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Defence

Volume 706: debated on Monday 10 January 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Pay

May I open by associating myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, about the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington? We express our deepest sympathy to the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and their entire family.

Armed forces pay remains competitive. Indeed, in 2021 approximately 35,000 service personnel earning less than £24,000 received a £250 consolidated pay uplift because, despite the public sector pay freeze, we are mindful of protecting the lowest earners in the armed forces during the public sector pay pause.

May I start by offering my condolences to the family of our hon. Friend, Jack Dromey, and in particular to our colleague, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham? Our thoughts are with her at this time.

Since 2010, many armed forces personnel have experienced a dramatic real-terms decrease in pay, some by as much as 6.5%. With the cost of living increasing dramatically and personnel struggling to stay afloat financially, will the Minister now lift the pay freeze and restore pay to at least the levels of a decade ago, when his party came to power?

When considering armed forces pay, it is very important to look at it in the round. Service personnel benefit from subsidised food and accommodation, a fantastic non-contributory pension, and allowances on top of basic pay. If I may say, it is a little bit rich getting lessons on armed forces pay from the SNP, given that it has hiked tax on service personnel in Scotland to the tune of £580 per person. It is just as well that the Ministry of Defence is making up the difference.

I am very sad about the loss of Jack. I had known him since we both served together—him for the unions, me for the military—in Northern Ireland a long time ago.

Private soldiers, able seamen and aircraftsmen, after six months’ training and in accordance with the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body, get roughly £3,000 to £4,000 less than a policeman who is also trained for about six months. That seems weird and I ask the Minister if he might slightly account for that.

As I said, we have to take note of the fact that service personnel benefit very significantly from subsidised food and accommodation, a non-contributory pension and allowances. Many young soldiers are also taking advantage of the opportunity to get on to the property ladder through the Forces Help to Buy scheme, which has been a great success.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for what you said about Jack Dromey; his loss is felt by all of us across the House.

I take on board what the Minister said about pay below £24,000, but being as tough as it is for all those people, we think that that is inadequate. Moreover, is he aware that there are huge pressures in terms of the retention of more senior staff, particularly in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force? The gap between what they can earn in the private sector and what they currently earn in the Navy and Air Force, and how much their skills are in demand, are really affecting the ability to retain important members of staff.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is why we offer some technical bonuses. We are also initiating a strategic review of terms and conditions and reward and incentivisation to ensure that we can compete with the private sector.

UK Defence Jobs

May I pay tribute on behalf of the Cabinet and the Government to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey)? We are sorry for his loss and our condolences are with his family. I shall remember Jack with his trademark mac that he often wore—he never changed it—and for his well-crafted arguments often against the Government, but nevertheless making strong and powerful points.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics recorded Ministry of Defence support to over 200,000 jobs in UK industry. Further economic growth and prosperity, including jobs, across the Union will be underpinned by £188 billion of investment in defence over four years and this Government’s commitment to a deeper and more strategic relationship with industry, as part of the defence and security industrial strategy.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. There is great interest in north Wales in the opportunity that the new medium helicopter programme could bring to the region. Will he provide an update on the progress made by his Department ahead of the launch of a formal competition?

Last November, we held a successful market interest day with potential suppliers to discuss requirements for our new medium helicopter programme. Hopefully, by February, we shall start the process of the competition.

As my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), mentioned, the new helicopter programme could be significant in north-east Wales and generate around 400 jobs at Airbus directly, should its bid be successful. Will the Secretary of State confirm when the process is scheduled to be completed and when he expects the helicopters to come into service afterwards?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Whoever wins this competition, it is important that they contribute to the prosperity and job opportunities for UK citizens wherever they may be. I am not interested in “here today, gone tomorrow” suppliers for this. We want to enhance British industry and make sure that these helicopters are properly made and put together in this country. Once the competition is complete, we hope to have the medium-lift helicopters in service from the middle of this decade.

I was pleased to read last week of a new five-year, £460 million logistics contract that has been issued which should deliver the MOD £54 million of efficiency savings a year. Will the Secretary of State outline what the new logistics information system will mean for jobs in the UK, and specifically, jobs in the east midlands?

My hon. Friend highlights an important part of the capability in which we need to invest. Our logistics information system contract will support vital services for another five years and ensure that the UK can rapidly deploy military personnel and equipment globally. He will be pleased to hear that the contract will sustain 675 jobs across the UK supply chain and benefit the whole country, including through jobs at companies with a presence in the east midlands, such as IBM in Nottingham.

