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Commons Chamber

Volume 696: debated on Monday 24 May 2021

House of Commons

Monday 24 May 2021

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


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.

Belarus: Interception of Aircraft

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on what measures he has taken to respond to the interception of a civilian aircraft by a Belarusian fighter and the detention of a journalist.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Yesterday afternoon, a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk. There were more than 100 passengers on board, including the prominent independent Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich. The Belarusian authorities claim that this was in relation to an alleged bomb threat, but we have seen no evidence to support that claim. What we have seen is that Belarus scrambled a MiG fighter, forced the plane to divert to Minsk and then used the emergency landing as an opportunity to arrest a prominent journalist.

We understand that Mr Protasevich was detained on spurious charges, including involvement in riots, organisation of actions that violate public order and incitement of hatred and discord. The UK calls for his immediate release and the release of all other political prisoners in Belarus. We are urgently seeking full details of precisely what took place in relation to flight FR4978, but the scenario as reported is a shocking assault on civil aviation and on international law. It represents a danger to civilian flights everywhere, and it is an egregious and extraordinary departure from the international law and international practice that guides international civil aviation under the Chicago convention.

The international community as a whole has a shared interest and a joint stake in ensuring that civilian aircraft can fly safely and without harassment. That is why we are calling for the council of the International Civil Aviation Organization to convene urgently to address thoroughly and rigorously this incident. The regime in Minsk must provide a full explanation for what appears to be a serious violation of international law. Mr Lukashenko’s regime must be held to account for such reckless and dangerous behaviour.

For our part, we have summoned the Belarusian ambassador, and the Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas is conveying our condemnation of these acts as we speak. We are working with our international partners to explore every potential diplomatic option at ICAO, the UN Security Council, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the G7. Beyond the diplomatic track, we are actively considering and co-ordinating with our allies on further sanctions on those responsible for this outlandish conduct.

To ensure the safety of air passengers, I have also worked with the Transport Secretary to issue a notice to all UK airlines to cease overflights of Belarusian airspace and to suspend the operating permit of the Belarusian airline BELAVIA with immediate effect. That is, of course, the only airline that flies regularly between the UK and Belarus. But in order to be sure, and as a precautionary measure, the UK Civil Aviation Authority will be instructed not to issue any further ad hoc permits to any other carriers flying between the UK and Belarus.

We continue to support civil society and media freedoms in Belarus. We provided more than £1 million in 2020, and in this financial year we are providing an additional £1.8 million. I know the whole House will join me in condemning unequivocally this reprehensible action under the Lukashenko regime. The UK will stand firm in protecting freedom of the media, upholding international law and maintaining the safety of international civil aviation.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

I welcome very much my right hon. Friend’s statement. What he has described, quite correctly, as an outlandish attack is the first time we have seen air piracy in Europe for many years. This attack was a hijacking that turned into a kidnapping, and is a serious violation of the human rights not just of Roman Protasevich, who has been held by the Belarusian authorities, but of every passenger and member of the crew on that airliner. This is a direct threat not just to those who may be dissidents to regimes such as Belarus, but to all of us who are at risk of overflying such a state.

I welcome enormously my right hon. Friend’s decision to suspend travel to Belarus and stop overflights. He is absolutely right to do so, and he joins the Chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committees of Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, the European Union, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain and the United States in calling for that. Will he go one step further and call for a suspension of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the Yamal energy pipeline, which flows through Belarus? That is where the money that supports that tyrannous regime comes from. Will he also join European partners and friends, and NATO allies such as the United States, in reinforcing that this was an attack not just on a civilian airliner flying between two EU capitals, but on one flying between two NATO capitals? That includes us, and it is vital to the security of the UK people that we stand strongly against it. Otherwise, everyone flying to Thailand, Australia and many other destinations will have to wonder not only what they may have done to offend a regime they are flying over but what somebody else on the aircraft—somebody they have never met before—has done. Any of these regimes could be inspired, like Lukashenko’s, to force a civilian aircraft out of the sky with threats of violence.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his support for the actions that we have taken today. He is absolutely right about the threat posed to all of us as users of civil aviation and, indeed, to the international community at large, not least given that the ICAO regime is one of the most well-supported international instruments dealing with a common good that we have in the international community. He is right about the ICAO, and the UK has led the calls for an urgent meeting of the council.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s action among parliamentarians around the world. He rightly raised overflights, and he will have seen and noted the decisions that we have taken today. He also raised sanctions, and we will urgently consider further possibilities with our partners. The right thing to do is to co-ordinate to maximise our approach. He will know that we have already imposed targeted sanctions on 99 individuals and entities since the election in August 2020 and we very much led the way at that time. He also mentioned Nord Stream and other possibilities. We will consider and consult with our partners and see what further action they are willing to take.

Finally, I agree with much of my hon. Friend’s characterisation: on the face of it, the Lukashenko regime engaged in a particularly calculating and cynical ploy to force a civilian flight to land under the threat of a MiG fighter and under the hoax of a bomb alert, behaviour that is as dangerous as it is deceitful, and a flagrant violation of international law.

