House of Commons
Monday 18 July 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we start today’s business, I want to say something about the exceptional heat. While the Chamber is kept at a consistently comfortable temperature, I accept that that is not the case in all offices and that Members have to move around the estate. Therefore, while the heat remains at this exceptional level and for the remainder of this week, I am content for Members not to wear jackets or ties in the Chamber, if they so choose. When the House returns in the autumn, I will expect Members to revert to wearing a jacket. The Deputy Speakers and I will strongly encourage male Members to wear ties when speaking in the Chamber—or you might find it harder to get called.
I can now announce the arrangements for the election of a new Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. Nominations are open and will close at 12 noon on Tuesday 13 September. Nomination forms are available from the Vote Office, the Table Office and the Public Bill Office. Following the House’s decision of 16 January 2020, only Conservative party Members may be candidates. If there is more than one candidate, the ballot will take place on Wednesday 14 September from 11 am to 2.30 pm in the Aye Lobby. A briefing note with more information about the election will be made available in the Vote Office.
Finally, before we come to Defence questions, I want to wish a very happy 80th birthday to Peter Hipkins. Peter has worked in the House since 1973 and is a service delivery co-ordinator in the In-House Services and Estates Team. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in wishing Peter a very happy birthday and thanking him for 49 years of service to the House.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am sorry that I did not get the memo on dress and attire earlier, Mr Speaker. What next? Flip-flops in the House?
Not in the Defence team, Mr Speaker. We shall leave that to others.
The Ministry of Defence’s sustained investment in industries across the UK supports over 200,000 jobs. Continued high and focused defence spending, supported by the changes we are making as part of the defence and security industrial strategy, will contribute to further economic growth and prosperity across the Union.
It is good to see that you are in fine, typical wit despite the heat, Mr Speaker.
As my right hon. Friend said, the UK defence sector is vital for jobs, the defence of this country and our allies, such as the Ukrainians, against Russian aggression. I am very proud of the contribution of Thales, which is located in my constituency. What is his Department doing to encourage defence contractors such as Thales to expand to meet this country’s increasing defence needs?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. Last week, I met the Defence Suppliers Forum, which includes Thales. We work closely together not only to indicate potential investments by defence in what we would need, but to make sure that we both meet our future requirements. Thales UK is one of Britain’s biggest and most advanced defence companies. Its NLAW—next generation light anti-tank weapon—systems are being used in Ukraine. I congratulate him on posing a question on Thales.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that procurement rules in the UK should recognise the socioeconomic benefit of investment as well as value for money in defence spending? To that end, will his Department ensure that more defence contracts are given to businesses based in Britain, such as our fantastic manufacturers in Teesside?
Yes, the defence industrial strategy embraces the social value model from the Treasury in competitive procurement and ensures that tackling economic inequality and equal opportunity are factors that are taken into consideration in procurement. Under my direction and that of the Minister for Defence Procurement, the Ministry of Defence always has regard for onshore sovereign capability and industrial skills.
Scottish businesses receive more investment than average across the UK from defence procurement, so how will my right hon. Friend continue to encourage the building of the skills that we need to help Scottish businesses to continue doing their bit in defence of our United Kingdom?
Our investment in Scotland was £1.99 billion last year, on projects such as the Type 26 in Govan, the Type 31 in Rosyth, airborne radars and advanced laser munitions in Edinburgh, which all help to sustain the skills base. It is incredibly important that the Scottish Government and the UK Government work with the further education colleges and the manufacturers to make sure that they invest in the skills that we so vitally need.
Yes, the fact that the Army will invest £41.3 billion in new capabilities over the next decade—including the likes of Boxer, Challenger 3 and two new major programmes that will develop in the near future, such as deep fires—will increase production and the employment base, which is also why it is so important that we invest in the skills at the same time. That will put UK land manufacturing back at the forefront of the international defence sector. It is a part of the sector that has lagged behind air and sea for too long.
May I make it simple for the Secretary of State? Defence jobs depend on orders, principally from his Department, and even export orders depend on British validation. He referred earlier to his support for the British defence industry, so why will he not now commit to ordering the fleet solid support ships to be built in British yards?
They will certainly be integrated in British yards, and a significant proportion will be built there. Let us have a look at what the bidders say; I have not yet seen the bids. As the right hon. Gentleman absolutely points out, British defence is dependent on British manufacturing, but British manufacturing is dependent on exports. If we are going to export our defence, as with Typhoon aircraft, Boxer and many of our exports, we often have to collaborate with international partners, because if we close the door on them, they are not going to buy British kit.
The Defence Secretary has just said that social value will be taken into consideration when awarding contracts. I have asked numerous parliamentary questions of the Department to try to quantify that; I have had no answer. I have asked the National Audit Office this question; it does not seem to know what is being used by the Department. Could the Defence Secretary clarify exactly what social value means, in quantifiable terms, when awarding contracts? It was clearly laid out in the excellent report that the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) did a few years ago.
In strategy documents such as the national shipbuilding strategy, we pledged a minimum 20% weighting for social value with naval ships. Social value is one of the weightings that we put on the contract. All contracts are obviously different from what we are seeking to buy, but within the weighting for social value, on which 20% of the total award is based, we can consider inequalities or the economic factors that I referred to earlier. I make sure that those factors are in there, and that they are adhered to. It is incredibly important.
The hostelries of east Fife benefit hugely from having Leuchars in east Fife. Similarly, when Joint Warrior comes to the north-west of my constituency, brisk trade is done. Does the Secretary of State accept that there are spin-off jobs that benefit from MOD expenditure the length and breadth of the UK?
Yes. I am delighted that military activity in the north-west and the east of Scotland brings in not just investment and industry—the £1.99 billion that I have talked about—but economic engagement with the community, which helps to sustain jobs, often in low season rather than the tourist season. It is Britain’s armed forces and British defence that help to keep us all safe, from the very tip of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency right down to the south-west.
But the defence jobs that the Defence Secretary is cutting are those of our armed forces personnel. There are 40,000 less than when Labour left office, and right now we are cutting another 10,000 jobs. At a time when there is greater global instability, we could be utilising these vital armed forces personnel to de-escalate risk using soft power, which our armed forces are so good at. Could the Defence Secretary tell the House whether this determination is driven by him, by the former Chancellor or by the professional leadership of our armed forces?
It is currently driven by an estimation of threat. As I have said a number of times at the Dispatch Box, if the threat changes, so must we. I do not call an increase of £24 billion in spending on defence a cut, in anybody’s book. However, what I do believe is that as the threat changes, so must we. We will continue to review that and, if the threat changes, I will be back.
May I congratulate the Defence Secretary and his team on ensuring that there has been continuity in defence while the rest of the Conservative Government have collapsed in chaos? Let me also say, lest this prove to be their last session of oral questions in their current jobs, that whatever our other disagreements, the Secretary of State’s cross-party working on Ukraine has helped to ensure that the UK has strong, unified support for the Ukrainians.
The right hon. Gentleman has been Defence Secretary since the Prime Minister, nearly two years ago, boosted defence spending and boasted that that would create 10,000 jobs every year. Only 800 new defence jobs have been created since then. Why the failure?
I should be happy for the right hon. Gentleman to show me that 800 figure, but, first and foremost, we have started to invest that £43.1 billion, or £41.3 billion, in the land scheme, a huge amount of which will be spent on Boxer and Challenger 3. That will generate an enormous number of jobs. Obviously, replenishing some of our ammunition stocks, many of which are made up and down the United Kingdom, will result in more jobs, and indeed the increased skills base for our work on the Dreadnought submarine.
Let me thank the right hon. Gentleman—my opposite number on the Front Bench—and, indeed, the whole House for the cross-party support on Ukraine. I also thank my team, my hon. Friends the Members for Wells (James Heappey), for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) and for Stourbridge (Suzanne Webb), Baroness Goldie, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy). It is not often that a team stick together in Parliament or indeed in Government and, whatever happens over the next few months, it has been a privilege for me to work with all of them.
We will continue to invest in the jobs—over 200,000. No doubt the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) will be attending Farnborough air show this week; it is an incredibly important event to showcase British industry.
The answer is simple: direct British defence contracts first to British firms and British jobs, starting with the Navy’s new support ships.
The right hon. Gentleman has been Defence Secretary since the Prime Minister also pledged, at the last election:
“We will not be cutting our armed services in any form.”
However, he then launched plans to cut the British Army by a further 10,000 troops. He uses the words “when the threats change”. With Ukraine, the threats that we face are greater and our obligations to NATO are greater, so will he now do what Labour has been urging the Government to do for more than a year, and rethink these cuts in the strength of the British Army?
