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Volume 698: debated on Monday 5 July 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Industry Employment

What steps his Department is taking to support employment in the defence industry throughout the UK. (902160)

What steps his Department is taking to support employment in the defence industry throughout the UK. (902162)

What steps his Department is taking to support employment in the defence industry throughout the UK. (902188)

What steps his Department is taking to support employment in the defence industry throughout the UK. (902190)

May I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) on taking her place and state my personal admiration for both her bravery and her sense of duty in putting herself forward to stand for that seat after the tragic loss of her sister?

MOD expenditure with UK industry and commerce already directly and indirectly supports more than 200,000 jobs across the United Kingdom. The investment of £88 billion in the equipment plan over the next four years, along with the changes we are making as part of the defence and security industrial strategy, will contribute to further economic growth and prosperity, including jobs across the United Kingdom.

I was proud to welcome the Minister for exports, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), to BAE Systems in my constituency the week before last to visit the factory of the future. That followed hot on the footsteps of the Prime Minister’s visit back in March, so will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State outline what is being done to support our world-class defence manufacturing export success, and will he commit to the continuation of the Typhoon export programme?

The defence and security industrial strategy published in March set out how the Government will support defence and security exports. The UK Government and BAE are leading on the current opportunity in Finland and will continue to support industry in this campaign and future opportunities where they are present. Typhoon continues to benefit from ongoing investment, including Leonardo’s European Common Radar System Mark 2 radar and MBDA’s Meteor and SPEAR—Selective Precision Effects at Range—weapons. This increased capability delivered by the core programme will strengthen export prospects.

Lincolnshire has the privilege of being the historic home of many MOD bases and personnel. I am proud to have RAF Waddington in my constituency of Lincoln; as my right hon. Friend is aware, it houses and employs thousands of my constituents. Will he assure me not only that RAF Waddington will play an active role in our nation’s defence for many decades to come, but that he recognises that the recently announced changes at RAF Waddington are a concern for many Northrop Grumman personnel? What steps are being taken to preserve those with critical skills, both locally and nationally? Will he work with potential overseas buyers of RAF aircraft to secure technically skilled jobs and provide extensive employment for my constituents?

May I express my gratitude to the Northrop Grumman team who have worked on the E-3D Sentry over the years? Retiring old aircraft will inevitably impact the people who work on them. However, RAF Waddington, which I recently visited, remains firmly in our plans: as it becomes a national and international centre of excellence for remotely piloted air systems and for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, it will be a source of skilled employment for my hon. Friend’s constituents. We are investing in 16 Protector remotely piloted air systems. RAF Waddington will be the future home of the Red Arrows as well.

I was delighted to see that last week His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge cut the steel for HMS Belfast, the third ship in the Royal Navy’s fleet of next-generation Type 26 anti-submarine frigates. All eight Type 26 frigates are being built by BAE Systems on the Clyde. Can the Secretary of State outline how many jobs that programme will support?

The Type 26 frigate programme consists of a total of eight ships, as my hon. Friend says, with work sustaining some 1,700 jobs at BAE Systems in Scotland alone and 4,000 jobs across the wider UK maritime supply chain until 2035.

A crucial part of our defence system is MOD procurement, with military equipment provided by companies such as Typhoon International, which makes dry suits and lifejackets for military divers, and First Choice Labels in Kirkleatham, which kindly provided social distancing floor stickers to businesses during the pandemic. May I invite the Secretary of State to Teesside to visit these great local British businesses and see for himself the high-quality military equipment and supplies that we produce in Redcar and Cleveland?

I would be delighted to come over to Redcar to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. He highlights the real importance of the supply chain in any defence product. It is not always the big primes, although they often get the attention; it is all the little and medium-sized companies that string along behind that often supply the real detail behind the bids.

I thank the Defence Secretary for his welcome to my hon. Friend the new Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). I will ensure that his kind remarks are known to her.

The Prime Minister has promised an extra 10,000 jobs in defence each year for the next four years. Buying British is the best way to deliver that promise so that we design and build for ourselves in Britain: it strengthens our economy and it strengthens our sovereignty. The defence equipment budget is now £19 billion. What proportion goes not to Britain, but to US suppliers?

Many suppliers in this country may not be entirely UK in their country of ownership, but the Ajax, for example, is made in St Athan by General Dynamics, and Boxer is made in Shropshire by a combination of BAE and the German Rheinmetall. We often insist that a significant proportion of those projects are made in the UK: for example, over 65% of the Boxer vehicle’s components are UK-made, including the metal frame made in Stockport. That provides British jobs, even if sometimes the countries of ownership are international. It is important to have international components because, as hon. Members have mentioned in previous questions, we also want to sell abroad. If we shut everyone else out, we should not be surprised if they do not buy from us.

