Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Monday 1 February 2021

Today, I am placing a copy of the Department’s qualitative whole force inclusivity report in the House of Commons Library. It will form part of the evidence the Ministry of Defence is submitting to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into women in the armed forces. The report helps to underline the scale of the task we must address. Given the significance of the issue, I felt that a wider readership was important. The armed forces offer a fantastic career opportunity for men and women alike, but, as the reports highlights, their experiences are not always equal and in some cases are unacceptable. I am determined to level up opportunities for all who work in defence through behaviour and culture change. While much is being done, including the implementation of the Wigston and Gray reports, I am grateful to the Defence Committee for its additional work in this important area.

We take taskforce protection of our service personnel allies very seriously, and want Iran to engage seriously with the international community, especially on its nuclear commitments. We remain concerned over support for militant proscribed groups. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a whole remains subject to UK, EU and US sanctions. Many associated individuals and entities are also designated. We review the list of proscribed groups, but do not routinely comment on specific organisations.

I thank the Secretary of State for answering my question before I asked it, which was excellent and very timely. I thank him for his answer. In recent weeks, Iran has once again threatened to crush its enemies. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been testing long-range missiles and drones. I am aware of what my right hon. Friend said in regard to proscribing the revolutionary guard, but this is a country that continues to destabilise the middle east so we really must go further.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for jumping the gun, so to speak. The IRGC and its activities in the region are destabilising. That is why the United Kingdom is investing, along with its allies and NATO, in keeping places such as Iraq stable and secure. We ask the IRGC and the Iranian Government to desist from that activity, and to return to the table on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action now that we have a new US Administration. Let us try to resolve the nuclear issue and return to some stability.

The Secretary of State mentions nuclear proliferation in relation to Iran, but I am disappointed that he makes no mention of New START—strategic arms reduction treaty—which President Biden rescued last week, particularly as Britain is a beneficiary of the stability that it brings to Europe. He made no mention of New START when it collapsed with President Trump last year. He was also silent when the US pulled out of the 34-nation open skies treaty, so why has Britain become a bystander while the international rules-based order has been breaking down? While it remains essential to maintain our UK nuclear deterrent, will he also use the integrated review to reboot Britain’s commitment to help forge the next generation of necessary arms controls and security agreements?

May I just remind Front Benchers that topicals are meant to be short and punchy so that we get through the list?

First, we did not necessarily write it, but I read the right hon. Gentleman’s good article over the weekend with the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), calling for action on a number of these issues. It was not the case that the United Kingdom did not communicate to the United States Administration the importance of both the open skies treaty and the New START agreement. We welcome its return. Sometimes we do things in public; sometimes we do things in private. It is incredibly important, and we welcome the steps that are being taken, but we should not forget that Russia has consistently broken some of these treaties and played on loopholes, both on chemical weapons and nuclear weapons.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that between 1952 and 1967, more than 22,000 British servicemen participated in the nuclear testing programme in Australia and the south Pacific. These individuals were subjected to dangerous levels of radiation and have been faced with difficulties as a result. My constituent, Mr Michael Todd, has been campaigning tirelessly on this issue. Will my right hon. Friend praise the hard work and service of these individuals and set out what steps his Department will be taking to honour their efforts in Australia and the south Pacific? (911655)

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his relentless campaigning on this. The recent review by the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee into the case for medallic recognition concluded that it did not meet the level of risk and rigour. However, we are committed to ensuring that we have good wraparound care for those who suffered injury from these operations and exercises at the time.

