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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 691: debated on Monday 15 March 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Military Housing: Annington Homes

What recent discussions his Department has had with representatives of Annington Homes on the sale of military housing. (913319)

Before I turn to Question 1, on behalf of the Government I wish to pay tribute to Sergeant Gavin Hillier of the Welsh Guards, who tragically died in an accident during live-firing exercises in Wales earlier this month. Sergeant Hillier’s distinguished service throughout his career was a tribute not only to his own dedication to duty but to his family and to his regiment, who continue to prepare for operations in Iraq later this year.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) for his close interest in this issue, which is also actively pursued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), my hon. Friends the Members for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and other colleagues. The Ministry of Defence longer has any ongoing military requirement for the homes, which we therefore intend to hand back to Annington, thereby helping to meet obligations under our agreements. I regret that, despite the MOD’s producing a significant package of support that we hoped might assist Annington to allow our tenants to remain in situ in many, although not all, cases, that was not a course that Annington felt able to pursue.

I join the Minister and, I am sure, the whole House in expressing sympathy for the family and friends of Sergeant Hillier.

A number of my constituents in Biggin Hill are keen to remain in their homes; is there no way that Annington Homes can facilitate that? If not, given that we are still battling the covid pandemic, is there any way in which the Minister can provide for a longer notice period to help to provide my constituents with greater certainty at this very difficult time?

I am pleased to say that I have some good news for my hon. Friend and his constituents. I am pleased to confirm that, mindful of the representations made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, of the fact that we are talking about packages of houses rather than single units and of the ongoing covid restrictions, we will be extending the notice period to 31 March 2022. That will mean that civilian tenants will have received more than 18 months’ notice in total. Furthermore, Annington has confirmed that it has no in-principle objection to selling the properties to local authorities or other social housing providers. I stress that any such deals would be a commercial proposition between the social housing providers and Annington, but I hope that the additional time provided may help to enable such transactions to be progressed. I shall write to my hon. Friend and other affected MPs on this subject today.

Defence Estate Optimisation Programme

The defence estate optimisation portfolio is a 25-year multibillion-pound investment in modernising MOD basing. It provides resilience and ensures that our service personnel can train in centres of excellence alongside those beside whom they will fight. We routinely review and assess the programme in the light of evolving requirements, including the contents of the integrated review. However, the fundamental drivers of the programme are unlikely to change.

The decision to site the entire Army presence in the north-west at Weeton barracks, putting all our eggs in one basket, will damage the operational and recruitment footprint of the Army in the north-west. Were the Government to retain the Dale barracks in Chester, that would provide easy access to the southern part of the north-west, the north part of the midlands and north Wales, so will the Government please look again at the decision to sell off the Dale barracks and let them retain their historic role in the City of Chester?

The hon. Gentleman has in the past spoken with passion about the retention of Dale barracks, and he does so again. We continue to speak to local stakeholders about alternative uses for the site, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that no disposal will take place before 2027 at the earliest. I also assure him that the armed forces will continue to be able to provide support to the north-west and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom.

What steps has the Ministry of Defence taken to ensure the sound financial sustainability of the defence estate, given that the National Audit Office found in 2016 that the estate would have an £8.5 billion funding shortfall over the next 30 years? A series of National Audit Office reports have shown that the defence estate faces a serious shortfall in investment. It is clear that there is a direct link between poor infrastructure and increasing risk to military effectiveness. What steps has the Minister taken to reverse this decline?

I am pleased to reassure the hon. Gentleman that £18 million a year is spent on single-living accommodation. Additional funding has been provided through the £200 million package announced in July last year, and the frontline commands intend to invest £1.5 billion in new build and upgrade programmes to accommodation over the next 12 years. It is an issue that we are alive to and on which we focus. It is not within the top 12 reasons why people leave the Army, as stated in the surveys, but it is incredibly important. We wish to look after the welfare of all the people who serve defence. I do not wish to say anything further about future funding, because that will be covered in announcements in due course, but we take the issue very seriously.

Cyber Warfare

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the risks posed by technological advances in cyber warfare to the UK’s critical national infrastructure. (913321)

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the risks posed by technological advances in cyber warfare to the UK’s critical national infrastructure. (913327)

What steps his Department is taking to reduce the risks posed by technological advances in cyber warfare to the UK’s critical national infrastructure. (913328)

The threat of cyber-attack on UK interests is real. Every day, we witness malicious interference from adversary states and hostile actors. We are continually protecting our systems and have previously called out activity from Russia, China and Iran. Our defensive cyber programmes are delivering on an extensive suite of capabilities, but cyber defence is only part of our approach. A core element of broader deterrence is integrating our offensive cyber-capabilities into our military operations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I particularly welcome the fact that the National Cyber Force will be based in the north-west of England. In saying that, may I urge the Secretary of State to look sympathetically at hosting it in Lancashire? We already have a really strong track record of supporting our armed forces, from the thousands of men and women who sign up from our county to manufacture the Typhoon and, hopefully, the Tempest in the future.

I certainly hear what my hon. Friend says. As another Lancashire MP, I am conscious of the good news which the Prime Minister announced that the force will be based in the north of England. Obviously, we will go through the processes of selecting where it is to be based. I think of the lessons that we learned when Bletchley Park and its successors moved to Cheltenham, as opposed to a big city. The impact that that had in levelling up the area is something on which we should all reflect. It is incredibly important that, in our whole levelling-up agenda, we focus not just on cities but on towns as well.