The Defence Secretary ducks and dives to avoid the answer, but the highly authoritative Defence Analysis has the figures: 31% of Britain’s defence budget now goes to US suppliers, up from 10% only five years ago. Britain can make the best, but it requires the Government to give it backing. In the past month alone, the Defence Secretary has rejected the world-leading UK-built Brimstone missile and bought US instead. Is it not the truth that Ministers are making big promises to UK industry while the big money still goes abroad?

The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand defence procurement or how things are manufactured. For example, 15% to 20% of the global components for all 3,000 of the F-35 aircraft—the rear part of the aeroplane—are made in Lancashire. Many of the highly complex, highly expensive defence projects are a collaboration. Typhoon is often championed on both sides of the House: that is an international collaboration between Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. When the right hon. Gentleman mentions the word “supplier”, he is of course deliberately confusing that with the actual number of jobs and the ownership of their business. Let us ask the question: how many people are working on American companies’ business but based in the UK? He will find that most of them are here in this country.

Forces Families

The Government support families by providing successful wraparound childcare pilots, and in the last financial year awarded grants totalling £4.5 million from the MOD’s education support grant fund and its early years and childcare fund. Through Forces Help to Buy, we have helped around 24,100 personnel to buy a home or move as their families’ needs changed. The future accommodation model is looking at how we can support service families with more choices about how, where and with whom they live.

What is the Ministry of Defence doing to ensure that eligible personnel know that the continuity of education allowance—an important and necessary support for young people from military families, the vast majority of whom are a great asset to the schools they attend—is available to NCOs as well as to officers?

The CEA is available to all ranks, and we should encourage as many people as possible to take it up. It is used to achieve essential continuity of education for children, providing educational stability when personnel are assigned to service locations to meet the obligations of their service. Service personnel of all ranks may qualify, subject to their satisfying eligibility criteria, and they are encouraged to seek advice from the chain of command if they wish to take it up.

Armed forces families are very much the backbone of our military, including those living at Worthy Down in my constituency, and it is only right that we do everything we can to guarantee that they and their loved ones enjoy the best possible quality of life as much as anybody else. Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is his mission to see that every service family can live in the modern, sustainable accommodation that they deserve?

It is my mission that they get the accommodation that they deserve. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation has recently awarded contracts up to the value of £2.1 billion to a number of market-leading suppliers to provide maintenance services across the UK estate for the next seven years. Those contracts will benefit from the increased investment announced in the integrated review to address the legacy of underinvestment across the estate, enabling improvements for our armed forces and their families.

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater) on her election? This is the first Defence questions we have had since Armed Forces Day, when we normally thank not only the personnel but their families. As the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned, the families really are the backbone of serving personnel across the UK. We know that the Government provide £2,000 for the childcare subsidy, but families are often spending three times as much as that and sometimes even more, so I have a very simple question: will the Secretary of State increase the childcare subsidy available to personnel and their families?

First, we are going to increase spending on wraparound childcare to over £165 million a year for families with children up to 11 in primary school. That reflects the fact that most service personnel do not have a nine-to-five job, and it will help them considerably. In fact, where we have run the pilots, this has been incredibly popular. On the continuity allowance, one way to manage the disruption that families suffer is not necessarily by increasing that allowance but by increasing forces’ families ability to find a place they want to live, so that they can be settled and their children can attend the same school. That is a growing trend from when I served, and the 24,000 benefiting from Help to Buy is a really positive number. It shows that a number of people have now made the choice that when they deploy, they will go on their own, and their families and children will stay stable in one place.

It is good to hear that there is going to be increased support, and we know from surveys that childcare costs, in particular, can be crippling for service families. May I move on to employment issues for the families of service personnel? At the minute, in the UK, helping the spouses of those who serve in the armed forces is largely left to the third sector. Canada, a fellow NATO country, has a thing called the spousal employment network, which is a very successful model, run in-house by the Government, to help the spouses of those who serve to find good-quality work that suits them. Will our Government look to bring this type of thing in-house, rather than leaving it to the third sector? Although that sector does a good job, the state should be taking on more of that responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are working on a families’ strategy, and his suggestion is in exactly an area we are working on in that strategy. He is right; when I was serving in Germany in the BAOR—the British Army of the Rhine—where there was a much more settled, huge Army, there were lots of those organisations around, and I think they need some reinvigorating. Whether that is done entirely through the state or through a blend of non-governmental organisations, charities, volunteers and the state is something I would welcome being looked at, and I think there will be some solutions. What he says is totally in line with our policy and view that we have to do more for spouses to help them with their jobs if they move around.

