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Topical Questions

Volume 735: debated on Monday 26 June 2023

As part of its summer campaign to reclaim illegally occupied territory, Ukraine has already recaptured approximately 300 sq km. That is more territory than Russia has seized in its whole winter offensive. Ukraine continues to make gradual but steady tactical progress, undertaking major offensive operations on three main axes in the south and eastern Ukraine. In Rohan, Russian forces have made their own significant effort to launch an attack on the Serebrianka forest near Kreminna. Russia has had some small gains, but Ukrainian forces have prevented a breakthrough. In Donetsk oblast, Ukraine has gained impetus in its assaults around Bakhmut. In multiple brigade operations, Ukrainian forces have made progress on both the north and southern flanks of the town. Russia does not appear to have the uncommitted ground forces needed to counter the multiple threats that it is now facing from Ukraine, which extends over 200 km from the Bakhmut to the eastern bank of the Dnieper river.

What discussions are the Government having with other NATO members to ensure that every member of the alliance meets the 2% spending targets?

As the Vilnius summit approaches, it is very important that we recommit, and get other nations to recommit, to the targets and to make sure that 2% is viewed as a floor, not a ceiling. It is regrettable that only seven to eight nations in NATO are reaching that target. Britain is, of course, above the 2%. This is very important, because freedom is not free; we have to pay for it in the end.

The Prime Minister told last week’s Ukraine recovery conference that

“we will maintain our support for Ukraine’s defence and for the counter offensive”.

With the developments in recent days, surely now is the time to accelerate, not just maintain, our military support for Ukraine?

Our support for Ukraine is made up of £2.3 billion, not all of which is committed. We continue to make sure that whatever Ukraine needs, we can try to give it or, if we do not have it, to use our network around the world to access it on their behalf. It is also important to ensure that we all focus on this offensive and give Ukraine what it needs for the offensive. The key test will be getting through all those defensive lines and ensuring that Russia is pushed back and is challenged from going into effectively a frozen conflict, which of course Russia would like. While it is easy for us to say that from the comfort of London, it is important to note that there are Ukrainian men and women going through minefields and horrendous obstacle crossings and facing an army that commits war crimes every single day.

T2. Is the Secretary of State confident that Sweden’s NATO membership application will be approved this year? (905623)

I would say that I am optimistic. In my phone call with my new Turkish counterpart last week, that was one of the first subjects I raised. I have also spoken consistently and on many occasions with Türkiye and its leadership. I am confident that we will get there in the end. Sweden has made significant strides in its counter-terrorism legislation to deal with some of the issues that Türkiye has raised, and I think Türkiye now recognises that as a strong effort.

T3. Can the Minister give us a progress report on the contract for the fleet solid support ships? Given that three of those are equivalent to two aircraft carriers in size, can he confirm where the steel is coming from? (905624)

T5. I was recently invited to visit the Army cadets in Arnold in my constituency, to see the work they are doing and the skills they are learning, from drill instruction to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. I was never a cadet myself, but will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Ben Mickle in Arnold and others across Nottinghamshire on the work they are doing in running cadet services, and will he encourage children and young people to take part? (905626)

I congratulate staff sergeant Mickle and his fellow instructors. Many of us were out and about for National Armed Forces Day on Saturday and saw some of our wonderful cadets. I pay tribute to all those instructors who put in so many hours to make it all possible.

T4. I have been asking the Prime Minister and other Ministers about Government bodies spying on the activities of British citizens, including politicians, activists and journalists. In a statement issued in 2020 the Ministry of Defence said that the British Army’s information warfare unit, the 77th Brigade,“do not, and have never, conducted any kind of action against British citizens.”However, the Secretary of State said on 30 January that the 77th Brigade scours Twitter “to assess UK disinformation”. Can the Minister clarify whether the 77th Brigade conducts any surveillance actions against British citizens, for what purpose, and whether that is really the best use of its time? (905625)

A whole range of agencies, including the 77th Brigade, will study media platforms that deliver social media to our citizens in this country. If that comes from a foreign state trying to manipulate our young people, it is obviously a concern. As a former Security Minister I saw the radicalisation, exploitation and sexual exploitation of people through those platforms, and we should all be grateful that those systems are monitored.

