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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Poppy Appeal

The Ministry of Defence was delighted to support the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal, in its 100th anniversary year. Members of all three services took part in Poppy Day activities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, selling poppies and collecting donations. I was delighted that all the members of the ministerial team were able to join in acts of remembrance throughout the weekend, demonstrating the central and cherished role of remembrance in our national life.

Will the Minister join me in thanking and congratulating the many volunteers, organisations and veterans across Clwyd South who have worked so hard to raise money for the poppy appeal, including Broughton community council, whose act of remembrance I had the honour of attending yesterday, laying a wreath at Brynteg Memorial Hall?

I do indeed join my hon. Friend in thanking everyone in Clwyd South who took part in those activities, particularly the team at Broughton community council and Brynteg Memorial Hall. I am sure that theirs was a fitting tribute to those who have served.

The fantastic work of the poppy appeal, which raises millions every year for our veterans, is only possible thanks to the hard work of the volunteers and armed forces who take part, giving up their time to ensure that the Royal British Legion’s fundraising efforts succeed. Will the Minister join me in thanking the volunteers and organisers of the Bedworth Armistice Day parade in my constituency, chaired by Ken Whitehead? It celebrated its centenary this year, being the only parade outside London to have taken place every year on 11 November.

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the central role of the Royal British Legion volunteers. They are a magnificent bunch of people, and I particularly commend Ken Whitehead and all the Bedworth Armistice Day team. I also want to record my thanks for all my hon. Friend’s work to support our veterans and forces people in his constituency.

I thank the many Carshalton and Wallington residents who volunteered to raise money for the poppy appeal this year. The appeal helps to fund the Royal British Legion’s work in raising funds for the armed forces covenant, providing support for thousands of service people and their families. What consideration has the Minister given to the Legion’s recent report on the impact of the covenant over the last 10 years?

I have given deep consideration to that excellent report, which I think is a hugely important piece of work. We have come a very long way in the last 10 years, but there is still more to do, and that is why we are putting the covenant into law in the Armed Forces Bill.

Over the past couple of weeks, people across Keighley and Ilkley have been working hard to raise funds for our veterans through the poppy appeal, including Jackie McGinnis and her team at the Keighley branch of the Royal British Legion. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all my constituents who have worked so incredibly hard to raise money for the appeal, and use this opportunity to reiterate the importance of such funds being raised throughout the calendar year?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in thanking Jackie McGinnis and the Keighley branch of the Royal British Legion. They have done terrifically good work. It is indeed an all-year-round challenge, and that is why we are pleased to have invested £25 million this year in third sector charities that support our veterans and armed forces. I am very grateful for the work that my hon. Friend continues to do in his constituency.

I speak as a great admirer of the poppy appeal. However, when the Minister next meets the national leadership of the Royal British Legion, will he point out that effectively closing down a branch and expelling its officers, as they have done in Leyton, is not the best way to promote the appeal, and nor is sealing and shutting the building so that its members have no access, and removing the base for the appeal in years to come?

I regularly meet the magnificent team of the Royal British Legion. If the hon. Gentleman can give me any particular details of that case, I should be pleased to raise it with them.

I had a friend who signed up at the age of 16 and served for eight years in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the first Gulf war. About 10 days ago we lost him, after he had battled with mental ill health for perhaps 20 years. The Government talk a great deal about the programmes to help veterans with their mental health, but there does not seem to be anyone who is really reaching out to them. I wonder whether, through the poppy appeal and the Royal British Legion, more could be done to try to reach out to veterans so that they do not feel cast adrift once they leave the services.

I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Lady. We are trying harder than ever before and investing a huge amount of money in Op Courage, which is the bespoke mental health pathway for veterans in the national health service, but really this is about a broader challenge of reducing the stigma of mental health challenges. That is why we are ensuring that, during the time people serve in the armed forces, they see it as their professional responsibility to see mental good health as a question of resilience and capability, not something of which to be ashamed.

This Remembrance Sunday was the first time that LGBT veterans were invited to lay a wreath openly at the Cenotaph. While the route to equality is something we all welcome, can the Minister detail the steps the Government are taking to provide compensation to all LGBT veterans who suffered a loss of earnings and pension as a result of the historical ban?

I am pleased to be able to put on record my acknowledgement of the injustice suffered by gay people who were unjustly thrown out of the military. I have met Fighting With Pride and others, and we are doing good work on this, which will be formally announced as part of a review. I hope to be able to provide further details to the House in the coming weeks.

Lady Haig’s Poppy Factory in Edinburgh has been in operation since 1926, employing ex-soldiers since the very beginning. Over the years it has grown considerably, and now it employs 41 veterans. Will the Minister join me in thanking them for their hard work and dedication in making beautiful poppy wreaths, and encourage other organisations to support veteran employability in the same way?

I am delighted to put on record my thanks to the Poppy Factory, which I have visited: it does magnificent work, and the wreaths it creates are a moving and important part of the Festival of Remembrance. I am also grateful that the hon. Lady picked up the theme of employability, because we will focus explicitly on that in the forthcoming veterans strategy.

