House of Commons
Monday 7 November 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Committee of Selection
That Craig Whittaker and Nigel Huddleston be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Marcus Jones and Steve Double be added.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Oral Answers to Questions
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that the top 15 projects under Labour, in its last period of power, produced a £4.5 billion overspend and a 339-month out-of-date period for projects.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?
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.
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?
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?
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
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—
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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—
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
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
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Asylum Seekers Accommodation and Safeguarding
I understand that there is a prospect of legal proceedings in relation to the centre at Manston. In any event, given the national importance of the issues raised by this case, I am allowing Members to discuss those issues. However, I ask Members not to discuss the details of any legal proceedings that might get under way.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Immigration if he will make a statement about what steps he is taking to reduce overcrowding at the Manston asylum processing facility and about the safeguarding of minors, both at Manston and in hotels.
We have set out on multiple occasions that the global migration crisis is placing unprecedented strain on our asylum system. Despite what they may have been told by many, migrants who travel through safe countries should not put their lives at risk by making the dangerous and illegal journey to the United Kingdom. We are steadfast in our determination to tackle those gaming the system and will use every tool at our disposal to deter illegal migration and disrupt the business model of people smugglers.
So far this year, our French colleagues have prevented over 29,000 crossings and destroyed over 1,000 boats. Furthermore, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be speaking with President Macron this week about how, together, we can achieve our shared ambition to prevent further crossings.
Some 40,000 people have crossed the channel on small boats so far this year, and the Government continue to have a statutory responsibility to provide safe and secure accommodation for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. To meet that responsibility, we have had to keep people for longer than we would have liked at our processing facility at Manston, but we have been sourcing more bed spaces with local authorities and in contingency accommodation such as hotels.
I can tell the House that, as of 8 o’clock this morning, the population at the Manston facility was back below 1,600. That is a significant reduction from this point last week, with over 2,300 people having been placed in onward accommodation. I thank my Border Force officers, members of the armed forces, our contractors and Home Office staff, who have worked tirelessly to help achieve that reduction.
Before the high number of arrivals in September, Manston had proven to be a streamlined and efficient asylum processing centre, where biographic and biometric details are taken and assessed against our databases, asylum claims registered and the vulnerable assessed. We are determined to ensure that Manston is back to that position as soon as possible, and I am encouraged by the progress now being made. We must not be complacent. We remain absolutely focused on addressing these complex issues so that we can deliver a fair and effective asylum system that works in the interests of the British people.
First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for the endeavours that he has made since his appointment to reduce the numbers of people overcrowding the Manston facility? I believe that this problem was wholly avoidable. He has worked tireless, with the staff at Manston—I thank them too—who have done a superb job under very difficult circumstances.
We are now nearly back to where we need to be, with the Manston processing centre operating efficiently. Will my right hon. Friend confirm his understanding, shared with the Home Secretary and with me last Thursday when she visited the site, that Manston is a processing centre, not an accommodation centre? Does he therefore agree that the temporary facilities that were erected while he and I were both present there a week ago on Sunday will be demolished, and can he confirm that additional accommodation will be provided so that the spike in November that is anticipated—which will happen, as it happened last year—will be catered for so that we will not have a repetition of the clogging-up of the facilities at Manston?
First, may I praise my right hon. Friend, who is an exemplary Member of Parliament? It has been my privilege to work alongside him over the past 10 days. He has consistently raised concerns expressed by his constituents, and also our joint desire that Manston should operate as a humane and decent facility that provides compassionate care to those who arrive at the United Kingdom’s borders. The population is now back at an acceptable level, which is a considerable achievement. It is essential that it remains so, and he is right to say that the challenge is far from over. Last year, for various reasons, November proved to be the largest month of the year for arrivals in the UK, so we have to be aware of that and plan appropriately. We are doing just that, and we are ensuring that there is now further accommodation so that we can build up a sufficient buffer, so that those arriving at Manston stay there for the legal period of 24 hours or thereabouts, and are then swiftly moved to better and more appropriate accommodation elsewhere in the country.
I support my right hon. Friend’s view that Manston should always be a processing centre, not a permanent home for migrants arriving in the UK. I have taken note of his comment that he would like the temporary facilities there to be dismantled. I do not think that is possible right now, because the prudent thing is to ensure that we maintain the level of infrastructure that we have in case there is a significant increase in the number of migrants arriving in the weeks ahead, but it is certainly not my intention, or the Home Secretary’s intention, that Manston is turned into a permanent site for housing immigrants.
