Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 688: debated on Monday 1 February 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Estate

I would like to take the opportunity, on behalf of everyone in Defence, to send Captain Sir Tom Moore our best wishes for his recovery from covid. He continues to be an inspiration to us all, embodying the “Trust, Courage, Team Spirit” motto of the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, for which he is the honorary colonel. From the newest recruit upwards, we all wish him a very speedy recovery.

We are taking several steps to ensure that we are using the estate in a most effective way. They include updating our infrastructure strategy plans; implementing an asset management system across the estate; and increasing investment in the estate to implement the defence estate optimisation portfolio, reducing our footprint and modernising our infrastructure.

My constituents are very proud of the role RAF Linton-on-Ouse has had in the defence of our realm, all the way from the second world war to the current day—or near to it. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on any other potential purposeful military uses he has for the base?

At the urging of my hon. Friend—the RAF have been in the process of drawing the base down, as he said—we did look at exploring other military uses for that base, but at the moment no long-term military requirement has been identified. Defence is, I am afraid, therefore completing the final assessment, with disposal details to be announced in due course.

May I join the Secretary of State in sending our best wishes to Sir Tom for a speedy recovery? It is a well-known fact that in the 21st century we need to modernise our defence estates to compete, given changing world needs. The Government have announced the closure of 90 sites across the country, so will the Secretary of State update this House as to how his Department aims to ensure that the British taxpayer is not left paying huge rents on a great number of empty properties, as has already happened, when these sites are closed? How many of these defence estate sites will be affected by the Crichel Down rule?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The defence estate optimisation programme was and is planned to unlock £1.4 billion, to be reinvested in an overall plan of a £5.1 billion investment in the defence estate across the board, helping soldiers, sailors and air force personnel with better quality accommodation and a better training estate. He is right to point out the challenges relating to historical problems with both private finance initiatives and the Annington home deal at the end of 1997. Some of the PFI schemes introduced under his Government lay a heavy burden on the defence budget. We are both examining and negotiating on a number of those areas to try to reduce the overall burden on the taxpayer.

Military Training: Overseas Armed Forces

In this period, about 2,000 personnel, from more than 100 countries, have received some form of defence training in the United Kingdom.

The Biden Administration have halted the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, with many Democrats citing the killing of civilians, including children, by Saudi forces in Yemen. A freedom of information request by The Guardian revealed that the Government provided training on UK soil for Saudi military. Will the Minister ensure that the Government expose the widely documented crimes committed by Saudi personnel with US counterparts as they undertake this review? Will he take a leaf out of the American book and reassess whether we should be enabling the Saudi regime, given the awful crimes it has committed?

The hon. Gentleman will know from the many parliamentary questions that have been asked on this that much of the information relating to licensing is subject to ongoing legal proceedings, but our defence relationship with Saudi Arabia on training includes courses, advice and guidance. This supports the efforts of Saudi Arabia to protect national and regional security, as well as its military’s compliance with international humanitarian law. The UK is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition and we played no role in setting Saudi-led coalition policy.

Covid-19: Regional Support

As part of the national covid-19 response, Defence has been active in all regions of the UK, providing support in a variety of ways, including through the distribution of personal protective equipment and diagnostic equipment; the planning, construction and staffing of Nightingale hospitals; conducting school and community testing; and providing military support to NHS trusts and support to the vaccine programme. As of 27 January, there are approximately 14,500 personnel committed or at readiness, and service personnel are deployed in every region of the UK.

In the south-east, we are lucky to have more than 300 defence personnel working in a mixture of medical and non-medical roles in our NHS. On Friday, I heard directly from my local trust about how important that has been as a boost to our NHS workforce. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should extend our deepest gratitude to the hard-working men and women who have been working on the frontline of this pandemic?

I certainly do. I am delighted that defence personnel have been of such use to the local authorities in the south-east. Personnel from all three services are employed in a range of roles to support frontline NHS services, both providing direct clinical care and undertaking support roles to free up NHS staff. I know from everything that I have heard from nursing directors and clinicians across the country that their contribution has been of enormous benefit and we are very grateful to them all.

