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Topical Questions

Volume 729: debated on Monday 13 March 2023

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.