House of Commons
Monday 13 June 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cost of Living: Armed Forces Personnel
Armed forces personnel, like everyone else, are not immune to the international inflationary pressures and cost of living pressures, and I am therefore very pleased to announce that the Defence Secretary has chosen to freeze the daily food charge for our armed forces personnel. We are also limiting the increase in accommodation charges to 1%, ensuring that the council tax rebate reaches those in military accommodation, and increasing the availability of free wraparound childcare at the start of the new academic year.
The Government are failing our frontline forces during a cost of living crisis. According to data from the Minister’s own Department, the percentage of personnel who believe that their pay and benefits are fair has fallen for the first time in four years, with four in 10 servicemen and servicewomen unhappy with their pay and benefits. What success has the Minister had with the Chancellor in securing the pay rise our troops need and deserve?
In terms of measuring the contentment of those serving, the reality that I see day in, day out is that armed forces personnel are content with their pay and conditions. They are also content because of the remarkable job security they have in the armed forces, the subsidised accommodation, and the remarkable and unique non-contributory pension. That is all thanks to the £24 billion uplift made available by the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary.
As we commemorate 40 years since the Falklands conflict, I pay tribute to the brave soldiers who did their duty there, such as Lance Sergeant Alan Dalgleish, who lived in Newport West. But I am afraid, sadly, that the Government’s approach to the welfare and livelihoods of armed forces personnel and veterans such as Lance Sergeant Dalgleish is lacking in both compassion and practical support. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the impact that the Tory cost of living crisis is having on forces personnel living in Newport West?
I do not recognise that characterisation, but of course I join the hon. Lady in solemn and compassionate commendation of the veterans of the Falklands liberation. The Defence Secretary will speak more about that. On her question, I ask her to recognise the work we have done specifically in Wales. I hope that she, like me, is very pleased to see the independent Wales Veterans Commissioner in place, and that she will work with him to improve the lives of veterans in Wales.
NATO remains the cornerstone of the UK’s defence and security. All allies stand steadfast to defend and deter threats to the Euro-Atlantic, underlined by our unwavering collective commitment to article 5 of the Washington treaty.
You will not be surprised, Mr Speaker, to know that I think there are a number of excellent candidates to be the next NATO Secretary General, and I absolutely agree that those who have been to the fore during the response to Ukraine and who have skin in the game, as my hon. Friend says, should be leading contenders.
Let me ask the Minister this, and I want a straight answer: if we are going to be an effective member of NATO, when are we going to stop this crazy policy of diminishing the size of the armed forces? Seven years ago, I asked a former Defence Secretary, “What if Mr Putin’s people just arrived in the English channel?”, as we went below 100,000 service personnel. The plan today now is to go down to 72,000. Is that credible as a major armed force in NATO?
In the context of a question about NATO, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. NATO massively outnumbers Russia as an adversary. The UK commits more than our minimum requirement to NATO. Moreover, allies around NATO are clear that contributing in the traditional domains of land, sea and air is no longer sufficient and that NATO needs capabilities in space and cyber-space, on which, through the integrated review, the UK has invested and is to the fore.
I am going to follow up that question, I am afraid. NATO does outnumber Russia, it is true, but we have to have the weight, muscle and mass, to a certain extent, to react in the event, God forbid, of some form of confrontation with Russia. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reverse the very bad decision to reduce the Army by 10,000.
The Secretary of State has been clear throughout the integrated review process that we are a threat-led Department. As things stand, and as I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times—I know that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has said likewise—a lot of what is in the IR is proving to be vindicated by the realities of the conflict in Ukraine. As we move towards Madrid, and NATO is increasingly clear about what it wants as an alliance as capabilities across all five domains, the UK continues to lead thinking, rather than being behind it.
NATO meets in two weeks to agree its masterplan for the next 10 years, yet there are growing concerns about the UK meeting even its core NATO commitments. Is it true that the Defence Secretary warned the Chancellor that Britain risks missing its 2% spending commitment? What is the Defence Secretary doing about Ajax, given that the Public Accounts Committee’s new report states that the MoD
“is failing to deliver the…capability that the Army needs to…meet its NATO commitments”?
Why has the Defence Secretary failed to set out a vision to ensure that Britain continues to be NATO’s leading European nation?
The Defence Secretary is a passionate advocate for our nation’s armed forces and for defence within the Government, but his correspondence with other Ministers in the Cabinet necessarily should remain private. The reality is, as I said in answer to the question earlier from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), that the UK exceeds its NATO minimum requirement, and as NATO moves into its new strategic concept and looks at how it will operate across all five domains, it is the UK’s decisions from the IR that are informing what others will now contribute to NATO, rather than vice versa. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) finished with a question about the Secretary of State setting out a vision for NATO. I cannot think of anybody within NATO who has set out a more compelling vision for the alliance and the UK’s role within it.
Can the Minister set out what input the UK Government have had into the 2022 strategic concept, due to be published at the Madrid summit later this month? What impact might that have on UK defence interests over the next decade?
The concept has not been signed off yet. At Defence Minister meetings this week, the Secretary of State will be looking at it further before it goes to the NATO summit in Madrid. As the hon. Lady would expect, Ministers from the MOD and the Secretary of State most obviously are travelling around the Euro-Atlantic all the time in order to have these discussions, and people from other NATO capitals are visiting the MOD, so that we can build a shared consensus before we reach the moment of decision, and the UK has been instrumental in shaping those thoughts.
A couple of weeks ago, Members from all parts of the House went to Romania with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, where we saw the work being done by the RAF as part of NATO’s air policing role. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking 140 Expeditionary Air Wing for all it is doing to keep our skies safe? Does he agree that that work is an excellent example of the role of NATO in safeguarding our freedom and security?
I was in Bucharest on Thursday evening and Friday morning, having the exact conversations that the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) was checking we were having. I had the honour when I was there of meeting members of the RAF who are involved in Operation Biloxi and air policing. I indeed pay tribute to 140 Expeditionary Air Wing and all other members of the RAF who have been involved in air policing in Romania, Lithuania and elsewhere.
Before I get into my question, as this will be our last Defence questions before Armed Forces Day, may I thank those in the armed forces for all their service, particularly over the past couple of years during the pandemic? I also offer the support of those on these Benches to the Government in getting home the two UK nationals currently held by a Russian puppet court in eastern Ukraine.
On the strategic concept, there are three areas that we believe the Government must push for NATO to strengthen: the state levers of conventional defence power; societal resilience across the alliance, particularly in conjunction with the European Union’s strategic compass; and the international rules-based system that keeps us safe, including among alliance members themselves. Can the Minister outline, as he tries to garner that consensus, what he thinks a successful strategic concept looks like?
It is one of those wonderful moments when we are in vigorous agreement. We would share the view that the state levers of hard power and the societal levers of resilience are hugely important, that NATO must stand for something and that its members must subscribe to a rules-based international system. Those discussions are not hard to have because just about everybody else in NATO would passionately agree with that position.
I am grateful for that answer, but as other hon. Members have said, including on the Conservative Benches, a successful strategic concept surely does not include the UK Government cutting the armed forces by 10,000 and reducing the Army to its size in the war of the Spanish succession in 1701. Will the Minister, along with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, revisit the arbitrary cutting in size of the Army by 10,000? Would that not show NATO allies that he was serious about conventional defence forces in the UK and send the right message ahead of Armed Forces Day later this month?
Opposition spokespeople are in the habit of starting the clock on pledges for defence spending increases the day after the UK makes an enormous increase in defence spending. The UK led the alliance in deciding to increase spending in the face of increased insecurity in the Euro-Atlantic. NATO’s strategic concept does not specify exactly what each nation must have; the strategic concept is what NATO as an alliance wants to do. The key to that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said at the start, is having interoperable levers of hard power that are shared across the alliance with the countries that do them best; having real homeland resilience so that, across all domains, on the eastern front and in-depth, there is real resilience within NATO members; and having a set of values that NATO unites around, stands up for and sells around the world.
LGBT Armed Forces Personnel: Courts Martial
We acknowledge wholeheartedly the fact that historically some service personnel were thrown out of the service purely because of their sexuality, which was deeply unjust. For that reason, we have commissioned an independent review. That will assess some of the figures involved, which is indeed a grey area, and we look forward to announcing that in due course.
