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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.