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Volume 737: debated on Monday 11 September 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Service Personnel: Retirement Age and Conditions for Service

1. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the retirement (a) age and (b) conditions for service personnel. (906293)

The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with the Secretary of State and his family during sitting shiva.

It is right that we record here today the anniversary of 9/11, a terrible act that changed our world. Let me also say that the UK is standing with the Kingdom of Morocco; we are engaged on the ground already and stand by to help in any way that we can.

Defence recognises the need to evolve so that we continue to attract and retain the very best. To that end, the MOD commissioned the Haythornthwaite review into armed forces incentivisation, which was published in June. I will respond formally on behalf of the Department in the coming months, but it is supportive of the recommendations. On retirement ages, I have committed to work with officials and the single services to review rigid cut-offs and to consider establishing an assessment framework to be used on a case-by-case basis.

May I associate myself with the earlier remarks of the Minister, whom I thank for his answer? As he is aware, I have already taken an interest and written in about this issue. I have a constituent who came to me recently having spent a good number of years in the armed forces. He is very proud of what he has given to keep our country safe but is concerned that the armed forces, particularly the Army, are losing institutional memory. He feels that the cut-off age of 55 for reservists is too young, certainly for more administrative roles. Will the MOD take that into account in the review and consider allowing reservists to stay longer in those roles?

I am really happy to declare my interest at this point, as I am in my 63rd year and I remain a reservist. I am sympathetic to the points that the hon. Lady makes and we will certainly factor them into our review.

We know that the Defence Secretary is with his close family today, and we in the Opposition extend our deepest condolences.

I also offer the Secretary of State our warmest congratulations. Over the years and in different roles, I have shadowed him and he has shadowed me, and we both know that the first duty of any Government is to keep our country safe. I will always look to work with him on that basis in his new job.

On personnel, levels of satisfaction with service life have plunged a third over the past 13 years. What is the plan to lift those record low levels of military morale?

The right hon. Gentleman paints an overly gloomy picture of life in the armed forces for most people. It is a rewarding career and they take with them the skills that they need into civilian life and prosper. However, we are aware of our need to compete in the workplace in the years ahead and, to that end, we have commissioned Rick Haythornthwaite’s review, which we broadly agree with and will respond to very soon.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me also associate SNP Members with the words of the Minister for the Secretary of State at this sad time. We also think of Morocco and all those New Yorkers who are remembering today.

We know that the cost of living crisis is affecting us all equally. The Minister has said some fine words today, but we know that for his party, there is often an inverse relationship between rhetoric and action with regard to our personnel. Will the Minister tell the House and members of the armed forces what his Government will do to remedy the shameful reality of armed forces personnel being given the lowest pay rise among public servants—a paltry 5%?

I think the hon. Gentleman may be in error: the lowest paid members of our armed forces were awarded 9.7% by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, a recommendation that we accepted in full. Seniors got 5.8% and those of two-star rank and above got 5.5%. That will give the best pay award to the least well paid in our armed forces.

I disagree on the numbers. Let us talk about the rhetoric from the right hon. Gentleman—unless his Government are willing to deal with pay and housing conditions for the armed forces properly. As the armed forces personnel leave the forces for better-paid jobs, could it not be time to consider the reason that the police were able to secure an almost 50% higher pay rise than our other uniformed public servants? Was it because they have a statutory body to represent them in dealing with the Government, and why do his Government not support that action?

The hon. Gentleman has ignored what I have been saying. He also did not make reference to the freezing of charges for accommodation and food, wraparound childcare and a whole raft of measures that we have introduced to help with the cost of living crisis.

RAF Quick Reaction Alert Stations

2. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the RAF quick reaction alert stations. (906294)

Royal Air Force pilots and ground crew are poised on quick reaction alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round, ready to scramble within minutes. My hon. Friend would point out quickly that it would be remiss of me to say that that is solely the endeavour of fast jet pilots. Equally poised are those in his constituency who crew the tankers that must also deploy rapidly to support. QRA has been launched on five occasions in 2023 with every incident resolved successfully.

