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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 683: debated on Monday 2 November 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans: Support

The Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs are working together with colleagues across Government to improve access to social housing, employment and healthcare, as well as digitising the Veterans UK services. Defence Transition Services is delivering tailored support to service leavers and their families. The Government have delivered a veterans’ railcard and have announced a guaranteed interview scheme in the civil service and a national insurance holiday for veterans’ employers.

RecruitME in Grantham is a specialist recruitment business run by veterans for veterans. Will the Minister join me in congratulating it on its recent award for services to veterans, and will he outline what the Government are doing to encourage more employers to hire a hero?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the company he mentions. I am clear, and this Government are clear, that the single biggest factor in improving the life chances of any veteran in this country, and their family, is having a job. The Government are fundamentally changing what it means to be a veteran by offering a national insurance contribution holiday, guaranteed interviews and things like that. Working with partners in the private sector, we will make this the best country in the world to be a veteran.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The protections in the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill have been warmly welcomed in constituencies such as mine, but obviously we also have veterans of Operation Banner, so will the Minister reiterate the Department’s intention to bring forward the same protections for people who served in Northern Ireland?

I am happy to reiterate again the Government’s position that those who served on Op Banner will be entitled to equal protections on Third Reading of the overseas operations Bill tomorrow. This is the first Government who are actually dealing with what is a very knotty and difficult issue. Northern Ireland veterans can be confident that we will not forget them—we will not leave them behind.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating The Veterans Charity, which ran a Halloween-themed charity car wash in my North Devon constituency and raised almost £500 this weekend? Will he also join me in recognising the vital co-operation between the Government and the charity sector, with The Veterans Charity having helped 650 veterans this year alone?

I pay tribute to all the groups up and down the country who work tirelessly every day to improve the lot of our veterans, particularly the ones in my hon. Friends’ constituencies. There is a shift in the provision of veterans’ services towards more of a balance between the third sector and statutory provision, but we will always require a blend of the two, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her lobbying for this cause.

Armed Forces: Recruitment and Retention

We have a range of measures supporting recruitment and retention, and continue to refine the armed forces offer. Measures include competitive pay, financial incentives, flexible service, and retention-positive accommodation programmes.

What is the Minister’s estimate of the quality of new recruits? Hopefully they are better than we were.

I can safely assure my right hon. Friend that standards have risen significantly since he and I were accepted into the military. We make no bones about it: the standards to get into our military are some of the highest in comparison with our peer nations. We employ some of the finest people this nation has to offer, and under this Government we are seeing a conscious shift towards looking after them and valuing them as our finest asset.

Covid-19: Preparations and Support

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908017)

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908023)

What preparations his Department has made to support the NHS and other public bodies with their response to covid-19 during winter 2020-21. (908029)

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has supported NHS trusts in a variety of ways, with the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment, the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals, and service personnel to conduct testing. We have established a winter support force of approximately 7,500 to ensure our continued support throughout the winter 2020-21 period.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about the armed forces using their logistical expertise in helping to combat the virus. However, can my right hon. Friend assure us that that will not come at the expense of their vital work defending the nation?

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I have ensured both that we have supported our colleagues across Government in tackling the virus, and that our critical defence outputs have continued to be fulfilled every single day. The continuous at-sea deterrent, our Royal Air Force quick reaction alert force and a range of other critical capabilities, and our operations, have all been and will continue to be safeguarded.

Our armed forces have been instrumental in testing for covid-19, and soon they will be supporting the roll-out of mass testing in Redcar too. Does the Minister agree that in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday, we should focus not just on the loss of life in battle but on the commitment our armed forces make to serve our communities every day?

Throughout the covid support force, the armed forces have committed personnel and time and effort in helping the rest of government to meet this challenge, including local government.

With regard to remembrance, despite the covid-19 restrictions in place this year, every effort will be made to ensure that the occasion can be marked appropriately and that the contribution of our service personnel is recognised. We should all take time this week to reflect not only on the sacrifices of past conflicts, but on the sacrifices of our armed forces personnel and the work they are doing right now all over the United Kingdom in making sure that this country gets through the worst of covid.