T8. Questions today have highlighted the importance of strong deterrence. Accordingly, people across the UK, including my constituents, will be taking a keen interest in the outcome of the NATO leaders summit in Vilnius in a couple of weeks. Will my right hon. Friend outline what he would consider positive outcomes for UK defence at that summit? (905629)

My right hon. Friend asks an important question about the Vilnius summit, which comes at an important moment for NATO and on the heels of war in Europe and the invasion of Ukraine. The summit will also be an important transition where NATO allies build on the commitments they made at the Madrid summit and go further and faster to bolster Euro-Atlantic security. The UK remains committed to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes. The most powerful deterrent is our commitment to article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, backed up by modern, credible forces, and that continues to hold firm.

T6. With the conclusion of events in Russia on Saturday being that Prigozhin has been relocated to Belarus, and Russian tactical nuclear weapons have also been relocated to Belarus, has the Secretary of State undertaken an assessment of the threat to Belarus, which is on the eastern flank of NATO and across much of the northern border of Ukraine? Will it form part of the discussions at the NATO summit in Vilnius? (905627)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the role of Belarus. First, we should recognise that, so far in this illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Belarus has simply supported through the use of its bases, but has itself committed no forces, and the international community would very clearly warn Belarus that it should not do so and join Russia in the folly it is engaged in. It is, of course, a deep concern when we see Russia trying to use Belarus as a sort of satellite state or, indeed, a place to put its nuclear weapons. We keep that under constant review, and we make sure, in the strongest possible terms, that Belarus is aware of the international concerns about its behaviour.

The war in Ukraine will have given us some insight into Russia’s war tactics. The defence Command Paper will soon be published, and it will look at investment decisions for the British Army and the armed forces in general from the 2030s and beyond. What lessons have been learned from the war in Ukraine? Can the Secretary of State give us some insight into what sort of investment will be undertaken?

The defence Command Paper will be published before recess—I hope that it will be published sooner rather than later; it is currently in the write-round process with the rest of Government—and we will make sure that we recognise what has happened in Ukraine. One of the biggest lessons of Ukraine is that, whatever army we commit, we must make sure that it is protected 360° with air defence, electronic warfare, signals intelligence and the ability to reach at range.

T7. In terms of aircraft carriers, it seems that the Prince of Wales is the spare. Why are Ministers struggling to manage the repairs of that vital NATO flagship? (905628)

That is an amusing way of putting the question but it is a serious point. Our plans have not been affected in operational terms because it was always planned that the Prince of Wales would return to flight trials this autumn, and that remains on schedule.

Forty years ago, Sir Galahad was struck during the Falklands crisis, and many Welsh Guardsmen lost their lives and burned to death. I have just attended a meeting of the widows and children, and some of the veterans, who have been desperate to get to the bottom of exactly why that happened but have been blocked through “no releases”. I beg my right hon. Friend to allow colleagues from across the House to come and see him about the release of that information.

My right hon. Friend might like to know that former colleagues of mine from the Household Division—from the Welsh Guards and others—have also been in contact with me. I have asked to see the papers that have not been released. I am not sure what powers I have to overrule decisions that were made earlier, but I think that that is important for closure and for relatives to get to the bottom of their questions.

T9. ACVC Hub, Community Veterans Support and Helping Heroes are three wonderful charities helping veterans in Glasgow South West. Veterans’ mental health is still an emerging field, so will Ministers consider providing a costed research and development plan to find innovative approaches to that vital research? (905630)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the range of mental health support services that are open to our veterans, particularly Op Courage and, he will be interested to note, Op Fortitude. Of course, there is always more we can do, particularly for those who have suffered as a result of their service, but I think it important to say that, in general, service in our armed forces is a positive for mental health, not a negative.

I accept that we will hear a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office statement in due course, but given the events over the weekend, what assessment has the MOD made of Ukraine’s ability to win in Ukraine?

The United Kingdom has always been confident that, given the right international support, leadership and investment, Ukraine can defend its nation and see off this aggressive, illegal Russian invasion.