I thank the Minister for his kind words about my constituents. He will no doubt have read the report from the Select Committee on Defence, “Aviation Procurement: Winging it?”, which warns of an unacceptable gap in combat air mass. With the retirement of the Hercules placing even more demands on the air mobility force, and the Voyagers—to which he rightly pays tribute—being asked to do more and more each month, what confidence does he have that, if required to do so, those forces have enough men, women and machines to defend the UK in a peer conflict?

I have complete confidence that quick reaction alert will be resourced. The highest priority of the air force is to defend the homeland. I also have complete confidence that the combat air force, as currently structured, is capable of performing a very wide range of duties around the world. I pay tribute to the work of the Air and Space Commander and his team, who, through work on agile deployment, are finding that we can deploy Typhoon and F-35 ever more quickly to ever more austere operating environments. That drives the productivity of the force even further.

There is, of course, no question over the quality of combat aircrews, but there is a big question mark over the quantity of aircraft that they can fly. I want to challenge the Minister on the confidence he has just articulated, because there are serious concerns that our combat aircrew are engaged almost universally in transit and air policing, and have very little aircraft availability to practise proper combat air. What is his assessment of that concern?

We take very seriously the work that the Defence Committee does; we enjoy reading the Committee’s reports and, as I hope members of the Committee and of the House recognise, often take the findings into policy. I do push back gently, however, because in addition to the incredible work of QRA and the support the Royal Air Force has given to NATO missions over the last 18 months, since the start of the war in Ukraine, they have also been able to support carrier strike deployments, deployment on Exercise Red Flag, and indeed the deployment of a squadron, below full strength, all the way across to Australia. That gets to exactly what I told my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts): that this ability to deploy air force with greater agility, further from home, in more austere settings, is a step change for the Royal Air Force, allowing it to operate from more austere environments rather than solely from its home bases.

Defence Sector: UK-based Jobs

The latest estimates suggest that Ministry of Defence investment supports over 200,000 jobs in industries across the UK. I believe that the best way to keep growing jobs in defence is to back the British defence industry. That is why I am delighted to confirm that, this week in London, we are hosting the biggest ever DSEI—Defence and Security Equipment International—showcasing the very best of the British defence industry, with companies large and small. We should remember that they provide not only prosperity in every part of our country, but the means to defend ourselves in an increasingly contested world.

The Defence Secretary’s predecessor rightly prioritised British jobs over buying off-the-shelf from America, but The Times recently exposed a difference of opinion with the Prime Minister, who insisted on buying American helicopters. Can the Minister assure the House that the Secretary of State will stand up for British jobs and research and development, or is our only hope to replace him with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)?

Debate is ongoing in defence procurement, and has been for many years, about the difference between buying off-the-shelf and having our own sovereign capability. The fact is that, until we brought out the defence and security industrial strategy in 2021, arguably the default position of the MOD was to go primarily for value for money. Since DSIS, we have a more flexible and balanced approach, seen in many specific procurements, where we give much greater weighting to social value and local content. This is illustrated in many procurements because, above all, we want to support British jobs and have our own sovereign capability.

My condolences to the Secretary of State.

Babcock is one of the largest defence employers in the country, but as reported in the Sunday press, its record on refits of surface ships is woeful. It took over four years to refit the Type 23 frigate HMS Iron Duke. Its record on submarines is even worse, taking seven years to refit a Trident boat. According to the journal Navy Lookout, which said this online, so presumably the Russians and the Chinese could have read it, a few weeks ago not a single one of our attack submarines was at sea; they were all tied up alongside. This is deeply embarrassing to the Department and to the Royal Navy, whose admirals are tearing their hair out. It is Babcock’s fault. Will Minister get the senior directors of Babcock into the Department for an interview without coffee, and ask them to raise their game for the benefit of the Navy and the defence of the realm?

