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Topical Questions

Volume 722: debated on Monday 7 November 2022

First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) who served time on the Treasury Bench for the Department. They will be greatly missed, and I thank them for their effort and passion. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham will continue to hold the Department to account on women in the armed forces. Her report is incredibly important.

I wish to announce to the House the decision to accelerate the procurement of the Multi-Role Ocean Surveillance Ship. In the face of an illegal and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s reckless disregard for international arrangements designed to keep world order, it is right that we prioritise delivering capabilities that safeguard our national infrastructure. It is clear that effectively to address the current and future threats, we will now invest in MROSS ships that protect sensitive defence and civil infrastructure to improve our ability to detect threats to the seabed and to cables. I have also therefore directed the termination of the national flagship competition with immediate effect to bring forward the first MROSS in its place. I shall make further announcements on our continued naval investment in the coming weeks.

Our whistleblower has alleged that staff from HM Naval Base Clyde were recently moved from building 201 in Coulport, where warheads are managed, to building 41 elsewhere, due to a serious radiation breach. Can the Minister advise me about the following? How many such events have been registered in the past three years? How many such incidents have been reported to the public? If he cannot do so, can he please set out why the people of Scotland, who are overwhelmingly opposed to weapons of mass destruction, are ignored by the Westminster parties, including his?

The hon. Member has read out a list of claims. I will be happy to write to him to answer those claims. I suspect the people of Scotland are now rather thankful they have a nuclear deterrent, in the face of a very provocative Putin.

T2.   I recently met Help for Heroes, and we spoke about the routine health assessment at the point of military discharge. Is there more that can be done at this point to pick up on mental health issues? It is a defining moment. (902094)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. Help for Heroes is one of our key charities, which I visited a while back in its premises near Salisbury, and I plan to meet it again very soon. It is now mandatory for all armed forces personnel leaving the services to have a structured mental health assessment at their discharge medical examination. I am pleased to say that that will highlight any unknown mental health needs and enable signposting and referral where necessary, and my hon. Friend will of course be aware of Operation Courage within the national health service.

I welcome the Defence Secretary’s news that the vanity project of the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—the flagship—will be scrapped, and the spending switched to purposes that will help defend the country. Ahead of the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the Defence Secretary told the Select Committee last week

“I need money to protect me from inflation”,

yet in the current spending settlement, Defence is the only Department with a real-terms cut in its revenue budget. Why did he ever agree to that?

First, on that particular question, the right hon. Gentleman will know that when I got my defence review—a year earlier than everyone else in the spending review—the figure for GDP inflation used by the Treasury was different from that used now. He will be aware that inflation has gone up since the basis of that calculation was made, which is why I said at the Select Committee that I would like to be insulated from that inflation. I will have my discussions with the Chancellor and the Prime Minister this week, and then we will see where we get to.

When the Secretary of State agreed that budget, it was a £1.7 billion real-terms cut in the revenue budget. Now, he says that inflationary pressures on his budget for the next two years are about £8 billion. How much does Defence actually need from the Chancellor on the 17th to plug this budget black hole that has opened up on the Secretary of State’s watch?

First, I do not agree with the premise that I agreed to a £1.6 billion reduction of the resource departmental expenditure limit. At the time, it would have reduced in the fourth year of its profile—it was a four-year profile, if the right hon. Gentleman remembers—but after a £24 billion increase, which is nothing that the Labour party has ever committed to. It would have shown a reduction in the last year, yes, but a real-terms freeze. However, inflation is significantly higher than it was all those years ago, and that is why I am going to see the Treasury, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to see what I can get to make sure we protect our armed forces and our current plans from inflation.

T3. The recently announced defence accommodation strategy is worth £1.6 billion of investment, which will bring better facilities for our servicemen and women. Equally, it will create thousands of jobs across the United Kingdom. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, notwithstanding the budget pressures, the strategy will still be proceeded with? (902095)

I am exceptionally grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in these matters. Having spent four decades occupying pretty shoddy accommodation across the defence estate, it gives me great pleasure to say that the new strategy will definitely improve the quality of life of our personnel. The defence accommodation strategy commits to increasing the quality of homes, plus a fairer allocation process, and that will be game-changing. A safe, comfortable home is paramount to people’s wellbeing, and these improvements will directly increase the quality of life for servicepeople.

