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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 701: debated on Monday 20 September 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans and Military Charities: Additional Support

1. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the additional support for veterans and military charities announced on 6 September 2021. (903493)

4. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the additional support for veterans and military charities announced on 6 September 2021. (903497)

12. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the additional support for veterans and military charities announced on 6 September 2021. (903509)

The Government are committed to providing a gold standard of support for veterans. The additional £5 million announced on 6 September followed a meeting of the Defence Secretary, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, me and the service charities to discuss measures to mitigate the impact of events in Afghanistan. That is on top of the £20 million already going to armed forces charities this year.

Sadly, some veterans end up living on our streets. The solution is not just to give them a bed, a job or a roof over their head; what they need is real, targeted mental health support. Will my hon. Friend please advise me what the Government are doing to make sure that our brave veterans get the targeted mental health support they richly deserve?

I am pleased to confirm that, in the form of Op Courage, we have bespoke mental health provision in the NHS, now running at £20 million this year. But this is not just about money; it is about ensuring that veterans are part of that care, and as peer support workers in Op Courage, they are.

Will the Minister explain specifically how these announcements will help the veterans community hub recently opened in Newton Aycliffe by the lord lieutenant, Sue Snowdon, and veteran Scott Robertson? That fantastic facility provides mental health support, occupational rehabilitation and sports therapy. Will the Minister commend all those involved with the project, but specifically veterans Scott Robertson and Tommy Lowther? While I am about it, will the Minister also thank 100-year-old RAF veteran William Cooksey, who completed a 100-mile walk—10 miles for each of 10 days —to support County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, raising over £3,000? If the Minister would like to come and visit, he would be very welcome.

I am delighted to put on the record my thanks to veterans Scott Robertson and Tommy Lowther, and to the 100-year-old RAF veteran William Cooksey. They are clearly the best of us. If the Newton Aycliffe hub needs support, it should consider applying to the armed forces covenant trust fund. Of course I would be delighted to visit.

I know that my hon. Friend’s top priorities are the health and wellbeing of those people who have sacrificed so much for our country, especially in respect of mental health. Can he confirm that, if people who require specialist help were to reach out to NHS Operation Courage, they would get the bespoke care packages that they need and desperately deserve?

I can confirm that, and I am pleased to do so. The provision is first class. However, we are also after a change in culture, so that those who have served know that it is the soldierly thing to do to ask for help.

The Minister must know that 79% of charities believe that the responsibility to support veterans should lie more with the Government and the armed forces themselves. Will he commit to looking in detail at Labour’s proposed duty of care amendment to the Armed Forces Bill, which aims to do precisely that?

I actually commend the long and noble tradition that we have of armed forces charities assisting the Government in their response to supporting veterans, and I am pleased that our support to them this year will top out at more than £20 million.

The Ministerial Covenant and Veterans Board is supposed to drive forward and co-ordinate better Government support for members of the armed forces, their families and veterans. The Scottish Government have asked repeatedly for that group to be reconvened. When can we expect its next meeting to take place?

Combat Stress, a charity supporting veterans’ mental health, has seen its income fall by £6 million in the current financial year. Will the Minister therefore accept that the Government’s recent announcement of £5 million for the entire sector is simply not enough to support veterans’ mental health?

That is a top-up; the provision is more than £20 million. I look forward to discussing that in detail when I visit Combat Stress tomorrow.

Operation Warm Welcome

The whole Government are committed to ensuring that those Afghan nationals evacuated under Op Pitting are properly supported in the UK. Defence is supporting the cross-Government effort, Op Warm Welcome, and we are extending a hand of friendship in the spirit of compassion, comradeship and community.

I welcome the incredible efforts of our troops undertaking one of the largest evacuations in modern history and now working to extend that hand of friendship to those brought back. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking them all for responding with such professionalism to the challenges faced?

Absolutely; I am delighted to put on the record our thanks. Amid the tragic scenes in Kabul, the bravery, professionalism and compassion of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Royal Air Force and others was a light amid the darkness.

For those eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, arriving in the UK under Operation Warm Welcome has left friends and colleagues of our armed forces stranded in hotels without contact, support and help at the very time they need it. In the light of the outstanding skills of our armed forces, will the Minister talk to the Home Secretary about how his Department can lead on Operation Warm Welcome for those arriving under the ARAP scheme, so the right connections are made with those who served alongside these brave men and women to build vital bridges at each stage of the resettlement journey?

We are extending that warm hand of welcome. Of course, there is the requirement for some people to be in quarantine, but I can assure the hon. Member that a very thorough effort is being put in place to ensure that that hand of friendship is extended to all who have arrived.

Mr Speaker, thanks to your very kind invitation, 120 members of the armed forces who served will be welcomed to Parliament on 20 October, immediately after Prime Minister’s Question Time. I hope all Members of the House will be there to give them a very warm welcome. I very much hope we are giving just as warm a welcome to all the refugees coming back from Afghanistan. There are 100 in my constituency. How can we find a way to give them a warmer welcome? Could local communities, for example, find ways of welcoming them to barbeques or other ways to make them feel at home?

