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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 722: debated on Monday 7 November 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Procurement System

Defence procurement is some of the most complex in Government, but our defence and security industrial strategy, published last year, represents a step change that will see industry, Government and academia working ever closer together, while fundamentally reforming regulations to improve the speed of acquisition and ensure we incentivise innovation and productivity.

It has been reported that the Ministry of Defence has wasted £15 billion of taxpayers’ money on mismanaged procurement since 2010, with £5 billion of it since 2019. Might the Secretary of State just set out in a little bit more detail how he is going to deal with that type of waste and stop it happening in the future?

I am afraid that the right hon. Lady has obviously lapped up the Labour Front Benchers’ dodgy dossier on defence procurement. Of course, over half of the figure she used was under the previous Labour Government. Labour double-counted, including in that dossier, and indeed made no reference to the fact that the top 15 projects under Labour, in its last period of power, produced a £4.5 billion overspend and a 339-month out-of-date period for projects.

As I said, these are very complex processes. We often make sure that we try to meet the demand and the threat, but some of these projects last 20 years. We have made significant steps to change and reform that, and the right hon. Lady will be glad to know that this year—or last year and the year before—the MOD came in on budget for its overall budget, with a balanced budget for the first time for decades.

The Type 26 frigate is literally a world-beating design, which we have exported to both Canada and Australia, and we all want to see it in service as soon as possible. So it is doubly disappointing that, last week, the Department issued a written ministerial statement to say her entry into service is now delayed a further year from October 2027 to October 2028 and the lifetime cost to the programme will be over a quarter of a billion pounds more of taxpayers’ money. Given the defence budget is likely to come under great pressure, why does it take BAE Systems 11 years to build a ship the Japs can build in four?

Just before the Secretary of State answers, may I say that we even have the Speaker of Canada here, which is very appropriate.

First, just like in Canada, industrial complexes are facing post-covid skills challenges and indeed supply chain challenges—because our ships, just like everybody else’s ships, use international supply chains—and that has got involved in the timetable, which obviously has a knock-on effect on cost. However, where there have been supply chain problems, my team and I have personally made sure I have not only visited the manufacturer to grip the situation, but discussed it with the prime. It is incredibly important when we place these contracts, and the contracts are for billions of pounds, that the prime contractors, be they British or foreign, deliver in accordance with them. That is why, in future contracts, I have made sure not only that we do as much as we can to build in Britain, but that we get the primes to invest in the infrastructure of British yards and the skills base of British people to ensure this does not happen again.

General Dynamics reports strong progress on the troubled Ajax programme, so can the Secretary of State confirm that a solution to the noise and vibration issues has now been found?

First, we expect General Dynamics to stick within the terms of its contract, and we will stick to our side of the contract. The user validation trials, which are the first steps in getting this Ajax programme back on track, have now been completed. We are looking at the results and hope to start the next phase soon, which is good news all round.

What plans does my right hon. Friend have to further invest in and enhance our sovereign defence manufacturing capability, which not only provides us with a massive strategic benefit but is great for jobs and apprenticeships?

When we published the defence Command Paper, we committed to invest £23 billion in our land capabilities over the next 10 years—a significant investment in land. That was accompanied by a land industrial strategy. It has also been accompanied by a defence and security industrial strategy that puts a lot of weight on ensuring that we support a sovereign supply chain where possible, and that we invest in skills. A number of working groups in Government are designed to do just that, and to both improve the skills base, but also to ensure that, where possible, we get the best social value and indeed a British supply chain.

It was an honour to join you, Mr Speaker, the Canadian Speaker, the Defence Secretary and other Members of the House earlier today for the opening of the constituency garden of remembrance. At last week’s Defence Committee, the Secretary of State was asked when the MOD would sign a contract to make the new next-generation light anti-tank weapons that are needed both for Ukraine and to restock the British Army. He said:

“We have signed the first contract for next year.”

If the Defence Secretary was correct, Saab would have notified the market, but it has not. Would the Defence Secretary like to correct the record, and will he confirm when the MOD will get its act together and get that contract in place for new UK production, as this is day 257 of Putin’s war on Ukraine?

I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but I did not say in my evidence that it was with Thales that I placed a contract for NLAW replacement, and many other people can give us access to NLAWs.