I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend, but he will appreciate that we do not comment on the operational availability of submarines, which is a particularly sensitive matter. However, he is absolutely right that we need to focus on the time it is taking to bring ships and all aspects of our fleet back into service. I confirm that I regularly engage with Babcock, and I will visit Devonport very soon.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The Government have wasted £15 billion through the mismanagement of defence procurement, while failing to deliver vital equipment and overseeing the loss of 30,000 highly skilled jobs in the defence and aerospace industry since 2010. Does the Minister accept that preventing another 13 years of Tory failure is key to increasing the number of UK-based jobs in the defence sector, backing British industry and British military resilience?

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position as my ministerial shadow. We are very proud of our record, because in the past year or so we have been faced with a war on our doorstep in Europe, and procurement has risen to the occasion. Defence Equipment and Support in Abbey Wood has delivered kit to Ukraine in record speed. We have seen the acquisition of equipment such as the Archer on a quick basis, to fit our requirements. I absolutely confirm that we are committed to maximising the number of jobs that come from our procurement, while balancing that with the need to give our armed forces the best possible capability.

Support for Veterans

The MOD delivers a range of services to veterans and their families, including the administration and payment of armed forces pensions and compensation, and tailored advice and assistance through the Veterans Welfare Service, Defence Transition Services and integrated personal commissioning for veterans. The independent reviews of those services were published in July, and we will respond in full to the recommendations later this year.

Last October my constituent, a disabled veteran who served with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, applied to the war pension and armed forces compensation schemes. Despite his supplying all the information required, and medical evidence, he is still waiting for the determination of his case almost 12 months on. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case as a matter of urgency and carry out a review of the waiting times for the schemes to make sure that nobody else has to wait such a long time to get their due rewards?

If my hon. Friend is able to provide further details of that specific case, I would be happy to investigate. The latest armed forces compensation scheme quinquennial review was published on 17 July 2023. The review process aims to ensure that the scheme remains fit for purpose and to identify opportunities for improvement of the sort that my hon. Friend highlighted. The review’s recommendations are currently being considered—I think timeliness is foremost among them—and a Government response will be published later this year.

The Royal British Legion’s recent report showed that only 8% of disabled veterans who applied for employment and support allowance had their service medical records considered in their work capability assessment. I extend my condolences to the Defence Secretary, but what discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about this matter, and on disregarding all military compensation awards for means-tested and income-based assessments such as for housing benefit?

Such conversations are live in the context of the work I previously described. We will take into account the hon. Lady’s points, which have been made by several people in the defence and veterans community. I know that people feel strongly about such issues. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury.

This House as a whole provides vociferous support for our veterans of all kinds, particularly through the mechanism of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to pay tribute to Miss Amy Swash, who has now run the APPG for me for eight years, but will sadly leave us shortly for other jobs. I thank her for all the work she has done for a superb amount of time, in particular to raise the plight of veterans.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I add my tributes to his. I also express my admiration for the armed forces parliamentary scheme, which does a fantastic job in informing and educating colleagues.

In July, the Government published a review of the treatment of LGBTQ+ veterans. The previous Secretary of State’s response to that won him many plaudits and his reaction was welcomed, but he did say that he would take his time to ensure we got things right. Can the Minister give us an update on when we can expect a response to the recommendations?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right to raise that. At the time I said that the community should allow us time, but not too much time, and I am sure they will hold us to that. We will respond in full to the large number of recommendations, but we are broadly supportive of Lord Etherton’s work and there is much in it that we utterly agree with, plus some that we would like to add in the way of changes for the future.

On that theme, the loss of livelihoods and the long-term suffering endured by LGBT+ veterans due to the cruel and unjust ban on homosexuality in the armed forces has been enormous. The Opposition welcome the Etherton review into the ban, and its recommendations, which represent the beginning of a long-overdue healing process. The Secretary of State’s predecessor promised that the Government would provide a full response to the review’s recommendations after the summer recess, which the House would have an opportunity to debate. Will the Minister confirm when the Government will respond to the recommendations and that the House will still be provided with time to debate that response?