I am grateful for that question. I would like to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend’s good offices for making that happen. Of course, there will be a very significant role for the wider community and the third sector to play in welcoming our Afghan friends. I recently visited an Afghan cricket team that had been put together by a local pastor. The whole community is quite demonstrably coming together.

The Scottish Refugee Council recently called for the UK Government to extend Operation Warm Welcome to Afghans who are still stuck in the asylum process waiting on decisions or who have previously been declined protection. Can the Minister confirm what discussions he has had with colleagues across Government on extending the programme in such a way?

I will, of course, pass that question on to the Home Office, but my expectation is that Operation Warm Welcome will run for as long as is necessary.

Daesh and Global Affiliates

3. What steps his Department is taking to help combat Daesh and its global affiliates including Islamic State Khorasan Province. (903496)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for hosting the G7 in Chorley at the weekend, and for the warm welcome you gave to many of my colleagues from across the House in that excellent showcase of both Lancashire and the United Kingdom.

The UK plays a leadership role in the global coalition, which is working to secure the enduring defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We also remain committed to supporting counter-Daesh efforts beyond Iraq and Syria. The UK continues to work to counter Islamic State in the Khorasan province through means other than military presence in Afghanistan, working with partners in the region to diminish the threat it poses. We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the British people, our allies and partners.

May I give the Secretary of State a big warm welcome back to his place as Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence? Does he agree that it is in the interests of both Pakistan and China to ensure security and to combat radicalisation in the wider region around Khorasan and neighbouring provinces? To that effect, what discussions has he had with counterparts from both those Governments?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I am also delighted that my whole team has remained together on the Front Bench. I cannot remember that happening in any other Department in my time in politics, but it is a good thing to have continuity. It does, however, limit our excuse to say, “We are just getting on top of our brief.”

This is why Afghanistan matters. It is often the keystone or lynchpin in that part of the world. What happens in Afghanistan can ripple throughout the region and further along, as we saw with al-Qaeda in 2001—it is really important. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I will be setting off to the region this week to discuss that with a number of neighbouring countries. Pakistan and China are significant countries in the international community that we have to engage with to make sure that Afghanistan does not go from bad to worse, and that we reverse radicalisation where it appears.

The Secretary of State is right: the biggest threat from Afghanistan is the country becoming once again the base for extremist terrorist groups. The biggest risk is that the British Government give that the same lack of attention and preparation they gave to Afghanistan in the 18 months ahead of the NATO withdrawal, so why on earth is the Prime Minister now cutting back, by more than half, on his National Security Council meetings?

The right hon. Member will be referring to a report by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that he has commented on previously. The report makes a number of those points, some of which I disagree with because, as I have said at the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister often chooses that, on national security, Departments can generate their concerns and come together with national security Ministers to discuss the issues. It does not always have to be done in a formal NSC meeting; it can be done in a sub-committee, where we sometimes get across even much smaller issues.

The report also makes the point that Afghanistan is not mentioned much in the integrated review, but the right hon. Member will notice that in the defence Command Paper it is mentioned nine times—it is incredibly important. We did not neglect it in the lead-up to the fall of Afghanistan; in fact, we were investing more troops and more people in the last few weeks until we got to the point.

Nuclear Warhead Programme

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the new nuclear warhead programme on the UK's defence capability. (903498)

The replacement warhead programme will allow the UK to maintain our independent minimum credible nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. The UK’s sovereign nuclear deterrent exists to deter the most extreme threats to our national security and will remain essential for as long as the global security situation demands.

I have the privilege of representing the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston, which has been tasked with developing the new nuclear warhead. Of course, I welcome the announcement last week of the AUKUS security pact, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that it will not undermine the strategic importance of the new warhead and that the AWE will remain at the forefront of our critical defence of this country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make something very clear about the agreement with Australia and the United States. This is not a programme about nuclear weapons; it is a programme about nuclear propulsion, to give the Australians the strategic capability that they have decided is the right capability to meet the threat. That aside, Aldermaston is an incredibly important part of the defence establishment, and the amazing workforce contribute and have contributed over the decades to ensuring that Britain has a nuclear deterrent that is credible. I am delighted to say that we continue to invest in those people, their livelihoods and the science base that is so important to ensure that we have that capability.

The Secretary of State talks about the workforce. The reality is that the Government have just outsourced the fire service to Capita at both Faslane and Coulport. Capita is now, shamefully, cutting jobs—it has cut eight posts. The fire service has unanimously voted for industrial action and currently has an overtime ban on. When will he get a grip on the situation, end the outsourcing experiment and give the fire service the support it needs to keep the bases safe?

