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Topical Questions

Volume 685: debated on Monday 7 December 2020

On 21 September, I made a statement to the House on allegations that the Ministry of Defence had blacklisted the media outlet Declassified UK. An independent review that I ordered into those allegations has now concluded and I have placed a copy in the Library today. The review concludes that the Ministry of Defence does not operate any policy of blacklisting and has no direct political bias. However, on this one occasion, individuals acted as if there was such a policy. That was wrong and, on behalf of the Department, I apologise. As long as I am Secretary of State for this Department, we will not tolerate any form of bias within the communications directorate, and I fully accept the findings of the report and will be taking forward its recommendations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. May I ask him about the recent funding announcement for his Department and what that means for the Army Foundation College and the junior soldiers who attend it? The college is, of course, located in Harrogate and has Captain Sir Tom Moore as its honorary colonel.

I had better not cross that, then. My hon. Friend has rightly championed the Army Foundation College, which was assessed as outstanding during its most recent Ofsted inspection. The college is just one part of the training and education that make our armed forces admired across the world. We expect it to continue to play that role as we modernise the armed forces and train the skilled persons we need to meet future threats.

As we approach and prepare for Christmas, I would like to place on record that not only the young men and women training in the Army Foundation College and the other depots across the United Kingdom, but the men and women operating above the sea, below the sea, in Iraq, Afghanistan and right across the world will be standing guard and looking after our values and interests and allies while many of us are getting time off at home. I think this is the last Defence questions before our Christmas session, and, on behalf of my Department and my Ministers, I would like to pay tribute to them.

I reinforce that tribute to our armed forces, who will be serving throughout the Christmas and new year period. I welcome the report that the Secretary of State says he has had placed in the Library this afternoon, and his apology. I also welcomed his written statement last week after troops had begun to arrive in Mali, because on the Opposition side we strongly support the deployment of our forces to support the United Nations mission in Mali; I simply believe that any Secretary of State should report directly to, and answer questions in, this House before committing British forces to conflict zones.

I ask the Secretary of State now, if I may, to report to the House on another matter that for many is at the heart of forces life and aspirations: why is the forces Help to Buy scheme now helping fewer forces families than when it was launched six years ago? What action is he taking to fix the failings of this scheme, so that those who serve are not denied the same dream of home ownership as everyone else?

I would be troubled if fewer were being helped by it. That is not our intention and, indeed, one of the early things I did when I took this office was to extend the Help to Buy scheme, because it is a thoroughly worthwhile scheme. I will be delighted to look into the matter and present to the right hon. Gentleman why the numbers have dropped and what we can do to increase them.

The 2015 defence review highlighted all the things that can go wrong when a Government fudge funding figures. This mistake opened up a £30 billion black hole in the defence budget. It also led to a monumental failure to secure the recruitment of troops that the UK needs, leaving us 12,000 short of strength. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what lessons the Government have learnt from the past review, and how they plan to implement adequate funding to the MOD to ensure that they do not underfund financial resources again? (909841)

If the hon. Member has been an avid attender of Defence questions, she will have heard me say on a number of occasions that the lessons of the past for both Governments—including Labour Governments; I refer her to the National Audit Office report of 2010—are that we should not over-promise, be over-ambitious or underfund, and that we should cut our cloth accordingly. I have read not only the 2010 report but all the successive NAO reports and SDSRs going back to 1998, to learn what mistakes should and could have been avoided. That is why we have had this review and this record funding, and it is why the Prime Minister made the exception for a multi-year spending decision not only in CDEL but in REDL. This gives us the space to put things right that have been wrong and to ensure that we make long-term investments that match our ambition. I am sure the whole House agrees with that. I am always happy to take suggestions from hon. Members from all around the House about what we could do even better.