After yesterday’s acts of modern piracy, it is clear that Lukashenko must now be recognised as an international threat—a danger not just to his own people but to the citizens of other countries. For a state to hijack a civilian airliner flying between two NATO allies in order to arrest a journalist is an assault on the freedom of the air and on freedom of speech. Unless the consequences are swift, robust and co-ordinated, it will create an extraordinarily dangerous precedent that will put journalists, dissidents and activists from the UK or anywhere else at risk every time they board a plane. I therefore very much welcome what the Foreign Secretary said today and, in particular, that he has summoned the ambassador and demanded the release of Roman Protasevich and other political prisoners. Those in the Belarusian pro-democracy movement are owed our solidarity and support as they fight for the right to determine their own future through free and fair elections.

I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary’s response when the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) asked about working with allies in NATO and the EU and through ICAO to ban flights through Belarusian airspace, to suspend Belarus from ICAO and, in particular, to block BELAVIA from operating in and out of the UK and to suspend direct flights.

I was interested to hear the Foreign Secretary say he was considering how best to ramp up economic pressure on the regime. In the space of 12 months, the Lukashenko regime has stolen an election, employed brutal repression against its own people and hijacked a civilian airliner, yet fewer Belarusian entities are sanctioned now than were in 2012. Will the Foreign Secretary now bring forward sanctions against state-owned enterprises, some of which continue to have UK subsidiaries, such as BNK (UK)? What steps will he take to stop the Belarusian Government using the London stock exchange to raise finance and sustain Lukashenko’s grip on power? Will he ensure that the UK is no longer a soft touch for corrupt elites from Belarus or elsewhere seeking to store their funds and assets, and will he consider targeted sanctions against individuals such as Mikhail Gutseriyev?

Given the apparent presence of Belarusian KGB agents on the flight, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what assessment he has made of the threat to Belarusians in exile and what can be done to disrupt any Belarusian agents who may be operating in the UK, Europe and NATO allied countries?

Some of these things are easy, and others are much more difficult, but all of them are necessary to stand up for our values and to defend our national interest. If the Foreign Secretary chooses to take a stand on this matter, he can count on our support.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the measures that we have taken today. It is important that, so far as possible, subject to all the scrutiny, accountability and challenge expected, we show a united front in the face of such appalling acts by appalling regimes, of which the Lukashenko regime is one. I agree with her characterisation, as I did with that of my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). The Lukashenko regime has done something that threatens not only the Belarusian people but attacks a common good, most notably by endangering a key tenet of the international system of civil aviation. That threat accrues to us all, and we must stand up against it.

The hon. Lady mentions sanctions. I am not sure that her numbers were quite right. For clarity, we have sanctioned 99 individuals and entities. That mix includes those sanctioned under the country-specific sanctions regime and the extra individuals that we sanctioned as a result of the global human rights sanctions regime that I introduced. On top of that, she will know that we have extended the Magnitsky sanctions regime to cover corruption and embezzlement and improprieties of that nature. She mentioned a couple of names. She will understand that we are evidence-based, but if she has evidence or thinks that there are individuals who should be designated, I encourage her to let us have that information.

Finally, the hon. Lady raises an important point. Clearly, there is now a threat not just to dissidents and journalists in Belarus who have the temerity to stand up to the regime, but to those who do so around the world. Through our global Media Freedom Coalition, in which we work very closely with the Canadians, and a whole range of other mechanisms internationally, it is important that we stand up for those freedoms and those individuals wherever they may be.

The outrageous kidnapping of Mr Pratasevich has rightly received unqualified condemnation from across the House, but he is only the most recent in a despicably long list of opposition politicians and journalists who have been arrested or disappeared as part of Alexander Lukashenko’s latest appalling crackdown on legitimate opposition. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what action he and the Government are taking to secure the release of all political prisoners in Belarus?

I know, because of my hon. Friend’s background, how particularly personal it is for him when he sees journalists arrested, detained or otherwise mistreated around the world. I agree with much of what he suggests, as I made clear in my opening answer. We are pouring in millions of pounds to support civil society and journalists in Belarus. From day one we have called for the release of all political prisoners. We did that when we first triggered the Moscow mechanism as part of the OSCE, and we continue to engage with leading democratic figures, including Mrs Tikhanovskaya.

I warmly congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on bringing this urgent issue to the House, and I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s announcements about the overfly and the flights of Belavia. There has been a clear breach of articles 3 and 4 of the Chicago convention, and it is almost unimaginable that we have seen over the weekend a state hijacking of a civilian aircraft going between two EU and NATO capitals. This cannot stand.

We must work with our international allies. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that the European Council is meeting this evening. Will he commit to engaging with it and to mirror its agreed response, which obviously has not happened yet? Will he express further solidarity by giving practical aid to Belarusian activists, journalists and agitators and by making it easier for these brave individuals to claim asylum in the UK? What assessment has his Department made of Russian involvement in this action? It seems inconceivable that this could have been a unilateral act by Minsk. There was surely some Russian involvement. Will there be consequences for the Russian state as well as the Belarusian state when things are decided?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for the statement and the measures. He referred to breaches of the Chicago convention, and I agree that they are striking and shocking. He also asked what co-ordination we are engaged in with our EU partners. Notwithstanding our departure from the EU, this is a very good example of the key foreign policy issues on which we will want to co-ordinate very carefully with it. We have done that before. He will recall that, after the rigged election, we led the way, but co-ordinated closely with our European partners, when we imposed Magnitsky sanctions.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Russian involvement. We do not have any clear details on that. I will be careful what I say at this point. As he says, it is difficult to believe that this kind of action could have been taken without at least the acquiescence of the authorities in Moscow, but, as I say, that is unclear as yet.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement because the events yesterday, as others have said, were effectively the state hijacking of a commercial passenger plane. This is just another episode in Lukashenko’s campaign to silence opposition to his regime, both within and beyond the Belarusian borders. There is no room for such behaviour anywhere in the world, let alone in Europe.