Having volunteered at a new local vaccine centre in Bishop Auckland, I have seen the looks of joy and relief on people’s faces. I was pleased to hear that the Ministry of Defence is standing up more than 40 vaccine quick reaction forces, ready to help ensure that the vaccine roll-out reaches even the most remote areas of the UK. Could my hon. Friend update the House on how many of these teams have been deployed and to where?

With pleasure: 42 vaccine quick reaction force teams comprising 252 defence personnel are deployed across seven NHS England regions to locations determined by NHS priorities. As my hon. Friend says, their primary effort is to ensure that the roll-out of the vaccine is equally paced across the country. Where we can reinforce the efforts of local NHS trusts, that is exactly what these quick reaction teams are there to do.

I thank my hon. Friend for his earlier answer and for the three military planners who are currently supporting the Staffordshire local resilience forum with their covid-19 related planning. Will he expand on the diverse roles that the military planners have carried out in the pandemic so far?

I have been speaking to our joint military commanders in every region and they have all been clear about the value that these planners and their liaison officers have brought in helping the local authorities to understand what it is that the military could do and in helping us in the MOD to get ahead of that demand so that we can get troops lined up. It is clear that, whatever the lessons learnt about the covid response more generally, one of the biggest lessons for the Ministry of Defence is that those relationships at local level are of huge importance and I hope that we can institutionalise them as we go forward.

May I also put on record my best wishes, and those of my party, to Captain Sir Tom Moore and wish him a speedy recovery?

I have mentioned before that we are extremely grateful for the effort of the armed forces in Scotland, but I must mention the effort that they are making in my constituency at the Castlemilk vaccine centre. It is so good that it even managed to bring the Prime Minister out of Downing Street to my constituency—against all advice, but there we go. What plans does the Minister have to recognise the extraordinary effort and the extraordinary work of those in the armed forces working on the pandemic alongside such brilliant NHS staff up and down the country?

I am not sure whether I agree that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom visiting the United Kingdom armed forces hard at work in all parts of the United Kingdom is in any way an inappropriate activity for him to undertake. The great thing about our nation’s armed forces is that they get on with the job at hand and do not seek any recognition at the time. This is their priority; it is our priority. Of course, we have an eye on how we might recognise their contribution when all this is done.

I can tell the Minister that my inbox tells a rather different story. What they want is to be paid properly, to have decent working conditions and employment conditions, and their families to be supported better. But let me ask this. All those NHS and social care workers they are working alongside in Scotland will receive a £500 thank you payment from the Scottish Government. Will he match that for all UK personnel working here and abroad to help fight the pandemic in the upcoming Budget—yes or no?

I will, of course, have a look at what that might mean, if, in return, the hon. Gentleman will consider taxing the armed forces less than the Scottish Government currently do.

Armed Forces Covenant: Military Charities

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on strengthening the armed forces covenant; and if he will make a statement. (911597)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on strengthening the armed forces covenant; and if he will make a statement. (911604)

This Government are committed to strengthening the armed forces covenant with measures to further incorporate it into law introduced last week in the Armed Forces Bill. Service charities play an integral role for the armed forces community. We have regular dialogue, and they also provide observations on our progress each year in an unadulterated version of the covenant annual report.

I, too, send my best wishes to Captain Sir Tom Moore for a speedy recovery.

I have long been a supporter of the military covenant, and the local authorities in my constituency are among the first to adopt it, but the Minister will know that the director general of the Royal British Legion told the Committee considering the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill that the six-year longstop will breach the military covenant. Why does he think they say that?