Thank you, ground control. I understand that my right hon. Friend has, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, agreed a new co-operation agreement with the Israeli defence force. Could he update the House on the impact of that agreement and tell us what benefits it will bring both to the United Kingdom and to the state of Israel? (909849)

I will write to my hon. Friend. Obviously, defence co-operation with a range of countries benefits our mutual interests. For example, we often, even unofficially, in that we do not have a formal agreement, work with countries where a threat presents itself that poses a threat to our citizens and our interests. I will write to him about the specific details of the country he mentioned.

I thank the Secretary of State for agreeing last week to provide four military planners for Hull and the Humber after the three Hull MPs asked for help due to the very high rates of covid-19 infection. I understand that the local area will have to meet only the subsistence costs of those four military personnel, so can the Secretary of State confirm that, if Hull needs more logistical help in the form of boots on the ground to get lateral flow tests out and help with mass vaccinations, military help will be forthcoming, and with no charge to Hull City Council? (909843)

As the hon. Lady says, the MACA request for Hull was approved on 1 December, and four military planners have been provided to support the Humber local resilience forum until the end of January with specific areas of covid-related planning. If that planning reveals a demand for further military resource, I am sure that a further MACA request will be forthcoming, and we will consider it on its merits.

The tradition of military service runs deep in County Durham, with young people from my constituency currently going through their training. Their parents are rightly proud of them and their achievements. When will parents’ physical attendance at passing-out parades be able to resume? May I also reiterate my previous invitation for a departmental Minister to come to visit suppliers in my county and constituency as soon as possible? (909852)

I know that the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), is itching to visit the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As for attendance at pass-out parades, I know how much my own family enjoyed my pass-out parade at Sandhurst. These are big, big moments in the lives of soldiers and the families who support them. We have to work within the Government’s guidelines, but as soon as we can get parades open to family and friends again, we will do so.

We are hearing about some of the great work that our armed forces are doing to respond to the pandemic; why do the Government allow a shadow to hang over them by reneging on the promise of a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, through which we could all be reassured that they have addressed the practices that led to collusion with paramilitaries? How do I answer my constituents who ask me whether the Government have something else to hide? (909850)

The decision to grant a public inquiry in the case of Pat Finucane is a decision for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; as Secretary of State for Defence, I have no role in it. However, I am a former Northern Ireland Minister and a former member of the armed forces who served there. The hon. Lady will know that there have been numerous inquiries and inquests into a range of killings by both the state and terrorists. We take every case very seriously and examine the evidence before us, but we are also keen to make sure that we uphold the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, which is to help to draw a line under the troubles to allow the men and women of Northern Ireland move forward in peace. That does mean dealing with the legacy, but it also means making sure that when things have been examined we can all move forward together.

Sadly, the number of covid-19 cases in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke keeps us as one of the top hotspots nationally, and our local hospital, the Royal Stoke University Hospital, has had to take its critical care to level 4 in past weeks and has seen staffing numbers down by 60%. Is my hon. Friend able to help us by using our brave servicemen and women from the Royal Army Medical Corps to assist our health and care heroes? (909857)

The men and women of the Defence Medical Services have been real heroes throughout the pandemic, working in hospitals throughout the country. Many of them already have jobs in the NHS, which means they are not ours to flex in response to MACA requests. However, other military medics have been used in response to MACA requests from health trusts, and I am sure that if such a request was to come from my hon. Friend’s local authority, we would be happy to look at it.

The Prime Minister has said that he is ending the “era of retreat”; presumably, that means an end to the retreat in armed forces personnel numbers that we have seen over the past decade—yes? (909851)

It means an end to an era in which successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative, over-promised and underfunded. What is absolutely key is that the Prime Minister determines that this Government and this defence policy meet the threat and do not fund into everything else. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman makes a scissors gesture; I distinctly remember serving in the armed forces under a Labour Government and that is pretty much what most of the Labour Government did. If the hon. Gentleman turned his hand upright, that was the attitude to our armed forces of the Labour Front Bench under Jeremy Corbyn.