My right hon. Friend has set out the immediate action that he is taking, but what is he doing to support a peaceful transition to a democratically elected head of state in Belarus? When will he meet Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader in Belarus?

I commend my right hon. Friend for raising the issue so tenaciously, as she always does. I have had positive discussion with opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, whom I spoke to in February. The Europe Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), has also spoken to her. We will continue that engagement, which is very important. We make the case for free and fair elections as soon as possible according to international standards. We certainly support, as we did at the outset, not just the Moscow mechanism, but the implementation of Professor Benedek’s recommendations on the need for elections and his findings in relation to human rights abuses.

My right hon. Friend asks the key question, which is how we can go from sanctions supporting civil society to encouraging some form of democratic transition. I have to say that the Lukashenko regime looks very dug in. It has the protective umbrella from Moscow and I think that what we saw over the weekend was a symptom and a sign of it. I think it incumbent on the international community to keep up the very robust pressure as far as we can, increase it wherever we can and use every mechanism at our disposal. The key difference from what we have seen previously is that the actions of the Lukashenko regime are targeted not just at its own people, but at attacking an international common good that is reflected in the Chicago convention. That gives us at least the ability, with our allies, to work to apply pressure in that forum. We will continue to do that.

It is not surprising that the Lukashenko regime operates with a belief in its impunity, but this state piracy is most definitely a new step that requires a response that is seen to be proportionate. In that context, could the Foreign Secretary return to the question of the Belarus state’s use of subsidiary companies operating in the United Kingdom and whether we can apply pressure on them to prevent the state from having access to resources that come through this country of ours? In doing so, can we co-ordinate with our European Union allies? That is something that the Belarusian opposition most certainly wants to see: tough action against a leader who has lost all credibility and legitimacy.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s instincts. I am not sure that it is correct that there are businesses taking advantage, but I reassure him that amid the panoply of measures that we are now considering, we will look very carefully at what further pressure we can apply. That will include any further tightening of restrictions on access to the UK or other financial markets for what we see passing through London.

Today I issued a media statement on behalf of the entire UK delegation to the Council of Europe condemning the actions of the Belarusian Government and of President Lukashenko. We call for the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich and all political prisoners in the country. Some of us have already befriended such prisoners to provide them with hope and comfort. Is it not time to consider that an international warrant should be issued for the arrest of President Lukashenko on charges of terrorism?

To mount a case of that nature, we would need quite specific and clear evidence; of course, that is for the Crown Prosecution Service and other law enforcement authorities to consider. I commend my hon. Friend: among the international bodies that we must press to hold the Lukashenko regime to account, I did not mention the Council of Europe, but although Belarus is not a party to it, it is an important European forum for us to apply pressure among the wider European international community. I commend him and the UK delegation for all the work that they are doing.

May I begin by joining those who are welcoming the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the actions taken so far? From the violent crackdowns on protestors last summer, to the terrible repression of journalists, which of course has now escalated to state-sponsored air piracy that has put civilians at risk, it is clear that the Belarusian authorities have no regard for democracy, human rights or the rule of law. They act with impunity because they know Russia has their back. Although we would all love to believe that this will be the last we hear of this, we all know that that is unlikely. The UK hosts the G7 soon, which is an opportunity to raise the issue of the events in Belarus and co-ordinate further international action, so will the Foreign Secretary consider putting Belarus on the agenda of the G7?

We are already doing it, but the hon. Lady is right to say that the G7, amid the other forums, is where something like this should be considered, not least because of the attack on the international system, via the Chicago convention, and ICAO.

This is not just a state-sponsored hijack of a civilian aircraft going between two NATO capitals; we know from the Belarus media that it was ordered by Lukashenko himself. This is an international crime that requires the strongest response, and although I welcome the stopping of overflight and a UK lead on this, increasingly both Belarus and Russia do not care what the international community thinks. Therefore, all our allies need to act in synchrony, including some of the weakest links, or tyrannies all over the world will see that air passengers are increasingly put at risk.

I agree with my right hon. Friend’s instincts. I was in Estonia and then Oslo recently, precisely because of the importance among our Nordic and Baltic partners—key NATO allies—of strengthening and reinforcing the stance they take in relation both to Russia and to the emanation of those threats that we have seen in Ukraine and now in Belarus.

I welcome this statement on what was clearly an act of piracy by an illegitimate Government that puts them firmly in the rogue nations bracket. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern that this now becomes a tactic that these rogue nations may use again, unless there is a firm response? No air crew could ignore a threat of a bomb or some other threat to their aircraft, and would have to divert to the nearest airfield. This is putting at risk not only this flight, but potentially many more and the safety of their passengers, unless we can come down much harder on the perpetrators.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why we have taken the actions we need to take in relation to flights to and from the UK, and why we have called for an urgent meeting of the ICAO Council to address these issues in the most appropriate forum. However, let us face it: this also represents a threat to international security. That is why we have raised the issue in the United Nations Security Council.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for the excellent work he is doing in the Council of Europe. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Lukashenko must accept that his recent actions are a step too far and that the only way forward for Belarus is for the dictator to halt his campaign of oppression, release political prisoners and hold free and fair elections with international observers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I agree with that list. Ultimately, it is difficult to see how Belarus, under the Lukashenko regime, can take any steps out of its pariah status unless those things happen, including free and fair elections, which would inevitably lead to a change of leadership.