As I have also said over the year to those on the Labour Front Bench, we have already reduced the original cut by 500 so that the numbers are increased from 72,500 to 73,000. As for the changing threats, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the defence command paper was written and delivered before the actual Russian invasion of Ukraine. I have said continually that we will review it, and we will obviously review the threat as it changes. That review of the threat is ongoing, which is why Defence Intelligence gives regular briefings, and next year, or the year after, is the Department’s spending moment.
Underpinned by a ringfenced £6.6 billion commitment to defence research and development, we are determined to innovate effectively and at scale. In addition to the well-established Defence and Security Accelerator programme this summer, we are launching the Defence Technology Exploitation programme, geared to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and their innovative role in defence.
As my hon. Friend will know, we face a continued and substantial increase in attacks from cyber-technology. It is important to note that that is happening every single day that our defences are being probed. What further efforts will my hon. Friend make to ensure that our defences are secure and those attacks are rebuffed?
My hon. Friend is right about that threat, and he is right to suggest that we need to be absolutely on our toes in dealing with it. The Department continuously integrates leading-edge innovative cyber-technologies into military operations, including intelligence agents for autonomous resilience cyber-defence and cyber-deception technologies, through the National Cyber Deception Laboratory. In doing so, we make active use of DASA funding and the excellent expertise that we have in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.
As we see in the tragedy that is happening to Ukraine, the normal boundaries of warfare are being ignored, with increasing risks of the employment of biological or viral warfare strategies. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to be at the forefront of innovation and research to deliver the best possible platforms to defend against these abhorrent strategies, and that the work that companies such as Kromek in Sedgefield are doing in collaboration with others deserves full support and indeed acceleration?
I am familiar with Kromek and its capabilities, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is often SMEs that produce the most brilliant ideas, often working with excellent British universities. DASA finds and supports new ideas within defence, and I am delighted that SMEs make up some two thirds of the projects that DASA supports. Funding is also available for specialist innovative projects through Defence Science and Technology.
Building on the comments about SMEs, the conflict in Ukraine has shown the benefits of technical innovation, particularly in the area of drones, and we have great SMEs in this country that are keen to help, so could my hon. Friend explain a bit more about how he is engaging with that sector?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, not least because it gives me the opportunity to say how keen the entire defence sector is to support our friends in Ukraine in every way we can. We recently completed the application phase of our Ukrainian innovation fund competition, and no fewer than 295 proposals designed to deliver capability to our friends in the Ukraine in the very short term were submitted from 205 different companies. Many are being closely scrutinised, including 17 that have been shortlisted for immediate attention, and I am proud to say that the majority of contributors were SMEs.
As we have seen from recent events in Ukraine, air combat is incredibly important to maintaining our national security and also, as has been mentioned, to maintaining our economic security-supporting businesses, such as Middleton-based MSM in my constituency. Can my hon. Friend tell me what is being done to ensure that the RAF retains its cutting-edge capabilities?
A brilliantly topical question, if I may say so, with Farnborough taking place this very week. I was delighted to announce last Friday at the Royal International Air Tattoo our £2.3 billion investment in ECRS mark 2 radar. This British-made world-leading electronic warfare capability will transform our combat air. It is just one example of how we will continue to invest in combat air as we develop our next generation future combat air system programme. We are currently investing some £2 billion into FCAS, with industry and international partners likewise investing in what will be an extraordinary combat capability.
A few moments ago, the Defence Secretary mentioned Typhoon and the advantages of international co-operation. Is this Government, post Brexit, prepared to have a clear strategy to say that co-operation across Europe is in the interests of defence jobs here in the United Kingdom?
It is absolutely the case that co-operation across Europe is helpful to our own defence sector and to the capabilities of the entire western alliance. A couple of weeks ago, I was there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation, a major procurement hub that we do jointly with the Germans, the Belgians, the Spanish and the Italians. There are umpteen programmes, including Typhoon, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and Boxer, on which we work very closely. Indeed, the ECRS mark 2 programme to which I have just referred will be integrated by a P4E integration programme across our Typhoon partners. It is absolutely right that we work with all our allies across NATO and they include many of our European friends.
If this is indeed the last Defence questions for the present Defence team, I would like to place on record my thanks to the Minister for Defence Procurement for his kindness and generosity since I started shadowing him over a year ago. He is well known in the House for his attention to detail and he has been a formidable opponent for me.
“Complacent”, “too traditional”, and “resistant to change or criticism” are some of the words used to describe the Department by the Public Accounts Committee. With a new urgency for innovation due to the clear and present danger created by the war in Ukraine, and with deep concerns that the Department cannot manage large projects such as Dreadnought, is the Minister confident that the Department can deliver the new battle-winning capabilities this country needs, on time and in budget?
I very much thank the hon. Gentleman, my shadow, for his question, which started so well. I am very grateful and I hope that we continue our ongoing relationship across the Dispatch Box. I understand his concerns. They have been voiced by the PAC and we have responded to the concerns raised. I am afraid that I am a details bore, and we do go through the projects project by project. Defence procurement is never easy—it is a tough thing to get right—and I have not yet found a state anywhere on earth that can really deliver to the kind of standards that I am sure the hon. Gentleman would wish to see. What I do know is that, in Defence Equipment and Support and throughout the MOD, we have people who are doing a great job. They are becoming more professional, and senior responsible owners are spending more time on the projects. We are making sure that projects are properly set up to succeed at the start and ensuring that they are properly funded. It is that combination, along with working through the defence and security industrial strategy with British companies, that will get us the results we all wish to see.
China: Countering Threats
I hope you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, as I recognise my counterpart Volodymyr Havrylov, the Ukrainian deputy Defence Minister, who joined us in the UK this week as we went to see the Ukrainian troops and sailors in training.
The Ministry of Defence and the whole of Government are taking active steps to counter state threats from China. In line with the NATO strategic concept, we are working with allies to increase our shared understanding and to protect against China’s coercive tactics. Together with other Departments, we have strengthened investment screening, the academic technology approval scheme and our export control regimes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the emerging threats from China show NATO was right to make cyber and space among the key frontiers, along with the traditional three, and that, when looking at defence procurement and how money is spent, we are world leading in these vital areas of defence?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, but we should not think that our competition with China is exclusively concentrated on the high-end warfighting capabilities that may or may not be required in the first and second island chains. Every single week, we compete with China for influence around the world. Maintaining the defence effort across the global south to protect our interests around the Commonwealth is every bit as important as preparing to stand alongside the US in anything that might happen in the Pacific.
Ukrainian Resistance to Russian Aggression
There have been multiple reports of Ukrainian resistance and partisan activity in areas under Russian control, particularly in the south of the country. This has likely forced Russia to dedicate additional security personnel to areas it has occupied. Russia has deported 2.5 million people from Ukraine to Russia through filtration camps, and it has also likely detained and interrogated thousands of Ukrainians to try to quell the resistance. Such action will not deter Ukraine, and it will not deter the United Kingdom from continuing to support Ukraine in her fight.
Following the Prime Minister’s generous offer to train up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers here in the UK, I was delighted to see the first cohort arrive earlier this month. How does the Defence Secretary assess the success of this programme so far, and how does he see it evolving over the summer?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has visited the sites, but I am delighted to have visited one of the sites twice. The first course completes this week, and it has been a learning experience for both sides. We will continue to invest in improving the course, and I am delighted that the international community has now joined us. The Dutch have declared that they will send people to support the training, and the New Zealanders were already here to help the Ukrainians on 105-mm artillery. We are talking with a number of other international partners about delivery.
It is amazing to see men aged from 18 to 50—some women will soon be part of the deployment—who sometimes got on the plane in tracksuits, being trained in basic battlefield skills, the law of armed conflict and so on. It is quite sobering that they will go from here to a war zone, where many of them will tragically make the ultimate sacrifice.
Putin obviously thought the west would fracture at the beginning, and it is good that the west has not fractured so far. It is also good that lots of different countries in the western alliance are providing military hardware, some of it lethal, to Ukraine, but one problem Ukraine is facing is that each country has procured something slightly different, and Ukrainian personnel have to be trained in how to use each of those different pieces of equipment. If we really are to stay in this for the long haul, will we not have to start developing military equipment that we can all give together so that Ukrainian personnel need only one training session rather than 34?
