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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 696: debated on Monday 24 May 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Jobs

Good afternoon, Mr Speaker. Since our last questions, I have been delighted to welcome to the Government Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) as our Veterans Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Alan Mak) as our Defence Whip. I also welcome the hon. Members for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) to their new Front-Bench posts. I look forward to debating with them over the next few months—and years, hopefully.

The Ministry of Defence spent £20.3 billion with UK industry and commerce in 2019-20, safeguarding and supporting jobs throughout the United Kingdom. Our defence and security industrial strategy sets out several initiatives to support a thriving UK defence sector, including implementing the social value model within defence procurement.

The Boxer mechanised infantry vehicle programme is creating and securing jobs in my Colne Valley constituency. Will the Secretary of State please make sure that companies across Yorkshire continue to have the opportunity to join the UK defence supply chains to help to level up regional economies?

Yes, I can tell my hon. Friend that it is incredibly important that we can do that. Boxer, for example, will play a crucial part in the Army’s heavy brigade combat teams. We have been clear that we expect over 60% of the contract’s value to be delivered in the UK with suppliers such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As part of our defence and security industrial strategy, we will pilot a revised industrial participation policy to promote UK supply chain opportunities to companies bidding for MOD contracts.

I am particularly interested in the smaller companies getting in on the ground. In line with the Government’s commitment both to levelling up and to strengthening our sovereign capabilities, will my right hon. Friend assure me that innovative UK companies such as Kromek in Sedgefield will be fully considered in the next radiation detection equipment procurement?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point about small and medium-sized companies and their role in the supply chain; I see it as part of my job as Defence Secretary sometimes to protect them from the big primes and make sure that their voice is heard. As for the competition that he mentions, I obviously cannot pre-empt the results of the contract, but all bids will be properly considered. I know Kromek by reputation and congratulate my hon. Friend on being a champion of it.

The Prime Minister said back in November that the current four-year funding for defence would create “10,000 jobs every year”. Six months on, how many new defence jobs have been created?

I went recently to Telford to launch the Challenger 3 contract, which will grow to a significant number of jobs—nearly 200 to 300 from that alone. The Boxer coming on stream, which my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) mentioned, will produce up to another 400 to 600 jobs. The Type 31 contract up in Rosyth is now moving apace, with the buildings now in place and the steel-cutting due; that will also unlock, and is delivering, hundreds of new jobs. Across the board, as we have said, there will be thousands of new jobs because of the increase in funding that we have received.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) often comes to the House to say that we are cutting defence and tries to focus on the resource departmental expenditure limit, even though that itself is not a cut. With the capital departmental expenditure limit, the significant increase for capital spending will go on our equipment programme: vast amounts will be made in the United Kingdom, which means more jobs in their thousands.

The Secretary of State will need a better answer than that, because it is down to him to deliver the Prime Minister’s “10,000 jobs every year”, yet since he has been Defence Secretary, the black hole in the budget has grown to £17 billion, only three of the MOD’s 30 major military projects are on time and on budget, and he has agreed to a real funding cut in revenue spending over the next four years. What is he doing to fix what has been the long-running Achilles heel of the MOD: delivery, delivery, delivery?

The £17 billion that the right hon. Member refers to is the sum that was identified by the National Audit Office before the defence settlement. So what have I done? I have got a £24 billion defence settlement over the next four years. I am sure the right hon. Member, having previously worked in the Treasury, can do the maths. He will see that that is the first thing I have done, and it is something I do not think anyone else has achieved since the cold war. It is the highest settlement since the cold war. But he is right to highlight the concerns on major projects. Major projects are always the Achilles heel for the Ministry of Defence, and it is important that we keep an eye on this in full and drive through, ensuring that we deliver efficiencies, but also ensuring that we cross every t and dot every i. The reason that he knows they are the Achilles heel is that in 2010 the NAO report identified that his Government at the time also had a major black hole in the equipment programme, which grew at one stage to £3 billion in a single year.