Will the Secretary of State confirm the amount that the United Kingdom has spent on the defence nuclear enterprise in the past financial year 2021-22, and the equal but opposite cost of that nuclear expenditure to operational capacity, conventional equipment procurement, investment in service accommodation, and all other underfunded UK defence priorities?

We need to try to ensure that we find the funding to fund all those capabilities, and we must ensure at the time of placing a contract that we have certainty in the costs overall, to make sure there are no overruns.

The Secretary of State never answered my question, because he was not listening to the question. The answer is £6.6 billion, and that is to fund what we hear is the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. I have a fairly well honed view of what independence looks like, and it does not look like the Secretary of State going cap in hand to the United States to ask it to bring forward its development of the W93 nuclear warhead. Will he explain what is independent about the UK’s nuclear dependency on the United States, except the cost in dollars for those weapons?

Where do I start? What is independent? I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is not independent, which is the SNP Government in Scotland placing a contract for ferries in Turkey. Supporting Scottish yards? That is not very independent.

The hon. Gentleman will know, as he seems to have a real interest in the technology and development of the nuclear warhead, that under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty we cannot ask the Americans to develop a nuclear weapon for us. That has to be done sovereignly, and if he read that treaty he would understand that.

Nuclear Testing Veterans: Service Medals

2. If he will take steps with Cabinet colleagues to help ensure that British nuclear testing veterans are awarded service medals. (902069)

I pay tribute to our nuclear test veterans in this 70th anniversary year of our first nuclear test, and we look forward to the commemorative event at the National Memorial Arboretum later this month. The award of a medal to nuclear test veterans is first a matter for the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals. The case is being considered through the well-established process for reviewing historical medal cases, and the outcome will be announced in due course.

A Cabinet Office source reportedly told the Daily Mirror that the Advisory Military Sub-Committee has recommended to the main Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals that there be no medal for nuclear testing veterans, despite a Government scientist reporting in February that atomic troops were more likely to die, and to die from cancer, than other servicemen. Given that the Sir John Holmes military medal review in 2012 states clearly that the Prime Minister can personally make a direct recommendation to the sovereign on a medal issue, will he now recommend that those servicemen finally receive the medal they deserve?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but she really ought not believe everything she sees in the pages of the Daily Mirror. The procedure is for the Advisory Military Sub-Committee to make a recommendation to the HD Committee, which will make a determination on that matter. She will know well that in June this year the then Prime Minister decided to review the case, and asked the HD Committee to look at it again. She will also be aware of all the money that the Government are putting into nuclear test veterans, in particular the £450,000 project to commemorate and build public understanding of the contribution to our country made by those important veterans.

As we approach Armistice Day, I pay tribute to our armed forces personnel, veterans, forces families and all those lost through conflict over the years. Theirs is the ultimate public service.

As the Minister said, this month marks 70 years since the first British atomic tests in the Pacific. We are the only atomic nation that has not provided recognition of or compensation to nuclear test veterans. As well as the warm words, will the Minister commit to ending that scandal by setting out a clear timetable for nuclear test veterans to receive medallic recognition? Will he back Labour’s call for a complete review of the medals system to make it easier to recognise exemplary service personnel and veterans of unusual operations, such as those who took part in the Afghanistan withdrawal and nuclear test vets?

The hon. Lady has fallen into the same trap as the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). She really must not take what she reads in the press at face value. I gave the timetable in my opening remarks, and I said that it is for the HD committee to make a determination, which it will. She must not confuse commemorative coins and medallions with medals. Medals are worn on uniform; medallions and commemorative coins of the sort that other countries have issued cannot be worn.

Veterans: Cost of Living Crisis

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to answer these remarkably similar questions together.

The Government are committed to supporting all households with the current cost of living through initiatives such as the energy price guarantee, cost of living payments—

Order. May I help the Minister? These questions are grouped by the Government, not by anybody else.

I absolutely accept that, Mr Speaker—I was simply pointing out that they are very similar.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

We are working at pace across Government and the service charity sector to understand how the veterans community may be impacted, including in the forthcoming national veterans survey and in the recent Cobseo-led survey relating specifically to the cost of living.