Yes. One strength of NATO is its adherence to standards across all the nations in it. At the moment, Ukraine is transiting from using Soviet era calibres and so on to using western weapons systems, which is why it is important to help train Ukraine in their application; they are not one in, one out—they need to be used differently. Having helped establish the international donor co-ordination centre near Stuttgart, Britain has added training into that, so we co-ordinate that properly. Most countries use that and engage, so that this is co-ordinated: we do not double book and we get this in the right place. I urge any other international partner who is thinking of offering training to co-ordinate through that system.
The Ukrainians are putting up a valiant and skilful resistance against Russian aggression, but we understand that they are currently losing about 100 men a day, with many more wounded. Given that rate of casualties in modern warfare, and given that the integrated review was published long before the Russian invasion, does the Secretary of State agree with me and many other Conservative colleagues that the supposed 10,000 cuts in the Army, which the new Chief of the General Staff has called “perverse”, should not only be reviewed, but completely reversed?
As we can see from our Conservative colleagues, defence spending is a key priority in the leadership race, and I recommend to all leadership candidates who are wanting votes from Conservative Members that they recognise its importance. The threat has changed and it warrants more spending on defence, because the world is more dangerous and anxious than it was—not only when we had the defence Command Paper but before Putin invaded.
With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I will not categorise it in six-month blocks. As long as I am Defence Secretary, we will continue with the investment and the support to Ukraine, be it in hardware or software. Will it continue through third parties? Yes, it will. Obviously, I cannot speak for the next Prime Minister, but I can say that all the candidates have clearly made a statement to such effect. It is important that we do not give up on this and we carry on, whoever comes in the next Government and after the next election. Putin’s one calculation is that we will all get bored and go back to doing other things. That is how Russia wins, but we are not going to let it win; we must stick at it, for as long as it takes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I, too, say that no matter what might happen in the reshuffle following the summer, the Ministry of Defence has worked co-operatively, particularly on Ukraine, during these past months? Whoever takes over or stays in place, it is to the benefit of all of us that that continues, whoever the new Prime Minister might be. Who knows, that job in Brussels might be what is waiting for the Secretary of State later this year. The situation in south and eastern Ukraine is getting much worse. Indeed, just in the past few days the Russian Defence Minister Shoigu has ordered an intensification of attacks on those parts of the country. With winter just around the corner, that is the point where there is the potential for allies to be picked off, although I do not lay that accusation at the Secretary of State’s door. Will he ensure that the training being given by the UK keeps pace with what is needed for that intensification and helps get the armed forces of Ukraine through the winter?
Let me thank the hon. Gentleman as well. I have never doubted the desire of anyone in this House to keep this country safe, no matter whether they are SNP, Labour, Liberal Democrat or anyone else, and I pay tribute to his constructive manner. We are learning as we go on the training. We started with a pledge to 10,000. As I said this morning in a meeting, I would be perfectly understanding if it ended up being 20,000 or if the Ukrainians sought to switch it at some stage to do something else. The casualties figures were given earlier by the former Armed Forces Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), and they have dropped for now, which is a good thing. Russia is facing the consequences of the HIMARS–high mobility artillery rocket system—and I can confirm to the House that our guided multiple launch rocket system is now in country and active, delivering the same munitions. That is having a significant effect on the Russians’ ability to prosecute the war. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the key is to get through the summer and make sure Ukraine is ready for the winter, and then we can continue to start pushing back Russia’s aggressive invasion.
Armed Forces: Size Targets
We continue to assess the threat posed by Russia and other competitors around the world. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), we are, of course, excited to see defence spending play such a prominent role in the leadership debate. We look forward to working with the new Prime Minister to assess the threat and look at what changes to defence capability might be needed thereafter.
As has been said, cutting 10,000 troops came from the integrated review, which predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The outgoing Chief of the General Staff has said that he is
“not comfortable with an Army of just 73,000”,
and Lord Dannatt has stated that the capability of the fighting force is
“well below what it should be”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27 June 2022; Vol. 823, c. 438.]
Given the answers we have heard from the Dispatch Box about increased spending, does that mean that Government Front Benchers agree that the cut of 10,000 should be reversed and that a much larger Army is required?
Nobody in the Ministry of Defence will ever argue against more money being spent on defence, but let us be clear: if more money were made available, there are other things that we would do more immediately than regrow the size of the Army. There are things that we would want to do about the lethality and deployability of the current force, to get more from what we have at the moment. If thereafter there is a discussion about regrowing, great, but there are other things that we would do first.
Autonomous weapons systems are likely to be force multipliers in the future. To what extent does that impact on the Minister’s assessment of manpower? What doctrine does he believe will be needed to govern their use, and how is he recruiting soldiers with the skillsets necessary to handle them effectively?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. Autonomy is increasingly the key to the successful generation of overwhelming force in the battle space. That is a key part of the integrated review and within the defence industrial strategy. It may well be that a more lethal force—even a bigger force—does not necessarily acquire more workforce in the future if that is the way in which the trend continues to go.
Cost of Living: Armed Forces Personnel
Our mitigating measures on the cost of living include a freeze of the daily food charge. We are limiting the increase in accommodation charges to 1%, and we are ensuring that the council tax rebate of £150 reaches more than 28,000 of our armed forces people. We are also, of course, bringing in wraparound childcare in time for the new school year.
Will the Minister confirm that the cost of a new £250 million royal yacht, whose principal use will be for champagne receptions, is not coming out of the Ministry of Defence budget during a cost of living crisis, when personnel have not received a real-terms rise for a number of years and while bases in Scotland have been closed and we have the smallest UK standing Army ever?
Notwithstanding the Government’s cuts to the armed forces footprint in Scotland, including at Redford barracks in my constituency, over the years Scots have played a very active role in the defence of their country. Yet despite being injured in service, many veterans over 65 in the lowest-income households miss out on pension credit because their war disablement pension is considered as normal income. What steps is the Minister taking to persuade his counterpart at the Department for Work and Pensions to address this anomaly, to help our veterans cope with the rise in the cost of living?
We take any potential anomaly extremely seriously, and I would be pleased to meet the hon. and learned Lady to discuss that specific case. If I may make a general point, it is a bit rich to be told to take lessons on the cost of living from the Scottish National party, given its tax hike on armed forces personnel. There are 7,000 personnel in Scotland who pay £850 more on average, thanks to the SNP tax hike, which should be reviewed. It is absolutely outrageous.
The Government’s own figures show that at least 33,000 veterans are on universal credit, and estimates suggest the actual figure could be double that, so why does the Government’s veterans strategy cut specialist employment support in jobcentres—which would help veterans on universal credit who are out of work get back into employment—by 50%?
We on the Conservative Benches will not perpetuate the myth that receiving universal credit is a bad thing. Many of these people are in high-paid and good jobs. It is a reflection of the fact that this Government support people into work and that military service gives them skills for life.
Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy
The Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme has had more than 100,000 applications. Although I appreciation the desperation of many who apply, the reality is that staff numbers and even names of those who worked with us in Helmand are being shared, so it is hard to identify individual applicants. To that end—the entitlement is bound; we know who worked for us— last week, I engaged a number of non-governmental organisations and charities to help us find the people on the list of those who actually worked with us, so that we can bring them to the front of the queue and get them out as quickly as possible.
Ministers confirmed last month that around 8,000 Afghans and their families could still be eligible for relocation to the UK under the ARAP scheme. The Minister says that it is hard to identify those people, so what specifically are Ministers doing to identify them, to establish pathways to get them here, and to process their applications as quickly as possible?
I think the hon. Gentleman might realise that I have answered that question in my original answer. We think that there are about 2,000 principals—people who actually worked with us—yet to bring out. Rather than going through tens of thousands of applications, we are asking those with networks in-country to help us find those 2,000 people on the list. We have the capacity and the routes to bring them out. The challenge is finding them when a huge number of applications are gaming the system, with dozens of applications coming in on the same staff number, which should be the individual identifier.
I thank the MOD’s Afghan relocation team who are working tirelessly to identify and process the huge number of applications including friends and relatives of Carshalton and Wallington residents. How many individuals have made it to the UK under the ARAP scheme since Operation Pitting concluded?
We are now only a few weeks away from the one-year anniversary of the start of Operation Pitting, the evacuation from Kabul. A year on, thousands of Afghan citizens are still waiting for their applications to be properly processed, too many are still in temporary accommodation, and the promises made to many of them about relocation and family reunions have been left unhonoured. With the one-year anniversary a few weeks away, what will the Minister be doing to speed up this incredibly slow process, so the promises that this country made to those Afghans who worked with our armed forces can truly be honoured?
