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Topical Questions

Volume 727: debated on Monday 30 January 2023

Colleagues may have read reports this weekend about activity conducted by the Army’s counter-disinformation unit in 77th Brigade. Online disinformation from foreign state actors is a serious threat to the United Kingdom. That is why during the pandemic we brought together expertise from across Government to monitor disinformation about covid. The 77th Brigade is a hybrid unit of regular and reserve personnel that was established in 2015. It delivers information activities as part of broader military effects against hostile state actors and violent extremist organisations based outside the UK. It uses publicly available data, including material shared on social media platforms, to assess UK disinformation trends. It is not to be involved in regulating, policing or even reporting opinion that it may or may not agree with.

My constituent, Daniel, was medically discharged from the Army in 2015, yet in September 2022 he was awarded only tariff-10 compensation. He is housebound and fully reliant on his mother, and psychiatrists agree that sadly his condition is permanent. Seven years on, Daniel is still without compensation that reflects the severity of his mental injury. Will the Secretary of State meet me to review that case, and ensure that veterans who suffer psychological injuries are compensated equally with those who suffer physical injuries?

T5. I have recently been to see some of the RAF housing in Carterton. Given the mould in homes with children present and the fact that requested repairs are left uncompleted, it sems that the Pinnacle-VIVO partnership is failing military families. What are Ministers doing to hold those companies to account? (903359)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. I know Brize quite well and the accommodation that he referred to. He may be aware that all top level budgets are meant to be assessing their accommodation against the Defence housing standard and will report by the end of the year. In the meantime, he should know that over the next 10 years £1.6 billion will be invested in barracks accommodation to improve some of the truly awful accommodation that, sadly, our men and women have to put up with.

This month, the Government made important but, again, ad hoc announcements of more military help for Ukraine. We are still waiting for the 2023 action plan of support for Ukraine first promised by the Defence Secretary last August. Will he publish that ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion next month?

I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to set out a plan. But may I also tell him —I chased this in advance of today’s questions following the previous questions—that our donations are not ad hoc? There is a view abroad that they are somehow ad hoc, with the Ukrainians just picking up the telephone. Fundamentally, the donations are set by what happens on the ground, the reaction to Ukrainian defence and how Ukraine needs to adapt. It is not an ad hoc thing; it is a deliberate process, mainly co-ordinated by the United Kingdom and her allies. It is really important to separate that from an overall strategy about announcing to Parliament the different lines of effort that we take to counter Russia.

Last week, the Defence Secretary said that the armed forces had faced a

“consistent hollowing out…under Labour and the early Conservative governments”.

However, when Labour left government in 2010, the British Army stood at more than 100,000 full-time troops and we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence. The serious hollowing out has happened since. Who does he think has been in charge over the last 13 years?

Mr Speaker, you have only to listen to the veterans on the Government Benches to understand their experience under a Labour Government. Let us remember Snatch Land Rovers and all that awful mess as a result of the Labour Government’s investment. The deal here is quite simple: if the right hon. Gentleman wants to be the next Defence Secretary, he should come here and get off his chest the shortcomings of his former Government. I am happy to say that we have hollowed out and underfunded. Will he do the same, or will he hide behind petty party politics?

T6. Last week, I visited His Majesty’s naval base Clyde with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I pay tribute to the remarkable men and women we met there who make up our nation’s submarine service. Given that we live in ever more dangerous times, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Conservative Government remain committed to delivery of the new Dreadnought class of submarines to be based in Scotland to provide a continuous at-sea deterrent and so protect our United Kingdom for decades? (903360)

I am glad that my hon. Friend and many other colleagues went to Faslane last week and enjoyed their visit. We are of course committed to the replacement of Vanguard submarines with Dreadnought. More importantly, he mentioned the brilliant people based at Faslane who deliver day in, day out our nation’s nuclear deterrent, unseen under the oceans of the world. They are incredible people doing amazing work.

T2. It is surely right that non-UK veterans who settle here after their service do not pay visa fees, but it is surely not right that that does not extend to their dependents. Will the Minister match Labour’s commitment to change that? (903354)

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he asks of me; he will understand that. Obviously, all things are kept under review, but we clearly do value the service of those from overseas who serve in His Majesty’s armed forces, and I think that most of them have a very positive experience.