Transition to Civilian Employment

We are always striving to improve transition, but it is a success story. In 2019-20, 84% of service leavers were employed within six months, which is higher than the UK employment rate of 76%. We offer support through the Career Transition Partnership. We have also introduced a national insurance holiday for employers of veterans and a guaranteed interview for those applying to the civil service. This acknowledges that veterans bring discipline and huge employability to the workplace.

The average unemployment rate across the general population in this country is 4.8%, whereas for veterans the rate is a very concerning 7%. Can the Minister say why the Armed Forces Bill does not include employment within its scope?

In contrast to what the hon. Lady says, in reality the statistics show that the picture is very positive. If we compare like for like, veterans are overwhelmingly in good employment, which reflects an overall demand in the civilian sector to take on veterans, especially in growing sectors such as a telecoms and construction, because of the magnificent skillsets they bring to those jobs.

I welcome the work of the Career Transition Partnership, but the Minister must be aware that some estimates suggest that unemployment among ex-service personnel aged 18 to 49 is double the national average. Has he asked his Department for Work and Pensions colleagues to consider the simple suggestion of the Centre for Social Justice to include an obligatory question on initial Jobcentre Plus registration: “Have you ever served in the UK armed forces?”?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am content—I have seen it for myself—that the DWP is now very much veteran-aware. I have been very impressed with its veteran-friendly approach; 10 days ago, I saw an armed forces champion in a DWP Jobcentre Plus office. Government’s joined-up response in ensuring that every Department makes itself aware of veterans is already bearing fruit.

Mental Health Services

What steps he is taking to help improve provision of mental health services for members of the armed forces. (902165)

What steps he is taking to help improve provision of mental health services for members of the armed forces. (902171)

The Ministry of Defence is determined to provide the best possible mental health support and care for members of the armed forces. We have introduced a 24-hour mental health helpline for service personnel and families in tandem with Combat Stress. We have also introduced HeadFIT, a training website for mental health, and, from September, all serving personnel will receive a mandatory annual briefing on mental health awareness. All of this must be underlined by a cultural shift in which it is okay to say that you are not okay.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer and for the work that has been done, but he must also know that Government targets on mental healthcare have been missed for veterans across all services in England, including a wait of 37 days for face-to-face appointments through the transition, intervention and liaison service against a target of just 14. Will he now commit to reviewing these services to ensure that our serving personnel and veterans absolutely get the best standards of care, which they need and deserve?

We are committed to ensuring that veterans and service personnel receive a gold standard of care. I was with Op Courage clinicians last week and I was pleased to learn that wait times for those seeking high intensity treatment for high intensity and complex problems have decreased. I was also very encouraged to learn that veterans themselves are part of the mental health support in the form of peer support workers. We will always have more to do, but good progress is being made.

The armed forces covenant states:

“Those injured in Service, whether physically or mentally, should be cared for in a way which reflects the Nation’s moral obligation to them”.

However, the Defence Committee’s 2019 report on mental health suggests that there was a 50% shortfall in both uniformed and civilian psychiatrists’ posts. Can the Minister set out an updated estimate, and what he is doing to ensure that staffing meets the demand from service communities?

We will always go after any gaps in provision, but I am confident that progress is being made. When it comes to delivering on our obligations on the covenant, which is to ensure that no serving personnel or veteran is disadvantaged in any way, I am very proud that we are right in the middle of taking forward the Armed Forces Bill.

Government figures show that the number of service personnel being seen by the MOD’s specialist mental health services for initial assessment has fallen by 36% since 2013 to an all-time low. That is despite personnel being more willing to seek help for mental health issues. Will the Minister commit to reviewing all current mental health provision for our armed forces personnel?

I welcome that question because, as I mentioned, apart from the physical provision, we are seeking a cultural change and an institutional shift across all our armed forces, led by the chain of command, in which people feel comfortable asking for help. We are already seeing a tangible benefit in that regard. I saw some of that up close when I visited the Op Courage clinicians in St Pancras last week.

Regimental Museums

The MOD recognises the valuable role played by some 140 museums around the country and currently supports 53 Army museums through the provision of curators and infrastructure costs.