The hon. Gentleman probably just heard me answer the previous two questions. There are hundreds of thousands of applications, many of which are duplicates, and many of which are from people who have no eligibility under ARAP whatsoever. ARAP is a very tightly bound scheme. It is not the same as the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme or other mechanisms where each case might be judged on its merits. There is a list of people who worked with the British armed forces in Afghanistan, so our focus must be on finding the people on that list and bringing them out. We are doing so quickly.
The hon. Gentleman says that it has been nearly a year. That is correct, Mr Speaker, but it is not as if we can just wander around in Afghanistan and find these people. It is not straightforward. A lot of them are undocumented. He may want to speak to some of the charities that are working on this, as I know that some of his colleagues on the Back Benches do. When I spoke to them last week, they realised that the situation was exactly as I have said: it is not easy; people do not have documents; and we are working fast to get people out. We think we have found of way of doing so quicker, and we will be getting on with it now.
Defence Business Services
The hon. Gentleman has raised this with me on more than one occasion previously. I know that it matters greatly to his constituents. As announced back in 2016, Defence Business Services will consolidate its north-west estate into a single location. Last year, a thorough multi-criteria decision analysis was undertaken, which considered a number of locations and recommended consolidation in Blackpool. The full business case is being considered within the approvals process. I expect to make an announcement soon, and will write to the Members representing the constituencies affected.
I thank the Minister for Defence Procurement for his answer, and for procuring some continuity in the Government, against the odds, by remaining in his post during this crucial time. Will he consider bringing the hubs in Liverpool and Manchester into the Defence Business Services workplace programme solution to avoid compulsory redundancies?
What I can say is that in locating to Blackpool, as was recommended, we will do our utmost to avoid compulsory redundancies. There is a good working relationship at a local level with the trade unions, which are doing well to represent their members. There is an absolute expectation on our part that we will maximise the ability to work flexibly, with things such as deferred moves and everything else we can do to support our employees. This move was designed not to cut posts, but as an estate rationalisation scheme. That is at the back and the front of our minds, and we will work with the trade unions and our employees to ensure as few redundancies as can possibly be managed.
I thank the Minister for moving so many of the jobs to Blackpool and to my constituency—yet one more to add to my list of wonderful things the Government have done for the town of Blackpool. Will he encourage all Government Departments, not just the MOD, to share his vision and his confidence in the people of my constituency?
I know we are not alone in putting Government jobs into Blackpool; it is a popular location, and it was entirely driven by the intensive work we did on finding the best location. I can reassure my hon. Friend and this House that we undertook a very serious bit of work looking at all available options, and the recommendation of Blackpool emerged as a result of that serious analysis.
I would like to update the House on the exciting progress of the United Kingdom’s future combat air system programme, Tempest. At Farnborough international airshow this week, our industry and international partners are showcasing the new FCAS capabilities, demonstrating the momentum we have achieved. Today, I can announce that a flying demonstrator aircraft is being developed by the UK MOD and Italian industry. This piloted combat air demonstrator will fly for the first time within the next five years and is an important step in ensuring that our technology skills and industrial capability are ready for the future. I am delighted that the UK is working alongside Italy, Japan and Sweden on the same combat air journey. We intend to take collaborative decisions by the end of the year.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress being made with the new medium-sized helicopter procurement, noting that Leonardo Helicopters in Yeovil is the only end-to-end helicopter manufacturer in the UK and supports hundreds of jobs in West Dorset? I would like to make the case again for the AW149.
I reassure my hon. Friend that he will have plenty of opportunity to lobby on behalf of his constituents and others in the south-west. The new medium helicopter competition will align with the defence and security industrial strategy; the competition’s contract notice and dynamic pre-qualification questionnaire were released on 18 May this year and responses are now being evaluated to determine a shortlist of credible suppliers. The second half of the competition, in which we will ask the selected suppliers to provide more detailed responses, is due to be launched later this year.
When the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey), answered my urgent question on Thursday about new public allegations about British special forces in Afghanistan, he said that,
“the Secretary of State is clear that he rules nothing out”.
He also said:
“I am certain that the House will hear from him in the near future.”—[Official Report, 14 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 494.]
With the summer recess starting on Thursday, when will the Secretary of State make a statement to the House on this?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s interest. It is an incredibly important allegation that has been made, which none of us takes lightly. Mr Speaker, you waived at the time the sub judice rule; as the right hon. Gentleman will know, there is a matter before the courts that may determine that timetable and precludes my guessing when I can make certain decisions. What I can say in the meantime is that I think the right hon. Gentleman is due for a briefing on this matter. We have a date for him on that, and I am happy to oblige the SNP Front Bench as well if they wish to get it. We take everything seriously. This is incredibly important, but we can only act on the evidence before us. People need to remember that we cannot act based on noises off. We will always act on the evidence put before us, but this is a matter for the independent police and prosecutor.
I want to return to the issue that the shadow Secretary of State raised—not the individual allegations or even the “Panorama” programme, but the wider issue of the unanswerable case for democratic oversight of special forces. When will the Department devise proposals, bring them to the House, and allow us to debate and legislate on that issue? Surely that does not require anything at all from the courts.
Indeed it does not, and the hon. Gentleman is perfectly at liberty to table a motion and have a debate in this House. [Interruption.] He says, “Come on!”, but I cannot remember one. The key is making sure that democratically elected Ministers in this House have oversight of our special forces, and we are also bound by law in the same way that anyone else is. There is no exception to the law, whether through investigational powers or the operational prerogative on which we deploy our forces.
We learn an awful lot from watching the way that modern conflict is being prosecuted in Ukraine, and that is indeed shaping our analysis of the stockpiles we need to hold, particularly given the intensity of the modern artillery battle.
I recently met the families, alongside the Prime Minister. I committed at that meeting to instruct the MOD to look afresh at the case to be made, and that work is ongoing.
Those are not concerns that I have heard reflected. I have visited the artillery training that was taking place at Rollestone camp, the Secretary of State has been to visit Warcop twice, and tomorrow I am going to Knook camp in Wiltshire with my Ukrainian counterpart. I can assure the hon. Lady that while my experience of the interpreters has been amazingly positive, if there are any shortcomings we will make sure they are rectified.
Bracknell constituency is very proud to have a new veterans’ hub at Crowthorne fire station, and my thanks go to the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. What additional provision might be available for communities wanting to provide local support for veterans?
I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend for his characteristic support for armed forces personnel and veterans in his constituency. The hub is clearly an important thing, and those people should be made aware of opportunities for support coming from the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust, which he will know well.
I will invest in whatever furthers Britain’s national interest. I totally understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. He will understand, although perhaps not from the west coast of Scotland, the importance of the royal yacht, because the number of people who pay money to go and look at it in Edinburgh, where it is currently tied up, is incredible. It is very popular.
The two voluntary outflow reasons for personnel from the armed forces tend to be that there are greater opportunities outside the military and the impact on family life. The Minister has done extraordinary work, so what assessment has he made of the armed forces families strategy and how it will take account of those two issues?
The strategy is an important piece of work. We launched it in January, and we will keep the House up to date. We acknowledge that we recruit the armed forces personnel, but we retain the families. We want to give them flexibility and choice, and we look forward to reporting back.
I do agree. I think there are huge opportunities, and the hon. Gentleman correctly points out that the RAF has an ambition of 2040 for net zero. We are investing a lot of money, including £2.35 billion into the European common radar system or ECRS Mark 2, a prime recipient of which will be Edinburgh. Scottish companies have a lot of other opportunities to bring to our attention, and we will happily look at them.
I think it was at his keynote speech to the land warfare conference that the Chief of the General Staff made his oft-quoted remarks that this was “our 1937 moment”, that it was “perverse” to cut 10,000 people from the Army and that we would be at risk of being “outnumbered” in the event of warfare. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether that speech was cleared through his office before CGS gave it?
Some of the characteristics that my hon. Friend mentions were not in the speech. The Chief of the General Staff did not say it was perverse to cut 10,000 troops—he did say it was a 1937 moment. The important thing about 1937 was not only that General Montgomery had talked about mobilisation, but that he had talked about ensuring that the force was relevant. If you have a big mass force that is irrelevant to modern technology, you end up like Russia, stuck on the road to Kyiv—wiped out.
I start by congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Defence Front-Bench team for the competence, clarity and steadfastness they have shown, particularly in recent months in proposing the UK contribution to Ukraine. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement visits Farnborough, will he find time to attend the joint economic data hub hosted by the UK Defence Solutions Centre, which demonstrates to Her Majesty’s Treasury that £1 invested in defence has a multiplier of more than £1?