Clearly, we will be debating this at some length; I hope the House, when it sees the Government response to Lord Etherton’s recommendations, will be pleased with it. At the moment, we are working with the community, particularly Fighting With Pride, to ensure that what we put in place is right and is acceptable to those who have been done down by the events between 1967 to 2000.

Nuclear Test Medals

I am pleased to say that the nuclear test medal is now in production, and we are ensuring that as many as possible of the more than 2,000 veterans and families who have applied for the medal will have it in time for this year’s Remembrance events.

The Minister will know that I take an interest in the veterans issue, and I declare an interest as the president of Hinckley’s Royal British Legion. A constituent, Alfred Roy Davenport, served in the RAF medical team from November 1956 to November 1959, stationed on Christmas Island. He is 85 and concerned about the delay there has been in the awarding of these medals, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that all veterans will have these awards ready for Remembrance Sunday, so that our servicemen and women can be congratulated on and recognised for their service?

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs stated in the House on 7 September, the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that as many nuclear test veterans as possible receive their medals in time for Remembrance Sunday. I appreciate the importance of that. A presentation event to award the first medals is actively being considered by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, but it is a balance between issuing the medals for Remembrance Sunday and ensuring that they are awarded in an appropriate manner to this cohort.

In a written question to the Minister, I asked whether any files had been removed from the MOD’s health records of nuclear test veterans. He assured me that the Department was “not aware” of any removal, but many nuclear veterans continue to report finding large gaps when requesting their medical records. Can the Minister therefore clarify, if the files have not been removed,

how nuclear veterans and their families can gain full access to them?

They will need to apply for a subject access request. I reiterate what I said in my answer to her written question: we of course do everything we can to locate records when people request them, and I assure her that we could find none on this occasion.

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

7. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906299)

12. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906305)

18. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906311)

19. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906312)

22. What steps he is taking to help support Afghan nationals eligible for resettlement under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. (906315)

The Ministry of Defence’s priority remains the relocation of ARAP-eligible Afghans to the safety of third countries at best pace. His Majesty’s Government continue to accommodate and support ARAP-eligible people in third countries while they await relocation to the United Kingdom.

I am proud to have an Afghan interpreter for the British armed forces as a constituent, but I was ashamed to learn from him that his brother, who worked for six years directly for the Special Air Service in Helmand province, had applied under the ARAP scheme and been rejected without a proper explanation. He is now in hiding in Afghanistan. Will the Minister take up that case as a matter of urgency, and will he explain to the House why his Government are still failing to support those Afghans who risked so much to support our armed forces?

The hon. Lady mentions a specific role about which it would be inappropriate to speculate on the Floor of the House. I will, of course, look at the particular case that she mentions. However, it is worth reminding right hon. and hon. colleagues that the ARAP scheme was intended for those who had been in direct support of the UK military—interpreters, most often—and, beyond that, there is a very narrow opportunity for those with special circumstances who have come through under category 4. When colleagues write to the Ministry of Defence to raise a case, they often do so on behalf of somebody who might have served in the Afghan national security forces, not necessarily in the direct employ of the UK military. That is not to cast any judgment on the case that she raises—I will look at that specifically and write to her.

There is a deep sense of injustice among former serving officers and other military personnel that we have forgotten the moral obligation to Afghan military personnel and others who served alongside us. Will the Minister confirm just how many Afghan former military personnel are currently presenting as homeless in the UK, and how many are currently in hotels in Pakistan?

It seems that my initial reply might have been quite useful, but the hon. Gentleman may not have heard or understood it. ARAP is not explicitly for those who served in the Afghan armed forces alongside the British military; it is for those who served in the employ of the British military in all but a very narrow number of cases. I will write to him on his precise question about Afghan service personnel who are now homeless in the UK—I suspect that they are remarkably few—but Afghan service personnel are not the main target of ARAP. As someone who served in Afghanistan, I share the sense of many of my former colleagues who would have liked to have done more, but that is simply never what ARAP was designed to do. Neither is it credible that the hundreds of thousands of people who served in the Afghan national forces could all be relocated to the UK.