I thank the Minister for his recent visit to Stanhope in my constituency where he saw British manufacturing at its best in the tracked vehicles for the armed forces. The Durham Light Infantry Museum was sadly closed in 2016 by the Labour-led Durham County Council as a cost-cutting exercise. However, keeping the collection in storage has actually proved more expensive than keeping the museum open. The new joint administration is looking to reopen that museum. Will he work with me and meet my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), who are very keen on this new initiative, to see what the Ministry of Defence can do to get this museum reopened?

I greatly enjoyed the visit to Stanhope. If there is an opportunity to meet again, I would be delighted to do so. The DLI has an extraordinary record of service, as did the 68th Regiment that preceded it. I am delighted to hear that the council is reviewing the fact that the regimental museum is currently closed. Using museums to inspire young people not only with what their forebears did, but with the ongoing service of local people in the armed forces, must surely be welcomed by all parties.

Departmental Funding

The 2020 spending review settlement for defence provided a cash increase of more than £24 billion over four years compared with last year’s budget. That represents an above inflation increase in capital and resource spending over the period, and exceeds the Government’s commitment to increase the defence budget by 0.5% above inflation in each year of this Parliament.

In the whole of NATO, only Luxembourg spends less on its personnel than the UK. In 2020, the MOD spent just 34% of its budget on personnel—half the figure that Belgium spends. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is the woeful lack of investment in our personnel that is driving the current recruitment challenges in our armed forces, or is it the chronic accommodation that he expects our service personnel to live in that is to blame? Soon, the size of the Army will be at its lowest since 1714. How does the MOD splashing £200 million on a new royal yacht help with these challenges in our armed forces?

I think the hon. Gentleman does not understand how we spend our money in the defence budget; that is 34% of a very large budget on armed forces that are expeditionary and require lots of capital equipment. Of course, the proportion that we spend on human beings compared with equipment will be less than a country such as Belgium, which potentially has a large personnel budget but very little capital budget. That simply explains the different proportion. It does not mean that we spend less. Our forces’ salaries, and terms and conditions, are comparably better than in most countries—not only in NATO, but across the world. It is just that we choose to buy things to put our people in, such as Boxers or aircraft; that is simply the reality of it.

Homosexuality Ban: Reparations

What steps he is taking to consult on and deliver reparations for service personnel adversely impacted by the historic ban on homosexuality enforced by the armed forces. (902170)

The Government accept that the historic policy of prohibiting members of the LGBT community from serving in the armed forces was absolutely wrong. Work is under way to understand and acknowledge the wide-ranging impact of the pre-millennium practice of the ban. That will ensure that it is not only through the return of medals that the impacts of this historic policy are addressed. We will be announcing this work in due course.

The ban on homosexuality in the armed forces is expected to have affected upwards of 20,000 veterans, who faced inhumane treatment, from medical examinations to imprisonment, and have lived a life of shame and fear. This historic injustice warrants an apology from the Prime Minister. I wonder if the Minister will seek that on behalf of the nation. These men and women have waited long enough. Will he set out a timetable for righting this historic wrong?

Addressing this injustice will be at the heart of the veterans strategy action update plan, which I will announce in the winter. I thank the hon. Member for his sustained interest in the issue. I cannot pre-empt the findings of this workstream, but I assure him that we will address this matter with compassion, humility and urgency.

Counter-Daesh Operations: Syria and Iraq

Our armed forces continue to provide support to the Iraqi Government in tackling the threat posed by Daesh. The RAF has flown more than 8,700 sorties and released more than 4,300 precision weapons to target Daesh in Iraq and Syria. On the ground, we have trained in excess of 120,000 Iraqi and Kurdish personnel in everything from engineering to countering improvised explosive devices. We remain wholly committed to the coalition and supporting our ally Iraq in countering Daesh.

Yeovil and the south-west are proud of the contribution we make to supplying our service personnel with the best possible equipment on their forward operations in risky environments, such as the fight against Daesh. We are also proud of the apprenticeships and skills that are sponsored through such industrial connections—for example, the 500 apprentices that Leonardo helicopters has recruited over the last decade. Will my hon. Friend confirm that this partnership will be at the forefront of his mind when making the choice of the next new medium helicopter?

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of rotary aviation in support of operations around the world. He knows from our exchange in the debate last week that I am not able to comment directly on the point that he makes, but I hope he knows that we always want to provide our armed forces with the very best equipment.