The role played by our forces in the construction of the Yorkshire and the Humber Nightingale hospital in Harrogate was very impressive. They brought engineering, logistical and organisational expertise to the project, working alongside the NHS trust and Harrogate convention centre. Will my right hon. Friend focus on the additional, complementary skills that our forces can bring to combating this virus, particularly the speed with which they can act and be deployed?

My hon. Friend highlights the important effort that the military made in setting up the Nightingale in Harrogate. I visited it during the set-up time, and it is also welcome that that Nightingale has been used for other NHS tasks, which is an important step in building NHS capacity where it is under pressure elsewhere. Of course, we should make sure that we always bring to bear the best of our armed forces to help wherever we can right across the board. Resilience is Defence’s middle name, and it is that key part of our skill that we are bringing to support most of government across the country.

We welcome the recent Government announcement from the other place of the 7,000 personnel who will be brought to readiness ahead of the winter period. In the light of that, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government should keep the House regularly updated on the numbers of personnel being deployed, how they are being deployed, and if any further strengthening of the numbers of personnel deployed will be necessary as we progress through the winter period? Can he provide an update now?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because I am very happy to inform the House on a periodic basis, perhaps every two weeks or weekly, of the MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—tasks that are being fulfilled. I can place that information in the House of Commons Library. In the previous lockdown, we committed more than 10,000 troops. The number is 7,500 at the moment, but we always keep that under review. During the last lockdown, we actually only used at most about 4,000 or 5,000 at any one time, but of course we stand by to help. At the moment, there are over 20 MACAs in place and being used, and as we speak, we are examining some significant asks from a number of local authorities.

Strategic Defence Review: Timescale

The Government announced on 21 October that they will conduct a one-year spending review for 2021-22. The implications of that decision for the integrated review are currently being considered. The Government will provide an update to Parliament once this has been decided.

At the annual NATO Parliamentary Assembly in 2019, a report was published about the growing maritime threat from Russia. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and other members of the Assembly so that we may feed into the review of forward and ongoing naval demands for the foreseeable future?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work in leading the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The UK, along with NATO allies, takes the maritime threat from Russia very seriously. This tempo and assertiveness of our operational output will continue for as long as Russia continues to pose a threat and challenge to freedom of navigation. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces would be delighted to meet him and his colleagues to discuss it further.

As we belatedly go into this second national lockdown, can we as a House pay tribute to the role of the armed forces?

I say to the Defence Secretary that his commitment to update the House regularly on the use of the armed forces in this second lockdown is very welcome. If he is willing to make further use of the forces this time, this House and the public will back him. I also pay tribute to the professionalism of the special forces who took back control of the Nave Andromeda last week. With the integrated review in mind, this is a timely reminder that while high-tech weapons are essential, our highly trained British troops are indispensable The Defence Secretary promised at the Dispatch Box “a multi-year integrated review”, with

“a four-year spending settlement…for capital and a three-year settlement for revenue”.—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 607.]

When will it be published?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to the armed forces. He is, of course, right that they have gone above and beyond in making sure that we get through this covid process. Because of their training and the skills that they possess, we can answer the call to help with resilience throughout the country. We will not hesitate to take advantage of all their skills. The demand must come from the ground up—from local authorities or, indeed, the rest of Government. We stand by our offer to any part of Government or the devolved Governments to help in that struggle.

As I said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), the integrated review will be resolved; where we are going to go with it will be resolved. We are thinking through the impact of the Treasury’s announcement that there will be a one-year spending settlement. Once we have thought through those consequences and worked through the implications, I will report to the House directly on what that means.

Is it not the regrettable truth that the Chancellor has cut the ground from under the Defence Secretary and our British forces? The Secretary of State rightly said that previous Tory defence reviews have

“failed because they were never in step with the spending plans”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 647.]

They were a cover for cuts, which is why our armed forces are nearly 12,000 short of the strength promised in the 2015 review; essential equipment, from new tanks to the new radar system protecting our aircraft carrier, is long overdue; and the defence budget has a £13 billion black hole. A fully fledged, fully funded strategic defence and security review is needed now more than ever. What does the Defence Secretary say about the failure to deliver on that?