With up to 80,000 veterans currently in receipt of universal credit—a benefit that was, like others, uprated by only 3.1% in April, which was far below the rate of inflation—what are Ministers doing to step up to support our veterans and their families?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. It is important to understand the extent of this, which is why the Government have backed Cobseo to do a deep dive in October on how the cost of living is impacting on our veterans. In advance of the outcome—the Secretary of State and I will have meetings to discuss that shortly—I point out that we have accepted the armed forces pay review body’s recommendations in full, we have frozen the daily food charge to our personnel, we are limiting the increase in accommodation charges, we have increased the availability of wraparound childcare, which is vital for families, and we intend to have a cost of living roundtable before the end of the year.

The Royal British Legion has identified a 20% increase in requests for support from veterans in urgent need—that is a deeply concerning figure. The RBL has also put forward information stating that veterans who receive sickness and disability benefits now face extra costs of £500 per month as a consequence of the cost of living crisis. What are Ministers doing to support veterans in this country, who are, frankly, being let down by this Conservative Government?

I do not accept that. I have just explained what we are doing to address that. We are trying to understand how the cost of living crisis is impacting on our service and veteran community, and we have already put in place a large number of interventions that will go some way to addressing it. I expect to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State shortly, with representatives of the service community, to discuss the matter further.

During the cost of living crisis, veterans need to access support such as the war pension scheme and the armed forces compensation scheme, but the latest veterans satisfaction survey shows huge dissatisfaction with Veterans UK, and I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are struggling to make claims. What will the Minister do to address those concerns?

There have been issues with some applications for both schemes, but I think the position has improved since last year. Nevertheless, the Government have injected further funds to ensure that matters are expedited. I urge veterans who are concerned to contact the welfare office provided through the veterans agency, to help them to fill out the claims, which can sometimes be complicated. The hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is expediting the quinquennial review on the armed forces pension scheme, which will hopefully give him some reassurance on the seriousness with which we are taking that issue.

It perhaps might help the Minister if I give him a real-life example. My constituent, Leslie Constable, is an Army veteran who receives a state pension, war pension, Army pension and attendance allowance. He tells me he is finding it increasingly difficult to heat his home and feed himself when prices are rising so quickly. He relies on charity shops and a coat given to him nearly 40 years ago. What is the Minister doing to ensure that veterans such as Mr Constable are receiving the support they need for a dignified retirement, and will he finally commit to keeping the triple lock?

The hon. Lady will know that that is not in my gift, but I point her to the veterans’ strategy action plan published in January 2020, which contained over 60 policy commitments at a price of more than £70 million. I just think it is not right for her to suggest that the Government are not exercised by the situation faced not just by veterans, but by people across the country at this extremely difficult time in the economic cycle. We will continue to do what we can to alleviate the pressure on veterans in particular. It is just a pity that in office the Labour party did not come anywhere close to designing an action plan of the sort we published in January.

Veterans in Crisis Sunderland is a brilliant organisation that supports veterans in Sunderland, the city I represent and one that sends a huge number of people into the armed forces. The cost of living crisis is having a huge detrimental effect on the mental health of veterans, and many are using food banks. One big issue is people receiving forces pensions who then have to pay that money to universal credit. Will the Minister look at whether leeway can be given for people who have gained their pensions fighting for our country and who are having to pay it back because of the universal credit rules?

Universal credit is paid right the way up the income scale depending, as the hon. Lady will well know, on circumstances, number of children and the cost of accommodation. She mentions mental health, which is important to me, too. She will therefore presumably approve of the extra money going into the Armed Forces Covenant Trust to support people with mental health issues. She will also, I hope, approve of the £17.8 million going into Op Courage.

I welcome my right hon. and gallant Friend to his well-deserved place on the Front Bench. I look forward to working with him over the years.

My right hon. and gallant Friend will know that in Wiltshire alone we have 7,000 service children in our schools and that some 96% of all schools in Wiltshire have service kids in them, many of whom benefit from the services pupil premium. That is great, but it ends at age 16. Surely there is an argument in favour of continuing to help those children from 16 to 18, as we have changed the education system as a whole and education at 18 has become the norm.

