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Volume 731: debated on Thursday 27 April 2023

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the question. On Friday, the Defence Secretary met his counterparts at Ramstein air base for the 11th meeting of the Ukraine defence contact group. The focus was on accelerating the delivery of military aid packages for Ukraine as they plan to expel Russian forces from illegally occupied Ukrainian territory. The message from Ramstein was clear: international support for Ukraine is growing. More countries than ever are attending; donations are increasing, and their delivery is accelerating.

We are one of the leading providers of military support for Ukraine and were the first country to donate modern main battle tanks. We have now completed delivery of this matériel and training package, which included a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks, along with their ammunition, spares, and armoured recovery vehicles; AS-90 self-propelled guns, sufficient to support two brigades with close support artillery; more than 150 armoured and protected vehicles; and hundreds more of the most urgently needed missiles, including for air defence.

The UK-led international fund for Ukraine encourages donations from around the world and stimulates industrial supply of cutting-edge technologies for Ukraine’s most vital battlefield requirements. The first bidding round raised £520 million-worth of donations, receiving 1,500 expressions of interest from suppliers across 40 countries. The second bidding round opened on 11 April, and the UK is calling for further national donations and is calling on industry to provide its most innovative technologies, especially for air defence.

A total of 14,000 Ukrainian recruits have now returned from the UK to defend their homeland, trained and equipped for operations, including trench clearance, battlefield first aid, crucial law of armed conflict awareness, patrol tactics and rural environment training. In all its dimensions, the higher quality of training for Ukrainian soldiers provided by the UK armed forces and their counterparts from nine other nations has proven battle-winning against Russian forces. The UK will develop the training provided according to Ukraine’s requirements, including the extension to pilots, sailors and marines. It is now expected to reach 20,000 trained recruits this year.

The UK will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, and will spend another £2.3 billion on military support for Ukraine this year. By making that commitment, we will strengthen Ukraine’s position in negotiations, guard its long-term sovereignty and enable Ukraine to deter by denial. The UK people can be proud of their support. We are leading in Europe in providing brave Ukrainians with the training, equipment and ammunition urgently needed to ensure that they prevail.

Excellent. I do not have a bad chest; if we can stick to three minutes, that is always helpful.

All eyes are on Sudan. We want British nationals to get out during the ceasefire while they can. We pay tribute to the UK armed forces and to Foreign Office and Border Force staff for leading the evacuation. That is why this urgent question is so important: the Government have to be able to do more than one thing at once. The Defence Secretary has 60,000 MOD staff, but I am concerned that the momentum behind our military help is faltering and that our UK commitment to Ukraine is flagging.

The Defence Secretary has made no statements on Ukraine since January. No new weapons have been pledged to Ukraine since February. There has been no 2023 action plan for Ukraine, which was first promised last August. No priorities have been set for the Ukraine recovery conference in London in June. The Prime Minister said in February that:

“The United Kingdom will be the first country to provide Ukraine with longer-range weapons.”

What and when? Like the Minister, the Defence Secretary said on Friday that military aid “delivery is accelerating”. How and what? The UK-led international fund for Ukraine, which the Minister mentioned, was launched last August, but only one contract has been signed so far. Why? The International Criminal Court has put out an arrest warrant for Putin. Where is the UK support for the special tribunal? Some 5,000 Ukrainians were registered homeless last month. Who is sorting this out?

The Minister knows that the Government have had and will continue to have Labour’s fullest support for military aid to Ukraine and for reinforcing NATO allies. We welcomed the £2 billion in the spring Budget for stockpiles, but with no new money for anything else except nuclear, how will the defence Command Paper in June deal with inflation, fill capacity gaps and respond to the increasing threats? Finally, the British public are strongly behind Ukraine. They want to know that the Government are not weakening in their resolve to support Ukraine, confront Russian aggression and pursue Putin for his war crimes.