As joint chair of the all-party group on manufacturing, I know that Jack Dromey would have appreciated the emphasis today on manufacturing and UK jobs. The national shipbuilding strategy sets out an ambition to support UK manufacturing by boosting innovation, skills, jobs and productivity across the UK, in addition to ensuring the construction of ships’ hulls in British shipyards using British-sourced steel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that every encouragement will be given to UK-based companies to add to the UK content of these new vessels by supplying the systems and equipment that go hand in hand with them?

The 2017 national shipbuilding strategy has been highly successful at supporting our UK naval shipbuilding industry. I wish to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are working hard to ensure that the UK producers of steel, and the wider UK shipbuilding supply chain, have the best possible chance of competing for contracts—including General Electric, from his constituency. The refresh of the national shipbuilding strategy is due for publication—we hope that this will be by the end of this month.

Can I bring the Secretary of State back to planet Earth—or planet MOD? He has just mentioned GE at Rugby, but the MOD took no interest when its American parent company in Philadelphia wanted to move production to France; similarly, there was no interest in ensuring that the fleet solid support ships are built in the UK using British steel. Every other major industrial country and major defence country looks after their own industry. Why will he not throw off the blinkers and actually do the same here in the UK?

Oh dear. I think the right hon. Gentleman has not even read the defence industrial strategy, where it is very clear that we have committed to enhancing sovereignty. He will know, because he has watched the solid support ship contract with great interest, that we have also classified those ships as warships and started that competition. It is incredibly important that we recognise that, first and foremost, this Government are going to do more, and have done more, to enhance British shipbuilding than any other Government for many, many years, including the one he was a member of.

May I start by thanking the Defence Secretary and you, Mr Speaker, for the words about Jack Dromey? On this side, we mourn deeply his very sad and sudden death. He touched everyone he worked with—everyone has a proud or affectionate Jack Dromey story—and our House and our politics are the poorer without him this week.

Turning to the question, there are indeed 300,000 UK defence jobs, many linked to MOD contracts. Why have the National Audit Office and the MOD’s own accounts officially confirmed 67 cases of overspends, write-offs, contract cancellations, unplanned extensions and admin errors since 2010, costing at least £13 billion in taxpayers’ money wasted since 2010? Those are only the published data—they are the tip of the iceberg—so will the Secretary of State now commission the NAO to conduct an across-the-board audit of MOD waste, as Labour in government would from day one?

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of the contents of Labour’s dodgy dossier on defence procurement, which are a fascinating read. They include allocating the loss on Nimrod, which the Labour party had governed for 13 years, to a Conservative Government and the fact that the Labour party had estimated that aircraft carriers would cost only £2.7 billion when in fact they cost over £6 billion. Considerable amounts of the so-called “waste” in the dossier show a breathtaking misunderstanding of both accountancy and how things operate when it comes to procurement. Retiring an aircraft last year that was due to retire in 2015—the Sentinel—does not make it a write-off or a waste; it is getting rid of a piece of equipment that is no longer value for money in delivering what we need to deliver. If he wishes to become the future Defence Secretary, I suggest he takes a course in accountancy first.

The Sentinel was, of course, retired before the replacement E-7 Wedgetails were ready, so the MOD rightly accounted for £147 million in constructive loss in its accounts. However, £4 billion has been wasted since 2019 alone, since the Secretary of State has been in post, and the National Audit Office has judged the MOD’s accounts for the defence equipment plan “unaffordable” every year for the last four years. It has said that there is a budget black hole of up to £17 billion. The Secretary of State has taken no serious action to deal with these deep-seated problems. He is failing British forces, and failing British taxpayers.

Desperate!

Let us start with the first point. The Sentinel is not an early-warning radar, which the E-7 Wedgetail is. If we are going to say that I retired one platform capability and replaced it with another, let us try to make sure that we replace it with the right type of capability, otherwise someone will be flying the wrong plane in the wrong place at the wrong time—but then I suppose we should not really be very surprised by Labour.

I entirely understand the NAO’s observations. There are, absolutely, a great many things to put right, and in putting them right, yes, we cancel programmes that we cannot afford, yes, we retire capabilities that should have been retired previously, because that is called putting your house in order. Otherwise, we end up with an NAO ruling that

“The MoD has a multi-billion-pound budgetary black hole which it is trying to fix with a ‘save now, pay later’ approach.”