The hon. Member has obviously missed the point that we have nationalised Aldermaston recently in completely the opposite direction.

Defence Exports

Alongside the Department for International Trade and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are hugely supportive of defence export campaigns to our friends and allies, a posture reinforced by the defence and security industrial strategy. I have conducted regular meetings on exports in Poland, Finland, Ukraine and Greece over the course of the summer. Tomorrow, I will engage in meetings in Tokyo before joining potential international partners on Type 31 in Rosyth, Babcock having announced only last week a frigate deal with Indonesia.

I congratulate the defence team on all the work that they are putting in to get more defence exports: not only is it good for British defence, but it is good for jobs. I have one concern, though: the licensing system seems to have slowed down, not only because of covid, but because it is very bureaucratic. Could the Minister take that up with the Department for International Trade, which deals with the matter, and have a word with it to try to speed this up? I fear that some of my local companies are losing business.

I think that 11,000 licences were granted during the covid period, but I note my hon. Friend’s concern, which I know is a real concern shared elsewhere in the House. DIT attempts to say that 70% of cases will be dealt with within 20 days and 99% within 60 days, but as we set out in DSIS, we need to get better both in transparency and in speed. We will be taking the matter up. I thank him for the question.

As the gap between ally and systemic competitor narrows, we heard last week that China is planning to join global Britain in the sunlit uplands of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. Given all that we have heard in the integrated review about the UK having a more joined-up foreign, security and trade policy, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s opinion on this strange news and what it is about such a trade deal that the Chinese Communist party finds so attractive.

I am not actually in a great position to speak on behalf of the Chinese Communist party, but I can speak on behalf of the Government. I am delighted that we have a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, and that is coming through in so many different ways in the policy of this Government. It is a part of the world that will have 40% of global GDP in the not too distant future. We need to be properly engaged, and that is what we are doing.

I welcome the new nuclear alliance with Australia and the United States, but I wish we would use a bit more robust language and say why we are doing it. It is to stand up to China’s current behaviour in the South China sea; let us not continue to be in denial about that. However, the timing and the manner of this announcement are not without diplomatic consequence, and prompt further questions about the cohesion, purpose and, indeed, leadership of NATO after the bruised departure from Afghanistan. There is no doubt that France has overreacted to losing a major procurement deal, but does the Minister recognise that China’s authoritarian behaviour cannot be defeated by military means alone? We need all the tools and all the alliances working towards a common strategic aim, and if we do not resolve a sense of unity in the west and, indeed, NATO—

Order. The Chair of the Select Committee should know better. He cannot make a speech; it has to be a question. I got him in deliberately because of the job he holds, but he cannot take complete advantage of the Chair: it is not fair.

All the questions were excellent, Mr Speaker, and I will try to deal with them. [Interruption.]

First, let me make it absolutely clear that the agreement with the United States and Australia is a requirement—an Australian requirement—for their strategic purposes. It is a decision that they wanted to make in order to enhance their strategic capability and their strategic defence. We have very strong contacts and a relationship with Australia and the United States, quite transparently. It will be a pleasure to work with them, and to help to deliver this important strategic capacity for Australia.

As for France, again, we work very closely with the French. My right hon. Friend is well aware of that, and of the Lancaster House treaties. There are ongoing discussions about incredibly important joint defence initiatives that we run together. I was in contact with my opposite number over the weekend, and I am looking forward to our working very closely with the French in the years ahead, as we have always done in the past.

Given that Babcock’s Arrowhead 140 frigate has been selected by Indonesia in an outstanding endorsement of Scottish engineering, will the Minister ensure that the Government expend all available effort to assist in future foreign orders, both for licensed build in-country and for foreign Governments to have their ships built in Scotland?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said in my substantive answer, I have been working in Poland, Ukraine, Greece, and many other parts of the world where Babcock has aspirations. The United Kingdom has a great belief in the Scottish yards—far more belief than the Scottish Government appear to have, given some of their recent contracts.

I, too, welcome the AUKUS deal, which gives great form to global Britain and could be very good for jobs in both Barrow and Derby. Can we remind the Australians, when they begin their 18-month assessment, that the UK’s Astute submarine is arguably even more capable than the United States’ Virginia class? And, by the way, it is cheaper.

My right hon. Friend is a great advocate for British engineering and British defence jobs. There is an awful lot that is good about our Astute programme, but I am not going to second-guess the Australians’ 18-month assessment. They will work that through, but both we and the United States are there to support them in the delivery of this extremely important strategic capability.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is good to see you back from “Coronation Street” in such fine form, and to see the defence team still in its place.

When the Government presented the integrated review to the House, we were told that this Indo-Pacific tilt would not undermine interests in the Euro-Atlantic area. Can the Minister tell the House exactly how engaging in secret diplomacy against the mutual security and against the trust interests with one of our closest European allies helps our interests in the Euro-Atlantic area?

