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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 729: debated on Monday 13 March 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

UK Military Capability

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the UK’s (a) number of military personnel and (b) range of military capabilities. (904014)

The armed forces’ capabilities allow the Ministry of Defence to meet a range of domestic and global commitments. Defence is reorganising and re-equipping to face future threats. However, as I have previously stated, as the threats change, we need to change with them. Any specific changes related to personnel numbers or military equipment capabilities will be determined once the update to the Defence Command Paper has concluded, which I expect to happen in June.

While I am conscious that my right hon. Friend has accepted the conclusions of last year’s 1922 defence committee report in drafting his Command Paper, I am also conscious of the fact that there is real concern, as we are about to hear, about the integrated review and, indeed, one-off increases. What does he think it will take for this House to sustainably increase defence spending, given geopolitical events?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First and foremost, we have been sustainably increasing our defence since 2020. The Prime Minister recognises the dangerous world we are in, and in the autumn statement both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister recognised the importance of increasing defence spending. The Prime Minister has obviously talked over the weekend about defence spending. There will be a Budget later in the week, and then I think there will be some further discussions to have.

Of course, the former head of the British Army, Lord Dannatt, said last month:

“The planned cuts in the strength of our army must be stopped...and fresh investment must pour into our artillery, air defence, communications and logistic capability.”

What is the Secretary of State, who has overseen some of these cuts, now going to do to reverse and build back the capacity Lord Dannatt and others are calling for?

If the hon. Member had been listening, he would know that, in our Defence Command Paper, we are investing in air defence, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and communications—all the things he has just reeled off—but maybe he did not bother to listen originally. [Interruption.] I think it is interesting that Labour Members are heckling. We have not heard about a single penny of their defence plans in the last few years. Even the Royal United Services Institute speech by the shadow Secretary of State himself could not put a finger on the money. First and foremost, we are investing in our defence, and we have had a record increase since 2020. That compares with the Labour Government record: in 1997, they inherited 2.7% of GDP, which continued to fall all the way through, and only at the very last minute, when they had a £36 billion black hole, did they try to rectify it.

I am conscious that there is a statement to follow, but may I just pause and say thank you to the Defence Secretary and his team for the tireless work they have done in trying to secure additional funding of £11 billion and an increase in defence spending of 2.5%? It was not to be, and our military will be affected by that, not least our land forces. However, I do welcome the AUKUS agreement, which will secure hundreds of highly skilled jobs up and down the country. Is any part of the £3 billion of additional funding for the nuclear enterprise part of the £10 billion reserve for Dreadnought, or is it ringfenced for the AUKUS procurement programme, and is any of the £5 billion coming through subject to VAT, which would of course mean that one fifth of it will go back to the Treasury?

My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the details of the announcement. Obviously, the details will come forward in the Budget. What I can say is that the £2 billion-plus is new money. It is not part of the reserve or anything else, and it is separate from the £2.3 billion for Ukraine. It also comes on top of the £560 million of extra money for weapons and restocking announced in the autumn statement. On the nuclear chapter, the £3 billion is a recognition of the need for increased defence capability in that space, but also of the need to invest now in infrastructure, which, if we do not start now, will not be fit for purpose when AUKUS starts towards the end of the decade.

As we understand from the press, and as the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said, we anticipate an additional £5 billion for defence between now and 2025. The Ministry of Defence has said that the Secretary of State is delighted with the settlement, which represents a commitment to an upward trajectory. Given the impact of defence inflation and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, what does he make of plans to reduce the size of the Army to 72,500 by 2025?

The reduction in the size of the Army was coupled with record investment of £24 billion in the armed forces at the same time. It was also a recognition that the most important thing is to ensure that we give the men and women of our armed forces, whichever service they are in, the correct equipment at the correct time, and create a 360° armed forces. There is no point in playing a numbers game if we do not equip, house, care for and deploy people properly. The hon. Gentleman might want to play a numbers game, but I do not want to turn our soldiers into cannon fodder.

The whole House will be delighted to see you back in your seat, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and the entire team for the battle they have fought with the Treasury over the past few weeks, but the £5 billion is disappointing, particularly if £3 billion goes to AUKUS, and £1.9 billion goes to filling up our warehouses. It actually means a cut in defence spending, rather than an increase. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by what the Secretary of State said a moment ago about the Budget on Wednesday, and various other remarks that seem to indicate that there may be more money to come. Am I being over-optimistic?

As my hon. Friend will know, all Departments are within their current comprehensive spending agreement, and the next comprehensive spending review is due in 18 months to two years’ time. Although all Departments, including those of Defence, Transport, and Health and Social Care suffer from pressures with higher inflation, it is right to ensure that we live within the envelope and, where possible, seek relief for a range of challenges. That is what I have been seeking for the next two years with the Treasury. I have also said consistently that the most important thing is the headmark for the long-term direction of defence spending, so that it is no longer declining, as it has done for the past three decades, but is on an upward trajectory. Since 2020, it has been on that upward trajectory. This grant of extra money continues that momentum, which is incredibly important, and I hope that the headmark will soon be announced in detail.

In November, the Defence Secretary told the Defence Committee that

“yes, the inflationary pressure on my budget for the next two years is about £8 billion”.