As you know, Mr Speaker, the Royal British Legion and the poppy appeal have supported veterans over the decades and over a number of conflicts, not least the Falklands campaign, which my constituency has such strong links with. Can the Minister talk a little about plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Falklands campaign next year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is of particular interest, because my Aldershot constituency was formerly the home of the Parachute Regiment and one of my first engagements as a new MP was to attend the 35th anniversary of Op Corporate. There are significant plans under way, and I look forward to sharing those with her and her Gosport constituents in due course.

Afghan Nationals: Evacuation

3. What steps he is taking to help evacuate Afghan nationals at risk; and if he will make a statement. (904124)

We owe a debt of gratitude to locally employed staff who risked their lives along with UK forces in Afghanistan. Around 7,000 principals and their families have so far been relocated under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. The ARAP scheme, as I have always said, remains open and, in the past seven days, a further 100 Afghan nationals have been relocated from third countries to the UK. Of the 311 people who were called forward before the end of Op Pitting but were unable to leave the country, there are now fewer than 200 individuals remaining.

Correspondence received from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey), states that a number of my constituents’ family members may be eligible for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme when it becomes available. The wait for the scheme to open has been unbearable for many. Can the Secretary of State confirm what discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues about this and, specifically, when the House will be informed of the date the scheme will open? Will it be before the end of the year, and what support, including legal support, will be available to help constituents to navigate the scheme?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says but, as he knows, that scheme is under the stewardship of the Home Office. I am happy to take his representations and make them, but the policy decisions he is asking for are not made by the Ministry of Defence; they are best pointed at Home Office questions.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Pakistan, with its deplorable record of support for the Taliban, is a hostile environment for a number of people who have fled Afghanistan and are hiding in Pakistan? If the British Government decide to issue visas to people who are taking refuge or in hiding in Pakistan, will he guarantee that they are safely able to get from Pakistan to the United Kingdom?

I listen to my right hon. Friend’s concerns. However, Pakistan has been, in these incidences, supportive, as have many other neighbouring countries. It plays an influential role in the region and it is necessary for us not only to engage, but to ensure that we work with it for the benefit of many of those people left in Afghanistan and for the wider security areas. However, I hear his points, and we also press Pakistan on areas such as terrorism, Kashmir and so on, ensuring that both parties to that conflict withdraw from any support of violence.

Last week I visited a bridging hotel where it became clear that ARAP evacuees are facing a cliff edge on their immigration status, having been given just six months’ leave to remain when they left Afghanistan. Permanent status is key to building a new life for those who supported our forces, so what steps is the Secretary of State taking with Home Office colleagues to ensure they receive indefinite leave to remain when they were promised?

I would be delighted to get those details from the hon. Gentleman, because all individuals settled under the ARAP scheme are given indefinite leave to remain.

I have no doubt that the Defence Secretary is straining every sinew, but one fears that bureaucracy and lack of clarity are getting in the way. I understand that almost 200 Afghans who worked with the British Council, and are therefore eligible for the ARAP scheme, are still in Afghanistan in fear of their lives. One sent this email:

“we are now being hunted by the Taliban. We are in hiding, and we have run out of money. We are in very real danger and in fear of our lives”.

What more can the Government do to help these people?

My hon. Friend refers to a scheme that is stewarded by the Foreign Office. I am happy to hold a surgery for colleagues on both sides of the House on the ARAP scheme, for which I am responsible, and I will broaden it by bringing along Ministers from other Departments so that they, too, can answer these questions and deal with individual cases brought by Members. If the House gives me leave, I would be happy to arrange it.

Afghanistan: Reconstruction and State-building Contracts

4. If he will make an assessment of the effectiveness of the private companies contracted by his Department for (a) reconstruction and (b) state-building during the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan. (904125)

The Ministry of Defence did not contract private companies to undertake state-building as part of UK military operations in Afghanistan. Reconstruction activity could take many forms and could be commissioned in many ways, both from within the MOD and from elsewhere in Government. Does the hon. Gentleman have a particular company in mind?

The Foreign Office tells me it has spent £54 million with a company called Adam Smith International, but it will not tell me on what the money was spent. Can the Minister assure me that he will provide details of any contracts his Department has with Adam Smith International with regard to Afghanistan? There has clearly been a failure of nation-building in Afghanistan, and this Parliament needs to consider whether that failure is related to the organisations that were chosen to implement Government policy and the programmes they developed on the ground. May I ask for further assurance that the cloak of national security will not be used to withhold information?

As I said, the Ministry of Defence did not contract with companies to undertake state-building activity. I will clarify whether Adam Smith International had any role in anything we might count as reconstruction. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Foreign Office, and his question might be better addressed to colleagues there.

NATO and Euro-Atlantic Security

5. What recent assessment his Department has made of the UK’s contribution through NATO to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. (904126)

NATO is the cornerstone of UK and Euro-Atlantic defence. As set out in the recent integrated review of international policy, the UK will remain the leading European ally within NATO, bolstering the alliance by tackling threats jointly and committing our resources to collective security in the Euro-Atlantic region. The UK contribution is substantial and comprehensive, spanning forces and headquarters, money, capabilities and people.

With cross-party members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I recently visited NATO air command at Ramstein for briefings from the excellent RAF officers based there. Given Russia’s frequent incursions into NATO airspace, its aggression and its threats, does my right hon. Friend agree that the RAF’s involvement is a crucial aspect of NATO’s commitment to constant vigilance and the protection of each and every member of the alliance?