Our Prime Minister and Secretary of State are backing the north by developing the National Cyber Force here. Some say that it should be in Manchester, but others say Lancashire. Surely Bolton is the place for it, with a foot in Greater Manchester, but our heart firmly in Lancashire.

It is tempting to ask for Bolton as well as Warrington to be returned to Lancashire following the reforms of the early 1970s. I must declare that I was once a secretary for the Friends of Real Lancashire. I think, Mr Speaker, you were probably a co-secretary with me at one stage. I hear my hon. Friend loud and clear. The strengths of these mill towns is clear. Whether it be Bolton, Wigan, Warrington, Preston, in my constituency, or Chorley, their contribution to Britain’s industrial base and the next generation, which is obviously cyber, should not be undervalued. I will certainly listen to all the arguments put forward. The National Cyber Force is a mix of GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence. We have a proud record of supporting the MOD and defence in the north, and I look forward to that continuing.

I welcome the weekend’s announcement that a full-spectrum approach will be taken to the UK’s cyber-capability. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the integrated review will include a strategy for working with industry, great and small, so that robust cyber defence can be maintained across our entire economy?

After the Defence Command Paper is announced on Monday, a week today, the defence industrial strategy will be launched the following day, which will give us an opportunity to indicate investments not only in our more traditional industrial base, but in the new and future domains, such as digital, cyber, space and so on. This is incredibly important. Britain is one of the world leaders in both applying our cyber-technology and investing in it, and I predict that the strategy will have something to say about that.

May I, on behalf of the official Opposition, offer my tribute to the service of Sergeant Gavin Hillier and say to his family, his friends and his comrades that our condolences are with them?

I certainly welcomed the weekend news that the integrated review will commit the UK to full-spectrum cyber, as the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) has just said, although I strongly feel that announcements of important Government policy such as that should be made in Parliament and not in the press. Is not the wider security lesson from cyber and other grey-zone threats that more civil and military planning, training and exercising is required? Given that some countries are well ahead of us, will the integrated review catch up with the need for full-spectrum society resilience?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would take issue with it on one thing, and that is about us catching up. I was the cyber-security Minister—I was the Minister of State for Security—for a considerable period of time. Britain actually led the world both in NATO, where we were the first to offer cyber-offensive capability, but also through our programmes. The national cyber-security programme spent billions on enhancing capability right across not just military, but predominantly the civil sector. The National Cyber Security Centre is a first; there are almost none in Europe.

We are one of the first to have such a centre to be able to advise business, private individuals and the Government how to keep themselves strong and secure. There is always more to do and there are lessons to be learned around the world, but Britain has a lot of innovation and strengths in cyber-security. It is a dangerous world out there in cyber. I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that one of the ways to deliver this is to ensure that we constantly work with our friends and allies.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that while the cyber-threat to critical national infrastructure can paralyse a society that is then subject to attack by more conventional means, we also have to maintain the methods and equipment to counter-attack anything involving conventional military force? Is he satisfied that the integrated review, while recognising the role of cyber, also recognises the continuing role of conventional defence?

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point; we absolutely recognise that. The important thing about the Command Paper and the integrated review is learning the lessons of today. The lesson that we learned from Syria was that when we tackle Daesh, we tackle its cyber-offence and cyber-campaign in tandem with the military campaign that we used to take apart its leadership and the evil tasks that it was setting out to cause attacks. It is absolutely the case that there cannot be one without the other, but we should also recognise that the growing vulnerability of our forces and civil society to cyber as we become more dependent on cyber means that we have to take a very strong lead in defending against that.

Veterans Overseas

I thank the Minister for that answer, because the covenant rightly offers to veterans provisions in areas such as education and family wellbeing, having a home, starting a new career, access to healthcare, financial assistance and discounted services. What I would like to know, however, is what the Ministry is doing to ensure that the undertakings that we give as a nation are actually delivered for veterans who now live overseas. Is there a specific budget for this vital work to ensure that those veterans are accessing the services that they qualify for?

There is not a carve-out in the budget for veterans who live overseas, but we are committed to ensuring that the armed forces covenant works equally for them as it does in this country. We are introducing the Armed Forces Bill in the coming months to legislate for the first time to ensure that discharge of duties cannot result in disadvantage from local authorities in health, housing and education. I look forward to the hon. Member supporting the Bill.

Armed Forces Personnel

What recent assessment he has made of the level of satisfaction among armed forces personnel with military (a) housing and (b) salaries. (913323)

Defence regularly monitors several metrics to gauge service personnel satisfaction levels, including for accommodation and pay, via the armed forces continuous attitude survey.

The Army has been instrumental in the fight against covid, from assisting with logistics to being directly involved in testing the vaccination programmes; yet the reward for army personnel is a pay freeze at a time when low pay is one of the factors that causes people to leave the armed forces, as Government studies should show. I ask the Minister, why was Dominic Cummings awarded a huge pay rise, yet armed forces personnel are not deemed worthy of one?

No; I do not have responsibility for the Prime Minister’s advisers, clearly. On satisfaction around pay, I am clear that pay is one of the reasons that people stay in the military. If the hon. Member looks forward to the integrated review, we will be looking to announce a direction of travel on this matter in due course.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I send our condolences to Sergeant Hillier’s family.

The issue of pay rises and satisfaction more generally has been a bone of contention in the House for many years. The numbers speak for themselves; four in 10 serving personnel do not think that the pay they receive reflects the work they do. Why?