I welcome the Minister to his place. The Home Secretary has stated that after 12 years of Conservative government the asylum system is “broken”. We agree, and it is the Conservative party that has broken it. The Government are processing just half the number of asylum claims that they were processing in 2015, and as a result the British taxpayer is footing a £7 million hotel bill every single day. Their failure to replace the Dublin agreement on returning failed asylum seekers, their failure to crack down on the criminal gangs, and their failure to get agreement with France have also increased the backlog.
This catalogue of chaos has led to the overcrowding in Manston, for which the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has directly blamed the Home Secretary. The previous Home Secretary revealed today that on 20 October he received legal advice that Manston was
“being used, or in danger of being used, as a detention centre”,
and he took emergency measures to work within the law. However, the current Home Secretary met officials on 19 October, just before she was forced to resign for breaching the ministerial code. Can the Minister please confirm that the Home Secretary refused to take those same emergency measures, and can he explain why she ignored the advice that she was repeatedly given over a period of several weeks? The Home Secretary told the House just a week ago that she did not ignore legal advice. Can the Minister tell the House now whether he believes that statement to be correct? The key question on Manston is whether legal advice was followed or not. Given the Minister’s unlawful approval of a Tory donor’s housing project in his previous brief, is he really best placed to make that judgment?
We know that 222 children have gone missing from asylum accommodation. What are the Government doing to find those missing children, to prevent more children from going missing, and to meet their legal obligations to vulnerable children?
For a few moments I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to approach this in an intelligent and constructive manner, but sadly that was the triumph of optimism over experience. In fact, the Labour party is trying to politicise this, and we can of course say the same. The Labour party has no plan to tackle illegal immigration. It does not want to tackle illegal immigration. The Labour party left a system in ruins in 2010, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) would attest, as he had to help to pick up the pieces. We believe in a system of secure borders and a fair and robust asylum system in which all members of the public can have confidence.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Home Secretary’s conduct. Let me tell him that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has consistently approved hotel accommodation. More than 30 hotels have been brought on line in the time for which my right hon. and learned Friend has been in office, which has ensured that thousands of asylum seekers have been able to move on from the Manston site and into better and more sustainable accommodation. And look at her record over the course of the last week! The population at Manston has fallen from 4,000 to 1,600 in a matter of seven days. That is a very considerable achievement on the part of the Home Secretary and her officials in the Home Office, and I am proud of it.
The Minister will be well aware that previous student accommodation at Canterbury Christchurch University—86 rooms—has been taken up by a company called Clearsprings, one of many outsourced companies around the country that have been trying to find accommodation. He may also be aware that Thanet District Council had been in correspondence with the Home Office in August, saying how unsuitable the site would be because of its close proximity to both primary and secondary schools that were a few hundred yards away, and because it was in a residential area.
Is it not the case that outsourced companies such as Clearsprings and Serco are simply running roughshod over planning consents, local authorities and local consultation? I am very concerned about this example. The Home Office must get involved when these large sites are selected, rather than big outsourced companies just doing as they please.
My hon. Friend and I were in contact about this issue over the weekend, and I know how strongly he feels. My first duty has been to ensure that Manston can operate in a legal and decent manner, and we are well on the way to achieving that. The second task is ensuring that the Home Office and its contractors procure accommodation—whether it be hotels, spot bookings or other forms of accommodation—in a sensible manner, taking into account many of the factors that my hon. Friend has just described, such as safeguarding, the impact on the local community and the likelihood of disorder, whether there is already significant pressure on that community, and whether it is a tourist hotspot. Those criteria need to be followed carefully.
My third priority, beyond that, is our exit from this hotel strategy altogether. It is not sustainable for the country to be spending billions of pounds a year on hotels. We now need to move rapidly to a point at which individuals are processed swiftly so that the backlog in cases falls and we disperse people fairly around the UK to local authority and private rented sector accommodation where appropriate. We also need to look into whether other, larger sites that provide decent but not luxurious accommodation might be available, so that we do not create a further pull factor for people to come to the UK.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing this urgent question and on his persistent scrutiny of these issues. Surely we have now reached the point where the Home Office can no longer be left responsible for the safety of those children. Hundreds are missing and thousands more are stuck in hotels outside the child protection system. Children are reportedly pressurised to claim to be adults and are increasingly misidentified as adults. There have been harrowing accounts of assault and rape; there is general evidence of fear and depression; and adults are not even being properly disclosure checked. Can we have a cross-Government taskforce, headed by the Prime Minister, to get children into local authority care instead of into more hotels?