British and American F-35s recently conducted operations from the UK’s aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as part of Operation Shader to degrade the capabilities of Daesh. Will my hon. Friend, as much as he is able, update the House on the nature of those operations and their strategic importance?

In June 2021, UK F-35B aircraft carried out their first operational sorties in support of the counter-Daesh operations from HMS Queen Elizabeth in the eastern Mediterranean, providing a valuable contribution to Op Shader and the coalition effort. This activity has formed a key part of improving the UK’s carrier strike capability to operate closely with allies and our interoperability with the US and others. We are delighted with how those sorties have gone. The F-35B is a phenomenal aircraft launched from a magnificent aircraft carrier.

What conclusions have our Ministers and strategists drawn from our use of military force from outside the borders of states such as Syria and Iraq that might help to prevent the re-emergence of Afghanistan as a base and a launchpad for international terrorism campaigns like those of Daesh and al-Qaeda following the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan?

My right hon. Friend knows from our previous exchanges on this matter that we have absolutely reserved the right to counter terrorist threats to the United Kingdom that may re-emerge in Afghanistan. He is absolutely right to point us towards an outside-in model such as that prosecuted from Cyprus in support of Operation Shader. That is very much in the thoughts of those who are planning for that eventuality in Afghanistan.

National Flagship: Procurement

Whether the procurement costs for the proposed national flagship will be drawn from his Department’s existing budget allocation. (902173)

The capital costs of building the national flagship would accrue over a number of years and will be met from the defence budget.

That is very interesting. I am not sure whether I should be asking this question of the Minister rather than the Prime Minister. Can he explain, then, what else in the defence budget will give to pay the £200 million that the Prime Minister announced, which I think he sprung not just on the nation but the Ministry of Defence?

We are delighted to be playing our part in delivering this first-rate asset, which will be a tremendous boost to the UK and global Britain. We should recognise that we will have greater clarity on the costs and the profile of that when we have completed our market engagement. The prior information notice has just gone out. To put it in a helpful context for the right hon. Gentleman, over four years we are talking about an impact on the overall defence budget in the region of 0.1%. I would like to put that into perspective for him.

With the National Audit Office having judged the defence equipment plan to be “unaffordable” for the fourth year in a row, the continuing well-publicised disaster and rising cost of the Ajax project, and the cancellation of Warrior, can the Minister explain why this vanity project has become a spending priority for the Ministry of Defence?

I am delighted to help the hon. Gentleman on a few points. First, on the NAO report to which he refers, I believe that was done on the old numbers prior to a very fulsome provision to the Ministry of Defence of £24 billion being spent from the current levels. That has helped us to ensure that we can deliver the right priorities for this country in the future. On Ajax. I am pleased to reassure him that that is a firm price contract. As to Warrior, that is one example of the tough decisions we make to ensure that the budget comes in on balance, and we will continue to do so. That is the target of the Secretary of State and myself. We will continue to work on that and address all the priorities of the Ministry of Defence.

British Steel

The Government are committed to creating the right conditions for a competitive and sustainable steel industry. We publish the future pipeline for steel requirements enabling UK steel manufacturers to better plan and bid for contracts.

The UK steel sector supports over 30,000 jobs, many of which are in Sheffield, my home town, and the Government have described the industry as “vital”. Can the Minister explain, therefore, why less than 30% of Type 26 frigate steel is being sold from the UK? Will he support Labour’s campaign to make, sell and buy more in Britain, starting with the steel procurement in his own Department?

I will happily explain that to the hon. Lady. I believe I am right in saying that 50% by total value of the steel for the Type 26s will be coming from the UK, which is about 35% of the tonnage, or 1,400 tonnes per ship. She is correct on her figures, but it is 50% by value. The difference in why we are not able to do more in part reflects the nature of the steel industry in the UK. Unfortunately, not all of the type of specialist steel that is required for defence equipment can be sourced within the UK.

Armed Forces Covenant

What steps he is taking to strengthen the armed forces covenant; and if he will make a statement. (902175)

I am proud that we are strengthening the armed forces covenant by enshrining it in law through the Armed Forces Bill and issuing statutory guidance for local authorities in the critical areas of housing, healthcare and education. This milestone Bill will deliver on our duty to our veterans and service people, as they have done on their part.

The Government claim that the Armed Forces Bill will enshrine the armed forces covenant into law, yet there is no responsibility for Government Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, to deliver the covenant. The limited focus on housing, healthcare and education risks creating a two-tier covenant that bakes in the existing postcode lottery on access to services. How will the Minister ensure that we eliminate the postcode lottery that our veterans face in accessing vital services?

