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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 735: debated on Monday 26 June 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces: Cost of Living

1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of increases in the cost of living on the armed forces' (a) morale and (b) recruitment. (905596)

We have introduced a range of measures to support personnel and mitigate the cost of living, including capping subsidised accommodation charges, freezing food charges, increasing travel allowances, rebating contributions in lieu of council tax and introducing wraparound childcare, saving £3,000 per child a year. Additionally, over the past five years, the armed forces have received a cumulative pay award of 11%, with 2022 being the biggest percentage uplift in 20 years.

According to the House of Commons Library, this Westminster Government plan to spend £3 billion on renewing nuclear weapons for this financial year 2023-24. The UK Government are making a political choice on weapons of mass destruction. When we have seen reports of service people and their families using food banks, does the Minister think that is a wise use of public funds?

I have to differ with the hon. Lady. I fully support the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. It has kept us safe all these years, and so long as we have a Conservative Government, there will be a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. It is a pity that her party cannot line up behind the men and women of our armed forces, who are committed to that deterrent.

Veterans Support

We will shortly be publishing the quinquennial review into the armed forces compensation scheme and the independent review of Government provision of welfare services for veterans. Between them, they will ensure that the scheme remains fit for purpose and that we identify areas for improvement and better align support services. Crucially, we will continue to press ahead with the £40 million digital transformation of paper-based processes.

At the last Defence orals, I stated that claims to the Veterans UK compensation scheme have dropped and rejections have risen compared with a decade ago. The Minister for Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey) said that the Department’s digital programme would address that. Is the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families concerned about the structural issues with the scheme? I say that because even the independent reviewer has said that the scheme’s process is

“overly burdensome and even distressing for the claimant due to unreasonable timeframes and a lack of transparency.”

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked that question, because two reviews are under way: the quinquennial review and the review being launched jointly by the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. I suspect strongly that those reviews will bring forward recommendations to improve processes, but all institutions have to change with time, and this is no different. I am pleased to note that fewer claims are now going to appeal or tribunal, and that is our measure of success. I pay tribute to those who administer such things; they work very hard.

Over the past year, the number of veterans claiming universal credit has increased by 50%. How does the Minister plan to help veterans in receipt of universal credit to acquire the skills they need to access well-paid employment?

Universal credit is an in-work benefit that will affect a small number of service people. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have done everything we can to mitigate cost of living rises. I said in response to the previous question that we have a freeze on accommodation costs, a freeze on food and a contribution to offset increases in council tax. All those things are helping our service personnel at this difficult time. We will continue to do what we can to mitigate those cost of living increases.

One group of veterans to whom a gross injustice was done many years ago is the LGBT community, who until 2001 were court-martialled, shamed and dismissed. That shame is still with them today and has not yet been corrected. The Government perfectly properly commissioned a report by Lord Etherton to look into the whole matter, and I understand it was provided last week. Will the Government undertake to produce that report and make an oral statement to this House to discuss it? Above all, will they give the apology it calls for and accept the need for financial compensation that those veterans deserve?

I suspect I will be asked the same question on Saturday, when I attend London Pride. The Etherton report has been delivered. It is pretty magisterial, as we would expect from Terence Etherton, with a number of recommendations that we are working through. When we respond, it will be a proper response, and I hope it will satisfy my hon. Friend.

The Minister will be pressed again for his response—he will not have to wait until Saturday—because until 2000 it was illegal to be gay in the UK armed forces. The loss of livelihoods and long-term suffering endured by LGBT+ veterans as a result of that cruel and unjust policy has been immense. I am pleased that there is such cross-party agreement about the publication of the report being so important to those who have experienced such injustice, but 18 months on there is still no report and no Government apology. Will the Minister confirm specifically when the report will be published in full, with all testimony, and when we can expect an apology from the Prime Minister for this historic injustice?

It was this Government who set up the review. This situation was going on from 1967 to 2000, and it was an appalling stain on all of us, so I am really pleased that, at long last, the Government have gripped it. I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to be a little bit more patient, but I suspect that we will publish the report and a response very soon indeed.