I will do my best to take note of your bad throat, Mr Speaker, and to keep my remarks brief.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is being just a little unfair. I am sure that President Zelensky would feel the same way—he certainly did when he came here in February to sign the London accord. It is pretty clear that the UK is leading in Europe. As I said in my opening remarks, the Ukraine recovery conference in June proves that. The UK has been instrumental in this process. We led the instigation of the international fund for Ukraine, and £520 million, of which £300 million has been expended, is really quite an achievement. I think the right hon. Gentleman knows full well, because he is smiling at me, that the UK has been in the van of this. I am proud of the UK people in supporting brave and courageous Ukrainians in their fight against Putin’s aggression.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about war crimes and he is right to do so. He will know that the atrocity crimes advisory group, which again is heavily influenced by the UK, includes input from, for example, the Metropolitan police’s war crimes unit. In every dimension in this country, we are taking a lead. I appreciate his need to attack the Government in this and other areas, but in the specifics of this—in our leadership in Europe and in Ukraine—the UK is more than playing its part. We are leaders. I am really proud of that, and the British people should be too.

Ukraine continues to prevail in all dimensions of this conflict. My right hon. Friend will be aware that we have been active, and the international fund that I just referred to is certainly active, in providing air defence. That is crucial in winning this for Ukraine, and we will continue to do so.

The current situation in Bakhmut is dire, with Russian forces pounding the town with rockets, mortars, attack drones and phosphorous incendiary bombs, which are banned under the Geneva convention. Russian forces have occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant since last month, and they are now taking up positions on the roofs of reactor buildings. That raises the concern of damage in future fighting and the threat to the population should that occur. The Wagner mercenary group has admitted to killing hundreds of people who were sheltering in a basement, including 40 children.

What are the UK Government doing to get defensive weapons, in particular ammunition, to Bakhmut as soon as possible? Are the UK Government co-ordinating with producers and European allies with regard to the provision of iodine tablets and radiation treatment? Will the Government step up further the sanctions against the despicable Wagner mercenary group?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I share her sentiments entirely. There is no excuse for nuclear blackmail at Zaporizhzhia or anywhere else. I am appalled by the war of attrition in Bakhmut. It is a most appalling slur on the continent that we call home, and it will be an enduring slur on Putin’s Russia. In terms of protection, I am pleased to say that the International Atomic Energy Agency is monitoring the situation in Ukraine, and the UK obviously stands ready to be of assistance in any way that it can be.

I, too, am surprised at the tone taken by the shadow Secretary of State in this urgent question. The support we have continued to give Ukraine is a great source of pride. Will the Minister say what efforts we are making to replenish our own stocks of weapons? Our generosity has come at a cost, and it is important that Britain continues to keep its own arms ready for any eventuality.

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely correct. He will have noted the £5 billion in the integrated review refresh and the spring Budget, some of which will be used for the purpose he has described. However, let us be clear: the munitions we are expending in Ukraine are doing what munitions are meant to do, which is to defend a democratic country that has been the subject of the most appalling aggression against its territorial integrity, against international humanitarian law and every recognisable tenet of international law. I make no apology for using our munitions in that way.

My right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is absolutely right that it is unacceptable that we have not had a statement since January. In order to hold the Government to account, which is our job, we need to have statements on a regular basis. This is not critical of the Government, in the sense that they have been doing quite a lot to support Ukraine, and this Parliament has been very strong in its support for that. However, we are here to hold the Government to account.

My specific question to the Minister concerns munitions. What is the current situation in terms of stockpiles? I know he will not be able to give actual figures—I get that—but, having identified problems earlier this year, where are we now in being able to build up the stockpiles of munitions not only to supply Ukraine, but to keep our own stockpiles?

Plainly, we have to concentrate on the conflict before us, and that is what we are doing in providing munitions to assist Ukraine. The hon. Gentleman will have noted in my comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) the reference to the IRR and the spring Budget, which provided a substantial uplift to Treasury funding to enable the UK to replenish what has been expended. However, I do not think that should diminish in any way our support and donations to Ukraine. That would be very foolish and against our interests, not to mention the interests of our brave Ukrainian friends.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving the House an update on the position in Ukraine. Clearly, we are going to be involved in providing more and more sophisticated weaponry and support to the Ukrainians. What role will our armed forces play in both this country and Ukraine in delivering those munitions and armaments, and will we get involved in an escalation of the war with Russia?