In a packed programme, I will do my utmost to visit the JEDHub centre. My right hon. Friend is too modest to point out that that came out of a recommendation from the Dunne report. It was a valuable recommendation, and knowing exactly what defence investment means for our economy is very good news for defence and very good news for the United Kingdom.
It is thanks to the team on the Front Bench and the Prime Minister that I am still able to wear this badge showing the Ukrainian flag, because had it not been for the supply of next-generation light anti-tank weapons some three to four months before the invasion, the Russians would be in Kyiv now. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that we will still be able to maintain the supply of ammunition that the Ukrainians naturally need?
We are able to do that, and where we do not have our own stocks, alongside international partners and donors we scour the world to find them and make sure that we have them. Ukraine and Russia are both discovering that a prolonged battle is very hard to manage with their own stocks. Russia is now using very old equipment, some of which came out in the 1950s, and using it incorrectly—for example, using equipment designed to kill a ship to hit a building.
Complaints about service accommodation have rocketed in the first four months of this year, and are 20% higher than last year. Can Ministers explain why, and say how they plan to rectify this urgently, given the already undue pressure experienced by families and those who are married to someone in the armed forces?
We take these issues extremely seriously. That is why we have invested more than £936 million in service family accommodation in the last seven years, and there is more coming. Under the future accommodation model, we want to give choice, flexibility, and accommodation of the highest possible standard to those living in service family accommodation.
British nuclear testing veterans and their families met the Prime Minister, Defence Ministers, the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) and me on 8 June. The veterans told me that they felt that the Prime Minister had listened to them, and they were hopeful that they would be formally recognised. Will the Secretary of State provide a progress report on the actions that he and the Prime Minister have taken since the meeting to secure the recognition that these veterans so deserve?
Despite stark warnings from successive Chiefs of the Defence Staff and others about the vulnerability of our undersea cables in the light of increased Russian submarine activity, it took until 2021 for the Government to announce that they would acquire a multi-role ocean surveillance ship to protect that critical infrastructure. It was recently reported that the Government still have not decided on the capability required, a procurement strategy, or an in-service date. Why is that?
We are looking closely at how we take forward MROSS. As the hon. Lady suggests, it was an important step to make that part of the defence Command Paper in spring ’21. We said that we would ensure that we brought that capability into service, but we need to get it right, and considerable work is continuing on what exactly that capability should look like.
“Meritorious” was the word that the Prime Minister used in this House to describe the application made under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme by a former Supreme Court of Afghanistan judge who put hundreds of terrorists behind bars, undoubtedly saving British lives. I was promised a meeting with Ministers on the subject; that never materialised, and suddenly, out of the blue, his ARAP application was turned down last week because he was deemed to have not worked closely enough with the UK Government. I plead with Ministers to meet me to review this hero’s case, because I have no doubt that he will be hunted down and slaughtered by the Taliban if we do not bring him to safety.
The hon. Lady and I walked through the Lobby together the other week—it was one of the rare occasions on which we were in the same Lobby—and were able to discuss this case. I asked the team to look at it. ARAP is a very tightly bound scheme for those who worked with the British armed forces, and the person for whom she is advocating did not. There are other routes by which that person can come to this country, including through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and I will make sure that she is connected with the appropriate Minister on that.
I took steps immediately to close the gap, if there was one, in that last year we purchased a significant number of new parachutes off the shelf. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, given his interest in airborne forces, that both the German and French air forces have on numerous occasions jumped out of A400s, and it is odd that we have not yet done that, so that is not the reason why this matter has not progressed. We are making sure that we have the right equipment and the right training for pilots. We are on track to do that, but I will give him an update. Just like him, I think it is incredibly important that the RAF gets on and does this.[Official Report, 2 November 2022, Vol. 721, c. 4MC.]
House of Commons Library analysis forecasts that Ministry of Defence day-to-day spending will be cut by 5.5% in real terms by 2024-25. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this amounts to a real-terms cut of £1.7 billion over the next three years?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. I would also like to pay tribute to his predecessor as the defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). We served in the Scottish Parliament together, and he will be missed from this brief.
On the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), I think that is based on the new inflation rate. When we got our defence spending in the comprehensive spending review, the GDP deflator was at 1.5%. As a result, we have been compensated by the Treasury in the short term for inflationary pressures, but that will not show in the core budget until after the accounts are in. However, he is right to point out that inflationary pressures on a budget such as ours, with huge amounts of capital, will have an impact. We are taking steps to try to mitigate that, and I am looking forward to engaging with the new Prime Minister to make sure we get that mitigation.
Extreme Heat Preparedness
Before we come to the urgent question, I want to express my disappointment that the Government did not come forward with a general statement on the heatwave, given its potential to have wide-ranging and serious impacts on the nation. Members need to be able to scrutinise the Government on all issues arising from the current high temperature, especially as the Government felt it appropriate for Cobra to meet. If it is good enough for Cobra to sit and discuss, it is good enough for this House to hear about as well.
For the first time ever, the UK Health Security Agency has issued a level 4 heat health alert for much of the country. Temperatures are forecast to reach the low 40s° C. It looks probable that they will break the current UK record of 38.7° C, recorded in Cambridge in 2019, and they currently stand at 37.5° C in Suffolk.
I have just come from chairing the latest in a series of Cobra briefings that have been held since last week, including over the weekend, to co-ordinate the extensive preparation and mitigation measures being taken across the Government to face the next 36 hours. I am grateful to colleagues in the devolved Administrations and in local resilience forums around the country and our local authority and agency partners, which are keeping public services running and responding to any local issues that may emerge.
Thanks to our strong forecasting capabilities, the Government were able to launch a comprehensive public communications campaign ahead of the heatwave. This involved advice from, among others, the UK HSA, the Met Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, our chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, and the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Thomas Waite.
While we hope people will take notice of the advice on how to keep safe in the high temperatures, the NHS has made sure that all its operational capacity and capability are available during the heatwave. The 999 and 111 services have also stood up all available capacity. There are now more than 2,400 call handlers for 999, which is an increase of about 500 since September last year. On the detail, I will defer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who will make a statement on the health system in this heatwave imminently.
While heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, we are adapting to temperatures not previously experienced in this country and to events such as this coming with increased frequency and severity. The Government have been in the lead on appreciating the impacts of climate change; indeed, it was a Conservative Government who enshrined net zero in law. Since the time of David Cameron, Conservative Prime Ministers have spoken passionately about the impact of climate change and the need to keep 1.5° alive, notably at last year’s COP26 UN climate change conference.
As I say, we have long taken the lead on this issue. Over the past three decades, the UK has driven down emissions faster than any other G7 country, and we have clear plans to go further. We are showing the way on climate change, helping over 90% of countries set net zero targets during our COP26 presidency—up from 30% two years ago. On cleaner energy, the UK is also forging ahead of most other countries. About 40% of our power now comes from cleaner and cheaper renewables. Our net zero work is vital to create resilience. We must continue to drive forward the initiatives that help us curb the impacts of climate change and at the same time build systems that help us withstand extreme events as they arise.
I thank the Minister for his response. As he says, this week the UK is likely to have its hottest day on record, with the Met Office issuing its first ever red warning for extreme heat for England, and Wales already recording its hottest day.
These brutal temperatures pose a very real threat to life and infrastructure, as well as to education, travel and, most importantly, health. It is indeed disappointing that the Minister did not offer his own statement about what the Government were doing, instead of waiting to be dragged here by an urgent question. Although the heatwave has now been declared a national emergency, there are real questions about how seriously the Government are taking it and how prepared they are. They seem to be turning up with a watering can when what we need is a giant fire hose.
Will the Minister say exactly how many Cobra meetings on the heat emergency the Prime Minister has missed, and why? What practical support have the Government offered to the NHS, care homes and schools, beyond the guidance in the heatwave plans? For example, what financial resources are they offering? Ten months after the consultation closed, where is the Government’s national resilience strategy? Will the Government agree to maximum workplace temperature limits to give workers legal protection against working in high temperatures, and ensure that employers allow staff to work flexibly in the heat? Will he condemn those on his own Benches who have, unbelievably, sought to make a cultural wedge issue out of even this subject, with Conservative Members calling those who want to take precautions “cowards” and “snowflakes”?