My hon. Friend is right that the RAF is a key component of NATO’s deterrence and defence posture. The RAF preserves the security of alliance airspace through its contribution to enhanced air policing and its commitment of forces to the NATO response force. The RAF also provides high-quality staff officers to NATO headquarters, and it provides air transport, air-to-air refuelling and intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance support to NATO exercises and operations.

The Minister knows very well what is happening between Russia and Belarus. He knows how many people are hostage on these borders, and how many children are in danger of dying of cold and starvation. What is NATO actually doing to show Russia that we mean business when it has devious and disgraceful policies such as this?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that what is going on in Belarus—and then into Poland, Estonia and these other countries—is a tragedy and a disgrace, in the way it has treated vulnerable people and clearly brought them over from other parts of the world. I am visiting Poland this week to discuss matters with my Polish counterparts. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the UK has a considerable number of forces in both Estonia and Poland, under the enhanced presence, and I have sent a recce party of Royal Engineers to see what else we can do to help. At the same time, on the diplomatic channels, we must also make sure that we are very clear that this is unacceptable behaviour. It is a hybrid, destabilising method deployed by too many countries, with human beings being the traffic. We should also press on the European Union, which is responsible for the civilian border policing of its Union; that is a very important step for it to take, as it should also be able to step up and complement NATO’s efforts.

Given the extremely concerning situations in not only Bosnia, but Ukraine, will my right hon. Friend please advise as to whether he plans to uplift our military presence to peacekeeping operations in both countries? Will a defence Minister attend the Bosnian Armed Forces Day at the start of December to show our continued support for peace in the region?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about another part of eastern Europe and the Balkans that is currently experiencing destabilising actions, activities and messaging that do no one any good. As she will know, it is a EUFOR deployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but there is also a NATO deployment, and I am open to exploring what more we could do in that area. Baroness Goldie will be attending the conference my hon. Friend asks about.

May I offer our very best wishes to David Perry, whose heroic actions in Liverpool yesterday may have prevented a despicable and devastating attack on the city’s remembrance ceremony?

I say to the Defence Secretary that we share his grave concerns about deteriorating security and destabilisation, both in Bosnia and on the Ukraine border. We fully back the diplomatic efforts he mentions to de-escalate tensions, but, as the Chief of the Defence Staff said yesterday, we also

“have to be on our guard and make sure deterrence prevails”.

So may I ask the Defence Secretary to confirm that a war-fighting division is still the bedrock of the British Army and the defence capability Britain offers NATO? When will this division be fully capable for combat operations?

The right hon. Gentleman is correct to identify that a war-fighting division is the bedrock. Obviously, as we reform and invest in new capabilities, the scale and availability of that division will fluctuate, as we re-equip and re-posture. However, that does not prevent our already having a very, very high-readiness battle group available in Estonia, with a matter of hours to move, as one of the best parts of deterrence is readiness, as opposed to simply having just scale on its own. We can have scale, but if we cannot get to the battlefront, we are not necessarily deterring anyone. That is why we are investing in those new capabilities, but he is correct to say that a war-fighting division is obviously part of our cornerstone commitment to NATO.

The Army told the Select Committee on Defence last year that it will not be until the “early 2030s” before it can field a fully equipped war-fighting division, including a new strike brigade. There are serious questions about capacity—or, as the Defence Secretary says, scale—as well as about military capability. Britain’s previous contribution to the UN peacekeeping in Bosnia was about 2,400 troops, and that was when the Army was still 145,000 strong. His current cuts will leave the Army at exactly half that size. So if, in the worst circumstances, our forces are called on in both eastern Europe and the Balkans at the same time, how confident is he that Britain could meet NATO requirements?

I am very confident of that: we have just completed another round of forces allocation within NATO to make sure that we are all able to meet our commitments. We have a new scheme in NATO whereby we can trade different capabilities. For example, we have traded some capabilities for more maritime contribution, so that we can keep our abilities strong and present in the sea as much as we can on land—it will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman that Russia, for example, is capable of using all the domains to threaten our security.

On the division the right hon. Gentleman talked about, the Chief of the Defence Staff’s comments to the Select Committee represented the situation at the end of the transition, but all the way through that transition the UK’s premier armoured division, 3 Division, will have battle-winning capabilities and the ability to take on Russia as part of a NATO commitment. Only recently, I visited the division on Salisbury plain—it is the single biggest brigade or battle group we have had on Salisbury plain for decades—and saw more than 270 vehicles go through their paces, planning and making sure that they are up to date with the latest equipment.

Helicopter Supply Chain

7. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the resilience of the helicopter supply chain in the UK. (904128)

We recognise the need to understand and manage risk in our supply chains, including rotary wing, and work closely on this with the defence industry, including through the defence suppliers forum. We are also engaged with the cross-Government global supply chains initiative, which is aimed at improving resilience in public procurement.

I was particularly pleased to learn of Leonardo’s £1 billion investment proposition to provide a great future for the site in Yeovil—where many of my West Dorset constituents work—as a global centre of military excellence. Will my right hon. Friend kindly ensure that we in the UK, and the Leonardo business in particular, will secure more transformational industrial innovation, as he envisaged under the defence and security industrial strategy?