The crushing irony of our people who work in Scotland having to pay more in tax and therefore take home less pay and the hon. Gentleman raising this point is not lost on those who serve. Pay is a one of a number of factors that people speak about when the armed forces continuous attitude survey comes through. It is by no means the primary factor. We are constantly reviewing it and I am comfortable that we offer a world-class package to our people.

Yet again, the Minister is rather poorly briefed. The lowest-paid members of the armed forces in Scotland actually pay less in tax. If he wants to talk exemptions, that is a power that lies in the Treasury; it is not a tax power that lies with the Scottish Government. But let me press him on this: when the integrated review is published tomorrow, will it contain something—anything at all—to reverse the trend on satisfaction, and will he apologise to the armed forces, who have had a kick in the teeth with their pay rise being paused, given everything they have done for everyone over the covid crisis?

Let me be clear: this will be the first strategic review to have a specific address to our people. They are our finest asset. They are rewarded not only financially but through the choice of career on offer to them. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read that when it comes out and I am more than happy to have a conversation with him after that.

Support for Veterans

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on improving support for veterans throughout the UK. (913324)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on improving support for veterans throughout the UK. (913329)

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of military charities on improving support for veterans throughout the UK. (913330)

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs champions our veterans’ mental health and wellbeing needs at the heart of Government. This month, NHS England launched Operation Courage, bringing together three NHS England veterans’ mental health services with a single point of access. Op Courage is truly a game changer for veterans in the UK, including in the north-east.

The Royal British Legion has said that the current extortionate charges to Commonwealth veterans to settle in the UK are unfair and should end. We completely agree, so what is the Minister doing to end this unjust treatment of those who have risked their lives for our country?

Let me be absolutely clear: that is a policy that started under the previous Government. This is the first Government who have promised a pathway to residency for those who serve. We will deliver that. We are looking to consult in the coming months. This has been a long-term injustice for our foreign and Commonwealth service personnel and under this Government we are going to correct it.

There seem to be some really good schemes that have been awarded funding under the Positive Pathways programme, but what is the Minister doing to ensure that veterans know about these schemes, and how can we be sure that they are not just a short-term engagement with veterans but really offer the seamless route of care and support that is talked about in the documentation?

One of my biggest challenges in this role is not the fact that there are not pathways of care; it is getting people to understand that and to really be able to access fantastic, world-class healthcare and career advice and transition for a seamless progress from the military into civilian life. It is an ongoing effort and I welcome the hon. Lady’s efforts to help me with that.

The extra £10 million allocated in the Budget to supporting veterans’ mental health is a welcome step that the Opposition have been calling for. However, there is still a large disparity between physical and mental health support, and this extra money works out just at an extra £4 per veteran. Covid-19 has impacted heavily on veterans’ charities’ ability to raise funds and conduct their vital work. Will the Minister therefore commit to protecting our protectors and ensure that the funding is there for veterans to get the support that they need?

The £10 million announced by the Chancellor in the Budget was another important commitment, but we have also seen a greater commitment in the past few weeks with the launch of Operation Courage. It is the first integrated, single front-door approach to mental healthcare in our NHS for our veterans. It truly is a game-changer, and I urge veterans up and down the country to make sure that they are fully aware of what it offers. I will be going from this place to ensure that every GP practice and every NHS trust in the UK is part of that programme to ensure we do our duty by those who serve.

Five years ago, the Government announced that veterans could access the state-of-the-art £300 million Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, but it has seen just 22 people in the past three years. What steps will the Minister be taking to widen veteran access to these facilities and make a meaningful difference to the day-to-day lives of those who have sustained serious injuries during their service?

I have commissioned a review into veterans’ access to the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre. It is an important project. To be clear, in its original specification, it was a national rehab centre, but I recognise that there are opportunities for veterans to access world-class healthcare there. I have asked the veterans community and others to go away, do a piece of work and understand the ask. We will then address that with the DNRC, and I hope we can find a path through the middle to ensure we are looking after those who have served.

Covid-19: NHS Support

The work of our armed forces in supporting the covid response is popular around the country and popular in Parliament, too. Defence has supported the NHS through the construction of Nightingale hospitals, PPE distribution, planning and logistical support, scientific advice, testing and vaccine delivery. Currently, the Ministry of Defence is providing 199 medical personnel to regional NHS trusts, and 321 general duties personnel are providing a range of support tasks, including support to the ambulance services. Some 1,600 defence medical professionals are also embedded in the national health service.

I would like to pay tribute to the armed forces personnel in Carshalton and Wallington for all they have done to help tackle coronavirus. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the hundreds of defence personnel across London who have been seconded to hospitals throughout the duration of the pandemic, fulfilling medical and general roles? Will he also outline the plans the MOD has for continuing that offer of support in the coming months?

I certainly join my hon. Friend, as I hope will the rest of the House, in thanking defence personnel for supporting the NHS across London over the past year. Those thanks should also recognise the NHS and frontline workers whom it has been our great privilege to work alongside at the strategic level here in Whitehall, all the way down to those in wards and in the back of ambulances across the country throughout the pandemic.

Besides MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—support for specific tasks, Defence has an enduring presence within the NHS for training and personnel placements. Work is being done to expand that for future opportunities, given the experience of our people working alongside the brilliant NHS clinicians throughout the pandemic.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the military personnel who set up the asymptomatic testing sites in Sevenoaks and Swanley? The 35 Engineer Regiment managed the whole process swiftly and efficiently, and has made it as pleasant as possible to visit. They deserve to be recognised.