That was the NAO’s report on the Labour Government in 2009, and the “pay later” is what we are now living with.

I endorse everything that both Front Benchers said about Jack Dromey, but not everything that followed.

The Secretary of State and I have crossed swords before about procurement. As he knows, the Public Accounts Committee said that the system was broken. He kindly offered me a meeting last time we discussed this in the House, and he kept his word: he generously gave me an hour of his time, and we discussed it in detail. Following that, is there anything he would like to say to the House today about his plans to reform procurement in the Ministry of Defence?

As I have said, there are observations about defence procurement in all the NAO reports and also in those of Select Committees of both Houses, and it has been a running sore for many years. We have to fix some of those issues. The Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), has come to the House time and again to talk about and expose the issues relating to Ajax, and has been honest and clear about the problems that we need to put right. I discussed with my right hon. Friend the need to ensure that our pricing estimates and the quality of our contracts are correct, so that risk is held in the right place. Both those issues are incredibly important. We also need a change in the culture of optimism bias: sometimes people want to gold-plate things when the good will do, rather than the perfect.

In 2010, when this Government came to power, there were three main RAF bases in Scotland, at Kinloss, Lossiemouth and Leuchars. Now there is only one. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many jobs were lost to Scotland as a result of the RAF draw-downs inflicted on it by Westminster, and, two years on from the Government’s own target of 12,500 personnel to be stationed in Scotland by 2020, will he also tell us how much that target has been missed by, as of today?

It is correct that there is one RAF base now—in Lossiemouth. However, we are increasing the footprint up there, because we will base the E-7 there alongside the P-8, and it is home to some Typhoon aircraft as well. So there have been increases in some areas. We have replaced the RAF base at Leuchars with Army units, and we will put another unit there as well. Overall, the proportion of the Army that is based in Scotland has increased since “Army 2030”.

Devonport is the UK’s premier naval base and dockyard. Will the Secretary of State present plans to recycle the 13 rotting nuclear submarines that are tied up alongside it? That would not only be good for the environment but good for Devonport, freeing up dock space, and good for jobs as well.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for drawing attention to the importance of Plymouth. I have asked our Submarine Delivery Agency and, indeed, the Navy to present plans for investing in its infrastructure, which has suffered for too many decades from a lack of investment because people want the more “sexy” show capabilities rather than the things that underpin keeping our forces ready and fit for battle.

My right hon. Friend’s Department has announced that the Alanbrooke barracks in my constituency, which proudly hosts the 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, will close in 2031. Can my right hon. Friend identify any possible other military uses for that base? Alternatively, will he work urgently with the local authority to ensure that the obvious redevelopment opportunities are taken up as quickly as possible?

I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss all opportunities to make use of that space.

Ajax Programme: Cost

As reported by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority in July 2021, the budgeted cost of Ajax is £6.354 billion to manufacture the vehicle and bring it to full operating capability and for its first period of service. Forecasts are updated twice yearly and our current forecast is that we will deliver under budget at £5.915 billion, though that is subject to change. That includes our £5.5 billion firm contract with General Dynamics.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the short tribute to our comrade Jack Dromey.

The latest document on Ajax is enough to make anyone weep. It points to an alphabet soup of accountabilities and a saga of poor procurement, and says that the vehicle thus far is not fit for purpose. And of course it has been a health and safety minefield. This project matters for our military capability and for the 4,000-strong workforce in south Wales and across the UK. In his December statement, the Minister ended on an optimistic note when responding to a question about the workforce from my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones). Can the Minister give us the expected timeline for fixing these issues?

The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that I sounded an upbeat note in terms of the jobs in south Wales. We were right to commission the report. It was a thorough report and I believe it was right to publish it so that this House knew exactly where we stood on Ajax. On the question of employment, there are some 4,100 jobs across the country in 230 companies, and the programme is particularly important to south Wales. I was upbeat to the extent that I believe that we must work together with General Dynamics to fix this issue. We have now received a draft report from Millbrook, as I outlined in my last statement, and there is work to be done on that. We may not really get to grips with that until July, but progress is being made. Certainly I believe that the independent work that General Dynamics is doing in Horiba-Mira and elsewhere can resolve these issues. We need to test that very carefully, but we have invested very heavily in this project, it is an important capability and we are determined to make it work if we possibly can.

