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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 709: debated on Monday 21 February 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ukraine: Territorial Integrity

May I, too, welcome the Speaker of the House of Representatives—it was a delight to sit next to her at the G7 Speakers conference—and also Congressman Adam Smith, the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee? The United States is truly our closest friend and ally, and in times like these we need each other more than ever.

The United Kingdom is unwavering in our support for Ukraine, along with allies and partners. We are committed to defending regional security. We have long supported Ukraine’s defence capability, as well as regularly exercising with its armed forces and via defence engagement channels. We must not allow Russia’s destabilising behaviour to influence the territorial integrity of any other sovereign state. The UK remains steadfast in its support for Ukraine.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the call he held for MPs last week, during recess, following his trip to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart. Could he expand on the value of that visit, and does this mean that defence engagement with Russia has been re-energised?

Diplomacy is, we feel, the only way out of this crisis. We are working through NATO and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, but Russia must uphold the international commitments it freely entered into and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. Dialogue plays a full part in the United Kingdom and allied approach to mitigate mutual risk and enable both sides to discuss the full range of security issues, including where we differ.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer a few moments ago, and for his leadership in ensuring that both deterrence and diplomacy are used to stand up for the sovereignty of the people of Ukraine. Given the reports of thousands of civilians being taken from their homes and taken to Russia as part of forced evacuations—a clear breach of article 49 of the Geneva convention—can I ask the Secretary of State what discussions he and colleagues across Government have had about any future role for courts, including the International Criminal Court? It is vital that perpetrators know that they will be held to account for their actions in future.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The ICC obviously only has effect on the many members who are signed up to the treaties, and not every state is; the United Kingdom is, however. I think, fundamentally, this is about international law, and whether Russia respects international law and the previous commitments it has made to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine. If it fails to respect that international law, the international community will see it for what it is.

A few weeks ago, my right hon. Friend set out the defensive equipment that the UK is providing to the Ukrainian military. Since that time, there has been considerable additional build-up on its borders, so can I ask my right hon. Friend what plans he has to provide further equipment to the Ukrainian military?

My hon. Friend makes the important point that we have stood by our friends in Ukraine and, alongside the United States and other countries such as Canada and some of the Baltic states, provided lethal aid, as we call it. It is, however, important to recognise that, in this timeframe, there is only so much that can be deployed effectively. We will, however, keep everything under review, and it is important that we help people defend themselves.

For a decade, Russia has targeted Ukraine with cyber-attacks to damage its economy, undermine its democracy and terrify its people. In recent weeks, those attacks have grown both in magnitude and frequency. Can the Secretary of State outline what the UK is doing to assist Ukraine in protecting its critical national infrastructure from the current onslaught of Russian cyber-aggression?

Over the last few years we have been actively engaged in helping Ukraine both internally and externally across its whole government. Indeed, when I was Security Minister we were engaged there and I visited on two occasions for exactly that purpose. Currently the National Cyber Security Centre is involved in giving advice and support alongside our international allies to make sure Ukraine’s resilience is strengthened against the Russian playbook, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says.

The Secretary of State for Defence will know that I think he is a breath of fresh air in the job, but I also know that he shares my concern that we have been pushing down the numbers in our armed forces consistently over recent years. Can he give me an answer on this today: has the situation in Ukraine changed the mind of the Government, and will they now build up our armed forces so we can offer credible help to the poor people in Ukraine?

Our armed forces right now are providing support in covid, in the channel, in eastern Europe, and in Ukraine and elsewhere. We are currently running at about 78,000 for the strength of our Army, and the hon. Gentleman will not have noticed, although he is obviously in agreement with me, that we increased the original commitment up an extra 500 from 72,500 to 73,000. I have always said the size of our armed forces and defence budget should be threat-led: if the threat changes we should always be prepared to change it. At present, I am minded to stay where we are, but we should also reflect that what we see in Ukraine is that our real strength is our alliances: 30 countries in NATO is the strongest way to achieve mass against a force such as Russia. That is why NATO remains strong and united.