Progress in moving people out of Manston is welcome, but it massively begs the question why that was not possible last month. To help the Minister to free up accommodation, will he prioritise the outstanding claims of the 15,000 or so Syrians and Afghans, who should be comparatively easy to identify as refugees and to award their status? Will he suspend the pointless process that saw staff identify just 83 inadmissible claims out of 16,000 cases? For goodness’ sake, instead of wasting their time on that, they should be looking at asylum claims and the backlog.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the UK Government pressurise any individual to falsely identify as a child. It is the people smugglers who do that; we are doing everything we can to clamp down on it. I have been to Western Jet Foil at Dover to meet the Border Force staff who try to make those assessments. At times, up to 20% of the adult males who arrive at Western Jet Foil claim to be under 18, when clearly the number is substantially less than that. We have already changed the law, which I think the SNP voted against, to change the way in which those tests are administered, and if we need to make further legal changes, we will.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is wrong that many children, in particular unaccompanied children, are in hotel accommodation. I want to change that. The way to do that is to encourage more local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to accept those individuals and to help them into private or state foster parenting arrangements. We have put in place a significant financial package of about £52,000 a year per foster carer per child to ensure that can happen, plus a £6,000 up-front payment to the local authority to help to accommodate that. The financing is available, so I want to ensure that more local authorities step up. If he can encourage those run by his SNP colleagues in Scotland to do so, I would be happy to support him.
The question for my right hon. Friend is not how many hotels we can book, but how we can stop the increasing number of migrants coming across the channel this year. We have seen more than 10,000 adult males from Albania aged 18 to 40—that is between 1% and 2% of the population—coming to the United Kingdom. We will not have enough hotels in the country if they continue at that rate. What is his view on the agreement that was entered into on 18 November 2002 between the German and Albanian Governments, which allowed Germany to deport Albanians who did not arrive in the country with a valid residence permit? That would allow us to take quick action to take people out of the country who should not be here.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. We want our asylum system to be available to those who truly need it—those who are fleeing persecution, war and human rights abuses around the world. We should not be a harbour for those who are essentially economic migrants coming from safe countries such as Albania. We need to change that. We have now negotiated a return agreement with Albania and 1,000 Albanians have already been returned home under that. I now want to see—I know my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary shares my view—a fast track whereby Albanians who do not meet our asylum criteria have their cases processed quickly and are swiftly returned home. It cannot be right that we are seeing thousands of Albanians making this crossing and essentially taking advantage of the welcome and hospitality afforded to them here in the UK.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) on securing this urgent question. Tomorrow, the Home Affairs Committee will visit Manston on its second visit, as we first visited in June. Alongside looking at the overcrowding, the safety issues and the lack of basic facilities, there is a concern about the legality of the Home Secretary’s actions in authorising individuals to be detained at Manston for more than 24 hours. Weekend media reports suggested that she was repeatedly provided with the advice that detaining individuals at Manston for more than 24 hours was illegal. The Sunday Times reported that she had received papers on 4 October stating that the Home Office had no power to detain people solely for welfare reasons or for arranging onward accommodation. Can the Minister explain to the House the legal basis for detaining individuals at Manston for longer than 24 hours?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who chairs the Select Committee, for that question. The law is clear that we should not detain individuals at sites such as Manston for longer than 24 hours, and that is exactly the position that we want to return to as fast as we can.
There are competing legal duties on Ministers. Another legal duty that we need to pay heed to is our duty not to leave individuals destitute. It would be wrong for the Home Office to allow individuals who had only recently arrived in the United Kingdom—the vast majority of those at Manston had been saved at sea by Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institute and the Royal Navy—and who had been brought to the site in a condition of some destitution, to be released on to the rural lanes of Kent without great care. That is why the Home Secretary has balanced her duties and taken the required steps to procure more hotel accommodation as swiftly as we can. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) can see the work that we have already done.
In answer to the first part of the right hon. Lady’s question, the conditions at Manston were poor because there were too many people there, but a wide range of facilities are provided: individuals are clothed, they are fed three times a day, and there is an excellent medical facility. I have seen those things with my own eyes, and I hope that she sees them as well. We need to keep a sense of proportion about the state of Manston.