I would also like to express my condolences on the loss of Jack Dromey, who made his maiden speech the same day that I made mine. I was very fond of him.

I have no doubt that some of the procurement processes that were inherited from the last Labour Government led to some of the flaws in the Ajax programme. I say that because it is emblematic of a catalogue of wasteful decisions such as the selling off of the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar in 2009 for £3 million when it had reportedly been valued at £52 million. Could the Minister please assure me that the MOD’s procurement and disposal decisions, such as that involving Fort Blockhouse at Gosport, will maximise the benefit for the taxpayer and for local communities?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her elevation; that is good to see. She refers to the approval process for Ajax, which was indeed under the last Labour Administration. I think it passed maingate business approval in March 2010, around the same time that the National Audit Office was pointing out the multi-billion pound black hole that the Labour party was leaving in Defence at the time. I do not believe that Fort Blockhouse will be disposed of until 2023, so there is time to get it right. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend if that is helpful.

I join other voices in expressing my own sadness at the loss of our colleague Jack Dromey. Jack was someone who committed his entire life to improving the lot of others. He was, and is, an example to us all.

Last month, the Government’s own report found that Ministers were in the dark about the serious issues surrounding Ajax for a whole two years before the current Minister was informed in 2020. During that time, soldiers were put in a vehicle that could cause harm. What new measures have been put in place to ensure that Ministers are fully on top of what is going on in their Department?

There is a whole raft of measures. I have met the hon. Gentleman and he is aware from reading the report of what has been set out. We immediately accepted the vast majority of recommendations. There are about two recommendations that need to be worked on, but the intent is there and our intent is to adopt them. One of the most important aspects is to make certain that all people with a view on safety are part of the decision making process, so that everyone with a view has an opportunity to air it and everyone is listened to with respect. We are also putting health and safety input into the highest ranks of the decision making process, so that major decisions cannot be made, either by Ministers or by other parts of the organisation, without that health and safety input right at the top of the organisation. These measures will help to ensure that such a situation does not reoccur.

Relocation from Afghanistan

4. What steps his Department is taking to support the relocation of (a) vulnerable Afghans and (b) British nationals from Afghanistan. (904822)

Clearly the movement of any vulnerable Afghan or British national from Afghanistan to the UK requires the co-operation of a third country. In the UK’s case, this has mostly been through Pakistan and we are very grateful to our friends in Islamabad for working with us. More than 2,000 people have come to the UK since the end of Operation Pitting, and we continue to work with partners in the region to facilitate the exit of more, through more routes.

It is worth noting that the last speech Jack made to the House of Commons was on this very subject of standing by our friends in Afghanistan.

Given the unhealthy closeness of ties between parts of the Pakistani state and the Afghan Taliban, what assurances and assistance will the Minister give to Afghans in hiding in Pakistan, who may have been issued with UK visas, that they will not be deported back to Afghanistan by the Pakistani authorities when they present themselves at an airport, instead of being permitted to fly to the United Kingdom?

My right hon. Friend will know that we are flirting with operational detail that may be best kept private, but he and all colleagues should reassure those with whom they are in touch that everybody who has arrived in Pakistan with the correct paperwork has been facilitated by the British high commission to leave the country successfully. The challenge, as he might expect, is for those who do not have papers, which is a very live conversation not just with Islamabad but with our friends in other capitals around the region.

I fear this may be a red herring, inasmuch as indefinite leave to remain is an automatic part of the ARAP scheme. More than 5,000 ARAP-eligible personnel were brought out during Operation Pitting, and around 1,100 of the 2,000 who have come out since are also ARAPers. About another 150 or so ARAP principals from the original cohort who actually worked for us and were approved during Operation Pitting are left in Afghanistan, and we continue to work to bring them out. Of course, we are getting applications all the time. The ARAP entitlement is absolute and is not time limited. We will bring out anybody eligible who applies.

Ukraine: Territorial Integrity

The Ministry of Defence has a long-standing relationship with our Ukrainian counterparts, and we continue to provide support in many areas including security assistance and defence reform. Since 2015, the UK has helped to build the resilience and capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces through Operation Orbital, which has trained over 22,000 Ukrainian troops.

Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the memorandum of implementation between Ukraine and the United Kingdom to build up naval capacity and naval bases?

