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Volume 685: debated on Monday 7 December 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Military and Security Co-operation: European Union

What plans he has for future military and security co-operation with EU (a) institutions and (b) member states. (909779)

Although we are leaving the EU defence structures, we remain committed to the security of Europe and will continue to co-operate with the EU and European nations on a bilateral or multinational basis on shared threats and challenges. We do not need an institutionalised relation with the EU to do so. The defence settlement reaffirms our position as Europe’s leading power, with the second highest defence budget in NATO, providing leadership and the ability for investment to help to drive forward NATO’s adaptation.

Any major conflict will require UK forces to be able to work collaboratively and fully with EU forces in the future. What steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that that is possible through access to the European Defence Standardisation Committee, which replaces the former Materiel Standardisation Group?

The leader in the field of standardisation has always been NATO, with the setting of NATO standards, which have let us interoperate with our allies the United States and all the other nations of Europe. It would be wrong to abandon that to adopt another approach. We all know in Europe, whatever part of the EU debate one is in, that the United States is the cornerstone of European security, and that is why NATO is so important.

My right hon. Friend knows, however, that NATO and Europe are not quite the same. As Brexit talks reach their conclusion, does he agree that to depart without a trade deal would be less than helpful in re-establishing western resolve to take on the growing, complex threats that we face? The Government’s integrated review emphasises a commitment to reinvigorating a proactive role for the United Kingdom on the international stage, giving real purpose to global Britain. Would it not be an abject failure of statecraft, and diminish our collective security co-operation, to leave the EU without a deal?

My right hon. Friend obviously urges us to make a deal. I think that right now, as we speak, members of the Government are trying to make a deal with the European Union to enforce the decision by the British people to leave the European Union. What would be a mistake is if both sides forgot that security is not a competition—it is a partnership. That is what I always said as Security Minister, and as Defence Secretary I mean it now. There has been no sign among many of our European allies that that situation has changed. We are still partners in going after whatever threatens all of us, our way of life and our values.

I am encouraged by the Secretary of State’s replies so far. Given that there is no security for Europe without the United States, what specific reassurance can he give that we shall not be sucked, via Permanent Structured Cooperation, into the European Union’s persistent attempts to create an alternative NATO without the United States, which would be a particularly dangerous military version of Hamlet without the Prince?

My right hon. Friend raises a worrying spectre. First, we are very grateful to the Germans, who have tried very hard to get a proper third-party agreement with PESCO, although we have no plans to participate in it because we have serious concerns about the intellectual property rights and export controls that it would seek to impose. However, we will always be open to working with European industries—on the future combat air system, for example. We have engaged with the Swedish and the Italians, for instance, because the collective security of Europe is often based on a good sovereign capability in our industrial base. We will continue to do that on a case-by-case basis, and to do that with our other allies such as the United States. Britain is also the keystone of European security.

UK-produced Steel Procurement

The Government publish their future pipeline for steel requirements, together with information on compliance, with steel procurement guidelines. These measures enable UK steel manufacturers to plan better and bid for Government contracts.

Last month, UK Steel criticised the opaque procurement processes involved in the defence sector. I know the Government will agree that UK steel is vital to our national interests. Will Ministers therefore set clear and transparent objectives regarding UK steel in defence projects and commit to engaging with the industry early, meaningfully and often in the procurement process?

I am sorry to hear that. We are very keen to engage fully with the steel industry; it is important that we do so. We need transparency, and that is absolutely a goal, as is reinforced by the Cabinet Office guidelines. Looking at the macro picture, however, I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree that the plans we put in place for the biggest single boost to defence expenditure in 30 years, with the commitments to Type 26, Type 31 and the fleet solid support programme, all suggest that there are going to be good opportunities for steel manufacturers in the future.