I think that that would be an accidental misunderstanding of the situation on the part of the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that a close friend and a close ally decided that they had a different strategic need and wanted to do something differently, and approached us. It would have been very strange not to have engaged in very constructive talks with Australia in those circumstances. That is not being seen to be going behind people’s backs; it is responding to a request.

But that was exactly what it was. Let us not muddy the words here: Paris was deceived, was it not? Are common challenges not better faced when liberal democracies trust each other and understand each other’s mutual interests? Whether it is on the rise of authoritarianism or on issues of climate change, terrorism or migration, we must be aligned with our Euro-Atlantic allies first. Has the fallout from AUKUS not taught us all that we need to pursue a comprehensive defence and security treaty with the European Union? Can the Minister tell us why France was excluded right from the start?

We have a number of close relationships, including through the Five Eyes, that we pursue on a global basis. We have an extremely close relationship with France, with whom we are doing so much around the world and with whom we enjoy extremely close relationships on equipment and support, as well as actively in the field. The bedrock of our relationships inside western Europe is of course NATO, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree with. That is absolutely vital, and it is the cornerstone of our defence. It is an area in which we work closely with our European allies, including France.

Apprenticeships in the Armed Forces

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on increasing the number of apprenticeships in the armed forces. (903500)

The armed forces are one of this country’s biggest providers of apprenticeships. They have around 21,000 apprentices on programmes at any one time, ranging from engineering and digital to construction and driving, showing that if you join the armed forces, you get skills for life.

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that the Ministry of Defence is doing on apprenticeships. Can I confirm that his Department will continue to meet the public sector target of 2.3% for the hiring of apprentices? Will he also ensure that any company that gets a procurement contract with the Ministry of Defence employs a significant number of apprentices, and that otherwise it will not get the contract?

I am delighted to confirm that. Over 90% of recruits are offered an apprenticeship, and I am pleased to confirm that recent statistics show that 7.9% of our headcount are new apprentice starts, exceeding the Government public sector target of 2.3%. We have ongoing discussions with the Department for Education to increase that figure.

International Terrorism

8. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on tackling international terrorism in (a) Afghanistan, (b) the middle east and (c) north Africa. (903501)

16. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on tackling international terrorism in (a) Afghanistan, (b) the middle east and (c) north Africa. (903513)

I routinely engage at all levels, both nationally and internationally, in order to tackle the threat of terrorism across the middle east, north Africa, and the wider region. We continue to work with allies and regional partners to promote a safe and secure Afghanistan and to prevent the terrorist groups from gaining any foothold in the country in the future.

What assessment has the Ministry of Defence made, in collaboration with the security and intelligence services, of the impacts of the cuts to UK bilateral aid to Iraq and Afghanistan on the increasing potential for international terrorism?

The reduction in conflict, stability and security funding, which is effectively what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, is partly because if it were to continue it could end up in the hands of the Taliban. Given that the fall of Afghanistan was happening, I do not think that that would have been a wise thing for anyone to do. Secondly, he should not rule out the fact that counter-terrorism funding both for here and abroad has increased significantly since 2015, with well over 30% of funding both to civilians such as the police and the intelligence services and to special forces and the armed forces. The direction of travel is increasing not decreasing and the capability that we are procuring, including the drones that we have recently signed up to, will give us extra capability that we did not have all those years ago in 2001.

Can the Secretary of State indicate when an update will be given to the House on the terror threat that the UK faces following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the attendant heightened potential for terrorism being harboured there?

The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre sets the threat levels for this country, and it does so independently of Ministers. When those levels are changed, it will make a statement and the House will be informed. As far as a bulletin or update to the House is concerned, the hon. Lady is obviously free either to apply for an Adjournment debate or to table written questions, and we will be happy to ensure that we respond. On top of that, we have periodical updates on Afghanistan and the counter-Daesh strategy, and we will continue to provide them from time to time.

Given that long-term nation building from the ground up is not a feasible option in the future, and given that terrorist attacks could happen again, will the Secretary of State institute a serious review of counter-terrorism strategy, possibly based on pre-positioned forces in regional bases, to follow an active containment strategy?

My right hon. Friend highlights an important point: when there is no partnership on the ground, how do we deal with imminent threats to the United Kingdom? I cannot speak for the whole Government on a review of the counter-terrorism strategy, first of all, because Contest, in its many iterations starting under the last Labour Government, is probably a world-leading counter-terrorism strategy. It is periodically refreshed, which will always be done in time to meet the changing situation. What I can tell my right hon. Friend is that, even before the decline in Afghanistan, I had instigated work on how we deal with changes to the environments in which we fight terrorism and on what capabilities we will need in future.

The United Kingdom supports the French forces and Operation Barkhane in Mali with a squadron of Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. At the same time, we also have some 300 British forces deployed on the UN multi-dimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali, which is one of the most dangerous UN deployments, to help nation building and peacekeeping. We also talk about the threat through intelligence channels, and we are both concerned about the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which is now appearing in many parts of west Africa.