The armed forces continuous attitude survey results have just been published. They show that less than a third of personnel believe that their basic pay is adequate, and nearly a quarter are looking to leave the forces. Will the Secretary of State admit that it is high time that he increased basic pay across the public service, but especially for those in uniform?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body has reported, and that will be released shortly. Pay is part of a wider remuneration package, which includes an excellent non-contributory pension, subsidised accommodation, wraparound childcare, incremental pay, and a range of allowances. The non-financial aspects of the offer are also highly valued. What is not highly valued, frankly, are the tax increases that the SNP introduced in February, which make servicemen in Scotland much worse off than those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Royal Marines Charity, based in East Devon, helps to provide support to former servicemen and women in Devon, who we celebrated on Saturday as part of Armed Forces Day. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the welfare provision for veterans in Devon?

I am sorry that I was not in Devon on Saturday; I was next door in Cornwall, commemorating our armed forces, as my hon. Friend was.

There is a range of welfare support services in Devon. My hon. Friend will be aware of the regional welfare support operation there, which has expert welfare officers who can look after the needs of our wonderful veterans. Of course we can always do more, but I would cite, as I just have, Op Courage and, now, Op Fortitude, which I think will be of great assistance.

While we wait for the upcoming pay review, may I ask what assessment the Minister’s Department has made of relative poverty rates among our service personnel and, while they await a significant pay rise, what work it is doing with the Department for Work and Pensions to signpost colleagues to the benefits that they are eligible for?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in addition to pay, things such as wraparound childcare and subsidised healthcare and dental care are available to members of our armed forces, as well as subsidised accommodation, the freezing of food charges and help with council tax—things that we have done in these difficult times to take the edge off the cost of living crisis. I hope he will welcome that.

Nowhere does events as well as my Southport constituency. This weekend’s Armed Forces Day was truly testament to that fact, so would my right hon. Friend welcome and support an application from Southport to host the national Armed Forces Day in 2025?

May I place on record our gratitude to Cornwall Council and Falmouth, and all the organisers of the national Armed Forces Day this year—the town laid on an extraordinary event, which was a great tribute to the men and women of the armed forces—as well as all the other local authorities that laid on events up and down the country? Of course I would welcome a bid from Southport; I will also welcome bids from all over the country, and I look forward to this becoming a growing competition to recognise the men and women of our armed forces.

On 24 October 2021, the former Defence Minister, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), wrote to my predecessor and confirmed that a badly injured veteran in my constituency would receive adaptations to his home. Delays ensued, and last week I had a meeting with someone from the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, in which he declined to turn his camera on and said that the work had not been signed off by a person with the right authority. Will the Minister confirm whether the former Minister had the authority, and will he honour that commitment?

The hon. Lady is more than welcome to write to me with the details, and I will look into this as soon as possible.

As we have already heard, we were lucky enough to welcome the national armed forces family to Falmouth on Saturday for the national Armed Forces Day. From cadets to veterans, and those involved in their air display and all the national armed forces personnel, will the Secretary of State join me in thanking everybody for their efforts, and does he agree that this was the best Armed Forces Day we have ever experienced?

My hon. Friend is certainly the best MP for Falmouth. She has been very good at lobbying and making the case for Falmouth, which put on an excellent event, although I am not going to risk insulting all the previous locations, which all did a fantastic job as well.

With the MOD estate an outlier in allowing trail hunting on its land, and with the memorandum of understanding to allow hunt monitoring access having been torn up—something determined personally by the Defence Secretary—will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his delayed statutory response in terminating the MOU will be answered, and will he instruct an independent review of hunting on the MOD estate and the activities of the Royal Artillery Hunt? Or has he something to hide?

Nothing to hide. To hunt on my Department’s land, an organisation must have a recognised governing body. All persons participating in a hunt must be members of such an organisation, and that organisation must also hold an MOD-issued licence, the terms of which clearly state that only trail hunting carried out in accordance with the provisions of the Hunting Act 2004 are permitted. I withdrew the MOU—which had never been announced to Parliament under the hon. Lady’s party’s previous Government—because the only people who should be masked and camouflaged on MOD land are soldiers in training, not hunt saboteurs.