In 2021, I held a public meeting shortly after the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was widely attended by worried and distressed residents, who all wanted help for their relatives’ desperate situations in Afghanistan. Over two years have passed, and there are huge problems with ARAP. Can the Minister say why the Government are allowing people and their relatives to suffer for so long?

There is a known number of people who worked in the employ of the British military during our campaign in Afghanistan. Our priority has been to work through and match the lists of people we know have worked for us with those who are applicants. It is my understanding that only about 2,000 applications are outstanding, and that 58,000 decisions have been taken in the past two months alone. Overwhelmingly, those decisions are, I am afraid, to say no to people, but we are making good progress and are nearing the end of tracking down all those we know have worked for us.

I return to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western): how many applicants are still being kicked out of hotels in the UK, and how many are applying from Pakistan and in hiding?

The Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) asked a very particular question about Afghan service personnel, as the record will show. I answered it, but I will need to go away and confirm, because that is not something that ARAP is intended to meet and we will need to see if we can find those statistics. The hon. Lady asks how many applicants have been removed from hotels. The plan is to remove all ARAP applicants from hotels, because they are not here illegally; they have not arrived on boats across the channel. They are entitled to be here, they have access to full universal credit and housing benefit, and much more importantly, they have the right to work immediately on arrival. Our priority, unapologetically—I hope she agrees that this is the right approach—is to get people out of hotels and into houses where they can get on with the life that they so deserve here in the UK as legal citizens.

It is hardly in the spirit of Operation Warm Welcome that, as the second anniversary of the evacuation of Kabul passed, Afghans who supported our armed forces were still left crowded into hotels at the taxpayer’s expense, or expected to move hundreds of miles from where they have managed to find employment and their children have settled into schools. When does the Minister now expect all Afghans in the schemes to be moved out of hotels and given suitable offers of accommodation?

I actually agree with the hon. Lady—her question stands in contrast with the previous one, because it was about the need to get people out of hotels, not suggesting that they should somehow be staying in them. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has been leading on this task around Government. Few in this House have more emotional energy to drive that mission than he does. He sees it as of huge importance that people are moved out of hotels and allowed to get on with their lives as quickly as possible. I will ask his office to write to the hon. Lady with the exact detail of when he hopes to see the job done.

I commend to the Defence team and, indeed, the House the new book by Larisa Brown, “The Gardener of Lashkar Gah”, which outlines in great detail the sort of debt we owe to the people who tried to help our forces. My specific question is not about people serving with the Afghan forces; it is about whether we have a proper database of all those who served with the British forces and are eligible under the scheme, and whether the Minister can guarantee that the scheme will not be closed while some of those people—probably a large number of them—are still in hiding in Afghanistan and thus unable to apply for it.

It will not surprise my right hon. Friend to know that the people who worked for the British armed forces over our extended period in Afghanistan appeared on many different lists, and part of the job of work over the past 18 months or so has been to consolidate those into an authoritative list of those whom we know to have worked for us. However, we do have very good records, as one would expect the military to have kept. That allows us to focus our search on people whom we know to be eligible within the pile of applications, and of late, to make rapid progress in informing those who are ineligible. We will, of course, keep the scheme open for as long as it takes to find all of those whom we know worked for us.