Now then. When I hear talk of sourcing housing and getting extra hotel spaces for illegal immigrants, it leaves a bitter taste in my throat. Five thousand people in Ashfield want to secure council housing but cannot get it, yet we are debating this nonsense once again. When are we going to stop blaming the French, the European convention on human rights and the lefty lawyers? The blame lies in this place right now. When are we going to grow a backbone and do the right thing by sending them straight back the same day?
My hon. Friend is right that in sourcing accommodation for migrants, we should be guided both by our common desire for decency, because those are our values, and by hard-headed common sense. It is not right that migrants are put up in three or four-star hotels at exorbitant cost to the United Kingdom taxpayer, or that migrants who come here illegally are given preference of any sort over British citizens. That is the kind of approach that we will take going forward.
We will now work closely with our allies in France to ensure that more crossings are stopped in northern France. The Prime Minister will speak with President Macron this week while they are in Egypt, and we hope to take forward that partnership productively and constructively in the months ahead.
The second half of this urgent question was explicitly about the safeguarding of accompanied minors in the hotels. That matters because there are thousands of children—verified children—in those hotels. Last week, we learned that two of them—one a child under the age of 13—were sexually assaulted in a hotel in Walthamstow, and more cases of sexual assaults on children in these hotels have since come to light. We are all clear that those who committed those crimes must be held responsible. We all have duties to those children, just as we have to any other child under state protection.
When I asked the Home Secretary about this, she made a cheap jibe about hotels. The Minister did not even mention those children in his response. He has not yet given us a straight answer. Surely all of us in the House will be concerned about the sexual assault of children of any background. Will the Minister publish the details of all these cases, including how many incidents of violence or sexual assault against children in these hotels have occurred in the past year, what action has been taken, and crucially, what safeguarding the private companies that run these hotels must undertake? If he will not publish those details, that tells us what he thinks about those children and the responsibility that we all have to them.
It is a pity the hon. Lady takes that approach because I take my responsibilities to children, whether accompanied or otherwise, very seriously. We have put in place a wide range of support mechanisms. I mentioned earlier the work we are doing for unaccompanied children. The hotels, most of which are in Kent, have extremely sophisticated support. It is costing the taxpayer up to £500 a night for that accommodation, which gives her a sense of the degree of the support we are making available. The best thing she could do is to support her local authority and encourage others to take more unaccompanied children and families into good-quality local authority accommodation, or to find them foster care in the community. That is the task because we need to disperse these individuals as fast as we can across the country. She may shake her head, but I am afraid that suggests she does not understand that the way to resolve this issue is to help the children out of hotels and into the community as fast as we can.
I am looking forward to my second visit to Manston tomorrow with the Home Affairs Committee. I am glad that the Minister has managed to get the numbers down at Manston. That is really important, but it strikes me that all we are doing is moving a problem from Manston into our communities. To solve this issue, we need to get through the backlogs, allow our communities to rest, and stop creating an environment where the far right can take root in constituencies such as mine and those of colleagues around the House. With that in mind, what measures is my right hon. Friend taking to surge Home Office processing capacity, so we can actually deal with the problem at the heart of this issue?
It is essential that we accelerate decision making now within the Home Office. Over the summer, we piloted an approach that would very substantially increase decision making. That has been done in our Leeds office and we now intend to roll it out across the country as quickly as we can. That would take us from an average of around 1.5 decisions per caseworker per week to as many as four per week. We also want, in slightly longer time, to review all the red tape and bureaucracy that surround the process, so we can ensure our system is more streamlined, and to look at why, in the UK, we have a much higher approval rate for asylum than many comparable countries, such as France and Germany. That, at the heart of the issue, is why so many people choose to come here. They shop around for asylum and choose the UK when they are, in fact, economic migrants.
The House welcomes the fact that the numbers at Manston have gone down, but the Minister will be aware that the concerns, notably of the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Neal, were about not just the numbers but the conditions. When he came to give evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, he told us that he thought there was a risk of fire, disorder and infection. Is the Minister confident that those risks no longer exist? On unaccompanied children, how many are there in Manston? What effort is being made to safeguard them? For instance, are they having to sleep next to males they do not know? When it comes to unaccompanied children in hotels, can he tell the House specifically how they are being safeguarded?