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

9. How many people have been assessed as being eligible for support under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy since 28 August 2021. (903502)

Since 28 August, 7,900 applications have been made to the ARAP scheme, of which 900 appear eligible from the MOD’s perspective. Obviously, there are Home Office checks that need to follow, and 50 applicants have thus far completed their Home Office checks and are being advised on how to proceed.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but I have cases of people who worked for the Afghan supreme court, the Afghan Government or the Afghan armed forces. Clearly, they assisted in our operations in Afghanistan. Surely the Minister accepts that these people are at severe risk and should qualify under category 1 of ARAP, yet they have been refused. In the figures he has just cited, how many people who clearly qualify for ARAP have been turned down?

I have just given the numbers for those who have applied since 28 August. I completely accept that there will be interpretation but, having looked at a number of cases that we have been invited to review at ministerial level, I am satisfied that the right judgments are being made. I know that is a disappointment to many hon. Members who are working hard to support people in Afghanistan whom they consider to be at risk but, under the ARAP scheme, it is not possible for us to bring out everybody who has had a connection with UK armed forces. That is why the terms were set as tightly as they were. If the hon. Gentleman would like me to look at any particular cases, I look forward to having that in writing and I will do what I can.

There is increasing confusion about the Government’s administration of the ARAP scheme. In response to a written question, the Minister said that 1,194 locally employed staff had been relocated by the end of August, yet in a further answer he suggested that only 850 applications had been processed in the same timeframe. This means that at least 344 people are unaccounted for. The Prime Minister says the figure is 311. Will the Minister, therefore, tell the House here and now how many applications were received between April and August, how many were accepted and how many have been left behind?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact detail he requests. Some 15,000 people were brought out in the airlift, as I think he knows. The discrepancy he thinks he has found in the numbers he quotes relates to the fact that 311 people had been called forward—they had successfully applied and been cleared by UK Visas and Immigration for travel—but we were unable to get them on to a plane. That is different from the number of people who had applications in process at the time but had not been called forward for travel.

I know from all my engagements with colleagues on both sides of the House that they will understand that those two and a half weeks in Kabul were somewhat hectic. It will take some time for the dust to settle on exactly who is out and who we have yet to bring out, but we are still working very hard to do so. The security situation is dynamic and our partnerships in the region are being developed, but we have every confidence that we will be able to help those who need help.

Fleet Solid Support Ship Contract

The final contract for the manufacture of the fleet solid support ships will be awarded to a UK business, either solely or as part of a consortium. We have been clear that a significant proportion of the build work will be carried out in the UK.

In spring, the MOD invited international companies to collaborate with UK firms to build the fleet solid support ship contract. Earlier this year, it awarded a £5 million design contract for the project. I have tried in numerous questions to the Minister to get the answers to these questions, and I have to say to him that his answers should be getting creative writing awards for the ways in which they avoid answering questions. May I ask him a direct question: who are the design contracts with—are they with the consortium or with the individual companies? Secondly, will he confirm that the prime contractor who wins this contract will be a UK company?

We are engaged with the consortium as a whole. I would have to check for the right hon. Gentleman on the finer points of where exactly the contract lies within that consortium, but it is the consortium that is being appointed to conduct the design work and it is the consortium that will be expected to do that work. It is then the consortium that we will be turning to for the next stage. As he knows, four awards have been made and, from memory, they are for £5 million each. They go to each in that consortium, all of which have a UK component, and they will be presenting not only their design but their views on the next stage and the build programme. I will come back on the precise point he makes, as it is a fair question.

It is a bit rich of Labour Members to be nit-picking on this contract, given that the competition that they were calling for, whereby shipyards in the UK were to be required to build these ships, is precisely what the Minister has engineered. Will he confirm to the House that following last week’s outstanding Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition in docklands, where, as he has mentioned, there were further contracts for British shipbuilders, and following the announcement of the establishment of the National Shipbuilding Office and AUKUS, the opportunities for defence shipbuilding in this country have never been greater?

I was so flattered to be awarded the creative writing award by the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that I was perhaps too kind. There is an awful lot that is great going on in British shipbuilding at the moment. He has been calling for the design contracts to be awarded, and they have been awarded; we are getting on with the fleet solid support ships. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) says, there is also great news on Type 31. There is a lot of good news in the sector.

Mental Health Services: Armed Forces

11. What steps he is taking to help improve provision of mental health services for members of the armed forces. (903508)

19. What steps he is taking to help improve provision of mental health services for members of the armed forces. (903516)

The Defence Medical Services provides a responsive and comprehensive treatment service for personnel requiring medical intervention. We have improved access to mental healthcare and given armed forces personnel greater choice with the introduction of new ways of working, including digital triage and remote video consultation.