From the media briefing at the weekend, we know he has a welcome £5 billion earmarked for stockpiles and the UK’s nuclear programme, but the armed forces will see that funding as a defeat for the MOD in Government. There is no new money for pressures on the core defence budget or to help deal with capability gaps, or even to deal with that inflation. The National Audit Office has already said that the MOD cannot afford the capabilities needed in the 2021 integrated review, so how will the Secretary of State ensure that precisely the same does not happen again with today’s 2023 integrated review?

What I am going to do, which the right hon. Gentleman’s Government failed to do, is ensure that the Defence Command Paper reflects the budget I have. I have always been consistent that the Government’s ambition should match their stomach, and match the money. If we do not get that in tandem, we will discover that black holes grow over the years. The right hon. Gentleman’s Government was part of that last time, as were previous Conservative Governments. I have come to this House consistently to take responsibility for what our Governments have done in the past, and I would be interested to see whether he will.

In 2010 when Labour left government, we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence—a level that has been nowhere near matched in any of the 13 years since. The Secretary of State is now the Conservative party’s longest serving Defence Secretary, which means he has a track record of his own. He has cut the Army to 76,000 with more cuts to come. The Ajax armoured vehicle is six years late, with still no in-service date. He has cut and delayed new Wedgetail and Sentry planes, and he has growing doubts from allies about Britain meeting its NATO obligations in full. Last month he admitted to the House that forces have been hollowed out and underfunded with Conservative Governments. Will he accept that his extra defence funding today can only mean more of the same?

If people came to this House with real, genuine honesty about the track record of the Governments they were part of, the armed forces might be in a better position. What we should strive for is for the men and women of the armed forces to know that their political leaders are prepared to be clear about past mistakes and to talk about the future with some honesty. The National Audit Office report gave a view on the Labour party’s governance of defence. I have it here, because Labour Members often forget it. It said that the Department’s poor financial management had led to a severe funding shortfall of up to £36 billion in defence spending over the next 10 years.

So what the National Audit Office says is not true, Madam Deputy Speaker—it made it up. It said that when the Department signed the contract for the aircraft carriers, it was aware that the overall defence budget was unaffordable. Labour Members were party to the crime at the time, but they will not come to the House now and be honest about their role in it and the things that need to be done to fix it in the future.

Order. We will not have interventions from people who are sitting down. There are plenty of opportunities to ask questions when you are standing up.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say how nice it is to see you back in your place? It is a very great pleasure.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and his excellent Front Bench team, because I know for a fact that they are fighting for every single penny they can get. However, as has been said, and I must agree, £5 billion is not sufficient to ensure that our core armed forces are properly equipped and prepared for—God forbid—something we all dread, as the world potentially totters towards world war three. What on earth is going through the minds of Treasury officials?

In defence of my colleagues in the Treasury, the Treasury is trying to balance an economic situation post covid that means we have to make sure that we cut our cloth and return to an economic credibility that is so important for growing our tax receipts and our income. One role I can play is to come to the House and be honest about the state of our armed forces. I can be honest about what caused the 30 years of challenge that both my hon. Friend and I experienced serving in the armed forces, and honest about what we can do to fix things. That is the first thing. The Defence Command Paper will ensure that we are very clear on where we will spend the money to make sure that the future is secure for the men and women of the armed forces.

On military personnel, what is the Secretary of State’s understanding of the recruitment crisis in defence, with the Army in particular and especially in the Royal Regiment of Scotland? The 4th Battalion the Highlanders satisfies almost 20% of its vacancies from the Commonwealth. Is it the poor service accommodation, mediocre pay, lack of career opportunities or substandard equipment that is driving young Scots away from a career in the British Army?

As an officer in a Scottish regiment, I remember distinctly not being allowed to recruit in towns or schools where SNP councillors ran those schools. I distinctly remember that the SNP was so unwelcoming to members of the armed forces it was having a detrimental effect on recruitment. I would be very interested to know if the SNP has now changed its tone. It certainly has on NATO membership. We remember that it used to not want to be part of NATO; it now does. I do not see the Army categorised as the hon. Member has just described it. If he carries on talking the armed forces down like that, no wonder people are not that keen to join. There has been a recruitment challenge for the infantry for as long as I was serving in the Army. That is over many, many years under both Labour and Conservative Governments. We have to ensure that the offer is improved. That is one reason why we did wraparound childcare to reflect how people live, and why we are investing in both married and single accommodation.

The Secretary of State says that he does not recognise the characterisation, but it is based in fact. Sticking to reality, where Germany allocates an extra €100 billion in response to Ukraine, the UK allocates an extra £5 billion. The United States is frustrated that the British Army is no longer a top-level fighting force. The RAF takes 10 years to train a pilot in combat, Army procurement could not order a pizza and get it delivered on time and on budget, and the Navy barely has enough F-35s for one aircraft carrier much less two. Is it not the case, to the great frustration of men and women in uniform, that this Tory Government over the last 13 years have created an ornamental defence force—nice to look at; don’t ask it to do very much or sustain it for very long?

