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Topical Questions

Volume 732: debated on Monday 15 May 2023

I place on record my thanks to all the members of our armed forces who contributed to the coronation parade. It was a remarkable day in the history of the nation. It was both an immense privilege and a solemn responsibility for the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces to fulfil. I thank them once again for contributing in an exemplary way and with such extraordinary personal commitment and dedication, while also meeting all other operational requirements. We are immensely proud of them all and privileged to belong to the defence community.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comments in their entirety. The visit by President Zelensky today highlights how vital a collective approach is to our national defence and security. To that end, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we have security and defence agreements in place with our nearest allies in Europe, in response to Russian aggression?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we get our strength through coalition and our alliances, and NATO is the most successful military alliance the world has seen. In addition, I led the way in ensuring that countries that were not covered by NATO at the time—Sweden and Finland—signed together a mutual defence pack about two years ago, when no one thought that they would now be joining NATO. We encourage nations to join NATO and to apply using the open-door policy; at the same time, we seek to help other nations to join using memorandums of understanding and other agreements, to try to bolster that enabling alliance.

T2. Following the groundbreaking work done by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) on the experience of women in the military, Delyn constituents were pleased to hear the announcement of a women veterans strategy. Could the Secretary of State provide an update and a timeline on when that might be implemented? (904910)

I can. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, as the strategy will be the responsibility of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I will be happy to provide him with further details.

We welcome President Zelensky’s visit and the extra military aid announced today. The invasion of Ukraine has reinforced the importance of strong deterrence and Army numbers. While NATO is responding by increasing its high-readiness force to 300,000, the Defence Secretary is still set on cutting the British Army to its smallest size since Napoleon. Will he halt the cuts in next month’s defence Command Paper?

I have been really clear that this is not a numbers game; it is about making sure that, whatever the size of our armed forces, we have a completely well-equipped and well looked-after workforce. If we simply go on a numbers game, without the appropriate funding—and I have heard no commitments from the Labour party—we will go back to a world that I served in, under Governments of both parties, where we had numbers on paper and on parade grounds, but hollow forces. I will not repeat that. I will make sure that whatever we have is fully equipped and fully 360. That is the real lesson of Ukraine.

Labour has argued for over two years for a halt to these cuts. Despite the Secretary of State’s bluster, the truth is that he has failed to get the new money for defence, apart from for nuclear and for stockpiles. Why will he not just admit it? Far from responding to the threats that Britain faces, he is cutting the Army to cut costs.

This is like “Through the Looking Glass”, Mr Speaker. The reality is that as Defence Secretary I have achieved an increase of over £24 billion, both in resource departmental expenditure limit, in parts, and also in capital spend. It is important that the House understands that the world and the battlefield are changing. If we simply go to a numbers game, we will head back to a first world war. What we need is to learn the lessons and equip and support people properly. I have still not heard from the Opposition a single mention of their defence budget. Reversing the cuts, of course, will cost billions of pounds. I have heard nothing so far.

T3. I recently had the privilege of becoming honorary president of the Royal British Legion’s Hinckley branch. My first engagement was to join the Hinckley armed forces and veterans breakfast club at the Hansom Cab in Burbage for its fifth-year celebration. That amazing organisation helps veteran men and women, providing support, companionship and banter for those who have served. Will the Minister thank all those who give their time for such organisations? More importantly, what more can he do to support armed forces and veterans breakfast clubs? (904911)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his presidential duties at the Hinckley branch of the Royal British Legion—my own branch in Burnham-on-sea will just about let me make the tea. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the fantastic work of veterans breakfast clubs. The Government have supported those through the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust. I know that that support is as well received in his constituency as it is in mine, where there is an excellent club in Glastonbury.

T4. Today the UK is pledging a new package of military support to Ukraine. What assessment has the Minister made of the pace of delivery of those vital supplies to Ukraine? (904912)

Right from the start, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of ensuring that the supplies get into the country as soon as possible, basing people not only in the international donor co-ordination cell in Germany—there are over 70 military personnel there—but in neighbouring countries, to ensure the logistics of getting supplies to reach places in time. We are still managing to commit to that pace.

As President Zelensky has said, some countries have made pledges but part of the delay has been in their getting equipment ready to donate. Ours is already in—our 12 Challengers are already in the country. We will make sure that we keep monitoring the situation and pushing as fast as possible.

T5.   The Mayor of London has generously permitted 54,000 friends and family of Transport for London workers free travel around London. He has also granted police officers from eight services free travel when not in uniform. Will the Minister explain to service personnel, particularly those from Woolwich barracks, why they can travel free only while in full uniform, which makes them and those around them a target? Are there any plans to rectify that discrepancy? (904913)

The Labour Mayor of London is also expanding the ultra low emission zone charge, which will affect thousands of armed forces personnel who are based in the outer boroughs. I suspect that our Opposition colleagues will have heard of this impact on their cost of living, and will be earnestly encouraging their Mayor to ensure that free travel is extended to armed forces personnel who are not travelling in uniform.