I am very grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend and near neighbour. He invites me to ensure that Wiltshire gets more cash, in particular the excellent Wiltshire College. That is very tempting indeed. I hear what he says, and nobody is keener than I am on improving skills, particularly post 16. I am more than happy to discuss the issue with him, but I suspect that what he suggests would have a significant price tag and our colleagues in the Treasury would rather I did not commit.

Defence Technology Development

Successful innovation delivers military effectiveness and advantage, which is why the Ministry of Defence works closely with UK industry and academia, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to identify and invest in innovative technologies that address our most pressing capability challenges, as well as publishing our future priorities to incentivise investment. We are already testing and deploying those technologies, building on the work I saw last week at MOD Abbey Wood.

It is very good to see my hon. and learned Friend in his place. I welcome the world-leading investments the Government have made in new technology to combat the threats in the space and cyber realms, but can he assure me that the necessary investment in those new areas acts to complement, not replace, our conventional forces, and that they are also seeing record investment, modernisation and improvement?

Our forces must be able to adapt to meet the threats set out in the integrated review. As my hon. Friend rightly said, that includes those relating to the space and cyber domains. The £6.6 billion being invested in research and development over the four years of this spending review period provides the opportunity to modernise and adapt to meet these new threats, while complementing and in some cases even enhancing the lethality of our conventional forces.

Does the Minister share my concern that any reduction in defence spending will harm our nascent defence manufacturing industry? What steps can be taken to safeguard our future innovation, development and exports?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with such authority on these matters. The UK is the largest defence spender in NATO in Europe. That commitment provides the capacity to invest in decisive battle-winning technology now and in the future. The defence and security industrial strategy sets the framework for a strategic relationship with industry, including the need to regard our defence and security industries as strategic capabilities in their own right. We are already seeing a shift towards increasing weight being given to industrial implications ahead of investment decisions.

Reductions in defence spending are not what is hampering our security and defence; it is the fact that we need an increase in defence spending to ensure that we have better security and defence in this country. That is particularly important if we are to develop and keep ahead of our competitors on new technology, not least artificial intelligence. Is the Minister confident that, through the negotiations that we discussed with the Secretary of State last week in the Defence Committee, we will get some sort of increase in the defence budget and that that will be inflation-proofed?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to allocate proper resources to keep this country safe. The Prime Minister was absolutely clear when he was campaigning and since he has been in office that he will give this country what it needs to keep our people and our allies safe. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that we are the largest defence spender in NATO in Europe. That position serves this country and our allies.

I welcome the Minister to his place. Following the Defence Committee’s findings that the lack of progress in the space domain in the UK is unacceptable, what are Ministers doing to prioritise the publication of the space-based positioning, navigation and timing programme’s conclusions?

This country is ahead of the game. We have published the space strategy. We will continue to ensure that work in these new domains—we have spoken about cyber, but space is included—is in place so that we can support and enhance the capability of our conventional forces, and we will ensure that we lead the way in space.

Armistice Day

I am pleased to confirm that commemorations across the UK will take place as normal to mark remembrance. I will attend the ceremony at the Cenotaph on Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday, and Ministers will attend services at war memorials across the United Kingdom and in the Falklands.

On Armistice Day, we remember generations of brave servicemen and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our democracy—the same freedoms that the Ukrainian people are fighting for today. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the Long Eaton and Ilkeston branches of the Royal British Legion and, indeed, branches up and down the country who facilitate this act of remembrance each year and who work tirelessly in support of our veterans day in, day out in our communities?

Yes, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Our armed forces have fought throughout time for the safety and security of our country and they continue to do so today against all aggressors. Each year, this country unites to remember their sacrifice. I am grateful to all branches of the Royal British Legion who work tirelessly in the community to help to keep Armistice Day in the public conscience.

The battle of the Somme and the wider theatre of world war one were devastating for northern communities. I am sure that the Secretary of State will be aware of the Accrington Pals, the 700-plus strong battalion that was effectively wiped out on the first day in the Somme. I grew up at a time when living veterans still provided a direct link. As the younger generation today will not have that direct link, what can the Secretary of State do to ensure that the sacrifice and legacy of those brave men is remembered not just on Armistice Day, but more generally?

I remind the Secretary of State that the Chorley Pals were part of that Accrington contingent.