I am getting lessons from the SNP on procurement, when Ferguson shipyard is clinging on by its fingernails. When push comes to shove, Scotland buys its ferries from Turkey, not from Scotland, when it has a perfectly good Clyde in which to build them. The hon. Gentleman goes on about all the things that he thinks are wrong with the armed forces, yet he will campaign to break Scotland away from the UK, reduce the Scottish armed forces to a rubber dinghy and tell everyone else that it is all the fault of the English. The reality is that Scotland is a proud contributor to our armed forces—it has been in history and is today. Also, the accommodation, the experience and the equipment that the soldiers have today are far better than many of us had in the early ’90s. It would be nice if, once in a while, the SNP in Scotland did more than stand in front of ceremonial troops, and instead got out there and helped to recruit soldiers and helped the schools to talk about what is important about defence, rather than always talk it down.

NATO Obligations

Our commitment to NATO and Euro-Atlantic security is unconditional. In response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, we have enhanced our force posture in Estonia and have sent warships and fighter aircraft to south-east Europe and the Mediterranean. We contribute to every NATO mission and declare the UK’s nuclear deterrent to NATO. The UK is committed to remaining NATO’s leading European ally.

A recent report by the Defence Committee raised concerns about the UK’s lack of ammunition reserves. The Committee said that the inability to restock our supplies puts at great risk our own defence, along with our commitments to supporting Ukraine. The Minister will say that the Department is announcing today that there are £2 billion-worth of stockpiles, but he cannot magic up munitions off the shelf—they can take years to be created. What assurance can he provide to me and the House that the shortage will not impact our domestic abilities and our wider commitments to NATO?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. The Select Committee’s report is being read at the moment and will be responded to as would be expected. There is an important distinction to make: only a small proportion of the equipment and stockpiles that we are providing to the Ukrainians come from the current active inventory and stockpiles of the UK military. A very large proportion of the ammunition is at or slightly beyond the date by which we would normally seek to dispose of it, and an even larger proportion of it—the majority—is sourced or manufactured from stockpiles or manufacturing capabilities overseas.

Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier unwillingness to play a numbers game, the reality is that Ministers plan to cut the size of the Army to 73,000 by 2025, at a time that NATO has agreed to increase its high readiness forces to 300,000. Will the updated integrated review halt cuts to Army numbers?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been clear all along that if the facts change, so will our approach to force structure. It is important to note that force size and readiness are not necessarily directly connected. A future force may require fewer people because of automation and artificial intelligence, or it may not. We are studying the lessons from Ukraine carefully. We came to a clear judgment in the last IR. As we work towards the publication of a refresh of the defence Command Paper, we will look at whether the assumptions of the last Command Paper are still sound.

Could I ask my very good friend the Minister whether the additional money for defence will allow us to provide more teeth arm units, plus the support arm units—enablers—to NATO?

It may do. The reality is that we are still providing a large number of frontline units to NATO, particularly in the maritime and air domains, but my hon. and gallant Friend’s principal concern will be about land forces. Even there, the UK continues to provide the most credible high readiness formations to the alliance. He made an important point that we can have as many fighting units as we wish, but without the logistics and the strategic enablers that get them to the front line, they are not worth having. The Secretary of State, Front-Bench colleagues and I have been clear for years that what urgently needs reinvestment is not a regrowth of our fighting echelon but a re-fleshing out of the logistics and the enablers, which—for good reasons—over the last 20 years have not been needed, but now so desperately are.

On the point about logistics and enablers mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), when we look at our obligations to NATO and to Ukraine, particularly on stockpiling and ammunition, are Ministers looking at what procurement can be done commonly with NATO allies?

Absolutely. As the House might imagine, the UK is not alone in rediscovering the importance of stockpiles and strategic enablers over the last year. It is also not alone in finding out that industrial capacity cannot be turned on just like that, so working with allies around the alliance, both through the alliance itself and bilaterally, is clearly a very attractive option.

In this weekend’s newspapers, a senior British military officer raised doubts about whether the UK could still claim to be a leading NATO member, because of the hollowing out of the Army’s war-fighting capabilities. The Minister has so far evaded the question, but with today’s funding announcement limited to nuclear enterprise and stockpiles, can he confirm whether it is still his Department’s policy to cut troop numbers by 10%, to cut the reserves and to provide no additional funding to plug the gaps in Britain’s war-fighting capability?

As the representative of a naval constituency, the shadow Minister does our armed forces a huge disservice in focusing on simply the Army when looking at our contribution to NATO. The UK is the only country to commit its entire nuclear deterrent to NATO; in any given year, the UK commits a number of maritime task groups to NATO—more than almost any other NATO ally; the UK commits handsomely to air policing and other air deployments; and, through the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, the 3rd (United Kingdom) Division and the various high-readiness Army formations, the UK contributes prominently in the land domain as well.

Veterans’ Welfare

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say what a pleasure it is to see you back? I declare my interest as a veteran.

On 2 March, I jointly commissioned with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs a review into the role and scope of Government welfare provision and services for veterans. This will include provision by the Ministry of Defence under Veterans UK. The review will focus on examining the effectiveness and efficiency of welfare services for veterans, and help it to do better as part of a programme of continual improvement.

Armed forces breakfast clubs provide vital support and social opportunities for veterans and serving armed forces personnel. We have one in Keighley and we are hoping to get one off the ground in Ilkley. Will the Minister join me in praising those who are involved in organising them and set out what additional support the Government can provide for these fantastic veteran-led organisations?