Departmental Spending: High-skilled Jobs and UK Economy

What steps he is taking to ensure that his Department’s spending supports (a) high-skilled jobs and (b) the wider UK economy. (909781)

What steps he is taking to ensure that his Department’s spending supports (a) high-skilled jobs and (b) the wider UK economy. (909787)

The Ministry of Defence is one of the largest providers of apprenticeships in the United Kingdom, with around 20,000 on a programme at any one time. We are investing in cutting-edge capabilities and research and development with the future combat air system technology initiative, resulting in more than 1,800 highly skilled engineers in 300 companies throughout the UK. The MOD spent £19.2 billion with UK industry and commerce in 2018-19, safeguarding and supporting thousands of jobs throughout the UK.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm what impact the end of the transition period will have on our ability to amend defence procurement regulations to support UK jobs?

The Government are using the opportunity offered by leaving the EU to develop defence and security procurement regulations tailored to better meet the UK’s needs. We have embarked on a comprehensive review of the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations 2011 with a view to improving the pace and agility of acquisition.

Two years ago, MBDA’s high-tech manufacturing facility was officially launched in Bolton. As the Secretary of State for Defence said at the time, we cannot have prosperity without security. What good news can my right hon. Friend share with Boltonians in the run-up to Christmas and beyond?

I think the best news for Boltonians and fellow Lancashire constituents such as mine is that the Government’s record defence spending commitments for the integrated review mean that there will be money for the future combat air system, one of the mainstays of north-west aerospace. That is good news for MBDA in Bolton, good news for BAE, good news for the supply chain and good news for the thousands of people in the north-west who work in aerospace, and that is because the Government have invested in the future capabilities of sovereign aerospace.

Veterans: Covid-19 Support

The full range of veterans’ support services, including the Veterans UK helpline and the welfare service, have continued to be provided throughout the covid-19 pandemic, with appropriate adjustments to keep people safe. This Government have sponsored a study into the specific effect of covid on the veteran community, and we will report on that in the next few months.

I welcome the study. This year has been very challenging for older veterans, who are more at risk of isolation because of the covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions and the tightening of funding for military charities. What work is the Minister undertaking to ensure that no veteran in Putney and across the country is going lonely this Christmas?

Over the course of the past 15 months, the UK’s first Office for Veterans’ Affairs has spent every day trying to design a system to stop veterans who leave the military from falling through the panoply of services that are there. That includes working with the third sector, which has an enormously important role, and also with statutory provision, because we understand that, ultimately, this nation’s duties to its veterans should be ensured—not delivered—by the state. I am determined we will reach the goal that this will be the best country in the world to be an armed forces veteran.

I thank the Minister for his remarks. As he knows, many of our veterans up and down the country have faced loneliness and isolation as they shield during the pandemic, and that feeling will only get worse as we approach Christmas, with the reality of not being able to see family as usual. Will the Minister support and promote the Jo Cox Foundation’s “Great Winter Get Together” to help our veterans who may be experiencing loneliness this winter?

I would be delighted to support the initiative in the name of my friend, Jo, who was in the same parliamentary intake as me. Loneliness is an acute problem, particularly at this time of year, and I am especially aware that our veterans, who often depend on the sort of face-to-face contact of such things as cognitive behavioural therapy, will have been challenged by the specific circumstances we find ourselves in. I would be delighted to support that effort.

NHS and Public Bodies: Covid-19 Support

What recent preparations his Department has made to support (a) the NHS and (b) other public bodies in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909783)

What recent preparations his Department has made to support (a) the NHS and (b) other public bodies in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909784)

What recent preparations his Department has made to support (a) the NHS and (b) other public bodies in their response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909797)

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has supported NHS trusts in a variety of ways, including the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment; the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals; conducting testing; and supporting the vaccine taskforce. We have established a winter support package of 13,500 personnel with specialist capabilities to ensure our continued support to the NHS and other civil authorities throughout the winter period.

I thank the Minister for his response. Will he give a little more detail on how many armed forces personnel are currently deployed on covid-19 tasks and in which specific capacities?

I would be delighted to. There are currently 2,600 personnel committed to covid-19 tasks. The number of tasks is too numerous to list in full in the Chamber, but personnel are deployed on everything from mass testing to the deployment of vaccines and just about everything else besides. The body of the deployment at the moment is in planning, logistics, support to local authorities and ensuring that Defence’s planning and delivery expertise is shared as widely as possible around Government, so that we can ensure that we are poised to respond to whatever else comes during the winter.