Never forget the Chorley Pals, Mr Speaker. The Accrington Pals played a hugely significant role on the frontline as part of the 94th Infantry Brigade. In many areas, they bore the brunt of the casualties that the British Army suffered. Of the 700-plus men who went over the top that morning, 585 became casualties, with 230 killed in the first 30 minutes. It is only right that that immense sacrifice continues to be remembered in communities across the United Kingdom. All of us have a role in doing that, whether that is through supporting our British Legion, buying a poppy or attending a parade, but it is also about recognising that we remember these people best by investing in today’s armed forces.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that at this time of year it is important that we honour the sacrifice of the merchant navy, which endured such a high proportion of fatalities in conflict. Will he join me in paying tribute to the Merchant Navy Association, including active branches such as ours in Newport, which does so much to commemorate and support the families of those who undertook such critical and dangerous service?

Every year, when I write my wreath, I write “Lest we forget,” not only because we must not forget the lessons of the war, but because we must not forget that war involves our whole population and all our armed services—not just the Army, Navy and Air Force, but groups such as the merchant navy and the women who helped and supported on the civil front. That is what we should never forget: that all of us—all our families, in different ways—stood to defend this country from fascism.

Ukraine: Support for NATO Allies

6. What steps his Department is taking to support NATO allies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (902073)

The United Kingdom has provided substantial support to NATO allies. We temporarily doubled our enhanced forward presence battlegroup in Estonia, with additional enhancements to that battlegroup planned for the longer term. We deployed an aviation taskforce to Lithuania, are contributing to NATO air activity across Europe, are supporting air-to-air refuelling and have bolstered our presence in Poland, as well as Army activity in Bulgaria and Romania.

It is absolutely right that our commitments on defence spending and deployments to NATO allies change in the light of the threat posed by increased Russian aggression and the very real threat of a war on European soil. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our increased deployments show that we remain fully committed to defending every inch of NATO territory, as well as Sweden and Finland, and that that is a clear statement of intent on behalf of this country?

My hon. Friend invites me to make two points. First, one of Putin’s greatest failures of the past nine months is how he has reinvigorated the NATO alliance and restored the raison d’être of article 5. Secondly, through their work with many of our allies across the Baltic, the Nordic countries and the high north, our armed forces increasingly have environmental expertise on NATO’s northern flank. They are very much enjoying working with the Finns and the Swedes, every inch of whose territory, as they join NATO, is protected by article 5 just like everywhere else.

We saw reports at the weekend that almost one third of military accommodation is in need of repair: just shy of 14,000 homes, many with leaks and rot. The Ministry of Defence has apologised but has not yet said what it will do to fix the problem. Over half a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent on contracts, subcontracts—

Order. The hon. Gentleman’s supplementary is not linked to the question. It has to be linked. I am sorry, but we have to let it go. I call the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson.

Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine has led many NATO members to reboot their defence plans. The Defence Secretary now agrees with Labour that the integrated review needs updating. Would it not be absurd to cut the Army any further when Ukraine and our NATO allies are facing such clear and rising hostility? Can the Minister tell us which cuts he wants to reverse? Can he tell us whether further Army cuts will finally be halted, as Labour has consistently argued for?

The integrated review is indeed being refreshed—quite rightly, because in the past nine months we have seen war in Europe and growing belligerence by China in the far east. Exactly what the shape of our nation’s armed forces must look like must be a consequence of those new threats. I am not going to rule anything in or out at the Dispatch Box today, because we need to look at what those competitions with Russia in the immediate term and China in the longer term look like, and what our armed forces therefore need to look like.

Support for Veterans

The Department, through Veterans UK, provides information and advice to our veterans on statutory benefits, pensions and jobs, one-to-one welfare support, and administers service pensions. Under the veterans’ strategy action plan, the UK aims to be the best place in the world to be a veteran by 2080.

As someone who worked for the career transition partnership, I know how much many employers value veterans and the service that they provide in employment. Too often, charities are the ones left picking up the pieces, such as Only A Pavement Away, which I met a few weeks ago. It specifically focuses on getting veterans who are a long way from the job market into hard-to-fill vacancies. What more can the Government do to support charities such as that?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Given her background, she will be aware of the efforts that the Government are putting in to get people into jobs in the public sector. We start in the Departments where perhaps we have some control over: the health and care sector and the prisons service, notably, are good examples, but there are others, including the civil service. The Government will work with charities and others—the Office for Veterans’ Affairs has primacy in that—to ensure that, across Government, we are doing our very best to get people who have a great skill set into jobs.