It is very difficult to know what is going on in President Putin’s mind. Does the Defence Secretary spot a difference however between the perceptions of General Gerasimov and the other generals about the wisdom or otherwise of an invasion of Ukraine and those of the Kremlin? Secondly, given that President Putin has stated that Ukrainians and Russians are the same people, would it not be phenomenally hypocritical to launch an attack on people he considers to be the same people?

I regret to say there was absolutely not a slither of difference between the President and General Gerasimov and Minister Shoigu when I met them a few weeks ago; they are some of his closest advisers and supporters and it is clear that their vision of Russia matches that of their President. The hon. Gentleman is also right to point out that they claim the Ukrainians are their brothers—in fact they are their “kin”, rather than brothers—to launch attacks on people who were part of the Soviet Union for decades together has a retrograde effect. As we know now, Ukrainians who probably were not that bothered 10 years ago about which way they faced are absolutely determined that they are going to stand for Ukraine and fight for their freedom.

May I join you, Mr Speaker, in welcoming our American friends to the House of Commons today?

Last week I saw at first hand how UK and American efforts are working hard to support our friends in Ukraine, so I commend both Governments on their efforts, but I remain concerned that NATO, the most formidable military alliance in the world, could have collectively done more in previous months to deter an invasion but chose to hide behind the fact that Ukraine is not a NATO member. Yes, we have shored up our NATO flanks, but that still leaves Ukraine exposed. Does the Secretary of State agree that Ukrainian security is European security, and by committing greater support to Ukraine we are trying to prevent a war rather than start one? And with the threat of invasion imminent, may I also call on the Secretary of State to provide more military support to Ukraine?

I fully agree with my right hon. Friend that Ukraine is part of Europe; Ukrainians consider themselves European, and it is absolutely the case that the ripples of anything that happens in Ukraine will be felt right across Europe whether it is in NATO or not. NATO is not preventing individual countries from strengthening Ukrainian security and capability through bilateral arrangements: the United Kingdom has done it, and so too has Sweden—it is not part of NATO but nevertheless stood up for its values and stood side by side.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and may I extend a warm Labour welcome to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and her team this afternoon?

The Government have Labour’s full support in assisting Ukraine in confronting Russian aggression and pursuing diplomacy even at this eleventh hour, and we also fully support moves to reinforce the security of NATO allies, as the Labour leader and I told the Secretary-General at NATO HQ earlier this month. However, although the doubling of UK troops in Estonia is welcome it looks like an overlap in rotation, not a reinforcement; for how long will this double deployment last, and beyond the steps already announced what more is the Secretary of State willing to do to reinforce allies on NATO’s eastern flank?

I am grateful to the right hon. Member. Mr Speaker, may I make a quick apology? There will be a statement on Ukraine after questions, but the statement has not yet arrived with my colleagues, or indeed with me, even though I did write it. There we are—bureaucracy in action. I do apologise to the House.

As the right hon. Member said, the overlap on relief in place can be there for as long as we like. We can keep it that way and we can reconfigure. Indeed, one purpose of forward-basing our armoured vehicles in Sennelager in Germany is to allow us that flexibility, with the vehicles forward and the people interchangeable. We will keep it under constant review. In addition, we have sent up to 350 personnel into Poland to exercise jointly and show bilateral strength, and 100 extra personnel from the Royal Engineers Squadron are already in Poland helping with the border fragility caused by the Belarusian migration. In addition, at the end of March we have Exercise Cold Response, which will involve 35,000-plus.

Whether or not President Putin gives the go-ahead to military invasion, this unprecedented military intimidation is part of a long pattern of aggression against western nations, including attacks on British soil and against British institutions. Does Ukraine not expose the flaws in the Government’s integrated review of last year with its focus on the Indo-Pacific and its plan to cut the British Army by another 10,000 soldiers? In the light of the threats, will the Secretary of State halt any further Army cuts and restore the highest defence priority to Europe, the north Atlantic and the Arctic?

Contrary to the right hon. Member’s observation on the integrated review, I think that it has been proved correct. First, alliances—whether NATO, bilateral or trilateral, and whether in the Pacific or Europe—are the most important way in which we can defend ourselves. We are reinvesting in NATO and are now its second biggest spender. Yes, troop numbers are scheduled to reduce, but spending on defence is going up to a record amount, and an extra £24 billion over the comprehensive spending review period is not money to be sniffed at. The integrated review is also a demonstration that, with further defence engagement and investment in sub-threshold capabilities such as cyber through the National Cyber Force among other areas, we can improve the resilience of countries that get vulnerable to Russian sub-threshold actions.