Climate Security

Climate change worsens poverty and economic stability, and poses a significant risk to global security. In our climate change and sustainability strategic approach, which I launched in March, we have laid out the extensive steps that we are taking to mitigate climate change and to address its implications.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Refugee organisations say that 30 million new displacements last year were caused by floods, storms and wildfires. Acts of nature such as these triggered three times more displacements than violent conflicts did last year, and the number of those internally displaced worldwide hit the highest levels on record, yet this Government have chosen to slash foreign aid to some of the world’s most vulnerable to climate-based threats, making a complete mockery of the United Kingdom’s leadership role ahead of COP26. So what assessment has the Ministry of Defence made of the cuts to foreign aid, and how does it plan to address the rising threat of climate change to our own national security in the face of increasing instability across the world?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the threat from climate change is indeed one of the major priorities of my colleagues in the Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Office. It is also a priority of ours. As I have said, the document we published back in March sets out how we are planning for the increase in the HADR, or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and MACA, or military assistance to civilian authorities, roles that the armed forces are going to have to take on. I know we are all proud to see the work of our armed forces as they rise to those challenges and help some of the poorest people in the world to meet the challenges of their daily lives. We will continue to support them in doing so.

I, too, welcome the new Minister for Defence People and Veterans, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), to his place on the Government Front Bench. I also thank the outgoing Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for all the work he did at the veterans office.

Climate change is altering the threat picture across the globe, and not for the better. It is happening in our own back yard and on our own doorstep in the high north and in the Arctic, where we have seen a build-up of military tension because of Russia’s actions. Russia has, of course, just taken over the rotating chairmanship of the Arctic Council. Can the Minister outline to the House exactly what the Ministry of Defence is doing with regard to the threat picture in the Arctic and the high north, and explain to the House why that area of the world should get less attention than the Indo-Pacific tilt?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know that, being the person he is, he will have read the Command Paper in depth. He will have seen the copious references to the high north strategy and to our joint expeditionary force partners—it is good to see Iceland coming on board with that. We are acutely aware of the need to have a forward understanding and presence and to work with our allies in the high north. The First Sea Lord and ourselves have mentioned on many occasions the impact of changing ice presence in the far north and how we need to rise to that threat. We are always alive to these threats and we are always working to ensure that we are prepared for them, but I would also gently remind the hon. Gentleman that, ultimately, our defence is a combination of all the assets we have, including our commitment to a strategic nuclear deterrent.

The Minister rightly mentions the defence Command Paper, which comes on the back of the integrated review. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) has just outlined, there is a lack of joined-up Government thinking on that. If the Government were serious about the impact that climate change is having on the threat picture, the foreign aid budget would not be getting cut and, yes, greater attention would be paid to the high north and the Arctic, so can the Minister just answer a simple question? What does the Ministry of Defence specifically want to get out of COP26?

COP26 is an entire-Government piece of work, and we are working with all nations around the Earth to get a whole load of deliverables out of COP26, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. Our commitment in terms of defence to meeting and addressing the needs of climate change was, I am pleased to say, recognised on President Biden’s Earth Day earlier this year, which my right hon. Friend addressed, where the US Defence Secretary referred to the UK as having “raised the bar” in terms of Defence’s work in this country on climate change. We are alert to the need, and I would recommend to the hon. Gentleman the document we published earlier this year on our climate change and sustainability strategic approach. He will find a lot of his thinking in that document.

Afghanistan: Withdrawal of UK Forces

NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers confirmed on 14 April that an orderly and co-ordinated withdrawal of NATO forces would start on 1 May, and we have met that timeline. The withdrawal of Resolute Support Mission forces from Afghanistan will be complete within a few months. The UK’s Operation Toral forms part of the RSM and, as such, we will draw it down in line with what our NATO allies and partners are doing.