At a recent meeting with the organisation Fighting With Pride, I was horrified to hear that until 2001, LGBT servicemen and women were routinely court-martialled and dismissed; they lost their pensions and the right to wear their medals or their berets on Remembrance Sunday. That was an outrage, as the Minister correctly said. A far bigger outrage, however, is that that injustice has not been corrected. To this day, gay people—gay servicemen—from that time still have no pension and are treated with contempt by the armed service, which is absolutely disgraceful. I welcome the fact that he has set up an inquiry into that, although he has not yet appointed a chairman, but we need far more than an inquiry: we need those people to be pardoned and for them to get their dignity and humanity back.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Fighting With Pride; I commend its activity and rightful advocacy in this area. I entirely agree with him and I am pleased to say that there is a highly credible and eminent individual who will chair the review. My hopeful expectation is that we will make the formal announcement next week to coincide with Armed Forces Week.
Before Labour lifted the ban on LGBT personnel serving in our armed forces, thousands of LGBT personnel were hounded out of service, removed and abandoned after serving with pride. I welcome Ministers allowing sacked personnel to wear medals, but there are further restrictions, including written orders from commanding officers saying that the sacked personnel will not be able to wear headwear or insignia as veterans. Does the Minister agree that until all restrictions are lifted on those personnel, and pension issues resolved, the MOD will remain in breach of the military covenant?
Of course, I absolutely agree and I am pleased to say that the scope of the review will be very broad and that the Government will listen with compassion and sincerity to the recommendations of the independent reviewer. We hope that will provide a path towards delivering justice.
UK Nuclear Deterrent
Four new Dreadnought class submarines will enter service from the early 2030s, and we will replace the current nuclear warhead. We keep our nuclear posture under constant review in the light of the global security environment. About 30,000 jobs across the nuclear enterprise are dedicated to maintaining and delivering the deterrent, now and tomorrow.
The Government will be aware of a recent opinion poll that shows that Trident enjoys 58% support among Scots, yet the SNP and Green Ministers in the Scottish Government wish to see us remove Trident and even leave NATO altogether. Given the current international crisis, does the Defence Secretary think their position is wise?
It is certainly the case that the SNP cannot have it both ways. It wants to have an independent Scotland and join NATO, while also removing part of its nuclear defence. I notice that the First Minister alone said in 2021 that an independent Scotland would be a “keen signatory” to the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. That would make it the only NATO country to be a signatory to that treaty, and it is a clue to how the SNP says one thing and does another.
Support for Ukraine’s Military
The UK has committed £1.3 billion for military operations and aid to Ukraine. As part of the delivery of lethal and non-lethal aid in support of Ukraine’s military, we are liaising with Ukraine’s armed forces to meet their operational requirements. Most recently, we have announced that we will be providing highly capable multiple launch rocket systems, which will provide Ukraine with a significant boost in capability.
I had the pleasure of virtually meeting Iryna, a young member of the European Solidarity party in Ukraine, and some of the stories she told me of the frontline in Ukraine were shocking. Young members of Iryna’s party, like many brave people, have been on the frontline in this fight—some kidnapped, and some killed. Could my right hon. Friend spell out what steps his Department is taking to support all young people in the Ukrainian army during this terrible conflict?
My hon. Friend is right: it is not just about weapons; it is often about non-lethal aid, such as medicines and body armour. The UK has sent over 200,000 pieces of non-lethal aid, including body armour, range finders and medical equipment, and we will continue to do so. This is also about making sure that we look at the training being given to those young people, because if they are to have the best chance of survival on the frontline, we need to make sure that they are not only properly equipped, but properly trained.
I had the honour to meet a number of Ukrainian officials recently, and the Secretary of State is right that they are very pleased about our commitment of military hardware. He is aware, of course, that they continue to ask for more. Could I ask him what consideration he has given to or discussions he has had with allies about providing air capability?
My hon. Friend is right that that is often the request we receive from the Ukrainians and the international community, and he will remember the discussion about MiG-29s from Poland a few months ago. Air is a requirement of the Ukrainians, and we have had a number of discussions at the donor conferences, which I first convened a few months ago. One or two nations have looked at providing helicopters to Ukraine, and I think they may do so at some stage. Of course, the difference between that type of weapons system and another is the amount of training. That restricts countries such as the United Kingdom, because our planes are obviously very different. Therefore, wherever we can support the provision of air from countries holding Soviet stock, we will do our best to do so.
On behalf of Huddersfield and Colne Valley’s Ukrainian community, can I thank the Secretary of State for Defence for the magnificent support the UK has been giving to the Ukrainian military forces fighting such a valiant fight against the oppressive Russian forces? He mentioned support with the multiple launch rocket systems and the importance of training, but how is he balancing the timescales of that with supplying the existing Soviet-era weaponry with the ammunition it needs for the fight today and this week?
My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of the next step and, indeed, the requirement for more artillery. The key here is to make sure that the new artillery, which is obviously designed for NATO use using NATO ammunition, is applied and used in a NATO way, rather than just repeating the way Soviets would have used artillery because that way we would run out of ammunition pretty quickly. That is why we will be sending MLRS, and we are also sending self-propelled 155s from a donor—not UK AS 90s, but others—to Ukraine to assist in giving it such deep fires capability. In tandem, we are helping alongside other countries, especially in the Baltic, in training those people to put that type of deep fires into effect.
With reports that medical services in Mariupol are likely already near collapse and the potential for a major cholera outbreak, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues across Government to explore urgent medical relief that could be deployed by the MOD?
The hon. Member makes the very important point that the consequences of Russian brutality, destruction of infrastructure and so on are the second-order effects such as cholera infections, starvation and, indeed, other problems. That is why, when we have our donor conferences, we make sure we talk about non-lethal aid, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others talk to their ministerial counterparts about how we can help in those areas. The MOD itself cannot directly intervene in Mariupol, but where we have knowledge and can co-ordinate the treatment of people outside Ukraine—through lift, moving them to hospitals in other countries using our aircraft—we will do that, and I have already spoken to a number of our Black sea colleagues to see what we can do in places such as Mariupol.
At business questions, I raised the issue of the destruction of a depot in Dnipro that was storing non-lethal supplies, including donations of medicine collected by Clare-Anna Mitchell and other constituents from Gower in Swansea. The network organising these supplies is Never Surrender; it is an efficient and effective deliverer but wants to work with the Government to make sure it can continue to do this good work. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Never Surrender to discuss how we can arrange this?
Yes, and will the hon. Lady pass on our thanks to Never Surrender and her constituents? I visited Ukraine last week and saw that this is not as easy as people think: it is not only about donating, but also about the hours and hours of queues at the border to then get through into the country to then deliver that aid, for which we are very grateful.
As the hon. Lady points out, there is the indiscriminate —sometimes deliberate—striking by Russia of targets like medical support or, as I saw, shopping centres, so that it can put people out of jobs and put pressure on the economy; that is the type of adversary we are dealing with. I will be happy to meet with the hon. Lady, but if she wants an earlier meeting I suggest one of my Ministers, as this week and next week there will obviously be NATO meetings.
We fully support all the Government’s efforts to properly arm the Ukrainians with the equipment and weapons they need, but the Secretary of State has alluded a couple of times to the fact that there is also the corresponding challenge of training. Will he say a little more about his discussions with colleagues and allies about maximising opportunities for Ukrainian personnel to be able to use the equipment and armoury that most suits their needs?
First and foremost, it is incredibly important that we get the right training to those serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. One of the tragic characteristics of the Russian armed forces is that they simply shove into one end of a meat grinder their own forces, who then—mainly men—come out and are killed en masse. It is hard to have sympathy for that, but nevertheless we are not going to be like that; we must make sure the Ukrainians are trained in using the equipment we give them and we do not just hand it over and let them face the consequences. We will continue to work on that; I will brief the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench spokesman soon on these topics and any further steps. The United Kingdom and a number of our European colleagues are keen to do more on training; when I have more news, I will announce that to the House.
If all NATO countries had provided the same scale of support to Ukraine as Britain has there is every possibility that Russian forces would now have been pushed out of mainland Ukraine. Instead, Russia is consolidating in the Donbas and there is every chance it may now be turning its sights to Odesa. If that port falls, Ukraine will be landlocked, further impacting on the cost of living crisis here and across Europe because critical grain exports cannot get out.