Will my hon. Friend comment on and commend the contribution made by armed forces personnel in Clwyd South and across Wales to the national effort during the coronavirus crisis? (909859)

Defence personnel have assisted across Wales during the pandemic, including in Wrexham and Clwyd South, by supporting the Welsh ambulance service, the planning and staffing of Nightingale hospitals and mobile testing. Currently, defence is supporting whole-town testing a little further south in Merthyr Tydfil. I am sure that the whole House will join me in commending the contribution of our armed forces, who have worked tirelessly to tackle covid-19 in Wales and across the United Kingdom.

According to the latest figures released by the Ministry of Defence, four in 10 of our service personnel have actively searched for a job outside the service in the past 12 months. What does the Secretary of State think is driving that trend—is it low morale, low wages or poor accommodation? Or is it the fact that the Ministers over the past decade have not been on top of their brief? (909853)

When we look at retention in the armed forces we are never complacent. We take continuous attitude survey responses very seriously indeed. Clearly, there are things we can do to improve the life of our service personnel, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that retention is a problem; in fact, retention is improving quickly.

In line with the national cyber strategy, the Ministry of Defence works closely with the National Cyber Security Centre in support of national objectives to protect and defend critical infrastructure. The MOD has funded programmes to mitigate cyber-risks against our platforms, weapons systems and core digital infrastructure, and we are developing a cyber-aware workforce to embed cyber-security into our business and operations.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission staff have been forced to decide by today, with only three weeks’ notice, where they will work and live in the new year. That is terrible treatment, as usually they have a minimum of three months, and support from the commission. Will the Secretary of State intervene to ensure that the commission upholds its values by stopping this action, holding a meaningful review of the situation, and allowing unions to negotiate with it? (909861)

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to my attention. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it, and then we can discuss it with the Department and the commission.

With the number of combat role set to increase, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that now is the time to invest in our people, and most specifically in support for mental health resilience, hardware and cyber, so that our troops are prepared in every sense of the word to do the important work that they need to do? (909864)

Over the past two years, we have made a real effort to completely redesign the mental health care provision for our armed forces personnel, both during their time in service and when they leave. I am delighted to confirm for the first time that this country’s armed forces will receive mandatory mental health training every year from 1 April next year. I pay tribute to the service chiefs who have led the way on this significant policy change.

Analysis by on 23 November has highlighted a risk of disruption: new customs controls at borders may create delays in the defence procurement chain. Given that the UK Government are pursuing an increasingly reckless strategy in Brexit negotiations, will the Secretary of State clarify what measures are being taken to ensure no disruption in the defence supply chain? (909867)

The hon. Lady is making a brilliant argument for why we do not want to put borders between countries. Perhaps she could join our campaign to save the Union at the next referendum.

What further support do the Government plan to provide, as part of the UK-Ukraine strategic partnership agreement, signed in October, to develop Ukraine’s navy and deliver maritime security in the Black sea?

Ukraine is incredibly important to the United Kingdom, not only as an ally, but hopefully as a future member of NATO, and it is important that we help those people defend themselves against Russian aggression. That is why our ships are often on tour and deployed in the Black sea. Indeed, only recently, a Type 45 was deployed in that sea. At the same time, it is important to help Ukraine build its own capability, so that it can defend itself against aggressive Russian tactics, which is why, under Operation Orbital, we are out there right now, training its navy in how to do that.

Military aerospace is incredibly important in my constituency of Dudley North, and across the west midlands. Can the Minister say what he is doing to promote our first-rate exports to our allies?

Only recently, I hosted my colleague, the Defence Minister of Qatar, who came to see the joint Typhoon squadron that we operate in the United Kingdom. That squadron, obviously, uses Typhoon, which is built in Lancashire and has a supply chain that reaches right across the north of England. That is why my hon. Friend, like many in this House, will welcome the announcement of the next generation of the future combat air system. Billions of pounds will be put into research and development for the next generation of fighter. This will mean lots of jobs for people in the United Kingdom—in the north, south and south-west of England, and in Scotland.

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

Sitting suspended.