The Afghan forces have been fully responsible for the security of Afghanistan since 2015, and I want to place on record my admiration for their remarkable resilience and courage in meeting the challenges they face. The UK has an enduring commitment to Afghanistan. We plan to continue to provide financial sustainment support until at least 2024. It is in all our interests that the state of Afghanistan transitions through the peace deal as the state we envisage it to be, and I will explore all options, whether from inside the country or outside it, to continue to support those forces one way or the other.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Let me begin by wishing the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier battle group all the very best on her maiden voyage.

Operation Telic, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, cost the taxpayer £8 billion and the lives of 179 UK military personnel, and there was a full independent inquiry. Operation Herrick, the invasion of Afghanistan, cost the taxpayer £28 billion and resulted in some 450 UK military deaths, but to date the Government have not announced an inquiry. We now withdraw from Afghanistan just as the Taliban are on the ascent and another civil war looms. That cannot be the exit strategy that we ever envisaged, and we must understand what went wrong. For example, why did Donald Rumsfeld exclude the Taliban from the first peace talks in December 2001? If we do not understand and learn from the strategic errors of the past, this House will be hesitant to vote in favour of deploying our hard power in the future. Please, let us have that inquiry.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s requests—I know he has recently written a letter to the Prime Minister making that request. First, there is a stark difference between Iraq and Afghanistan; the article 5 triggering of that deployment and the causes behind it were not in doubt. Secondly, as our former Speaker would have said, part of my right hon. Friend’s salvation is in his own hands: as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, he obviously has significant capabilities and powers to bring forward an inquiry, if that is what he wishes. At present, the Government are reflecting on his letter and do not think there is a need for the same type of inquiry that we saw into what happened in Iraq. Of course, we do learn lessons; there have been a considerable amount of internal looks by military professionals at what is going on.

On Donald Rumsfeld and the United States Administration, that is a matter for the US Administration and not for me. I am not able to ask what lay behind their motives as to decisions they have made over the past 20 years and I cannot therefore venture into that space.

I hope we are not so naive as to believe that the Taliban will stick to any peace deal unless they recognise adverse consequences for breaking it. So will the Government take steps, in conjunction with the US and other NATO allies, to find a new strategy, possibly based on a strategic base in the region, to deter the Taliban and protect Afghanistan from a total Islamist takeover after our land forces have totally been withdrawn?

My right hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point and a very real suggestion. The US, in that peace agreement, chose not to make it conditions-based at the end. That was a regret for most of the NATO allies, as we thought that that was important. However, a lot of people have lost their lives in that conflict and sacrificed a lot, and I do not intend that to be for nothing. As I said, we will explore all options that we can to make sure that we protect not only Britain’s interests and citizens, but her allies.

We are also protected by international law in doing what we need to do to defend ourselves if a threat emanates from that country or any other around the globe, and we have the capabilities to do that. Allies will continue to talk, and our support for and funding to the Afghan Government will continue to at least 2024. The one thing I would say to the Taliban is that they will remember what happened the last time they played host to al-Qaeda.

British Values and Capabilities

As we shape the open international order of the future and promote our interests globally, we are investing an additional £24 billion in active and modernised armed forces. That will not only place defence at the heart of global Britain’s protection but project the UK as a force for good in the world—from our work to build democratic institutions to the building of capacity in our partners’ armed forces and the delivery of an expanded defence diplomatic network, alongside historic investment in research and development. Perhaps nothing better embodies our ambition than the deployment this weekend of the carrier strike group, which will be working on all those things over the next six months.

I welcome the maiden voyage of the UK carrier strike group, which set off this weekend. It is NATO’s first fifth-generation carrier strike capability and will join a number of NATO exercises along the route. Will the Minister outline how that demonstrates the Prime Minister’s commitment to Britain remaining NATO’s key European ally? How will it advance our collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region?

In the past few weeks the carrier strike group has participated in Exercise Strike Warrior and in the next few weeks it will participate in Exercise Steadfast Defender, but that is not the totality of the Royal Navy effort in the Euro-Atlantic in the next few weeks. Indeed, the littoral response group north is sailing for the Baltic, where she will participate over the next few weeks in Baltops. This is not a flash in the pan: the Royal Navy and the rest of our armed forces are committed all year round to showing that Euro-Atlantic security is the absolute bedrock of the United Kingdom’s security.