That is the whole point of the statutory guidance: to ensure that there is a best practice template that every local authority can follow to ensure that veterans and service people in their locality are in no way disadvantaged.

The armed forces covenant is the debt that this country owes to our servicemen and women who have served our country. One such group, whom I met last week, are the nuclear test veterans. They have suffered from cancers, blood disorders and rare diseases as a result of their service. They have been refused support, recognition, compensation and a medal for their service. Will the Minister for veterans today review the Government’s position on this issue and agree to meet the nuclear veterans?

Historic medallic recognition cases are a matter for the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee. Last year, it considered the case of nuclear test programme veterans and concluded that it did not meet the necessary criteria. This was not the decision that the campaign groups the hon. Lady mentioned wanted or the families had hoped for. I fully sympathise that they would have wanted a medallic recognition for their loved ones, but it is right and proper that this is an independent process and therefore not for ministerial intervention.

Financial Literacy Skills

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that all members of the armed forces are equipped with financial literacy skills. (902176)

The Ministry of Defence is working to raise awareness of financial issues and planning among service personnel across all three services, because we recognise that financial literacy is a critical life skill.

In October 2019, Danny Butcher, a former soldier and the brother of my constituent, Carrie Jones, sadly took his own life after getting involved in an online money-making scheme that plunged him into debt. He was by all accounts an outstanding member of society. He had toured overseas during his time in the British Army and was mentioned by his commanding officer in dispatches, yet after leaving the armed forces he was lured in by a property scheme that offered those involved the chance to get rich quickly.

Following a surgery with Ms Jones, I had the pleasure of discussing with the previous Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), what could be done to provide members of the armed services who are about to be discharged with some financial education, the objective being for them not to be tricked by unscrupulous money-making schemes. In light of Danny Butcher’s death, what steps is the Minister’s Department currently taking to ensure that all those departing the forces have adequate financial literacy skills, so that they know how to spend their money wisely and become integrated fully in civilian life?

My thoughts are with the family of Danny Butcher. Every veteran suicide is an absolute tragedy and we must seek to learn lessons from this. We are working to ensure that all service leavers have adequate financial educational awareness, and we want to ensure that is the case across all three services, specifically with regard to debt, household financial management and mortgages. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important subject today.

Topical Questions

As part of the carrier strike group deployment on 23 June, HMS Defender, during innocent passage through Ukrainian territory waters, was overflown by Russian combat aircraft and shadowed by Russian ships. No warning shots were fired and no bombs were dropped in her path; these assertions were Kremlin disinformation. The Royal Navy will always uphold international law. In the Mediterranean, the group’s ships and aircraft have bolstered NATO, conducted highly successful exercises, flown armed sorties against Daesh and been welcomed into port by many friends and allies, boosting Britain’s trade and diplomatic links. In the coming weeks, we will continue to build relations with our partners as we reach the middle east and the Indo-Pacific.

We pay tribute to the total professionalism of the HMS Defender crew.

This is a profound moment for the more than 150,000 UK men and women who served in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to their service and their sacrifice, especially those of the 457 who have lost their lives. Where does this withdrawal leave the UK strategy of forward deployment in a region that sits between Russia, China and Iran—three of the main state-based threats identified in the integrated review—and how will the Government ensure that Afghanistan does not again become an operating base for terrorism directed against the west?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the men and women who fought, some of whom never came back, and contributed during the many years in Afghanistan. I have previously placed on the record the fact that in my view the United States leaving made it very difficult for us to continue that mission. It left many of us unable to continue that without a significant international uplift. That has not been forthcoming, and therefore we are in a position where we, too, are on the path of withdrawal, with all the risks that may leave in the future—in the next 10, 20 years—so we have to do our very best with what we have now. That means we will continue to work with the Afghan Government. We will continue to focus on the threats that emanate from Afghanistan and may grow towards the United Kingdom and our allies. We will do whatever we can. However, it is important, in forward presence, that we are always in such countries with the consent of those countries. There was a Doha peace agreement, and that means we have to consider what we are going to do next.

I am pleased to welcome reports in the weekend papers that suggest that the aid budget may return to 0.7%. The utility of hard power without soft power invariably leads to failure, as sadly illustrated in Afghanistan, where the sudden exodus of NATO forces means that there is now a high risk of civil war, with the Taliban advancing and securing more districts by the day. I repeat my call for a formal inquiry so that we can understand how this NATO mission, endorsed by the UN, lasted two decades, has now ended in failure. We are now abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation that we went in to defeat in the first place. This cannot be what we expected when we went in, and it is not the exit strategy that we anticipated. Our presence gave legitimacy to the Afghan authorities, and our exodus will be seen as a victory for the Taliban. Please let us have the inquiry.