Yes. I welcome Leonardo’s investment in West Dorset and in UK manufacturing as a whole. The defence and security industrial strategy will ensure that the UK can continue to have competitive, innovative and world-class defence and security industries. The MOD is investing in emerging technology, utilising the UK’s strong industrial and research base. Through our forward-looking strategic partnerships, we will drive collaboration on cutting-edge information.

I do apologise, Mr Speaker: I mean no discourtesy to you or the House but I am afraid I have pulled a muscle in my back and it is terribly painful for me to bob up and down. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and the fact that I am a proud member of and, indeed, chair of the Unite group of Labour MPs.

To follow up on the Secretary of State’s previous answer, he will no doubt be aware that the Yeovil-based Leonardo helicopter-manufacturing facility has prepared a tender for the Puma-replacement contract. Will the Government deliver on their responsibility to support workers in rural communities and protect skilled jobs in the United Kingdom? Will he assure the House that the Puma-replacement contract will be awarded to a UK-based company?

The hon. Gentleman will have read the defence and security industrial strategy and, indeed, the reforms to the Treasury Green Book that allow me to put a premium on social value, including in respect of priorities such as levelling up and UK skills. I am determined that we make that clear in many of our interactions with industry. As a member of Unite, the hon. Gentleman will know that Unite represents not just workers at Leonardo in Yeovil but no doubt lots of workers in the aerospace industry in my part of the world up in Lancashire. We have a duty to make sure that we listen to all British workers, wherever they are.

On the new medium-lift helicopter contract, we are expecting a competition and will produce details of that for the House sooner rather than later. We expect the new medium-lift helicopter to come in by 2025.

A fortnight ago, the all-party Public Accounts Committee published the most damning report it has ever produced on MOD procurement, including helicopter procurement. The report concluded:

“To meet the aspirations of the Integrated Review, the Department’s broken system for acquiring military equipment needs an urgent rethink, led by HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office.”

Given that not one of the top 36 MOD procurement programmes—worth £150 billion of taxpayers’ money—is fully on track, who, either at Abbey Wood or on the fifth floor of the MOD, is going to accept personal responsibility? When will the Secretary of State bring in the Cabinet Office to clean up the MOD’s mess?

I have read the report and, while it makes some very important points, I am sad to say that it is actually no different from the series of reports that I have read over decades. It is not any worse than some of the ones from 2008 and 2009. There are repeat problems, which is why, in seeking defence reforms, I have been determined to make sure that we get on top of these issues. [Interruption.] I distinctly remember the report that was delivered in 2010, which showed that, in one year under the Labour Administration, they spent £3 billion without even knowing where it was coming from. My right hon. Friend is right that there are lessons to be learned. We will get on it. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss what we think we can do. Many of the programmes referred to not only pre-date me and this ministerial team, but predate my right hon. Friend and his ministerial team and we need to make sure that we get on top of that issue. There are solutions to this, but we must also enforce tight timetables and then we will deliver.

It is welcome news for the British aerospace industry that the Government have published a draft plan to buy between 36 and 44 aircraft under their long-awaited New Medium Helicopter acquisition programme. Like other Members on both sides of the House, we, too, could not let this pass without mentioning the National Audit Office report. The Government have been in power for 11 years. They have overseen a Ministry of Defence that has created a black hole of £17 billion. The Defence Secretary has stood here and said that the helicopter will be ready by 2025. Why, given the evidence that the MOD has difficulty in fulfilling its contracts, is he confident that this will happen? How long will it be before the Ministry of Defence takes these NAO reports seriously, and will it take positive action to bring some positivity around procurement contracts?

The reason why I am confident about the 2025 timetable is that the expected bidders in the new medium-lift helicopter programme are expected to bid mature products that have been in production not only in the United Kingdom, but in Europe and around the world. The only negotiation would therefore be around European content and European build and all the other factors that are very important to hon. Members. I am pretty confident about 2025, but it does of course depend on what extras the services want to have added on. On the issue of 10 and 20-year programmes, it is, as hon. Members who have served in the Ministry will know, that if we change the plans half way through, we incur costs or delays. That has been part of the problem for many, many decades, but it does not change the fact that defence procurement programmes are decades long, which has a greater impact than if we were just going out there and buying a car.

If the defence procurement landscape were a bit more positive, we might have some more confidence in the Secretary of State’s reassurances, but 2025 is not far away. Can he prompt the procurement exercise for the new medium-lift helicopter to replace the ageing Puma fleet, or at least clarify the pedestrian progress of this operational priority to date? Multiple “primes”, including Airbus with its 175M and Leonardo, will be looking to compete for this work as well as US contractors. We need to be able to scrutinise these contractors and their bids sooner rather than later to ensure that, no matter who wins this contract, the economic impact is enjoyed across these islands and not simply, for example, in the south-west of England.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He will know from the shipbuilding industry in Scotland that there is a huge benefit for shipbuilding in Govan, Scotstoun and Rosyth. I am very keen to make sure that all the prosperity of the defence pound is spread around the United Kingdom. Lots of jobs are attached to all different types of projects whether they are “primes” or supporting contracts through things such as radar and sonar.