I was Minister on that Bill Committee, and the person to whom the hon. Gentleman refers actually supports the legislation. It does not breach the armed forces covenant. We are clear that that legislation gives our soldiers more rights and protects them in a better manner for the intricacies of modern warfare. Those who continue to peddle untruths about that Bill are doing quite a serious disservice to those who need to be protected from vexatious claims when they serve this nation on operations.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that local authorities play an important role in implementing the national covenant. In Sheffield, extra priority is given to ex-servicemen when it comes to the right to social housing. There is also a wraparound service that includes employment and skills, and mental health. All that is overseen by a council-appointed ex-servicemen’s champion, Councillor Tony Damms, who works with local charities, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Sheffield and district ex-service associations; they all work closely together. I am sure that the Minister will agree that charities and the council working together in that way is a model for the implementation of the national covenant.

I pay tribute to Tony and to many like him across the country who work tirelessly in the endeavour of veterans’ care. I am clear that the future of veterans’ care is a blended model between statutory and voluntary provision, where there is a role for everybody, and we mark ourselves by the key questions: “How do you access that care? Does everyone leaving who needs it know where to turn?” Until we get there, we continue to need people such as Tony. It is a team effort, and we will get there in the end.

Part of the armed forces covenant is, of course, to look after war widows, including an estimated 265 who lost their war widow’s pension on cohabitation or remarriage and have not been able to benefit from the change in the law preventing that from happening in the future. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State personally have been fighting with the Treasury to find a way to settle this debt of honour. In the light of the latest knock-back, what further plans do Ministers have to try to make good their promise to look after those war widows, who have sacrificed so much?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on this issue. The Secretary of State has taken a personal lead and has recently written to Mary Moreland. As a result, the Department is currently considering how we can best support those represented through her War Widows Association, and, indeed, what that support might actually look like.

I have been speaking to a number of local authorities about their commitment to the armed forces covenant. We already know that many local authorities do a really great job of supporting service personnel, veterans and their families, but having the covenant in law will enhance those responsibilities. When there are more legal responsibilities, will Government funding to local authorities follow?

The Department is looking to issue in due course statutory guidance on how precisely these matters will be achieved. The key thing is that the legislation is very clear that it does not specify outcomes, but simply ensures that a set of principles is adhered to. That is what the armed forces covenant was always about; it was designed never for advantage, but to prevent disadvantage. That is what this Bill does. It is carefully calibrated to ensure that we raise the floor so that the experience for veterans, the serving community and their families is equal across the nation.

Defence Equipment Programme

We are implementing changes through the acquisition transformation scheme to improve cost controls. Through the outline strategic case, we are ensuring that the right expertise is brought together at the outset, so that projects are properly risk assessed and, with the right commercial expertise available, set up for success.

The National Audit Office recently concluded that for the fourth year in a row the defence equipment plan remains unaffordable. While the extra money for defence is to be welcomed, how will the Minister ensure that the investment does not simply disappear into a black hole but delivers on the new capabilities we need as a nation to deal with emerging security threats?

The hon. Gentleman’s point is very wise and we would endorse it. We need to invest in the right capabilities to meet the threats of the future. it is good to hear someone on the Labour Benches speaking sense. We agree that that is exactly where our funds should be directed—to meet the threats of the future. That is being undertaken through the integrated review, which is a cross-Government review. More information will be coming out in due course, but we are very focused on it.

The defence equipment plan has seen escalating costs over time, and agreeing priorities has proved to be difficult. The NAO says that industry has a prioritised list of funding options following a multi-criteria decision analysis exercise. This sounds worth while, if a bit of a mouthful, so will the Minister commit to publishing that list of priorities?

The hon. Gentleman needs to look to the outcome of the integrated review that will take place in due course, which will set out the overarching strategic priorities for the Government in meeting the needs of this country across a broad spectrum of foreign affairs and defence. It is from that strategic set of decisions that we need then to ensure that our procurement follows.

Defence Equipment

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that British industry can supply the defence equipment needed to meet future threats. (911599)

The MOD has been leading work to review our defence and security industrial strategy across Government, and we expect to publish the findings of this work in the spring. In our strategy we are aiming to ensure that we can access the industrial capabilities that we need to meet current and future threats to our national security.

