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Topical Questions

Volume 696: debated on Monday 24 May 2021

Can I also place on record my welcome to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock)? I meant no disrespect in not welcoming her at the beginning.

In the integrated review, we highlighted the increasing prevalence of unconventional threats from state actors and the importance of redoubling our efforts to defend democratic institutions and values. Reports of the diverting of a civilian aircraft in Belarus are deeply concerning, and it potentially violates international civilian aviation rules. We condemn the actions of the Belarusian authorities, and we are working with allies and partners to develop a co-ordinated and unified response. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will set out further details later.

The Government will introduce a legacy package that will deliver on the commitments to Northern Ireland veterans, giving them the protection they deserve, as part of a wider package to address legacy issues in Northern Ireland. It is the MOD’s policy, where veterans face allegations arising out of activities related to their duties, that they receive full independent legal support and representation for as long as necessary at public expense.

Legislating to tackle vexatious claims and put our brave armed forces personnel first was a manifesto commitment of this Government, and a landmark piece of legislation that I was proud to support. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that legislation needs to be brought forward to protect our Northern Ireland veterans and address the legacy of the troubles?

Mr Speaker, I will get the hang of Topical Question 1 one day. I hope the answer will be better the second time around.

The Government are committed to bringing forward measures. Those measures were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech, and we will obviously publish them as soon as possible. As a former Northern Ireland veteran myself, I know it is incredibly important that we recognise that many of those veterans served with distinction and bravery, and upheld the law to their highest ability. It is deeply regrettable that we see many of them brought to trial—or under investigation, rather than trial—for vexatious reasons, and we are committed to make sure that that does not happen.

May I, from the Opposition Benches, strongly endorse the concern and condemnation the Defence Secretary has expressed over the actions of the Belarus authorities? May I also say that we strongly support the work of Operation Tangham, but in the light of recent press stories, can I ask the Defence Secretary for his assurance that if he takes any decision to commit combat troops to Somalia, he will report such a decision to this House first?

May I ask about the Army’s fighting vehicles? The Defence Secretary wrote off over £1 billion of taxpayers’ money in March when he scrapped the Warrior. Weekend reports say that the MOD has also paid out £3.2 billion for the Ajax, and so far received only a dozen delivered, and those without turrets. A figure of £4 billion is the total size of the Government’s levelling-up fund over the next four years. Given that the Secretary of State has conceded this afternoon that delivery is the MOD’s Achilles heel, will he accept that Parliament now needs a system of special measures for the MOD so that British forces and the British taxpayer get much better value from his Department?

I think the right hon. Member is looking at the special measure. The reason I am here as the Secretary of State for Defence is to get the record level of investment that will put right not only five years or 10 years, but 20 years of mismanagement of these programmes. Sometimes that means taking tough decisions, and the Warrior will be retired when it runs out in 2025; it is not just going to be cancelled as such. It was also important to make sure that we invested in parts of the land capability that I thought, and indeed that officers thought, were the right thing for the future of the Army—the Boxer armoured vehicle. For that investment, not only do we get a factory in Telford and hundreds of jobs, but we get one of the very best wheeled armed vehicles in the world. For his £3.3 billion on Ajax, he will get over 500 vehicles when they are delivered, and much of that money has already been committed. He will also get a factory in Wales, which I am sure he is pleased about. In both projects, we will get the intellectual property, so that when we export those vehicles around the world, not only will British defence profit, but so too will the people of the United Kingdom through their jobs.

Let me say to the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State that topicals are meant to be short and punchy, not lengthy debates. Can they both get it right for next time? I now come to Mr Metcalfe, who will definitely get it right.

Thank you Mr Speaker. I welcome the recent deployment of Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels to Jersey, to conduct maritime security patrols. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that quick response demonstrates the importance of having our Royal Navy vessels more continuously deployed at sea? (900436)

I certainly do. Offshore patrol vessels are an extraordinarily versatile platform. Batch 1 OPVs, which are mostly responsible for homeland defence, are at high readiness and are called out for all sorts of reasons, from Jersey, to escorting vessels from other nations through our waters. Batch 2 OPVs, a precursor to the arrival of the Type 31, already operate in the south Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. They will soon be joined by further vessels in the Indo-Pacific, demonstrating the forward presence concept, which will have huge utility in the years ahead.

With UK forces leaving Afghanistan, it is all the more important that we do all we can to stand up for those Afghan interpreters, and others, who put their lives on the line for our troops. I have Afghan interpreters in my constituency who have not seen their wives and children for years, due to ongoing issues with the MOD resettlement scheme. Will the Minister admit that that is an issue, and work with the Home Office to sort it out? (900438)

Yes, it is an issue, and the Home Secretary and I have worked closely over the past year. We have already changed some of the reasons, to ensure that we bring back more, and in light of the withdrawal, we are working incredibly hard together to see what more we can do. We owe those people a debt, and it is the right and decent thing to stand by as many of them as possible. I feel that personally, and it is deeply important for what we stand for and our values in world. I hope we will have more to announce and speak about later.

I am pleased to hear what the Department is doing to support defence jobs. Does the Minister agree that promoting the use of world-class UK-made steel in MOD projects would be an excellent support to jobs in Scunthorpe? (900437)

Although defence represents a small element of total demand, UK steel has made a significant contribution to it, including the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier. Although this is generally a decision for defence primes, we ensure that information is shared as part of our processes, and we encourage the resourcing of UK steel wherever possible.