I think the right hon. Gentleman delivered the speech for a potential future statement. No one has said yet that the integrated review will be delayed or curtailed. What we are saying is that we are studying the implications of the one-year spending review for that. Once we have worked through those implications, he is of course welcome to make his points across the Dispatch Box. I know that he is keen to make those points, but I respectfully suggest that he waits until we have thought through the implications. Then we can have that discussion in Parliament.

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday at the end of the week, we wish well all of those organising events in a different fashion. The day does not lose its meaning at all.

On the integrated review, I am sure that the Secretary of State is more frustrated than most. As an avid reader of National Audit Office reports, he will know that pushing spending to the right will ultimately leave him with less money to spend. A multi-year settlement, as long advocated by SNP Members, would allow future-proofed planning. Can he tell us what the consequences of the postponement are for the future nuclear warheads system and, in particular, the W93?

As I said to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the first thing is to wait until we have worked through the consequences of the one-year spending announcement by the Treasury. I, or indeed the Prime Minister, will then be happy to come and update the House about what that means for the integrated review and the consequences that follow.

Unfortunately for the Secretary of State, we can all see where this is going, as he knows as well as we do. In April, he wrote to members of Congress stating that

“support to the W93 program in this budget cycle is critical to the success of our replacement warhead programme and to the long-term viability of the UK’s nuclear deterrent.”

We read in the press about his Department’s alarm that a victory for the Democratic nominee in tomorrow’s election could stymie congressional and US support for that programme. As his Treasury and UK alliances have let him down, does he agree with Tom McTague’s assessment in The Atlantic today that

“if the election of one president or another is an existential challenge, then perhaps the issue is Britain’s strategy itself”?

I do not agree at all, and I think the hon. Gentleman may be slightly confused because, whether it is one year or multi-year, it does not mean to say that the defence budget goes to zero. We will still have a £41 billion budget—one of the biggest budgets in Europe—which will allow us to continue not only running the armed forces but investing in them. Of course, the challenge that we have always been open about is the black hole in the overall finances, which we will have to take steps to meet. I am sorry to disappoint some of the hon. Gentleman’s anti-nuclear colleagues, but that does not mean the end of the nuclear deterrent or the submarines. The budget will not resort to zero after the one year. We should first work through what one year will mean, versus multi-year. It is not the first one-year funding settlement, and it is not the first defence review that is trying to fix underfunding and over-ambition. I distinctly remember serving in the armed forces when Labour’s reviews did exactly the same.

I can tell the Secretary of State what a one-year funding settlement will do: it will make the integrated review next to meaningless. The Prime Minister gave me a direct assurance that the integrated review would not be delayed. If “global Britain” is an instruction and not a strapline, this review is the road map to how we advance our defence posture to support our foreign policy ambitions. Any delay in its publication with its full spending commitments will send a poor signal to the world that we are absolutely serious about re-establishing our global credentials, and could prompt questions about our justification to retain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. May I urge the Defence Secretary to complete this review as promised, with a multi-year funding settlement, taken in isolation if necessary, if the spending review is to be delayed?

My right hon. Friend makes some interesting observations. First, I ask him, as I have asked others, to wait until we see the implications of the Treasury’s announcement of the one-year review. Until that time, speculation is just speculation, but of course he might like to take his message to the next Treasury questions, where Treasury Ministers, too, can hear his views of the impact.

Armed Forces: Covid-19 Response

The Ministery of Defence continues to play a vital role in the response to the covid-19 outbreaks. It is currently supporting 34 MACA tasks, including providing environmental health technicians to support the Liverpool city region and planning teams to support the Nottingham City Council and the Lancashire local resilience forum.

What role does my right hon. Friend see the armed forces playing in the event that a vaccine is to be rolled out?

Defence has already deployed military personnel to the vaccine taskforce, with personnel supporting central organisation within the task and exploring how the Department could bring logistics support to the national roll-out of a future vaccine.