The European Federation of Journalists has called this kidnapping from a civilian airline an

“act of air piracy and state terrorism.”

It is difficult to disagree. As we know, basic freedoms and human rights are being eroded in Belarus, where 29 journalists are now detained. Along with having the most robust and effective sanctions targeting this rogue regime, what action will the Foreign Secretary be taking to investigate the possible involvement of other states in this criminal incident?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that sanctions are a part of the strategic approach, but not the only aspect that we need to look at. We will, of course, look carefully at the involvement of anyone else, although gleaning evidential standards of information is often very difficult. As I mentioned before, we are supporting civil society in Belarus with an additional £1.5 million programme of support over the next two years. In March this year, we allocated a further almost £2 million of support for the media in Belarus. We need to use every lever at our disposal not just to put pressure on the regime, but to try to glean the answers to some of the questions that she rightly raises.

May I underline what the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee said about the dangers of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in this context? When adopting this aerial adaptation from the Putin playbook of how to deal with dissidents, Lukashenko was clearly expecting an outcry, but already we are hearing suggestions that we must not be too harsh against Belarus, otherwise we will be driving him further into the Russian embrace. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that no such argument of appeasement will be accepted by him and his fellow Ministers?

I can give my right hon. Friend exactly that assurance. The fact is that Lukashenko is already ensconced in the embrace of Moscow. The question is how we can prise the leadership away from that. It must be a mixture of the pressure for which my right hon. Friend and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee rightly call, and a willingness to have the door of diplomacy left ajar should more pragmatic voices within that regime be willing to take positive steps forward. Ultimately, those steps must end in free and fair elections; that is what the OSCE investigations have called for and that is what the UK will stand for.

We can all agree that the most robust international response to this shocking act of aviation piracy is essential, otherwise Lukashenko’s methods could embolden other despots in the view that democratic nations lack the will to back up their outrage with meaningful action. As well as the co-ordinated international action against Belarus that the Secretary of State has spoken about today, what other support does he think can be offered to protect and assist human rights defenders in Belarus?

The hon. Lady asks a timely question. In reality, we have a number of levers, but let us not pretend that they are a silver bullet. We have provided and are continuing to provide support for civil society, media freedoms and media organisations. We apply the Magnitsky human rights sanctions, so there is pressure, and we hold to account those who persecute protestors, political figures or journalists. We raise the matter in every international forum we can—from the Human Rights Council to the United Nations Security Council—and we will use our presidency of the G7 to keep the flame of freedom burning for those poor souls who are in detention, whether they are journalists or political figures.

I congratulate my constituency neighbour, the Chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, on securing this urgent question. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s very swift statements on how to respond to this hijacking, but I want to push him a little bit further. I am anxious that the tactics used recently will encourage other curious countries. What confidence can the Foreign Secretary give to journalists, activists or other individuals who are sanctioned for spurious reasons, in case their lives may now be under threat; what work can be done to strengthen western allies to ensure that their safety is met?

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker—piracy has been mentioned a few times and as the previous Maritime Minister, I cannot let this point go. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the tactics that have played out may encourage countries such as China, which claims sovereignty over the whole South China sea? A third of the world’s maritime trade crosses through those waters, and if China could claim the right to intercept any ship or any plane crossing over the South China sea—

Order. I allowed the hon. Lady a little latitude, but I think it is a bit much to take complete control of the debate; we want short questions.

My hon. Friend is understandably worried about the wider international implications of this action. One of the things we discussed at the G7 meeting of Foreign Ministers was the importance not only of addressing these issues country by country but of the thematic protection of the international order. I have already mentioned the coalition for media freedom; on top of that we discussed support for the other Canadian-inspired initiative to counter the arbitrary detention of nationals or, indeed, dual nationals abroad—I am thinking in relation to Iran, but also more generally. On top of that, I hope the House knows that in March we launched the international accountability platform on Belarus to collect, verify and store evidence of human rights violations. That initiative was led by Britain, Denmark and Germany, a total of 20 states support it and we have provided money for it. That allows us to gather the evidence not just to call out abuses but, as some have mentioned, to pave the way for prosecutions when that is feasible in due course.

Does the Foreign Secretary recognise the criticism by many in the Belarusian diaspora that the response to last year’s stolen elections was too soft? Will he get tough by imposing sanctions on Belarusian individuals and companies, including the UK arm of the state oil company, BNK UK Ltd?

I think we all want to stand up for the same issue. I have spoken to a range of the key figures and that is not the feedback we have had, at least in terms of the UK response. We engaged very swiftly—before the EU, in fact—after the rigged election and imposed sanctions on 99 individuals in total, if we include not only the Belarusian regime but the Magnitsky sanctions that we imposed. I take the hon. Lady’s broader point. It is a question not of tit-for-tat but of making sure that we exercise every potential due diligence to stand up and hold to account those who violate people’s human rights and—I think this was the hon. Lady’s point—making sure that we seal every crack so that there is no possibility of businesses linked to the regime making money in this country.