Afghanistan: Inquiry into UK Withdrawal

8. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of an independent inquiry into the UK withdrawal of personnel from Afghanistan. (904129)

The Ministry of Defence has carried out extensive and robust lessons-learned exercises in response to events in Afghanistan, including for Op Pitting, the non-combatant evacuation operation, and those lessons have already been recycled into our NEO plans. It has also done the same with the decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan in the first place. Moreover, numerous inquiries are already taking place across Government to scrutinise both the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and our campaign in Afghanistan more generally, including the inquiry being undertaken by the House of Commons Defence Committee, which the Secretary of State gave evidence to on 26 October.

Does the Minister accept, though, that there is confusion and contradiction in the UK Government’s portrayal of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, with the former Foreign Secretary saying that the Taliban takeover was “faster than anyone anticipated” while the Prime Minister was saying that it had been “clear for many months” that the situation could change quickly? Army personnel faced the heart-breaking task of turning back thousands of Afghan citizens, including many who worked with groups such as the British Council. Surely this House and our constituents have a right to know what went wrong and why. Does the Minister not appreciate that only an independent inquiry can tell us that?

The hon. Lady conflates two issues. The first is the decision-making process around why British forces left Afghanistan. I do not think there is much to unearth there; the Doha agreement that was signed by President Trump put us in a position where a decision would need to be made this year, either to re-engage the Taliban in full-on fighting or to leave. That was the deal that was done, and we have been very clear with the House about that at every opportunity. As for the delivery of Op Pitting itself, I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of what I think was an extraordinarily successful military operation.

I very much agree with the Minister that Op Pitting was a superbly successful operation, no matter what else one might say about Afghanistan. It is only right that we in this House and across the Palace should thank and welcome the people who carried out that operation, and Members of all parties and staff throughout the Palace will be able to do so on Wednesday 24 November, immediately after Prime Minister’s Question Time, when 150 soldiers who carried out that brilliant operation will march through Carriage Gates and halt outside the great north door of Westminster Hall. I hope that all Members will be there to welcome them and thank them for what they did.

I did not spot a question in there, but I think that we are all looking forward to that event as much as my hon. Friend.

There is no question that the bravery and professionalism of UK armed forces personnel certainly got the Government out of a hole when it came to Op Pitting, but one issue that we need an inquiry to look at is why, in May, the French were so much better prepared than the UK to the extent that they commenced evacuating Afghans who supported the French efforts in Afghanistan, along with their families, 90 days before the fall of Kabul. It is quite clear that similar intelligence was available to NATO allies in advance of operations commencing, so what went wrong with the analysis of that intelligence in the United Kingdom? An inquiry must establish whether the UK Government were guilty of rose-tinted assessment, complacency or general dysfunction.

The hon. Gentleman might want to check the date on which the Foreign Office advice to leave Afghanistan was changed to be that, because it was actually very much aligned with the French timeline that he mentioned. From that moment onwards, the resettlement scheme for moving MOD-entitled civilian contractors out of the country had commenced. It is a source of regret, I think, for many who were eligible for the scheme that they chose not to leave at the first opportunity and they waited, but the MOD was not in a position forcibly to remove people from the country. The scheme was open; we were bringing people back. From memory, I think we removed about 1,500 people before Kabul fell. I wish that more had taken the opportunity to leave when the Foreign Office advice was changed, but the Foreign Office advice was changed in a timely way and the MOD capacity to move people was in place from the spring.

Support for Veterans

9. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of support available for veterans throughout the UK. (904131)

The Government are committed to delivering a gold standard of care for our veterans. We have made huge progress in recent years, with tangible benefits such as the veterans railcard, the bespoke mental health care pathway, tax breaks for those employing veterans and guaranteed job interviews for veterans applying to join the civil service. But there is more to do, which is why we are putting the armed forces covenant into law and why I will be announcing the veterans strategy next month.

The Veterans Charity, which is based in North Devon, helps hundreds of veterans across the UK each year, and would like to thank the MOD for supporting its routes of remembrance event, which involved many veterans and service personnel around the nation. The Veterans Charity received many referrals from the excellent Op Courage teams. Will the Minister clarify what plans there are for more comprehensive coverage from this service across North Devon and the south-west, where there are many veterans living in remote areas who need and deserve greater mental health support?

I am pleased to put on record my thanks to the Veterans Charity for its amazing work. I was pleased to contribute to the routes of remembrance event and to dispatch a wreath from Aldershot along with the mayor and garrison commander. We are rightly increasing the budget for Op Courage to more than £20 million this year. An important component of that healthcare is the accreditation of local GPs, so I hope that my hon. Friend is exploring that prospect in North Devon.

Last week it was revealed that hundreds of veterans face pension cuts of up to £600 a year due to computer error, with no right to appeal. As the cost of living rises under this Government, what is the Minister doing to support those ex-forces personnel who now cannot afford basics like heating and food due to administrative incompetence?

I have absolute responsibility for that, and I am liaising closely with Veterans UK to ensure that those people who have served us get the support and encouragement they need.