I am really grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is absolutely right that armed forces and veterans breakfast clubs are an excellent initiative that have taken root across 14 countries, with 150,000 members. They provide a sense of belonging and community to many who have served our country. On a personal level, I like a good Yorkshire breakfast and, if the opportunity arises, I would love to visit his breakfast club.

My constituent Steve Graham served in our armed forces for over 20 years, travelling the world and finally settling overseas, at the site of his last posting. Despite being a UK taxpayer, with a UK home, when he sought to retrain he was required to pay the full overseas rate and treated as a foreign student in order to re-educate himself for his post-services life. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the case of Mr Graham and other people who may seek to retrain following long service in our armed forces, but find themselves facing significant financial barriers to do so?

I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point, and of course I will meet him. At the moment, for an adult to be eligible for funding for further education, they must ordinarily be resident in England on the first day of the first academic year of the course, and throughout the three years immediately preceding that date. The matter is primarily one for the Department for Education, as he will know, but I am happy to discuss it with him and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to see what we can do on this matter.

What efforts will be made through the recently announced review of veterans’ experiences? Following the excellent work of the survey carried out by the all-party parliamentary group on veterans, of which I am a vice-chair, what attention will be paid to the different experiences of veterans in the four nations to ensure the best possible outcomes? Sadly, they appear in many cases to have been overlooked and ignored.

I look forward to seeing the hon. Gentleman and his co-chairs later this week, I think, when we can discuss the matter in some depth. I am absolutely sympathetic to the notion that we need to do more for veterans, of course, which is one reason why I have instituted the review to which I have referred. We need to be consciously aware of the lived experience in each one of the four nations of this country.

A review of veteran welfare services is long overdue, but I might remind the Minister that it is his Government who have been responsible for worsening veterans services over the past 13 years. Veterans’ mental health waiting times are a week longer than last year, veterans are having to rely on charitable support just to get by, and veteran ID cards are nowhere to be seen for many. Action is needed now to fix these failures, so will the Minister tell the House when we can expect the review to be completed and its findings to be published?

We are recruiting a person to run the review right now. I anticipate the review being completed within three months, if that gives the hon. Lady an idea of timelines. Just so that there is no misunderstanding, may I give an indication of the appreciation or otherwise for the services provided by Vets UK? There were 122 complaints since April last year, versus 1,715 thank you letters. To be clear, the people at Norcross who are working on behalf of veterans—I have visited them; she probably has not—are doing a sterling job and are highly committed to what they do.

Ukraine: NATO Allies

5. What steps the Government are taking to support NATO allies in responding to the invasion of Ukraine. (904018)

7. What steps the Government are taking to support NATO allies in responding to the invasion of Ukraine. (904021)

The UK has provided substantial support to our NATO allies as we continue a united response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Over the past 12 months, the Royal Air Force has been deployed in Romania and Lithuania and across the Mediterranean and has completed patrols over the Black sea. We continue to contribute to NATO air activity across Europe. The Army has been deployed in Bulgaria, Romania and Estonia, where we have our enhanced forward presence battle groups. The Royal Navy has completed a major European deployment from the North sea to the Mediterranean. Our UK armed forces continue to strengthen interoperability with Finland and Sweden in anticipation of their accession to NATO. Beyond the US armed forces, no nation has contributed more.

Are the Government working with NATO allies to set up a full 2023 action plan for Ukraine specifically—for military, economic, diplomatic and humanitarian support to help to give Ukraine confidence in a sustained stream of future supplies, to urgently ramp up our own industry, to encourage allies to do more across NATO and to make it clear to Putin that things will get worse, not better, for Russia?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question, but I hope that she will not mind if I draw an important distinction. NATO is not involved in the planning of or in direct support of the Ukrainian war effort. That is a really important point, because Putin claims the exact opposite to the Russian public and is entirely wrong to do so. Those who support Ukraine do so as an alliance of friends of Ukraine outwith NATO, but of course NATO is invariably supportive of the work that we are doing.

The hon. Lady is right to observe that NATO has a job of work to do to strengthen its eastern flank, to provide wider deterrence against any sort of growth or escalation in the conflict and to make sure that the lessons of modern peer-on-peer war fighting in Ukraine are learned by the entire alliance, and learned quickly.

Labour has fully backed moves to bolster NATO allies in response to the illegal invasion of Ukraine. What steps is the UK taking to ensure that our NATO obligations in respect of enhanced forward presence are completely fulfilled?

In the immediate response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we doubled the size of the battle group in Estonia as a further show of support for the Estonian Government and recognition of the importance of the enhanced forward presence category. We have also contributed to EFP battlegroups in Poland and Romania in the last 12 months. What will change, and what was announced at the summit in Madrid, is that there will be a new NATO regional defence plan, which will be an evolution of the in-place EFP battlegroups, alongside national defence plans. Of course the UK will be very supportive of the plan in the region that NATO assigns to us, but that is very much under review, and the UK looks forward to hearing the details from NATO once it has finished its work.

Following the very successful Franco-British summit at the end of last week—which was the fruit of an enormous cross-Government effort—does the Minister agree that renewing the bilateral defence partnership with France, the second largest European contributor to NATO, is an important part of not just strengthening the NATO alliance but enhancing European security, particularly in the east?