Size of Armed Forces

The Government have injected more than £29 billion of additional funding into defence since 2020, investing in Army modernisation, major platforms such as Type 26, Type 31, Challenger 3 and F-35, and restocking of ammunition to ensure that we reversed the hollowing out of our armed forces that has occurred under successive Governments for the past 30 years.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but only recently the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe said that Britain is “just holding on” to its status as one of NATO’s leading members and that our Army is “too small”. A former Chief of the Defence Staff said that all of our armed forces are too small, with the Army having “significant capability deficiencies”. The Government are failing our forces, are they not?

It is interesting, because of course it was Labour that cut 19 battalions from the Army when I was serving under the hon. Member’s Government. What is important is not just that the Army is the right size but that it is an Army that is properly equipped and able to do its job. Having just numbers and non-equipment leads to the place where we had Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan under her Government.

I endorse the words of my Defence Committee colleague, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck). The Secretary of State himself has used the words

“the hollowing out of our Armed Forces”.

Today, the Head of the Army said at the Royal United Services Institute’s land warfare conference that our world is heading back into the 1930s with growing threats. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Treasury’s argument for increasing Defence spending to 2.5% of GDP when the economics improve is not only naive but illogical, because our economy and our national security are one and the same thing? We need to invest in our Army, Air Force and Navy now, not when Britain’s economy improves.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about levels of Defence spending. First, spend on the Army is 20% higher since I started as Defence Secretary, and I have made sure that a greater proportion of that spend is on catching up and modernising the armed forces, which had been neglected all the way back to Afghanistan and Iraq, where we were spending money on urgent operational requirements rather than the core budget to modernise that equipment.

On my right hon. Friend’s point about the Treasury, it has accepted—the Chancellor did so at the Dispatch Box—that Defence will require a greater share of public spending. Part of the big challenge is recognition across Government and in Whitehall that the culture has changed, with Defence requiring a greater proportion of spend if it is to defend these shores and indeed our people. That is how it used to be. I am confident that the Prime Minister’s support for 2.5% and the Chancellor’s position puts us on the right path, and of course that could not be needed quicker.

In January, the Defence Secretary admitted that his Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” our armed forces and, in the past week, a string of senior military figures have agreed. NATO’s second-in-command said that the British Army is “too small”, a former Chief of the Defence Staff said

“The Army is now too weak”,

and another ex-CDS said:

“The hollowing out of warfighting resilience within the Armed Forces has been the single most obvious shortfall…since 2010”.

Will the Defence Secretary halt this hollowing out in his new Defence Command Paper? Will it be published this month, as he has promised?

Time and again the right hon. Gentleman comes to this House knowing full well that my statements on hollowing out are not about this Government but about successive Governments for the past 30 years. Mr Speaker, I ask you to look at that statement, because it verges on misleading the House. The right hon. Gentleman knows that is a fact; I have consistently pointed out that that is not the case, but he continues to use it in this House.

We have started to reverse through an increase of £29 billion in the core funding of the armed forces. Whatever I have done with that new money, I have made sure that it is there to properly equip and support all the people of the armed forces. There is no point playing a numbers game when men and women could be sent to the frontline without the right equipment. All we see from the Opposition is a numbers game with no money attached.

I have the Secretary of State’s exact words here. After inviting me to get Labour’s shortcomings off my chest, he said:

“I am happy to say that we have hollowed out and underfunded.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2023; Vol. 727, c. 18.]

He boasts about being the longest serving Tory Defence Secretary, but in four years he has failed to halt that hollowing out; he has failed to fix the broken procurement system; he has failed to win fresh funding this year, even to cover inflation; and he has failed to stop service morale reaching record lows. Does he not find it a national embarrassment for Britain to go to next month’s NATO summit as one of only five NATO nations that has not rebooted defence plans since President Putin invaded Ukraine?

On that quote, I asked if he would admit that Labour had hollowed out during its term of office. How convenient it is to forget that the whole point is that, in the 30 years following the cold war, successive Governments pushed defence to the side and not to the centre. He talks about my defence record; let us look at defence procurement, since he is fond of coming to the Dispatch Box about that. In 2009 under Labour, 15% of armed forces projects were over cost and the average delay was 28%. Now, 4% are over cost and 15% of each project is delayed. We cut the bureaucracy in Defence Equipment and Support from over 27,000 to 11,400. That is value for money. At the same time, we have a real increase in the defence budget and we have injected £29 billion of additional funding.

