court bench in 2000, has tried several high-profile terrorist cases, and has conducted several reviews for the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan police. His review will consider options for strengthening internal investigation processes and skills, thus helping to ensure that in our future complex and demanding operations around the world, our armed forces are continuing to uphold the highest standards of conduct. It will not revisit past investigations or prosecutable decisions.

Does the Secretary of State believe that not having a multi-year defence settlement would be catastrophic?

My hon. Friend will know that last year we did not have one either, but we got a generous settlement from the Treasury for that one year. It is of course the case that any Department that has a heavy reliance on capital spending prefers a long-term spending commitment from the Treasury. That was true a decade ago and it is true today. That is our preference. However, we are also living in a time of covid-19—a less than once-in-a-generation challenge to both the coffers and indeed the conduct of this country. As a result, we will have to review each issue as it comes. As I have said, we are in the middle of a form of negotiation trying to see what the impacts of the announcement will be.

Order. Can I just say that topicals are meant to be short and punchy? We have got to get into that habit.

As we have seen this afternoon, there is growing cross-party concern over the Secretary of State’s overseas operations Bill. Will he now accept, after 10 Committee sittings, that it is clear that the Bill simply does not do what it says on the tin—to protect British troops overseas from vexatious litigation and repeat investigations? Will he also accept that, as we have seen this afternoon, the Minister in charge is in denial about the Bill’s flaws and dangers? Will the Secretary of State himself therefore join me tomorrow for the Report stage so that we can work together on the changes needed to make this legislation fit for purpose?

Order. I say to the Front Benchers once again, if you are going to ask questions in topicals, they have got to be short and punchy. That is the idea of topicals. I call the Secretary of State.

Now that we have left the EU, what assessment and representations is my right hon. Friend making about inter-operational ability in procurement done by EU members through the permanent structured co-operation, PESCO? (908075)

As a leading European ally, we work closely with allied nations and do not need formal EU programmes to do so. However, I understand that the EU is in the final stages of agreeing third country participation rules for PESCO, and we look forward to seeing them in due course.

Following the death of Captain Dean Sprouting caused by American soldiers on 31 January 2018 while on deployment in Iraq, his widow Linda and their two sons, Oliver and Harry, have been seeking justice on Dean’s behalf. How can it be right for the British Government to allow those who killed Dean to investigate themselves by themselves, and to decide for themselves only to then defend themselves? Particularly at this time of year we are reminded and mindful of Dean’s futile loss of life. Is the Secretary of State willing to challenge the US over this concealment of injustice? (908078)

I have met the widow of Dean Sprouting on a couple of occasions, and I am more than happy to do so again. This incident has been investigated. It is a tragic incident. I am happy to speak with her again, but I am not sure there is too much more we can do.

Royal British Legion branches across the country are getting ready for Remembrance Sunday, and I pay tribute to them, including my home branch of Llanfair Caereinion, which has filled the village with poppies. What guidance has the Secretary of State given to the devolved Assemblies and local authorities to encourage them to hold remembrance services this Sunday? (908076)

This is a very important time of year for the country. We encourage people to remember in their own way. There will be guidance given out by local authorities, but remembrance events will be able to go ahead. There will be a small national ceremony at the Cenotaph which we encourage people to watch on television.

Will the Minister provide an update on the voter ID card roll-out? I know there was a statement in April, but my constituents who are veterans are asking when it will be implemented. It is of huge concern to constituents who rightly deserve their ID card. (908079)

Well, it is veterans ID, not voter ID. The veterans ID card should have come out at the end of last year. It has been delayed. Everybody who leaves the military now gets a veterans ID card, but there are challenges in backdating it and dealing with things such as fraud. We accept that and we are working through it at the moment. I will have an update in due course.

Can I ask the Minister to update the House on the activities and investment that the Ministry of Defence plans for Scotland in the months ahead? (908077)

Defence continues to invest in Scotland and the critical capabilities based there. Both RAF Lossiemouth and Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde are expanding and will be home to the new maritime patrol aircraft and all Royal Navy submarines. MOD expenditure with industry in Scotland has increased for the fifth consecutive year, supporting 10,200 jobs—the equivalent of £320 per person in Scotland. Approximately 10,000usb regular armed forces personnel, 5,000 reservists and 4,000 civilians are based in Scotland.