Can I just remind people—Front Benchers as well, and Chairs of Select Committees—that if they want a long question, they should go in questions earlier? These are short and punchy questions, and we have to keep it that way to get the rest in.

I would say two things. First, my right hon. Friend, as I said earlier, has the means of his own salvation. He chairs the Select Committee, and if the Select Committee wishes to have an inquiry, I will be happy to make sure the Department services it.

In my constituency, a significant risk of homelessness comes with having served in the armed forces and suffered trauma during that time. A lot of the rough sleepers in my constituency are former members of the armed forces. With the eviction moratorium now ending, what further steps will the Ministry of Defence be taking to help those who have previously served who are now at risk of losing their homes? (902221)

First, I would not like the hon. Lady to strengthen the wrong perception that a greater number of our armed forces personnel are rough-sleeping or a greater number suffer certain things; the numbers nearly always either reflect the national trend in wider society or, indeed, in some cases are significant lower. There are plenty of schemes that we encourage and support to get behind our veterans and get them back into work, and we are also working with a range of non-governmental organisations. Of course, I would be very happy to meet her to discuss issues in her own constituency and what more can be done to make sure that, if they are rough sleepers, veterans get the best support they can.

The Harlow branch of Royal British Legion is supported by thousands of local residents, and they do much to keep the light of remembrance burning strong in our town, and support our veterans. What steps are the Government taking, working with local authorities, to support the Royal British Legion, especially when clubs face difficulties with maintenance and capital building costs for older premises? Will the Minister join me on a visit to the Harlow Royal British Legion branch to see the wonderful work it does? (902224)

Let me put on record my thanks for the magnificent work done by my right hon. Friend and the Royal British Legion in Harlow. We are putting millions into that sector every year, which is the right thing to do. I would very much like to visit his constituency and see that up close.

In Newcastle, the armed forces community covenant commits the council to tackling disadvantage in access to employment, education, housing and healthcare. Does the Minister share my concern that by not covering all those important areas in the Armed Forces Bill and therefore setting a legal standard in the armed forces covenant that is below existing voluntary commitments such as those in Newcastle, the Government risk creating a postcode lottery for many veterans in accessing services? (902222)

No, I do not agree. The Armed Forces Bill and the statutory guidance focus on the critical areas of housing, healthcare and education. If we need to broaden that statutory guidance in future to include more areas—it is evergreen, much like the Ministry of Defence ministerial team—we will.

Leonardo helicopters, based in Yeovil, is a big employer for my West Dorset constituency. Its success in gaining foreign direct investments rests on the Government choosing its state-of-the-art AW149 for the military’s new medium helicopter. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will be supporting West Dorset, and indeed the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), with a British manufacturer of helicopters when making this choice? (902226)

I confirm our intention to acquire a new medium lift helicopter for the armed forces later this decade, and I assure my hon. Friend that all options will be considered to ensure the best outcome for our defence and security requirements, and indeed for the prosperity of the UK.

As a community interest company, Operation Veteran in North Tyneside is not always able to access funds under the armed forces covenant, even though it often helps bigger charities with urgent help for veterans. Will the Minister consider making it easier for CICs such as Operation Veteran to access funding, and will he thank people for all the work they did in keeping that service going during the pandemic? (902223)

I absolutely give those thanks, and I commend the hon. Lady’s work in support of that group. If she would like to send me details of that individual case, I will consider it.

Will the Minister update the House on the recruitment and retention of reservists, as well as regular soldiers? Will he confirm that we have sufficient boots on the ground? (902227)

I am delighted to confirm that we have enough people. They are highly motivated and well-trained, and when meeting new draft recruits to the senior service, as I did in HMS Raleigh last week, one gets a tremendous sense of confidence and excitement about the magnificent diversity of opportunity available for those joining the armed forces.

One in 30 homeless people in this country have served in our armed forces. Could Ministers improve that position by making the provision of acceptable civilian accommodation part of the discharge process? (902225)

I am not entirely sure that that is the case—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me with the details, I will look at that. I confirm that we do everything we can, especially through the period of transition, to ensure that when people leave, they are housed.