The Government can hardly say that they have not been cautioned about the risks. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that heat-related deaths could triple by 2050, yet in the words of the chair of the Adaptation Committee, adaptation in this country is
“under-resourced, underfunded and often ignored.”
None of the 42 adaptation-specific recommendations have been implemented in full. The committee reports that more than half a million new homes that are liable to overheating have been built in the UK over the past 10 years, even after the issue was first raised. What exactly are the Government doing to close the gap on adaptation? Finally, when will the Government finally join the dots and stop pouring fuel on the fire? It is beyond perverse that Ministers wring their hands over extreme heat one day, and give the green light to new oil and gas extraction the next. Will the Minister rule out any new oil and gas licences in the North sea, and scrap yet more subsidies through the investment allowance as part of the energy profits levy? Will they finally turn the tap off new oil and gas?
Obviously, our immediate concern is to ensure that we get the country through the next 36 hours or so in as good a shape as possible. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that all our local resilience forums are standing up. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities joined the chairs’ call this morning, and they are meeting today to consider what steps need to be taken. There are simple behavioural things that we can all do to help protect ourselves and look out for the most vulnerable, particularly the elderly who are living alone.
The hon. Lady raised a raft of policy issues, which will no doubt be addressed in our debates on this issue in the months to come. She asked about the Prime Minister’s presence at Cobra. It is literally my job as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to chair Cobra, particularly where the Civil Contingencies Secretariat is involved, and to brief the Prime Minister accordingly, which I did yesterday morning at 8 o’clock. It is my job to co-ordinate across the whole of Government, and that is what we have been doing. As a result, I am confident that all the guidance and support needed in schools and hospitals, and for our police forces and others involved in this effort, is working its way out through the system, and they are all standing up well. In particular, our co-operation with the devolved Administrations has been strong, which is why the public health message about the next 36 hours has landed so well.
In wider terms, as I am sure the hon. Lady will have noticed, this heatwave has not just affected the United Kingdom. It has hit the whole of continental Europe. A number of countries that in many ways are more accustomed than we are to higher temperatures are having to take similar action, and in some circumstances their populations are suffering. That is why it is so important that the UK leads on this debate globally, as we did at COP26 last year.
As the hon. Lady knows, we have launched the Energy Transition Council, with 20 Governments and 15 international institutions participating. We are working hard with countries around the world to help them to move to a cleaner future, while we also shift our own energy mix in the right direction. However, as I am sure she will appreciate, as we move towards net zero we have to strike a balance between playing our part in fighting climate change in this country and keeping the lights on for people who need that.
May I, through a question to my right hon. Friend, put to the leaders of our public services, including the ambulance service, that if their staff do not have summer gear, they should be allowed to wear their own safe and appropriate summer gear, and ask all of them to ensure that people have good equipment and clothes for the summer, given that the temperatures are changing? It is wrong that people should only have winter gear in times like this.
The Father of the House raises an extremely important point about the ability of our emergency services to cope and their resilience. Each of those organisations and their leaders will have to take that into account over the months to come. I have said to the team internally that we must learn exactly such practical lessons during this brief but nevertheless severe period of weather. I am sure we will see impacts on the transport network and elsewhere in the next 36 hours, some of which we can mitigate, but it is probably the case that not all effects will be mitigated; we should learn those lessons. My hon. Friend raises an important point for the future.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this hugely important urgent question.
On Tuesday, we will be in the hottest 1.2% of the world. Once again, when faced with a national emergency, driven by the climate emergency, which the Government could see coming a mile off, Ministers were asleep at the wheel. The Prime Minister is too busy planning parties, instead of planning for Britain. Is anyone else having déjà vu? As has been acknowledged, he has already missed two Cobra meetings on the red heat warning and is set to miss a third—the same man who missed five Cobra meetings in the weeks preceding the onset of the pandemic. It is clear that this finished Prime Minister has clocked off, but with 49 dangerous days to go. The heatwave is a reminder that the Government have not tackled the growing climate emergency facing our country, and the leadership election gives us little hope that that will change.
As Britain boils, will the Minister answer these questions? Where is the plan for the delivery of essential services and keeping people safe at work, on transport, and in hospitals, care homes and schools in the coming days? Where is the advice for vulnerable workers who face working in unbearable conditions? We need action on guidance for safe indoor working temperatures, and we need the Government to ensure that employers allow staff to work flexibly in the heat. We need a plan, not a panic. Labour already has a resilience plan for long-term, strategic emergency planning. Where is the Government’s national resilience strategy? Will the Minister give a date for its publication? It is already 10 months overdue.
It is the primary duty of any Government to keep the public safe. Britain deserves better.
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, there are significant plans in place to deal with all manner of extreme weather events, and all local resilience forums have their plans in place. As I said earlier, there is guidance available for schools and hospitals, particularly on the safety and welfare of their staff, but also of other people in their facilities. The Health and Safety Executive is available to give guidance to employers, and there is already a clear obligation in law for employers to maintain a reasonable temperature at work; obviously that varies from building to building and from facility to facility, but nevertheless it is clear that employers have that obligation.
As for the Prime Minister and Cobra, as I said earlier, I have attended many Cobra meetings since 2011, and only one—during the 2011 riots in London—was chaired by the Prime Minister. Others have routinely been chaired by Secretaries of State, and, as I said earlier, it is literally my job to do so. On that issue of non-attendance, I gently point out that my direct shadow, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), is not in her place on the Opposition Front Bench; obviously this is not as important as her radio show today.
Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Government seem to be creating a lot of unnecessary anxiety? Is not the key issue that we should adapt to our climate as we have in the past? Is not there a real problem now that too many buildings are being built without natural ventilation—for example, many buildings on this estate? Why do we not go back to having natural ventilation, so that we do not have to rely so much on air conditioning?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. In all our public messaging, we have tried to be balanced and moderate in our view, and to point to the particular vulnerability of certain smaller groups. Indeed, I have asked Secretaries of State to identify those vulnerable groups and possibly to target them with more urgent communication—particularly the elderly, who often live alone, and who we know from elsewhere in Europe are vulnerable in this kind of weather. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about our adaptation to climate change. As we see more extreme weather events, we must bear in mind that we need to protect ourselves from the heat, but at the same time we need to be able to adapt to cope with the cold as well. That often creates a challenge.
I, too, commend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing an urgent question on the extreme heat we are experiencing across these islands.
The Met Office has extended the amber alert in Scotland and declared a red alert for much of England and Wales. UK temperature records are expected to be broken in all four nations across the next two days, with temperatures to exceed 40° in England. We have reports that the RAF has suspended operations out of Brize Norton due to the runway melting, rendering it unsafe—these are unusual times.
The heatwave threatens to kill hundreds or even thousands of people. To ensure a continuous monitoring and response to the situation, the Scottish Government have continued to operate the Scottish Government Resilience Room. Of course, at a UK level we have heard that Cobra meetings have been held to discuss the emergency. Much as he did at the start of the covid-19 pandemic, our esteemed Prime Minister has declined to attend. We heard the Minister’s excuses for the Prime Minister’s continued refusal to deal with emergencies and crises, or even acknowledge them. We find it wholly unacceptable.
Lastly, I want to reinforce the message of how important it is to practise good water safety at a time like this. All too often in Scotland and in other places we hear of tragic accidents, when people, normally young or middle-aged men, enter open water to cool down or for some hi-jinks and encounter difficulties. I renew my call for caution and to think before entering any open waters.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to discuss—and we have been discussing in Cobra—the different circumstances faced in Scotland, where the school term has ended. There is the possibility—let us hope it does not occur—of accidental drowning or other incidents in water in hot weather. In England, where the schools are still open, we are keen for kids to be in school, because we generally think they are safer and better managed. As for the attendance of the Prime Minister at Cobra, I gently point out that the First Minister of the Scottish Government has not attended any of the Cobras.
People living in the Woottons, Castle Rising, Reffley and other parts of my constituency are rightly angry that they were left without water over the last 48 hours due to a burst main. I am grateful to those who worked through the night to fix the broken pipe. I am assured it will be finished later this afternoon. Based on that experience, does my right hon. Friend agree that for preparedness, it is vital that lessons are learnt by Anglian Water and other companies about the importance of open communication with the public and effective contingency plans to deliver water, particularly for vulnerable people?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. He will be reassured to know that colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are in close touch with water companies, along with other partners, as they seek to get us through this particular 36 hours in good shape. He is quite right that where there is a problem with water supply, the easiest and best thing that can be done immediately is to communicate as much as possible, both when incidents happen and when the resolution and timeframe can be expected.