I hope there will not be an escalation in the war between Ukraine and Russia. The whole point is that ultimately we have to come to a diplomatic settlement, and I would urge all parties to dial this down. However, it is about not just munitions and armaments, but training. I have seen for myself our training efforts. Those are vital, as I referred to in my remarks, and will be ongoing. We will have trained 20,000 Ukrainians by the end of this year—a quite extraordinary effort. There is no point in having matériel without the training that goes with it.

It will take at least a decade to replenish our depleted ammunition stockpiles, so, besides the £2 billion, what actual action has come from the stockpile review ordered by the Prime Minister back in February, and where on earth is the action plan to grow our defence industrial capacity?

Negotiations with our defence partners are ongoing. This conflict is—what?—14 months old. The industry can move at pace, and I pay tribute to the rapidity with which it has provided armaments through the co-ordination cell in Poland and the UK-led international fund. I think the hon. Lady should reflect on how fast that has been put together and its effectiveness in delivering what Ukraine wants to have. This is a Ukraine-led process. We need to provide Ukraine with what it thinks it needs to prosecute this conflict.

I, too, am proud of our nation’s history of defending against despots across the world, and of the way we are taking the lead in this horrific war. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that we will maintain our UK military presence inside Ukraine to look after our diplomatic missions there?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Clearly, diplomacy is what will deal with this situation eventually. For that to happen, we need to ensure that those engaged in that diplomacy are properly protected, which is what our troops, such as they are in Ukraine, will be endeavouring to do.

I absolutely believe that what happened to the Nord Stream gas pipeline in the Baltic is connected with the situation in Ukraine. Yesterday, I raised by point of order the fact that the Admiral Vladimirsky Russian spy ship has been sailing round the Beatrice wind farm, the electrical interconnector to my constituency and other North sea assets that are vital to the UK. What assurance can I have that the UK is doing everything to protect these vital assets?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; it is an issue that probably exercises the minds of policy makers right across northern Europe. He will be aware of an investigation by Sweden, Denmark and Germany on the Nord Stream interdiction. It would be wrong to speculate further on attribution for that at this particular point, but I think we can make some informed guesses about who might be responsible. He is correct about the issue of subsea surveillance; critical national infrastructure needs to be protected. I am more than happy to talk to him at length about where we think this matter is going and what further measures we will take to ensure that there is no maritime interdiction that will attack our critical national infrastructure, particularly that which is subsea.

With the much-rumoured spring offensive that is likely to come quite soon, we will see an escalation in the conflict and fighting. What consideration has the Minister given to further humanitarian support, particularly through ambulances and 4x4s? From my trips to Ukraine, I know that they are in desperately short supply and are needed.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a short-term humanitarian imperative. There is also the task of rebuilding Ukraine for the longer term, and we are engaged with both those things. He is right about the need for ambulances; I would say armoured ambulances, which have been a big ask from the Ukrainians. We have provided a fleet of CVR(T)—combat vehicle reconnaissance (tracked)—Saracen ambulances in particular, which are doing good work in Ukraine. We will continue to provide those, and to note and take action on all requests we get from the Ukrainian surgeon general.

The courage and determination of the Ukrainian people in the face of Putin’s aggression is an inspiration to us all, but it is also a challenge to us to ensure that if we cannot match it, we at least reflect it in the level and consistency of our military and humanitarian support. We cannot do that unless we replenish and backfill our military stockpiles, so can I ask the Minister for a plan or some indication of how our defence procurement is changing or adapting to ensure that our military stockpiles are at the levels that are needed?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The imperative at the moment is to get to Ukraine the munitions that it needs to prosecute what it needs to do, but in the longer term we need a more agile way of ensuring that we can replenish munitions and that the industry can provide us with what we need more quickly. That work is ongoing, but I refer her again to the announcement made in the Budget, which she should welcome, of an uplift of about £5 billion to deal with our nuclear endeavour and with stockpiles. But that is not enough, because we—and all nations—need to be more agile in our provision for conflicts of this sort, and to ensure that in doing this we do not leave ourselves vulnerable. The point is well made. We are all moving at pace to ensure that we can replenish munitions much quicker than we have been able to previously.

We are all incredibly proud of the support that we have given to Ukraine in terms of kit and training. The key enabler of success in modern warfare is interoperability. Will my right hon. Friend update us on what measures we are taking ahead of the NATO summit in July to enhance and strengthen Ukrainian interoperability with NATO forces?