T6. The scandal of the state of military accommodation continues with almost a third of UK military homes needing repair. Contracts worth £650 million were let six months ago to resolve that, but they have not worked. When will the Government bring these outsourced companies into line and repair the homes that our servicepeople are living in? (902099)

What is more important to servicepeople is the quality of homes that they occupy, rather than who runs them. I have to say that the value of the future defence infrastructure services contract is £2.9 billion, and that is just the core contract. That will sustain jobs across the UK and will most definitely improve the quality of the housing that members of our service community occupy. I hope that will come as some comfort to the hon. Member, because it represents a significant investment indeed.

T4.   Will the Secretary of State please join me in thanking the 3,500 NATO troops, many of them British, who took part in Exercise Iron Wolf II in Lithuania to defend our democratic freedoms against hostile foreign powers? Does he agree that the United Kingdom’s future defence is best served by our continuing partnership with our NATO allies? (902097)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I join him in congratulating all the UK troops and those from countries throughout NATO who participated in Exercise Iron Wolf in Lithuania. It has been fantastic to see over the past few months how much British soldiers, sailors and aviators are enjoying being part of the NATO alliance and getting to know those from other NATO countries. That alliance remains the cornerstone of UK and European security.

T7. What progress has been made to replicate the new method used by the Office for National Statistics for recording and reporting cases of suicide in the veteran community in Scotland and Northern Ireland? (902100)

I am glad the hon. Lady raised this issue. She will be aware that the ONS has worked closely with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs so that for the first time we can record the number of servicepeople who have committed suicide. Her question gives me an opportunity to say that, although we are incredibly concerned about anybody who ends up in such a tragic situation—really, we are—it would be wrong to say that the statistics we currently have available suggest that the service population is particularly at risk. There may, though, be some granularity within that, which I am keen to explore.

T5.   Poland is one of our oldest allies and we will never forget the support of Polish fighter pilots, who saved so many British lives during the second world war. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State update the House on the steps he is taking to strengthen the alliance with Poland and help to modernise its armed forces? (902098)

Poland is one of our oldest allies—we have been allies for more than 150 years—and we currently have a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks and a squadron of Light Dragoons light reconnaissance based in that country. Over the past three years I have worked incredibly closely with my Polish counterparts, including by sending a squadron of Royal Engineers to help at the time of the Belarusian migrant crisis. I recently visited again to sign a multibillion-pound deal with Poland on medium-range air defence. There are also the beginnings of an agreement on the Arrowhead Type 31 shipbuilding.

Figures from the MOD show that more than half of veterans rate their experience of the armed forces compensation scheme as one out of 10. Last week, I and my co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans—the hon. Members for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord)—launched a survey to enable those affected to share their experiences of the compensation scheme. Will the Minister agree to meet us when that survey concludes?

T8. Last week the Russian ambassador to the UK toured the studios saying that the UK was involved in various nefarious plans. He also purported to have handed in to the embassy a report saying that the UK had been up to no good. What are the Secretary of State’s comments on this? Has he seen that information? What does the evidence from the Russians show? (902102)

In recent days, Russia has made a range of allegations against the UK and other international partners that are clearly designed to distract from the attention on Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. I did indeed receive a letter from the Russians that seemed to demonstrate everything that has been announced by the Government either in this House or in the media going way back to the times of Op Orbital. As yet, I still await the groundbreaking evidence, but I do not expect it to come because we know for sure that Russia is involved in misinformation.

It is the right thing to do to refresh the integrated review. The Minister said earlier that he was not ruling anything in or out from a capability point of view, but does he agree that it would be wise not to make any cuts to capability until the integrated review refresh reports, hopefully before Christmas?

The hon. Gentleman knows that there are lots of types of capabilities: there are numbers, there is equipment that is going out of service to be replaced by other equipment, and there is modernisation. We will look at all that in the round. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes particular interest in the A400 and C-130 fleet; I am glad to tell him that I have brought forward by more than two years the ability for people to parachute from the A400 at significant scale, at both high and low altitude. I hope we will have good news by next year. The availability of the A400 fleet is now increasing.

Campaigns and equipment rely on people, and people need to be at the centre of future defence planning. However, last week there was an urgent question on conduct towards women in the Royal Navy. The urgent priority to address unacceptable behaviour and culture has been stretched to a five-year vision, so will the Secretary of State give further reassurances that service personnel will be at the heart of the integrated review and defence Command Paper refresh?