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

12. What steps his Department is taking to maintain the operation of the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. (904134)

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his question. Our Afghan relocations and assistance policy remains open and a dedicated team at the permanent joint headquarters continue to work with all those eligible to ensure their safe passage to the UK. I recently visited the region to identify what more we can do to support both third-country and in-country applicants, and we are working with a wide range of allies and partners to explore every possible avenue.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response. I appreciate that much of the information around the Government’s support for those in Afghanistan is sensitive, but can he update the House on whether the Government have made an assessment of how many people still in Afghanistan qualify for the scheme and what steps the Government are taking to ensure that they are able to leave safely?

We estimate that about 800 principals plus their families might be eligible to come to the UK through the ARAP route. However, we should be clear that this is a very difficult process that relies entirely at the moment on the co-operation of third countries, and that regulates flow. We are doing our best to get people here in the biggest numbers that we possibly can, but other countries in the region get a vote. That is why all the ministerial team and our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office continue to work hard to maintain those relationships and maintain those permissions.

Afghan interpreters who previously settled in Newport East are still waiting to be reunited with their families who have been stuck in bridging hotels waiting for biometric resident permits for some months now. What are Defence Ministers doing to impress upon Home Office Ministers the need to sort this out?

I meet Home Office Ministers regularly, and so does my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, who is leading on the reception of ARAP personnel within the UK. If the hon. Lady would like to write to him with the detail of the people she is representing, we will make sure that that is passed to Home Office Ministers.

Armed Forces: Technological Capabilities

Defence will invest at least £6.6 billion in research and development over the next four years in areas including space, directed energy weapons, and artificial intelligence. This will help to secure our military edge by ensuring that we can adopt modern technologies at scale and produce game-changing advantage.

With the significant rise in AI being used in defence, what steps are being taken to ensure that there is transparency of calculations that show both an ethical and moral approach to defence?

My hon. Friend asks a very good question that needs to be addressed. I am pleased to confirm that we are producing a defence AI strategy that will cover how we will get an operational advantage. That work is ongoing and it will be published in due course.

Former Service Personnel: Mental Health Services

14. What steps he is taking to improve provision of mental health services for former service personnel. (904137)

21. What steps he is taking to improve provision of mental health services for former service personnel. (904146)

We are committed to providing veterans with a gold standard of support. This year we increased the budget of Op Courage from £17.8 million to more than £20 million. We are committed to supporting third-sector armed forces charities. That is why this year we are putting a record amount of money—£25 million—into that sector.

Yesterday we honoured our armed forces and their incredible service, but we know that this service comes at a cost. Over the past five years, the number of personnel medically discharged due to mental health issues has doubled. We are not offering them enough support. On the commitment of just £20 million a year, Labour has pledged to increase that by £35 million. Will the Minister match that commitment today?

I think we are putting our money where our mouth is, but I make the broader point that it is about reducing stigma around mental health and ensuring that, during service, service people understand that dealing with their mental health is a professional responsibility. That is why we have introduced an annual mandatory mental health care brief. It is very important that service people see mental health as resilience and professional capability. We are trying to change the entire culture around it.

The Government are currently missing a range of targets for the mental health care of veterans, and sadly veterans continue to face a postcode lottery when accessing services. We know that veterans face a wait of 37 days for face-to-face appointments offered through the transition intervention and liaison service, against a target of 14 days. The average wait time for treatment is 70 days, a jump from 57 days in 2018-19. We also know that there was an increase in the wait time for appointments through the complex treatment service—now at 33 days, up from 18 in 2018-19. The Government have missed targets on mental health care for veterans across all services in England. In light of that, will the Minister commit to reviewing these services to ensure that our former serving personnel get the best standards of care?

I do not accept that characterisation from the hon. Member. Op Courage is very successful. Clearly there is always more to do, which is why we are putting more money into it. Importantly, we are putting veterans themselves at the heart of Op Courage as peer support workers.

Veterans mental health services in Wales could be greatly improved if we had a veterans’ commissioner. We are the only nation in the UK not to have one. The UK Government have agreed to create and fund the post, but the Welsh Government have not yet agreed to recognise it and work with it. Will the Minister join me in urging them to do so, so that veterans in Wales can benefit from the same support as their counterparts in the rest of the UK?

I am delighted that we will have an independent veterans’ commissioner in Wales, and I thank my hon. Friend for the campaigning she has done on this. We look forward to positive working with the Welsh Government to ensure a very positive outcome for veterans in Wales.

Topical Questions

In September, I notified the House of data breaches relating to the MOD’s Afghanistan relocations and assistance policy, or ARAP. An internal investigation has now concluded, and I have laid a written ministerial statement of its findings before the House. While the breaches were attributed to human error, they should have been prevented by better operating procedures and training. Significant remedial actions were taken, and I am confident that their application is sufficient to prevent recurrence.

We are not aware of anyone who has come to harm as a result of these breaches, but continue to support all families awaiting relocation to the United Kingdom. As I said earlier, of the 311 ARAP-eligible Afghan families unable to board a flight who had been called forward before the end of Op Pitting, fewer than 200 remain, and we will continue with those relocations. The scale of that task should not be underestimated. More than 89,000 applications have already been received and more than 7,000 people relocated to the UK. I apologise again for the data breaches, recommit to efforts preventing recurrence and thank all those in the MOD whose ongoing work is honouring our debt of gratitude to those Afghan nationals who supported our efforts in the country.