T8. We ought to be extremely proud of the Government’s impact. We are the second-largest supplier in the entire world of military equipment to the Ukrainians, second only to the United States of America. Today, we have our troops training Ukrainian troops on how to use Challenger 2 tanks. When will those be deployed on to the battlefield so that we can start to see them having a serious impact in bringing this heinous war to an end? (903362)

Obviously, for security reasons, I cannot tell my hon. Friend exactly the timings. It starts with training on the operation of the platforms and then there is training on joining together with formation units to fight as a formed unit—that is important. From then, the tanks will be put in. What I can say is that it will be this side of the summer—May, or probably towards Easter time.

T3. Some 45% of Cheshire military personnel—220 of them—are living in the lowest standard of single accommodation. That is pretty shameful, and something needs to happen about it quite urgently. How will the Minister ensure that they have homes that are genuinely fit for heroes? (903355)

Some 97% of Ministry of Defence service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government housing standard. That is better than most local authorities and better than most registered social landlords. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know—I looked this up earlier—that 105 homes owned by his Labour-controlled local authority are below the decent homes standard. I suggest that he takes that up with his council.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in thanking the wonderful team at the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre, based in Rushcliffe, for their amazing work treating injured members of our armed forces. What assessment has he made of how the expertise and cutting-edge technology at the centre could be shared with our Ukrainian allies to help to rehabilitate Ukrainian heroes who have been injured on the frontline?

As it happens, last Monday I visited the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre. I also heard about the NHS-led National Rehabilitation Centre, which will hopefully be stood up by the end of next year: together, they will be able to provide a truly trailblazing international centre for rehabilitation and research. Obviously, this country stands by to help Ukraine in its fight against Putin in any way possible, including in the rehabilitation of its brave men who have given so much not only in defence of Ukraine, but in defence of the rest of us.

T4. Labour’s dossier on waste in the MOD found that at least £15 billion of taxpayers’ money has been wasted since 2010. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government are failing to get a grip on the defence procurement process and secure value for money for the taxpayer? (903357)

It is a really wonderful dossier, as far as dodgy ones go, because half the waste in it was under a Labour Government.

Will the Secretary of State join me in applauding Poland’s historic announcement today that it is raising its defence budget to 4% of GDP? Can he imagine what conclusion I think our Government ought to draw from that example?

My right hon. Friend always tempts me. I think the Poles who are on the frontline have shown tremendous leadership in the face of Russia’s growing aggression, not only to their country itself but to its neighbours and friends in Ukraine. I think the conclusion that they have drawn is that the world is a dangerous, unstable place and is not likely to get any less so any time soon.

T7. The call for evidence for the LGBT veterans independent review revealed that the police records of veterans convicted during the ban on homosexuality were destroyed. In answer to parliamentary questions, the Department says that that was “in line with data protection”. However, in letters to veterans, it says: “This decision was taken by the Defence Police Chiefs council, who directed that all investigations into…offences relating solely to sexuality…were to be removed from our systems and deleted from the records”. Will the Secretary of State or a Minister write to me to clarify the point? Will they consider making records of meetings of the defence police chiefs council public? (903361)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. There is no question but that between 1967 and 2000, people in the LGBT community were badly dealt with by Defence. That is why we have set up the Etherton review, which will report shortly. Having met Lord Etherton, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that he will be forensic in his examination of the data. I think I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the handling of records, as far as we can tell, was carried out in accordance with civilian practice, but of course we will stand by and wait for his lordship to opine on the matter. We will comment further when he has done so.

Will my right hon. Friend set out what preparations his Department has made for supporting overseas territories in the Caribbean during this year’s hurricane season?

I enjoyed working with my right hon. Friend when she was Minister for the Overseas Territories. She is right to care about the matter. She will know that the Department has done a lot of work over the past few years to develop the resilience of the overseas territories, as well as maintaining naval assets in the region and more at-readiness to assist if required.

During my recent visit to Ukraine with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), Ukrainian officials were clear about their need for increased military support. Given that the United States is reportedly discussing the creation of a fighter jet coalition with Ukraine, and given that the German Chancellor is currently ruling out sending fighter jets to Ukraine, what assessment have the Government made in respect of building such a coalition with our NATO allies?