I welcome what the Minister has said and wish well all the sailors, soldiers and air personnel who have set sail as part of the carrier strike group’s maiden deployment. Does my hon. Friend agree that the deployment, which will visit more than 40 countries and undertake more than 70 engagements, will deliver our ambition to increase our interoperability and burden-sharing with our allies around the world?

Over the weekend my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence visited the carrier strike group, as did Her Majesty the Queen on Saturday, and I know that the carrier strike group personnel will be further delighted by the good wishes sent by so many in the House today. Over the next six months they will fly the nation’s flag in all corners of the world and I am sure they will do so with great style and skill. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the deployment as the embodiment of so much of what is in the defence Command Paper. Over the next few years we all look forward to this being not the first but the latest in a sequence of events of similar importance that project global Britain around the world.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Cuts to armed forces numbers will affect Britain’s influence around the globe. The former Defence Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), appeared before the Defence Committee on 11 May and said that “no one” could explain the rationale for the size of the defence cuts. Does the Minister agree with his former colleague?

No. As the carrier strike group sets sail and the littoral response group sets out for the Baltic, as our soldiers in Mali and Afghanistan show what great jobs they have been doing there, and as our Air Force continues to contribute to NATO air-policing missions, alongside the fantastic work it does to support the rest of our deployments around the world, I can see a rapidly transforming set of armed forces that are better equipped and better able to meet the needs of the United Kingdom by responding to threats when they emerge upstream, rather than sitting in the United Kingdom contingent for the fight when it eventually comes.

British Army in Wales Post Covid

What steps his Department is taking to strengthen the British Army in Wales after the covid-19 outbreak. (900379)

The Army has organised and conducted more than 74,000 tests, 11,000 ambulance responses and almost 70,000 covid vaccine inoculations in Wales over the past year. As we build on our close relationship with Welsh society, we remain committed to relocating a major regular Army unit to Wales, and the Ministry of Defence continues to examine the options to locate a second major unit to Wales as well.

The Welsh element of Operation Rescript, the Army’s response to the covid-19 outbreak, was stood up from Brecon barracks, as the Minister has described. From there, in conjunction with a large family of defence partners, Brigadier Andrew Dawes has overseen more than 1,200 service personnel across the three services who have been working tirelessly in support of the NHS in Wales. I particularly want to thank the members of the RAF who joined us at the vaccination centres in Builth Wells and Bronllys. Does the Minister agree that this recent activity serves to underline the operational importance of the barracks and further weakens the case to close it in 2027?

Brecon and, indeed, the 160th Welsh Brigade are fortunate to have such an outstanding local representative making their case in Parliament. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to all the amazing work that they have done in supporting the covid response in Wales. I know that, as a result of all her hard work campaigning on this matter, she was delighted to hear confirmation from my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement that the brigade HQ will remain in Brecon.

The Ministry of Defence is committed to continuing to ensure that regular Army units are retained in Wales, alongside what is a fantastic and well-used training estate, including that in and around Brecon, and I know that her constituents can have every confidence that she will continue to make that case should we ever forget it.

Armed Forces: Equipment

What steps he is taking to ensure that the armed forces are provided with equipment that is (a) up-to-date and (b) high quality. (900380)

This Government will spend more than £85 billion on equipment and support over the next four years to ensure that the men and women of the armed forces have modern equipment that they need to meet the threat. That includes a commitment of at least £6.6 billion to invest in research and development to develop the capabilities of the future.

Surely the Minister is aware that only last month the Defence Committee said that, in a conflict with a country such as Russia, our forces would be obsolete and outgunned, because their armed vehicle capability is just not up to scratch. As a Member of Parliament who represents some fine engineering companies in the defence sector, such as David Brown and many others, may I ask what is going wrong with our defence capability at the same time as this Government are cutting our armed forces down to the bare minimum of 82,000 personnel?