That is good to hear. The national shipbuilding strategy reflects the strategic importance of ship systems and the supply chain that provides them. The Secretary of State will be familiar with the world-beating electric power and propulsion systems produced by General Electric in my constituency of Rugby. Will he confirm that those are considered strategic national assets and that they will be included in the Government’s thinking on the forthcoming fleet solid support ships programme?

I can certainly confirm that I recognise that many of the benefits of naval procurement are seen in the supply chain; General Electric and other systems providers play a hugely important role as part of the UK’s shipbuilding enterprise. I am committed to maximising the benefits to UK industry in all our defence procurement, within the regulations.

The extra funding is welcome and promises an overdue upgrade of Britain’s defence and defence industry. The Secretary of State talks about the rise in capital funding but not the real cut in revenue funding over the next four years. This year’s defence equipment budget is £16.4 billion, of which over half is revenue-based equipment support. How on earth has he agreed to this cut, and how is he going to meet the future threats to this country and fix the black hole in the budget by cutting day-to-day defence spending?

It is great hearing the right hon. Gentleman trying to turn a £16 billion or a £24 billion increase in defence spending into a cut and finding any way, across the budget, to get in the word “cut” so that no doubt at the next election he can claim that somehow we have cut defence spending despite the £24 billion increase over the next four years. We are planning to spend £186 billion on equipment and support between 2018 and 2028. Of course we have to balance revenue spending and capital spending in terms of the resource departmental expenditure limit throughout the process. The reason our Army and our armed forces are different in size from what they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago is defined not just by the threat but by the equipment we have available. The proportion of our RAF that is unmanned, which will grow, of course means fewer people flying aeroplanes. That is the nature of things. If one looks at the US air force, one will see that pattern over the past 15 to 20 years.

It will be quite easy and perfectly straightforward to try to find the right balance, as long as we are defined by the threat and the ambition we need to meet. Some of the money that we have received—the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—is not going to buy new shiny toys in some areas; it is about fixing some of the current problems in infrastructure and so on to ensure that we are more efficient and more productive.

I appreciate the Defence Secretary wanting to downplay the real difficulties he faces, but we were told by his predecessor in 2012 that the black hole has

“been eliminated and the budget is now in balance”,—[Official Report, 14 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 262.]

yet less than a decade later the National Audit Office says that for the fourth year running the equipment plan is unaffordable and the black hole is as high as £17 billion. On the integrated review, where he promises answers to these difficult questions, may I urge him not to repeat the mistakes of past Conservative defence reviews by trying to balance the books off the back of forces personnel, industry investment and equipment support?

Since taking my post as Defence Secretary I have been absolutely determined to ensure that the figures that both we and the Treasury use are absolutely of the highest quality and transparency.

If the right hon. Gentleman reflects on the NAO’s 1998 report, he will see the same systematic problems in the management of the defence budget: phantom efficiency savings that turned out to have already been spent by other people have been a significant problem in defence for 20 to 30 years. It is not just a governing party problem. All of that has meant that when we publicise the integrated review, we will start from a baseline where we can all be transparent about our figures and trust the figures we are putting before it. I will not indulge in fantasy savings or phantom programmes. I will not allow the services to procure equipment that has a balloon payment at the end, in 10 or 20 years’ time, when it becomes somebody else’s problem.

I join the Secretary of State and others in wishing Captain Sir Tom Moore a speedy recovery. He has become a living symbol of the very British spirit that we need to get us through this pandemic, and we all wish him well.

May I press the Government on when the integrated review will be published and warn against suggestions that our infantry might be cut by up to 10,000 personnel? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the value of spare capacity and the built-in resilience to deal with the unexpected. With that in mind, I invite the Defence Secretary to look at deploying RFA Argus, our hospital ship currently alongside in Plymouth, and other military assets to assist with the international roll-out of vaccines to developing countries. The UK set an example by stepping forward during the Ebola outbreak, and we should do so once again with covid-19.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. HMS Argus has literally just returned from giving assistance in the Caribbean; she has been helping the populations there deal with the initial outbreak and all the problems. She was involved in dealing not only with the covid outbreak, but with security and making sure that the borders and so on were kept from immigration pressures as well.

