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Topical Questions

Volume 703: debated on Monday 15 November 2021

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?