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in praising the fabulous work of the 35 Engineer Regiment and the Kent resilience unit, which supported Kent County Council to deliver its community testing programme and to establish the Sevenoaks asymptomatic testing site. Armed forces personnel have been working tirelessly across the United Kingdom to help tackle this pandemic, and I know she is not alone in wanting to pass her thanks on to all those who have done such amazing work.

In times of crisis, such as foot and mouth disease 20 years ago, flooding catastrophes and now the coronavirus pandemic, the armed forces have been deployed effectively to keep us safe by working closely with the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the thousands of UK armed forces personnel who, aside from keeping us safe, are ready to be deployed in national times of crisis and have bolstered the vaccine effort, supported hospitals, assisted with covid testing and much more?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I wholeheartedly join him in recognising the consistency and excellence of the support that the armed forces have provided to the United Kingdom both in the past and throughout the covid-19 pandemic. It is worth mentioning that, throughout times like this, they are not just working on homeland resilience but continue with the many jobs they have to do overseas to keep countries safe. It is an extraordinary effort, and it is right that they should be recognised in this way in the House.

Will the Minister join me in thanking the 35 military personnel who continue to support the frontline team at South Central ambulance service, which serves my constituents? Will he confirm that the MOD will continue to be there by their side as we move towards the end of all national restrictions on 21 June?

I, of course, join my hon. Friend in thanking and acknowledging the fine work of the armed forces personnel supporting the South Central ambulance service, as well as those who have been supporting ambulance services in the north-west, London and Wales. Supporting the covid-19 pandemic response remains Defence’s main priority, and I can confirm that Defence will continue to provide support while our assistance is requested and the requirement endures.

Last summer, I met members of our armed forces in my constituency of Morley and Outwood who were undertaking tests for people who may have covid. These brave men and women are British heroes, and throughout the pandemic, they have done everything possible to keep the people of our great nation safe. Will the Minister detail the steps that are being taken to strengthen support services for our armed forces and their families so that we can show them the same support that they have shown us?

My hon. Friend is right to notice just how extraordinary the work of our armed forces has been. They have accepted great risk during the pandemic in doing the things we have asked them to do, which will have been of some concern for their families. While they have often been deployed at short notice, we have tried to make sure that the welfare provisions for them are as good as they can be. We also recognise the demands of service life and the impact that they can have on the lives and careers of family members. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has done excellent work on the armed forces families’ strategy and action plan, and we are looking to develop those ideas fully over the next few months.

Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure that military personnel are available to assist with the covid-19 vaccine roll-out. (913332)

We have established a support package of 14,400 personnel who are on stand-by to support covid-19 and winter resilience tasks. Those personnel have a range of diverse capabilities, including planning, logistical and medical. Approximately 700 personnel are currently deployed in support of the covid-19 vaccine roll-out.

I would like to give my massive thanks to all the military and defence personnel who have done such a fantastic job in establishing our field hospitals and in the vaccination programme; they certainly deserve a pay rise. Of the 250 teams of vaccinators promised in December, how many have now been deployed, and how many in Wales?

Forty two of the 252 available vaccination teams are now deployed as part of the vaccine quick response force. In Wales, 34 medical personnel are directly supporting the administering of vaccines, with approximately 150 personnel helping to co-ordinate and operate vaccine centres.

Army Personnel

The number of personnel currently serving in the Army as full-time trade trained strength is 76,350. That is supported by 26,920 Army reserves.

I thank the Minister for that answer. For years, the Ministry of Defence has staggered from one recruitment crisis to another as it has struggled and failed to meet its personnel targets, including the broken promise of 12,500 personnel to be based in Scotland by 2020. The Government are now set to cut a further 10,000 soldiers. Can the Minister confirm whether any regiments are due to be disbanded completely and whether these further cuts will pertain to Scotland, which was promised thousands more personnel, not thousands less?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to pre-empt the announcement next week. He will have heard my colleagues say already that these are things he just has to wait seven days more to understand.

Mental Health Support for Veterans

The Office for Veterans’ Affairs champions our veterans’ mental health and wellbeing needs at the heart of Government. This month, we launched Op Courage, bringing together three NHS England veterans’ mental health services with a single point of access, something we promised to do when we were established 18 months ago.

But waiting times for face-to-face appointments under the veterans’ transition, intervention and liaison mental health service was 37 days in 2020 against the Government’s own target of 14. North-east charities, such as Forward Assist and Anxious Minds in Newcastle, do fantastic work to support veterans in civilian life, but they have been overwhelmed with demand. Does the Minister agree that care for the mental wellbeing of our armed forces veterans must begin before they leave the armed forces, and what is he doing to ensure that they are better supported in that transition to civilian life?

I do not recognise the waiting times the hon. Member relays to me, but I am happy to write to her about what I understand them to be. Let me be really clear that with the funding that has gone into veterans’ mental health—£16 million written into the long-term plan for the NHS, rising to £20 million by 2022-23—I am absolutely determined that world-class veterans’ mental health care will be available in this country. Op Courage, which we launched last week, is the start of that, and we will continue with that progress.

Last week, we saw Meghan Markle speaking out about how her pleas for support for her mental health crisis were dismissed. While obviously the military is a very different institution, military charities continue to see an increase in demand for mental health support, although people do still struggle to speak out. What steps is the Minister taking to help reduce the stigma around mental health in the military and veteran community?