As the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) referred to earlier, and may well be planning to refer to again in a few minutes, we have seen report after report from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee highlighting the fact that the Ministry of Defence does not have an adequately funded and affordable equipment programme. It has weaknesses in its management of major defence projects. There is not even a proper funding mechanism to match the long-term nature of the contracts. This is causing delays in critically important frontline equipment. How much longer will it be before our service personnel can guarantee that they will always be equipped with the best equipment available?

I understand the hon. Member’s concern, but I say to him first that we will publish our equipment programme soon, and that it is not the case that the projects are unfunded—that is an incorrect assertion. Like him, I am absolutely determined to get to grips with some of the issues. That is why we took some decisions to cancel or not proceed with programmes. We took some tough decisions to ensure that the equipment programme is affordable. It is also why the Prime Minister gave us a record capital departmental expenditure limit settlement for our equipment programme, to ensure that we can deliver the equipment for our forces.

Hello, it’s me again.

I will gladly take the Secretary of State up on his offer of a meeting about procurement, but there is an old Army saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is broke—it is official. This is the worst report on MOD procurement in living memory, Ben. We both know it is, so can we please do something about it and put it right?

I understand my right hon. Friend’s frustration; I am equally frustrated. He will know from his time in the Department that one of the biggest challenges was that people’s appetites often outstretched their pockets. We also have to adapt to threats when they change, and that causes an impact, as do things such as dollar fluctuations. There are a lot of factors in complicated procurement, but that is not to say that we do not need a lot of things to go right. I would be delighted to talk to him about some of the simple changes that could make a big difference.

The other issue is ensuring that Ministers are on top of all the detail, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement is on that detail and ensuring that we get a grip of this. It is also about having not part-time but dedicated senior responsible officers—I am not sure why no one has done that for decades. We should then hold those people more responsible.

I was disappointed to get the Defence Secretary’s written ministerial statement on the ARAP data breach and general update just before I left for these questions in the Chamber, which was too late to put to him the many concerns felt on all sides of the House. It should have been an oral statement. I hope that he will consider making such a statement.

The Defence Secretary has pledged to assist investigations into the grave allegations about the murder of Agnes Wanjiru in Kenya nine years ago by a British solider. Why has he not launched an MOD inquiry into the separate serious allegations that the killing was an open secret in the regiment and that senior officers suppressed the information?

While I have not opened a formal investigation, I have absolutely asked the question of the Army to get the bottom of what happened with the original allegations and where we got with that. At the same time, I am respecting the judicial process. The right hon. Member and I will know that we can comment only so far on what is ongoing with that incident and others that appear in the service justice scheme, or indeed on any foreign assistance required.

T3. Will the Minister provide some clarity on the future of the RAF Linton-on-Ouse base? As well as having played an important role in defence of the realm, it is a key part of the local economy, yet local residents are still unclear about its future and the MOD’s plans for its disposal. Some months after a previous request for information, we are still at a loss. (904149)

I assure my hon. Friend that, as he is aware, there is no longer a military requirement for RAF Linton-on-Ouse. The timing of the site’s disposal is under active consideration. There will be an announcement and I will write to him as soon as it is made. I expect to do so shortly.

T10. Scientists for Global Responsibility estimates that the world’s militaries combined contribute 6% of all global carbon emissions, and they have been left off the negotiating agenda of successive United Nations framework convention on climate change conferences of the parties. Will the Government work to ensure that military missions are included in next year’s COP27? (904156)

I cannot comment on that, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as I think he is aware, the MOD looks seriously at that area. In March, we published our sustainability strategy, and we are regarded as a leader in NATO for our work on reducing emissions in military operations. We want to be best in class—that is what we are working towards—and I hope that we will see a further reduction in our carbon emissions in the years to come.

T4. Last week, the Royal Marines commando training centre in Lympstone in East Devon officially opened a new £10 million state-of-the-art building to rehabilitate recruits who have been injured during training. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Royal Marines, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and contractors on creating this superb facility for our brave armed forces? I cannot wait to visit it. (904150)

I certainly do congratulate the Royal Marines on this magnificent new facility. I am delighted that this 181-bed block for the rehabilitation of trainees was completed on budget and ahead of schedule. I am really impressed, and I think that does real justice to the magnificent fighting spirit of the Royal Marines.

This June, in Swansea, the British Training Board opened the national armed forces training hub, supported by the Welsh Government, the local authority and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, which provides a full career development programme to veterans, with university qualifications. Does the Minister agree that, thanks to organisations such as the BTB, the majority of service personnel go on to fantastic careers in civilian life? What more can be done to provide our personnel during their military training with the complete range of universally recognised life skills that they need?

What we can do is ensure is that when someone gets a military qualification, it has civilian equivalents. We are doing that, and that is important because military service does give people skills for life.

T6. Heywood-based charity Veterans into Logistics has had great success in ensuring that service leavers have the necessary skills and qualifications to take advantage of excellent paying jobs in the local economy. Does my hon. Friend agree that service leavers have a unique skillset that will be essential to ensuring our continued recovery from covid, and will he agree to meet Veterans into Logistics to see how the work it has done could be applied to other service leavers around the country? (904152)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and Veterans into Logistics. He is right: military service does give people skills for life, and I was very pleased recently to announce an increase in the number of HGV licence places for service leavers.