There should be no unaccompanied children at Manston. Unaccompanied children are taken directly from Western Jet Foil. In some cases when they immediately arrive at Manston, they are taken to specialist hotels, where they are looked after with a range of support provided for them. As I said in answer to a previous question, that in itself is not a desirable outcome. We want to ensure that those young people are quickly taken to better accommodation, particularly foster carers. That relies on us being able to find more. There is a national shortage of foster carers, which is why we put in place a financial package to try to stimulate the market and encourage more people and councils to step up and provide that service.
The right hon. Lady makes an important point about conditions at the site. Conditions were poor when I last visited, but the primary reason for that was the sheer number of individuals there. The staff I met were providing a very good quality of care in difficult circumstances. The food was acceptable, and the health and medical facility was good. The clothing and other support that was provided was something I thought was acceptable and is certainly far in excess of that which would be provided in other European countries.
We have to remember that the individuals who arrive at Manston have literally been hooked out of the sea. We saved their lives just hours previously and many of them have come from significantly worse accommodation such as, for example, the camp at Dunkirk. I am not saying the UK should compare itself with that—we want to be better—but I think the right hon. Lady will find that the facility at Manston is now in a significantly better state and I would be interested in hearing her reflections when she returns.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, his Department is housing 400 asylum seekers in two hotels in my constituency, sited 50 metres apart on a busy motorway junction. With no basic amenities nearby or extra resources for local services such as healthcare and policing, their location is wholly unsuitable and I fear could lead to significant safeguarding issues. Ahead of our meeting tomorrow, which I thank him for, will he put together a timetable for their closure and in the meantime ensure that Erewash gets extra support to manage the situation on the ground?
My hon. Friend was swift to raise this matter with me as soon as it was brought to her attention. She has raised the issues she has mentioned on the Floor of the House today with me and my officials, and I look forward to meeting her tomorrow to take that forward. As I said in answer to an earlier question, the hotels are not a sustainable answer. We want to ensure that we exit the hotels as quickly as possible and to do that we will need to disperse individuals to other forms of accommodation. We may need to take some larger sites to provide decent but basic accommodation. Of course, we will need to get through the backlog, so that we can get more people out of the system either by returning them to their home country, or granting them asylum so they can begin to make a contribution to the UK.
We welcome the Minister’s assurances that decisions will be made more quickly, particularly since 89,000 people in the system have been waiting more than six months for a decision, but can he assure us that these will not just be box-ticking exercises, that not speed but efficiency will be the determining factor and that people will get a fair decision? We all want to see an end to this problem and everything the Government have done so far has just made it worse.
The hon. Member has my assurance that the standards of decision making will be upheld, but we believe we can do it in a far more productive manner than has been done in the past, and if we can make more decisions every week than we do today, we will get through the backlog as quickly as we can.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are reviewing whether further changes to the law are required. One area we are particularly interested in is the modern slavery framework. That is important and well-meant legislation, but unfortunately it is being abused by a very large number of migrants today, and if we need to make changes to it so that we can ensure that it is not exploited, we will do so.
Like many other Members, I have hotels in my constituency where a number of families are living in really bad conditions. The Minister outlined that he wants to look at moving people away from those hotels. One of the key problems is the fact that asylum claims are not being processed enough. Has there been any additional recruitment within the Home Office to look at the backlog of cases?
Yes, there has. We have now recruited 1,000 caseworkers and we have a plan to recruit a further 500. Those individuals will be trained by the very best decision makers, such as those who have been through the pilot, which I mentioned earlier, in Leeds. Together, this new workforce hopefully will be able to power through the backlog and ensure that decisions are made swiftly.
Can my right hon. Friend assure me that steps are being taken to rapidly address the speed at which asylum claims are being processed before we run out of hotels? The economies of remote coastal towns such as Ilfracombe and Newquay rely on their tourists. Can he assure me that those hotels will welcome visitors in next spring’s vital tourism season?
I certainly hope that is the case. As I said, my first priority was to ensure that Manston was operating in a legally compliant and decent manner. The second priority is to ensure that, where we are using hotels, we are doing so judiciously and that officials or our contractors are applying the criteria that I and other Ministers have set down, one of which is to ensure that we avoid tourist hotspots such as that which my hon. Friend represents. Thirdly, it is essential that we exit the hotels altogether and move forward with a more sustainable strategy that ensures best value for money for the taxpayer and a fair and robust asylum system.
Will the Minister confirm that to seek asylum is a perfectly legal thing within international law and, therefore, UK law and that loose use of the words “illegal asylum seekers” is dangerous for the individuals concerned?