As the Minister knows, 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”,

but the Government have missed targets on all mental healthcare for veterans across all services in England. Unless that changes, does it not risk rendering the covenant, which I know the Government want to strengthen, meaningless? They need to get their act together on mental health services for veterans and the armed forces.

On the contrary, we are giving teeth to the armed forces covenant by passing the Armed Forces Bill, and we will ensure that no veteran, in whatever circumstances, is ever disadvantaged.

As we know, charities across the UK, including many that have supported veterans, have been hit hard during the pandemic, impacting on the services they provide, so what additional support are the Government offering charities, in order that they can cope with demand? What more can the Government themselves do to support veterans, given that their record so far is pretty poor?

On the contrary, we are putting an additional £3 million into Op Courage, which makes a total of more than £20 million this year, and an additional £5 million into armed forces charities, which means that more than £25 million will go to them this year. That shows that the Government are putting their money where their mouth is.

Defence Sector Jobs

Last week was a good week for defence jobs: I announced investments in laser and radio-frequency weapons, which will sustain 249 jobs and create 49 more, including 30 in Northern Ireland, and investment to enhance the capabilities of C-17 and Chinook, which will support 200 UK jobs and create 50 at RAF Brize Norton; and on Friday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a £170 million investment in next-generation submarines, which will support 250 jobs at Barrow and 100 jobs at Rolls-Royce Derby. The UK sector more broadly already directly and indirectly supports more than 200,000 jobs throughout the UK.

First, I thank all the service personnel involved in Operation Pitting and pay tribute to the as-ever impressive leadership of Brigadier James Martin.

Radar is vital to our nation’s defence, and the Royal Navy’s radar is made in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Do the Government have a plan for the development of next-generation radar?

We absolutely do. My hon. Friend is an assiduous proponent of the Island’s defence sector. In the summer, I visited GKN Aerospace in Cowes, which is one of a number of great companies on the Island. On radar, my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we are working closely with BAE Systems on the potential spiral development of the existing maritime radar.

My constituency of West Bromwich East boasts great skills and is only 30 minutes away from the Telford production hub for the British Army’s Boxer fighting vehicle. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that UK small and medium-sized enterprises, including our fantastic businesses in the Black Country, get proper access to contracts in defence supply chains?

MOD spending on equipment and support with SMEs exceeded 21% last year. We are determined to push that proportion higher and I will publish a revised SME action plan later this year.

On Boxer, to which my hon. Friend referred, over 60% of the contract is expected to benefit UK suppliers. Following the integrated review, we are considering expanding the purchase, which will create even more opportunities for SMEs, including those in the Black Country.

Lincolnshire is rightly proud of its RAF links. The future combat air project will support jobs and bring crucial capability. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is on track, with both our international partners and our industries?

It is absolutely on track. Further progress was made last week with our international partners Italy and Sweden, both of which I have been in discussions with over the summer, and it is on my agenda for my meeting tomorrow with the Defence Secretary in Japan. Our £2 billion investment in the future combat air system is benefiting from the co-investment of hundreds of millions of pounds from our industrial partners.

Of course, jobs in the defence industry depend on contracts, so may I come back to the question about the fleet solid support ships posed directly by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), which the Minister has tried to slide by? Why does the Minister not give a clear message to the industry and the workforce that the Government will prioritise British jobs and the design contracts will clearly go to a British firm? Why not make a proper decision and send that message, which should also go to the steel industry?

I am hoping to send an exact message. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I have said, we have made it absolutely clear that the contract will go to a British company, solely or as part of a consortium. We have introduced the social-value model, which is included in the defence and security industrial strategy, and it will play a significant part in the overall assessment phase. The right hon. Gentleman has pushed for this competition for a long time; it is ongoing and is going to happen, and I am looking forward to it. I am certain that British companies will be absolutely embedded throughout the process.

The Minister will know that companies in the defence industry have been subject to a spate of takeovers. Many familiar names, such as Cobham and GKN Aerospace, are now in foreign hands, while Meggitt has recently been subject to a takeover bid from a US-based company. Even though the companies involved have promised to protect jobs and research and development, that has not prevented them from selling assets and closing factories. Workers at GKN Driveline at Erdington in Birmingham are going on strike to protest against a proposal for 500 redundancies next May. What are the Government doing to ensure that when British companies are taken over, promises to keep jobs and research and development in this country are kept?

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the legislation that we passed broadening the scope in which intervention can take place was cleared through this Parliament and is ready to be introduced. We take very seriously our responsibilities under the Enterprise Act 2002. This is a matter for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy acting in his particular capacity, but guarantees can be sought and enforced as part of that process.

Military Operations Without United States Support

14. What recent assessment he has made of the UK's ability to conduct military operations without the support of the United States. (903511)

The Ministry of Defence conducts a range of operations, domestically and overseas, both independently and jointly with allies, including with the United States. We keep our operations and our broader military posture under continuous active review.