Defence Exports: NATO

The MOD leads on strategic export campaigns to our NATO partners, and from my personal contacts, including recent trips to Estonia and Poland, I know how respected UK military kit and innovation are. We work closely across Government to support British exports and western security.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the chief executive of Meighs & Westleys at its site in Newcastle-under-Lyme, where it manufactures high-integrity castings for the UK naval supply chain. It is already exporting 5% directly to the United States and another 5% through intermediaries. Will my hon. Friend praise the company for its export success so far, and will he work with the Secretary of State for International Trade to encourage further export success in the future?

I absolutely congratulate the company on its successes, both at home and overseas. I work closely with colleagues in the Department for International Trade, particularly in the defence and security exports team, and I will happily, via my hon. Friend, introduce the company to that team to see what they can do to assist it.

British Shipbuilding Support

As shipbuilding tsar, I am working with Cabinet colleagues to supercharge the British shipbuilding industry. Driven by the ministerial shipbuilding working group, in the past 12 months the Government have signed the contract for five Type 31 vessels to be built in Rosyth, developed a maritime enterprise export plan to pursue export opportunities that will hopefully deliver state-of-the-art British ships to our global allies, and launched a major analysis of the skills required in the broader maritime sector through the Maritime Skills Commission.

My father worked as a shipwright at Smith’s Dock Company on Teesside, and I know that the UK has a proud history as one of the greatest shipbuilding nations in the world. As we leave the EU, may I ask my right hon. Friend what steps he is taking to ensure that all parts of the UK benefit from shipbuilding opportunities supporting the military?

The Government’s ambitious shipbuilding agenda is reinvigorating this industry, including where my hon. Friend’s father worked. We are working to review old yards, to diversify the industry’s portfolio to promote smaller innovative vessels, and to strengthen the national supply chain, which underpins this. We will support tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, securing benefits for every corner of the Union and bringing shipbuilding back home to the UK. We are intending to use as many of our defence contracts as possible to incentivise investment by the owners of yards and, indeed, to invest in the workforces.

Will the Secretary of State heed the pleas of his Back Benchers and listen to the shadow Secretary of State’s recent “Built in Britain” strategy for the defence industry?  I reiterate: follow the shadow Secretary of State’s strategy to ensure that the UK engineering and manufacturing industry endures the covid recession; invest in British engineering and manufacturing, in British people and in the British economy.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I agree with everything he said; that is what we have been doing. We will invest, where we can, in UK equipment. We also sometimes have to balance the urgent operational need of our service personnel: if there is something they need now or in the very short term and we simply do not have the capability to deliver it, we will sometimes have to look where we can to get them the best equipment. There is always a fine balance between making sure our forces have the very best at the very moment and long-term investment. I am determined that we invest both in the people who use our equipment in the MOD and in our industry as far as possible across the board.

Veterans Charities: Covid-19 Support

What support his Department is providing to veterans’ charities during the covid-19 outbreak. (908040)

The Government have been proactive in providing support to the charity sector in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The MOD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs have played a leading role in this effort by providing £6 million in funding for the armed forces community through the covid impact fund.

In June, the Office for National Statistics reported that almost one in five adults were likely to experience some form of depression during the covid-19 pandemic. Given that service and veterans’ charities have seen a spike in demand for their services, can I ask what steps the Department is taking to support veterans, serving personnel and service family members during this very difficult time?

It is completely accepted that this period of lockdown and the lockdown that is coming present particular challenges for a veterans community that, in some small parts, may be struggling with the situation. We have worked hard to go down the pathway of blending the statutory and state provision, working with our third sector to make sure that people are being looked after, on time, in suitable care pathways. We have more to do, but we are a lot better than we used to be and I am confident that we will be the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran in due course.

The north-east sends a higher proportion of people into the armed forces than any other region and we are proud of our veterans. Forward Assist helps them to transition into civilian life. When it moved online, it found that referrals quadrupled, with some coming from as far afield as Germany, and there was overwhelming demand for mental health support. It needs funding to improve its digital infrastructure and find mental health professionals to provide support, the need for which will go up again, with the second lockdown. Will the Minister provide that?