There is no doubt that Belarus is now a rogue state. Lukashenko is a criminal, and I hope that eventually he will spend many years in prison. I celebrate the phenomenal courage of the politicians, activists, ordinary members of the public and, of course, journalists, who have made sacrifices that none of us in the UK would ever even dream of having to make. I have a terrible fear that every time we discuss these authoritarian regimes and issue another statement, we are basically throwing another snowball into a river. When are we actually going to take serious measures to make sure that these things do not go unpunished?

I have campaigned on these issues with the hon. Gentleman for many years and he is always an eloquent, powerful, tenacious and articulate advocate. I am not quite sure what action we could take that he thought we should take, but I am open to all suggestions, in a spirit of openness, and we need to marshal all our resources. One issue that I have not mentioned is that we are one of the largest shareholders in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and—I say this for completeness—we fully support its announcement that it will no longer support Belarusian sovereign funds. I accept the argument that we need to look at every possible lever, but, as the hon. Gentleman alluded to and implied, that is not easy when a regime is as dug in as the Lukashenko regime so clearly is.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for securing the urgent question and the Foreign Secretary for his statement on this very serious attack on civil liberties and the free press. I welcome the sanctions that have already been imposed on the illegitimate Belarusian regime through the Government’s newly established global human rights scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that standing up for our values by imposing sanctions on human rights abusers such as Lukashenko must be a key part of global Britain’s new foreign policy approach?

It not only should be but is, as set out in the integrated review. We stand up for our values—the values of open trade and open societies, including human rights and democracy—and that means holding to account those who perpetrate violations, and standing up and keeping the flame of freedom alive for those poor souls who are languishing in jails, whether in Belarus or elsewhere around the world.

There is no doubt that this was an act of air piracy designed to abduct a critic of the tyrannical Belarusian regime, and there is no doubt that the regime has been emboldened by the Russian regime’s law-breaking exercises around the world. It is important that the Secretary of State take every action, with every possible body, whether it is the EU, the G7, financial institutions or private investors—anyone who can hurt this regime—to send a message to it, and to any who would seek to copy it, that this behaviour will not be tolerated and there will be financial, personal and political consequences.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s disgust and outrage. The Lukashenko regime is slipping further and further into pariah status. We will take every measure we can, whether at a diplomatic level, through sanctions or more broadly, to stand up for the values of human rights, particularly freedom of civil aviation, but also crucially to send a message around the world to others that this kind of behaviour will not be tolerated.

The kidnapping of Roman Protasevich is the worst example of what has been a systematic campaign by the Belarusian Government against journalists. Last year there were 480 detentions of journalists, who spent more than 1,200 days behind bars, and at least 62 cases of physical violence against them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to send a strong message to Belarus and other repressive regimes that this is an attack on democracy and legitimate free speech that will not be tolerated?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. We raised precisely this kind of systematic attack at the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting, and we will continue to do so.

While we have a long-standing position of challenging the results of Lukashenko’s fraudulent election win last year, we have to be honest and say that this case is a departure from these entrenched disagreements and represents a direct attack on the citizens of our EU allies and on international law. Given that plain reality, it is right that sanctions up to and including the freezing of Belarusian state funds are effected, but what new measures will the Government consider for granting asylum to those supressed by the Lukashenko regime?

Asylum has been raised already. The criteria in the asylum regime are reflective of international law and are fit for purpose. The evidence of this regime’s despicable actions means that those who want to apply for asylum in this country are able to do so and will get the fair hearing and due process that our system allows.

The Foreign Secretary is quite right to call for the International Civil Aviation Organisation to take action. Given that its aim is to sit at the centre of a system of safety and security standards for its 193 members and given that Belarus is a member, will he call for ICAO to look at Belarus’s continued membership of such an esteemed international organisations?

I certainly agree that ICAO must discharge its duties. This is a dramatic but seminal moment for it to stand up for the values that we are all trying to safeguard in relation to civil aviation. We will look very closely with our partners at the mechanisms and levers available to us within ICAO and will take as rigorous and robust an approach as we can.

The SDLP and I condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the Belarusian Government and echo what others have said about the importance of sanctions and of holding Lukashenko and his Russian protectors to account. This is the latest attack in recent years on journalistic freedom, including the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on entirely trumped-up charges and, closer to home, intimidation of journalists here in Northern Ireland by paramilitaries. What action are the Secretary of State and his Department taking to co-operate with other countries committed to a free press to uphold the rights of journalists and to challenge attacks on freedom of speech and journalistic integrity?

The hon. Lady raises a great point, which is that in order to exert positive influence we have to co-ordinate with our allies, so we need to broaden the group of like-minded countries willing to take that action. She can see the evidence of the initiatives we are engaged in, through the media freedom coalition, which advises states on how to strengthen legislation to protect journalists, and the financial support we give to journalists who find themselves detained. More broadly, one of the things we discussed at the most recent G7 Foreign Ministers meeting was the arbitrary detention mechanism, which effectively says that when one or other of us in that mechanism finds one of our nationals or dual nationals arbitrarily detained, we all démarche and take action to try to secure their release.

Western flights continue to transit over this unpredictable airspace; I hope that the Foreign Secretary will make it clear that that needs to stop. For a European state to fake a terrorist threat shows how our international standards are being challenged. Other authoritarian states will be watching how the west responds—how resolute we are and how unified we are in our response. He listed a whole bunch of international organisations that will no doubt condemn what has happened, but will it affect Belarus’s behaviour? Will it change Lukashenko’s attitude? We need to make sure that we think bigger picture and recognise that a quarter of Belarus’s trade looks towards the west. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to make the changes that will affect Belarus’s behaviour in the longer term.