Now, following the debacle in Afghanistan, we know that we cannot rely on America, will the Secretary of State make his commitment clear to our closest and traditional ally, France, which is vital for our interests, particularly in regard to migration and many other issues? Will he commit himself to working with the French to improve relations and perhaps involve them in this new relationship in the Pacific?

I listened to my right hon. Friend’s points. First of all, the United States and France are our closest allies. The United States is the cornerstone of NATO and by far outspends and out-contributes any other European nation. It has been the guarantor of European security for decades and we should not forget that. When it comes to France, I have an extremely close relationship with my French counterpart. I met her only a month or two ago and I had a dinner with her in Paris a month before that. We speak regularly. Britain and France are joined at the hip on many issues, including on complex weapons; counter-terrorism; Africa, both west and east; and indeed Iraq and Syria. There is absolutely no intent here by the United Kingdom Government to slight, upset or drive a wedge between us and France. Members may like listening to the media, but, fundamentally, we have more in common than we have things on which we differ. There was no sneakiness involved, and we did not work behind France’s back. Fundamentally, it was Australia’s right to choose a different capability and it did.

Topical Questions

Despite NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the middle east and the wider region remain a major source of threat to the UK. We will continue to engage and to invest to keep us all safe. We remain in NATO’s training mission in Iraq and fly missions under Operation Shader. Most recently planes from the RAF conducted a strike against Daesh on 6 September. Syria remains a cause of concern, with 900,000 civilians still trapped in Idlib province. It is now the Government’s view that Turkey’s presence is providing stability and averting a catastrophic humanitarian crisis there. That is something that the UN representatives also made clear to me when I visited some months ago. We continue to work to update our defence and intelligence assessments and work across Government identifying options to support our NATO ally, Turkey.

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you are as pleased as I am with Operation Warm Welcome. What a warm welcome are we giving to those members of the Afghan armed forces and intelligence officers who have come to the UK from Afghanistan through Operation Pitting, many of whom have trained in our military establishments such as Sandhurst and the Royal College of Defence Studies, which I was involved with last year. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to identify them and perhaps integrate them into our own armed forces?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. The Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is leading the charge here. Some of those people who are arriving here are finding the outlook strange and confusing—they have literally taken off one uniform, got on a plane and arrived in the United Kingdom. We in the Defence Department felt that it was incredibly important that the veterans’ community, local government, the Home Office and so on reach out a hand of friendship and support them as they integrate into society. We are looking at those who have already qualified, including those who have been through Sandhurst into the armed forces, to see what we can do for them. All the way through, we shall mentor them and put our arm around them.

I want to ask the Defence Secretary about the Ajax armoured vehicle, the biggest defence procurement failure since the Nimrod. What did the Defence Secretary know about the Ajax flaws when he published the integrated review in his Defence White Paper in March, scrapping Warrior, scaling back Challenger and fully backing Ajax?

I know that this was a troubled programme; I have never resiled from that at all in this House. In fact, as the right hon. Member will know, since I took over this job we have been determined to open up the programme and get to the bottom of its failings. We will shortly come to the House with more detail on that. Going right back to March 2010, this has been a troubled programme that needs to be fixed. Can it be fixed? That is what we are working to do. It is nothing to do with linking Warrior and the others, which the right hon. Member is trying to make the case for.

This is not just another troubled programme or another piece of Army kit. The Secretary of State’s defence White Paper confirms that Ajax is fundamental to the future of British ground forces. Our NATO allies in Europe already see a Prime Minister with the hots for his Indo-Pacific tilt. Now Ajax, alongside the AUKUS nuclear propulsion pact, raises serious concerns over Britain’s sustained contribution and commitment to NATO. What is the Secretary of State doing to settle those concerns?

First of all, what the right hon. Member has missed is that I committed to and brought forward the buying of Boxer, which is a German-British-Dutch project that will be made in Telford, providing jobs. I also brought forward the Challenger 3 upgrade, with Rheinmetall BAE Systems Land—a German company partnering with a British company to provide jobs. That is a strong, solid, metallic commitment to Europe. At the same time, we press forward with the future combat air system with Italy and Sweden.

T7. My constituents hold the armed services in the highest regard, so there was some serious dismay when the Army reserve centre in Chipping Barnet appeared on a list of sites for potential housing development in the emerging local plan. Will the Minister give me the strongest assurances that the Territorial Army centre will stay in operational use for the foreseeable future? (903526)

I am pleased to be able to confirm to my right hon. Friend that the High Barnet Army reserve centre has a continuing defence use and there are currently no plans for its sale.

T3. Academics at the London School of Economics have concluded that the UK Government’s plan to lift the current cap on Trident nuclear weapons based on the Clyde from 180 to 260 are inconsistent with their obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. Specifically, the 40% increase constitutes a breach of article 6 of the treaty. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State: is international law of no concern to this Government? (903522)

No, I think I would just say that I have it on better authority than those academics that we have not.

