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Topical Questions

Volume 737: debated on Monday 11 September 2023

I was privileged to attend the Invictus games this weekend in Düsseldorf. It was truly humbling to meet inspiring individuals who have triumphed in adversity. I took the opportunity to discuss with my Ukrainian counterpart the care and rehabilitation of veterans and the UK’s unwavering support for her country.

There are more than 265,000 former members of the armed forces in the south-west, many of whom reside in my constituency of East Devon. We must ensure that every veteran can access the services they need when they leave the service. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made towards delivering ID cards to all veterans by Remembrance Day this year?

My hon. Friend will be aware that phase 1 of this project is already completed, which is to say that as people leave the armed forces, they are issued with their veterans cards. Those who left before December 2018 should get their cards by the end of this year. A veteran does not require a card to prove their status; there are several ways to verify service, and the lack of a card should not act as a barrier to accessing support, but I recognise the importance of this card for many, in particular as a form of proving their identity and accessing services.

As Ministers know, UK unity on Ukraine stays strong and the Government will continue to have Labour’s fullest support on military aid. Ukrainians are now urgently asking for more to help their current counter-offensive to succeed, and since January, the Prime Minister has repeatedly pledged to accelerate Ukraine’s support. When will this happen?

The right hon. Gentleman will know full well that the United Kingdom is probably the lead nation on many fronts among our European peers— financially, in terms of kit and in supporting the people who are conducting the fight against Putin’s aggression. We will continue to do that, and at the weekend in Düsseldorf, I reiterated that to my Ukrainian counterpart. I do not think anybody could be in any doubt that the United Kingdom is leading Europe on this front, and we will continue to do so.

But I fear UK leadership on Ukraine is flagging. The UK Government have committed £4.6 billion, yet Germany has now committed €17 billion. The UK’s 14 tanks have now been dwarfed by 324 from Poland, and last week’s decision to proscribe Wagner as a terrorist group was taken by the European Union 10 months ago. Will the Minister accept that we must accelerate UK military support and redouble the UK’s defence diplomacy to maintain western unity and solidarity?

The UK Government prefer action rather than words, and I point to the 20,000 Ukrainians we are training, to Storm Shadow and to the fact that kit is going out the door right now and being used on the ground. Rhetoric is one thing; action is another. In that way, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has to admit that the UK is continuing to lead Europe. We will certainly do so going forward, and there can be no doubt that Ukrainians themselves appreciate the strength and rigour of UK—

Order. This is topicals; I decide how quick they will be. I do not need any help from those on the Front Bench. Can we please make sure we get Back Benchers in? If not, tell me which one you do not want to allow in.

T4. Continuity of education allowance is an important recruitment and retention facility for the armed forces, but it has not kept up with inflation in recent years. Can the Minister commit to ensuring that CEA levels are not eroded in the future? (906322)

CEA is an important way of making sure that the education of service children is not disrupted. To that end, I have asked for a review of CEA to make sure it is fit for purpose, and I will have the results of that review later this year.

T2.   It is 41 years since the attack on the Sir Galahad in the Falklands conflict in which 56 died and many more were injured. Ever since, survivors have sought transparency about what happened, but they need documents declassified in full. Will Ministers commit, like the previous Secretary of State, to read the papers with a view to declassifying? Will they also meet my constituent Mike Hermanis and other survivors to discuss that? (906320)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, I can commit to meet her and her constituent, if she wishes to do so.

T5. A key question from the Ukrainian theatre is about the effectiveness and lethality of emerging drone technology. What steps are being taken to ensure that NATO has world-class compatible, deployable drones to meet emerging threats? (906323)

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. It must be clear to everyone just from what is available on social media that uncrewed air systems, as they are called, have an extraordinary impact in theatre. I reassure him that we are working on a strategy to look at how we can make the most of this capability to ensure that, above all, we have our own cutting-edge sovereign capability.

T3. The Ajax fighting vehicle is proving to be something of a stealth weapon. When will the Government produce or provide the House with a statement explaining where we are up to with the project and when it will be delivered to the frontline? (906321)

I did give a statement to the House—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present—in which I confirmed that we would learn the lessons of the Sheldon review, but, above all, confirmed the good news that Ajax was with the field Army for regular training. I hear that that training is going extremely well.

T7. Dealing with the challenges that armed forces families face is vital for strong defence. I made a promise to many of the families I was privileged to meet during the “Living in our shoes” review that the recommendations would not gather dust. How can I find out where we are on recommendations 36, 48, 68 and 96, for example? (906325)

My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not know off the top of my head what those recommendations relate to. I can say to him that Defence is very fortunate in having him and his colleagues as co-authors of the report on the armed forces family strategy steering group, acting as critical friends and holding Defence to account against the strategy action plan. I would be more than happy to meet him to go through those recommendations one by one.

T6. What assessment has been made of the extent of the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete within Defence estate buildings? Has any assessment been made at Faslane naval base? (906324)

At the moment, we are not releasing specific details because the work is ongoing, but I assure him and the House on two points. First, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation has been undertaking a huge amount of work—in fact, there has been work on RAAC in the MOD context since 2019. Most importantly, we are not aware of any impact from RAAC on service family accommodation.