I pay tribute to Tony and all of the team at Forward Assist, who do an incredible job in the north-east and are a good template for others to follow across the country. More money is going into veterans’ mental health than ever before, in terms of the transition liaison service, the complex treatment centre and the high intensity service that we are bringing on board later this year. We are always happy to look at doing more, but I am confident: the need is expanding and we are meeting a great deal of it at this time.

The Liverpool Veterans headquarters has seen a significant increase in demand for its services throughout this pandemic and especially for mental health support. This situation is likely to worsen in the coming months, and the support this local charity offers will be in greater demand. The resources it has are stretched beyond capacity and the £6 million just alluded to is not enough. Can the Minister explain how he will redress this shortfall?

By using the transition liaison service, the complex treatment service and the high intensity service. Those are the three frameworks through which all mental healthcare pathways for veterans in this country will go. There is an opportunity for third sector companies, such as Forward Assist and the others that have been mentioned, to bid into those programmes—indeed, they are already running some of the programmes in the north-west and north-east. That is the future: a blending of third sector and statutory provision. There is resource in the sector and we need to do more to make it easier for people to understand, but I am confident of the way ahead.

Each death by suicide is a tragedy. Suicide is of great concern to the military and veterans community in my constituency of Jarrow and throughout the country. Will the Minister outline the scope of the Department’s study on the cause of death of military personnel who were deployed on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? When will the study be published?

We currently have a number of studies going on. This country has traditionally been a poor collector of data when it comes to veterans affairs. We are looking at a cohort study of 20,000 people who went through Iraq and Afghanistan and what happened in their lives. We are also looking into each individual who takes their own life and studying the 12 months prior to that incident to work out whether there was anything that any Government or third sector provision could have done to intervene. I accept that we start from a low base when it comes to data, but that is now changing and I hope we be able to do the best job that we can in fighting veteran suicide.

The Minister will know about the recent announcements of job losses at Help for Heroes, in addition to the closure of all but one of its recovery centres because of a reduction in funding as a result of covid-19. As that is the case for one of the UK’s biggest household names, which is under huge financial pressure and having to make such difficult decisions, what further support will the Government give to service and welfare charities to fill the gaps in the coming months? We know that the demand is there.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I spend every day fighting to get more money into the sector. The veterans care sector is changing, and aspects of it needed to change. We have seen a decrease in giving as the overt nature of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has faded, yet the demand continues to go up. That delta is being met through the new programmes that I have outlined. There is always more to do and I am happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber to hear his particular concerns.

At the previous Defence questions, the Minister said:

“For too long we have over-relied on the third sector”—[Official Report, 21 September 2020; Vol. 680, c. 611.]

when it comes to veterans’ care, and I totally agree. As far back as June, Cobseo reported that one in 10 armed forces charities would have to close in the next 12 months as a result of coronavirus. The pressures will only intensify with the second lockdown imminent, so what urgent action will the Minister take to ensure that no gaps in charity provision and vital support arise over the next four weeks?

I want to be clear with the hon. Lady. A rationalisation and professionalism is definitely currently going on in the veterans’ care charity sector, and in respect of many aspects that needed to happen. My concern is veterans, the provision for them and what it looks like to the veteran. We are working hard to bring together seamlessly the panoply of care, whether it is in third sector or statutory provision, and we will get there. There are financial challenges, but I am confident that we can meet them and that this country will be the best place in the world to be an armed forces veteran.

Veterans: Vexatious Legal Claims

We are unstinting in our admiration of and gratitude for our armed forces, who perform exceptional feats in incredibly difficult circumstances to protect this country. We rightly expect the highest standards of our service personnel, and we owe them justice and fairness. We have introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to help to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of re-investigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans. The Bill’s Report stage and Third Reading will take place tomorrow.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Can he give me and the whole House assurances that veterans’ rights to claim against the MOD will in turn remain protected?