What lessons have our Government drawn from the consequences for Ukraine of its decision in 1994 unilaterally to give up all the nuclear weapons that it had inherited from the Soviet Union in return for assurances on a piece of paper?

That shows that we must ensure that the Budapest memorandum—the signature between Russia and Ukraine in 1994—is stuck to. Russia should honour all the treaties that it has signed as well as its statements to ensure that mutual recognition of each other’s security is upheld. If it does not do that, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, that opens up all sorts of questions about how much of Russia’s word we can trust. If we cannot trust its word, I am afraid that it is a dangerous place to be in Europe.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, I welcome Speaker Pelosi and the American delegation to the Chamber. I also congratulate Team GB and yes, in particular, that fantastic curling team that so many of us have been enjoying in recent days.

As the Defence Secretary knows, we have supported the Government’s actions in helping Ukraine to defend itself against its neighbouring aggressor. Indeed, the Government’s actions in giving military support are an act against war. However, during my visit to the Ukrainian capital a couple of weeks ago, I heard concerns at Government and parliamentary level about them still missing some support that I understand they had discussed with his Department. Will he assure us that those discussions are ongoing or give us an update?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On his comments about the winter Olympics, I have one of only two English curling rinks at Barton Grange in my constituency. I look forward to a Scots abroad event.

We are open to all sorts of suggestions. I speak regularly to my defence counterpart in Ukraine, and it is incredibly important that, should we get through this with a diplomatic solution, we continue to help support Ukraine’s resilience both in capacity building and training and in nation building to ensure that it is a strong and secure state.

I am grateful for that answer. I may be jumping the gun slightly—I suspect the Secretary of State might come to this in his statement after questions—but one thing we were asked about a lot there was the new grouping between Ukraine, Poland and the United Kingdom. The detail on that is not quite out there just yet. Will he update the House on exactly what the new grouping hopes to achieve? Can he give an assurance that it will complement the work of other allies, rather than overlapping it?

We are working through those details right now and, as soon as I can, I will update the hon. Gentleman and the House. It is incredibly important we recognise that Ukraine borders a number of major NATO countries that will feel the direct consequence of an invasion. It is also important that President Putin’s view of many of those countries, which he himself has written down in previous essays, could continue should he be successful in Ukraine. It is therefore really important that the UK plays a strong role in reassurance not only of NATO countries, but of other friends such as Sweden and Finland.

Tackling Illegal Migration

3. What steps his Department is taking to support the Home Office to tackle illegal migration. (905586)

Defence primacy in the English channel, under Operation Isotrope, will seek to prevent the arrival of small boats on their own terms in the UK, while ensuring the safety of life at sea. We are working closely with the Home Office and others to deliver that outcome.

Would my hon. Friend express his thanks to those brave armed forces personnel currently supporting UK Border Force in the important work it is doing in the channel?

I would, and it is an opportunity to remark on the fact that, whether at home supporting the work of Border Force in the channel and with defence personnel still involved in the response to the pandemic, or overseas as we are seeing in the news every day at the moment, our nation’s armed forces are available at all times to do whatever is required to keep this country safe and secure.

On the radio last week, the Minister said that to undertake Operation Isotrope the Ministry of Defence will have to acquire new boats. Will he give an assurance to the House that they will be procured in the UK and not follow the example of the Home Office, which has, to date, purchased such equipment from Holland?

The right hon. Gentleman refers to an interview in which I mentioned that they may be leased, rather than procured. As I went on to explain in that interview, there are a number of different platform types that will have different degrees of relevance and utility in the channel, all of which are under consideration to ensure that the right balance of platforms is available for what will be a very tricky task.

Would that not all be unnecessary if the French just controlled their own border? Our forces could then be redeployed, not protecting things in the channel. Are the French not at fault?

In the interests of bonhomie I will refrain from using such forthright language, but my hon. Friend certainly has a point.