T7. The transition to the new NATO force model must be complete by this year. Can the Secretary of State update the House on how prepared the UK is for more capability at greater readiness, so that we can continue to play our leading role in NATO? (904915)

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe recently issued his regional plans, which extend to 3,000 pages of detailed proposals for the defence of Europe. From that will stem a donation conference at which all the member states will present their contributions to the plans. Within that, we will develop the new force model that will contribute to the new force structure of NATO. Once we have got through that period of the next few months, we will be able to tell the House exactly what we have put forward, how ready it is, and whether it meets the ask of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

T6. Clive Sheldon KC, of 11 King’s Bench Walk chambers, submitted his Lessons Learned report on the AJAX programme to the Ministry of Defence some four months ago. We are told that it is still undergoing a “fact-checking” process, but there are growing rumours that some people who are adversely implicated in the report are trying to water it down or even suppress its publication. As the Secretary of State personally commissioned the report, and as it is his birthday today, and as this is, I think, my fourth time of asking, will he please give us all a birthday present and tell us when the report will actually be published? (904914)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. What a birthday.

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. I have not yet seen the draft, and I have asked to see it as well as the final report so that, on the basis of what I have seen with my own eyes, I can decide whether or not it is appropriate to change it. I have been told, after raising the issue recently, that its arrival is imminent, and it is extremely important to ensure that it does reach me. My right hon. Friend has a real point here: namely, that I am not in the business of shielding people from their errors; I am interested in learning lessons.

T9. You, Mr Speaker, the Defence Secretary and I all have thousands of constituents who work at BAE Systems in Lancashire. They have been working very hard on Typhoons and F-35s, but for the last couple of years there has been a great deal of excitement and hype about the Tempest programme. I understand that the Tempest is still a concept, in terms of its development, so can the Defence Secretary tell us when the detailed design and production stages are likely to take place? (904917)

My hon. Friend has raised an issue that is important not only to our part of the world but to the whole United Kingdom: the ability to deliver a sovereign capability. I recently went to Japan, where I signed another agreement with my Japanese and Italian counterparts. The global combat air programme, or GCAP—Tempest to us—is incredibly important for jobs in the north-west. It is already moving into the design phase, and we will then start to deal with the question of the political balance—of how much work is shared among the partners. However, there is a strong Government commitment to take this forward. We expect to see test flights before 2030, and we hope that the project will progress strongly for all our sakes.

T8. On 1 March this year more than 22,000 armed forces personnel had been described as being in dental categories 2 or 3, which means that their dental fitness was suboptimal. In addition, constituents of mine who are spouses or dependants of military personnel are struggling to obtain treatment from NHS dentists owing to their frequent house moves. What are my right hon. Friend and the Department doing to ensure that we meet our obligations to service personnel and their families? (904916)

I understand that my hon. Friend recently met the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), to discuss this matter. Defence service personnel have more access to dentistry than would be expected by the general population. When people are awaiting dental care ahead of deployment, their care is prioritised. As for the wider issue relating to dental provision for service families, my hon. Friend has made an important point, and I will ensure that it is conveyed to Ministers in the Department of Health and Social Care. It does, of course, involve armed forces covenant issues.

It was good to hear that the Appledore shipyard in Devon will see the construction of modules for the three support ships for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, as announced last November. It has been reported in the press in the last week that shipyards belonging to our ally, Poland, will construct blocks of hull for the Type 31 frigates, with final assembly to be carried out at Rosyth. What parts of the Type 31 will be built in Poland, and what value will that amount to?

My understanding is that the smallest part—[Interruption.]1% will be built in Poland. That is of course Babcock’s decision, made under the original contract, but overall this will be completed in Rosyth and I have already been up there to visit. I am also delighted that, for example, the contract model we put together for the fleet solid support ship has enabled places such as Appledore to get work. It is important that we keep all our yards busy and that they do not just go from feast to famine.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the ways in which the Ministry of Defence is maximising defence procurement from Wales, particularly from north-east Wales where my constituency is situated? (904918)

Wales plays an integral part in all aspects of the UK’s defence policy, with a number of the MOD’s major suppliers and small and medium-sized enterprises having a presence there. In 2021, for example, the MOD awarded a £110 million contract to the Raytheon UK plant in north Wales, which is providing the RAF with one of the world’s most modern and capable intelligence-gathering assets. We are also working with the Welsh Government and the Defence Electronics and Components Agency to create an advanced technology research centre at MOD Sealand. The centre will develop cutting-edge sovereign capability to support international collaboration, job sustainment and skills retention while meeting our changing defence requirements.

I would like to thank the PCS union and the staff at Defence Business Services for their work on negotiating important wins for disabled and non-mobile staff, who have been offered flexible and hybrid working as a reasonable adjustment. Not forcing staff to move without their agreement, along with the creation of a voluntary release package, is a positive step. Can the Secretary of State commit to ongoing negotiations with PCS and the Liverpool staff to keep their terms under review, to ensure that staff are given the support necessary to keep their jobs under reasonable conditions?