Since we took on the battle over getting tanks to Ukraine, people are understandably asking what will be the next capability. What we know about all these demands is that the initial response is no, but the eventual response is yes. We will track the progress, but, as I have said, it is not ad hoc; it is based on need and on defining what is needed on the battlefield. We will of course keep our minds open all the time about what it is possible to do next.

I warmly welcome the announcement of £1.6 billion for the repair and refurbishment of on-site base accommodation. As the Minister has rightly said, the accommodation in both HMS Sultan and HMS Collingwood is truly awful. Meanwhile, we hear that in the Portsmouth area alone, the Royal Navy is spending millions of pounds a year on putting people up in hotels, while Fort Blockhouse, in my constituency—which the Minister knows very well—remains empty. When will the MOD address this?

I am aware that my hon. Friend knows Fort Blockhouse intimately, as indeed do I. It is aesthetically charming, but it is beyond reasonable repair when it comes to accommodating servicemen and women. We are spending money on HMS Collingwood, and I hope that it will be brought up to spec shortly.

A week from today a constituent of mine, Samantha O’Neill—a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan—is due to be made homeless from a hostel by City of York Council, which is a signatory to the armed forces covenant. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that she and her three children are not homeless a week from today?

Obviously I cannot comment on a specific case when I do not have the details, but if the hon. Lady will send them to me, I will certainly look into them. Every local authority that signed up to the armed forces covenant needs to be mindful of its duty to look after servicemen, servicewomen and their families.

The charity Salute Her has reported that 133 women—a third of its caseload —presented themselves to it last year having suffered a sexual assault. They also presented themselves to defence community mental health services, but were subsequently discharged from the military owing to their having a personality disorder. I wrote to the Minister asking for further information, but none was available. Will the Minister look into the service to ensure that due clinical rigour is applied before people are discharged with a personality disorder?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and predecessor. I see no evidence that people are being misdiagnosed or mismanaged. This is, of course, a matter for healthcare professionals and consultant psychiatrists in particular, and I cannot really interfere with their diagnoses, but I have noted my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I will certainly look into the issue.

Does the Secretary of State agree that what we have learnt from Ukraine is that the future of good defence will lie in having the latest technology and innovation? Are there any new schemes we could have that would increase investment in that new technology, especially involving partnerships with other countries across NATO?

I am delighted that we share the European headquarters of the defence innovation accelerator for the north Atlantic, or DIANA—a unit within NATO—with Estonia. I felt that it was important to partner with a small, innovative country to ensure that we get the very best between us. Our research and development budget is £6.6 billion, and we are one of the leaders in Government in investing it. However, the real lesson—this has always been a problem—is that it is important not only to invest in the inventions, but to pull that into what is actually required. That is traditionally where defence has fallen down, but I am determined to fix it, which means focusing R&D where we know there is a need in our armed services.

Many veterans in my constituency tell me that they sometimes struggle to adapt from frontline service to the jobs that are available locally. It is a huge change, and the scars of service can be challenging. Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on the work of the defence transition service, which helps veterans to get into good, well-paid jobs?

My hon. Friend may be referring to the career transition partnership, which is normally used for people making the transition to civilian life. The defence transition service is for those who have sustained an injury or illness. It is designed to ensure that people have the support that they need in order to adapt to their particular circumstances, and that they have the best possible chance of getting a decent civilian job after they leave the services. It is very successful in what it does, as is the career transition partnership.

A recent news report detailing 14,500 urgent maintenance appointments in armed forces homes being missed is very concerning. Will my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents and me that he is taking every step to ensure that all our soldiers can live in good-quality homes?

Absolutely. It is the top priority for me, the Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Procurement. We must bear in mind that 97% of those houses are above the Government housing standards—better than most councils and registered social landlords. But we must do better, and we are bending ourselves to that task.

Can the Minister confirm that UK operational sovereignty will be a factor in increment 1A of the maritime electronic warfare programme? Will he meet me to discuss that?

The Secretary of State referred to the allegations in the weekend press about 77th Brigade. I know him well enough to know that when he told us that he gave clear instructions and guidelines to the brigade, which operates only against foreign powers and extremists, he was telling the exact truth. However, will he review the issue and ensure that his guidelines have been followed in all cases?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the compliment. I have already instructed that we not only look into the story but check that the instructions that I issued after a visit were carried out.