It became very clear after 2014 that Ukraine had lost large parts of its navy to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, and it is important to help Ukraine build up and sustain a naval capability. We have continued to invest in that, and last year we signed not only an MOI but an agreement to sell naval patrol boats with weapons systems to the Ukrainian Government.

I associate myself with the comments about Jack Dromey.

Does my right hon. Friend share my gratitude to the excellent staff at Permanent Joint Headquarters at Northwood in my constituency for their superb leadership and focus on our overseas operations?

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to staff at PJHQ. Both civilian and military staff constantly work around the clock to deliver a whole range of international operations and, in terms of the frontline, are always ready and prepared to deploy to wherever we need in the world, including in Ukraine.

It has been suggested that our support for Ukraine might include the provision of weapons systems. Is that true?

As I have said, in June last year, we entered into an agreement with Ukraine to supply eight fast ships equipped with modern weapons systems. That was a significant agreement as it affirmed the UK’s openness to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons systems as well as training, and that principle remains.

May I thank the House for the kind words about our friend, Jack Dromey? He is a loss to my party, to the wider Labour movement, and, indeed, to Parliament.

The threats made to Ukraine are part of a wider pattern of behaviour by Russia, ranging from Belarus to the Balkans, to test NATO and the west. We also have to tackle Russian misinformation, as it is a huge tool in President Putin’s arsenal and has been used to devastating effect against our allies. What steps are the Government considering taking to counter that huge problem, along with other grey zone attacks?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The false narrative is that, somehow, NATO is surrounding Ukraine, when only one 16th of Russia’s border is shared with a NATO member. It is also a false narrative to say that NATO, as some sort of single entity, looks to expansion. People seek to join NATO often as a result of other issues. The question for the Kremlin is why so many countries have sought that membership.

On what I am doing to counter that information, I think we all have a role to play. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged the media, and I will continue to do so as well. This House had an extremely good debate on the subject, and I listened to many Members’ speeches. I urge anyone who has not read the debate, to read it. It is important to call out the false playbook. I also urge right hon. and hon. Members to read the article written by President Putin himself in July last year in which he exposes his real views towards the people of Ukraine.

Lots of people spoke in the debate last Thursday about the hybrid warfare that Putin is effectively waging against the west at the moment. Is the Secretary of State for Defence convinced that the UK is doing enough to tackle the dirty money that comes from Russia into London? Is he convinced that we are doing enough not just on the misinformation that Russia perpetuates here, but on the number of dodgy companies that are functioning here?

The hon. Gentleman will know from my time as Minister of State for Security and Economic Crime that I was always pushing to do more—and there is always more to do. The unexplained wealth orders were one step, but more transparency and more rigorous checks in places such as Companies House are also important steps. I think that he is right that Russia goes after a whole range of our vulnerabilities. Perhaps, in the way that we function as an open liberal society, we should make sure that we protect those places and not just the more obvious places, such as the military.

May I associate myself very warmly with the comments made about my good friend, Jack Dromey? He was a friend to us all in this House.

Given that there is a need for maximum co-ordination and co-operation with our allies if we are to counter the threat from Russia effectively, what measures are the Government taking to enhance our co-operation with our European partners to make sure that we are an effective alliance?

The United Kingdom has uniquely at its disposal a strong partnership with the United States, and a partnership also with the EU and indeed in NATO. We are working all those avenues to make sure that we present a united and strong front. This week, I will visit a number of countries in eastern Europe and Scandinavia, many of which are very, very worried about what has been happening. We have continued with the diplomatic track. In 2019, I extended Operation Orbital to continue to help build Ukraine’s capability to defend itself, which is incredibly important. All of us should call out those false narratives to make sure that, should anything happen, we have a package of sanctions ready to deliver to make sure that Russia’s bad mistake is punished.

Putin’s ultimatum in December, placing unrealistic demands on NATO’s forced presence in eastern Europe and giving Russia licence to invade Ukraine, was clearly designed to be rejected. Will the Secretary of State confirm that we will not concede to Russia’s threats; that NATO’s defence posture in eastern Europe, and in the Baltic states in particular, will not change; and that we will commit to a long-term strategy of supporting Ukraine through joint training exercises, arms sales and the eventual inviting of Ukraine to join NATO?