Nuclear Test Medals

The hon. Lady will welcome the commemorative nuclear test medal announced by the Prime Minister in November last year to recognise service veterans and civilian personnel who participated in the UK’s atmospheric nuclear test programme between 1952 and 1967. The first nuclear test medals are expected to be available this autumn—I hope in time for Remembrance Sunday.

A nuclear testing veteran has said:

“We have heard it all before, governments come and go, but the Nuclear Veterans keep fighting, that’s exactly what we did for our country all them years ago, so please, no more false promises just action…award us our medal”.

He speaks for the thousands who were promised medallic recognition by the Prime Minister on 22 November last year. Sadly, they are now informed that the medal has been delayed again by the Government. What is the delay? Why is it happening? Will the Minister categorically promise the House today that those veterans, whose average age is now 85, will finally be awarded their medals before Remembrance Sunday so that they and their descendants can proudly wear them?

Once again I remind the hon. Lady that it is this Government who got on and made the announcement on 22 November last year. I very much hope that by 22 November the veterans will get their medals. It is my sincere hope that by Remembrance Sunday they will be able to wear proudly what is due to them.

Ukraine: Military Support

The UK continues to be recognised as a leading nation providing military support to Ukraine, training more than 17,000 recruits and providing £2.3 billion-worth of support last year and this year. We have sent hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition, thousands of missiles and hundreds of armoured vehicles. We have led the world on gifting vital capabilities such as multiple launch rocket systems, Challenger 2 and Storm Shadow missiles.

As well as contributing through the international fund for Ukraine and the Ukraine defence contact group, I really welcome that the UK has contributed an additional £60 million to NATO’s comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine, which focuses on capacity building in key areas such as cyber and logistics. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of whether Ukraine is receiving the right kind of assistance from NATO to support its longer-term ambitions for NATO membership?

NATO’s comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine is providing urgent non-lethal assistance to enable the defence of Ukraine. The CAP also focuses on meeting Ukraine’s longer-term needs, including reconstruction and transition to NATO standards, which are essential for countries wishing to join the alliance. Since February 2022, the UK has contributed £82 million to the CAP.

In the past few days there have been deeply alarming reports in our press that Russian forces may have placed highly destructive mines at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the risk of a major nuclear incident?

My right hon. Friend asks a very important question about the risk posed by Russian activity not only within its own borders, but in Ukraine and at the nuclear power station of Zaporizhzhia. Sadly, Russia has shown no restraint in using munitions against civilian structures, critical national infrastructure, hospitals, surgeries and so on, which add to the long list of war crimes that it has clearly been engaged in. We monitor it very closely. We work with the international community to ensure that everything that can be done is done to protect the nuclear power station, and to remind Russia, not only through us but through third countries, of its obligations to protect the civilian population.

I fully support the provision of all the munitions that we have been able to give to Ukraine. I hope we will be able to continue to do that for the foreseeable future, and certainly until Putin loses. It seems that quite often different allies of Ukraine are giving different kinds of bits and pieces of armament and munitions, and that that does not necessarily add up to more than the sum of its parts. Would it not be better if we now looked to the future by commissioning jointly, so that we get more matériel at cost directly through to Ukraine?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. To better co-ordinate the gifting, at the beginning we set up the International Donor Co-ordination Centre, with about 80 British personnel in the lead, alongside the United States, to ensure that what Ukraine is asking for is what it gets and that it is co-ordinated across the international community, because we all have different armouries. In recognition of his very important point about how we develop and encourage a sustainable supply chain to Ukraine, Britain alongside Denmark set up the international fund for Ukraine. We committed £250 million last year and another £250 million this year, and it is topping up towards €1 billion-plus of funding. One specific task is to commission effectively from supply chains and manufacturing plants, so that there is a long-term solution to the need and munition is rolling off production lines. We all have finite stocks, which is why we will use the cash in the fund to start commissioning, which we have already done.