I commend the armed forces for the amazing work they have done in supporting the civil authorities. Will my hon. Friend provide an update on any discussions he has had with the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS about how the armed forces will support the roll-out of mass vaccination?

Defence is working closely with other Departments, particularly the DHSC and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, to assist on vaccine roll-out plans. Some 60 military planners are integrated within the vaccine taskforce, and Defence has deployed 56 personnel to assist in constructing vaccination centres. Defence stands ready to provide further support to the NHS in meeting the challenge of vaccinating the UK against covid-19.

The professionalism and logistical support of the Army have already proved vital in our country’s ability to respond to this pandemic. That was seen most recently in Eastbourne’s mobile testing unit, which allowed key workers to return to work. I was most interested in my hon. Friend’s remarks about how the Army might help to roll out the vaccine, having performed various other important tasks. Could he tell the House how many military liaison officers have been deployed to date to help with these very localised planned operations?

My hon. Friend is right to single out the military liaison officers who have been working alongside local authorities across the country throughout the year. There are 350 of them currently deployed. I know from speaking to my own council chief executive in Somerset, and I have heard from colleagues around the country, just how much their expertise has been valued by local authorities, assisting them with their preparations initially for the distribution of PPE, then for testing and now for vaccines.

There are welcome reports that our armed forces are to support the NHS with the roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine, performing vital work to transform sites across the country into distribution hubs. However, personnel are already stretched, and resourcing is a key concern after a decade of defence decline. Will the Minister update the House with real detail on the steps he is taking to ensure that they have the resources needed to perform their vital work safely?

There are 2,600 service personnel deployed right now. The winter preparedness package is 13,500 people at readiness. We are confident that in generating that package, we have not in any way damaged Defence’s ability to prepare for operations that are required currently or in the next six months. We are very proud of the 13,500 that we have been able to generate. Everything that Defence is doing, we are able to do without threatening defence outputs, and we are delighted to be playing the part that we are in supporting the country at this important time.

Official Development Assistance

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s official development assistance spending. (909785)

Defence engagement programmes, including those that count as official development assistance, help create the conditions for sustained economic development for recipient nations by increasing the effectiveness and integrity of their defence institutions. We assess the impact of our programmes continuously and subject them to formal evaluation annually.

As the Minister knows, it is the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, or DAC, that sets out the guidelines for development spending, and it states that spending

“promotes and specifically targets the economic development and welfare of developing countries.”

As the MOD explores new areas, such as cyber-technologies and space-based assets, will the Minister ensure that any development spending by his Department is DAC-compliant and continues to focus on helping the world’s poorest?

I think that the answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that we will do our best, but of course what matters is that we are doing the right military things in order to create the right situations for prosperity and security wherever we are serving around the world. If the activity is not directly compliant, I am not sure that should stop us doing it. The reality is that there are many things that Defence does, not least the forthcoming deployment to Mali, where we will set the conditions for security in a very troubled country, which does not meet the definition, but is a very worthwhile thing to do and has real positive humanitarian effects.

Armed Forces Veterans: Covid-19 Response

What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of including armed forces veterans in the UK’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909786)

What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of including armed forces veterans in the UK’s response to the covid-19 outbreak. (909803)

Responding to the covid-19 pandemic has been Defence’s highest strategic priority, and as part of the national response thousands of service personnel and veterans have been active in every region of the United Kingdom and devolved Administrations.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I think the nation has been inspired by the actions of one veteran during this pandemic, and that, of course, is Captain Sir Tom Moore, but veterans from all of our services have got so much to offer—skills in a wide variety of areas, involvement in many community groups and an approach to getting things done—so how is my hon. Friend ensuring that veterans are kept safe while they provide their invaluable support?

As I mentioned earlier, during this period I have been acutely aware of how our needs for our veterans have changed or moved along during the pandemic. We have rolled out a series of services—the veterans trauma network; the transition, intervention and liaison service; and the complex treatment service. We are working towards that place where we can build a panoply of services so that all of our veterans are looked after in this country, in line with the Prime Minister’s intent.