First and foremost, we need to deal with the central charge, which I think is a false charge, of NATO aggression and a NATO surrounding of Russia. NATO is defensive by its very nature—if you attack us, you attack us all—and it is a defensive alliance; it is not offensive. There are no NATO bases in Ukraine, which is also alleged. The United Kingdom will work with whoever wants to work with us and shares our values. We will not be deterred by bullying, and we will not be deterred by distance. We shall step up and help those countries in eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and Ukraine—that is its right as a sovereign country—should they wish to have our assistance. We respect their rights as free, sovereign countries, and I ask other countries to do the same.

The worrying developments in Ukraine along with those in Kazakhstan demonstrate the need for us to be able to understand the Russian Federation and its motivations, however misguided its actions. Thankfully, the Ministry of Defence has the Russian military studies centre in Shrivenham, which is a resource of outstanding pedigree built on a proven research record. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the centre will be able to preserve its independence following the review that his Department is undertaking? It would be a great pity if the unique pedigree of that research centre was lost.

Not for the first time, the hon. Member raises an interesting point that I will be delighted to look at. It is important that we all have independent advice. This month, I will make the Chief of Defence Intelligence available to hon. Members of the House, to brief those who so wish on the current situation in Ukraine. We should not forget that what the Russian Government—not the Russian people—are frightened of is not NATO but NATO’s values.

Future Soldier Programme: Army Estate in Wales

6. What assessment he has made of the impact of the future soldier programme of reform on the army estate in Wales. (904824)

My right hon. Friend has fought and fought for the retention of more military personnel at St Athan. At his request, I visited the site personally and re-evaluated our options. Unfortunately, the historic agreement entered into with the Welsh Government does indeed make such—[Interruption.] I do apologise, Mr Speaker, and I apologise to my right hon. Friend—I wanted first to give an answer on future solider in general before getting on to the specifics—[Laughter.] I know exactly what my right hon. Friend is going to ask, because he has been assiduous in demanding more troops at St Athan.

Before I get on to that, future soldier is good news for Wales, bringing additional investment into the Army estate of around £320 million. I know Brecon will be delighted that Brecon barracks—the headquarters of the 160th (Welsh) Brigade—will be retained. We have identified Caerwent training estate for investment to host not one but two units—including the Queen’s Dragoon Guards—and, in north Wales, a new reserve unit of the Royal Welsh will be established in Wrexham.

I associate myself with the comments made about our friend and colleague Jack Dromey.

The Welsh Government’s refusal to extend the lease of the land at MOD St Athan effectively blocked a new major military unit coming to St Athan. What reassurance can the Minister give to the soldiers based at west camp? Do the Welsh Government have any right to the land on which they are based? If so, are they at risk of being evicted in the same way as those soldiers who were based at east camp?

No, they are not. The good news is that the Ministry of Defence holds the freehold for the west camp land, which was not covered by the historic agreement made with the Welsh Government. My right hon. Friend has tackled me on this issue on so many occasions, and I went to visit the camp. We could not put new units into St Athan given the historic agreement with the Welsh Government, but west camp is MOD freehold and we will retain our forces there.

I associate myself with the tributes to Jack Dromey. He was a true friend and a credit to the House.

The Minister spoke about the future soldier programme in general terms, which connects to the Armed Forces Act. He made a welcome concession by agreeing to publish data on both investigations and prosecutions at all stages of the service justice system. What will the Government do if conviction rates for one or more of these serious crimes are concerningly low? Will the Government reconsider their approach and finally recognise that these cases should be dealt with by the civilian judicial system, and what impact does the Minister think that the Armed Forces Act 2021 will have on the Government meeting the target they have set themselves for 30% of Army recruits to be—

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I, too, pass on my condolences to Jack’s family and friends? It is indeed a sad loss.

I am clutching at two words—Army estate—in asking this question. On a recent visit to the Special Boat Service—our Marines special forces—I was shocked to find that it does not have a proper aquatic centre. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me and the House when and if the Special Boat Service will get a proper aquatic centre to do vital training in?

I am aware of the discussions and the proposal and I have seen some suggestions, but I am not in a position to give any detail to my hon. Friend at the moment. I will look into it and write to him.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan: Inquiry

7. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of commissioning an inquiry into the UK’s withdrawal of personnel from Afghanistan under Operation Pitting. (904825)

The Foreign Affairs Committee has one up and running and the Secretary of State for Defence will give evidence in two weeks’ time.