On the broader issue of the integrated review, I know I have come to this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions to say it was going to be on a certain date. It will be in the spring. Obviously covid has taken its effect. The No. 1 priority of the Government is dealing with covid and delivering a covid response. That does not prevent defence, with a multi-year settlement, setting out and driving forward, in conjunction with the Foreign Office, a plan to ensure that when the review is launched, everyone will be able to see it. I am determined that it will be done this spring, because it is important not just domestically, but for our international allies to understand the direction of travel on our defence.

British National (Overseas) Immigration Pathway

What discussions he has had with the (a) Prime Minister and (b) Home Secretary on securing UK citizenship for UK armed forces veterans arriving in the UK from Hong Kong via the new British National (Overseas) immigration pathway. (911600)

There have been no discussions on this matter. British national overseas status holders who serve in our armed forces already have the option either to apply for British citizenship while serving or to settle in the UK on discharge. BNO veterans who have not pursued these routes and choose to apply under the new BNO route will be on a pathway to settlement in the UK and can then apply for British citizenship.

During the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the existing immigration rules meant that only 159 of the 654 soldiers who had served in the British armed forces in Hong Kong and applied to live in the UK were successful at the time. With the opening of the new settlement scheme for British nationals overseas, many of those veterans are keen to escape the crackdown of the Chinese Government on Hong Kong. Can the Defence Minister confirm that he will defend their right to UK citizenship in any consultations on the matter with Cabinet colleagues?

The hon. Member raises a good point and a good question. These negotiations are ongoing at the time. We are very clear, though, that those who have served in the armed forces should suffer no disadvantage because of their service, and that of course extends to those who apply for BNO residency, should they be eligible.

Armed Forces Covenant

As committed to in the Queen’s Speech, last week measures to further incorporate the armed forces covenant into legislation were introduced in the Armed Forces Bill. The Bill requires those public bodies in scope to consider the principles of the covenant when developing policy and making decisions in health, housing and education—areas that are fundamental to service life.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response, and I am very pleased with that support for the family, which is very much in the spirit of our military covenant. What duty will be applied to education, and what support measures are in place for the children of our military families to support their learning in schools both while the parent is serving and later when a veteran?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless campaigning on this issue. Registered service children in the annual school census in England receive the £310 service pupil premium per child per year up to year 11. Since 2016, registered service children, even if their serving parent has left the armed forces, continue to receive the SPP for up to six years while they attend state schools in England.

One of the ways that enshrining the covenant in law could deliver more for our armed forces is on housing. Surveys continue to show low levels of satisfaction with maintenance, and the Government renegotiate the rents on some accommodation. Will the Minister provide an update on the arbitration process for Annington Homes, and can he assure those living in service family accommodation that he will not bring back a deal that hikes up their rent?

We are currently in the process, as the hon. Member knows, of resolution in that case, and I am not going to comment on it in a public forum, but my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement will write to him this afternoon.

Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. (911602)

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. (911620)

The Government have been clear that we will not sign the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. We welcome the US offer to extend the new START—strategic arms reduction treaty—with Russia, and we would support that treaty and its robust verification mechanisms continuing.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the deep disappointment and frustration felt across Scotland and much of the UK because the UK Government did not join 85 other countries and sign up to the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons on 22 January. Can he explain why the UK has failed to support this treaty, and how this is consistent with its strategic objectives and obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to make attempts in good faith to move towards the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons programmes?

The Government did not sign up to it because we do not think it is an effective way of dealing with this. We do think that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is a more effective way of reducing both the spread and, indeed, the number of nuclear weapons on the planet, and that is why we favour gradual multilateral disarmament negotiated through a step-by-step approach.

It seems as if global Britain is running in the opposite direction of global consensus on this issue. Rather than just hoping that nuclear weapons will never be used and working for some eventual point in the future when they might be eradicated, why will the Government not take the bold steps of signing this treaty and, for that matter, removing Trident from the shores of this country?