Is it time for the UK to lead a coalition of willing NATO allies to secure a United Nations General Assembly-approved humanitarian zone around the port and territorial waters, with neighbouring international waters policed by an international maritime force? That would ensure that the breadbasket of Europe and beyond is able to function and remain part of Ukraine.
My right hon. Friend makes the valid and important suggestion that we must do what we can to get the grain out of Ukraine. It is not just an energy crisis that people face; it will be a food crisis if the Russians are continually to both steal and blockade that grain.
However, I am afraid, with due respect to my right hon. Friend, that securing the Black sea and the UN mandate to do that are definitely easier said than done. I continue to speak to a number of Black sea partners and other members to see what else we can do to explore getting that grain out both overland and at sea. While Russia has talked the talk, it has done the complete opposite when it comes to providing assurances on any humanitarian corridor, especially on the land, as we saw at Mariupol, and now obviously at sea.
I think that Question 13 was not grouped with this one to give the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) a whole theatre of his own to ask his question. I will be first to support that when we come to it.
We have been clear that this is a troubled programme, and we have not paid a penny to General Dynamics under the Ajax contract since December 2020. Ajax will be a formidable capability. We want it to work and for General Dynamics to deliver it, but we will not take a vehicle into service that is not fit for purpose. We benefit from a robust contract and will make use of it.
But look, the Secretary of State has effectively admitted the failings of the Ajax programme, which are very public and have been comprehensively exposed by both the Defence Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. Unfortunately, since then, we have not had any indication—not even in his reply—that the fundamental problems have been resolved, and the Army is facing a dangerous gap in capacity. Will he either announce that he will scrap the failed programme or give us an early, fixed and firm timetable for such a decision? Stick or twist, Secretary of State?
The Ajax programme is a troubled programme. We agree with many of the recommendations in the Public Accounts Committee’s report. We are independently testing a number of the issues arising with that programme and we must ensure that, when we take another step, it is evidence based. As I said, we are clear to make sure that we bring it into service. In the meantime, we have withheld payment—a considerable amount of money—since December 2020. That is really important. General Dynamics wants this resolved, and we want it resolved.
I am glad that the Secretary of State mentioned that the MOD did not pay General Dynamics throughout 2021; by December 2021, it had paid £1.1 billion less than scheduled. However, the position is not sustainable in the local economy or in the Welsh economy as it is causing real anxiety among the workers, the wider economy and the local supply chain. When will the Government give an answer on what they will do about Ajax? I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who mentioned the report by the PAC. Anybody who has had anything to do with Ajax will say that, after 12 years, enough is enough and a decision must be taken.
I understand the hon. Member’s frustration and that of the workforce in Wales, who had hoped and wanted to produce a vehicle that was fit for purpose and would add to the British Army’s important capability. We have to proceed based on science and evidence. Like General Dynamics, we are bound to a contract, and I do not want to say anything that would jeopardise those positions. We have done independent trials and, when those results are forthcoming, we can have a further discussion. I recently met the head of General Dynamics and made my position on the next steps very clear. As I have said from the beginning, we will not accept into service a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.
Support for Veterans
We continue to work tirelessly to ensure that veterans are supported right across the UK. The “Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan”, published earlier this year, set out 60 commitments and £70 million of investment, particularly on the themes of healthcare and employment. There is a big demand for veterans in the employment market because, Mr Speaker, military service gives you skills for life.
I recently attended the opening of Southport veterans’ hub, which does an excellent job in providing support for ex-service personnel in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join veterans at the hub to further understand what more support his Department can give?
One veteran who served as a Royal Engineer for 38 years told me that he has been fighting for almost nine years to receive the compensation that he is entitled to. Currently, nearly 3,000 people are stuck in the Veterans UK appeals system facing similar experiences. We all know that there are issues with veterans’ compensation. When will the Minister stop denying that and act?
We are acting, and I am pleased to confirm that we are investing £40 million in a radical digitalisation programme, which I saw with my own eyes a few weeks ago when I was in Norcross, where the paper records are held. There are frustrations, but work is continuing apace.
Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy
To date, over 9,500 eligible individuals have already safely relocated to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy; we think we have about the same to go in terms of the number of people eligible. Flights are leaving, principally from Islamabad, every fortnight, but obviously partners in the region have a say over what they accept as a flow rate. I was in Islamabad three weeks ago to discuss that with the Pakistan Government. I am delighted to say that they have announced a further phase to allow nations like the UK to evacuate those who have popped up in Pakistan. We will be getting on with that now.
With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I pay tribute to all those who served in the Falkland Islands 40 years ago.
I turn to the Minister’s response. A former member of the unit I helped to establish has now been waiting nine months for his ARAP application to be processed. He is in hiding, terrified that he is going to be kidnapped and murdered by the Taliban—all because he stepped forward to serve when we asked him to. Will the Minister give an undertaking to look at the detail of this particular individual’s case? Can he say what more is being done to clear the backlog of applications?
The hon. Gentleman is a phenomenal campaigner for those who served alongside the UK armed forces; in fact, I think I probably sign dozens of letters a week responding to his various inquiries. I am surprised that I have not already corresponded with him on this particular case if he has raised it with me, but perhaps we can talk afterwards to ensure nothing has fallen through the cracks.
Family members of Afghan interpreters in my constituency who came to the UK under the ARAP scheme are among the 12,000 Afghans stranded in bridging hotels. That is shameful. How on earth can we trust the Government to deliver on the new pathways announced today if they have accommodated only a third of those who fled the Taliban over the last year?
The hon. Lady’s question is well intended. We want the same thing: we want to help. It is frustrating, however. The Government were criticised for outsourcing the Ukraine refugee scheme to members of the public, yet the reality is that if the Government have to be responsible for it in its entirety, people end up being stuck in hotels until councils are willing to take people out of those hotels. It is appalling that Afghan refugees are still stuck in hotels nine months later. I am desperate that councils around the UK step up and help us to accommodate the people who served our country with such amazing bravery and selflessness, and who are stuck in hotels because councils cannot accommodate them.
As chairman of the British Council all-party parliamentary group, I have been raising the plight of 170 British Council contractors who remain in Afghanistan in fear of their lives, 85 of whom have been deemed by the Government to be at very high risk. Given the written ministerial statement today, what assurances can the Minister give that the latter group in particular will be prioritised? They are not the only ones in fear for their lives in Afghanistan—there are many more. If he cannot give that assurance, given the urgency of the situation, will he knock on whatever door is required in Government and press upon that individual the need for action?
My hon. Friend has already seconded me on a number of occasions to speak to colleagues around Government on his behalf, as part of his campaigning on behalf of those who worked for the British Council. He knows, I think, that both the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office are seized of the need to do the right thing by them. The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is clearly the opportunity. In Islamabad three weeks ago, while of course my focus was ARAP, I was able to also reassure myself—I hope he will be encouraged to hear this—that all is in place to begin bringing people out under ACRS through that route as well.
Support for NATO Allies: Ukraine
We have doubled our presence in Estonia, reinforced the enhanced forward presence battlegroup, and deployed an aviation taskforce to Lithuania. We are contributing to enhanced air policing over Romania and Bulgaria, and enhanced vigilance activity in Cyprus, Poland and the Baltic states. We have deployed additional troops and capabilities to Poland, and led the development of joint expeditionary force activity options.
One of the strengths the Secretary of State will have at the NATO summit is the fact that this country has done so much to support our NATO allies. His second great strength is that we hit the 2% of GDP contribution. That is important to empower those who argue with our NATO allies that they must hit the same figure. Earlier on, the Minister for the Armed Forces would not answer directly the question of whether we will maintain that 2% spending. Can the Secretary of State assure the House now that the 2% will be maintained or, preferably, increased?
The hon. Gentleman asks a straight question and I will give him a straight answer. Between now and the end of the comprehensive spending review period, we are at 2%—in fact, 2.3%—of GDP. However, inflation, GDP and growth shrinking off GDP will affect all those GDP pledges, which is why some countries in NATO have very high GDP spend, but also have a very small economy. Within the comprehensive spending review period, I am on track to be above 2%.
On 9 May, I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency and we went to see the Dreadnought programme. He was with me when I signed the delivery of phase 3, the most important phase of rolling out the first of class HMS Dreadnought, in Barrow-in-Furness. It is set for sea trials so that it will be ready for patrol, hopefully in the early 2030s.