I have no doubt that that Committee is doing a very find job indeed, but surely the damning evidence that it has received makes a full independent inquiry all the more important, not less so. Tens of thousands dead, millions facing humanitarian disaster, democracy and human rights in tatters, and many of billions of pounds spent—if that does not merit a full, comprehensive independent inquiry, what on earth does?

I think that the whole House can agree that the service personnel involved in Operation Pitting did an amazing job. I fear that the hon. Gentleman’s wider question might be better addressed to Foreign Office questions.

Awarding of Defence Contracts

10. What steps he is taking to ensure that contracts awarded by his Department are (a) subject to open competition and (b) accessible to domestic contractors. (904829)

The defence and security industrial strategy provides a more flexible approach to determine the right acquisition strategy for any given capability, in line with our priorities and national security requirements. Where tenders are used, they are designed to be fair, open and certainly accessible to domestic contractors.

Wight Shipyard Co. in my constituency recently raised with me its concern about the niche criteria and very short timeframes for the Ministry of Defence’s special purpose ship contract. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that all MOD contracts are fairly given out and fairly tendered to all contractors in the country, including smaller contractors such as Wight Shipyard?

My hon. Friend is an assiduous advocate for the Island and he was right to raise this issue with me before Christmas. I looked into it and have written to him and another hon. Gentleman on the subject. The requirement is for an existing vessel that can enter service very quickly to help the Royal Navy perform, at pace, trials on autonomy and the use of modular persistent operational deployment systems. I am satisfied that the tender for this vessel is fair and open. It has attracted a significant degree of interest from a wide range of suppliers, and they will have to compete along the lines outlined.

The Government are invariably keen to talk up their role in the manufacturing success story of Scottish warship building, and the Minister knows exactly the extraordinary private investment that has been made by BAE on the Clyde and by Babcock at Rosyth, and about the state of the art manufacturing process, equipment and, crucially, apprenticeships. Will he now commit to rewarding that investment by unequivocally ensuring that the fleet solid support ships are built in whole, not in part, in Scottish and, if necessary, other UK yards, and categorically commit to using UK steel?

I think the hon. Gentleman should pay tribute to what this Government are doing in terms of investment in shipbuilding. We are a phenomenal investor in shipbuilding. BAE and Babcock are doing a tremendous job, with a huge number of ships coming through the production line. I am not going to prejudge a tender—that would completely contradict what I said in my previous remarks. However, if only the Scottish Government could take a leaf out of our book in the way in which they work with Ferguson’s, I think we would all be better off as a shipbuilding industry.

Veterans Strategy

Since the veterans strategy was published in 2018, we have been delivering for our veterans, including Op Courage in the NHS to support veterans with their mental health, the veterans’ railcard, and a national insurance holiday for those employing veterans. We continue to drive forward that agenda, with our publication soon of a veterans strategy update, which will recognise what a fantastic asset our veterans are.

In north Staffordshire we are very proud to house the Tri Services and Veterans Support Centre led by Geoff Harriman and supported by John Painter and Kathy Munslow, all of whom served themselves and do a range of work to support our local veterans—for example, the new veterans’ retreat set up in Kidsgrove parish, bringing veterans together to take part in archery, construction and even bee-keeping. I want to personally thank Ron Jeffries, a local businessman who kindly donated some of his land for this vision to become a reality. Will my hon. Friend therefore applaud the work of Geoff, John, Kathy and Ron in supporting our veterans and commit to visiting later this year to show us his skills in the field?

I would be delighted to learn about the work of those people in the parish of Kidsgrove—it sounds fantastic. I absolutely join my hon. Friend to thank Geoff Harriman, John Painter, Kathy Munslow and Ron Jeffries for their military service and all they continue to do for veterans in the community. I also thank my hon. Friend for the work he does to support our armed forces personnel. If possible, I would be delighted to visit.

Last month the President of the United States signed off the National Defense Authorization Act, which will ensure that US atomic veterans receive a medal and an official day of recognition for their service. Does the Minister agree that it is time to end the UK’s shameful position as the only country not to provide official recognition or compensation for nuclear veterans, and to mark the 70th anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test by finally rewarding our courageous nuclear veterans with the medals they so highly deserve?

We will keep this under review but we regard it as a matter for the advisory military sub-committee on medallic recognition.

Topical Questions

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.