The problem with what the Minister is saying is that he admitted we have been here before. In 1976, we hit a temperature of 36° and in 2003 we hit a temperature of 38.3°. At those points, we had 20% and 59% excess deaths, so we know how dangerous heat is. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) asked us all to adapt. He needs to look at the evidence from history for why the climate crisis is so dangerous. We cannot adapt in this sort of heat. We know—the Minister just accepted it—that we will have more extreme weather conditions. Given that none of us wants to see history repeating itself, does he recognise how devastating it is for our communities? Yet again in my constituency today schools are closed, there is chaos with the trains and there is no national resilience strategy. The Minister talks about wanting to keep the lights on, but is it not the truth that he is keeping this country in the dark about the climate we face?
One of the critical things we need to bear in mind is that this period of hot weather will be short. It will be 36 hours long. The kinds of effects that the hon. Lady mentions have generally been over longer periods. For example, in 2003 in France, I think it was, there were eight days of 40-plus and, critically, the temperature at night did not drop below 20°. In those circumstances, we need to look at vulnerable groups. I hope she will be promoting the message, through all her very sophisticated and well-followed social media channels, that we should do the neighbourly thing and knock on the door of older people who may be living alone, just to make sure they are okay for the moment, while, as I said earlier, we do our best to lead the world on making the changes we need to address climate change.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this urgent question. It is important that we discuss this issue when almost all the Members in the Chamber will have constituents who are suffering in one way or another through the heatwave. I commend to the Minister the report on heatwaves that the Environmental Audit Committee did four years ago, when the hon. Lady and I were serving on it, together with some other Members in the Chamber. We took evidence from the NHS and education officers in the relevant departments. There are elements of our recommendations that the Government chose not to endorse at the time, but the Minister may like to refresh the memories of his officials about those and consider whether that would be an appropriate thing to look at now.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his constructive contribution and I will certainly take a look at that document. The Cabinet Office does not lead on this issue, but nevertheless, given that we are coping with this contingency and that we need to learn lessons, perhaps that is one lesson that we need to revisit.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for securing this important question. It must be very obvious that in this age of extremes—extreme heat, extreme cold and flooding—our infrastructure is simply not capable of dealing with it and that we have not really followed through on the commitments we have given at successive COP events. Will the Minister commit to the Government taking a long, hard look at all the decisions taken at COP that we have or have not followed and all our infrastructure requirements that need to be changed, so that we have effective public services that are properly funded and properly staffed in order to deal with these kinds of extremes? They are not one-offs. They will come more and more often as the years go on and we have to be ready for them.
I think it is generally accepted that the UK Government and my right hon. Friend the COP26 President fought hard at COP26 to keep 1.5° alive and that we put it all out on the field in pursuit of a global assault on climate change. We have certainly done our part in the UK—for example, by virtually phasing out the use of coal in our power generation. There is always more to do as we drive towards net zero in 2050, and I hope and believe that the right hon. Member will agitate to make sure that we get there.
I have a network of reservoirs at the head of the Holme and Colne valleys, so I join the earlier warnings about the dangers of swimming in open water. I also have the Pennine moorlands, where we have already had a number of devastating moorland fires earlier this year. It is an absolute tinderbox up there at the moment, so will the Minister join me in getting the message out there again that it is illegal to have barbecues, fires and fireworks up on the moors? There is a £2,500 fine, but those found guilty can also face prison. We do not want any more devastating moorland fires.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point and I am more than happy to reinforce his message. As he may know, we have issued a red alert for wildfires. We are very concerned and all fire and rescue services are stood up to deal with them as fast as they possibly can.
Working in extreme heat can really affect people’s health and can even be fatal. Spain has strict rules on working temperature: a maximum of 27° indoors and 25° when doing physical activity. Even the US guidelines are 24°, yet we have absolutely nothing here. With extreme heat becoming more regular in the UK, will the Government legislate for maximum working temperatures?
As I said, the law, as it stands, says that employers have an obligation to maintain a reasonable temperature at work—[Interruption.] It is not defined because circumstances may change. If someone is working in front of a blast furnace, that is different from working in an office. We may find that for many people during this period, being at work is cooler than being at home. Although I understand the hon. Lady’s point, there is already an obligation on employers to make sure that the temperature is reasonable for the circumstances.
Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to praise the Meteorological Office, which was able to predict the heatwave with its Cray computers and declare a red alert days in advance? Is he aware that the Governments of France and Germany have been criticised for not giving advance warning of heatwaves in the northern parts of those countries, where heatwaves are not so known?
I am more than happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the accuracy and professionalism of the Met Office. Its ability to predict the heatwave with some accuracy, both in respect of timing and geographically, has been remarkable. We rely on it for much of our resilience planning. There is no doubt about it: it has some of the best weather forecasters in the world.
This is climate change, pure and simple, and the Government must get their head out of the sand. Beyond the transition period and all the rest of it, will the Government set an end date for all UK oil and gas exploration between now and 2050?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady can cast her mind back, but I remember that the Conservative slogan more than 10 years ago was “Vote blue, go green.” The battle against climate change has been central to Conservative party policy for well over a decade now. I realise that there is a battle to claim it, as there is a battle to claim any kind of compassion, but in fact we should all be working together on climate change.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster accept that there are just too many climate deniers on the Government Benches, too many oil licences being granted, too many carbon budgets being missed and too many Government Members calling those who are concerned about the heatwave “snowflakes” for his Government to be considered anything other than part of the climate catastrophe? Anything that they say today means absolutely nothing when they have leadership candidates moving away from net zero. It is an absolute joke, and this Government are a joke when it comes to the climate crisis.
Although it is right that Government Departments should prepare and plan for foreseen and unforeseen emergencies and crises, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that we have seen some hysteria being demonstrated in this House today about a couple of warm days that most of our constituents, if they are not working, are probably out enjoying? When it gets too hot, they will go and sit in the shade, have a cold drink and cool down. Does he agree that the main thing is that we explain to people their own personal responsibilities? What we should be avoiding is heaping on them more expensive climate policies, which are already costing them a fortune and draining their pockets.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows that the vast majority of the population will get through the next 36 hours in good shape, but I am sure that he also recognises that there are groups who are particularly vulnerable to the heat. I know that, as a good neighbour, if he lives next door to an older person he will knock on that person’s door and make sure that they are getting through it all right.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s last answer gets to the heart of what is wrong with the Government’s approach: it seems to be all about going to sit in the shade and helping neighbours out. What we need is a strategic approach, but I have not seen that.
The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), referred to the Committee’s report on heatwaves in 2018. One of its recommendations was about good, green infrastructure standards to deal with urban heat islands. Is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster planning to do anything at all to advance that agenda?
That is obviously the responsibility of another Secretary of State; my job, as I say, is to get us through the next 36 hours in as good a shape as possible and learn the lessons therefrom. But the hon. Lady is right: green infrastructure makes a huge difference, and planting new trees, as she knows, is a big part of our agenda into the future.
I would just say, though, that one thing we need to reflect on is that the growth of problems with climate change and the fight against it cover many, many decades. As far as I can see, in the past decade or so we have seen an acceleration in the UK’s effort in comparison with the previous decade under a Labour Government.
Last year’s advice report by the Adaptation Committee stated that
“the gap between the level of risk we face and the level of adaptation underway has widened. Adaptation action has failed to keep pace with the worsening reality of climate risk.”
Why has that happened? The Government have been in office for 12 years.
Again, that is the responsibility of another Secretary of State, but I am more than happy to look at—[Interruption.] I came here to talk about the next 36 hours; about my responsibility, which is the Civil Contingencies Secretariat; and about the co-ordination that is taking place across the Government. However, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests and as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), we do need to try to adapt ourselves to the weather patterns as they emerge.
That said, this is a problem that Governments around the world are having to face. In the event of extremes of temperature, it is hard to adapt the infrastructure to deal with very cold and very hot incidents and their frequency. Much has been said about the impact of heat on the railways, and people have asked why they can continue to function in hotter countries. In Italy, for example, more concrete is put into the sleepers, with the result that the rails are less likely to warp, but that does not do the Italians much good in the event of extreme cold, when they face problems similar to those that we face in the next 36 hours.
The extreme heat is accentuating the travel chaos that is currently being experienced across the United Kingdom. Flights are being cancelled at short notice, with many of our constituents left stranded, and some trains are seriously overcrowded. I experienced that myself yesterday when trying to get from Edinburgh to London. Will the right hon. Gentleman speak to the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that airlines such as British Airways and train companies such as Thameslink are taken to task for the failures in the service that they provide, and that they are made to compensate our constituents appropriately?