It may have missed the hon. Gentleman’s attention that other countries, those much less democratic and with much less regard for human rights, are working in the other direction and developing nuclear weapons. One reason we felt that nuclear weapons are important to the United Kingdom, when other regimes such as, potentially, North Korea and others develop them, is as a deterrent. We will continue to believe that, and seek ways to reduce nuclear holdings around the world in a multilateral, not a unilateral way. If I think that some of those adversaries care about some of those countries having nuclear weapons or not, the world might be slightly different, but it is not. We should be careful and protect our friends. We are a provider of a nuclear deterrent for NATO and for Europe. That has kept the peace for 50 years, despite some very aggressive nuclear powers.

Defence Procurement: Net Zero Carbon Emissions Target

What steps he has taken to help ensure that defence procurement contributes towards the UK meeting its net zero carbon emissions target. (911603)

Sustainability is considered at all the appropriate stages of the acquisition lifecycle, from setting requirements to disposal. In addition, we are improving sustainability in the defence estate, which offers a significant opportunity for the future.

We face a climate crisis, and we must build back greener out of the pandemic. Will the Government undertake to do more to increase investment in research and development in low-emission planes and ships, working in collaboration with the civil sector? Will he meet me and Airbus, and others, to discuss the opportunities to boost innovation and production of non-military planes and ships—like the US does with Boeing—to help us meet our net-zero obligations? Will he boost exports, so that defence expenditure can be used to defend us against climate change?

We are focused on the Government’s world-leading commitment to net zero 2050, and defence will, without doubt, play its part. A lot of work is ongoing regarding how we can increase our activity in that sphere, but we have discussions with commercial entities and throughout the MOD about how we can tackle carbon emissions throughout the armed forces. That includes, recently, clearing MOD planes to use up to 50% sustainable aviation fuel. That is a good step in the right direction, and others will undoubtedly follow.

Soft Power

Our armed forces are a force for good, providing security, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and defence engagement across the globe. They have a proud track record on the frontline of our national response to humanitarian disasters the world over, from Ebola in west Africa to hurricane seasons in the Caribbean.

As chair of the British Council all-party group, I suggest that soft power can pay for itself many times over by building links and improving trust and understanding, all of which makes conflict less likely. As the Government assess our international engagement, does my right hon. Friend agree that soft power must be a consideration alongside traditional hard power? Will he assure me that he will make the case for soft power when it comes to the Government’s integrated review?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on the British Council all-party group. The British Council is an outstanding institution around the world—indeed, in my opinion there is not enough of it around the world. The integrated review will enhance defence engagement, ensuring that our armed forces are more forward, present, and active around the world, and involve changes to operational development structures, defence diplomacy and allowances. I completely agree that alongside hard power must come soft power. It can be delivered by the military, as well as by those excellent non-governmental organisations, and organisations such as the British Council. The best way to not get into a conflict is to avoid one in the first place by understanding each other’s issues, and by helping nations and people’s economies to build. That is the first way to go.

Dreadnought Class Nuclear Submarine

What progress is being made on the development of the Dreadnought class nuclear submarine; and when he plans for the first of that class to enter service. (911606)

The 2020 annual update to Parliament on the United Kingdom’s future nuclear deterrent provides progress details on the Dreadnought submarine programme. The programme, underpinned by around 30,000 defence nuclear enterprise jobs across the United Kingdom, remains on track to deliver the first of class in the early 2030s. The programme will sustain thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We live in uncertain times and should always maintain peace through strength, of which the nuclear deterrent is the best example. Will he join me in thanking all those involved in both delivering the Dreadnought programme and operating the Vanguard boats with such dedication and skill in the intervening period until they are replaced?

Continuous at-sea deterrence has kept us safe for more than 50 years. I recognise and thank all the personnel involved and their families for the tremendous sacrifices they make, and I am proud of all our Royal Navy and industrial partners for delivering this very important Government commitment.