What is going on is a massive enhancement —an investment—of our armed forces, particularly in the Army. I refer to Ajax, which is well known to many people in this House; to the Challenger 3 announcement, to which my right hon. Friend referred; and, in particular, to Boxer. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that David Brown in his constituency won a multi-year power pack contract for the Boxer programme. We are putting in a huge amount of investment, which will help us to develop a highly credible armed force. That is what we are developing and continuing to invest in and he can be proud of what they can deliver.

In the light of the cancellation of Warrior and the delays and rising costs of Ajax, will the Minister now give a specific date on which our armed forces will finally receive the new generation of armoured vehicles?

I start by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place. He, like me, is a historian and will know that there have been debates about how quickly defence equipment will arrive since the days of Hywel Dda buying body armour and Alfred the Great putting the original order in for offshore patrol vessels. It is always an issue of contention when things will arrive—when they will get delivered. He can be very assured by the nature of the contracts that we have awarded and by their delivery. Ajax is still in its demonstration phase, but we have the original 14 vehicles with us, and work is ongoing. Challenger 3 is committed to be joining us in the Army’s line up. We are doing our best to advance Boxer and it is already well on track, with contracts awarded throughout the United Kingdom. That is a combination that will get us skilled jobs into the UK, while, at the same time, giving our armed forces the capabilities that they need to meet the threats of the future.

Veterans: Priority Medical Treatment

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that veterans discharged from the British Army on medical grounds are given priority medical treatment by the NHS. (900381)

I want to ensure a gold standard of care for veterans. I pay tribute to the national health service for its excellent range of bespoke services that are available to veterans as a priority.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. My constituent Mark Roberts was discharged from the Royal Tank Regiment in 2015 on medical grounds. Despite his service to our country, he was on the NHS waiting list for dental treatment for three years. May I ask my hon. Friend to see what more can be done to ensure that our veterans get access to the medical treatment that they deserve?

I thank my hon. Friend for the terrific work that he does to represent the interests of veterans in his constituency. I am concerned to hear the details about Mr Roberts. If my hon. Friend forwards me the details, I will pursue that case with urgency.

Veterans: Protection from Vexatious Claims

On 29 April 2021, we delivered the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act 2021, which is a landmark piece of legislation that will mean that our armed forces in the future can deploy with confidence when they are going around the world to do their duty.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for delivering this important piece of legislation, and to his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for his important contribution. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline what work has been done to communicate important changes contained in the Act to servicemen and women and veterans, including those in Hastings and Rye?

I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend does in Hastings and Rye to represent the interests of veterans. It falls on us all to sing from the rooftops about this landmark Act. We will be communicating it through every channel available to us, and we will look at whether we can include it in pre-deployment training.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act, which has provided huge relief to both veterans and serving personnel in my South Derbyshire constituency. Will he reassure me that, on top of improving the treatment of service personnel throughout the criminal and civil claims process, the Ministry of Defence is also improving its own internal investigations process?

My hon. Friend is right to raise investigations, which are a critically important component of the service justice system. It is in the interests of serving personnel that we have a rigorous and transparent system. That is why the Secretary of State has tasked Justice Richard Henriques to conduct a thorough review of our approach to investigations. We much look forward to him reporting in the autumn.

I believe that support for our veterans continues to improve under this Government, but, as the Minister knows, there are two pressing issues that require immediate resolution: Northern Ireland legacy; and the statutory guidance for the Armed Forces Bill. Will he please assure me that both are forthcoming?

First, let me say how grateful I am for the work that my hon. Friend does in supporting veterans, particularly with the all-party parliamentary group on veterans and with other activities; it is appreciated. The statutory guidance will be published shortly. We are cognisant that the Armed Forces Bill needs to have teeth, and that statutory guidance will be part of our approach. When it comes to Northern Ireland, we have a shared interest in ensuring that this is dealt with. The Government will in due course bring forward a package that delivers for veterans, victims and their families.