My hon. Friend is right, and he can be assured that we are working with the Ukrainians to ensure that that interoperability is there. I have to say that historically, even among NATO members, it has often been very difficult to get one system or one country to work with another. That has been a long-standing theme throughout the whole of NATO’s history, so it should not be underestimated. Vilnius will deal with it in some considerable depth and detail, and I hope that in future—as we anticipate the defence of Ukraine for the long term—that interoperability will be greatly enhanced.

I thank the Minister for his earlier response, but can he say what longer-range weapons the UK will provide to Ukraine and when they will be supplied?

The AS-90 is a good artillery piece, and Ukraine will certainly find it a great benefit in doing what it has to do. The aim of our support to Ukraine is to enable it to defend itself; it most certainly is not to go beyond that. It is defensive, which is why ground-to-air is so important. It is also important to consider the UK’s position going forward in terms of the artillery provided to our own military. That piece of work is going on at pace so that we can find a replacement for the AS-90 that is fit to face down the threat we may have from Russia and others in future.

May I put on record my thanks to the British Government and public for their ongoing support for the people of Ukraine? We are proud to have a number of Ukrainians living in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the package of kit and equipment announced by the Secretary of State in January, which included the Challenger 2 tanks and the AS-90s, has now been delivered to Ukraine?

Can the Minister say when the Defence Secretary last spoke to the NATO Secretary-General about the announcement he has made today and about the Chinese negotiations?

I welcome the Government’s commitment to match or exceed the £2.3 billion in aid funding to Ukraine this year. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that funding will not come out of the core Defence budget, so that we can keep our troops at home, safe and well equipped, while continuing to support efforts in Ukraine.

As we have already heard this morning, the Wagner Group has admitted killing 40 children, and hundreds of civilian adults sheltering them, in a basement in Bakhmut. It is also implicated in destabilising the situation in Sudan. Why are the UK Government dragging their feet on declaring that organisation a trans-national terror organisation?

Sanctions have been placed on 1,500 people and 120 entities in connection with this conflict, including the Wagner Group and Yevgeny Progozhin.

I think the Minister was slightly unfair to the shadow Secretary of State in saying that he welcomed and understood his attacking: my hon. Friend was not attacking but doing his proper and constitutional job, as a spokesperson for His Majesty’s loyal Opposition, of holding the Government to account. If this war is to drag on for some time, as it seems it will, maintaining the focus of the British Government will be essential. What can the Minister say to us about ensuring that that focus is not lost in Government as we move forward?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not lost. I probably would not trust a member of the Government to make that assertion, but President Zelensky himself has made it plain in his remarks that the UK has played a formidable leadership role in ensuring that his country can repel Putin’s barbarism and the atrocity committed upon the state of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia.

I am proud that the UK has taken a lead on Ukraine and has brought together allies from across the world to play their part. One of the ways that we have done that is through the British armed forces training programme, bringing those Ukrainian armed forces personnel up to speed with the latest fighting techniques. Given that the winter lull is now ending on the ground in Ukraine and we are anticipating a major increase in fighting, what are the Government doing with our allies to speed up that programme of training Ukrainian forces once again?

I visited the Ukrainians training in the UK and spoke with them and their trainers. They are an extraordinary bunch of people. I am truly humbled to be able to share some of their accounts. By the end of the year we will have trained 20,000 of them. The quality of our training is peerless, right across the domains that one would expect. It is materially contributing to Ukraine’s fighting effectiveness. Importantly, it inculcates the sorts of standards and practices that one would expect of a responsible, civilised country, in stark contrast to Putin’s Russia.

Given the seriousness of the situation, why are Ministers pressing ahead with further cuts to the British Army, with troop numbers estimated to fall by a further 10,000?

The hon. Lady should be careful about what she reads in the press. We have been consistent in our support for the armed forces. I am grateful for the shadow Secretary of State’s support for what the Government are trying to achieve in Ukraine, but it is a pity that Opposition Members are sometimes not similarly supportive of the men and women of our armed forces and defence in the UK.

What estimate has the Minister made of the number of Ukrainian children who have been kidnapped by Russian forces? What support has been offered to Ukrainian forces to return those children to their parents?