Veterans across my constituency have been supporting one another, whether by calling in on those they have mental health concerns about or raising money, as the Wantage branch of the RAF Association did in raising £6,000 for Operation Connect. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking them, and does he agree with me that this shows that, even when our service personnel stop their active service, they continue to serve us in our local communities?

I of course pay tribute to the RAF Association in my hon. Friend’s constituency for raising £6,000. Veterans, like many community and voluntary groups across the country, have really stepped up during this time to deliver services, deliver medicines and help vulnerable people. It is something that I certainly have been enormously proud of, and it reflects the true values and ethos of our veterans community in this country.

Fleet Solid Support Ships: Invitation to Tender

When he plans to issue the invitation to tender for contracts relating to the fleet solid support ships. (909788)

It is a pleasure to hear from the right hon. Gentleman. No one could ever accuse him of being inconsistent on this subject. I am pleased to assure him, as I have previously, that we will be commencing the competition in the spring.

The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions has argued forcefully for defence orders to be brought forward to help our industry through the economic crisis, especially in our regions and nations. The Navy carrier group needs the fleet solid support ships, and the Department has the specifications from the previous bidding round. It is a project that is really shovel or welding-ready, so when is the Secretary of State going to get off his backside and start ordering these ships? [Interruption.] He may even want to intervene and answer himself.

I am most grateful, Mr Speaker, though the Secretary of State is raring to go.

Just to reassure the right hon. Gentleman, the specification has changed. It has changed because we now understand more about the carrier strike group and how we will deploy these important assets. It is on track, and we will get there. We have had two rounds of market engagement, and we may wish to do more market engagement. We have got a busy shipbuilding supply chain; there are a lot of orders going through. It is important that this is well based and well founded, and I want to make certain that we launch this competition successfully and, indeed, that it is concluded successfully.

The country has a vaccine for covid-19, and it will be rolled out as a matter of urgency to save lives. The Ministry of Defence has had approval for funding the defence industry. Will the Minister, as a matter of urgency, roll out the FSS and other shovel-ready defence projects now, not wait until to the summer, to give a real shot in the arm to the defence industry, and to retain thousands of jobs and create thousands of new jobs and apprenticeships for new technology graduates, as well as to support British workers and use the springboard of the British defence industry to lead the country out of this covid recession?

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the CSEU report on shovel-ready projects, which I commend. It is always good to have advice from those quarters, and indeed, many of them are already ongoing. I gently remind him, however, that the report praised the German Government for increasing spending by €10 billion to €12 billion over the next few years. It also praised the French—I think the French Minister has been asked to go before the Assemblée Nationale with an extra €1.5 billion, or around that number. That does not bear any comparison with our £24 billion investment in defence over the next few years. That is the biggest single boost to defence over the past 30 years, and it will mean a lot of orders coming through, to the benefit of British defence, the British armed forces, and British firms across the Union.

Integrated Review: Treasury Discussions

What discussions he plans to have with the Chancellor of the Exchequer prior to the conclusion of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. (909789)

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the integrated review, and will continue to do so on wider issues concerning defence.

The spending review made recent welcome changes to defence spending, particularly with cyber and other areas of resilience. It seemed strange, however, that those spending increases were announced before the integrated review. Are the new funds in the spending review part of the Government’s response to the integrated review, and is that a case of the cart coming before the horse? Or, is it a case of, “That’s it”, meaning that the review will not make any new announcements backed up by spending commitments?

The hon. Gentleman asks a valid question about the timing of the integrated review, and there will be an integrated review at the beginning of next year. The defence announcement was a building block as part of that review, and it will obviously work towards the overall posture of global Britain when it is announced in the new year.

The extra funding was a welcome promise to upgrade Britain’s defences after nearly a decade of decline, so it is long overdue. The capital announcement is one thing, but what is the real-terms revenue funding for defence over the next four years?

Over the next four years, £188 billion will be spent on defence. Some £126 billion of that will be set for resource spending, while £62 billion will be for capital spending.