I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Defence Committee. I agree that we need to use every lever. I am not quite sure which specific one he thinks would be the decisive extra measure to bring Lukashenko to his senses, but I am very interested in continuing to talk to him about that. The reality is that Lukashenko becomes more and more reliant on Russia—I take the point that was made about that. We must not allow that to be a reason to ease up on the pressure, but we have to be realistic about how dug in Lukashenko is. We have ruled out nothing going forward. The most important thing is that we try to carry a broader group of international partners, and the reason that that is particular germane in this case is that the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Chicago convention represent an international public good.

I am delighted to hear the Foreign Secretary say that the Government will take a very tough response to this act of air piracy. Does the Foreign Secretary detect any sense of reticence from his counterparts in other countries in their response and any suggestion from them that we should take a softer approach to win round the Belarussian regime?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. There will always be different views across the European family and I would be a bit reluctant about advertising that to Minsk or Moscow, for obvious reasons. What I would say is that we are in the business of supporting some of the most vulnerable of our European partners. That is why I was out in Estonia to talk to the Baltic three and I went to Oslo to talk to the Nordic five. I invited all of them back to the UK, to be hosted at Chevening, because I think that the support that we provide to that periphery of the European neighbourhood is absolutely crucial to supporting fellow NATO and European allies and to the message that we send not just to Minsk and Moscow, but around the world, as hon. Members have said.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for applying for this urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. It has been clear that both sides of the House are united behind the actions that the Foreign Secretary has taken already on behalf of the British Government. May I say to him that in order to make sure that this does not happen again, as a result of the Belarussian Government or anyone else, the price paid by that Government must be sufficiently high? Also, what work is under way to look at other countries—the sorts of countries that might be tempted to do such things—to see whether there is any pre-emptive action that we might need to take to make sure that British people flying around the world are kept safe and that no others are put at risk by that sort of behaviour from this state or any other?

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. First, we will use all the sanctions—all the levers—that we have at our disposal. We are conscious, as we have discussed and as others have said, of the extent of increasing reliance on Russia, but that cannot be a reason for us not to take the action we take. This is unique; I cannot remember as far back as the ’70s there being a1an analogous case. It is very rare. Sometimes actions are taken more through cock-up than conspiracy—sometimes very tragically when aircraft are shot down—but I cannot think of a precedent for this kind of rather calculated and conniving approach, with the MiG jet and the bomb hoax. My right hon. Friend is right to reinforce, as others have done, the deterrent effect of how we respond to this specific, isolated incident.

I welcome the very robust political and diplomatic stance that the Government are taking, but this case is more than that. This is a potential human tragedy as well, with Roman Protasevich now in detention and possibly ultimately facing the death penalty. I know, having campaigned in different parts of the world, that consular and embassy staff are very effective in the way in which they deploy their resources in supporting people campaigning against the use of the death penalty. Can the Foreign Secretary give me some assurance that everything that can be done to keep this case in the public eye will be done, within the confines of their role in country?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I totally agree with him. We must do everything we can to signal that, as outrageous it is what they have already done, it would be a further step into pariah status if the death penalty were to be applied. I thank him for what he said about consular officers. They relate to and provide services to British nationals and dual nationals abroad, but none the less, the broader point he makes about diplomatically keeping the pressure on and doing everything we can to avoid the death penalty is very important in this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on mentioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Bearing in mind that Lukashenko does not do anything without the authority of Moscow, their comments are particularly relevant to this debate. May I ask the Foreign Secretary what additional steps he is going to take against President Lukashenko? We already know that certain sanctions are in place against him and his cronies. Is there anything else that the Foreign Secretary can do specifically about additional British sanctions on this dictator?

Yes, we will look at the panoply of sanctions on individuals. On sectoral sanctions, we will co-ordinate with our partners as to whether those are appropriate. We will take action in ICAO in the way that we have described, because of the importance of securing civil aviation, but we will also raise this issue in the United Nations Security Council because of the threat it poses more broadly to international peace and stability.

As an aircraft engineer and student of international relations, I am perhaps especially outraged by this brazen assault on international norms and the deliberate endangering of an aircraft by means of military force. For Lukashenko to have deployed the apparatus of the state to effect an act of vengeful piracy against flight FR4978 rides roughshod over the international system and cannot, as the Secretary of State has outlined, go unchallenged. Will he therefore commit the UK, and underline the UK’s role within an international coalition, to effecting the utmost in sanctions, including the freezing of assets against the Lukashenko regime? Does he agree that if the international community is now looking on aghast at a step change in delinquency by a state actor, should not people who are thinking of mirroring that also look on aghast at the consequences that the international community puts out?

The hon. Gentleman is right about the action we take and the deterrent effect it has. He mentioned asset freezes; asset freezes in relation to 99 individuals and entities are already in place, but we will, as I have already said, look right across the full range to see what further action we should take and look to work very closely with our international allies about which options to take forward.

Sitting suspended.

BBC: Dyson Report

To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the findings of Lord Dyson’s report into the BBC.

Lord Dyson’s report makes shocking reading. It details not just an appalling failure to uphold basic journalistic standards but an unwillingness to investigate complaints and to discover the truth. That these failures occurred at our national broadcaster is an even greater source of shame. The new leadership at the BBC deserve credit for setting up an independent inquiry and for accepting its findings in full. However, the reputation of the BBC—its most precious asset—has been badly tarnished, and it is right that the BBC board and wider leadership now consider urgently how confidence and trust in the corporation can be restored.