Why does the Defence Secretary think the Royal British Legion is so adamant that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill breaches the armed forces covenant and fails to protect veterans? (908081)

Again, that is completely incorrect. The Royal British Legion does not think that. It thinks that there is a risk, and it has outlined that risk. We have taken that risk into consideration, and the Bill does not breach the armed forces covenant. It is a good piece of legislation and the House should support it tomorrow.

What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that UK armed forces will not be complicit in sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers in Mali? (908080)

This country has a very long-standing system to ensure that we have strong safeguards against that sort of behaviour. Everyone deploying to Mali will be equipped with the mission-specific training that we have done on operations over many years now. We have some of the highest and most rigorous standards in the world, and that will be continued in operations in Mali.

The vital Crowsnest project for the carriers has faced severe delays. Delivery is now promised for September 2021, 18 months late. Can the Minister confirm that it will definitely be ready next year? (908083)

I can confirm that a baseline capability will be sailing with the carrier strike group next year.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made regarding recent revelations by Bellingcat that Russia continues to develop covert chemical weapons and targeted, more advanced delivery mechanisms in an enormous violation of the chemical weapons convention? What does that tell us about the threat we face, and what is he doing to keep us safe? (908082)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) confirmed that the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018 was carried out by the Russians and that Russia had an undeclared chemical weapons programme. We have repeatedly called on Russia to declare a Novichok programme and uphold its international obligations under the chemical weapons convention. We have brought in sanctions against those responsible for Navalny’s poisoning and we will keep every measure under review.

With almost 400,000 acres in England, the Ministry of Defence is one of the biggest landowners in this country. What is it doing to ensure that it is environmentally sustainable and helping the Government to meet their target to plant many more trees? (908086)

I am speaking to my colleagues across Government about how we can help with the programme of planting more trees in the environment. There is a large programme ongoing in the estate, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we are very proud of the sites of special scientific interest under our control and what we are doing for the natural environment.

Hyndburn and Haslingden is famous for the Accrington Pals and has a proud record when it comes to representing this country. We also have great people such as the team at Veterans in Communities, who I recently had the pleasure of meeting in Haslingden. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look at whether a recruitment office can be opened in my constituency, so that our armed forces can attract more of Lancashire’s finest? (908084)

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate, and Accrington has a long and proud history of providing people for the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces would be delighted to do a visit with her and to look at all the recruitment offices to see whether there is a space that needs to be filled up in Accrington.

It is welcome news that the fleet solid support ships will now be built in Britain. Can the Secretary of State assure us that British steel will be used exclusively to build those ships? (908088)

All I can say at this moment in time is that we are engaging with potential bidders, and we will ensure that we build a ship that is the best of British but also incorporates the best capabilities that we can deliver for the money and for our armed forces.

Can my right hon. Friend outline what support the military is providing to increase NHS bed capacity and what plans there are to extend that? (908085)

At the beginning of the covid outbreak, the military were deeply engaged in the roll-out, building and running of the covid Nightingale hospitals, including the transfer of reserve medics from the NHS into that service. We will continue to review that. We are working inside the Department of Health and Social Care to see what its needs are, and I stand by to deliver them.

Fishermen working in Scapa Flow occasionally still dredge up ordnance left there from the end of the second world war. My constituent Ian Spence did exactly that in January this year. For the loss of a day’s fishing, damage to his gear and the personal danger in which he was put, he was given an ex gratia payment of £228. Can the Secretary of State explain to me and to my constituent why he considers that to be adequate? (908092)

I will have to look at the detail of that case, and I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman. Compensation and liability are obviously linked to who is at fault, and I will ensure that I furnish him with the details.

The changing of contracts at HM Naval Base Clyde, as part of the future maritime support programme, is an exercise in outsourcing. It will lead to job cuts and weaker terms and conditions and create an unnecessary operational risk to our UK defence capabilities. Why is the Secretary of State doing this?

I think the hon. Lady is referring to the change from one outsourcing contract to another. We have gained a lot for the taxpayer from the existing contract, and hopefully more will be driven out in the future. We will do nothing that could endanger national security.

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

Sitting suspended.