The removal of children from Ukraine to Russia is truly shocking and heartrending. The best we can hope for is that Putin sees the reputational damage that it delivers to him and his country and reverses his policy. We have seen some indication in recent times of some children being returned to their parents. It is a truly shocking element of a truly horrendous conflict, and we know precisely who to blame for it.

We all want the Ukrainian counter-offensive to be successful. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) was right to challenge the Government on whether they are adhering to their commitments. On the point about long-range missiles, which my right hon. Friend and others have pressed the Minister on, can he tell us whether the MOD is now walking back from the Prime Minister’s commitment to offer further long-range missiles? If it is, when will we hear more detail and clarity on how many more long-range missiles, and what sort, will be issued to Ukrainian forces?

Our provision of munitions, in concert with others, is driven by the Ukrainian ask and our ability to deliver them. That was discussed at Ramstein and will be discussed further at Vilnius, subject to the second round of the international fund call that opened on 11 April. It is important to understand that a lot of that will be driven by the international fund’s executive panel. Obviously, it will listen closely to what President Zelensky and his advisers feel they need to repel this most awful invasion of his country. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to understand the true extent of what the UK has done. Not only has it led Europe in providing munitions and training, but it has provided the bulk of the £520 million that populates the UK-led international fund for Ukraine. That is a substantial achievement.

In the face of a Russian invasion, we must continue to support and stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. But this war has exposed how the Conservative Government have underfunded and hollowed out our armed forces over the last 13 years. Six months ago, we were told that we had 227 Challenger 2 tanks. Now the Minister for Armed Forces advises us that, with 14 in Ukraine, we have 157 deployable or deployed tanks. What has happened to the other 56?

As the hon. Gentleman should know, we committed to 148 Challenger 3 upgrades in the integrated review refresh. That remains our position. But if he is going to make a defence spending commitment on behalf of his party, I will be delighted to hear it—in particular how much more he would spend beyond what was announced in the spring Budget.

A few moments ago, the Minister said that we must give to Ukraine what Ukraine tells us it needs. All of us here will have been in Westminster Hall to hear President Zelensky’s impassioned speech. Several weeks later, I and many others had the privilege of listening to the Ukrainian ambassador and the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, who reiterated their needs and demands, which were very clear: they asked for planes and munitions. Can the Minister update us?

Yes, I can. Ukraine has had munitions from the international community, and in particular from the United Kingdom. I have just said that the UK is in the lead when it comes to donations to Ukraine. The hon. Gentleman is right to press me about planes. We plan to train pilots to operate jets. That will take a long time—it will not happen overnight—and it is no good in the acute war-fighting phase of this particular conflict. But that training is important to guarantee the long-term integrity of Ukraine, and we remain committed to that.

The demand for prosthetic limbs in Ukraine continues to climb owing to the conflict. The director of the Without Limits mechanical prosthetics clinic in Kyiv has stated that the best prosthetics come from the UK. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that we continue to support Ukraine in meeting that demand?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that point. Recently, I was pleased to visit the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, which is recognised internationally as a centre of excellence. Its expertise will undoubtedly influence how Ukraine develops its capacity in prosthetics. I am giving every encouragement to that process. I have also spoken to the Ukrainian surgeon-general about what she feels will be required as we go forward. The hon. Lady is right to point out that we do prosthetics very well, and I am pleased to have been involved with that in the past. I am pleased that, going forward—it will take a long time—the UK will be right at the forefront of the efforts to ensure that those who, sadly, have been injured in this terrible conflict are provided with the prosthetics and rehabilitation that they require.

Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you advise me whether it is in order for Ministers to suggest that Opposition Members do not support our armed forces when we are doing our job in holding this Government to account? I take strong offence at the words the Minister stated. I am a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies, I completed two of the parliamentary armed forces schemes, and I have served on Labour’s Front Bench as part of the Defence team.

I thank the hon. Lady for her point of order. It is up to the Minister if he wishes to respond to it; if he does not, I am sure he will consider the points she has made.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for articulating her support to the men and women of our armed forces. I am very pleased she has said that and put it on the record, and I am sure they will be extremely grateful to her.