It is not for the Government to interfere in editorial decisions, but it is the job of Government to ensure that there is a strong and robust system of governance at the BBC with effective external oversight. It was to deliver that that we made fundamental changes when the BBC’s charter was renewed in 2015-16. Since then, the BBC Trust has been replaced by a more powerful board with an external regulator, Ofcom, responsible for overseeing the BBC’s content and being the ultimate adjudicator of complaints. We also made provision at that time for a mid-term review by the Government to ensure that the new governance arrangements were working effectively. That review is due next year but work on it will start now. In particular, we will wish to be satisfied that the failures that have been identified could not have occurred if the new governance arrangements had been in place. The BBC board has also announced today its own review, led by the senior independent director and two non-executive members, of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards committee. That review will examine editorial oversight, the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes, and the wider culture within the BBC. It will take independent expert advice and will report by September.

In an era of fake news and disinformation, the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger. The BBC has been, and should be, a beacon setting standards to which others can aspire, but it has fallen short so badly and has damaged its reputation both here and across the world. The BBC now needs urgently to demonstrate that these failings have been addressed and that this can never happen again.

Lord Dyson’s report was utterly damning. Put simply, Mr Bashir has obtained fame and fortune by instituting document forgery and callously scaring a mentally vulnerable woman—not a mistake, as he claims in The Sunday Times, but something with more than a whiff of criminality about it. The BBC then covered this up, blackballing whistleblowers and ensuring that its own reporters did not report on Bashir. But it did not stop there. The BBC rehired Bashir, who it knew was a liar, promoted him, and, extraordinarily for the BBC, allowed him to moonlight for its main commercial rival. Mr Munro, head of news gathering, greeted Bashir’s return by citing his excellent

“track record in enterprising journalism”.

My sources suggest that Mr Bashir was not interviewed, but simply appointed—hardly a highly competitive process.

Does the Minister agree that Dyson leaves still more unanswered questions? Who precisely was involved in the 25-year cover-up and instituted the action against whistleblowers? Was Bashir rehired, in essence, so that he would keep his mouth shut? Did Lord Hall make the decision to rehire Bashir, or was that in fact Mr Munro?

Finally, the BBC has announced a review into some of those matters, and into how robust its current practices are. Does the Minister agree that a good starting point would be to ensure that the investigating panel is diverse? As yet, no women are included, which is ironic considering that the victim of Mr Bashir was a woman. Should whistleblowers be compensated, and the matter of BBC culture be considered, including the “us and them” between management and reporters, and the kowtowing to so-called “talent”, at the expense of the BBC’s own editorial guidelines? Does the Minister share my alarm that Mr Davie has recently removed the sole voice for editorial policy on the BBC’s executive committee? What does he see as the long-term implications for the BBC charter.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his urgent question. He maintains the fine tradition of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee asking probing and incisive questions. The questions he raises are valid. The process by which Martin Bashir was recruited to return to the BBC, and his subsequent resignation a couple of weeks ago, are matters that the director-general is investigating urgently, and I expect him to provide a fuller account of exactly what happened shortly. I know my hon. Friend will want to examine the BBC on that question, and indeed on the other valid questions that he raised about the composition of the panel, its diversity, and the protection in place for whistleblowing. Those important questions need to be addressed, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Committee will do that.

I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing this urgent question, and the Minister for his response. I also echo the many expressions of deep concern about the actions of Martin Bashir 25 years ago, and the deception he used to secure the interview with Diana, Princess of Wales. The understandable hurt and pain expressed by Princes William and Harry has been deeply moving. The methods used by Mr Bashir were unethical and wrong, and clearly he should not have been re-employed by the BBC in 2016. The internal inquiry by the BBC into the interview was wholly inadequate.

It was right that Lord Dyson conducted this inquiry, and his findings are stark. The fact that the interview was obtained 25 years ago does not minimise the damage caused, and it is right that the BBC director-general has given an unequivocal apology. The onus is now on him to explain whether he considers that changes to the governance of the BBC in those 25 years mean that something like this could not happen again. I welcome the announcement of the review by the BBC board, its terms of reference, and the timescale to which it will report.

However, in among some of the commentary on the BBC that we have heard over the past few days, we must remember that the BBC is bigger than just Martin Bashir. It is bigger than “Panorama”, bigger than other programmes, and even bigger than the current affairs department. The BBC is one of the most trusted sources of news in the world, at a time when trusted sources are more important than ever before. The Secretary of State said in The Times today that he would not be having a knee-jerk reaction to this incident, and I welcome that commitment. The new director-general, and the chair of the BBC, whose appointments were welcomed by the Government, have been in post for less than a year. They need to be given time to make the reforms they have promised. The mid-term review is an important chance to take stock, but we must be clear exactly what problems any governance reforms will solve, and keep the issue of funding the BBC separate from its editorial control.