Yes. The majority of personal injury and clinical negligence claims by service personnel and veterans against the MOD do not relate directly to overseas operations so will be unaffected by the Bill. Veterans will still be able to bring claims relating to overseas operations against the MOD within a reasonable timeframe. For example, in the event of a late diagnosis, service personnel and veterans will be able to bring personal injury claims against the MOD for up to six years from their date of knowledge.

Overseas Operations: Civil Claims

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the overseas operations Bill on the ability of service personnel to make civil claims against his Department. (908028)

The Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill will not prevent service personnel and veterans from bringing personal injury claims against the Ministry of Defence in relation to overseas operations within six years. Historically, we assess that the vast majority—around 94%—have done so already. We will, of course, aim to ensure that everybody in the armed forces community is made aware of their right to bring claims and of changes to the relevant time limits for doing so in relation to overseas operations.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Does he agree that the rhetoric around exemptions from torture mislead, colleagues and the public and only serve, to misrepresent the purposes of this long overdue Bill?

No, but let me be really clear on these issues around torture. Nobody on this side of the House, or on either side of the House, would want to reduce our safeguards against torture. We have to be realistic about what this country has put its servicemen and women through in terms of historical allegations. Credible allegations will always be investigated. It is not right to say that it is almost impossible to prosecute, and people peddling that view know it to be untrue. I am happy to work with anybody to improve this Bill, but we must operate in the real world.

Veterans: Welfare Service

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on providing an effective welfare service for veterans. (908030)

The MOD’s Veterans Welfare Service provides advice and information on areas such as health, statutory benefits and pensions to all ex-service personnel and their families. Other areas of veterans’ welfare, such as health and benefits, are the responsibility of the respective Departments, and my officials work closely with them to ensure a joined-up approach.

What steps is the Minister taking to remove the negative stigma from mental health issues from veterans?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on these issues. It is true to say that we are light years away from where we were, but there is still more work to do. The vast majority of people and families of those who have taken their own lives have not spoken out and have not reached out for help, and that remains the biggest challenge in fighting the issue of veterans’ suicide. We have made great progress and I pay tribute to all those who have come with us on that journey, but it is clear that we have more to do and I am determined to lead that fight.

Overseas Operations: Negligence and Personal Injury Claims

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the overseas operations Bill on the number of veterans who make allegations of (a) negligence and (b) personal injury against his Department. (908033)

As I said in response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mark Jenkinson), the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill will not prevent service personnel and veterans from bringing personal injury claims against the MOD in relation to overseas operations within six years of either the date of incident or the date of knowledge. Claims by service personnel and veterans that are not related to overseas operations are unaffected by this Bill.

As Members begin to wear their poppies across the House, I want to remind the Minister of comments from Charles Byrne, the director general of the poppy appeal charity. He said that

“the six-year longstop could be a breach of the armed forces covenant”,

and that the six-year limit is

“protecting the MOD, rather than the service personnel”.

The Government say that the Bill is about protecting veterans, so, given that this is what many veterans’ organisations are saying, will the Government think again about the six-year limit, and will they also commit to promoting awareness of how to bring forward civil claims against the MOD to ensure that no veteran is unable to make a civil claim in the future?

It is not true to say that many veterans’ organisations take the same view as the Royal British Legion on this case. Neither the Legion nor the Government are the guarantor of the armed forces covenant. I am absolutely 100% sure that this does not breach the armed forces covenant. If we were to wilfully translate it in a way in which it was never intended, then I accept what has been said, but that is not what the armed forces covenant is there to do. It is there to ensure that there is no disadvantage for those who serve, and this Government are the first to legislate, in the armed forces Bill next year, to make it illegal to discriminate against servicemen and women and veterans for their service. I am afraid therefore that I disagree on that point. It is a good Bill. It is fair and proportionate, and people should support it tomorrow.

UK Territorial Waters

What recent steps his Department has taken to protect UK territorial waters in the (a) north Atlantic and (b) North sea. (908038)

What recent steps his Department has taken to protect UK territorial waters in the (a) north Atlantic and (b) North sea. (908042)

The protection of UK territorial waters is a cross-Government responsibility.  The Ministry of Defence contributes to this by providing a multi-layered capability to deter incursions into territorial waters. This includes a range of assets based in Scotland, from surface ships and submarines based on the Clyde to the new Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft based at RAF Lossiemouth. That is a good example of how United Kingdom defence contributes to the security of all these islands.