In the last two years, the number of migrants making dangerous channel crossings has tripled, with the Home Secretary failing to tackle people smugglers. Now the Navy has been called in. Will the Minister clearly outline the Navy’s role and explain why the Ministry of Defence is being sidelined in discussions with our French counterparts?

The role of the Royal Navy, as we said in the urgent question a few weeks’ ago, is principally in the control and co-ordination of a wide range of Government assets that we would argue are, at the moment, not brought to bear in the most coherent way towards the task at hand. The Royal Navy is looking at that and augmenting it with some Royal Navy platforms, both ships and surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. It is important to note, however, that most Royal Navy platforms do not have the outboard height required to be meaningfully part of any interdiction operations in the channel, so principally it is a command and control co-ordination exercise. If there are extra assets we can bring, we will.

Helicopter Manufacturing and Supply Chains

6. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the resilience of the helicopter supply chain in the UK. (905589)

17. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the resilience of helicopter (a) manufacturing and (b) supply chains in the UK. (905601)

We recognise the need to manage risk and ensure resilience in our manufacturing and supply chains, including rotary wing. Through past and current investment in rotary wing capabilities, including Wildcat and Apache, and upgrades to Merlin and Chinook, the UK industrial base remains well placed to support existing and future helicopter platforms, and continues to be a market of great interest to our industrial partners.

I thank the Minister for that response and I declare an interest as chair of the Unite group of Labour MPs in Parliament. Further to my Defence question of 15 November, when I asked the Minister what steps his Department was taking to ensure the resilience of the helicopter supply chain in the UK, will he now assure the House that, whoever wins the contract, the new Puma-replacement helicopters will be both manufactured and assembled here in the United Kingdom?

As we and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have said, the competition for the new medium helicopter contract, to which I believe the hon. Gentleman refers, will be launched very shortly. Given the skills and capabilities in this country and the nature of that competition, I am confident that a very substantial amount of benefit will flow to the UK as a result of that procurement.

I also declare an interest and I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). We do not want to get into another situation like the one with the fleet solid support ships. Will the Government ensure that the value to the UK of placing the contracts with UK suppliers and UK manufacturers is included and priced into the deal and the contract?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is absolutely critical that we ensure that the social value associated with the contract is fully and fairly reflected in the tendering process. He has my assurance that we will do that and, as I said, it will not be long before he will be able to see more on that subject.

I entirely agree with others who have spoken about the importance of British manufacturers producing these things, but we have a very strong relationship with the United States of America and I welcome the fact that we have ordered 50 new Apache attack helicopters and are upgrading our Chinooks. Does the Minister acknowledge, however, that Boeing UK is now the fourth or fifth largest supplier to the MOD and that, as a British manufacturer, it is hoping to export goods—the new aeroplanes—to America soon?

It is indeed, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that Boeing is a strategic partner of ours. It also invests heavily, and I pay tribute to its work to enhance apprenticeships and its academic work, including in the far north of Scotland from our base at Lossie. It is an important strategic partner that brings value to the UK.

I am going to do something quite surprising and agree with the Secretary of State when he says, of the helicopter competition, that he does not want a “here today, gone tomorrow” supplier. What are the Minister’s plans to ensure that there is long-term investment in the UK helicopter industry, particularly in high-value engineering design and manufacturing jobs; apprenticeships; and enduring skills development in this vital industry?

On the NMH, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, it is likely, given the timescale—we want to have the helicopters in service in 2025 or as close to that as possible—that we will be seeking to procure an existing platform. However, that absolutely does not gainsay the fact that we will want to see real social value created in terms of engineering skills and capabilities in this country. That will be part of the competition.

Dalgety Bay: Radioactive Material

7. What recent discussions officials in his Department have had with representatives of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on radioactive material detected at Dalgety Bay following the disposal of aircraft in that area after the second world war. (905590)

I am delighted that we are en route to the complete remediation of Dalgety Bay. Environmental sensitivities inevitably have a significant impact on the length of time that it is taking to complete the project. MOD and SEPA officials last met formally on 24 November. SEPA also has representatives on site continually to monitor the work that is being undertaken.

