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Topical Questions

Volume 709: debated on Monday 21 February 2022

Despite current global events, the Ministry of Defence remains firmly on course to deliver the biggest modernisation of our armed forces. Today we published the “Defence Equipment Plan 2021-2031”, which sets out our plans to deliver against the priorities we outlined in the integrated review last year. Backed by a more than £24 billion spending increase over this four-year spending period, the equipment plan sets out how military capability will evolve to meet emerging threats. Defence procurement will be at the cutting edge. This implies risk but, through the defence and security industrial strategy and our ambitious acquisition reform programme, we are determined to deliver for defence and for the taxpayer.

Less than a couple of weeks ago, a boat ran aground close to Rye harbour at low tide and 21 migrants disembarked and disappeared on the run. It is reported that Border Force later turned up to the village to inform locals that 16 of those migrants, without identification, had been arrested. How can the MOD work with Border Force and the Home Office to take control, defend and protect our borders from migrants entering the UK—

Order. The hon. Lady knows that topical questions have to be short and punchy. You cannot make full speeches on a topical question.

My hon. Friend highlights one of the big challenges in controlling the channel. I reassure her that is exactly the situation we are trying to deal with. We must ensure that we intercept each vessel so that they cannot arrive in this country on their own terms. Under Operation Isotrope, we are planning to take an enhanced role in controlling cross-Government assets to tackle such migration flows.

Mali’s military rulers recently hired 1,000 Russian mercenaries, and four days ago France announced the withdrawal of all of its 2,400 troops based in Mali to combat the growing threat from Islamist terrorist groups. What changes will the Defence Secretary now make to the 300-9 UK troops stationed in Mali?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point out the challenge with the French, as effectively the framework nation, withdrawing from Mali and the woeful state of the Malian Government’s relationship with the Wagner Group, which has put us in a very difficult position.

The United Kingdom is obviously deployed in the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—MINUSMA—alongside the Germans and the Swedes, and we are now reviewing our next steps. The United Kingdom is, of course, committed to the UN effort as a good UN citizen, and we will do what we can to help west Africa. The right hon. Gentleman is, however, right to point out the corrosive and destabilising influence of the Wagner Group, which raises many questions. We will keep that under review and return to the House with more details.

T5. We now know that the cold war is back with a vengeance. We regularly spent between 4.5% and 5% of GDP on defence in the closing stages of the cold war. Has the time come to set a higher target than a bare 2%? Surely 3% should be a minimum. (905614)

I think I win the bet for predicting my right hon. Friend’s question. It is absolutely clear, as I have always said, that our defence budget and our defence disposition should be based on the threat. If the threat changes, we should be perfectly open to considering changes, and we will. I will certainly pray him in aid if I make the case.

We should also recognise that the NATO alliance, collectively, well outspends Russia. All 30 nations together spend hundreds of billions of pounds on defence, way above what Russia spends. That is the strength of the alliance, and it is why we need 30 members. That is why we can make a difference to Russia.

T3. Following the cyber-attacks in Ukraine last week, how are the Government strengthening cyber security at home in response to growing threats and Russian aggression? (905611)

The national cyber-security strategy, which in effect started under the last Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has developed over the years, with significant funding—I believe it was £19 billion in the 2010 Government—and established the National Cyber Security Centre. Alongside GCHQ, that has made real step changes in improving our cyber-security. We are, of course completely aware that Russia plays across the global cyber-network and does not just focus on Ukraine; we have already experienced a number of cyber-attacks from Russia over the past few years. We stand ready to defend against it and will continue to do so.

T7. [R] As the proud mum of a Royal Navy officer, I have an interest in defence matters. In Cornwall, we are very proud of Spaceport Cornwall. Does my right hon. Friend see it having a role to play as part of the defence space strategy? (905617)

I do apologise. I am even more pleased that my hon. Friend’s daughter graces the Royal Navy. She will know of the increasing importance of space to all the armed forces, and I can assure her that we are actively looking at supporting the wider Government ambition to have private companies launch from the UK this year.

T4. Further to the question from the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) on the Government’s response on the immigration cost for armed forces personnel, it is good to hear that the consultation response will be published, but will the Minister confirm that he is working to lower the proposed 12-year threshold so that the foreign and Commonwealth community can actually benefit? (905612)

My constituent’s father is a former Afghan army officer who is in hiding. He was not able to get here under the ARAP—Afghan relocations and assistance policy—scheme. May I ask a defence Minister to discuss this further?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this particular case. However, he and colleagues from around the House will appreciate, although I know this is a disappointment to many, that ARAP was never a mechanism for rank and file members of the Afghan national army to come to the UK.

T8. The UK is now the only atomic nation with no official recognition of or compensation for nuclear test veterans and their families. Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the first British nuclear test later this year, will Ministers now do the right thing and give these veterans the recognition they deserve? (905618)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and I absolutely recognise that we are now the only country in this regard. The last internal review was in December, and I have asked officials to go back and look at that again.