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for all the championing she does in this area. Mental health has come on in leaps and bounds, particularly in the last five to 10 years. Actually, this year we are introducing mandatory mental health and fitness training for our armed forces personnel, which they will undergo every year. We are fundamentally changing our approach to mental health, fundamentally making it easier for people to come forward. It does take courage, but I encourage all those who have mental health concerns to speak up. There is help available, and they can get better.

Submarine Dismantling Programme

What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the (a) Submarine Delivery Agency and (b) Office for Nuclear Regulation on the progress of the submarine dismantling programme. [R] (913335)

Ministers have regular discussions with the Submarine Delivery Agency on the progress of the submarine dismantling project and the MOD holds regular discussions with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is satisfied with the safety performance at Rosyth dockyard.

I thank the Minister for his response. Any delay in the submarine dismantling programme is of grave concern to my Dunfermline and West Fife constituency, where we accommodate many of these redundant submarines. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government’s commitment to endorse the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee in 2019 still holds, or will his Department continue to move the goalposts to guarantee that the removal of these boats will remain a taxpayers’ nightmare forever?

I believe I am right in saying that we have now adopted all the recommendations of the PAC report, and we remain committed to continuing to decommission these boats in a safe and swift way. There were, and I have written to the hon. Gentleman, some small delays due to covid, but they were minimal, and we are continuing with the programme and are committed to continuing to do so.

Service Justice System

The Armed Forces Bill includes measures to reform the service justice system. This includes the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner. In addition, we have commissioned an independent review of policing and prosecutorial processes for dealing with serious criminal offending overseas.

As my hon. Friend knows, there are many service personnel and veterans in Derbyshire Dales, and they expect to see real justice in the service justice system. Can my hon. Friend say what else, other than what is in the Armed Forces Bill, is going to be brought forward to protect justice in the system?

There is a suite of measures in the Armed Forces Bill. The most significant thing we are introducing is a serious crime unit, which will ensure that our investigators are skilled, capable, and have all the tools they need to conduct investigations of a standard that will withstand ECHR compliance tests and such things. We totally understand the need to address not only that issue but the legal side of this matter through the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. We are determined for uniform to be no hiding place for those who commit offences, and as we go forward, we will improve the standard of those investigations. These provisions will be a serious step towards doing that.

Service Medal Awards

On what basis the Advisory Military Sub-Committee decided not to recommend service medal awards to British nuclear test veterans. (913338)

The review by the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee into medallic recognition for those who participated in the UK’s nuclear test programme concluded that it did not meet the level of risk and rigour required for the reward of a campaigning medal or class. That independent process operates to strict criteria, and the outcome in no way diminishes the contribution of veterans. The Government remain grateful to all who participated.

Our nuclear test veterans were sent to the south Pacific in the 1950s at great risk to themselves. They have heard decades of warm rhetoric about their crucial role in the country’s defence during the cold war and beyond, but they lack formal recognition. Recently, a constituent wrote to me:

“My dad was a veteran who was present at two of the grapple tests on Christmas Island in the 1950s. Sadly, my dad is no longer with us and never got round to seeing the Government award a medal or compensation to the veterans.”

Does the Minister share my concern that no more nuclear test veterans such as my constituent’s father should pass away with their contribution left unrecognised?

Their contributions are not unrecognised. We work hard to ensure a programme of support for those who have become ill as a result of their exposure to nuclear tests. This is a consistent process that we are always refining, and the review I undertook eight months ago tightened up that support. The medallic system is outwith the control of Ministers and always has been. It is rightly in that position, but I am determined to continue to do all I can to support this cohort of nuclear test veterans.

Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that armed forces personnel are at the heart of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. (913344)

Our people are our finest asset, and the Government will continue to invest in our extraordinary armed forces personnel. We are committed to ensuring that the UK continues to have the world-class armed forces it deserves. I will publish further details of my plans on 22 March.

Will my right hon. Friend outline what consultation has been undertaken with our military personnel ahead of the policy changes that will be announced as part of the integrated review and defence Command Paper?

From the very beginning of the integrated review and defence reform process, we have engaged with the chiefs and many members of the armed forces across all services. We have been informed throughout that process by defence intelligence and other intelligence products, to ensure that our plans match the threat that we face, as well as the capabilities that we should give to the men and women of our armed forces.

Commonwealth Veterans

What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the immigration status of Commonwealth-born veterans. (913345)

We greatly value everyone who serves in our armed forces, wherever they come from, for their contribution to the security of our nation. Non-UK personnel can settle in the United Kingdom after four years’ service, and I am pleased to confirm that we are extending the time before discharge so that applicants can be submitted from 10 to 18 weeks before they leave. In addition, an imminent consultation is due, and I urge Members to contribute to that and to try to solve the current ongoing issues regarding Commonwealth veterans.

Pay up or pack up: that is the shameful choice presented to our Commonwealth servicemen and women. I am aware of the strength of feeling that the Secretary of State has on this issue. Will he confirm when we will see the public consultation? Will the reforms promised apply to veterans and families, as well as to serving personnel?

First, may I place on record my apology to the hon. Gentleman for the delay in responding to his correspondence? That should not have happened and I apologise for it. The consultation is imminent, and we will schedule it in as soon as possible. Once it has been published, I will be happy to sit down with as many Members as possible to discuss their views on what we are proposing and on whether the measures should go further. We can take it from that point. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am keen that whatever we do is fair for all veterans, whether Gurkhas, or serving UK national or Commonwealth personnel. We must ensure equity, but at the same time I understand the strength of feeling in the House. Those who contribute should be recognised.