I give the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), who has been turfed off a train on his way to the House.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The people of Dalgety Bay in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency have had to put up with radioactive waste on the shore since the second world war. Thanks to the dogged determination of my predecessor, Roger Mullin, and my persistence, work on that began last May. However, the Ministry promised me and the community that it would keep us updated on progress, but we have had nothing from the MOD since May 2021. Will the Minister say why, and make sure that an update is forthcoming?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an update now. As I think he is aware, we assumed that it would take two seasons to do the complete remediation. I very much hoped that it would therefore have been concluded by the autumn of this year. He is aware of the issues with birdlife that ensure that there is only a set period of time in which we can work. We applied for, and got, extended time to work last summer, and we will apply again for extended time this year. I hope that that will be sufficient, but I have to share with the hon. Gentleman that work may not be concluded until 2023. I hope that that will not be the case, but it is possible; we are keeping it under review. I will write further to the hon. Gentleman.

Armed Forces: Diversity and Inclusion

The Ministry of Defence puts diversity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do: we regard it as mission-critical. Our ambition is a 30% inflow of women by 2030. Army recruitment for ethnic minorities is currently at 11.7%. We know that we must build a diverse force to tackle the diverse threats that our nation faces.

Improving recruitment in areas such as Wolverhampton would really help diversity in the armed forces. Wolverhampton also has a very high rate of unemployment. What more can the Department do to ensure that every young person in Wolverhampton is aware of the fantastic opportunities open to them in the armed forces?

I should put it on record that Wolverhampton has a long and very proud tradition of people in the armed forces. What we can do is point out that recruiting is undergoing constant improvement. I invite my hon. Friend to visit her Army recruitment centre on Queen Street in Wolverhampton to celebrate the amazing careers on offer for young people.

Improving diversity and inclusion in the armed forces must also mean supporting disabled veterans. The veterans mobility fund closed last year, passing the financial burden to charities such as Help for Heroes to fund essential mobility equipment that is not available on the NHS. As forces charities face funding pressures, does the Minister feel that that decision is fair?

Of course we face constant pressures, but I should put it on record that we have doubled the amount that normally goes into supporting our magnificent armed forces charities. It is only right that we work in partnership with those magnificent people.

On inclusion, the Defence Secretary will be aware that several parliamentarians have been lobbying hard, but privately, to get visa fees abated or preferably culled completely as a function of service. Please may I ask where we are with the consultation and with any announcements that may be forthcoming?

We acknowledge with gratitude my hon. Friend’s active role in the debate. He should wait for news this week on that issue.

Women in the Armed Forces

Women are an integral part of our armed forces and have thriving careers. The Defence Committee’s report on women in the armed forces made a number of important recommendations. Having tested them, the Ministry of Defence’s own service women’s network has adopted almost all the recommendations and in many cases has taken them further.

Women serving in the forces alongside their husband or partner have lost out on their military accommodation when they have reported incidents of domestic violence, because the Army has prioritised the needs of the male soldier. Women have also missed out on promotions or career opportunities as a result of reporting. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that victims of domestic violence are not further victimised by armed forces processes when they are brave enough to make a report against a serving soldier?

I am saddened to hear what the hon. Lady says. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it; if she brings along the detail of the examples to which she refers, I will be very happy to sort this. No one should be disadvantaged for making a service complaint, or indeed a criminal complaint, whether they are male or female. We do not in any way tolerate domestic abuse or sexual abuse in the armed forces.

May I pay tribute to the appointment and work of our defence attaché in Vietnam, Bea Walcot, who may be taking up another south-east Asian appointment before long? Does the Defence Secretary agree that there is huge potential for women in such roles, which combine diplomacy and procurement as well as armed forces expertise?

Some of our best ambassadors are women, and I hope that soon even more of our best defence attachés will be women. Defence engagement is an extremely important part of defence. The defence Command Paper committed to investing in that network, not only with better infrastructure, but with better training and support. She does a fantastic job. I would like to see many more; I also think that it is a great career opportunity.

Small Boat Channel Crossings

The Government have spent more than £200 million on deals with the French authorities and £780,000 on two Navy vessels, and have not intercepted a single boat. Now they are insisting on push-back tactics, which the Navy has rightly said it will not use. The human cost is harrowing. In November, 27 people, including children, died when their boat sank. Instead of wasting more taxpayers’ money on unworkable initiatives, will the Minister finally back the solutions that will fix this crisis—opening safe routes of passage, meaningfully engaging with the French authorities, and implementing a proper plan to tackle people smuggling?