The Ministry of Defence’s own figures suggest that just 20 out of 200 non-UK service personnel who left the regulars in 2019-20 were covered by the Government’s proposed visa scheme. Is it time that the Government woke up to the injustice of our brave Commonwealth and overseas service personnel paying twice for their citizenship? (902230)

The hon. Gentleman has often raised this cause, and I entirely agree with him. That is why we are now in the middle of a consultation to waive those visa fees for service personnel who have served over 12 years. We think that is absolutely right, and no doubt he will contribute to that consultation.

The residents of Blackpool are sick and tired of seeing the images of illegal immigrants crossing the English channel on a daily basis. While the legislation proposed by the Home Secretary in the autumn will help to address this issue in the longer term, many people are becoming increasingly frustrated at our inability to deal conclusively with the problem. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office in relation to the use of Royal Navy vessels to help address this issue? (902229)

Defence has collaborated with the Home Office on this issue for several years, providing a range of support, including surface vessels, surveillance aircraft and planning expertise. Most recently, Defence has provided planning support to catalyse operations for this summer, and we continue to work closely with the Home Office to identify where defence capability can most appropriately support Border Force to address this important issue.

This week we learned that the Ajax programme has been withdrawn for a second time, on health and safety grounds. Experts say the problems are so serious that the Government should cancel the £5.5 billion deal. Does the Minister agree that Britain’s defence procurement strategy wastes billions of pounds and actually puts lives at risk? (902234)

No, I do not agree with that contention. This is a firm price contract. We are working closely with General Dynamics to ensure that it gets delivered, but as the hon. Gentleman would be the first to say—as we would all say in this House—the safety of our personnel must come first, which is why we paused those trials. As soon as we can get them going again, we will, but we will do so only if that can be done safely and appropriately.

I welcome the defence memorandum of implementation signed between the UK and Ukraine, which will see our two countries working together on new Ukrainian naval bases and eight fast missile warships. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we will not be deterred, and the Royal Navy will not be deterred, by Russia’s recent attempts at intimidation in the Black sea? (902231)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the real importance that we attach to Ukraine as a friend and a partner, and to reiterate the fact that the Royal Navy will always uphold international law and will not be deterred by bullying. The transit by HMS Defender was through Ukrainian waters; we do not recognise Russia’s claim on Crimea. Our Navy will continue to uphold the rule of law wherever she sails.

The first ship that the late Duke of Edinburgh served on, aged 18 as a midshipman, was HMS Ramillies, which eventually went on to serve in Operation Overlord. Would it not be a fitting tribute to the late Prince Philip to restore that name to one of the new Royal Navy ships? (902241)

The right hon. Lady makes a really good suggestion. I have slight scars on my back from dealing with something called the naming committee of the Royal Navy, but I absolutely welcome her suggestion. We should absolutely think about how we name our ships and use them more to remind us of great events but also to inspire a future generation.

As the Secretary of State will know, Sir John Moore barracks has been home to the Army Training Regiment in Winchester since 1986, when the Light Division moved from Peninsula barracks. He will also know that it is being disposed of, and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is consulting on a masterplan. Will he or a member of his team please meet me at the conclusion of this exercise to ensure that what comes out of it is something that Winchester will be proud of and not just thousands of new houses to meet quota? (902232)

I will be delighted to ensure that either I or the Minister for Defence Procurement meets my hon. Friend.

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

Sitting suspended.

Bills Presented


Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Chloe Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, Secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Simon Hart, Secretary Oliver Dowden, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Spencer, presented a Bill to make provision about the administration and conduct of elections, including provision designed to strengthen the integrity of the electoral process; about overseas electors; about voting and candidacy rights of EU citizens; about the designation of a strategy and policy statement for the Electoral Commission; about the membership of the Speaker's Committee; about the Electoral Commission's functions in relation to criminal proceedings; about financial information to be provided by a political party on applying for registration; for preventing a person being registered as a political party and being a recognised non-party campaigner at the same time; about regulation of expenditure for political purposes; about disqualification of offenders for holding elective offices; about information to be included in electronic campaigning material; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the first time, to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 138) with explanatory notes (Bill 138-EN).

Building Safety

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Secretary Robert Jenrick, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Secretary Robert Buckland, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Thérèse Coffey and Christopher Pincher, presented a Bill to make provision about the safety of people in or about buildings and the standard of buildings, to amend the Architects Act 1997, and to amend provision about complaints made to a housing ombudsman.

Bill read the first time, to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 139) with explanatory notes (Bill 139-EN).