It was a pleasure to host my right hon. Friend in Barrow for that announcement. The submarine programme based in my constituency supports more than 11,000 jobs locally, but the Astute programme, the Dreadnought programme and the boats being developed under SSN(R) will keep us and our allies safe for generations to come. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend thank those people, from pipefitters to programme directors, for the work they are doing on that critical national programme?
My hon. Friend is right. In Barrow, they are doing some of the most complex engineering on earth, and it is breath-taking and a huge achievement. Not only are we rolling out the Dreadnought class, but we have committed funding for the next stage of the attack submarine, the next generation of Astutes. It is a vital part of our subsea defence and I am delighted that the Australians, when they chose to switch from the French submarine, came to the United States and the United Kingdom as future partners in that programme, because very few places in the world can do it. One of those places is Barrow.
Armed Forces Housing Accommodation
As of 6 June 2022, 96% of service family accommodation has been assessed as meeting or exceeding the Government’s decent homes standard. Housing below that standard is not allocated to service families because we are putting service families at the heart of defence, and that is reflected in the provision of their quarters.
In my recent visits to UK military bases, many of our servicemen and women raised with me the issue of substandard accommodation, which will no doubt have an impact on recruitment and retention. Indeed, complaints about service accommodation have rocketed by 20% in the first four months of 2022, compared with 2021. The Government are presiding over record low levels of satisfaction. Why are the Government failing our brave troops, and what will be done urgently to improve service accommodation?
We take these issues seriously, because we recruit the soldier but we retain the family. That is why we are putting record sums of investment into SFA. In the last seven years, we have invested more than £936 million in SFA improvements, and in the coming year we will invest £176 million in SFA. We are putting our money where our mouth is.
But not the same questioner, Mr Speaker.
General Dynamics has proposed changes to Ajax to address noise and vibration problems identified in the vehicles. The changes have been assessed by Millbrook independently, and we expect to receive its final report shortly. We will not proceed without a high degree of certainty, and we will not accept a vehicle that is not fit for purpose.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) said earlier, it is nearly two years since the MOD had the problems with Ajax and no fix is in sight. In December last year, the Minister for Defence Procurement said that if the contract is cancelled,
“There is a parent guarantee in place between GDUK…and the parent company”—[Official Report, 15 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 1090.]
Is that specific to this contract or is it just a gentleman’s agreement?
Given the legal weighting of that question, I think it best if I write to the right hon. Gentleman with the detail. I would not want to say anything at the Dispatch Box that would either cause the taxpayer to suffer unnecessarily as a result of any legal remedy or jeopardise a very important programme as we are trying to fix its problems and roll it out.
Support for Defence Jobs
The most recent estimate shows that Ministry of Defence investment supports more than 200,000 jobs in industries across the UK. We recently marked the first anniversary of the defence and security industrial strategy, which has received positive feedback from industry. Continued high and focused investment in defence, along with the changes that we are making as part of the DSIS, will contribute to further economic growth and prosperity, including jobs, across the United Kingdom.
As the Member for Lincoln in Bomber County, as Lincolnshire is also known, and with RAF Waddington in my constituency, I have many constituents who work in the defence sector. Investment in defence continues to be strong: there are now more than 80 defence companies across Lincolnshire, and Lincoln College has Britain’s first air and defence college, working in partnership with the Royal Air Force and with companies in the defence industry. Would the Minister and perhaps the Secretary of State care to visit Lincoln, see that great facility for themselves and reaffirm the Government’s commitment to supporting the defence sector in Lincolnshire?
I pay tribute to the work of all those at RAF Waddington and those who support them. The Greater Lincolnshire local enterprise partnership is a major investment hub for the Department and the defence industry. Lincoln College’s air and defence college, which is run in partnership with the RAF and with several key defence companies, supports existing career paths into science and engineering. My hon. Friend will be gutted that I am answering his question rather than the Minister for Defence Procurement, who is on his way to the Falklands, but I am certain that the Minister will want to visit, as my hon. Friend suggests.
This year commemorates all those who fought in the Falklands conflict. We should not forget the sacrifice made by many to liberate those islands from an aggressive Argentinian invasion by a dictator. Many of us will not forget that conflict: it shaped our own childhood and upbringing. My own regiment served there, alongside those of other hon. Members, who will know veterans well. To send a force 8,000 miles to stand for Britain’s values and uphold international law was some achievement then; it would be some achievement now.
On behalf of the many thousands of Falklands veterans I represent, I fully endorse the Secretary of State’s comments about the Falklands war.
I pay tribute to the Royal Welsh Battalion, which is proudly leading NATO’s battle group in Estonia as part of our forward presence and which took part in NATO’s Exercise Hedgehog in the Baltics last month. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Welsh soldiers will continue to play a key role as we step up our efforts to support our NATO allies in eastern Europe?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point on behalf of the Welsh soldier, the Welsh airman—RAF Valley is on Anglesey—and the Welsh Navy. The Welsh are at the forefront of our responses around the world: not only did the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Welsh cavalry, recently return from Mali, but the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh is one of the main battle groups in Estonia enhancing the forward presence. Wales adds a lot to the United Kingdom and to the British Army. Without a Welshman in your platoon, you are not doing very well, in my experience.
On the eve of the 40th anniversary, we remember the sacrifice in liberating the Falklands and we reaffirm the significance of the islands to our future security.
During the Defence Secretary’s visit to Kyiv in recent days, two Brits fighting with the Ukrainians have faced a Russian show trial and another has been reported killed. How many former British forces personnel are fighting in Ukraine?
The simple reality is that we do not know how many ex-soldiers are fighting in Ukraine. Obviously, at the beginning of the conflict, we all publicly made statements to try to deter people from doing so. The two former soldiers who have been captured were themselves living in Ukraine or half-Ukrainian. Like others, I am saddened by the loss of the other former veteran who was reported killed recently. As far as the individuals are concerned who decided of their own volition to go and fight separately from the United Kingdom or any of its serving personnel, we are unaware of the total number, although there are estimates.
But did the Defence Secretary even ask the question when he was in Ukraine last week? Four weeks ago, a Minister said that
“we are working with the Government of Ukraine to understand how many British Nationals have joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces.”
It is time that the Defence Secretary answered that question.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 14 other European countries have now rebooted their defence plans, their defence spending and their defence procurement. Why will the Defence Secretary not do the same?
Let me respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s last point first. No one has said that I will not do the same. What I have said is that we are threat-based. We have in fact increased the number from 72,000 to 72,500, and increased that number by a further 500, to a total of 73,000. We have done that in response to a need as we shake up the Army.
As for the next few years, Members may recall that our spending review started earlier than those in the rest of Whitehall. We have a commitment to continue with 2% for the duration of that spending review. We were the first country in Europe—we seem to get punished by the Opposition for this—to increase our spending significantly to supply weapons to Ukraine to ensure that we keep pace with many of the threats that we face around Europe.
I did raise the question of the veterans and former veterans who are fighting in Ukraine with my Ukrainian counterpart, and indeed we have asked that question on a number of occasions. It is of course for the Ukrainians to answer and to find those details, but I have some sympathy with the Ukrainians: they are fighting a war, and not one or two or three but tens of thousands of their citizens are on that front. I think that is important.
I think the hon. Gentleman could have written that 20 years ago, when his party was not delivering a national shipbuilding strategy or anything like one, did not have a shipbuilding pipeline as large as ours, did not invest in the shipyards in the way in which we are going to, and did not do anything other than spout this same old claptrap. The simple reality is that we will be building more ships in Britain with British supply chains, whether that is for the Navy or for other Government Departments. As ever, the hon. Gentleman is playing to the crowd.
My hon. Friend has hit upon the key point. For the last two months or so, the discussion with the Ukrainians has followed two tracks. There is the discussion about how to support them in the fight tomorrow, and there is the discussion about how to ensure that they are secure within their own borders whenever this conflict eventually ends. The UK is to the fore in both those efforts, bringing together international support and, increasingly, mobilising the UK defence industry.
The Royal Navy continues to accelerate its drive towards uncrewed capabilities, including remotely operated and fully autonomous systems, and to exploit opportunities for advances in automation technology, both above and below the water. The minehunting capability programme is full of opportunity, and I know that my hon. Friend will want to speak to the Minister for Defence Procurement about the role that businesses in his constituency can play in it.