Military Aid to Civilian Authorities

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the armed forces’ capacity to deliver military aid to civilian authorities operations. (913346)

Defence remains able to assist other Departments where appropriate and, through prudent planning, has continued to provide support when required throughout the pandemic. Mitigation measures such as testing of key personnel and adaptation of working practices have ensured that Defence has maintained both its UK operational and contingent readiness, as well as being able to generate the forces we require for our commitments overseas.

As a proud veteran, I am delighted to see what our great armed forces have done throughout this pandemic. They continue to go over and above. Will my hon. Friend go over and above in honouring our armed forces by seeing that they have everything they need in the integrated review to stand proud on the world stage?

I look forward to the announcement later in the week and next Monday, but I have a strong suspicion that it will be jam-packed full of opportunities for our men and women to serve at home and around the world in really fulfilling roles that keep our country safer for the future.

Topical Questions

Included in my responsibilities is the duty to uphold the duty of care to our workforce. We were all appalled by the reporting we saw of the incident involving members of the RAF Regiment at the weekend. The RAF police are investigating the incident and the victims have been offered our full support. The Chief of the Air Staff and I had a discussion about the incident over the weekend and he has, with my support, acted quickly. He has removed officers from the immediate chain of command without prejudice pending the findings of the police investigation, and the unit involved, the Support Weapons Flight, will be disbanded with immediate effect. Bullying, harassment and discrimination has no place in our armed forces. I will not tolerate it and nor will the Chief of the Air Staff.

What proportion of servicemen and women are currently deployed in UN peacekeeping, what was it last year and how is it set to change over the next three years?

I can write to the hon. Lady with the exact proportions. All I can say is that there has been a significant increase recently, with the deployment to Mali of our forces to assist in the United Nations mission there. We also have a number of forces deployed in Somalia, assisting that fragile state in trying to come to terms with the consequences of the civil war. The Government are determined to continue to contribute to UN missions wherever we can, lending military support—not necessarily operational support, but in the logistics, the enabling and humanitarian aid.

Russia is rearming, Daesh is regrouping and China is nudging us out of military and trade partnerships across Africa, yet we are about to witness a shocking reduction in our conventional hard power and full-spectrum capabilities. That is overshadowed by the fanfare of announcements promoting a tilt towards niche capabilities, including electronic warfare and autonomous platforms. Yes, we must adapt to new threats, but that does not mean that the old threats have disappeared. Severe cuts to our infantry regiments, main battle tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and Hercules C-130s will worry our closest allies and delight our competitors. Regarding the F-35 jets, does the Secretary of State agree that cutting back our order from 138 to 48 will mean that, if required, we could never unilaterally operate both carriers in strike mode simultaneously?

I have listened to my right hon. Friend’s consistent messaging over the last few months. I think the thing that we can all agree with is that, as he said at the weekend,

“we must modernise—but first let’s agree the threat—& then design the right defence posture.”

That is exactly what we have been doing. Obviously, in the Ministry of Defence, we have made sure that we have been doing that in conjunction with our serving personnel, our allies and the threats. I think playing by the Ladybird book of defence design is not the way to progress.

Why are Britain’s full-time armed forces still 10,000 short of the numbers that the last defence review, in 2015, said were needed to meet the threats and keep the country safe, which the Defence Secretary’s Government pledged to meet?

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman. We are 6,000 under. The strength is 76,500 from the 82,000 that was pledged. He will of course know—it is well documented—that under the previous coalition Government and Conservative Government there was not a satisfactory outcome by the recruiting process. That has now been fixed. Until the covid break, we were on target to fulfil the pipeline and target for that recruiting. We have to make sure we continue to invest in that. That is why we are investing in people. We will continue to invest throughout the process and next week there will be announcements that put people at the heart of our defence review.

The Secretary of State may want to check the numbers. I was talking about the full-time armed forces, not the full-time Army numbers. He has rightly said before that our forces personnel will go to war alongside robots in the future, but robots do not seize and hold vital ground from the enemy. They do not keep the peace or rebuild broken societies, and they do not give covid jabs. Size matters and no Government can secure the nations with under-strength armed forces. Is it not the truth that over the past decade we have seen our armed forces run down—numbers down, pay down, morale down—and that all the indication from stories ahead of tomorrow’s integrated review is that Ministers are set to make the same mistakes as in the last reviews, with our servicemen and women paying the price for cuts and bad defence budgeting?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to forget that for the past three or four decades we have had that characteristic, where Government after Government have been over-ambitious and underfunded the defence policy. His Government did it. The Governments before mine have done the same things. I only have to point him, as I do during at every defence questions, to the National Audit Office report into the processes of his Government in 2010 and our previous Governments to show that the biggest problem is that we have been promising soldiers, men and women of the armed forces equipment they never got, or numbers gains when just tying them up alongside. That is not the way to confront an enemy. The way to confront the enemy is to invest in the people, give them the right equipment to take on the threat, and make sure they are active, busy and forward. As a soldier, being active, busy and forward is what keeps you engaged and in there.

A cyber-security conference is one of the only places on earth where women never have to queue for the loo. That is because there are so few of us in the industry—approximately 10% when I left in 2019. Given that cyber-security is vital to our nation’s defence and that there is a global talent shortage, how will the Government work with industry to encourage more women into cyber-security and to address the skills gap? (913381)

I am sorry that that has been my hon. Friend’s experience. I think in the public sector it is cyber-security. In the intelligence services I worked with when I was Security Minister and in key parts of the armed forces, such as the Signal Regiment, there are higher proportions of women. I think that is something on which the state can lead. That is why the state signed up and sponsored the CyberFirst campaign, designed to stimulate among girls at school an interest in cyber and to invest in them. Hopefully, we are seeing an increase in that. But she can rest assured that with the next stage of the defence review she will see us making sure that, loud and clear, the sign “women are welcome” will be put above the door.