The Liberal Democrats support the Secretary of State on the supply of arms and equipment to Ukraine for its sovereign defence. Has he assessed what effect the Storm Shadow missile has had on operations? Will he tell us whether other allies, such as the United States, also intend to provide long-range precision guided missiles?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My understanding is that the Storm Shadow missile has had a significant impact on the battlefield. Its accuracy and ability to deliver successfully the payload, as sent and designed by the Ukrainians, has been almost without fault. That is an extraordinary achievement in terms of both the engineering that went into it, and the Ukrainians deploying it and using it as it needs to. It has had an effect on the Russian army, mainly around its logistics and command and control. That shows the importance of deep fires. We absolutely urge other international partners to come forward with their deep fires that are required. When HIMARS was put in on the M270s, which have a range of 80 km, that had a similar effect and the Russians moved many of its C2 nodes out of range, which is why deep fires became important. The key is to recognise that if the Russians move out of range, we must work together internationally to provide the equipment to ensure they are back in range.

Armed Forces: Skills

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces have the skills required for the future. (905601)

13. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces have the skills required for the future. (905608)

Last week, the Ministry of Defence published the Haythornthwaite review of armed forces incentivisation. Rick Haythornthwaite and his team have done an absolutely brilliant job. The MOD is now working out how to implement the recommendations, but I think it true to say that Haythornthwaite addresses our pressing need to build a firm foundation for an increasingly skills-based future in which the MOD will have to compete extremely hard if it is to continue to recruit and retain the very best.

In February of last year, we were informed that the Ministry of Defence was

“actively considering recruiting people with neurodiversity”.

That will have given hope to many, including a constituent of mine who does not believe that his autism diagnosis should be a barrier to service. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what the status is of those considerations, and will the MOD consider running a pilot scheme so that neurodiverse individuals can be encouraged to give their skills to the armed forces?

We are very proud of the wide-ranging make-up of our armed forces, which includes many neurodiverse people. The Haythornthwaite review recognises that tomorrow’s defence will be very different from today’s, and that its people will be as well. I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s perceptive question, and anticipate that the skills and attributes that we will need in the future will mean our casting the net much more widely than before.

In North Devon, our two military bases, Chivenor and Arromanches, have units specialising in logistics, engineering and unmanned marine technologies. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage more budding young engineers to fulfil their technical education and work prospects in our armed forces?

The Ministry of Defence is deeply committed to supporting future engineers both inside and outside the armed forces, and is one of the largest deliverers of UK apprenticeships: we have 22,000 personnel on 100 different apprenticeships at any one time. Furthermore, the Haythornthwaite review and the pan-defence skills framework will take the skilling of our defence people to the next level.

I thank the Minister for his response. Northern Ireland is one of the leading regions of the United Kingdom that are pushing cyber-security very hard. Has the Minister given any consideration to ensuring that companies that are involved in cyber-security, of which there are many not only in Northern Ireland but in the south-east of England, could work in partnership with the MOD to ensure that the skills to be found in private companies can be used in the Army?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I think that in future we will see much more zig-zagging between the armed forces and the industry and back again, and, indeed, Haythornthwaite touches on the subject of so-called zig-zag careers. I expect to see a much closer working relationship between the armed forces and industry in the future: we are all in it together.

On Armed Forces Day last week, as a nation we thanked our armed forces for their service, and as a nation we rightly invest in the skills of those who serve, but year after year we are seeing more people with essential skills leaving the forces. Satisfaction with service life has plummeted from a recorded high of 61% under Labour in 2009 to 42% today, and among junior ranks it is even lower, at 39%. What is the Minister’s plan to restore morale in order to help to retain the skills that we need in our armed forces, and does he expect armed forces morale to be higher or lower than it is today by the time of the next general election?

It was a great pleasure to see the hon. Gentleman in Falmouth for Armed Forces Day at the weekend.

The armed forces continuous attitude survey was established in 2007 by the last Labour Government. It is interesting to look back at what the figures were then. There was no Labour nirvana. We find from the 2007 figures that the percentage saying that morale is high or higher is about the same now as in 2007. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may chunter, but these are the facts. The percentage feeling valued has risen significantly, as has the percentage who would recommend their career to a friend. It is hardly surprising that satisfaction with kit, for example, is much better now than it was then. We remember 2007 and the Snatch Land Rovers—coffins on wheels—and we remember, do we not, the appalling kit with which the then Labour Government provided our armed forces in Iraq and then Afghanistan. I think that Labour’s record is nothing to be proud of.