Can the Secretary of State tell us his plans to ensure that our armed forces can cope with multiple tasks, including combating people and drug trafficking, and foreign incursion into our territorial waters and airspace, as has been seen recently? Will they specifically live up to the Government’s promise to establish a frigate factory on the Clyde?

First of all, the hon. Gentleman will know that one of the ways in which we cope with securing our borders—both inside and further afield internationally—is by burden sharing and working across a range of agencies, including the Scottish Government, who have control of fisheries protection. On the issue of a frigate factory, first and foremost, the last two major shipbuilding contracts for defence have both been placed in Scotland: the Type 26 on the Clyde and the Type 31 at Rosyth. Good United Kingdom shipbuilding will, of course, always involve Scotland—as long as Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom.

Scottish waters comprise over 60% of the UK’s waters, yet we have no surface warships. In fact, the most northerly surface warship base is located at the south coast of England, which means that scrambling a fleet ready escort takes over 24 hours to reach Scottish waters. Given that there are almost monthly transgressions into Scottish waters and we need regular patrols, why is the Rosyth base being scrapped?

The hon. Gentleman’s claim could have some credibility if his party was not busy trying to scrap the HM submarine base on the Clyde and to push the submarines out of Scotland.

Non-disclosure Agreements

What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of non-disclosure agreements used within his Department’s defence programmes. (908043)

The Ministry of Defence only uses non-disclosure agreements in its commercial arrangements by exception, when there is a specific need. Although no trend analysis has been undertaken, it remains the case that NDAs are only used where absolutely necessary.

I accept that NDAs are important in terms of financial contractual obligations, but is the Minister aware that his Department is asking industry, at pre-bid stage, to sign NDAs that actually exclude those companies from being able to speak to MPs or Ministers? I understand that some US primes such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin are refusing to sign them—quite rightly—so why is the Department now getting companies to sign these NDAs for contracts such as Skynet?

I am not aware of any company complaining about NDAs. If the right hon. Gentleman is aware of some, I would really encourage those companies to get in contact with me directly and I will take it up.

There are many means, including through trade associations, whereby companies can put the word to Ministers if they are concerned. NDAs do have a valuable role, including protecting the interests of the commercial entities themselves; they normally work both ways. Many companies are reluctant to share intellectual property, and research and development, with another entity without having their own position protected, so NDAs have a benefit for companies as well.

Defence Manufacturing: Covid-19 Support

If he will bring forward equipment procurement decisions to support the defence manufacturing industry during the covid-19 outbreak. (908044)

We have maintained a close and ongoing dialogue with defence manufacturers throughout the pandemic to ensure that companies are effectively supported. I am pleased to confirm that orders have continued to be placed throughout the crisis.

Airbus and Tata Steel in Neath Port Talbot are strategically important to the Welsh economy. Is the Minister ensuring that procurement is brought forward in terms of buying aircraft and building ships to help British steel and Airbus? Boeing, for example, has a lot of orders in America that supports it as a primary competitor, and we see such support in Europe as well. What is the Minister doing for Airbus and Tata Steel?

There are elements of programmes that are being brought forward. The prime focus now, however, is on supporting the cash flow of the companies and suppliers. We have the means of doing so and we have been doing so. We have also been encouraging primes to support their own supply chains. From what I hear from trade bodies, that has been happening. I am pleased by the way the whole of industry has leant in during this ongoing pandemic and the support that Companies have been given right the way across.

International Disinformation Threat

What assessment he has made of the potential threat of international disinformation to the security of the UK. (908046)

The Ministry of Defence takes the threat posed by malicious disinformation campaigning by state and non-state actors very seriously. Working with allies and partners across Government collectively, we monitor such activity closely, assess the risk, and take action to counter it if appropriate.

Topical Questions

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.