I really do. It is noteworthy that while relations elsewhere in Government may have been slightly more fraught, within the UK and French Defence Ministries the relationship has remained very tight, and necessarily so. The interdependence between the UK and France is very obvious. Our industrial collaboration is widespread, and will grow as a consequence of last week’s summit—and it is not just in the far east that the UK and France can work together, but in west Africa, where our interests are also very keenly aligned.

Defence Procurement

We are driving the delivery of capability in the frontline. Most of our programmes are delivering on time and on budget. For the second year in a row under my stewardship, the Ministry of Defence has set out an affordable 10-year equipment plan to ensure that our armed forces are being given what they need while living within their means.

Defence procurement is essential to the success of a domestic steel industry, but, as the Secretary of State will know, the UK is currently the only country in the G20 in which steel production is declining. Given that steel is a vital industry of national security importance, will the Secretary of State ensure that we do not see a repetition of what happened with the fleet solid support contract, under which an overseas lead contractor had no obligation to use UK steel in the construction of UK Navy ships?

We always try to use as much UK steel as possible where we can, and when we do not, it is often because we do not manufacture the type of steel that needs to be used in a certain type of product. As for the fleet solid support ships, whether Navantia is part of the consortium or not, the hon. Gentleman should not listen to the union briefing. He will find that across the provision of those ships there will be plenty of British components—in fact, they will be in the majority—and the full integration of the ships will take place in a yard in Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the status of the Ajax procurement programme? I understand that the supply chain is being geared up to produce 589 vehicles.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Ajax was decided on in, I think, March 2010, under a Labour Government. As I have often said, it has been a troubled programme. Since I have taken over this office, we have sought to rectify the issue on almost a weekly basis, and with the determination of both the former Minister for Defence Procurement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), and the current Minister, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk). The vehicle has passed its user validation trials and is now undergoing its basic field trials. It is doing extremely well, and I am given a weekly update.

Although the programme is being delayed—and we are doing our best to rectify that—overall it has not cost a single extra penny, because the contract, which was agreed under the Conservative Government after the selection of the vehicle by the Labour party, involved a fixed price. Yes, the programme is being delayed, but we are fixing it, and it is showing good progress.

May I say first that if the Secretary of State is going to quote the National Audit Office, he should read the entire statement rather than doing so selectively?

In large, multibillion-pound contracts in the private sector, a project lead with expertise is usually put in place for a number of years. In defence procurement, well-meaning and committed individuals with very little expertise in project management are there for a short period. Is it not time to look at the ways in which we project-manage these large multi-year contracts, and to move from what appears to some to be an amateur approach to a more professional one?

I do not disagree with some of the right hon. Gentleman’s observations. Consistency in these programmes is incredibly important. As he will know, some of them, even when on track, can be 20-year programmes, and consistency is important. It is not just about the senior responsible owners, by whom those programmes are led, but he is right to suggest that we are seeking to see whether we can have more longer-term or permanent SROs. They are accompanied by programme deliverers from Defence Equipment and Support in Bristol, who are more permanent.

There are lots of lessons to be learned about procurement, some of which are within our gift to fix. Some of them, sadly, have been observed as problems for decades, and we only have to the read numerous reports from the last Labour Government and my Government to know that they have not always been rectified. Some are out of our control owing to inflation, change of threat or changing technology, or because they involve an international consortium in which we have less control when we start. An example is the Typhoon, which is a four-nation project. Sometimes it is harder to control those projects. Overall, in my experience the key is that we have to manage expectations, get our pricing right, seek consistency of skills and reward that skills base for the long term. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely on that.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that defence procurement is a complex issue but not the total disaster that it is often presented as? When compared with the naval procurement of some of our closest allies—for example, the United States ended up spending $5 billion per destroyer in the Zumwalt class and the Canadians took over 30 years to procure a ship—the MOD produces Type 26s, Type 31s, aircraft carriers, hunter-killer submarines and more under a fixed price, showing that it tries to do its best in always tight financial circumstances.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who served with me in the Department. I miss his time in the Department. One of the biggest drivers of cost overruns is a decision by the Government of the day to defer decisions about whether they should cut or delete something. Deferring the aircraft carrier under the Labour Government cost £1 billion. Deferring the F-35 buy under this Government cost about £500 million. If we defer things, they cost more in the long run. That is always the battle that the MOD has with the Treasury and others. That is one of the fundamental challenges and one of the cost drivers. However, many other projects are delivered on time and successfully and our men and women in the armed forces have some of the world-leading equipment they need to do their job.

May I join the other voices welcoming you back to your position, Madam Deputy Speaker? I think I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that the House has missed your ability to turn people to stone with just a few words when they fall foul of the rules in this place.

Much of the innovation in the defence industry comes from the small and medium-sized enterprise sector. However, many SMEs tell me that there are real barriers to entry and to gaining access to Government contracts, and that when they do gain that access, they find that some primes are slow to pay, especially when projects are delayed. This leaves them demotivated and demoralised and with a poor experience of working with the Ministry of Defence. How will the Secretary of State ensure that SMEs have better access and are encouraged to be involved in a thriving British defence industry?

I recognise some of those characteristics of SMEs. For decades they have said that there is a challenge in engaging with wider Government procurement, whether it is in defence or anything else. I also recognise, as the guardian of the taxpayer, that one of the challenges is that risk is involved. If we commission an SME to build something large, the amount of risk it takes in relation to infrastructure is a challenge; we cannot get halfway through a project and then have the SME fail.