I know that the hon. Lady will be familiar with the phrase “dodgy dossier”, because I remember that her party produced one, historically. The procurement dossier that Labour has produced is so dodgy that it actually has double counting. It includes £594 million for the Warrior sustainment programme followed by the integrated review project cancellation of £540 million, and it adds those together to make £1 billion. It also confuses the retirement of old systems, claiming it as waste. I am sure she would not like to go to war with old equipment that is out of date, and that she would rather it was retired and replaced with modern equipment. Her party has added retirement to the dossier and pretended that it was waste. Labour needs to do a lot better if it wants to be taken seriously on defence procurement and the defence of the realm.
I know that the Romanian Government were grateful for the visit of the APPG. On Friday morning, I held a trilateral with the Romanian and Ukrainian deputy Defence Ministers. Snake Island was to the fore in our discussions, but what we concluded is not for public consumption.
Will the Defence Secretary pay tribute to Keith Thompson, who has been the driving force in organising this coming weekend’s events in Hull to mark the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, as well as the role that the requisitioned North sea ferry, the Norland, played in transporting the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment to the Falklands and the vital role that the merchant navy played in that conflict?
Yes, I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady’s constituent and thank him for that work. We often forget that it was not just the Army, the Marines and the frontline Navy; it was also the merchant ships of the merchant navy, and people who had just gone to sea on a normal day who suddenly found themselves on the way to the south Atlantic. Their bravery was amazing, and we should all be great admirers of their efforts to help save lives in the thick of battle. I want to thank her and her constituent for their work.
I totally agree that this is an important subject. My experience of the cookhouse in Aldershot has always been very satisfactory, but we acknowledge that there is a great variation in the service, which is why we are re-letting this contract for an improved service by 2025.
I would like to associate myself with the Defence Secretary’s remarks about the Falklands war. Given his recent comment that the Army is woefully behind the rest of the public sector in enabling women to have careers, can he tell us what opportunities he is taking to drive diversity in leadership positions in the armed forces? For example, how many women are on the Army Board?
On that last question, I am happy to confirm the previous announcement that we now have General Nesmith on the Army Board, the first woman to hold that position. I think the hon. Lady would agree—I am happy to listen to her ideas—that there is a long way to go in this regard, especially in the Army but across all three services. We have set out a lot of steps, especially in reply to the report from my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on women in the armed forces, but there is still more to do, and I assure the hon. Lady that this is one of my top priorities. It is at the top of my inbox every time there is a problem, but also when there are ideas about what more we can do.
Yes, it is. We committed £6.6 billion to research and development in the defence Command Paper to make sure we are fighting not yesterday’s battles but tomorrow’s. We are taking steps to work internationally and on a sovereign basis to see how we can defend against both hypersonic and other types of missiles.
I pay tribute to the brave men and women who fought for us in the Falklands. I was here at the special Saturday sitting, and I am still proud of what we accomplished. If there were to be a similar occurrence now, would we have the capacity to act in the way we did?
I grew up in an Army family, and I represent many Army families in Clwyd South. I therefore welcome Wales Armed Forces Day in Wrexham on Saturday. Does the Minister agree that the newly appointed veterans commissioner for Wales, Colonel James Phillips, clearly demonstrates the UK Government’s practical commitment to supporting military families across Wales who sometimes have very complex problems relating to welfare, mental health and other issues?
President Biden has made clear the USA’s respect for Taiwan’s sovereignty and its willingness to provide support to that nation. What discussions have Ministers had with our international allies about joining this recognition and any potential defence-specific support?
Taiwan is obviously a clear and growing point of tension in the Pacific. I regularly speak to our allies, both in NATO and further afield, about those tensions. Here in the United Kingdom we are reminded of Hong Kong’s recent experience and what the read-across could mean for other people who are trying to live freely and within the rule of law. The UK’s position is that the problems between Taiwan and China should be resolved through peaceful and diplomatic means.
This week marks the passing of that doughty Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament campaigner ex-Monsignor Bruce Kent. While paying their due respect, will the Government nevertheless reassert the fact that, as long as other countries have nuclear weapons, Britain must never give up its nuclear deterrent?
I remember, in my formative years politically, asking the late Mr Bruce Kent a question when I was at school. I do not think I asked the question very well, and I do not think he answered it very well, either. The reality is that Britain’s position is one of multilateral disarmament. It is not a position of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House of the parity of esteem between veterans with physical injuries and those with psychological illnesses sustained during service? Will he or one of his team meet me to discuss what support is available to a number of my constituents and other working-age veterans across the UK who are struggling with mental ill health as they adjust to civilian life?
Last week I had the pleasure of joining my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) in opening Veterans Connect in the great town of Tunstall. Four fantastic veterans set up this fantastic organisation, which is helping homeless people across our community in north Staffordshire. Will the Minister thank Alex, Lee, Trevor and others for all their fantastic work?
I echo the Secretary of State’s comments on the 40th anniversary of the Falklands war. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the attack on HMS Glamorgan, the last of the 22 ships to be hit during the conflict, with the loss of 14 lives—82 lives were lost on ships altogether. Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to all those who lost their life, and to those who came back with lifelong injuries, both physical and mental?
I think that the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), on the Opposition Front Bench, was talking about my constituent. If not, there are two people who served for 38 years in the Royal Engineers and are struggling with multi-year battles with Veterans UK tribunals on a number of things. Some veterans are telling me that the Minister’s positive experience of VUK is not what they are experiencing on the ground, particularly on mental health issues. Will he meet me to discuss the case and perhaps—this is similar to what my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) said—talk about mental health with veterans?
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all the members of the armed forces who worked so hard to make the Queen’s platinum jubilee such a success? In particular, will he thank those from RAF Valley for the spectacular fly-past over Buckingham Palace? Perhaps he would like to come to Anglesey to thank them himself.
I was there only a few weeks ago. I think the whole House would like to give our thanks to the armed forces for the work they did over that weekend and for all the hours of rehearsal they do, sometimes in the middle of the night, which none of us ever see, to make things very special. From Trooping the Colour on the Thursday all the way through to the pageant, our armed forces did us proud, as did a number of the armed forces from the Commonwealth, which were also in attendance and on parade that day. Our armed forces are absolutely part of the fabric of our society and part of the greatness of the United Kingdom. I am delighted not only that they were there on parade, but that it was a privilege for us to see the royal family so held in high regard by those men and women of the armed forces.
UK Gross Domestic Product
Like other advanced economies, the UK is affected by global economic challenges, including the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine. As the Chancellor said a few weeks ago,
“A perfect storm of global supply shocks is rolling through our economy simultaneously.”
At the same time, the impact from the wind-down of the national covid testing scheme is dragging on UK GDP data. Overall, the figures for April, published by the Office for National Statistics this morning, show that output fell by 0.3% on the month, with the services sector falling by 0.2%, and production and construction declining by 0.6% and 0.4% respectively. As the ONS notes, the fall in GDP on the month is driven by the impact of the wind-down of the NHS covid testing programme. Testing volumes fell by 70% from March to April, which, alongside the impact from vaccines, detracted 0.5 percentage points from GDP growth in April. Looking through the impact of falling tests, we see that the rest of the economy actually grew by 0.1%. Importantly, GDP is still 0.9% above pre-pandemic levels, and support provided over the past two years has put the UK economy in a good position to deal with any economic headwinds, with record numbers of employees on payrolls and a strong economic recovery from the pandemic.
As the Chancellor has also said:
“The next few months will be tough. But where we can act, we will.”
The Government are taking significant action to support households this year, having announced an additional £15 billion of further support for households just over a fortnight ago, on top of the £22 billion announced at the spring statement. In the longer term, the Chancellor has set out his vision for a lower tax, higher growth, higher productivity economy based on the three pillars of capital, people and ideas. The plan for growth and the tax plan represent an ambitious strategy for boosting growth and productivity in the years ahead. The Government’s priority going forward is to put those into effect, including through significant investment in infrastructure, skills and innovation.
We will of course keep the data under close review, and that includes monitoring the economic impact of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but our focus will continue to be on the best solution for all: a growing economy that supports high-wage, high-skilled jobs.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. GDP down 0.3% in April. A fall of 0.1% in March. Services down 0.3%. Production down 0.6%. Construction down 0.4%. Inflation at 9%. Tax promises broken. The trade deficit at £24 billion. The pound falling against the dollar. The director general of the CBI saying business leaders are “in despair”. The OECD forecasting that, next year, the UK will have the lowest growth of any G20 economy, with the sole exception of—Russia.