I asked the Secretary of State about resource funding, and he has to face that question. The answer is on page 67 of the Chancellor’s spending review report, which shows a 2.3% real cut in resource funding through to 2024-25. That means less money for forces’ recruitment, training, pay, pensions and family support, at a time when our armed forces are already 12,000 below strength after the last review. That could mean new ships, but no sailors. Will the Secretary of State recognise that hi-tech weapons systems are essential for the future, but highly trained service personnel are indispensable? May I urge him not to repeat the mistakes of past Conservative reviews, and instead to put forces personnel at the heart of the current integrated review?

I know the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in Mr Brown’s Government, who did not have the greatest reputation for financial accuracy. Although we can agree on the spending profile, his interpretation of the rates of inflation and alleged real-term cuts is not something that we recognise. On the “decade of decline”, as he calls it, I thought that before coming to the House I would read the National Audit Office “Major Projects Report 2010”, into the Government in which he was Minister of State, and the spending on defence. That report highlights that in one year up to 2009, the Government overspent by £3 billion. That is where the black hole that amounts to £38 billion came from, so before he throws stones in glass houses about managing defence budgets, he should be very careful.

Perhaps I could be very clear about how we went about getting to this settlement. We started, as I have said repeatedly in the House, with the threat and what we need to meet the threat and to fight tomorrow’s battles, not the last. We then took that request to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, had a discussion, and it resulted in the record settlement that Members see before the House today.

Surely the review is meant to tell us what the threat is and then the Government respond with the spending, rather than the spending coming before the review is published. All that being said, I suppose we are where we are. I am grateful for one thing that the Secretary of State has done: he has finally listened to our policy of a multi-year defence agreement. May I ask him to go one step further? In other countries where those are used, they involve all political parties. Will he pledge to do so?

What would be good is a welcome from the Scottish National party that £1.76 billion will be spent with Scottish business, at least, year on year. That is something that the Union manages to deliver for Scotland through the United Kingdom armed forces. This record spending unlocks funding for Type 26, Type 31, Type 32, research vessels and the fleet solid support ships. Where they are to be built is obviously still a matter for decision in some cases, but I can guarantee that, right now, many ships of Type 26 and Type 31 are being built in Scotland. A welcome for that from the SNP would be great, but of course we know we will never hear it.

Someone’s put 50p in them today, Mr Speaker, haven’t they just? Let me ask the Secretary of State this. I have asked him time and again, and he usually just shouts back to me whatever is in his folder; let’s try answering the question. Of the spending announced for Scotland, at what point—he has only a few days of the year left—will the Government finally meet the promise they made six years ago of 12,500 personnel stationed permanently in Scotland? It is currently below 10,000. In all the projects he listed, he did not mention the promise of the frigate factory. [Interruption.] He laughs because he knows it is a promise that is not going to be met between now and 31 December, is it?

I laughed because, having examined the proposals, the frigate factory would have included the closing of Govan and the investment in Scotstoun. I am not sure, but I remember distinctly that Govan was originally a very proud Labour seat, obviously then represented by the First Minister of Scotland. Having done the review, BAE and, indeed, the MOD and others recognised that the best value for money was to invest in both Govan and Scotstoun, to make sure that we make the frigates and destroyers that the hon. Gentleman wants so much but does not want to use, and to sail them up to Scotstoun to be integrated. That is why we support over 10,000 jobs in Scotland, and we will continue to do so. Where the future basing of our armed forces goes is for the integrated review. All will be revealed to the hon. Gentleman.

Integrated Review: Publication

When the Government plan to publish the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy; and if he will make a statement. (909790)

What recent progress the Government have made on the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. (909801)

When the Government plan to publish the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy; and if he will make a statement. (909812)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced the first outcome of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, with the significant increase for defence funding of more than £24 billion over four years to enable modernisation of the armed forces. The full conclusion of the integrated review will be published, as I have said, early next year.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. An unaffordable and delayed equipment programme; a shortfall in personnel targets; plans to invest in space and cyber, and integration across all five operational domains, as well as a fall in defence spending since 2010 of more than £8 billion in real terms—the Government’s poor handling of our nation’s defence means that the review’s ambitions will not match the Secretary of State’s rhetoric, so when is he going to share with us what areas of defence will be scaled back or sacrificed in the review?