I thank the Minister for his considered remarks. Will he join me in thanking both Colchester City Council and Essex County Council for their work in supporting many Afghan nationals locally who have been in hotels since last autumn? The councils have aided those people to get into housing; however, we still have six families and 40 individuals who need to be supported in temporary accommodation. As such, can the Minister give assurances to the House about the cross-Government work that is taking place to ensure that those families come out of hotels and become settled, and in particular the work that his Department is leading on, helping to get Afghans into employment so that they can settle in the United Kingdom?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend the assurance she asks for. Given her previous role in Government, she knows better than anybody that those men and women who have come here have every legal right to start work and to settle in the UK. They deserve their journey here on the back of what they did in support of our armed forces, so we will support them while they are in hotels, and better still, once we have got them settled in more permanent accommodation, we will support them into employment. I will make sure that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs briefs my right hon. Friend on his work on that matter.

UK Obligations to NATO

Our commitment to NATO is unwavering. We have strengthened our force posture in Estonia, stationed a light cavalry squadron in Poland, provided the NATO mission in Kosovo with personnel, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and provided specialist personnel to the NATO mission in Iraq. The national flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed over the weekend, and will shortly fly the NATO flag as the NATO flagship while on operations in the Euro-Atlantic. We contribute to every NATO mission, declare our nuclear deterrent to NATO, and consistently spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence. We will maintain our leading position in NATO over the decades ahead.

I place on record my condolences to the current Defence Secretary, and my thanks to the former Defence Secretary, whom we wish well in whatever he undertakes to do.

I thank the Minister for his full response. He will know that NATO’s obligations are to work with partners, so can he say what discussions he has had with his counterparts in NATO about working with the African Union to ensure stability and security in that region?

Colleagues have rightly offered their condolences to the new Secretary of State, and remarked on the anniversary of 9/11, but the thing that has maybe fallen through the cracks is for us to send our regards to the former Secretary of State, with whom I had the great pleasure of working for three and a half years. His effort and contribution to defence was quite extraordinary, and I think he will be remembered in history as one of the great Secretaries of State. He should be very proud of everything he achieved.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that NATO’s southern flank, Africa, is of enormous importance to Europe and the security of the Euro-Atlantic. It will not surprise her to know that, in the wake of the coups over the summer in both Niger and Gabon, conversations among European Defence Ministers and NATO Defence Ministers have been regular and urgent as people seek to understand what the response could be. It does not look like it is one in which NATO would be to the fore, but it is clearly in NATO’s interests that a European response in Africa to these coups is forthcoming.

I send my condolences to the Secretary of State.

As my right hon. Friend knows, membership of NATO requires an expenditure of 2% of GDP. This is an arbitrary and paltry figure bearing in mind the threats that we all face. What discussions is he having with other NATO partners, many of which are not even spending the 2%, to increase their spending on defence?

I steer my hon. Friend to the communiqué from the Vilnius summit, which was very clear that NATO countries that are not yet spending 2% need urgently to increase their spending to do so. Our Prime Minister has gone further and indicated his willingness to spend 2.5% on defence once the economic circumstances allow. I think that that is the right order, because we cannot have physical security without economic security.

After 13 years of Tory Army cuts, serious and senior military figures are now questioning the UK’s ability to deliver our NATO obligations. While NATO is boosting the size of its high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000 following Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, UK Ministers plan to cut the Army further to the smallest since the Napoleonic era. The last Conservative Defence Secretary told this House that the Government had “hollowed out and underfunded” our armed forces. Is that still the position of the Ministry of Defence, and will the Tory Army cuts still be forced through by this latest set of Ministers?

The former Secretary of State’s comment, which the shadow Minister conveniently quotes in a limited way, was that successive Governments had failed to invest in the enablers that underpinned our war-fighting capability. It is to the credit of this Prime Minister and the two Conservative Prime Ministers who went before him that commitments have been made to grow our defence budgets, including under Prime Minister Johnson a £19 billion increase to the defence budget and under this Prime Minister another £5 billion in the last year or so. The shadow Minister also ignores this: when he says that NATO is increasing its rapid reaction force, that does not mean that in NATO armies are growing; it just means that the armies in NATO are committing ever more of the forces they have to NATO’s high-readiness formations. The British Army is to the fore in that.