That is what the Government are presiding over. Britain is going backwards under the Conservatives. Our businesses, universities and people are all great, but they do not have the partner they need in this Government. The chaos is affecting more and more areas of life: passports, driving licences, GP appointments, A&E waiting times, airports and delays in court trials. Time after time what we used to take for granted is now another feature of Boris Johnson’s backlog Britain.
Those on the Government Benches had a chance to change direction last week. They had a chance to install new leadership that might have given us some hope of a greater sense of grip on all this. But what did they do? They decided that the best person to turn the economy round, to sort out the chaos and the backlogs, and to bring the qualities of focus, attention to detail and sustained delivery to these matters was the current Prime Minister. That was the judgment they made.
The question for the Minister today is simple: after making that judgment—I do not know what he did, but that was the collective judgment—and choosing to continue with the leadership that brought us here, what will the Government do now to turn matters around, and why on earth should anyone believe that the result will be different from what went before?
As ever, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I do not accept his characterisation of the situation. What I said in my response to him was that today’s data point can be explained by the specific impact of the rapid fall-off in the testing programme. Mass testing ended on 1 April, and that constituted 0.5% of headline growth. We have also seen the impact of the Russian invasion and the impact on the supply chain across the economy. Many economies across the G7 are experiencing a significant impact on their economies and their level of growth.
The Chancellor has been clear in his long-term plan for growth and in his Mais lecture that the Government are committed to investing in research and development, investing in infrastructure and looking at how we can adjust the fiscal burden for business, in particular, to enable that growth to happen. Of course, in subsequent fiscal events, those options remain open to him.
Why are the UK Government the only Government of an advanced country making a big increase in the tax burden this year and next, at exactly the same time as we are seeing very necessary monetary tightening to control inflation and a huge hit to net incomes from that inflation itself? Is that big tax rise not bound to make things worse and slow the economy too much?
We always listen carefully to my right hon. Friend. As he will know, we cut taxes earlier this year for hundreds of thousands of businesses though an increase in the employment allowance. We have also slashed fuel duty and halved business rates for eligible high street firms. We will continue to support growth through tax incentives, including the annual investment allowance and the super deduction—the biggest two-year business cuts in modern British history.
As I said in my response to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) a few moments ago, we look forward to working closely with him and Back Benchers to construct the right agenda going into the future.
It is interesting that the Minister talks about the covid testing scheme. Is it perhaps the case that the covid testing scheme is artificially inflating GDP, rather than the opposite way around? The UK is lagging behind every single OECD country apart from Russia. Manufacturing, construction and services are all suffering. That has all been made worse by a Brexit that Scotland did not vote for.
British Chambers of Commerce research shows that input inflation is running at 17%. Businesses simply cannot afford to absorb those costs when faced with increased energy prices with no additional support, employee costs through the national insurance tax hike—a tax on jobs—and wage pressures, so will he provide extra support to businesses to protect them and their consumers through this period, or will he wait until these additional costs in the supply chain are further passed on to the already struggling consumer? How does he expect people to eat when food prices are soaring, and for manufacturers to make things in factories when they cannot afford to get the goods to produce them never mind get them out into the shops and have people buy them?
Most people across the country will be very grateful to the Prime Minister for the judgments made on the vaccine roll-out and on the testing regime that followed. Quite obviously, given the scale of that intervention, it was going to have a significant impact on the economy and the growth figures overall. The Government have never been complacent about the impact of the inflation levels on the people of this country. That is why just two weeks ago the Chancellor introduced a significant package of interventions in a number of dimensions that focused on the most vulnerable—those who will not be able to earn more, particularly those on means-tested benefits, the disabled and universal additional support for pensioners. Respectfully, I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of how the Government have handled the situation, but those are the facts, as she well knows.
The Minister will be acutely aware of the perfect storm of inflation and surging energy costs, which UKHospitality warned about just last week. Kate Nicholls warned that the sector is facing as big a crisis, if not bigger, than there was during the pandemic. One suggestion is for a temporary reduction in VAT on business energy bills from 20% to 5%. Is the Treasury is tempted by that idea to stave off what could otherwise be significant job losses in the sector?
My hon. Friend always makes constructive suggestions. He will be aware of the interventions that have already been made, including the cut on VAT on energy efficiency measures, equivalent to £240 million, as well as the £6.7 billion of investment across this Parliament in energy efficiency measures. None the less, he makes a reasonable point and I am very happy to follow it up with him and discuss it further as we construct that set of interventions in the autumn.
It is, I think, clear that, as anticipated, we are starting to see an economic penalty from the new barriers to our trade with the European Union. Does the Minister agree that we need to work hard to improve relations with the EU with a view to reducing some of the barriers that are causing problems for us?
Absolutely. We must always, with all our trading partners, seek to develop the best possible relationships. That has been my objective in conversations that I have had on visits to Berlin, Luxembourg, Madrid and the US over the past six months on financial services and as regards the work that the right hon. Gentleman is undertaking as we advance the conversation with the Swiss on the mutual recognition agreement. I was there last week to build on that. It is absolutely right that we build those trading relationships in goods and services across the globe in markets that are mature and in those that are yet to develop fully.
With the largest ever research and development budget, the Government are securing the UK’s status as a science superpower. Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to growth that status is vital in making sure that we attract high-skilled, high-paid jobs? Does he also agree that locating the Advanced Research and Invention Agency in the west midlands will allow the west midlands to lead the growth that the UK needs and deserves?
My hon. Friend predictably, and reasonably, makes a plea for investment to be located in his constituency, but he also draws attention to the significant investment of £20 billion in R&D by 2024-25. He is right to stress that to get a high-productivity, faster-growing economy we need to make those sorts of strategic investments and build on what we have already done. I will look constructively at his suggestion about his constituency and region.
Figures published recently by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs show that the number of UK businesses exporting goods to the European Union fell by an astonishing 33% between 2020 and 2021. Do the Government recognise that the cost, bureaucracy and paperwork that they have imposed on businesses, particularly small ones, are the principal cause of that loss of export opportunities for British firms?
No, I do not. I accept that that was a challenging period for economies everywhere. There was a period of adjustment, and the Government will be working in a co-ordinated fashion to remove any frictions and to ease the passage of trade, particularly for smaller businesses.
Much of the discussion in the House today has been about the fiscal aspects of inflation, but a huge part of the rise in inflation in this country and across the western world is the monetary system, in particular quantitative easing, which has continued long beyond the financial crisis, when it was put in place. We all know the Bank of England is independent in setting interest rates, but what is the Treasury’s view on working with the Bank of England to bring down inflation, bearing in mind the significant impact that quantitative easing has had on that? Will the Minister say a bit more about that?
As hon. Members would expect, the Treasury has a strong and frequent dialogue with different members of the Bank of England and deputy governors. However, our main inflation tools for an independent monetary policy—fiscal responsibility and supply-side activism—will remain the best weaponry for dealing with the challenges we face, and we will work in a co-ordinated fashion with an independent Bank of England to address those pressures.
Today’s figures should be a wake-up call to the Government. Instead of reciting a list of events that are affecting other countries across the world and being better dealt with by other Governments in the G7, do the Government not recognise that the time has come to change direction? They must get away from the massive tax hikes that are pulling the squeezed middle into debt and creating misery across this country—tax hikes that include the £11 billion national insurance hike, which was wiped out by the Government’s own incompetence in not insuring against the money created for quantitative easing. Will the Government recognise that they are getting it wrong and, instead of making excuses, act to change things?
The Government will always look constructively at all the options. In light of the representations made across this House and across the country for more interventions to support those facing increases in the cost of energy at home, we made those interventions. The Chancellor has made clear that we will reform and cut taxes on investment in the autumn to spur that growth and productivity, and we are working closely with industry on the best possible way to make those interventions.
Like most MPs, in my constituency I have businesses that the Government spent billions of pounds supporting through the pandemic that are now incredibly stressed by the current conditions. Most understand that the state cannot fix everything; they are looking at wider options and not expecting hand-outs. UK hospitality businesses are asking the Government to look at pausing green levies for businesses to relieve energy cost pressures, as other countries are doing or are considering. Will my hon. Friend say more about what the Treasury are looking at in that regard and whether that is something they are seriously considering?