The Minister will be aware of the negotiations for facility management contracts that are under way at Her Majesty’s naval base, Clyde, involving a significant number of my constituents. Unfortunately, what the Minister’s Government excitedly call “efficiency savings” often have a direct and deleterious effect on the terms and conditions of the most vulnerable defence people. Will the Minister advise what the Ministry of Defence is doing to ensure that these efficiency savings are not simply an excuse to drive down working conditions and increase profits for private companies? (911657)

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that the current contract—which is obviously in the middle of a competition, so I have to be cautious in what I say—is not about driving down terms and conditions; it is about increasing the productivity around getting our boats and ships out on the water and making sure that our men and women of the armed forces are getting the maintenance and the turnaround that is required for taxpayers’ money. I have already met a number of stakeholders, including the leader of the trade union to discuss his concerns. My eyes and ears are wide open to the fears of the workforce, and I shall be working to make sure that whatever comes afterwards is not about driving down conditions, but about increasing and improving service.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As my right hon. Friend considers his review priorities, will he commend the Warrior capability sustainment programme for providing greater certainty in delivering on its budget and greater confidence that that will be delivered on time, and for its commitment to developing skills and the UK supply chain? (911656)

The Warrior CSP is now at an advanced stage in its demonstration phase. It has been ongoing for a period—it is now 75% through—but all projects are subject to the integrated review. I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to comment on any particular project at this stage, but I will say that it is one of a huge number of contributions that Bedfordshire makes to defence, including across Ajax, Wildcat and Tempest. It is a county that has got a great investment in and support for our services.

I recently met a veteran with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. He attempted suicide twice using disturbing methods in public. After the first attempt, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, released unwell and then attempted suicide again. For that, he received a prison sentence. On release, he was left homeless, jobless and in no better mental state than when he went in. Is this in keeping with the covenant, and if not, what are the Government going to do about it? (911658)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she writes to me with the specific details, I will be more than happy to help her. However, I am very clear that no previous Government have done more than we have for armed forces communities. We are absolutely determined to get to the root causes of veterans’ suicide, and if the hon. Lady writes to me with the particular case, I will of course reach out and see what we can do.

On Saturday, I joined my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) for a shift at our city’s mass vaccination centre. Overseeing the volunteers were brave ex-servicemen and women from RE:ACT, who are providing vital support, enabling our NHS heroes to get jabs into arms. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking local veterans from Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and all those involved in RE:ACT, for once again stepping up to serve the nation and protect the people of our United Kingdom? (911660)

I of course pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents from RE:ACT, and to Richard Sharp, who set up RE:ACT. I think that every vaccination centre in the UK has veterans serving again in what is a national effort to defeat coronavirus. I pay tribute to them, I thank them for their work, and I urge them to keep going.

Babcock International aerospace staff at RAF Leeming are currently on strike over a £5,000 pay disparity with colleagues performing the same duties at other bases. Does the Secretary of State agree that this pay injustice is wrong, and will he join me in calling for Babcock to engage meaningfully with Unite the union to resolve this dispute and end the disruption to training flight schedules? (911661)

I am not aware of the details of that case, and it would be unwise to comment without learning more, but I will look into it and write to the hon. Lady.

I welcome the improvements to the service justice system that are part of the new Armed Forces Bill. Many serving personnel have been put off complaining by the existing system, and the time it takes to proceed with their complaint. Can the Minister confirm that both current and new complaints will be dealt with in a more timely manner, to not only help the mental health of the complainant but improve military operational effectiveness? (911663)

There are a number of measures related to service justice in the Armed Forces Bill, which was introduced last Monday. Those measures are particularly focused on improving the experience of those who use the system and make service complaints, making that system more transparent, with more integrity and more resilience to challenge. My hon. Friend will be delighted to hear that the Bill will have its Second Reading next Monday. There is some really good stuff in there; I urge her to have a look at it, and I am more than happy to engage with her further on the issues.

One of the big stories in today’s newspapers is the fact that Scotland is lagging badly behind when it comes to the roll-out of the vaccine. Clearly, all of us want to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible. What can our excellent armed forces do to sort out this very worrying situation in Scotland? (911662)

The hon. Gentleman makes a point, which is that first, we, as the United Kingdom armed forces, are here to help, and will do whatever is needed to help any one of the four nations of the United Kingdom. The amazing thing about the United Kingdom—the most successful political union in history—is that we are here to help each other seamlessly. An 80-year-old in need of a vaccine in London has the same need as an 80-year-old in Caithness. Our armed forces are all of our armed forces, and we will not be playing petty nationalist politics when it comes to defeating this evil virus.