The Secretary of State knows that lots of armed forces personnel have suffered brain injuries while they have been on active service. The temptation is always to try to deal with that solely within the Ministry of Defence, but when they leave the services they often have to rely on the Department of Health and Social Care, local government and many other Departments of Government, so is it not time that we had a whole-Government strategy for dealing with acquired brain injury? The good news for the Secretary of State—I am sure he will be answering now I have said that—is that he will be able to join the campaign for a whole-Government approach to acquired brain injury by supporting my Acquired Brain Injury Bill on 3 December.

First, I would be absolutely delighted not only to talk to the hon. Member about this, but to look at his Bill. He is right: obviously some of these brain injuries are with people for life. We should therefore make sure that they are managed when they leave service and are dealt with outside, and make sure that that is a seamless changeover. I would be very happy to look at the Bill, and he can explain the details to me.

T7. The port of Falmouth has a history of long association with the Royal Navy and is regularly home to Royal Navy vessels, including the greenest vessel, HMS Tamar. As such, this relationship provides a significant contribution to the Cornish marine sector and the local economy in Falmouth. Can my hon. Friend assure me that Falmouth will benefit from this Government’s record investment in our defence programme? (904153)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Falmouth has always had a vital role in the defence of the UK. A&P Falmouth’s in-service support contract, awarded in 2018, is worth some £239 million over 10 years. Given our strong investment in the Royal Navy, to which she referred, I have no doubt there will be future opportunities.

Can the Secretary of State tell me, first, what contact he has had with the Home Office regarding the murder of Agnes Wanjiru to ensure that at least there has been effective monitoring of a man accused of murdering a woman? An answer from his Department last week stated:

“At present, the sexual exploitation of any person is not recorded as an offence in its own right”.

Can he explain why not, and can he tell the House when it will be an offence for a British soldier to partake in the sexual exploitation of prostituted adults?

The hon. Lady will know that, where a judicial investigation by another police force is going on, we stand ready to support and help them, and we do that. I cannot give this House a running commentary on any investigation for fear of jeopardising that investigation. What I can say to her is that not only have I said that our support is available, but I have even, on a similar type of investigation, told the provost marshal that if there were any barriers I would seek to remove them. I am determined to make sure that both legacy or older investigations and indeed investigations into current offences get all the support we can give—we have extra members of the military police in Kenya to make sure of that—but I cannot give her a running commentary.

On the hon. Lady’s other issue, about exploitation, I have made clear, first, the points about respect for women overall; secondly, that there are already some sanctions in place in the armed forces should people go against that; and, thirdly, that I am absolutely looking at the whole section about prostitution and the exploitation of women.

While an aircraft carrier is the ultimate expression of hard power, does the Secretary of State agree with me that the soft power expressed by HMS Queen Elizabeth and the carrier strike group, through strengthening relationships and reassuring old friends and new friends alike, shows global Britain in action? [Interruption.]

I love listening to Scottish National party Members heckle, when they cannot even run the Ferguson yards and commission their own ships.

The carrier strike group has not only visited and worked with over 44 nations on its tour, but has had visits from 63 Ministers. It is great convenor and a great presence that, made in Britain, definitely does go around the world showing that Britain can do both soft and hard power, and do it with quality.

Prior to entering Parliament I worked for the Career Transition Partnership at its Scottish resettlement centre and saw the vital work done in assisting service personnel prepare for civilian life through training, needs assessment and care support. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that funding for such resettlement programmes does not fall in the period covered by the spending review?

We provide support for resettlement for two priors to the end of people’s service and for two years after. That is a very important component of our offer to service people.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the new AUKUS partnership will not only help keep our people safe by preserving security and stability in the Indo-Pacific but will also help deliver this Government’s ambitions to level-up across the whole United Kingdom, including through the creation of hundreds of jobs in Scotland?

I very much hope so. We spend over £20 billion a year on UK defence and over 10% of that goes to Scotland. We have increased the number of direct Scottish defence jobs by a fifth over the last three years, and that goes right the way across Scotland including Score Marine in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Other opportunities will arise over the next few years and AUKUS is a great basis for the future, not only for defence but for our joint security and for prosperity.

At his last outing before the Defence Committee, the Minister for Defence Procurement would not give a commitment that the future solid support ships would be built in Britain; he just said that the integration would take place here. Can he say today what percentage of the content of those vessels will be UK-sourced to protect not just jobs but technology in the UK?

As I recall, I said we expected a substantial amount of that build to be in the UK, and as the right hon. Gentleman well knows I cannot go much further on an ongoing procurement process.

Hightown barracks in Wrexham is the spiritual home of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Ten years ago it was destined to be a housing estate but now it contains the Defence Mental Health Clinic, a reserve field detachment, cadets, a preparation college, support for transport and an inspiring anti-tank company. So will the Secretary of State agree to visit the barracks with me and thank Colonel Nick Lock and his team?

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is the hon. Lady’s birthday, and I am not sure if she would think it a birthday present or not but I will be delighted to visit it with her.

Thousands of disabled war veterans are being denied the compensation and support they need and are entitled to, so will the Secretary of State say how many people are waiting over a year for a tribunal decision on a war pension or an armed forces compensation scheme appeal, and if he does not know the details, will he write to me?