I am sure the hon. and learned Lady will be pleased to know that I am meeting the Secretary of State for Transport this very afternoon, to ensure that our plans—not just for the next 36 hours, but for the next few weeks—are in place from a governmental point of view, and that we issue exactly the sort of challenge to the private sector that she has requested.
I do not feel that the House is any better informed about the Government’s response to this heatwave following the answer to the urgent question than we were when we first walked in. The Government’s approach seems to be that this is merely an unfortunate 36 hours of very hot weather and we will just have to soldier on through it and stand in the shade, but what we need from them is a long-term plan. What are our vulnerable and elderly constituents to do? Who should they contact in this situation? Where is the advice from the Government? There does not seem to be any urgency. Will the Minister go away and then come back and do a better job?
There has been enormous urgency. As I said in my response to the urgent question—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening—I have just come from the third COBRA meeting, in which we discussed our preparations.[Official Report, 5 September July 2022, Vol. 719, c. 1MC.] They involve extensive work with the devolved Administrations, the communications plan which is out there, and the plethora of guidance that has been issued in the last 48 hours or so—and even in the middle of last week.
This is a short period of hot weather. The best thing we can do while we stand up public services—[Interruption.] I can only answer the question that I am asked. The best thing we can do is adapt our individual behaviour to get us through it while we learn the lessons from it.
Under this Government, deaths among homeless people are becoming commonplace in extreme winter and summer weather. This week they will have no access to shade, or to water or sunscreen. Local authority emergency weather protocols that help those living on our streets are currently discretionary. Why will the Minister not resource local authorities properly, and do as The Big Issue asks and remove this discretion?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been working on this issue, and we have considered the plight of the homeless in COBRA. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know—and my right hon. Friend has been publicising the fact—that he has been liaising closely with the Mayor of London, in particular, and that a network of cooling hubs has been set up for individuals who do find themselves on the street during this period.
When I had the privilege of meeting colleagues at the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals animal rescue centre in Milton, in my constituency, we talked about many issues affecting animals—not only wild animals but those involved in agriculture, as well as our pets—including the critical impact of climate. The Minister has referred to COBRA. Can he tell us what discussions his Department and others are having with organisations such as the Scottish SPCA on animal husbandry and welfare as we continue into this utter climate catastrophe?
Colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been in extensive discussions with those who handle animals in all settings, including in some particularly acute areas. For example, the Royal Welsh show is on this week, which will involve 200,000 people and quite a lot of animals being out and about in the open, and we have been in close liaison with the Welsh Government about the issues that are being faced there. Extensive work is ongoing and there are extensive guidelines about animal husbandry during this period. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise the plight of animals as well as that of our fellow humans.
It has been 1,174 days since this Chamber passed a climate emergency motion. Does the Minister feel that the Government have given this adequate attention and been able to respond? I have to say that I have been a bit confused by some of his statements today, because they have been in direct contradiction to the current medical advice that this type of weather will affect healthy people and that it is not just about the vulnerable. That is how critical this is, and I hope he can clarify that point so that people do not end up in 30° hospitals.
I hope that the hon. Lady is not attempting to create confusion. We have been very clear about the simple message that everyone should take sensible measures to guard their own health. They should stay in the shade, drink lots of water, wear a hat and not exercise unduly, but we are focused on the groups we know are particularly vulnerable, following what happened in France back in 2003. We think there needs to be a very sharp focus on them, and our message is clear. There are steps we can take individually and collectively to protect ourselves, and that is what we are promoting.
Exposure to the sun can lead to skin cancer, and skin cancer, especially melanoma, can kill. The incidence of it in the UK has grown significantly in the last 15 to 20 years. Can the Minister make sure of two things? First, can we get rid of VAT on good-quality sunscreen so that it is cheaper and available to more people? Secondly, can we make sure that anybody who works in our emergency services, including all the police and the police officers working here outside the building, have free sunscreen?
Many of us are very concerned about our ambulance services, which were already working under extreme pressure before this heatwave. All 10 of the mainland England ambulance services are on maximum alert, and we hear tales of ambulances queueing outside accident and emergency for hours on end with patients sweltering in the extreme heat, which must surely make their condition much worse. Can the Secretary of State assure me that there is somebody in the Cabinet who has responsibility for co-ordinating all the Departments to ensure that the ambulance services in England get the maximum assistance at this time?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is about to make a statement on exactly that issue, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will stay in the Chamber for that. The Secretary of State and I have been reassuring ourselves about the co-ordination and resources that are available. I think the number of personnel in the ambulance services is up 40% over the last few years, and £150 million has been put in to help them to cope with the pressures at the moment. The Secretary of State will have more to say about that imminently.
As the planet is heating up, our infrastructure is melting down. Trains today are on go-slow, and tomorrow they will not run at all. At what temperature is our vital infrastructure, including our transport infrastructure, designed to operate, and when will it be resilient to future heatwaves?
The hon. Lady thinks she is asking a simple question but, as I said earlier, it is actually quite a complicated one. For example, the mitigations that we put in place on the railways to deal with extreme heat may cause problems when it gets cold. Dealing with both those issues is an engineering feat that I am afraid is beyond me here at the Dispatch Box. One thing we need to do over the next 48 hours is to learn about exactly the kind of impact she is talking about. We all hope that the system will perform well, but given that if we hit the record we will never have experienced these temperatures before, we just need to be cautious and learn from the experience.
I thank everyone working in our frontline infrastructure services that have enabled us to get here today. I also thank the people I passed at an ungodly hour this morning, as I was on my way to the station, who are providing security at the Commonwealth games bowls venue in Leamington. The Minister says the Government are focused on this crisis, but how is it that frontline workers, on whom we depend, are showing up to do their job when the Prime Minister seems to be hidden away in a Chequers fridge?
That is another completely unfair question and a misunderstanding of Cobra. It is my job to chair that committee, to co-ordinate the civil contingencies secretariat, which sits in my Department, and then to brief the Prime Minister. That is exactly what I did at 8 o’clock yesterday morning.
I am afraid this question feels like a political attempt to create an air of panic about the next 36 hours. Indeed, it seems like a politically motivated assault on the Prime Minister, which is completely unfair. He has been in touch with our work to co-ordinate across all the nations of the United Kingdom, and I am sure he will continue to do so.
Martin Luther King once said:
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
On that note, and with London boiling, I ask the Minister for his thoughts on the Tory leadership candidates who seek to hold back our commitments on net zero.
Obviously, that is not within my ministerial remit but, as far as I can see, they are all fine, upstanding people who take climate change seriously. I would be happy to serve under any of them, particularly given that I have been a proponent of the hydrogen economy for more than 20 years. Whoever becomes leader, I hope they will drive forward that aspect of our climate change work.
With forest fires across Europe, and with temperatures set to exceed 40° for the first time, what more evidence do we need that the climate emergency is here? Yet the Minister’s answers suggest that he and his Government are still in denial about the very real emergency we face. This Government are still building new homes that are prone to overheating and they are still not investing in a proper retrofit strategy. When will this Government take climate change seriously?
The hon. Lady is living in an alternative universe, as this is the Government who legislated for net zero and who fought tooth and nail at COP26. How short memories are about what we saw at that global conference in Glasgow, where my right hon. Friend the COP26 President fought tooth and nail with some of the world’s biggest polluters to keep 1.5° alive. When we have these debates in the Chamber, I wish at least some credit were given for the work that has been done, at the same time as challenging us on the work we are doing.
Employers already have an obligation to make sure temperatures at work are maintained at a reasonable level for the circumstances. That will vary from workplace to workplace, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know as a working man. There is a lot we can improve in our work and employment regulation but, at the moment, the law is pretty specific about where responsibility should lie.
I also thank the Minister for his answers. Does the NHS 111 system, so effectively used at the height of the covid crisis to liaise with GP surgeries, have capacity to ring the vulnerable and the elderly at this time to provide advice to deal with the heatwave, as they may not have access to internet advice and many will not venture out to buy newspapers, which hopefully will be used to share information during this very warm weather?
The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, and I have specifically asked all Secretaries of State to identify particular channels of communication that might be used to target the most vulnerable groups, and it is not just the national health service. Train operating companies, for example, know who holds particular concession cards, and local authorities and the third sector are often able to communicate. We need to gently alert the whole population that we should look out for each other, and people in specific vulnerable groups must be able to get the advice and support they need, if and when they need it.