Has the Minister’s attention been drawn to the Council of Europe report on pushbacks across Europe of people seeking a place of safety in a number of countries, including this one? They have been pushed back and left in places of enormous danger. Will he confirm that Britain will not be involved in sea-bound pushbacks towards France that leave people in enormous danger? Instead, will he recognise the humanitarian needs of, frankly, deeply desperate people to whom we should be holding out the hand of friendship, not condemnation?
The UK is not involved in pushbacks at sea; we uphold our international obligations in that respect. It is a right for an individual to claim asylum. We want a system whereby those who are fleeing genuine persecution, war or human rights abuses can find refuge in the United Kingdom. The issue that we are grappling with is the sheer quantity of individuals who are choosing to come here, leaving other safe countries such as France. That places an intolerable strain on our system and means that those individuals to whom we want to offer support find themselves in difficult circumstances.
A fair and robust system would not encourage people to come across the channel illegally in small boats. It would be predominantly based on resettlement schemes such as the ones that we have engineered in recent years for people from Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. That is the system that I want to build in the years ahead.
On Thursday, I was notified by the Home Office that the Fir Grove Hotel in Grappenhall would become an asylum centre the following day. There was no discussion with the borough council and no notification to local residents. It is in the middle of a residential area, fewer than 200 yards from a primary school. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that it is simply not acceptable for the Home Office to steamroll ahead with such a decision without the necessary consultation with local residents. I would be grateful if he would meet me to discuss that situation and how we can review and reverse that decision.
I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend so we can discuss the issue and he can represent the views of his constituents. I can inform the House that I have agreed with my officials at the Home Office that, as a matter of course, all Members of Parliament should be informed of new facilities being opened in their constituency ahead of time. All local authorities should be informed and proper engagement undertaken with them so that we can better understand the specific issues and provide the support that might be needed. It is not right that MPs and councils find out on social media or third hand and I intend to bring that to an end.
Some are heralding the horrors at Manston as the death of compassionate conservatism. The rest of us knew it never existed, or at least not for a very long time. Since the last Prime Minister took office just weeks ago, we have seen the Home Secretary describe people fleeing war as invading our country. Lethal levels of overcrowding at the Manston camp, traumatised people dumped at Victoria station with nowhere to sleep and child refugees sexually assaulted—is that the compassion that the Prime Minister speaks of? If not, how will those shameful examples be rectified?
The hon. Lady should pay closer attention to what is actually happening. I have visited Manston and met members of staff who are supporting those individuals at Western Jet Foil. I spent Saturday night at our immigration removal centre in west London, and in every one of those situations Border Force, Home Office, military and other personnel are providing decent, compassionate care to individuals who are coming to this country. But humanity and decency does not mean naivety, and that is where we take a different approach from the hon. Lady. Some 30% of those who have crossed the channel this year alone have come from Albania, which is a demonstrably safe country. We have to draw a distinction, or else we simply will not be able to help people who do deserve our care and support.
I was concerned to learn from media reports last week that not once but twice, asylum seekers from the Manston centre were dropped off at Victoria coach station in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must deal with asylum seekers responsibly, firmly and compassionately, and can he assure me that we will not see a repeat of what we saw last week?
I thank my hon. Friend, who raised this issue with me immediately when it came to her attention, just as I did with officials when I learned of it. We have in recent times occasionally used a procedure whereby asylum seekers are asked whether they have a home of a friend or relative where they could stay, and if that is the case, they are bailed to that address. On balance that is the right approach, because it ensures that the taxpayer does not have to pay for them to stay in hotels, but we must get it right. In this case it appears that a small number of individuals were left at Victoria station due to a miscommunication. They were later taken to hotels, in Norfolk I believe, and are being cared for appropriately.
My constituency hosts some of the hotels that are currently housing refugees and asylum seekers, and I have dealt with a number of cases specifically regarding the conditions there. Earlier, the Minister described such hotels as “luxurious”, and I have to ask whether he has ever been to one and seen what I have seen, which is whole families living in cramped conditions, given food so bad that it makes them sick, and having to deal with infestations of bedbugs and other things that are making them ill. These hotels are dire. They are not secure or safe, and they are certainly not suitable for vulnerable children. Will the Minister admit that the Home Office has received a number of complaints about that, and agree to review and assess conditions in those hotels?