As I mentioned at the previous defence questions, workers at RAF Leeming have been striking since January over a £5,000 pay disparity. Just last week, Faslane and Coulport workers walked out over low wages and the looming break-up of their single bargaining unit. What action can the Minister take to stop these loyal staff being exploited? (913380)

The hon. Lady refers to two bits of potential industrial action. I have written to her about RAF Leeming in the last month. Obviously, it is a source of concern when employers and employees fall out, but I am not going to get into discussions on the specific action involved. We urge all those involved to come to an agreement.

I very much welcome the Government’s efforts to forge new trade links with India. However, given we share many common security threats and the fact that it is a key strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region, can my hon. Friend outline what efforts are being made to better strengthen our defence relationship with India? (913382)

The UK Government are committed to working with the Government of India and increasing our efforts to combat shared threats. In particular, the UK is focused on increasing bilateral maritime co-operation in the Indian ocean and on ensuring a closer defence industrial relationship in line with Prime Minister Modi’s made in India policy. We are also committed to uplifting our defence education and training relationship to enable us to work together more effectively. I am certain that my hon. Friend and our friends in India will be hugely excited by what may follow in the integrated review.

The MOD itself estimates that its equipment plan is underfunded by about £8.3 billion in its first five years. We also know, for example, that the MOD will need to spend perhaps billions of pounds to bring its single-person living accommodation up to even a basic minimum tolerable standard. Will the Minister tell us how much of the additional money that the Prime Minister trumpeted at the spending review in November will be genuinely new money and how much of it will be swallowed up to fill these and other existing black holes in the defence budget? (913383)

I am not going to prejudge in advance of the announcements that are going to be made. They will all be made in the next eight days or so. The hon. Gentleman will be able to see for himself, but I assure him that we have gone through the numbers very closely and there is a lot of new money coming into defence—a £24 billion increase in the amount of money being spent on defence. We can see an awful lot of benefit coming through to our armed forces and our personnel.

With the Government’s integrated review due to be published imminently, potential investment in programmes such as Tempest would clearly align with the Government’s agenda for skills, development and social value. The defence sector employs unique, high-end design and manufacturing capabilities across the UK, with significant export potential, so how will constituents benefit from this? (913385)

Many constituencies and many constituents will benefit from it. I know my hon. Friend is a fierce advocate for Leonardo helicopters in his part of the world. In that particular case, we really value our strategic partnership arrangements and recognise the contribution that they make to UK prosperity. We will shortly be publishing the findings of our review into the defence and security industrial strategy, setting out our strategic approach to a number of sectors.

Some days ago, I read with great interest a piece in The Times saying that the intention is to deploy Royal Navy warships to the high north to safeguard trade routes via the Arctic. Given the limited range of conventionally powered warships, is there a case for relocating warships further north within the United Kingdom? (913387)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. First and foremost, I can give him some reassurance that not only are we continuing to move our submarines from the south to the north to invest in basing in Scotland—for submarine basing, and submarines pose just as lethal a threat to our adversaries as any surface fleet—but we continue to patrol the high north, recently in the Barents sea, and earlier in the year when we returned for the first time since the cold war, joining NATO allies to make sure that those vital trade routes are invested in. From my point of view, the key place for a ship is at sea doing its job on operations. The bases are very important, but let us remember that the way we protect our coast is by being out at sea.

The International Criminal Court’s announcement that it is opening an investigation into Israel sets a precedent, potentially opening the door for non-state actors in Afghanistan or Iraq to initiate proceedings against our armed forces. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support Israel against this probe and to ensure that democratic states will not be prevented from combating terrorist threats? (913386)

My hon. Friend is right to ask about the actions of the ICC. We of course respect the independence of the ICC, but we expect it to exercise due prosecutorial and judicial discipline. We continue to engage with the ICC and international partners to make those points.

The Veterans Minister will recall that in defence questions in November, I raised the concerns that I have about veterans’ mental health. Since then, I have been made aware that demand for services has increased 74% during lockdown. Does he think that the funding that goes into veterans’ mental health is enough, and because waiting times have continued to be longer for veterans, what more can we do to support veterans with mental health difficulties? (913398)

Under Op Courage, the new NHS pathway for all veterans’ mental health, there is an ability to monitor waiting times in almost real-time data, and I am absolutely committed to meeting those targets. There is significant investment going into it. I will always argue for more investment in something that has historically been underinvested in for so long. But I am confident that, as we stand here today, we have a world-class offering of mental health provision for our veterans, and it is incumbent on all of us to get that cohort to understand where that help is, to understand what the care pathways are and to have hope, because they can get better and they will be looked after.

How have the emerging military technologies that are being used in the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh impacted my right hon. Friend’s Department’s assessment of threat, ahead of the integrated review? (913388)

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated with brutal clarity the devastating impact of unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and traditional artillery when combined to produce a lethal cocktail of precision, lethality and range. The destruction of Armenian forces throughout the battlefield, not just on the frontline, demonstrated the vulnerability even of armoured forces on the modern battlefield. This includes our own forces, which is not something that, as Defence Secretary, I am willing to ignore any further. I will set out further details in the future review.

