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Topical Questions

Volume 716: debated on Monday 13 June 2022

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.

T2. The United Kingdom was the first country to supply military aid to Ukraine, and since then it has supplied thousands of anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft systems and armoured vehicles to Ukraine’s heroic armed forces. Can my hon. Friend assure me that this world-leading support will remain in place for as long as Russia’s illegal invasion continues? (900442)

I can certainly give that assurance. We will give the Ukrainians as much as we can. We will support them with logistics, training and equipment to give them every chance of ensuring that Putin fails.

T4. It is now three months since the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State visited the Cammell Laird shipyard in my constituency for the launch of the national shipbuilding strategy refresh, but for all the lofty promises that were made on that day, the Government continue to sell out British shipbuilding by refusing to guarantee work for UK shipyards. Let me give just one example. British yards are ready and able to deliver the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s new fleet solid support ships, but Ministers continue to refuse to rule out offshoring the lion’s share of the work on that critical project. Can the Secretary of State tell me when this Government will at last put British manufacturers first and adopt my party’s policy of building in Britain by default? (900445)

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.

T3.   I am sorry to inform the House that Jordan Gatley, from Glossop in my constituency, is reported to have been killed in Ukraine. Jordan had previously served in the British Army, and was fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. My thoughts and, I am sure, those of the whole House are with Jordan’s family. I am very proud of the support that Britain is giving the Ukrainian people to help them to defend their homeland, but, thinking forward to the longer term, may I ask the Secretary of State what steps are being taken to strengthen the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian armed forces to allow them to have a strong deterrent in the face of any future Russian aggression? (900444)

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.

T5. After the conference on disarmament in March, the UK representative said that while the situation in Ukraine would clearly have an impact on countries’ security calculations, it also“makes it more important than ever for the international community to revitalise our commitment to arms control and disarmament.”Can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts since then on reinvigorating multilateral nuclear disarmament talks? (900446)

T6. I recently had the pleasure of welcoming the Secretary of State for International Trade to Darlington to open the new control room at Modus Ltd, which has invested £24 million in pioneering underwater sea drone technology. What consideration has my hon. Friend given to potential uses for this technology in the defence sphere? (900447)

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.

T9. Labour’s dossier on waste in the MOD found that at least £15 billion had been wasted since 2010, and that £6 billion has been wasted since 2019 while the current Defence Secretary has been in post. Can he explain why the Government are failing to get a grip of the defence procurement process to secure value for money for the taxpayer? (900450)

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.

T7. Last week, as part of a visit to Romania by the all-party parliamentary group on Romania, I had the opportunity of visiting the NATO base near the port of Constanta where we saw the RAF contribution to the NATO no-fly zone, effectively, in the territorial waters of Romania. Those brave men and women are working 18 hours a day to ensure that there is no Russian incursion in such territories. What extra support can my right hon. Friend provide so that we lessen the strain that is being placed on those wonderful people? (900448)

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.

T8. An army marches on its stomach, but according to the recent armed forces continuous attitude survey, only 47% of our personnel use the service-provided catering facilities, of whom only 25% are satisfied with the service they receive from those contractors. Can the Minister please outline how he is going to improve the cookhouse experience? (900449)

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.

I salute the incredible bravery shown by Ukraine’s military. Following Russia’s use of hypersonic missiles, is the Department working at pace with partners across NATO to find an effective defence against such weaponry?

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?

I am pleased that we have parity of esteem and parity of provision through the excellent NHS “Op Courage,” which is available for veterans with mental health needs. I look forward to showcasing it to my hon. Friend.

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?

We do put on record our thanks and we remember those people with gratitude and a sense of deep compassion about the legacy that this conflict left.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. Does the Secretary of State agree that acts of wanton, unprovoked and unjustified aggression do not pay dividends?

My hon. Friend is right. If Britain stands for anything, it is that no matter whether 8,000 miles away in the south Atlantic or in Ukraine, Britain will stand up for its values and, if necessary, fight for them.

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?

I totally acknowledge that there have been problems with the awards of war pensions and armed forces compensation. I would be very happy to take up that case and expedite it, and write to my hon. Friend.

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.

After returning from the Falklands, I must congratulate those who continue to serve down in the south Atlantic, 7,000 miles from home. It would be really helpful if the Secretary of State reinstated the Chinook for them.