I thank the hon. Lady, and I agree with very much—indeed, almost everything—she said. On the governance of the BBC, as I said earlier, fundamental changes were made a few years ago, which we believe would have meant that somebody who wished to blow the whistle in the way that took place would have been listened to, and they would have had recourse to Ofcom if they were dissatisfied with the BBC. We must be absolutely sure that the new governance arrangements work properly, and there may well be need for further editorial oversight. That is what the BBC’s review is designed to reveal. However, I share her view about the importance of trust in the BBC. The mid-term review will be carefully conducted; we will not rush into any changes. Finally, I can confirm to the hon. Lady that the question of funding of the BBC is a separate one and that the licence fee—while it will be subject to debate, I have no doubt, in the coming years—is in place until the end of this charter in 2027.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that he acted properly, in 2015, when he appointed Sir David Clementi to review the BBC? The Government were right to accept Sir David Clementi’s recommendations, which came only a few months later, putting right the absurd arrangements made in 2007 that left the BBC without a chair and led to all kinds of confusion.

May I also say to my right hon. Friend that the BBC is a beacon? Things did go wrong—by Martin Bashir, the double reviewing of what he had done and in his further reappointment back to the BBC; that is incontrovertible. But what should also be clear to the Government is that if we start attacking the BBC, we will throw out much more than we have, and if the choice is between the state broadcasting corporation—the BBC—or the United States, people in this country would rightly choose the BBC.

I must thank my hon. Friend for his words. He is absolutely right that the previous governance arrangements were deeply flawed, and Sir David Clementi, who conducted the review and then went on to become chair of the BBC, put in place a much stronger governance system, with both a stronger internal management board and external oversight, and we do believe that that would have been much more effective if it had been in place when some of the events we are debating took place. I also absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the BBC. We have just heard a statement from my right hon Friend the Foreign Secretary about a country where public service broadcasting is not free, fair or independent. The BBC is a beacon of those things, and we are determined to strengthen it and to restore trust in it across the world.

The BBC has questions to answer about its cover-up culture. Why did Director-General Tony Hall bring back Martin Bashir only five years ago as religion correspondent, given that he knew he had lied over the process used to secure the Princess Diana documentary? Who else was involved in the recruitment? Was Lord Hall warned that he would be dismissed if Lord Dyson’s conclusions were as critical of his behaviour as they were? What effect, if any, will Lord Hall’s behaviour have on his retirement package? Why was Martin Bashir allowed to resign rather than be sacked? The treatment of Matt Wiessler has been unforgivably cruel. Will the BBC now offer him an apology and a financial settlement? Whistleblowers should never again be punished, as happened to those on “Panorama” who say that their careers were blighted under Lord Hall after asking uncomfortable questions. Regaining trust will now need to be a top priority. The BBC board should be strengthened with independently-minded members with journalistic experience. The ongoing cover-up culture at the BBC is long standing and must now be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman speaks with experience, as a former employee of the BBC, and he raises extremely valid questions. As I say, the BBC is conducting an urgent investigation into the circumstances of the employment of Martin Bashir, but if questions remain following that, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman, as a member of the Select Committee, will not be reticent in putting them to the BBC.

Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that both the BBC and Ofcom must understand that, following next year’s mid-term review, the Government propose to vary the charter and to make the guidelines, impartiality rules and complaints procedures subject to parliamentary approval, without any so-called independent editorial standards board, which is the same old BBC dodge of waiting until things die down and then carrying on as before that we witnessed after the Jimmy Savile affair in relation to whistleblowing, when it committed to deal with it, and it did not?

I do not want to pre-empt either the BBC’s review of editorial oversight or the mid-term review, which we are only just beginning to work on, but my hon. Friend makes some extremely valid points. We placed impartiality in the first line of the BBC’s public purposes at the time of charter renewal, and we will wish to be satisfied that the BBC is delivering that, but I know that the new chair and the director-general take that very seriously.

All over the world, people are appalled by the dishonesty and cruelty of the way Martin Bashir secured his interview with a very vulnerable Princess Diana 25 years ago. It is right that the BBC itself reviews again its editorial practices and how Martin Bashir came to be employed, but does the Minister appreciate that it remains a very valued national institution, both here and overseas? There is concern that long-standing enemies of the BBC are using the Bashir scandal to attack, defund and potentially dismantle our national broadcaster.

I absolutely assure the right hon. Lady that there is no question of dismantling or defunding the BBC. It is a priceless national asset, and one of the most serious consequences of the revelations of the past week is that its reputation and trust in it have been badly damaged. It is essential that it retains its position as the most trusted and reliable broadcaster in the world, and there is work to be done to restore that reputation.

The BBC has seen a string of public scandals, from Jimmy Savile to the treatment of Lord McAlpine, Sir Cliff Richard and many others. All have stemmed from a drive to secure sensationalist media headlines, along with groupthink and a “we know best” approach. The BBC’s capacity to scrutinise, investigate and report on itself is in tatters, which is particularly worrying considering its huge resource, how it seeks to dominate the news space and its lack of transparency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that reform is needed, not only in the specific areas that Lord Dyson has pointed to, but of its culture, transparency and whether its dominance is undermining news plurality?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. He is entirely right that this is not a one-off incident. There have been dreadful failings by the BBC in its journalism in recent years, and he mentioned three of them. I would say that all of those happened before the new charter was put in place, but we need to assess the effectiveness of the charter to ensure it is properly working, and that is something that we will start work on straightaway.

David Plowright, the chair and managing director of Granada Television in its great days, used to say regularly that he needed the BBC to keep the commercial sector honest. If the BBC cannot keep itself honest, we are in real trouble. Does the Minister agree that the changes at the BBC need to go beyond governance, structure and procedure, into a deep cultural change? How would he go about supporting that change?