I am sorry; I thought the hon. Lady was referring to the 2010 National Audit Office report on the Labour Government. It is a very good read; all those comments are in there, and it is remarkable that Labour has not learned the lessons. We have learned the lessons. We have looked at what we need to do, we have started with the threat, we are tailoring our response to our ambition, and, as a result, it is my intention that we will make the tough decisions to disinvest in equipment that was fit for previous encounters with adversaries and to invest in future equipment. But at the heart of it, as I have said from the beginning, the most important equipment of our armed forces is the men and women of them. That is why included in that is wraparound childcare, for example, to reflect the modern armed forces.

In the Defence Committee, we have been able to look at the evolution of warfare and what that might mean for this country. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the integrated review will clearly lay out Britain’s position in the changing battle space?

Yes. My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the profound changes we are already seeing at home and abroad, and I thank the Committee for the work it has been doing on that issue. The integrated review will set out the UK’s global leadership, commitment to collective security and burden sharing, alongside defence’s historic settlement. It will enable us to prepare for this new and complex reality, including investing billions in combat air, shipbuilding, space, cyber and world-leading research.

The four years capital programme is welcome, even if it conceals a real-terms cut in revenue spending. Right now, we have funding without a strategy, which is why it is essential that the integrated review be published as quickly as possible. Will the Secretary of State undertake that the capital spend will be spent on British industry to equip the British armed forces, creating tens of thousands of jobs in our defence, aerospace and maritime industries?

Can I be absolutely clear? While we recognise the figures of RDEL, or resource departmental expenditure limits, and CDEL, or capital departmental expenditure limits, over the four years, we absolutely do not recognise the interpretation by the Labour Front Bench of a real-terms cut in RDEL using the inflationary figures and depressors that they have already jumbled up. The simple fact is that this Government have made a record defence spending commitment and we will be investing it in people, their capabilities and their equipment. When it comes to equipment, the first thing is to ensure that we give our men and women the best to keep them alive and safe on a battlefield. I am confident, because Britain makes most of the best equipment in the world, that a large proportion of that will be British made and British secured.

Armed Forces: Covid-19 Response

What support the armed forces are providing during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (909791)

What support the armed forces are providing during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (909794)

What support the armed forces are providing during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (909822)

As part of the national covid-19 response, the Ministry of Defence has, as we discussed earlier, 13,500 personnel to assist in winter resilience operations, including the response to the current pandemic crisis. The force capabilities include liaising and planning, logistical support, engineering and other specialist capabilities.

People in Chesterfield have had cause to be grateful to members of our armed forces, who helped to erect the coronavirus testing station at the Technique Stadium in Chesterfield. Of course, the armed forces would have been better placed to support the effort if we had not seen service numbers cut by 46,000 under this Government over the past 10 years, but can the Minister tell us whether the armed forces stand ready to offer mass testing in all tier 3 areas should the Health Secretary request that they do so?

First of all, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the service personnel who have been at work in his constituency. Defence will generate as much as we can possibly generate to meet the needs of the Government. At the moment, 13,500 personnel are in readiness. We are looking at how we might generate more if required. No such demand signal has yet come from the Health Secretary, but if it did we would see what we could do. Of course, we have the opportunity, given that we have placed the mobilisation orders in the House, to look at how we might generate our reserves to participate in the response as well.

Our armed forces have helped to deliver successful whole-town testing in Liverpool, and we have heard today that the Ministry of Defence plans to use MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—support for more testing and preparations to roll out covid vaccines. Can the Minister indicate whether good quality local accommodation, together with extra funds, will be provided to the armed forces to help them with this vital work?

Clearly, these are matters for operational commanders, but my expectation would of course be that those we deploy to do this important work at such an important moment for our nation are properly accommodated and fed while doing those duties.

I commend our world-renowned armed forces on their much valued efforts in the fight against the pandemic, especially when they recently helped to deliver successful whole-area testing. Will the Minister explain exactly how the Government plan to use MACA support for other areas in tier 3, such as my Slough constituency?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to give him a lecture on the intricacies of the MACA process, which I have come to love over the last nine months. The reality is that if he feels that his local authorities would benefit from military support, he should ask them to put in a MACA request, and the MOD would look to resource that, as we have done on hundreds of others over the course of the year thus far. If he feels that the chief executive of his local authority would benefit from assistance in generating that MACA request, he can write to me and I will be delighted to help.

Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme

The assessment phase of the Challenger 2 life extension programme has concluded. The proposition is now being worked up prior to a decision being taken on the investment case.

The Minister will be aware of the excellent Shropshire defence engineers who have recently been awarded an £860 million project for the Boxer vehicle delivered through RBSL—Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land. Would he like to put on record his thanks to all those in defence engineering in Shropshire and perhaps allude to the fact that, should the contract be awarded in the west midlands, it might be going to Shropshire?

I would not comment on any particular forthcoming potential procurement, but I have visited Telford to see RBSL and I can absolutely endorse my hon. Friend’s remarks about the brilliant engineers and apprentices I have met there. He is rightly proud of the capabilities in defence throughout Shropshire, and I was delighted with the £860 million contract to support Boxer. It is a brilliant supply chain in Shropshire and throughout the UK.

Departmental Overseas Aid Activity

What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of his Department’s overseas activity which is accounted for as aid. (909793)

Around 0.01% percent of defence expenditure is reported as official development assistance, reflecting the fact that the majority of defence activity falls outside the definition of ODA.

Given that military aid is not eligible for the OECD’s goal of ODA, although a stable and peaceful Government is surely helpful for the economic development and welfare of developing nations, is it time for our military aid to be included in the many exceptions list, or is it time for a review of the OECD definition so that the good work of our armed forces can be recognised and accounted for as part of the Government’s aid commitments?

My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge the important contribution that defence activities make in helping to create the secure conditions essential for sustained economic development. As he may have heard me say to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), to be constrained by the definition would do a disservice to our freedom of manoeuvre as the Ministry of Defence, but we very much hope that ODA rules could be changed to reflect the very wide range of activities that defence is involved in but that currently are not accounted for as part of our ODA spend.

Procurement Policies: Green Book Changes

What assessment he has made of the potential effect on his Department’s procurement policies of the November 2020 changes to the Green Book. (909795)

The MOD makes procurement decisions based on security, capability requirement, cost, supply chain and other social value considerations and will continue to do so. The November 2020 changes to the Green Book will ensure that there is an increased focus on setting clear objectives and consideration of location-based impacts. MOD footprint and spend is widely distributed across the UK and future procurement will continue to reflect this.

The potential pragmatism of the Treasury towards its Green Book rules on public procurement is welcome, as it was heralded as one of my recommendations in my report on prosperity two and a half years ago. Does my right hon. Friend believe that this will make clear the prosperity metrics, which the Treasury will recognise when it comes to defence procurement, and will the Treasury accept that a pound spent on defence in the UK is worth more than a multiplier of 1 in the levelling-up impact on the UK economy?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, especially in that last observation, and I congratulate him on his prosperity report. He was clearly thinking ahead of the Treasury at the time, and I am delighted that it has recognised the importance and contribution that those changes will make to levelling up and closing the north-south divide. While the end-of-year rules were not changed, the recent £24.1 billion multi-year settlement with the Treasury will now allow the MOD to invest in next generation military capability across the whole United Kingdom.

Overseas Veterans: State Pensions

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effect of frozen state pensions on veterans living overseas. (909796)

The Government have no plans to change their policy on overseas pensions uprating. It is long-standing Government policy that the state pension is not uprated annually for those not resident in the United Kingdom unless the pensioner resides in a country with which there is a reciprocal social security agreement requiring that uprating.

The Minister prides himself on standing up for veterans, so it is surprising to hear him say, as he just has, that he is not going to do anything for the estimated 60,000 veterans who have their pensions frozen, many of whom are living in poverty and relying on family handouts. These are pensioners such as world war two veteran Anne Puckridge, who, instead of receiving £134 a week, receives a mere £72 a week. When is the Minister going to stand up for veterans, as he should be doing as the Minister for veterans?

I will not take any lessons from the hon. Lady on standing up for veterans. State pensions are the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, and she is well aware of that fact. This arrangement has been conducted by successive Governments for over 70 years, and questions about the policy should be directed to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Topical Questions

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.