First, let me say how grateful I am to my hon. Friend for the time and effort she gave, even before she entered the Department. She will be a loss to the Department. If I had more Ministers, I would desperately have liked her to have remained to continue her work on women in the armed forces. Like her, I know that there is urgency. We are working at pace. We have already introduced some secondary legislation. We are going to set up soon all the things promised in our report, and I would be delighted if she would like to accompany me on any of those steps.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in March 2020 Russian reconnaissance bombers entered the Rathlin sector of UK airspace. Six Typhoons had to be scrambled in order to escort those reconnaissance bombers out of our airspace. Given the likelihood of an anti-NATO Government being elected in the Republic of Ireland, and given that the UK Government had to seek Republic of Ireland support to enter its airspace in order to escort those bombers out, what actions will the Secretary of State take to ensure that a proper assessment is made of these national security interests?

We have an excellent relationship with the Irish Government on security matters. It is clearly not for me, at the Dispatch Box of the UK Parliament, to talk about Irish policy over the use of its airspace. The hon. Gentleman will know, however, that RAF jets have deployed into Irish airspace on occasion. It is for the Irish Government to set out their policy on why, when and how.

The armed forces are a major employer across Lincolnshire—so much so that it is the ambition of the Greater Lincolnshire local enterprise partnership to become a nationally recognised cluster of innovation-focused defence companies, and to ensure that Greater Lincolnshire and Lincoln are a highly attractive first-choice destination for defence-related industries, service leaders and their families. Will Ministers assure me that Lincolnshire, including busy RAF Waddington, which now has the Red Arrows on base in my constituency, will continue to be a key area for defence investment?

I reassure my hon. Friend that Greater Lincolnshire continues to be a major investment hub for the MOD and the wider defence industry. RAF Waddington is one of the RAF’s busiest locations and will remain a base for the foreseeable future. I very much welcome the creation this year of the Greater Lincolnshire Defence and Security Network.

Do the Government recognise that while the practice of double-counting spending towards the targets for overseas development assistance and for NATO defence might be a neat trick, it is a false economy?

Recently I met Richard Morgan from 65 Degrees North, a charity that seeks to help in the rehabilitation of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans by giving them the opportunity to participate in challenging adventure. Do Ministers agree that there is a need to change the perception of physical and mental disabilities through this spirt of adventure, and will they congratulate the charity on the work it does?

I most certainly do congratulate it on the work it does. I am very positive about disability in the armed forces. I point the hon. Lady to the diversity and inclusion strategy, which sets out the blueprint for how we can do much better. I would be more than happy to meet the charity that she has cited, and I congratulate it on the work it does.

The defence Command Paper states:

“China poses a complex, systemic challenge.”

But we recently learned that RAF veterans have been lured to China to assist with its own air force training, and today’s response to my written parliamentary question confirms that Chinese officer cadets have recently been attending courses at Sandhurst, Shrivenham and Cranwell. Will the Secretary of State confirm that we will update our security strategy towards China, and will the law be changed to prevent former RAF pilots from being recruited by the Chinese military?

It is a couple of days since I signed off the response to my right hon. Friend’s question, but from memory it related to a few years ago, albeit within the five that his question referred to. We have since revised our policy on Chinese attendance on key courses, but it is important to note that in none of those courses is anything taught or compromised that might be above the threshold of the Official Secrets Act.

In this remembrance period, does the Minister recall the two very constructive meetings held by the War Widows’ Association with our hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), when he was veterans Minister, about the 200 to 300 people who lost their widow’s pension on remarriage? Will the progress made towards an ex gratia payment for that small cohort now be rapidly brought to a conclusion?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. I am acutely aware of the position of the pre-2015 war widows. The Treasury is absolutely against retrospection, and that has been the case over consecutive Governments. Ex gratia payments, however, are a different matter. I cannot give any commitments, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that the matter is under active consideration.

On Friday, I had the honour of visiting the brand-new specialist veterans orthopaedic centre at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital near Oswestry. It is going to be a world-class facility built to provide NHS care for veterans across the UK, as well as working with military charities to provide other support. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating staff there on their achievement and agree to consider extending such centres across the UK?

The marrying-up over the years between the MOD, the health service and the charities has gone from strength to strength. The example that the hon. Lady has used is something that we should embrace and do more of.

Will the integrated review refresh include consideration of the resilience of the RAF’s main operating bases, particularly when it comes to dispersal?

As my hon. Friend knows well, although the RAF’s main operating bases are incredible centres of excellence for the aircraft they operate, there do indeed need to be well rehearsed plans for dispersing the Air Force across civilian airfields around the country. The RAF is developing and refining those plans as we speak.