I welcome the fact that the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Act will provide vital protections to those who put their lives on the line to defend our country and will introduce a new high bar for criminal prosecutions, but will my hon. Friend assure me that when members of the armed forces or our veterans do face prosecution, they will receive comprehensive support from the Ministry of Defence? Will he also join me on a visit to the Don War Memorial Museum & Veterans Hub to see the incredible work of Julie Cooper in celebrating and supporting our veterans?

I am pleased to confirm that that support is available, and it is only right that it should be. Who could resist an invitation to Teesside? I would be delighted to visit the Don War Memorial Museum with my hon. Friend, and to learn about the magnificent military heritage of which Teesside can be rightly proud.

Armed Forces: Technological Capabilities

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces are supported by world-class technological capabilities. (900383)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces are supported by world-class technological capabilities. (900390)

To ensure that our armed forces are able to meet current and future threats, we are investing over £6.6 billion in defence research and development over the next four years. Defence will accelerate the use of the next generation technologies through focused investment on demonstrators and early prototypes, aggressively pursuing game-changing capabilities at pace. This includes areas such as directed energy and hypersonic weapons, forms of drones, artificial intelligence and automation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that our British troops have the best equipment in the world, that when that is produced here in Britain by small manufacturers like CQC in my constituency, the procurement process should be fair and transparent, and that where possible we should be buying British and supporting British jobs in places like Barnstaple?

I absolutely agree that we need the best equipment. My hon. Friend has been a great advocate for CQC in her constituency. I am delighted that it recently secured an order for 27,000 operational travel bags for the British Army. Small and medium-sized enterprises perform an invaluable role in supporting defence and now account for over 21% of expenditure. I will publish a revised SME action plan later this year.

In common with my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby), I welcome the support for SMEs in my constituency. We rightly prioritise our onshore industrial defence capabilities. However, in order to ensure that we remain at the forefront of technological advancements, can my hon. Friend assure me that we will not limit our ability to also work collaboratively with our friends and allies in developing new capabilities and responses to what are increasingly complex and ever-changing threats?

Absolutely not. I can reassure my hon. Friend that, as he recognises, international programmes are hugely important to defence and we will continue to engage with our friends and allies. To name but two, Boxer and FCAS—the future combat air system—are international collaborations, and they are bringing thousands of skilled jobs to the west midlands, to the north-west and throughout the UK.

UK Nuclear Warhead Replacement Project

Transition to the mark 4A warhead is ongoing to ensure that we continue to have a safe, secure and available stockpile until the replacement warhead is available by the end of the 2030s. The replacement warhead is in its early preliminary phases and will come after the transition to the upgraded mark 4A warhead. It is too early, therefore, to provide a cost estimate at this stage.

On 15 March, in response to a written question by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), the Government confirmed that the UK replacement warhead for the Trident nuclear missile will be designed, developed and manufactured in the UK. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether this replacement nuclear warhead will use up any funds that would otherwise go towards conventional defence projects?

If the hon. Lady had listened to the previous answer, she would know that the current funding is being spent on transitioning to the mark 4A upgrade of the existing warhead scheme. We are engaged in the design and the process to get to the replacement warhead in nearly 20 years. Just like the rest of the nuclear deterrent budget, it is part of the overall budget. It was agreed in 2015 as part of the £31 billion for the Dreadnought programme. We continue to spend that, and I expect there to be a budget line to continue with the deterrent. As long as this Parliament votes, as it did in 2016, for that deterrent to exist, there will be a budget for it.

Armed Forces: Transition into Employment

In 2019-20, 84% of service leavers were employed within six months of leaving—higher than the UK employment rate of 76%. We support people transitioning out of the armed forces with the Career Transition Partnership and Defence Transition Services. We have also introduced a national insurance holiday for employers and veterans and a guaranteed entry scheme for veterans seeking to join the civil service. Veterans’ employment is a huge success. They bring energy, loyalty and commitment to the workplace, and that is something we should celebrate.

