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Topical Questions

Volume 706: debated on Monday 10 January 2022

Colleagues across the House are right to voice their concern about Russia’s ongoing aggression towards Ukraine. While we are hopeful for a positive outcome from this week’s diplomatic efforts, we are preparing for all eventualities.

May I associate myself with the tributes to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington?

Time and again during this pandemic our armed forces have stepped up, whether by building hospitals like the new Nightingale in central Manchester, delivering vital supplies or getting jabs into arms, and they are now doing it again by supporting our world-leading booster programme. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that we should thank them for their amazing service and encourage everybody to get that booster?

My hon. Friend points out the other job that Defence does, which is building this country’s resilience wherever one may be in the United Kingdom. It is always important to remember that our armed forces have a day job—a main job—of defending our country. When we are out of this national crisis and pandemic, it will be important to look at making sure that other people step up to cover. In the long term Defence personnel are always there, whether for floods, pandemic or other threats, and they will continue to be so. That is why it was important that we put soldiers and sailors at the heart of our Defence Command Paper.

Today’s US-Russia talks in Geneva start a critical week of dialogue over Ukraine. I assure the Secretary of State that we fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a defensive alliance, it is clear that it is not NATO’s but Russia’s actions that are dangerously escalating the current tensions. What leading role is the UK playing to ensure that any agreement on the talks is fully co-ordinated with NATO and with European allies?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. I will continue to work with him, and the Leader of the Opposition, to ensure that he is kept informed as much as we can on the situation. That goes for the Scottish National party as well. I have personally been to Ukraine five or six times in my time as Security Minister and Defence Secretary. The lessons of Afghanistan are that as we move together, whether as NATO or as a coalition, we will continue to work with—

Order. Topicals are meant to be short, quick and effective. I cannot get through the list if we are going to take them as normal questions.

T2. The Future Soldier programme has delivered significant investment for Wales, not least the extremely welcome decision to keep Brecon barracks open. May I invite the Secretary of State to come to Brecon and visit the home of the Army in Wales so that he can see the operational significance of the barracks? (904845)

I think my right hon. Friend will do so. I have been to Brecon previously with my hon. Friend, who has campaigned relentlessly to retain the barracks, and I was delighted to confirm that that would be the case. It is the right decision for the Army, for Wales and indeed for Brecon.

The Minister made a welcome concession at the end of the debate on the Armed Forces Act 2021 to publish data about investigations and prosecutions. What will the Government do if the conviction rate for one or more of these serious crimes is concerningly low? Will they reconsider their approach? What impact does the Minister think the Act has had on meeting the target of 30% of Army recruits being female by 2030, particularly given that the current trends mean that that target will not be met until 2063?

The steps we have taken on judicial oversight, the Judge Henriques review of the service justice system and implementing the Lyons and Murphy reviews mean that we are confident that the changes we have made to the service justice system mean that cases will be better investigated, there will be a better quality of law and that justice is delivered. We are also continuing the work we are doing under Air Chief Marshal Wigston’s review to make sure it is a better environment for women to serve in.

T3. We clearly face heightened risk and instability on multiple fronts. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on our readiness to deal with multiple potential flashpoints in different arenas simultaneously? (904846)

My hon. Friend is right. In anticipation of those training situations, the Defence Command Paper in March and “The Integrated Operating Concept 2025”, which preceded it, put in place measures to ensure that our Army is more ready, more forward and more deployable than it has ever been before, because speed and readiness are the one of the best ways to deter our adversaries.

T4. I am proud to have Erskine veterans home in my constituency. I am also proud of the Scottish Government’s veterans fund and their appointment of a Veterans Commissioner. Does the Minister not feel that that should be replicated elsewhere on these isles to ensure that the veterans community are properly represented in decisions taken affecting their welfare? (904847)

T6. Strengthening our defence relationships in the Indo-Pacific will be essential to help maintain peace and stability in the region. In that regard, what are we doing to strengthen our defence relationship with Japan? (904850)

As my hon. Friend might be aware, we recently announced a closer working relationship with Japan on elements of the future combat air system programme. That followed on from talks that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I had last September in Tokyo. The Japanese Government and we see a lot of benefit in working together on defence equipment programmes.

T5. We now know that on 25 October, the RAF carried out a targeted drone killing in Syria. Is that not a major shift in policy? Why was Parliament not informed? When will the Secretary of State set out the legal basis and criteria for that strike? (904849)

Periodically we come to this House—either myself or the Foreign Secretary—to update the House overall on Op Shader, and we periodically inform the House of all strikes we make. If it has not happened yet, it will happen very soon through the Cabinet Office.