On behalf of everyone in Bolton, I would also like to wish Sir Tom a speedy recovery. I was heartened to hear that many soldiers have been deployed to set up 80 new covid-19 vaccine centres for NHS Scotland. Can my hon. Friend confirm how many have now opened as a result of this military support?

We are very proud of the fact that military planners and advisers are embedded in so many Departments of the Scottish Government, just as they are down here in Whitehall with the UK Government, helping to make sure that the response of the Scottish Government is properly resourced with military expertise and planning horsepower. At present, 70 vaccination centres have been identified in Scotland as a result of the support from the United Kingdom’s armed forces, with 11 of those now open.

David Clapson was a former serviceman who was sanctioned for a month by the Department for Work and Pensions after missing two jobcentre appointments. He died 18 days later after his money was stopped, at the age of 59, from diabetic ketoacidosis, caused by an acute lack of insulin. Basically, he could not afford electricity to keep his insulin cool. What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the Work and Pensions Secretary on the number of former service personnel whose applications for personal independence payments have been rejected since 2012, and who have died within six months of their claim being rejected? (911669)

I am happy to look into the specific parameters of the issue that the hon. Lady raises. I have been very clear that with representatives of the armed forces in every DWP centre, helping users of the service, we now have a better service than we have ever had for those who use those jobcentres. We are always looking to do more. My heart goes out in this appalling case, and I am more than happy to look at it. However, the reality is that the vast majority of our people have an excellent experience in very difficult times. I pay tribute to the staff at the DWP and all those working in jobcentres, particularly at the moment.

Our impressive vaccination programme has been bolstered by the extraordinary efforts of our armed forces. The Royal Marines’ commando training centre in Lympstone in East Devon is playing a vital part in this national effort, with Dr Ross Hemingway and Diane Young volunteering at vaccination centres in Exmouth and Westpoint. Will my hon. Friend explain the steps that have been taken to train non-medical personnel to vaccinate? (911665)

We have many team medics, who are trained in advanced first aid and are well used to injecting morphine with some urgency on the battlefield. We are looking at how we might train them to be part of the vaccination process. There are 275 of them currently undertaking training, and clearly, the more of them we can make available, the better we will be able to support the NHS in vaccine delivery.

Newport veterans hub, with support from the Welsh Government and Age Cymru, has done an excellent job helping veterans and their families in these difficult times. With the pandemic adding to the vulnerability of many veterans in our community, when will the remaining phase of the veterans recognition scheme be put in place to help veterans access more support services? (911670)

The veterans ID card is an important recognition of those who have served. Everyone who leaves the services receives an ID card. The hon. Lady is right to identify the challenges in backdating the cards, with issues of fraud and so on. We are committed to delivering this year, and backdating the cards for all those who have served, so that everyone has an important memento of their service in the UK armed forces.

What steps have been taken to ensure that servicemen and women who are doing a fantastic job assisting with vaccine deployment across the country receive the support that they would expect if stationed at barracks? (911666)

I can confirm that that is very much the requirement, and we would fully expect all those whom we send out to support local authorities to be properly catered for. There have been one or two instances —one was reported to me by my hon. Friend—in which the service has fallen short. That is not good enough; we are investigating.

The Royal British Legion estimates that between 3% and 6% of homeless people are from an armed forces background. It is an unspeakable injustice that we are not safeguarding and protecting our veterans in the midst of a global pandemic. My constituents in Coventry North West and I would like to ask the Minister what support his Department is providing to homeless veterans in my city and across the country during the covid-19 outbreak. (911683)

The Department has worked hard to put our arms around veterans across the community, working with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure that our homeless veterans are looked after. We have commissioned studies from King’s College to look at the specific impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on veterans. We are committed to making sure that we do our duty by those who serve, and I am confident that we will do so.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.