I regularly engage with NATO allies, including most recently at the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting on 15 and 16 June, at which we demonstrated our continued solidarity with Ukraine and preparations for the upcoming Vilnius leaders’ summit. We lobbied hard and successfully for Finnish NATO membership, resulting in Finland’s historic accession, and we hope to achieve the same for Sweden before long.

I welcome the announcement at the NATO Defence Ministers’ conference that NATO has agreed a new UK-based maritime centre to support the security of undersea infrastructure. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this new centre is part of a long-term plan for the alliance to secure better critical undersea infrastructure? Can he provide any further details on the role of this new unit?

I am delighted that NATO will host its new Maritime Centre for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure in the UK. The centre is part of NATO’s long-term plan to better secure our undersea infrastructure. Bringing together allies and industry, the centre will result in greater situational awareness and sharing of intelligence, expertise and innovation. It will also complement the latest Royal Navy ship, RFA Proteus, whose job is to go out and monitor critical supply lines and cyber cables.

NATO was created to protect democracy and safeguard the values that underpin it. A year ago, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly passed a resolution, under the presidency of Congressman Gerry Connolly, to create a democracy resilience centre within NATO. I understand that this has been agreed by all nations bar one. I wonder whether at the upcoming summit the Secretary of State can put some effort behind persuading that one member to agree to this initiative.

I think it is best if I write to the right hon. Member about the details of that. I will look at it and am happy to discuss with him what he thinks needs to progress. We will get to the bottom of it.

War Widow Pensions

9. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of his Department’s implementation of the lump-sum payments for war widows who previously lost their pensions after remarrying or cohabiting with another partner. (905604)

I was delighted to announce the war widows ex gratia payment scheme last month. A specialist team is being stood up to deal with applications and assist and advise widows when the process opens. This will ensure that people are treated with the care they deserve and that their individual needs are met. The scheme will start as soon as possible, and in any event by this autumn, and will be open for two years. It will not erase their loss, but I hope that this payment will offer some comfort to those affected. I again pay tribute to the staunch, dignified campaigning of the War Widows Association, which has brought us to this point; I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has been absolutely four-square behind the campaign.

In return, I would like to thank Ministers for persevering with the matter in the face of many obstacles erected by the Treasury. There is just one last hurdle to surmount: the question of taxation of the ex gratia payment. As war widows’ pensions are a recognition of sacrifice and not a benefit, they are not taxed. If this ex gratia payment is taxed, some war widows will get only slightly more than half the lump sum concerned. Will my right hon. Friend use his very best endeavours to avoid that unintended and unfortunate result of an otherwise successful initiative?

I fully understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making. He will know that the payment was uplifted to take tax into account. I appreciate that it may not be taking care of all tax in many, if not most, circumstances. What I will say to him, without setting any hares running, is that I am having a conversation with colleagues, but I emphasise that it is around how we deal with tax on this payment. I cannot really give him any more comfort than that.

Innovative Defence Technology

The Ministry of Defence works closely with UK industry and academia, including small and medium-sized enterprises, to identify and invest in innovative technologies that address our most pressing capability challenges, as well as publishing our future priorities to incentivise investment. We are transforming processes to drive this at pace, and we are already testing and deploying these technologies.

The integrated review said that artificial intelligence would be used to strengthen defence capabilities. So in what ways are the armed forces using AI and does the Minister agree that weapon systems should always be subject to direct human control and never be allowed to operate autonomously?

My right hon. Friend asks an excellent question and I know there is huge public interest in AI. I make it clear that last year’s defence AI strategy set out our intent to develop and use artificial intelligence ambitiously, safely and responsibly. We do not rule out incorporating AI within weapon systems, but we are clear that there must be context-appropriate human involvement in weapons that identify, select and attack targets. The UK does not possess fully autonomous weapon systems and has no intention of developing them. Finally, any weapon system used by UK military would be governed by the MOD’s robust framework of legal, safety and regulatory compliance regimes, irrespective of the technology involved.