Will the Department use the combination of our EU exit, the Enterprise Act 2002 and the new social value rules from Her Majesty’s Treasury to ensure that more British ships are built and with more British content?

Yes, it is really important that we seek to build more British ships, but we should also recognise that there is an international collaboration on shipbuilding. I recently signed with the Indonesian Defence Minister to buy the design of the Arrowhead Type 31. That design originated in Denmark, but the intellectual property was shared with us, so we and British jobs now profit from that sale. International collaboration is important and it unlocks investment. We are now going to indicate the longest shipping pipeline for many decades so that British companies can invest knowing that there are ships in the pipeline.

T4. Earlier, I raised serious concerns about the fire service crews that are based in Faslane and Coulport following outsourcing to Capita, which has cut jobs. The Secretary of State dismissed my concerns out of hand, saying that the service is nationalised. Will he confirm whether Capita is running the service or not? If he does not know, he needs to get a grip of this. (903523)

The hon. Member should have listened to my answer. He was making a point about privatisation and I was making the point that Aldermaston had just been nationalised by the Government, which was the opposite ideological scene than that which he was trying to imply.

As a veteran, I know of the hard work, dedication and often sacrifice of our great armed forces. There are many families in Wolverhampton who live and support what the great armed forces do. Will the Minister do everything that he can to ensure that all serving and former service personnel have all the support they and their families need?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Service families are at the heart of the defence community. Our assistance to them includes wraparound childcare, which is currently being piloted, and support for partner employment. We will shortly bring forward the armed forces families strategy, which will deliver choice and flexibility to service families, because people must be able to serve their country while also supporting a family.

T8. What discussions have Ministers had with the Home Office regarding the Commonwealth visa issue for former serving personnel? That is entirely missing from the integrated strategy review and I would like to know when this House will get an update. (903527)

We published a consultation on a number of proposals for the visa system around Commonwealth soldiers. We will be publishing a response very soon and the hon. Gentleman will get the answers he requires.

My hon. Friend has already referred to the great economic benefits resulting from the £400 million investment in enhancing C-17 Chinook capability, but does he agree that it will also help us to ensure that we can continue to undertake complex operations like the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, where C-17 transport aircraft played a key role?

Absolutely; it did play a key role. It is a very valuable asset, alongside others, including the A400M, which also has a connection with my hon. Friend’s constituency. I have visited his constituency, where there are great skills in the defence sector. I was delighted to make that announcement and I am delighted to see that investment going into that part of our country.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of the introduction of operational MGS—MOD Guard Service—employment contracts on levels of staff fatigue and security at UK military bases?

Whenever we examine new arrangements for services for our military, of course we examine all the impacts on security, accountability and indeed performance.

Will the Secretary of State inform the House what Members should do when they are contacted by people who have been of assistance to our armed forces in Afghanistan but whom they have reason to believe the Taliban are hunting? Is there any help that we will be able to give them, and how should we go about approaching the Government to secure that help?

In the first instance, my right hon. Friend could advise them to go to the ARAP website and apply to the scheme, but it does no harm at all to write to me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in parallel, as many colleagues have done, and we are working through those cases at best speed.

When people who are pursuing successful careers in the armed forces go back to their old schools and say, “Look, this is what I have done; this is what you can do”, that can be a real incentive to recruitment. Does the Secretary of State agree that this would be a good way for him to co-ordinate with the Secretary of State for Education in future?

That is an incredibly important way to inspire young people about the careers that are ahead. When politics do not get in the way of that recruitment, it is much better. I remember being banned from a school in Dundee when I was doing military recruiting—[Interruption]; not me personally—because ideologically it did not fit with some narrative.

Following on from the question from the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) about those individuals who are working with British military forces in Afghanistan, what is going to happen to those who find that they have been refused under the ARAP scheme? Will they then be referred to the Home Office or to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, or are they being left in limbo just now?

They do not automatically get referred to the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme; instead they are invited to apply to it. In letters from the MOD to colleagues explaining that people have not been eligible for ARAP we are providing the details of how to apply to the ACRS.

Is the Secretary of State able to update the House on any plans to renew the Red Arrows’ Hawk aircraft, which are now quite old, in the near future?

There are no plans to renew them. The taking out of service of the non-Red Arrows Hawk T1s will provide a significant amount of spares and support for the current Red Arrows fleet going forward. There are currently no plans in the immediate future, or even the medium term, to review the Red Arrows.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), the Secretary of State stated that the fire services of the naval bases in Faslane and Coulport had been nationalised, yet Capita won the contract last year to provide the fire services for those naval bases. Would the Secretary of State like to come to the Dispatch Box, perhaps to rectify that anomaly?

I think the best way to rectify this, Mr Speaker, is to read Hansard, where you will see very clearly, in black and white, that I referred to the Atomic Weapons Establishment.