However, I think that changes to the battlefield will open the aperture much wider for SMEs to engage with Defence. What we have seen in Ukraine through Operation Kindred is that the winners are the SMEs. The ability for us to cut through the regulations that normally govern procurement, because we are procuring for someone else in a warzone, has enabled us to effectively go straight to the marketplace and straight to SMEs, and some of the big winners have been SMEs in innovation and space. We will know the results and whether they work when they get to Ukraine.

I think this is an exciting time. I recognise the narrative that the hon. Gentleman mentions, which has been around since I worked in the aerospace sector, but of course we should and must do more. When we have a big exciting project, such as the next generation of fighter aircraft—the global combat air programme—or the carrier alliance, it is important that something sits over the top of it to ensure that SMEs are forced in if the primes get in the way.

Veterans’ Welfare

I look forward to the outcome of the review of welfare services, which was cited earlier. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence is investing more than £40 million in digitising old paper-based practices, improving processes and creating a single entry point for pensions and compensation by the end of 2024. We have successfully launched a new digital claims service for compensation and pension schemes, making it easier for our people to process their claims. Over time, this will make a very big difference.

The Minister says the review is under way. Of course, a review is already under way on the armed forces compensation scheme, with its initial findings stating that the processes are burdensome and even distressing for claimants, which is especially concerning as there has been a fall in the proportion of successful claims from 66% to 47%. Can the Minister confirm that the review is still ongoing, when it might report and what he thinks is happening?

The hon. Gentleman is correct that the final report will be delivered within, I hope, a few weeks. He will have to await the Government’s response, of course, but it ties in with some of the findings of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans, which we discussed earlier. I am concerned about any reports that the service is not as good as it ought to be. I will take that review and the APPG’s findings extremely seriously, but I am bound to cite the fact that there were 122 complaints versus 1,715 thank you letters, which I find persuasive in forming a conclusion that the people working for Veterans UK are working hard and doing their very best in quite difficult circumstances in the interests of people who serve or have served our country.

It is great to see you back in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My constituents have had similar problems trying to engage with the quinquennial review of the armed forces compensation scheme. They find it slow to make decisions, difficult to engage with and not user-friendly. When the Minister publishes the review’s findings, I hope he will come back to the House to explain how he will make the system much easier for veterans to engage with, as my constituents have told me it is very difficult indeed.

The hon. Lady is right to raise this. As I said earlier, I cannot overstate how important it is that we are increasingly digitising the service. When people go to Norcross and see the mountains of paperwork that Veterans UK is having to cope with, they begin to understand how vital it is that we properly digitise the service and bring it into the 21st century, which is our intention.

The hon. Lady might like to know, because it is a barometer or litmus test of how the service is doing, that the proportion of armed forces compensation scheme cases going to tribunal has been falling since 2014-15, which balances some of the remarks we have heard about Veterans UK not being up to scratch. We need to review it, which is what we are doing, but I am convinced that the service will be better than it is at the moment, if that is of any reassurance.

Topical Questions

Today’s questions have rightly focused on support for our friends in Ukraine, but it is important to remember that threats are growing elsewhere in the world. The middle east continues to harbour terrorism, which is why the UK still supports the Government of Iraq as part of the global coalition against Daesh.

I want to update the House on a strike that took place a few weeks ago, as is our agreement on strikes under Operation Shader. In late December, an RAF Reaper remotely piloted aircraft conducted a strike against a leading Daesh member in al-Bab, northern Syria. The individual’s activity was related to chemical and biological weapons. The Reaper’s crew minimised potential risk to civilians before firing two Hellfire missiles, both of which struck the target accurately. These actions are vital to degrading such terrorist threats, protecting British citizens and supporting our international partners.

I think we can all accept that there is a legitimate role for the security services in combating disinformation campaigns from foreign, hostile states. However, a recent report from the campaign group Big Brother Watch showed that in 2020 a number of British citizens had their social media posts featured in monitoring reports produced for the Cabinet Office by the British Army’s 77th Brigade. Will the Secretary of State tell the House: is the 77th Brigade still monitoring social media posts of British citizens, and, if so, for what purpose and under what authority?

One part of the 77th Brigade’s role is to challenge disinformation, not opinion—its role is not to monitor or counter opinion, as that is about the freedom we all enjoy in our society. The 77th Brigade is on the lookout for media manipulation of misinformation or lies from abroad, and where that is found, it is flagged to the appropriate authorities. I am happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman with fuller details about what legal authorities it functions under, but I assure him that if at any stage I have seen anything that I think crosses that line, I have, in writing, made sure that is known and it is stopped.

T3. Welcome back, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is great to see you.I was going to put to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the statistics that he has heard many times about proportions of GDP spent on defence both during and after the cold war—they are a lot higher than those of the present day. May I instead ask him to bear in mind when negotiating with the Treasury that any investment made in defence now for the purposes of conventional deterrence will be miniscule compared with what we would have to spend if, heaven forbid, the war in Ukraine escalated into a war with NATO? Such spending is an investment; it is not expenditure that should be lightly considered. It is essential for our future security. (904041)

I completely concur with my right hon. Friend. Defence is not a discretionary spend and not an add-on; it is a core function of any state and especially of this Government. I have been very grateful since 2020 that we have turned the corner on this and started to rebuild that momentum. The extra money that I have got for this week is continuing that momentum, but he is right to say that the important thing here is that deterrence is cheaper than having to go to fight the war if it goes wrong, as we see when we look at the cost to the people of Ukraine and to their economy. We need to make people change this culture that we have got used to since probably the early 1990s where somehow defence is discretionary—it is not. I am pleased that the Prime Minister recognises that, as he did when he was Chancellor in 2020, and we need to continue on that trajectory.