The Department is investing in emerging technologies around the country as part of the defence supply chain. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the next generation of armed forces personnel, including those at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, are trained to take advantage of them?

I thank my hon. Friend for the question. We have more than 1,000 science, technology, engineering and mathematics—or STEM—representatives. We ensure that about 90% of all non-commissioned roles have the opportunity to take apprenticeships, which go right the way across new areas of skills, including STEM skills. That includes the outstanding Harrogate College. From memory, part of the syllabus includes space, autonomy and cyber. We are ensuring that we are absolutely at the cutting edge.

T8. The rise of terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa is continuing and poses a strategic threat to the United Kingdom. In that context—given that the United States is probably downgrading sub-Saharan Africa, and only France is totally committed—what actions will the UK take to bring our allies together on this issue? (904852)

I am not sure I will accept that characterisation of the US position. I thought Secretary Blinken’s speech in Abuja was very encouraging. The UK is committed in east, west and southern Africa, against not just the rise of violent extremism, which concerns us enormously, but also increasingly how our competitors and adversaries are using countries to develop their influence. We see that as a bad thing in the long term, and we are seeking to counter it.

If the closure of RAF Halton gets the go ahead—frankly, I do not think it should—the largest town in Hertfordshire will have no military capability on its boundaries. Is there any way we can have a reserve capability—we need the reserves as we go forward—at RAF Halton for the Army and the RAF?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have asked to look again at that and some of the rebasing options.

I thank the Minister for Defence Procurement for his letter on the Navy’s special purpose vehicle and the changes he has made to the procurement process, but that will not get us away from the fact that the money has to be spent by March, which means that the vessel will be built or procured from a Dutch company, Damen. Why is he not backing British industry? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said, this is a £10 million contract that will go to a Dutch yard, rather than be spent in the UK.

The right hon. Gentleman has already decided how our competition will end, which is unwise. We have multiple potential providers of a vessel that needs already to have been built, so we are going through a buying process and we will see how that procurement exercise ends.

May I commend my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement for the care that he is taking in dealing with the challenges of the Ajax contract, and for the transparency with which he is keeping the House up to date with the problems? Does he agree that the production contract, which was entered into in 2014, was characterised by transferring risk to the contractor? Had we followed the practice of the previous Labour Government, trumpeted by the shadow Secretary of State, the risk would have stayed with the Ministry of Defence and the taxpayer.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Had this been like the Nimrod situation, where £3.7 billion was wasted by the previous Government and they attempted to blame it on us, that would have been where we are, but we are not; we have a firm-price contract with General Dynamics.

Redford barracks in my constituency has had another stay of execution to 2025. As the UK Government seem unmoved by arguments for retaining the defence estate in Scotland, will the Minister consider transferring the land at Redford to the City of Edinburgh Council so as to offset some of the economic impact of the closure of the barracks?

The hon. and learned Lady fails to recognise that we have already moved the 51st Brigade headquarters to Redford, so large parts of the barracks will be retained. Also, Glencorse barracks, which was due to be reduced, will be retained and increased on that site. The investment going into Scotland, through new bases or by securing existing bases, is incredibly important.

From foot and mouth disease to floods and the pandemic, our armed forces have always stepped up in civilian emergencies, but the lesson has always been that this needs to be done as early as possible. Given recent experiences with Storm Arwen, does my hon. Friend agree that measures need to be put in place across all levels of Government so that the armed forces can be deployed in civilian emergencies locally, strategically and quickly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do have those mechanisms already, with liaison officers in every local resilience forum. The armed forces do an amazing job, whether responding to flooding or, indeed, delivering 521,700 jabs last month alone as part of the booster programme.

As a fellow trade unionist, Jack Dromey was a dear friend. His final fight in this place was for Afghan refugees, 13,000 of whom are languishing in hotels—not exactly a warm welcome. Can the Defence Secretary say exactly how he is deploying the defence estate and Annington Homes to ensure that we home these refugees?

The hon. Member makes a very important point. I ask all Members of this House to reach out to their local authorities, because a lot of local authorities’ words have not been matched by action. I have made available nearly 500 married quarters to those individuals. Of course, very few local authorities were prepared to take up the available married quarters in which to place the refugees. It is important that we all get our local authorities to pull together alongside the rest of the Government.