During the 2019 election, The Prime Minister promised that he would not cut the armed service “in any form”, yet the integrated review funds another 10,000 fewer in our armed forces by 2025. We can have an interesting discussion about whether or not force strength is the best use of that money, but does it fundamentally undermine confidence in our democracy when the Government seek election promising to protect the size of our armed forces, knowing full well that they have no intention of doing any such thing? (900440)

The Government always go into elections dealing with the threat as they see it. The threat has changed, and it is incredibly important that we do the right thing in responding to that threat. It is the duty of Government members to ensure that if the facts on the battlefield change, so do we. The hon. Gentleman would, quite rightly, be the first to stand up if we did not equip our people properly and they were put at risk. We all remember what happened last time. It was called the Snatch Land Rover fiasco, and many brave men died defending that ridiculous policy, because of his Government’s choices.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent announcement that the Ministry of Defence will procure 148 Challenger 3 tanks, which will be the UK’s first digitised tanks. Will he outline how those new armoured vehicles will help to deliver the modern, adaptable and expeditionary fighting force that he set out in the defence Command Paper in March, and will he keep me in mind should they need test-driving? (900439)

I will bear that offer in mind. It is a great decision for UK industry, especially for the west midlands, and a great decision for the British Army. The ability to deploy world-class tanks provides policy choice for policymakers against a range of threats in our uncertain world and state of the art Challenger 3s will be a vital asset.

The world-class Cranfield University is committed to assisting the goals set out in the integrated review regarding sustaining strategic advantage through science and technology. How do the Government propose to capitalise on their science and technology resource investment if the large-scale complex and secure facilities and equipment have not been invested in, so are not in place to conduct the research? (900442)

I am not certain if I would agree with the premise of the question. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is incredibly important. We will be investing over £6.6 billion in research and development over the next four years. We have, through the frontline commands and through defence science and technology, extensive contacts with our universities. They work with us closely. We have really profitable joint workings with them and, indeed, with smaller companies through the defence and security accelerator and the innovation schemes to pull fundamental research on to the frontline. I think we do have the processes in place, and I look forward to that money being well spent in the four years ahead.

Over the past year or so, my office has been inundated with concerns from residents about low-flying military aircraft all over North Norfolk. Let me be the first person to understand that we need military training to keep us safe, but would the Minister perhaps meet me to discuss further how we can allay those concerns and work out a communication plan for my residents? (900441)

I am glad my hon. Friend used the phrase he did. I think we are all aware, and his constituents will be aware, that we need to keep our brave air crews safe from harm as they go out every day to keep us safe, and that they get to that level of proficiency through training. I am sure he will accept that and so will his constituents. However, we always want to do that causing the minimum amount of inconvenience and disturbance. I will willingly meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue.

Can the Secretary of State say how many infantry battalions have less than 70% fully deployable soldiers? (900445)

I can write to the hon. Gentleman in detail if he would like. Does he mean deployable or does he mean trade trained strength, because there are a number of different measures? Most soldiers who are trade trained are deployable unless they are on a course. I can give him the exact percentages, but we measure them mainly in trade trained; whether they are trained, whether they are in depot or whether they are in their battalion doing active duty.

I welcome recent reports that the RAF contributed to an important 10-day operation in April, clearing Daesh terrorists from the Makhmur mountain region, which is a Daesh stronghold in northern Iraq. With approximately 10,000 Daesh terrorists still at large across Syria, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK remains committed to Operation Shader? (900443)

The Government are committed to Operation Shader and will continue to be so. The threat of ISIS has not gone away. Indeed, throughout her deployment, the carrier will also potentially take part in operations to support it. It is very important that we continue to degrade ISIS capability, because of its destabilising effect in Iraq and the threat it poses directly to us.

I congratulate the new Veterans Minister on his promotion to the Ministry of Defence. In doing so, may I ask him to resolve an issue that I was told six months ago would be sorted out, which is the roll-out of the veterans’ ID card? This has been rolled out to personnel leaving the armed forces, but not to existing veterans. It was announced by his predecessor-but-two. His predecessor told me it would be resolved in due course. Six months on, it would be good if veterans in my Ogmore constituency and across the UK had an answer. (900447)

I recognise that this is an important issue. This is taking too long, so I look forward to reporting back to the hon. Gentleman with an update on progress.

The fifth Astute class nuclear submarine was delivered a month ago after many delays and ballooning costs over the last half decade. Given those delays, will the Secretary of State clarify if he still believes that these submarines can be delivered by the MOD by the current deadline of 2026? Can he give us assurances that there will be no further increase in cost? (900448)

We will continue with the Astute programme. As the hon. Lady points out, there were some delays in some of that programme. We will continue to manage the programme. The Astute submarines will be delivered by BAE Systems in Barrow-in-Furness. I visit regularly to make sure we try to keep it on track.

Over the past two years, there have been 443 nuclear site event reports at the Faslane nuclear base, which is located just 25 miles from the centre of Scotland’s largest city, yet Capita, which provides specialist firefighting services on site, plans to reduce the number of firefighters by 15%, a move that has been branded as“an accident waiting to happen”by the Unite trade union. Will Ministers intervene to reverse these cuts, given the obvious security and safety concerns that this reduction raises? (900466)

Just to reassure the hon. Gentleman, there were extensive discussions with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service before the decision was made. It was only made after a great many exercises to judge the effectiveness of the new system and after it was signed off by the Defence and Fire Rescue Service HQ and the commander of Her Majesty’s naval base on the Clyde. It reflects better fire prevention systems, and I am pleased to say that we also have new firefighting vehicles coming in later in the year. The decision to move from a six-person, 24/7 shift to a five-person, 24/7 shift was taken only after that level of engagement.

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

Sitting suspended.