I am glad that the hon. Lady recognises that these have been constructive negotiations. She mentioned the offer of flexible working and, as she knows, there have to date been no compulsory redundancies. I would just stress that, even with the £30 million cost of the new site, there will be a total £40 million saving, so this is good value for taxpayers as well as a good deal for the workforce.

I welcome the new Minister to his place. It was great of him to make his first visit to Carterton recently, where we discussed the upgrading of existing MOD housing and the purchase of new housing. I look forward to discussing that with him further following the Defence sub-Committee report that will be produced shortly. He also saw the large brownfield site known as REEMA North, where MOD housing has been demolished and not yet replaced because the money has not been found to do it. We always talk about prioritising brownfield land. This is a prime site where housing is much needed but the money has not yet been found. Will he work with me to ensure that we not only use this brownfield land but protect West Oxfordshire’s land supply and give the RAF the homes that it needs?

I very much enjoyed my visit to Brize Norton. It was actually my second visit after Abbey Wood. Just to be clear, we remain fully committed to the development of new housing for service personnel at the REEMA site. We are in discussions with industry partners to facilitate this, but given the time that has elapsed, I am happy to continue to engage with my hon. Friend, who I know is a champion of his local service personnel, many of whom serve in the RAF. I am more than happy to stay engaged with him.

In March, 8,000 Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme families were given eviction notices from their hotel accommodation by the Home Office. What assurances can we hear from Defence Ministers that these people will not become homeless?

I can only talk on behalf of the ARAP cohort of people in the hotels. In the beginning of the process, over half went straight into the community and found places with family or friends. On the ones in hotels, the ARAP lodgers are different from those in the general asylum scheme. They can claim benefits, including housing benefit, and they can work immediately when they arrive. It is time that we found a way of getting them out of the hotels and into the community so that they can start working. They have that ability, and that is the way they can integrate into society and get on their own two feet. At the time, it was right that we took a stand that some of those people had been there for a long time. It is time to move out and use the rights that they have, coming here under ARAP.

I have been led to believe that the issue facing HMS Prince of Wales has been an almost incredible complacency on engineering tolerances in the shaft. Is there any financial recourse to the manufacturer in getting the Prince of Wales operational again?

From the initial reports I have read, the misalignment of the shaft is around 0.8 mm or 1 mm—a tiny amount that, of course, can make a huge difference at sea. We are examining the liabilities and who should cough up for that. The good news is that, overall, it has not delayed the Prince of Wales’s work-up. We took advantage of some of the maintenance periods to put in pre-planned maintenance and I think she will be back on track and on time to deliver her capability.

I recently met Elizabeth Wilson, a school pupil who is also a Member of the Hull Youth Parliament and the daughter of armed forces personnel. She is campaigning to establish an armed forces champion in every school to assist pupils with transition and to provide peer-to-peer support. What additional support can the Minister give this young entrepreneur on that project?

I would be very happy to meet that young entrepreneur with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. That excellent idea would plug in perfectly with the local authority forces champions, with their local education remit. That is a really good idea.

I share my condolences with the family of David Brocklehurst. He will be a massive loss to the Abbots Langley veterans association, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said.

May I, through the Front-Bench team, thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs for recently visiting Watford to meet veterans, including the Abbots Langley group, to hear about the fantastic initiatives in Watford, including Luther Blissett OBE’s Forces United initiative?

Our veterans are very important to the fabric of society, and it is important that this country is the best place in the world to be a veteran. This Government have been on the right track in delivering that. Yes, there are some things around the veterans card and services, but the agreement of many parts of Government to support the armed forces covenant is the right direction, and we are going from strength to strength.

In 1969, 74 US personnel perished after the USS Frank E. Evans sank. Two Royal Navy personnel from my constituency were present and they have just been invited to a commemoration, but they are struggling to get there. Can a Minister meet me to look at options to help them get there?

The Minister will know that I have constituents in substandard military accommodation at Sandhurst. When they asked for help under the Pinnacle Service Families contract over Christmas, it did not turn up. Will he use the relative lull of the summer months to plan ahead with the contractors to make sure we do not have another problem at Christmas?

I have already met the contractors and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, and the good news is that maintenance issues that were around at Christmas have been cut by 75%. That is continuing in the right direction, but my hon. Friend is right: the key is to plan ahead for next winter. That is what we are getting on with at the moment. I am determined to hold these contractors to account.

HMS Prince of Wales currently lies in Rosyth for repairs and I hear it has been cannibalised for spare parts. Will this £3 billion asset be back on full operational duties by the end of the year?

Yes, by the autumn. It is perfectly normal for ships to take ship stores from each other. HMS Prince of Wales is not being cannibalised because it is off to be mothballed. The ship will be back in full service in the autumn.