Morpheus is a £3 billion next-generation defence communication programme. It is meant to replace the Bowman kit on Ajax vehicles and was originally set for introduction in 2025, but Ministers have recently said that a revised initial operating capability is “to be determined.” When can we please have a statement on the state of play and the delivery of Morpheus?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question on an important programme. We are still committed to Morpheus, but there is a limit to what I can say at the moment because we are having contractual discussions with the supplier. I hope I can say more in due course. On Ajax, I make it absolutely clear that the intention is to upgrade the Bowman operating system within Ajax as the next step.

Defence Procurement

16. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the defence procurement system. (905611)

We are driving the delivery of capability to the frontline. Over a two-year period to December 2022, we have seen a one-year reduction in the average programme duration, but we can do more to improve and are committed to learning the lessons of the Sheldon review.

On 13 March, the Defence Secretary told me that UK steel was not specified in defence procurement because

“we do not manufacture the type of steel”—[Official Report, 13 March 2023; Vol. 729, c. 529]

required. But according to UK steel producers, this is not true as they adjust production lines to match the needs of each contract. Now he knows our steel producers can deliver, will he do what all other major countries do, for reasons of national security, and guarantee to use domestically produced steel in defence procurement?

I do not accept that. I am happy to write to the hon. Member with the details. Our position is that, obviously, we want to use UK steel and we recognise its quality, but there will be cases where the appropriate steel has to be sourced from elsewhere. Ultimately, we have to deliver the equipment required for our capability.

It is probably a bit of a shame but, after missing out on the job of Secretary-General of NATO, the Secretary of State seems to have reverted to “no more Mr Nice Guy” mode today, although it may improve as the day goes on.

I ask the Minister, in an amicable way, why, when every major military-industrial power is relentlessly focused on building domestic industrial capacity following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he is stubbornly refusing to do the same. His previous answer on steel shows again that the mindset has not changed. Why will he not back British industry and British military resilience?

I am happy to be Mr Nice Guy when it comes to British industry. A central tenet of the defence and security industrial strategy is that industrial capacity is part of our defence capability. I am absolutely clear about that. Of course we want to have a strong domestic industry. There are occasions when acquisition has to be undertaken at pace and, as we have seen in getting equipment out to Ukraine, we have had to be flexible in how we source that equipment. But we are absolutely committed to a strong industrial base for defence, both at SME level and with our primes.

Will my hon. Friend look at how the MOD can support the UK’s domestic supply chain by requiring prime contractors to adhere to a 30-day payment code for all defence suppliers, regardless of where they sit in the supply chain?

My hon. Friend is a champion of SMEs and makes an excellent point about prompt payment. I can assure him that the MOD has a standard contract term that requires primes to pay suppliers within 30 days. I am informed this is called DEFCON 534. Obviously, it is not to be confused with other uses of the word “DEFCON”, but it is a very important point. Like him, I want to see our SMEs supported.

When I asked the Minister for Defence Procurement to give a statement on the Sheldon review two weeks ago, he recognised the importance of workers to the defence industry. We have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) about the problems of Morpheus, which I understand is now rated red by the MOD; the problems we had on Ajax are emerging on Morpheus. One of the issues that came out of the Sheldon review was that the company was not listening to the voices of workers on the shop floor. What guarantee is the Minister putting in place to ensure workers have a system for reporting back, so that, when things go wrong, as with Ajax or, potentially, Morpheus, they are reported, listened to and acted upon?

As I said in the statement, I recognise the unique angle the hon. Gentleman has on this issue, because the factory in question is in his constituency. I stress that the employment of those employees is the legal responsibility of the company. We engage closely with them. One of the lessons learned is about that close engagement at SRO level through Defence Equipment and Support. Andy Start, CEO of DE&S, has led huge change in improving the way we work together. I suspect we will continue to build on the significant improvement the Secretary of State just highlighted, in terms of both cost and timing, between when the Opposition was last in power and now.

