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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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).