If the hon. Lady has specific allegations, I suggest she brings those to me and I will happily look into them. I have visited hotels, and in general I have been reassured that they meet the right standard of decency. As I said earlier, it is not appropriate that we are putting up asylum seekers in luxurious hotels, and numerous examples in the press of accommodation that is not appropriate have been brought to my attention since I took this role. We have to respect the taxpayer and ensure that we put up asylum seekers in sensible accommodation. Decency is important and will be a watchword for us, but deterrence must also be suffused through our approach. We do not want to create a further pull factor for individuals to make that perilous crossing across the channel, and we must make the UK significantly less attractive to illegal immigration than our EU neighbours.
Much has been made of the safeguarding of illegal migrants, which I think all Members of the House would agree with, but we are not talking about the safeguarding of our citizens. Thousands of people are coming here and we do not know their backgrounds. My right hon. Friend is being forced to put them into hotels because there is nowhere else for them to go. What guarantee can he give to all our citizens who live near those hotels that they will be safe, particularly when we hear what is going on in those hotels?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and for that reason I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) to meet her constituents on Friday morning. They have been at the sharp end of illegal migration, and it is important that we think not just of the migrants but of our own citizens who are facing pressures from this situation. I reassure my hon. Friend that on arrival we screen individuals coming into the UK. Counter-terrorism police are present at all our facilities in Dover and Manston, and they take action against those about whom they might have suspicions. When we choose hotels or accommodation, it is important that we do so judiciously, so that we do not place people in situations that might have safeguarding or other risks. Again, that is another reason why we need to move away from the hotel model altogether.
My recent written parliamentary question revealed that 220 children have gone missing from Home Office-procured accommodation. We hear reports from across the country of the difficulty in securing school places for children in Home Office accommodation. Now we hear reports of the most grave matter—sexual assaults against children living in Home Office accommodation, at least one of whom I believe to be in Home Office accommodation in my constituency. I have previously raised safeguarding concerns about that accommodation and received a response from the Home Office that can be described only as dismissive and disinterested. When will the Minister accept that the Home Office is failing in the duty of the British state to vulnerable children on these shores, and when will he take steps to address this terrible situation?
If the hon. Lady has specific and, what sound like, serious allegations, I would be very happy to look into them for her. As I said in answer to the question of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), the key thing is for each and every one of us who cares about this issue to go back to our local authorities and to encourage them to take more children into their care, otherwise those children will remain in hotels for far too long.
My right hon. Friend will know of my deep unease about the use of a hotel in Ashford, which has been opened recently, as part of the dispersal from Manston, so I was pleased to hear him say that he wants to exit from hotel use altogether. That would be a welcome step forward. In the transition period before he can achieve that, will he ensure that the Home Office takes more account in the future than it has in the past of the relative level of pressure on public services, such as health and education, in different parts of the country of coping with extra demand from asylum seekers? In particular, the pressure has been greater in Kent than in other parts of the country, and I hope that the Home Office system can recognise that, so that we get a proper and fair dispersal around the country.
My right hon. Friend makes a number of important points. Part of our plan to exit the hotels is to ensure a fair dispersal around the country. That means every local authority in all parts of the United Kingdom stepping up and playing its part. If we do that then no area should be disproportionately affected. My right hon. Friend represents an area that has borne the greatest burden, and it is absolutely right that we work together to find ways to alleviate the pressure on Kent wherever we can. He and I are meeting Kent local authority leaders later in the week to hear their concerns. If there are ways in which we can support them, I will certainly do everything I can to achieve that.
Can the Minister explain what discussions have been held with the Children’s Commissioner regarding this Government’s staggering levels of child neglect? Can he also say why the commissioner has not been encouraged to use her statutory powers to visit Manston and the hotels concerned to speak directly with the children there?
It is up to the Children’s Commissioner to determine her own schedule. As far as I am aware, she has not requested to visit Manston. I have no objection to her doing so, but that is entirely a matter for her.
I object to the suggestion that the UK Government are being inhumane towards children. These are children who are coming across the channel against our best wishes. They are coming either with their families who are choosing to put them through this uniquely perilous journey, or, in some cases, unaccompanied. We are doing everything we can to support them when they arrive here. Of course it is a difficult challenge—how could it be easy for the Government to help hundreds of unaccompanied children who arrive by sea and who then require foster care and support? It was always going to be a difficult challenge. We see that in our own constituencies when we hear of the