Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 701: debated on Monday 20 September 2021

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.