My right hon. Friend said that the amount we spend on defence depends on the threats that we face. May I remind him that we cannot just conjure up battalions? May I also, like two Members from the Opposition Benches, please ask him to reverse this disastrous decision to reduce our Army by 10,000?

My hon. Friend has often campaigned on the size of the Army. First and foremost, we have to recognise that modernisation is an important aspect of making sure that our armed forces are fit to fight. There is simply no point in having mass in a hollow armed forces. For too long, we had that out of step: either we had lots of people and inadequate equipment, or we had expensive equipment and not enough people. This defence Command Paper put that in balance, which means that it can deliver what it says on the tin and it does not let those people down.

May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for the tribute paid to our dear friend and colleague Christopher Stalford, who we shall all miss terribly? On a lighter note, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he would join me at the Northern Ireland airshow in my constituency, where all the armed services put on a magnificent display each year, in trying to attract young people to a very rewarding career in the armed services?

With the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have spent some time with the Commando littoral response force in the high Arctic, joining in their preparations for the forthcoming exercise “Cold Response”, which will involve 35,000 troops from 28 nations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is that a show of NATO strength and unity, but the Royal Marine Commandos have shown themselves to be a valuable commodity, with skills in mountain, Arctic and amphibious warfare?

First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to all colleagues who are part of the AFPS, which is a fantastic thing.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that our involvement in that exercise is a demonstration of both how the Royal Marines are transforming and our commitment to NATO. It also shows the integrated review coming to life, because the littoral response groups in the High North and in the western Indian ocean are two of the key new innovations of that paper.

The Ministry of Defence leases 37,500 homes from Annington Homes, of which 7,230 are vacant, while 12,000 Afghan refugees have been in bridging hotels for more than six months. This just cannot be right, so what is the Minister going to do about it?

We have made 550 service family accommodation units available. All questions on this issue should be directed at local authorities, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that Afghan families are settled in the way they deserve.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Watford’s ex-servicemen’s club, where I met the fantastic staff during an evening of darts. While I was there, I met the founder of the Official Minds at War charity, Norman Mcguigan, who works closely with local resident Liz Burns and many great volunteers throughout the country to provide mental health support for veterans. Good jobs help to deliver good mental health; what is being done to ensure that service personnel can take up jobs in our thriving defence industry?

We are fighting over the privilege of answering my hon. Friend’s question. As my the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) said earlier, there are 21,000 apprentices in the armed forces at any one time. Also, we are committed to lifelong learning: for five years after people leave the services, they can apply for and get support to retrain. It is a great opportunity for our service personnel, who have terrific skills.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the same esteem, respect and co-operation that the UK enjoys with Australia will be a feature of UK-Scottish relations on matters related to defence and security after independence? Crucially, though, as an independent state Scotland will, unlike today, have a seat at the table and a role in the decision-making process.

This year, the SNP is in favour of NATO membership, but who knows where it will be at the end of it? If SNP Members want to be part of NATO, they will have to spend 2% of GDP. Given that they will be almost bankrupt, I doubt they will be able to spend anything.

Support for defence jobs is important, but so is support for veterans. Does the Minister agree that the armed forces charity SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—which does a particularly excellent job on Anglesey, plays a vital role in the support of veterans?

I do agree that SSAFA does an absolutely magnificent job, as I have seen at first hand in Aldershot. I put on the record my thanks for everything that my hon. Friend does for veterans in her constituency.

As we have already heard, the nuclear test veterans are a group of elderly individuals and, sadly, many of them have already passed away. It is in the Secretary of State’s power to award medals at this point. Will he do so?

Last year, the Royal Air Force took part in Exercise Blue Flag in Israel. What lessons did the Royal Air Force learn from working with the Israeli air force?

I cannot say right now, but I can say that it is about readiness: we must be ready because we never know where the threat comes from.

Will the Secretary of State promise me that he will listen to the Reith lectures—especially the bits about artificial intelligence and robotic warfare—and then think about our defence plans?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), I very much welcome the fact that the MOD is taking the Arctic and the threat from Russia along its 20,000-mile border in the Arctic very seriously indeed, as is NATO. It has long been promised that the MOD will produce a policy paper; when is it due to be printed, published or produced?

It will be produced in March, when hopefully I will visit Cold Response. When I came into office, I discovered that it was one of those classic Government strategies that had absolutely nothing in it other than a nice bit of narrative. I said I would not launch it until it contained some solid offers and deliverables, I paused it and we rewrote it, and it will be launched.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with allies about the numbers of people who might seek refugee protection in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine? How is he going to go about ensuring that there is an appropriate and co-ordinated humanitarian response?

That is an important and perhaps very likely consequence of what may happen in Ukraine. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Ministry of Defence would not necessarily lead on such a response, but obviously we stand by to support other Government Departments in their doing so.