T9. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we back British military manufacturers? What steps is he taking to speed up delayed procurement decisions? Will he visit North Devon to meet some of the innovative suppliers manufacturing here in the UK? (906327)

It is good news on both fronts for my hon. Friend. First, yes, a lot of work is going on to improve the speed of procurement. I am also pleased to confirm that I have already a visit planned to her part of the world in a couple of weeks. I will liaise with her office about meeting those companies.

Today marks the anniversary of 9/11, and while our focus now has returned to state aggression, does the Minister agree that the threat of Islamic extremism—whether home-grown or from abroad—remains and that our defence posture should reflect that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the focus of the MOD and so many other parts of the Government has increasingly been on hostile state actors over the last few years, today more than any is a reminder of the threat of violent extremism. I pay tribute to the hundreds of men and women around the UK armed forces who are deployed on missions countering violence and extremism as I speak.

Will the Minister update the House on the progress being made to settle the claims of thousands of veterans and their families for what is commonly called Gulf war syndrome?

The hon. Member is right to raise that. The armed forces compensation scheme is up and running for them. I am afraid that there have been delays in some of those applications; I referred to that earlier on. On the science behind it, obviously, we in Defence comply with the best available, as assessed by the independent medical expert group, and we will make policy accordingly. I understand the point he is making and would be happy to discuss it with him further.

Ukrainian and UK defence companies are going up against barriers and bureaucracy when trying to set up joint working and joint projects. Could my hon. Friend update the House on how he is reducing that, so that bilateral collaboration can be made easier and quicker?

My hon. Friend has been an absolute champion of all matters relating to our relationship with Ukraine. We have seen very rapid procurement, particularly in relation to urgent requirements going into Abbey Wood in his constituency. I understand that he will hold a meeting shortly with some major Ukrainian defence industrialists, which he has kindly invited me to, and I look forward to engaging with him and those companies soon.

Last September, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) announced £2.3 billion to be made available for Ukraine in this financial year. We are now in another September, with a new Secretary of State. When can we expect that sum of money to be made available to Ukraine?

The Prime Minister engages with world leaders all the time to discuss what is needed in Ukraine, and he has an extraordinarily close relationship with President Zelensky. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and Prime Minister Johnson delivered on their commitments. The Prime Minister continues to do exactly the same; he will be at the Dispatch Box in about an hour and perhaps Ukraine might be mentioned.

I am sure the Minister will agree that our veterans make some of the best role models in society. Will he applaud my constituent Bill Cooksey, who at the age of 102 completed the Great North Run this weekend on behalf of NHS charities?

What can I say? I certainly congratulate Bill on completing the Great North Run at such an extraordinary age. I admire him hugely, and I congratulate him.

The previous Secretary of State promised that he would come to David Brown Santasalo in Huddersfield to see the wonderful work that the company does producing the defence equipment that we need. Will one of the team be able to fulfil that promise?

It is always a pleasure to engage with the hon. Gentleman. If I cannot visit that specific company, I intend to hold forums for small and medium-sized enterprises around the country—the next one is in Wales, but we will certainly hold them in his part of the world—and I will let him know the details.

While Ukraine continues to combat Putin’s aggression on the battlefield, there is no let up in Russia’s nefarious campaign of espionage and subversion against western democracies. That threat, and the so-called grey zone, spans the public, private and defence sectors, aiming to continually challenge our critical national infrastructure capabilities. What work is the MOD doing across Government Departments, and the private and public sectors, to combat hybrid threats?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is helpful that the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting on the Front Bench as I answer her question, because he leads the necessary cross-Government effort, of which defence plays an enormous part. The National Security Act 2023 has been passed, as has the National Security Investment Act 2021, and there is £2.6 billion of investment through the national cyber strategy 2022. Defence supports His Majesty’s Government’s activities, applying defence levers to protect UK crucial interests from state threats by denying and deferring adversary attack.

One of the greatest problems that my veteran constituents have is housing accommodation. It is as scarce as hen’s teeth, as we would say back home. What discussions has the Minister had with the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland to secure funding and housing for veterans who have just finished service or are retiring?

Clearly, we want to improve service accommodation all the time. However, 97% of service accommodation meets or exceeds the decent home standard. That is admirable compared with the record of many local authorities. We are investing in accommodation, and it is improving all the time. I very much regret the occasional report of accommodation that falls short of the mark, and we seek to rectify it as soon as we can.

We have heard this afternoon how important the continuity of education allowance is for service families. Does the Minister assess that Labour’s proposed attack on private schools will make it easier or harder to educate service children?

It would certainly make it far more expensive. It would also threaten small schools like Warminster School in my constituency, which relies very much on service families. I just reflect on the sacrifices made by all people I know who choose to send their children to independent schools, and in particular members of the defence community who are of course required to make a substantial contribution to their children’s education in the event that they choose to educate them in the independent sector.