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme is effective. (906303)

I said in May to the House that we aim to process all outstanding initial ARAP applications by the end of August. I can report that we have just 2,000 complex cases remaining from more than 93,000 principal applications that we received. We have issued over 58,000 decisions to applicants in the past three months, giving them the clarity they deserve, and we continue to move at best pace to process the remaining applications.

I thank my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues for the work done over the summer, including with Hillingdon and Harrow councils in my constituency, on support for those who have served in support of our armed forces. In future, as Afghan bridging operations come to a close, can he commit to work with local authorities to ensure that those who have put their lives on the line supporting our military operations continue to be supported in their new lives here in the UK?

What liaising does the Minister do with the Home Office? I have an Afghan special forces interpreter who came here having done valiant work during Operation Pitting. His mother, father and siblings left Afghanistan and ended up in Ukraine of all places, and they moved to the UK last year. The Home Office gave them temporary leave to remain, only for them to receive a letter in the past couple of months saying that they would have to be deported back to either Afghanistan, Ukraine or Rwanda. In that case I interceded and the Minister’s office helped, but what is going on between his Department and the Home Office?

From the question, I can see all sorts of ways in which that might present quite a confusing case to colleagues in the Home Office, especially if those in Ukraine proceeded to the UK under a mechanism other than the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. May I look at the detail of the case and come back to the right hon. Gentleman, rather than speculate?

Service Accommodation

The Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation, with £337 million invested over financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22 combined, and £163 million in 2022-23. The forecast for this financial year is £312 million.

Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has repeatedly said that she has “deep concerns” about the “continued failures” to improve service accommodation for armed forces recruits over the past seven years. Will the Minister explain why those concerns from neutral Ofsted inspector Amanda Spielman have fallen on deaf ears, and why those improvements are yet to be made?

This is an extremely important subject, and we care immensely about improving our estate. Such concerns do not fall on deaf ears. If that were the case we would not have put on the table a further £400 million for SFA in the defence Command Paper refresh. Precisely because of that additional funding, this year our spend will be almost double that of last year.

The Prime Minister said he was going to lead by example, and that when it came to the military base at Catterick, he was going to ensure that illegal migrants were housed there. We now understand that the generals have said they do not want a bunch of Afghans and Iraqis next to their squaddies, so nothing is happening with regard to illegal migrants being put there, although the Ministry of Defence is so determined that its soldiers should not be placed near migrants that it is moving them out of RAF Scampton. When will illegal migrants be placed in Catterick, as promised by the Prime Minister? I want a date and I want it now.

I visited Catterick on Friday and I discussed precisely that matter with senior members of the armed forces based at Catterick. The characterisation that my right hon. Friend uses is not correct. These matters are being considered objectively and carefully, but that work is ongoing.

Defence Infrastructure Organisation: Service Accommodation for Injured Veterans

14. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation in meeting the needs of injured veterans when adapting service accommodation. (906307)

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation provides additional needs and disability adaptations to service family accommodation. Those provide changes to SFA to meet a family’s needs, as set out by a suitably qualified healthcare professional. Once the scope of any adaptation has been agreed with all parties, works will be delivered as quickly as possible. That gives service personnel reassurance that their families’ needs can be met wherever they are assigned, regardless of the length and number of postings they have within their service career.

The Minister will remember that in June I asked about a badly injured veteran in my constituency. He has written confirmation from the former Defence Minister in 2021 that he would receive extensive adaptations to his home. Those adaptations have not happened, and the situation is so serious that Op Courage has instigated safeguarding proceedings against the Ministry of Defence to protect my constituent. In June the Minister requested that I write to him. I did so yet again, but I still have not received a reply. Will the Minister meet me finally to sort this out? In doing so, will he reassure the House that a Conservative Minister’s word is worth the paper it is signed on?

I think that is a little harsh. I have discussed this matter with the hon. Lady, and I would of course be more than happy to meet her to discuss her constituent’s case further. She will forgive me if I do not share the details with the House.

Topical Questions

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.