Covid-19: Overseas Territories

What support his Department has provided to the overseas territories during the covid-19 pandemic. (911607)

The armed forces have provided a range of support to the British overseas territories throughout the covid-19 pandemic where it has been requested. That has included support to local government and civil authorities in their response, through the provision of defence planners, the deployment of critical care teams, the provision of food and medical supplies, and, more recently, logistical support with vaccine delivery.

I was pleased that in January the Royal Air Force made two deliveries of life-saving covid-19 vaccines to Gibraltar. Can my hon. Friend confirm how many doses our armed forces have helped deliver to the British overseas territories so far?

Defence has to date delivered 10,725 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Gibraltar, as mentioned by my hon. Friend. Further deliveries are planned to the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar by the end of today, of 6,825 Pfizer doses and 3,000 AstraZeneca doses respectively. Defence is scoping the delivery of 65,850 further vaccine doses to Ascension Island, Gibraltar and the Falklands throughout February, and of course we stand ready to support vaccine delivery to all the British territories overseas.

Covid-19: Armed Forces Professional Development

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that armed forces personnel continue their professional development during the covid-19 pandemic. (911609)

The Government remain committed to ensuring that the professional development of our armed forces personnel continues during this difficult time. The safety of our workforce and their families is paramount. Measures including social distancing and, where appropriate, testing regimes have supported the continuation of prioritised face-to-face training. Alongside that, innovative ways of working and use of virtual platforms has enabled remote delivery of other professional development activity, including for those transitioning to civilian life or undertaking professional qualifications.

More and more women are pursuing careers in the armed forces. Will my hon. Friend look at how their personal development can be encouraged by ensuring that the remaining gendered rank titles are updated to reflect the modern make-up of the services?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, and this former rifleman rather agrees. The issue of gendered rank titles is something that the chiefs have been considering. Diversity and inclusion leads are working collaboratively across the services to develop an inclusive language guide for release in the spring. That guide is informed by the wider work that NATO has done to produce gender-inclusive language manuals.


I am pleased to report that throughout the covid pandemic, Defence has continued to maintain a steady drumbeat of orders. Those include recent orders to enhance F-35, a project that particularly benefits the north-west of England, and the next generation munitions solution, which saves £563 million over the course of its contract and supports jobs in Glascoed, Tyne and Wear, and Stoke-on-Trent.

Beautiful Hastings and Rye has a number of excellent small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses serving the defence industry. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that, as part of defence procurement and the levelling-up agenda, those small companies are given the opportunity to benefit from any increase in defence procurement spending, thereby increasing jobs and helping to turbo-charge our local economy?

My hon. Friend has already discussed the brilliance of her small and medium-sized enterprises with me in the past, and I expect I will be hearing a lot more about them in the future. The good news is that with our SME action plan in place, which I would encourage them to look through, SMEs are now accounting for nearly 20% of all defence procurement expenditure. With a £24 billion investment in defence to come forth, there is plenty for them to go at.

What progress has been made with the upgrade of the British armoured vehicle capability? What are the Government doing to ensure that those contracts are fulfilled by British-based manufacturers such as David Brown Santasalo, which is based in my constituency?

It was a great pleasure for me and the Secretary of State to join my hon. Friend in visiting David Brown last year to discuss its vital work on Type 26 frigates not only for us, but our allies. Investment in UK armour, as I think my hon. Friend knows, is ongoing with the Boxer programme and Ajax. Other projects are also under active consideration.

So many industries have been hit hard by the pandemic, including aerospace and engineering companies in Wolverhampton North East. I am delighted to hear about more and more procurement contracts. What steps is the Minister taking to start as many of those contracts as quickly as possible, so that we can really help our industrial economic recovery?

I understand my hon. Friend’s question. Throughout the pandemic, we have made certain to maintain the drumbeat of existing orders so that they have continued. Through the interim payments scheme, we have helped to support defence companies with cash where that has been required. It is right that core defence decisions are taken on an holistic basis in the context of the integrated review. However, we have, where possible, advanced procurement in particular on improvements to the defence estate, where tens of millions of pounds of improvements are ongoing as we speak.

Topical Questions

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.