The House will be thankful and grateful to the Defence Secretary for updating it on the latest Op Shader activity. If there are any questions that cannot be raised this afternoon, we will return to them. On tonight’s AUKUS announcement in San Diego, does the Defence Secretary recognise that this has Labour’s fullest support? We want Britain to play the biggest possible role in building the new Australian submarines. But beyond the subs, how will he develop the pillar 2 collaboration on artificial intelligence, cyber and hypersonic missiles?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for AUKUS, which is a decades-long commitment. People talk about procurement challenges, and when we start this journey on submarines that will be delivered in the 2030s and 2040s, with some going on to the 2050s, it is not a journey we can stop halfway along or stop for a break in. To go back to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), let me say that sometimes parts of the Treasury struggle with that concept, so I am grateful for the extra money. AUKUS pillar 2 is incredibly important. It is about the next generation’s technology. One of the most important works we are doing—and we met in the Pentagon in December—is clearing away the International Traffic in Arms Regulations challenges that for so many years have held us back in being able to share our own technology with the United States or to collaborate properly to make a step change to give us the strategic advantage we need. We are going to be working on that, and I am happy to brief the right hon. Gentleman in detail on the future of the pillar 2.

T5. France is our closest security partner other than the United States, so can my right hon. Friend update the House on his meeting with his French counterpart? How will we continue to ensure that our historic defence partnership is ready to take on the threats of the future? (904043)

My hon. Friend is incredibly right to point out how important France is to us. It is our main partner in Europe. It has similar-sized armed forces, with a similar expeditionary status and ambition. I speak to my colleague almost every two weeks—sometimes every week. I spoke to him twice last week, including my visit at the beginning of the week. A partnership on which we worked was more of the CJEF—the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force—where we work with them, training and exercising together; there is more work on complex weapons through MBDA, which is a great international consortium with factories in Bolton and Stevenage; and we are working together to make sure that we have the same requirements in shared operations, where we can work together in areas such as West Africa, where British, French and European interests are under threat from the likes of Wagner.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving such thorough answers, which I am sure the House appreciates, but I ask him to be a little quicker, because it would be good if we managed to get everybody in. I call Ruth Jones.

T4. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is good to see you back in your rightful place.Labour’s dossier of waste in the MOD has found that at least £15 billion of taxpayers’ money has been wasted since 2010, so can the Minister explain to people in my constituency of Newport West why this Tory Government have failed to get a grip of the defence procurement process and have failed to secure value for money for the taxes that they pay? (904042)

I would point the hon. Lady’s constituents to the 2010 National Audit Office report on her Government which gave some really interesting clues about why procurement was so bad. It said that the Department under her Government contracted for aircraft carriers when it knew that that was not affordable. Or perhaps I could point her to the Public Accounts Committee, then chaired by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who said:

“Delays and cancellations to programmes”—

this is about the land systems under her Government—

“have resulted in gaps in armoured vehicle capability that will not be filled until 2025.”

There are lots of clues for the hon. Lady’s constituents—she should direct them to those reports.

T8. May I, too, say that it is great to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker?I will try to keep this brief for the Secretary of State. The Clive Sheldon KC review of management information surrounding Ajax has been with the Department for over a month, I think. Given its importance, can the Minister guarantee, first, that it will be published by the Easter recess, and secondly, that it will be published fully unredacted? (904046)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his proper concern about this issue. The Sheldon review was and is entirely independent of Government, and it provided an initial draft to the MOD at the end of January. Since then, Mr Sheldon has been conducting a fact-checking and Maxwellisation exercise as part of the final stages of drafting. The timeframe, in an independent review, is not a matter for the Department. Once received, however, I can say that it will be published with all expedition, accompanied by a statement to the House.

T6. It is good to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker.The Prime Minister spoke to journalists earlier today about the integrated review refresh, so we know that there is no target for reaching the 2.5% of GDP for defence spending and that the Army will not get the £3 billion that it needs to avoid making further cuts. Is this a good deal for Defence? (904044)

First, I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman gets that we will not get the 3% to avoid the cuts. At the moment, it will be a decision on the balance of investments. He will see in the Command Paper how we apportion any savings that we have to make as a result of inflation, but overall, as I have said, our equipment programme and, indeed, our envelope are on track, subject to inflation pressures and extra operational commitments that we have made. He will also be aware that we have had an extra £560 million on top of that for restocking ammunition, and we have also had commitments from the Treasury on new for old and much of the gifting. I believe that the Army will be in a good state throughout this process, and I will make sure that when it comes to the Defence Command Paper, he gets a full read-out of why and how we make those decisions.