In Gloucestershire, as across the country, we remain focused on the challenges facing both small and large businesses. As my hon. Friend mentions, during the pandemic we made a number of sector-specific interventions for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, which will continue to benefit from the business rates holidays. We are keen to ensure, however, that we achieve better productivity, with more investment in capital, in ideas and in measures that will lift us to a new level of growth. That means interventions across the whole economy.
In the past week or so I have been contacted by a number of community nurses at their wits’ end because it is costing them more to travel to see patients than they can claim back in mileage allowance, and they are not alone—taxi drivers, couriers and others, such as domiciliary care workers, are struggling because of the surge in fuel costs. The Government have already taken 5p off fuel duty, but given that they have raked in far more in increased VAT receipts since then, how much more has the Treasury recovered in VAT receipts this year?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that figure at the Dispatch Box at this point, but we have introduced timely, temporary and targeted interventions. We recognise with a real sense of empathy the fact that people will be struggling. We have been very clear from the time we made this series of announcements and over the past six months that we will not be able to ameliorate the impact of every single additional cost. The key intervention we need to make is to encourage that growth and productivity in the economy in the context of fiscal responsibility and the commitments we have made to intervene so far.
My right hon. Friend has rightly spoken about the importance of growth in bringing together people, capital and ideas, but there is a fourth element, which is regulation. What Conservatives want to see is a comprehensive Government strategy for light-touch, pro-growth deregulation. Can he tell me what he is doing in his Department to set an example to other Departments of achieving better regulation that will support growth?
Yes, I can. In a few weeks’ time I shall introduce to the House a financial services and markets Bill that will fundamentally reset the way that our financial services industry, which constitutes 10% of the economy, will be regulated into the future. That will be underpinned by strong, independent world-class regulators in the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority, but with an obligation to look at competitiveness and global growth as a secondary objective. That is absolutely imperative. We must make sure that we have an economy that takes account of what is going on elsewhere and regulates accordingly.
In the coalition years, we heard from the Government about rebalancing the economy, and under Chancellor Osborne and the northern powerhouse, we were told that we were going to see the proceeds of growth fairly shared across the country. Will the Minister say something about the flagship levelling-up agenda, how it will be implemented when we face a no-growth economy, and whether the levelling-up agenda will really mean levelling down for everybody?
No, it will not. It will involve targeted investments across the country in schemes that will give us a lift in productivity and address the fact that under previous Governments, despite all the rhetoric, there was not that reset in investment across other parts of the country and we did not see the level of growth that was anticipated.
I am grateful to the Treasury for the £77 billion package of support that will stand alongside hard-pressed families and drive the growth that we need to see. But as I drove into central London this morning I saw fuel prices cheaper than where I live in Brecon. Rural fuel costs are simply horrendous, and with next to no public transport, that is really hampering growth in rural areas. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury will continue to monitor that aggressively?
The Minister has tried to explain away today’s disastrous figures by suggesting that it is mainly to do with the winding down of mass covid testing. That stretches credulity. Today the Office for National Statistics said:
“All main sectors contributed negatively to growth in April 2022”.
Does that not show that the problem is much more widespread than the Government are prepared to accept?
A recent report shows that Stoke-on-Trent is set to grow jobs third-fastest, so does my hon. Friend agree that the record of this Government economically should be judged by our jobs miracle and in particular our efforts to level up our whole country with better skills and better paid employment right across it?
Absolutely. It is clear we are seeing the best unemployment figures for well over a generation. It is very pleasing to see the impact that is having on constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. It is important that we build on that and look to increase that investment to get businesses investing in new capital and more productive jobs to increase productivity in the economy as a whole.
The Minister has already conceded that the Treasury wants to reduce friction with our European trading partners—that is the right thing to do—but can he tell the House whether Treasury policy agrees that this is the right time to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol and risk a trade war with Europe?
Does the Minister accept that one of the problems in lots of sectors is that they simply have not got enough staff to employ, let alone staff with the right skills? For instance, in the construction industry, there are projects on hold because they cannot get enough construction workers. We have farmers ploughing onions back into the fields, because they do not have enough people to harvest them. Last year, 25% of British strawberries did not get picked. We have bars, hotels and restaurants failing to open full-time because they do not have enough staff. How do we make sure that we have the staff—the workers—to be able to grow the economy?
The hon. Gentleman will also know that the Government invested in a seasonal workers scheme for 30,000 across agriculture, which has made a significant impact. We will continue to work with industry to see what further interventions can be made and need to be made.
Cuts to VAT on fuel duty are now beyond urgent. Some £46 of tax is paid on the average fuel tank, as fuel prices rocket to new highs. As households and businesses struggle, the Treasury is raking in additional billions in VAT on fuel, which is driving inflation across the whole economy. Finally, can we at last have a temporary 10% reduction in VAT on fuel to assist households, businesses and consumers and to help get inflation back under some kind of control, which will help everyone?
The hon. Lady will know that just two weeks ago, the Chancellor came to this Dispatch Box and made a series of targeted interventions, in a greater way than many were calling for, to give assistance to the most vulnerable in our society—to pensioners, to those on means-tested benefits and to the disabled—with more support for pensioners on top of that. She will also know that as we approach the fiscal event, we will look at the state of the economy and the best possible interventions to assist not only that growth narrative, but the most vulnerable.
It does not shock me that the Labour party uses any opportunity it has to come in here and bash Britain and sneer at places such as Stoke-on-Trent. It is thanks to this Conservative Government and a Conservative-led council that thousands of new jobs have been created through the successful Ceramics Valley enterprise zone. We also have the 500 new Home Office jobs and up to 1,700 new jobs thanks to the Kidsgrove town deal. Does the Minister agree that it is this Government who are putting places such as Stoke-on-Trent firmly on the map?
I do not think Stoke-on-Trent could have a better advocate than my hon. Friend, with his passionate desire to highlight the successes going on in his constituency. I absolutely agree that it is that positivity, and focusing on interventions that make a real difference to people who live in his community, that people will remember as we move forward.
I thank the Minister for his answers. In Strangford, small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of our society. Some of them are crumbling at present due to high transport costs, which are heightened in Northern Ireland due to the Northern Ireland protocol. Can he confirm whether the Chancellor and the Treasury will follow other nations in substantially reducing fuel duty to aid transport costs as well as disposable incomes for families, so that money can go back into the local economy and everyone will gain?
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about the challenges facing the rural economy, of which I know that he has great personal experience and experience in his constituency. That is why, as we made clear, there will be an additional £500 million to supplement the household support fund and bring it to a total of £1.5 billion, so that local authorities can give additional money to those most affected where existing measures have not been helpful.
I did offer to convert the following urgent question to a statement but I got a message that that was no longer agreed. The Minister will say that he cannot say much at this stage, but we were happy to work with the Department and put on a statement at 7 o’clock. What bothers me is the mixed messages coming out of the Department, which said, “We want a statement,” so I granted it, then, “We don’t want a statement,” so I had to go back to a UQ. There we are; at least we are all now aware of what has gone on today.
There are a number of live court cases on the policy of relocations to Rwanda. Some of them might not formally be engaged by the sub judice resolution, because they concern ministerial decisions, but for the avoidance of doubt, I am exercising a waiver in relation to the sub judice resolution on this matter, on the grounds that it is of national importance. That means that Members are able to refer to the issue on an ongoing basis.
Asylum Seekers: Removal to Rwanda
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary whether she will make a statement on the planned removal of asylum seekers to Rwanda.
Our world-leading migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda is a global first and will change the way we collectively tackle illegal immigration. This is a global problem that requires international solutions.
Rwanda is a fundamentally safe and secure country with a track record of supporting asylum seekers. Individuals will be relocated to Rwanda and have their asylum claims processed by the Rwandan authorities. The partnership is an important part of our reform of the broken asylum and migration system. I welcome the High Court’s decision on Friday on this, but, with legal proceedings ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further than to say that we comply fully with our legal and international obligations.
We aim to move forward with a policy that offers new opportunities for those relocated to Rwanda and enables us to focus our support on those most in need of our help. The British public rightly expect us to act. Indeed, inaction is not a responsible option when people are drowning and ruthless criminals are profiting from human misery. Decisive leadership is required to tackle the smuggling of people through illicit and criminal means. This evil trade must be stopped.