The Secretary of State will be well aware of the historic failure of the Government to repay the £400 million International Military Services debt to Iran. My constituent Anoosheh Ashoori is just one of the dual nationals being held hostage in Iran as diplomatic leverage. There is no doubt that this debt has caused their detainment; officials in Iran have confirmed that. What action is the Secretary of State, along with colleagues in the Foreign Office, going to take to resolve this shameful situation with urgency? (913400)

The hon. Member will know that I held a debate in the House as a Back-Bencher about that very debt and the need and determination to repay it, as it is a stain on Britain’s honour from when we dealt with this in the 1970s. It is definitely the intention that we comply with any court orders that are made against us, and we continue to do so, but we have to ensure that whatever we do is in line with both this law and the sanctions law that we have to observe as well.

The BAE Systems site at Warton in my constituency employs more than 6,000 people, serving as a source of high-skilled employment and playing a critical role in UK defence capability. With the Team Tempest project reaching its critical phase, does my hon. Friend agree that the project must be at the heart of the Government’s defence plans and must be provided with the backing it needs to give it certainty for the future? (913389)

Warton plays a key role in the UK’s combat air sector and Tempest is the future of that sector, with over 1,800 highly skilled engineers already involved in the programme, going up to 2,500 next year. As the Prime Minister has made clear, this Government are committed to investing in the future of our combat air strategy.

The north-east sends a higher proportion of people into the armed forces than any other region, but it also has historically high levels of unemployment. Service charities are concerned that the scope of the Armed Forces Bill is too narrow and that it does not address specific challenges such as employment. Given the challenges of the transition from service to civilian life, will the Government commit to ensuring that all areas of potential disadvantage are addressed for north-east veterans? (913408)

The Armed Forces Bill is an important opportunity to enshrine the armed forces covenant. I understand that for some it goes too far and for some it does not go far enough. I say to the hon. Member that it is the start of the process and the start of a conversation to ensure that the experience of being a veteran is levelled up across this country, and I look forward to working with her in the years ahead.

The hundred or so families at Lyneham in my constituency who are facing eviction from Annington homes will very much welcome the Minister’s remark a moment ago that he is to extend the eviction notice period until next March. They will also be glad that there are to be negotiations with Wiltshire County Council about this, but is the Minister aware of the further complication that those homes get their utilities from within the base? Annington Homes has so far said that that would preclude them from being sold. Will he instruct officials to look into what can be done about that particular circumstance? (913390)

I hope we may have found a technical solution that would enable base-dependent sites to be dealt with to allow sales to social housing providers if the parties agree. Our advice is that the transfer of supply can generally be effected relatively rapidly, and we are willing to share this advice with Annington, which will need to be satisfied that it can perform connections to mains networks safely and efficiently with tenants in situ.

It should be possible to restore the pensions of the small cohort of war widows who lost them on remarriage or cohabitation without setting a precedent that would open the floodgates in respect of other cohorts, so what progress is the Department making in addressing this debt of honour? (913391)

I am aligned with my right hon. Friend’s views. The Secretary of State has worked tirelessly on this issue to try to correct the historic injustice of war widows’ pensions. We continue to examine all possibilities, including the ex gratia scheme and all the other ideas that my right hon. Friend has come up with in his tireless campaigning. We will arrive at a solution. Like I said, the Secretary of State is committed to resolving it, and we will get there in the end.

The Government maintain that every F-35 built has 15% UK content, but I understand that the MOD’s definition of “content” includes work carried out for UK companies by US subsidiaries. Will the Minister therefore publish how he defines UK content in the programme, so that I can decide what is done in the UK and what is done in the US?

I have received a large number of parliamentary questions from the right hon. Gentleman, and I believe that I have answered that question as part of them. If not, I will make certain that it is clear to him. It is 15% by value, and we are proud of the contribution that is being made by UK manufacturing to the F-35. I will make certain that that is covered again.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The ministerial code is clear that

“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

I know that you believe this principle to be fundamental to the proper role of Parliament and the accountability of Ministers. We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement tomorrow on the integrated review, yet over the last week there have been a series of detailed media briefings about decisions in that integrated review. With the Defence Secretary in his place, can you offer guidance to the House, ahead of the follow-up Command Paper on Monday and the defence industrial strategy on Tuesday, so that we do not have the same serious disregard of the ministerial code and disrespect for Parliament?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We have indeed seen a steady drumbeat of media stories promoting radical changes to our defence posture, but the Defence Committee has not received any of those briefings, despite frequent departmental requests. What troubles me the most is the MOD’s decision to share with the media the desire to increase our nuclear stockpile with the purchase of 200 W93 US-made warheads. I am a firm supporter of continuous at-sea deterrence, but changes to our non-proliferation policy deserve proper oversight in this House and should not be used a sweetener to overshadow dramatic cuts to our conventional defence posture. May I ask for your guidance on how we can encourage the MOD to brief the Defence Committee—perhaps in the Ladybird book form that the Defence Secretary likes to promote—and to ensure that any announcements on CASD are made in this Chamber first?

I am grateful to both right hon. Gentlemen for giving me notice of their points of order. “Erskine May” states that

“The Speaker has made it clear that the media should not be informed about the content of statements before they have been made to the House”.

When a statement is made, Members will of course have an opportunity to ask about any advance briefing given to the media, but my position is clear: I want important policy announcements to be made first to this House. Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard the comments of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the Chair of the Defence, Committee as well as this response. I expect that that response will be shared with all Ministers and that they will act accordingly. Thank you.

I suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.