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Topical Questions

Volume 718: debated on Monday 18 July 2022

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.

T2. I am a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, which recently welcomed the increase in military capacity in Scotland, especially in the light of the Russian aggression. What plans do the Government have to ensure that Scotland remains at the heart of the United Kingdom’s defence capacity? (901139)

Our plans are to keep Scotland within the United Kingdom, because it is in the best interests of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to all be part of a greater Union providing security for each other. We are better together.

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.

T4. I have heard from a number of Ukrainians now resident in my constituency how much they value the work of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to support their armed forces. What lessons are we going to learn from our work to supply ordnance and equipment to the armed forces in Ukraine that will inform our future plans for maintaining appropriate stocks of weapons and equipment? (901141)

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.

T3. This October will see the 70th anniversary of the British nuclear tests. What are Ministers doing to formally recognise our nuclear veterans ahead of that date? (901140)

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.

T7. At the National Memorial Arboretum, 306 wooden stakes represent the 306 soldiers who were wrongly shot at dawn and subsequently pardoned. One of those is George Hunter from Stockton, who left behind a wife and two children to enlist in the Durham Light Infantry. Despite being pardoned in 2006, Private Hunter and his comrades have still not been posthumously awarded their medals. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can get these heroes the medals and recognition that they deserve? (901144)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the work he does for the armed forces in his constituency. Of course this a very serious matter, so I am happy to confirm that we will look at it and I will write to him.

T5. What steps are being taken to address the urgent shortage of translators for UK and Ukraine training exercises while ensuring that adequate proficiency in the language is a key requirement? Some concerns have been raised that the fluency level currently being accepted is not high enough. (901142)

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.

T6. If I gave the Secretary of State £250 million, would he invest it in another Type 31 frigate, in other defence capability we are missing out on, or in a royal yacht whose sole purpose is supposed to be for signing new trade deals? (901143)

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.

T8. I have met Airspace Unlimited, which is creating an airspace optimisation tool for defence airspace, which will assist the RAF’s ambition to be net zero by 2040 with an added benefit of supporting vital defence training for fifth and sixth-generation combat aircraft. Does the Minister agree about the importance of that and of supporting such initiatives through a defence and security accelerator? (901145)

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.

T9. Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to know I have a very short question that could be answered with one word. Will serving personnel receive an above-inflation pay rise this year? (901146)

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.

T10. A couple of months ago I was delighted to spend an evening with some Fijian veterans, and a good fun evening was had by all. I was able to express to them my personal thanks for their services to the British armed forces. I recognise the progress that has been made on visa fees for Fijian veterans, but will the Minister look at cancelling the costs of visas for Fijian servicemen and women’s spouses as well? (901147)

The point is that it is all about fairness, and we must not disadvantage any comparable British soldier in the same circumstances, so currently there are no plans to extend that measure to family members.

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?

It was my great pleasure to be at that meeting, and I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with an update.

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.

Will we be left without a low-level parachute capability when Hercules goes out of service? If so, can Ministers say how long our airborne forces will be grounded while Atlas is upgraded?

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.