The principle of the plan is simple: people will no longer be able to pay evil people smugglers to go to a destination of their choice while passing through sometimes several safe countries. If someone comes from a safe country, they are picking the UK as a preferred destination.
Uncontrolled immigration reduces our capacity to help those who most need our support. It puts intolerable pressure on public services and local communities. Long-lasting change will not happen overnight; it requires a long-term plan. As I have said many times before in this House, there is no one single solution, but this Government will deliver the first comprehensive overhaul of the asylum system in decades.
I sincerely thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
This is not world-leading policy. If anything, this leads to the total shredding of the refugee convention. This cash-for-deportations policy is akin to state-sponsored trafficking and transportation. What is more, it is a grim political stunt being rushed out to shore up the Prime Minister again. Why else was this flight organised before the relevant provisions of the horrible Nationality and Borders Act 2022 were brought into force? What is the Minister’s explanation for that?
More fundamentally, why are Ministers pressing ahead when even the most basic safeguards are not in place? I fear that the age assessment processes are totally inadequate and will see children sent to Rwanda. As I understand it, such a difficult process is being crammed into a 30-minute interview with two immigration officers, with young people left unaware of their rights to challenge the decision that they are an adult. Is that accurate? How on earth can such vulnerable people as trafficking victims, torture survivors and LGBT people be identified by a basic screening interview, which is another process that the Minister know takes a long time? Why is it permissible at all for trafficking survivors to be part of the inadmissibility procedures?
Access to legal advice is crucial, so let me ask: can the Minister confirm how many of those scheduled to be on the flight tomorrow have not yet been able to seek legal advice? There is no functioning joint committee or monitoring committee yet, so how can it possibly be right to proceed when these basic oversight bodies are not yet established? He knows that the overwhelming balance of legal opinion, including that of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is that this policy is totally illegal. Surely, if the Government had any final shred of respect for the rule of law, they would at least wait until a final ruling in July before commencing this policy.
This is a policy that will not work on its own awful terms. Will the Minister confirm that the Rwandan asylum system has capacity only for a couple of hundred new cases each year, and has he been made aware of the evidence that, even now, more risky routes are already being tried by smugglers as a result?
In conclusion, this will not hurt horrendous people smugglers one jot, but it will badly hurt those who have fled persecution and sought protection here, and this policy brings shame on the UK internationally.
I am grateful to the SNP spokesman for his questions, and it is fair to say that we will have to agree to differ on this. We have had many debates over the last few months on this issue, and I will comment on the broad issues he has raised, while of course reflecting the fact that there are ongoing judicial proceedings.
First, I want to say that I feel the hon. Member’s use of language at the beginning of his remarks was not the sort I would expect from him. He is usually temperate in his use of language, but to compare the new partnership with human trafficking is, frankly, plain wrong and very offensive not just to this Government, but, I would argue, to the Rwandans.
The hon. Member knows full well, because I have said so repeatedly, that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will not be transferred as part of this partnership. There will be a thorough screening process in place, and that is ongoing. Of course, cases are looked at on a case-by-case basis, taking proper account of all the relevant circumstances. On the point about access to legal advice, people are able to access legal advice in detention in the usual way.
It probably has not escaped the hon. Member’s notice, and the House’s notice, that the UNHCR places asylum seekers in Rwanda, which I think speaks volumes about its judgment. [Interruption.] Hang on! The shadow Home Secretary likes to chunter from a sedentary position, but she will have her opportunity in a moment. The truth is that the UNHCR, through its actions in placing people in Rwanda, clearly believes that it is safe for people to be placed there. We have of course been through our own thorough processes to make judgments with our country information notices, and that is the right and proper way of handling this.
Again—I have said this many times before, but it bears repeating—we will always live up to our international obligations and the laws that we are supposed to be subject to.
Last week, the Home Affairs Committee visited Dover. On the morning we were there, a boat of 38 Albanians came in, and we met some of them. There is no war raging in Albania and there are no full-scale human rights abuses; it is a candidate country to join the EU. We need practical solutions to deal with people who are jumping the queue of genuine asylum seekers and refugees, to whom we owe a duty of care, so I hope the flights start and that message gets out loud and clear.
I have one query for the Minister. We interviewed Her Majesty’s inspector of borders and immigration last week, and there are still some concerns about the monitoring process that will be happening in Rwanda itself. When will he be giving us more details about those on the monitoring and scrutiny committee, and how will we ensure that the way people end up being treated once they are transported out to Rwanda will accord with the promises in the agreement?
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority and experience on these issues and is absolutely right that the status quo is not tenable; we cannot continue as we are, with people making dangerous crossings of the channel organised by evil criminal gangs who take people’s money and have no regard for whether they get here safely. That is why this has to stop, and we believe the partnership with Rwanda is an important part of the solution. On the specific point about the monitoring arrangements, I hope to be able to set those out to the House soon.
The Home Office chaos over the last few days has shown why this scheme is completely unworkable, deeply unethical and extortionately expensive, and why it risks increasing criminal people trafficking and smuggling rather than solving the problem.
Let us look at what has emerged in the past few days. The Home Office has admitted it has been trying to send victims of torture to Rwanda; is the Minister happy with that shameful policy? We have learned that Rwanda does not have the capacity, caseworkers, translators or lawyers to deal with cases; it often only has one official in charge of putting cases together. The Home Office has ignored UNHCR warnings on Rwanda’s record, including the shooting dead of 12 refugees. We have learned, too, that costs are shooting up as the UK taxpayer will have to fund ever more support in Rwanda; can the Minister tell us if that has been agreed and whether we have a final figure on top of the £120 million? The chief inspector says there has been no impact on deterrence on boats and gangs, and there is evidence instead that the Rwanda and Israel refugee relocation deal led to more trafficking and smuggling, not less.
The Home Office is failing to do the practical things we need: instead of strengthening the National Crime Agency work with France to crack down on criminal gangs, the Home Office has asked the agency to draw up plans for 20% cuts. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? Instead of speeding up asylum decisions, it is only making half as many decisions as five years ago and, because it is failing to take decisions, offloading responsibility.
There is lots of noise from the Minister: never taking responsibility, blaming everyone else. This plan is not just unworkable, unethical and expensive; it is also profoundly un-British, ignoring our British values of decency and common sense. It is time to think again.
I have to say that I think it would be helpful if the shadow Home Secretary were to think in the first place, because we have not had a credible Opposition policy to tackle this issue. I have said many times that I would be delighted to hear a credible policy from those on the Benches opposite, and I think the British people deserve to hear such a policy, but I think we will be waiting for a long time to get that, if at all.
The right hon. Lady raised a number of points. First, she claimed the policy is both unworkable and extortionate; it is difficult to comprehend it being possible for it to be both of those things at once. [Interruption.] Well, I am convinced that this policy is going to work and will make a difference, shutting down the evil criminal gangs that take people’s money, put their lives at risk and have no regard for whether they get here, while also providing resettlement opportunities that are properly supported—support around skills, around jobs, around opportunity—in Rwanda.
Our approach to this is a world first. This is not comparable to the sorts of proposals perhaps developed elsewhere; it is a different approach. The right hon. Lady will also recognise that other countries are looking at similar arrangements.
I repeat that we will live up to our international obligations under both the refugee convention and the ECHR at all times. The fact is that the UNHCR places refugees in Rwanda, so I again make the point that it clearly believes people will be properly supported and cared for and that they will be safe. I think that judgment is significant in all this.
On cost, as we have clearly set out to the House previously, we will be supporting ongoing running costs around this policy that are equivalent to the sums we spend on processing cases in the asylum system here in the UK.
On French co-operation, we of course already do that, but there is no one single solution that will resolve this issue of itself. We want to go further; we want to deepen that co-operation with our friends and neighbours to tackle this issue as it is a global problem that needs global solutions, and through the new partnership we are of course taking that co-operation further.
Finally, I will again just pose this question and ponder it for a moment: we have asked before whether the Opposition would cancel the Rwanda plan in the unfortunate event that they were in government. We have not yet heard an answer to that; perhaps at some point today we might have one.
Order. May I just say to those who were late into the Chamber that they will not be called? The rules are clear; I gave three minutes, and I am sorry, but I cannot take questions from those who came in after that. It is not my fault that the Whips did not send a message out.