I am not sure that those elements are mutually exclusive. I absolutely agree with what the hon. Lady said at the end of her question—her suggestions for a solution—but I think that the measures she advocates must sit alongside a robust and resilient effort in the channel to ensure that even when they are in place, we are still able to protect our borders and stop people landing here on their own terms.

UK-Australia Security and Defence Co-operation

13. What steps his Department has taken to strengthen security and defence co-operation with Australia. (905596)

AUKUS is a generational commitment to the security of the Indo-Pacific. Last month I agreed with my Australian counterpart additional steps to deepen our bilateral co-operation in the region, building on the deployment of two UK offshore patrol vessels and facilitated by an enhanced British defence staff in Canberra.

The AUKUS deal highlights the benefits of co-operation between the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. The RAN’s first boat, the HMAS AE1, was lost with all hands in 1914. In May this year, the sacrifice of those who gave their lives then—and nearly 6,000 others in the service—will be commemorated with a submariner memorial. More than half a million pounds has been raised to fund it, under the guidance of one of my constituents who is the project director. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking our submariners for all that they do in the protection of our country, and will he attend the dedication if he can?

My hon. Friend has highlighted a very important part of our armed forces. I pay tribute to the submariners who keep us safe 24 hours a day around these shores. There have been 50 years of the continuous at-sea deterrent, and before that they played a strong role in both defeating the Nazis and, indeed, ensuring that we were protected. Few of us are privileged to know what they so often do under those seas. I want to join my hon. Friend in remembering those early submariners who, in 1914 and subsequently, made the ultimate sacrifice, not only in the service of their country but in pushing the boundaries to take us to where we are today.

It is encouraging that the AUKUS agreement has bipartisan support in all three countries, but surely the Secretary of State will accept that it has to be about more than submarines and the military themselves. How are we going to co-operate to deal with the pressing problem of supply chain resilience and security, which is an increasingly weak point for our military effectiveness and sustainability?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fragility in the submarine supply chain, which concerns not just us but the United States, and indeed all those involved. These are highly complex boats, and keeping them maintained and ensuring that they are also a skill base is a real challenge for us all. That is why we have invested in a record number of apprentices, and have increased much of the necessary funding. As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, AUKUS must be not only about capacity-building and capability in themselves, but about how the United Kingdom and the United States industrial base can assist, support and develop those capabilities in Australia. It cannot be done on its own; it has to be done with all of us.

Defence Space Strategy

Over and above the £5 billion already committed to satellite communications, we are investing an additional £1.5 billion in space capabilities. The defence space strategy sets out our focus on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, satellite communications, space domain awareness and space commander control. This clear strategic direction has been welcomed by industry and allies alike.

Space, in all its guises, presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to drive British science and technical innovation, create well-paid and rewarding jobs, boost our economy, and above all defend ourselves. Can my hon. Friend expand on what he has said, and tell the House what the MOD is doing to ensure that we deliver all those opportunities?

My hon. Friend is correct in every respect. That additional £1.5 billion of investment implies very significant space R&D and the jobs, skills and expertise that go with it. It includes investment in things such as ISTARI, our ISR programme, It also includes innovation spending, as part of the £1.5 billion package, and programmes such as Minerva. Through that investment, we are not only ensuring that we meet the threats of the future, but helping to build capability, expertise, skills and jobs that will serve defence and the wider civil space programme.

Ukraine: Support for NATO Allies

15. What steps his Department is taking to support NATO allies in response to the build-up of Russian troops and assets on the border of Ukraine. (905599)

The UK continues actively to support its allies on NATO’s eastern front. The Prime Minister recently announced a further uplift of UK Defence support to eastern allies, including doubling the number of UK troops in Estonia, deploying more RAF aircraft to southern Europe, and deploying HMS Trent and a Type 45 Destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean.