Fleet Solid Support Ships

The initial phase of awarding the contract for fleet solid support ships is due very soon. As that is market-sensitive, I will limit my response to saying that what I expect from whoever is successful is investment in our yards, in British jobs and in British supply chains.

As a reporter for Radio Clyde in 1979, I remember standing underneath the two ships built for the Polish navy as they were launched into the river—I needed to catch the sound effects. In those days, the UK and other Governments had tremendous pride in our shipbuilding industry, but the Thatcher Government devastated it. Why do today’s Tory Government not restore that pride? Why do they not commit, as the Secretary of State suggested, to building those ships in British yards, as the Labour party would do, to provide those 6,000 jobs that could benefit communities across the country?

I will certainly ignore the rewriting of history other than to say that we still take pride in the ships that we build in this country. Some of our ships are the very best in the world. We will continue that, unlike the Scottish Government, who seem to think that they cannot make their own ships in Scottish yards and make them in foreign yards.

I welcome the Minister for Defence Procurement, the hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) to his place. I know his constituency very well, having finished a distant third there in 2005. I have only warm memories of it. I pay tribute to him; we have worked together in the past on issues such as Down syndrome, which have affected us both. I look forward to continuing to work with him.

The fleet solid support contract presents a huge opportunity to the British shipbuilding industry, as well as providing a shot in the arm for British steel if the Government commit to building British by default. However, the GMB union has raised concerns that only significant parts of the build and assembly work will be carried out in this country rather than all the work. Will the Secretary of State address what “significant” means in the practical sense? If a foreign manufacturer wins the contract, how will our sovereign defence manufacturing capabilities be protected?

If the hon. Gentleman can point to a single complex military contract, whether in air, land or sea, that has not used international or partner supplier chains, I will be amazed. Typhoon, made in Lancashire, uses partners from Italy, Spain and Germany to create one of the most successful fighter programmes in the world. Our aircraft carrier, though entirely assembled in Rosyth in Fife, will have involved the use of foreign components.

Complex military machines that keep us at the cutting edge of the world involve international collaboration. That is the difference between us and Russia, which has the Stalin taxi factory attitude and ends up with rubbish equipment. We end up with the best because I have the duty of giving the best to the men and women of the Royal Navy. I will find a contract that delivers the best and supports the civil base and British manufacturing, but I will not cut corners for party political ideology from the Opposition.

Radioactive Material: Dalgety Bay

11. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on plans to remove radioactive material from Dalgety Bay. (902078)

The Ministry of Defence remains committed to delivering the planned remediation to Dalgety Bay and has worked closely with its partners in the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Fife Council to facilitate this work. MOD and SEPA officials last met formally on 24 November last year to discuss this matter, and the intent is to hold another meeting before the end of the year.

The people of Dalgety Bay in my constituency have been living with radioactive waste on their shoreline since the second world war. The Ministry promised the community, me and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency that remediation would be complete by September this year, yet we continue to hear nothing from the MOD. Can the Minister update me as a matter of urgency on operational progress and ensure that the interests of my constituents are not lost in the chaos of this Tory Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, although perhaps not the bit right at the end. Work has begun. It was suspended to take account of the nesting season but I can say that this project, which incidentally is being undertaken at a cost of several million pounds, is expected to be completed by September 2023. I am happy to liaise with him if he wants to discuss it with me.

Armed Forces Families: “Living in our Shoes” Report

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his excellent, comprehensive report? Families are an integral part of the armed forces community, and our evolving assistance to them includes funding wraparound childcare, supporting children’s education and the employment of partners as societal expectations evolve and change. The armed forces families strategy, published in January, sets out the Government’s response to “Living in our Shoes” and sets the framework for the delivery of more sympathetic policies in relation to armed forces families that are fit for the future.

Will the Government make public each of the six monthly service family steering group meetings and the progress that has been made on each of the 106 accepted recommendations, and ensure that we have parity of esteem in the way that we look after both veterans and service families—a wonderful group of people on whom the defence of the nation depends?