The previous Minister for Defence Procurement impressed many by hitting the ground running. He developed a forensic grip on the manifold issues within this dysfunctional area of defence and he worked up a plan to try to deal with that. Sadly, he moved on before he could implement that plan, so can I ask this latest Minister for Defence Procurement, does he have a plan? What will be the first evidence of that plan that our weary service personnel and taxpayers might see?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his praise for my brilliant colleague, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is now Secretary of State for Justice and the Lord Chancellor, no less. Absolutely, we have a plan, and that plan must take into account the lessons from the Sheldon review. In taking on this job, I recognise that there has been huge focus on Ajax, but I hope the fact that Ajax is now with the Household Cavalry for regular field training is a symbolic moment that shows we are turning the corner. We are going to engage right across defence to develop a better procurement system, and I want to ensure that delivers better outcomes. As I said at the Defence Committee, that is why we have tasked the permanent secretary to undertake an end-to-end review of the whole defence operating model.

That response could be loosely regarded as a stab at the previous question, but it was certainly not an attempt to answer my question. Let me try to probe a little further and give the Minister some examples that he may wish to bombast us with about the progress he is making. How has he challenged the pedestrian progress towards the next phase of the new medium-lift helicopter tender? What is the delay with the Type 32 or Type 31 successor announcements? Why does his element of defence not procure ground-based anti-aircraft missile systems to protect these islands in a more responsible way?

The hon. Gentleman has ranged a long way, from air to ground. The key element is to strengthen our speed and agility, whatever the platform in question. Some of the platforms he refers to are at a conceptual phase. I am committed to driving pace because, although times are improving overall, ultimately we do not want to have the delays we have had in some notable programmes. We need pace because that is how we maintain our competitive edge against our international adversaries.

Service Accommodation

The Ministry of Defence fully recognises the importance of safe, good-quality and well-maintained homes. In the last seven years, the MOD has invested more than £936 million in service family accommodation. That includes £185 million last year on modernising homes, tackling damp and mould and improving thermal efficiency. Currently, 97% of MOD SFA meet or exceed the Government’s decent homes standard. Only those properties are allocated to service families. We strive to do better but, for context, the figure for social housing is 91%.

When he has been around various sites, I am sure the Minister will have noticed the substandard quality of accommodation, and indeed squalor in certain cases. He will also know that some 800 armed forces families are living in potentially unsafe homes that have not yet had gas safety checks. Will he confirm what action he and his Government are taking to make those homes safe?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On gas and electric safety, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement was made aware of the issue on 2 May and he worked exceptionally quickly to remedy it. Currently, there are some 555 gas safety certificates outstanding. That number is plummeting dramatically, and almost all of them will be cleared by the end of June, which is a measure of some success.

If a private or a professional landlord did not properly complete these safety checks, they would be sued. It is completely unacceptable that we put armed forces personnel and their loved ones at risk for months because the Future Defence Infrastructure Services contract that is meant to do that is completely broken. If the head of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, who is meant to oversee this, is completely out of his depth, which some of us believe he is, after this, should he not consider his position?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments. The important thing is that when my hon. Friend the Minister of State got to know about this, he acted immediately to put the matter right. I am not really interested in getting people’s scalps; I am interested in putting the matter right, and that is exactly what is happening.

EU Permanent Structured Cooperation

The UK applied to join the permanent structured co-operation military mobility project to help shape EU military transport procedures and infrastructure, addressing impediments to moving military personnel and assets across Europe at pace.

We are negotiating the technical terms of our participation in the form of an administrative arrangement and have reached agreement on the majority of the text.

Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, has given evidence to House Committees on this issue and he questioned why we were joining this and who had authorised it. He also stated that membership of these European Union defence structures are not an à la carte menu where the UK can choose what it wants and reject what it does not. It is very much a take it or leave it, all or nothing, situation. Does the Minister agree with Sir Richard’s assessment?

Conspiracy is not as rife as the hon. Gentleman seems to think. We can indeed choose which parts of the permanent structured co-operation we wish to be in, and the mobility projects, which co-ordinate the development of infrastructure for the movements of NATO weapons and platforms across Europe, seem to be a pretty good thing on which the UK should seek to co-operate with the EU.

As my right hon. Friend has mentioned, the UK at the moment is considering acceding only to the military mobility element of PESCO. There are, however, more than 60 separate elements. Can my right hon. Friend indicate whether the Government are considering joining any of those other elements?

We will consider those elements on a case-by-case basis. Where there is merit and where it is in the UK interests to work with the European Union to the advantage of NATO and our own national interest, we will, of course, do so. However, we will do so not blindly out of habit, but only where it is in our interests.

Topical Questions

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.