I recognise the efforts being made by the French President to ensure that we have a peace summit, and I pray that he is successful. Unity with our allies matters now more than ever—a point that I hope some Conservative Members will take into account before making cheap populist swipes at our allies and neighbours. What are the UK Government doing to ensure that we have a united European and NATO strategy to demonstrate our commitment to Ukraine and our deep desire for a diplomatic solution?

All of us, including the French President, are signed up to the NATO alliance—all 30 of us. Indeed, it was NATO that responded to Russia’s draft treaty that it offered in December; we responded in January. That is the common position that we are all bound to, and in that position we will not reward aggression or compromise on NATO’s open-door policy. We will stick together as an alliance to defend the sovereign rights of countries and their right to choose, irrespective of what they do to that choice.

Armed Forces Apprenticeships

16. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on increasing apprenticeships in the armed forces. (905600)

We are proud that the armed forces are one of Britain’s biggest providers of apprenticeships. Since 2014, we have enrolled more than 96,000 apprentices, and there are around 21,000 apprentices at any time. I was honoured recently to meet apprentices from across all three services who are doing qualifications from level 2 all the way to degree courses.

I want to thank the Secretary of State and his team for the dignity that they have shown in the recent affairs with Ukraine and Russia.

The Ministry of Defence is doing a huge amount of work with apprenticeships, which other Departments should follow. Harlow has a remarkable cadet programme in the Navy, RAF and Army. Will the Minister look at whether cadets who would like to stay on in the armed forces can then progress into a military apprenticeship, and will he come and visit the remarkable cadet scheme in my constituency?

Of course all young people should be aware of the amazing opportunities for apprenticeships and careers in the armed forces. I would be honoured to visit my right hon. Friend’s constituency to see that scheme at first hand. The bottom line is that military service gives people skills for life.

Several years ago, a young man came to see me. He was about to leave school and he was as keen as mustard to join the armed forces. However, he had been diagnosed as being on the spectrum, and although I wrote to the then Defence Minister, he fell at the first hurdle and could not join and have the career that he wished for. Is the possibility of recruiting people who are on the spectrum being considered? It could be fantastically useful in terms of the cyber threat that we clearly face.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are actively considering recruiting people with neurodiversity, because of their capacity for working in the cyber sphere. I am pleased that he has raised this issue, and I can confirm that we are actively looking at it.

Army Reserve: Recruitment and Retention

18. What steps his Department is taking to improve (a) recruitment and (b) retention in the officer corps of the Army Reserve. (905602)

The new Army Reserve under the future soldier programme will improve recruitment and retention across the whole reserve force. We are doing that by improving the offer and giving young officers and reserve soldiers the opportunity to train and deploy with regulars, globally and nationally.

Does my hon. Friend accept that reserve officers join in order to have opportunities to deploy and train, commanding in formed units? Why does the future soldier narrative prioritise individual augmentation over deploying formed bodies for overseas roles short of all-out war?

I agree with my hon. Friend that reserve officers seek to deploy in formed units, and we are in agreement with that. That is why it is in black and white in the future soldier programme. We should not deny the opportunity for individuals, whether they are officers or enlisted people, to deploy on operations or training to gain valuable experience.

Eastern Europe: Support for NATO Allies

As I confirmed at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting last week, we will double the number of UK troops stationed in Estonia and deploy two Royal Navy ships to the eastern Mediterranean, and our RAF fast jet deployment in southern Europe will be increased to squadron strength. That comes on top of the deployment of 350 Royal Marines to Poland to support the Polish armed forces.

The current forward-deployed forces of the UK and NATO were put in place in 2017, at a time when Russia was acting belligerently. Circumstances have since moved on significantly, and Russia is not just belligerent but openly hostile. It is supporting Belarus with the weaponisation of migrants, as well as building up the most significant military force since the second world war. Will the Secretary of State therefore give more detail on the planning in the Ministry of Defence and NATO should further reinforcements be needed, and for any refugee crisis that might follow?

A few weeks ago, at a donor conference, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe requested that members of the NATO alliance put forward a range of forces—I listed some of them—and we are guided by where he wishes to deploy them to provide either resilience, reassurance or containment. NATO has a range of options that it can deploy at times of crisis, such as graduated response plans, and they will no doubt play in should Russia make the foolish mistake of invading Ukraine.

Topical Questions

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.