I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend. We owe so much to our families and he highlights that very well in his report. Of course we meet service families all the time and I am more than happy to meet him at any time to update him on what we intend to do as a result of his report and indeed the veterans strategy, published earlier this year, which covered many service families and members of the service community.

With regard to the report, we learned in the pursuit of a recent constituency case that the Ministry of Defence was not able to decide whether to deduct earnings from service personnel in child maintenance cases, which is leaving some service families in a difficult situation. Can the Minister advise me on how the Ministry of Defence is ensuring that families get the support they are entitled to?

I did of course outline some of the ways in which we have been supporting families in my earlier remarks. I would urge anybody in the service community who is concerned about their situation and who wants help to contact their welfare officer through the Veterans Agency. The veterans gateway is an extremely good place to start.

Ukraine: Military Response to Russian Invasion

13. What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the Ukrainian military response to Russia’s invasion. (902080)

We work closely with international partners and Ukraine to ensure that Ukraine receives the right equipment at the right time. Meetings such as those of the Ukraine defence contact group and the international defence co-ordination centre help to prioritise and co-ordinate efforts. The UK and international partners also train Ukrainian recruits in the UK, and we receive regular feedback from the armed forces in Ukraine that allows us to tailor courses to best meet requirements.

The whole House will have been moved by the heroic bravery of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have stepped up to defend their homeland, but they will need the right kit to defeat the Russians. I know that the supply of western weapons has been plentiful, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK is working closely with our NATO allies and the Ukrainians to ensure that the training and equipment received is as useful as possible?

Almost within days of the invasion, I convened a donor conference. At the first conference we had nearly 30 nations, and three conferences later, when the United States chaired it in Germany, we had more than 50 nations. We constantly work on that co-ordination and we have set up the international donor co-ordination cell, which is well populated by United Kingdom forces, to make sure that we get the right equipment to the right people in time.

Does our ability to resupply the Ukrainians not depend on our having a robust defence industry? Does that not depend on both facilities and skilled manpower? And does that not depend on orders being placed in this country? Does this not absolutely demonstrate the folly of the Secretary of State’s proposal to offshore the purchase of the fleet solid support ships to Spanish shipyards?

The right hon. Gentleman never answered the question that I put to him at the Defence Committee. As he says, surely the most important thing is that whoever bids for these contracts commits to investing in skills in Britain. If they do not invest in skills, what is the point of awarding the contract? When I asked him whether he would choose someone who invested in skills, there was no answer from him. This is classic union-paid claptrap.

Armed Forces Recruitment

We continue to apply an array of measures to support recruitment and retention and refine the armed forces’ offer. These include financial incentives, flexible service, and an improved accommodation offer. A career in the armed forces provides all recruits with a wide range of opportunities to succeed. As one of the UK’s largest apprenticeship providers, with over 80% of all recruits enrolling in apprenticeship programmes, we ensure that those recruits have the right skills to carry out their role throughout their career and into civilian life.

With war on the continent and a fragile peace in many parts of the world, our armed forces are more important than ever. My constituency of North Norfolk has a very proud military history, with a large number of veterans who care deeply about this. However, in the past 22 years, the inflow of personnel into UK regular forces has been higher than outflow in only six years. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that for the armed forces the retention of personnel, which he mentioned in his answer, is as important as the recruitment?

My hon. Friend is right about this. Not recruiting is bad, but recruiting and then not retaining is even worse, for very obvious reasons. Defence recognises the need to improve matters, both for the regulars and the reserves, where the issue of inflow and outflow is pretty much the same. I have already this afternoon outlined a range of measures that are being put in place to improve retention, and I look forward very much to the Haythornthwaite review for incentivisation that we expect in the spring.

The very youngest recruits into the armed forces, the 16 and 17-year-olds, will attend the Army Foundation College in Harrogate. However, there have been very concerning reports that an instructor at the college has been charged with more than 20 offences, including at least five sexual assaults against 16-year-old girls. Can the Minister detail to Members here today how these young recruits will be properly safeguarded at the college?

I am just a little bit concerned about this. If somebody has been charged, we should not be mentioning them. It could be sub judice.

I can assure the hon. Lady that the matter is under review. I cannot comment much further than that. I hope that that will satisfy her.

Topical Questions

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.