In the Jarrow constituency there are many talented and dedicated people who leave the armed forces every year and find it difficult to transition into civilian life and employment. Despite employment not being covered by the Government’s Armed Forces Bill, will the Minister outline what steps he is taking to work specifically with local charities and local authorities to ensure that the talent and the skills of our ex-service personnel are utilised in civilian life?

When it comes to local authorities, we will, when the Armed Forces Bill becomes the Armed Forces Act, issue statutory guidance to ensure that no veteran is at disadvantage. I hope that all local authorities will take that on board and deliver for our veterans in the local community.

Getting a decent job is key to a successful transition to civilian life, but the Armed Forces Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) said, does not include responsibility for employment or transition. Service charities have said that the Bill is too narrowly focused, so why will the Minister not widen the scope of the Bill to ensure that all the promises of the covenant are delivered by it?

When it comes to transition, it starts two years before someone actually leaves the armed forces and lasts for two years after they leave. The support that the MOD provides to service leavers lasts for two years, but we must bear in mind that overwhelmingly the vast majority find gainful employment within six months.

For my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby who have dedicated themselves to working in the armed forces, the transition to civilian life and employment can be incredibly difficult for them and their families. Having a final posting located far from where they plan to resettle can also have a detrimental impact on the whole process. Can the Minister please outline what steps his Department is taking to address this issue and the impact it is having on the wellbeing and outcomes for those affected?

Family life is at the heart of service, and service families are an integral part of the defence community. We want flexibility and choice when it comes to the choices that families make, and that is why we are bringing forward our families strategy, which will include things like wraparound childcare and a range of other initiatives to help ensure that there is choice and flexibility for service families.

Cobseo, the Confederation of Service Charities has noted that there was only one mention of self-employment or business ownership in the 2020 armed forces covenant annual report. With the pandemic making it more likely that veterans will have to explore self-employment as a viable career option, what action will the Minister take to ensure that he supports self-employment within the veteran community?

We support service personnel transitioning out and seeking to start their own businesses and be self-employed through the career transition partnership, which is a hugely successful initiative. We recognise that veterans bring some of the key skills to successful self-employment: initiative, discipline and the tendency to work extremely hard. I think overall the support offered by the career transition partnership is a very positive story.

A survey by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association has suggested that almost half of recruiters would worry about hiring a service leaver because of concerns around negative mental health. While the Government’s proposed national insurance relief for businesses that hire veterans is welcome, it does not tackle the root cause of the problem. What are the Government doing to address the misconceptions employers may have about veterans?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, and I wish her well in her new appointment. The key thing we can all do is to not talk down our veterans, but instead talk them up. Overwhelmingly, there is a mismatch, and a misconception among the public about whether service damages veterans. Service does not damage veterans. Overwhelmingly, veterans leave as better people with terrifically useful transferable skills. That is why overwhelmingly the vast majority get gainful employment six months after leaving. The story of veteran employment is something of which we should be hugely proud.

Families of Armed Forces Personnel: Support

Service families are an integral part of the armed forces community. We want people in the armed forces to be able to sustain a family, but also a military career. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) for his critically important report “Living in our Shoes”. We look forward to taking the recommendations from his report into our armed forces families strategy as part of our efforts to ensure that defence people can sustain family life.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. I think the Armed Forces Bill will be very helpful in ensuring that families receive the same level of consideration from public bodies wherever they live, but may I focus on education? Moving schools when moving postings is a regular part of service family life that can have a disruptive impact on a child’s education. As my hon. Friend takes forward his work, can I ask him to place a particular focus on education for service families’ children?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am pleased to report that there are now changes to the school admissions code in place that will allow flexibility. This will allow service children to join a school during the school year, and I am delighted to be able to report that. As I have already mentioned, that, in tandem with wraparound childcare and the future accommodation model, demonstrates that we are committed to our forces families.

Topical Questions

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.