T10. What steps is my right hon. Friend’s Department taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises in the defence sector that are adversely affected by the application of environmental, social and governance criteria, making it very difficult for them to raise capital to invest in their business and expand? (904048)

My hon. Friend is a champion of SMEs, and rightly so: they are at the heart of a vibrant and flexible UK defence industry. That is why this Department helps to find and fund exploitable ideas from SMEs. To his point, however, there is nothing contradictory between the principles of ESG and the defence industry. On the contrary, strong national defence is the ultimate guarantor of the freedoms that all too often are taken for granted—human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order.

T7.   It is good to see you in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thousands of retired Gurkha soldiers who left the Army before 1997 live in considerable poverty, many of them in my constituency. I understand that there are ongoing negotiations between the Ministry and the Government of Nepal, and I would be grateful if the Secretary of State or a Minister could update me on this important issue. (904045)

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, I recently set up a joint committee, chaired by me and the Nepalese ambassador, to consider outstanding Gurkha welfare issues. I must tell him that retrospective pension changes in respect of the Gurkhas have been through the system several times, including the High Court, the Supreme Court and the European judicial institutions, and the long-standing position of the UK Government has been upheld. However, I am keen to see that we do everything in our power to ensure that we give Gurkhas and Gurkha veterans living in the UK and in Nepal the very best we reasonably can to support their welfare.

I am delighted to hear that the Government are committing £2 billion to resupply the armed forces for the munitions and equipment sent to Ukraine. That is very positive news. What my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the importance of investing in Army accommodation will also be very welcome news to my constituents in Tidworth, Bulford and Larkhill. In the spirit of honesty that he spoke about, can he tell us what he thinks it would take to convince the Treasury that we must do more than simply resupply our armed forces, and that we need a bigger Army, not a smaller one?

I do not need to do much more to convince the Treasury; the Chancellor and the Prime Minister said at the autumn statement that they recognised that Defence would need more spending. They have crossed that line, and in fact they already knew that: the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, gave us the extra £24 billion, and hon. Members will remember that the current Chancellor stood on a platform for a greater percentage of GDP when he stood for the leadership of the Conservative party. The key is now to ensure that we lock that spending in to get a long timeframe, so that we can start the investment and planning that will be required at the next comprehensive spending review and beyond.

T9. It is great to see you back in your place, Madam Deputy Speaker. To be fair to the Defence Secretary, he has been very candid that 13 years of this Government have, in his words, “hollowed out and underfunded” our armed forces, but why should anyone believe that, in their final gasps, the exhausted Government who underfunded them over 13 years will actually put right the hollowing-out they have put in place in that time? (904047)

Maybe the hon. Gentleman cannot hear: I did not say “13”; I said there had been “30” years of hollowing out, which includes his last Government, a Government I served under as a soldier. His Government spent a lot of money going to war in the middle east, which hollowed us out too, because we were not properly refunded. If he wants to come to this House and start a debate about Defence, I would appreciate it if he did so with a bit of candour about his own Government’s role in it. We have done that—I have had the courage to do that—so maybe he might.

I thank Carshalton and Wallington residents who have opened their homes to Ukrainians. Can my right hon. Friend give me some assurance that the kit we are sending to Ukraine will indeed come with the specialist support and training needed to operate it?

In the UK, we have thousands of British armed forces, joined by Canadians, Norwegians, Dutch, Swedish, Lithuanians, Australians and New Zealanders—endless numbers of people—helping the Ukrainians with that training. We ensure that not only do they train there, but when they go to somewhere such as Germany they get combined arms training. It is important that training accompanies equipment and, where we have had feedback, we have corrected the training as well.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I have really missed you. Can I ask the Secretary of State what he makes of what President Xi has been saying over the past few days? I urge him today not to do what people are rumouring that he might do—that, given the present situation, he might be thinking about resigning. Will he stay with us, but fight for more money for our armed forces?

As a Tory, you think about resigning most of the time—over the years. I am interested in trying to deliver for the men and women of our armed forces. I went into politics because the men and women of the armed forces needed and deserved better, and I am determined to try to stick that through. But I am also worried about the direction of threat for this country and for the world: not only what we have seen in China, as I think has been quoted—equipping for war, as they announced last week—but we have seen 83.4% enriched uranium being discovered, as the International Energy Agency has published in its report. That is weeks away from 90%, weapons-grade, should that be a decision. I have seen a growing problem with Russia and its violent extremism spreading across Africa. The threat is going up across the world, and we are more anxious and more unstable. I think that means long-term investment from whoever the Governments are over the next 10 to 15 years.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is lovely to see you back. As a former chair of the south-east region for the Veterans Advisory and Pensions Committees, I have seen at first hand the long shelves at Norcross where Veterans UK is based. Can the Minister assure me that the digitalisation of veterans’ records will proceed quickly, so that veterans can get quick decisions on their welfare and their welfare claims?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s service with the VAPC. Like me, she has been to Norcross and seen the extraordinary files of paperwork. There is no way that we can provide the 21st-century service that our veterans deserve while things are in that state, so the £40 million digitalisation—though it may sound banal—will most certainly make a huge difference. Where we can, we will also address the other things that delay claims; I am thinking particularly of the difficulties we often have with our medical advisers getting reports from GPs in the NHS. I am afraid that that is one of the major hurdles to getting these things dealt with in a timely way, but I am resolved that we should do our level best to make sure things are better going forward.