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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 741: debated on Monday 20 November 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

UK Arms Sales to Israel

1. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of UK arms sales to Israel on (a) civilian deaths and (b) compliance with international humanitarian law in Gaza. (900146)

All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licence criteria. This Government will not use any export licences to any destination where applications are not consistent with the criteria.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but since the horrendous Hamas attacks on 7 October, 12,000 innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed; and two thirds were women and children. The UN Secretary-General has described Gaza as a “graveyard of children”. Today an Israeli airstrike on a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school has killed 12 people. The Indonesian hospital in Gaza is currently surrounded by Israeli Defence Forces tanks. Can the Minister confirm whether arms sold by the UK have been used in violations of international humanitarian law, and will he explain why arms sales to Israel have not yet been suspended?

The hon. Lady is right to describe as terrorism the horrendous and heinous attacks by Hamas, without which this would not have started. We call on all parties—the Israelis included—to ensure that they act within international humanitarian law. It will interest her to know that our defence exports to Israel are relatively small—just £42 million last year—and, as I mentioned in my initial answer, they go through a very strict criteria before anything is exported.

Israel and Gaza

We are working with partners across the wider region, urging all sides to de-escalate tension, facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid, and tackle all forms of extremism.

Order. Members must sit down again once another Member is speaking. We cannot have two Members on their feet at the same time.

We are all heartbroken by what is happening in the middle east. As Israel works to root out Hamas terrorists, will my right hon. Friend work to ensure that aid gets to civilians and that Israel works in a way that is compatible with international law? As the Government work to get hostages freed, will they also work for increasingly long humanitarian pauses that can build towards a just and lasting peace?

My hon. Friend is right about trying to do everything we can in the region. That is why I sent a Royal Navy task group to try to de-escalate tensions, including RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Argus. Those facilities, along with others, are doing everything they can to help lower the tensions and certainly act as deterrents, and to ensure that we can get aid into the region. He will be interested to hear that we have had 51 tonnes of aid delivered so far, and there will be another flight later this month.

There are thousands of orphans and displaced families amid an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. What are the Government doing to ensure that unrestricted aid is reaching all the people who desperately need it, and, importantly, to ensure that Israel lifts the siege conditions?

As the hon. Lady will know, we are in favour of seeing pauses in the action. Some people, I know, call for a ceasefire, but I would point out that there was a ceasefire on 6 October; the problem is that it was broken by Hamas, who wrought this carnage on the middle east. We are doing everything possible to help get that aid in. With the Royal Navy taskforce, infantry, and other personnel in the region, we now have an uplift of about 600 personnel in the wider region, who are all helping to ensure that we get the aid in and across the border once we have got it to the region itself.

I welcome the Defence Secretary to his place. Behind Hamas, sits Iran; behind Iran, sits Russia; and, increasingly, behind Russia sits China. That is the geopolitical backdrop that will define the next decade, with growing authoritarianism impacting on our security and our economy. Is it now time to increase the defence budget to 3%?

My right hon. Friend will know that we have indeed pledged to increase defence spending to 2.5%, as economic conditions allow. This year, it will probably be around 2.4%, so we are making good progress. Prior to getting this role, I talked about my own desire to see higher defence spending, because we are living in a much less certain world, with many more variables. He is right to point out Iran’s action, with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syrian militias in Iraq, and Houthis in Yemen very much driving the situation.

The reality is that neither the long-term security of Israel nor justice for the Palestinians will be found through bombs and bullets. As an international community, we need to be doing all we can to move to an enduring cessation of the violence, but while we are doing that, can the Secretary of State say how the UK armed forces will be utilising their capacity to help those getting aid into Gaza to get much bigger quantities in than is happening at the moment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the UK’s desire to do that, and I have talked about how we have deployed a large increase in personnel in the region to work with various Governments. I have personally spoken to most of the middle eastern Governments, and on those calls the first thing they have done is welcome our deterrent and the fact that we have brought such a large amount of aid—now £30 million—to help the Palestinians. It is not just the hostages themselves who are being held hostage; the population of Gaza are being held hostage by Hamas, and therefore the solution is to deal with Hamas themselves.

After nearly three months, it is very good to finally welcome the Defence Secretary to the Dispatch Box for the first time. He reflects the deep concern about the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza and the risks of wider escalation. Labour totally condemns Hamas terrorism. We back Israel’s right to defend itself, but require it to meet its duties under international law and lift the siege conditions, and we want to see the breaks in fighting extended to get much more aid in and the hostages out. We back the military deployments to the region to support wider security, but with attacks against US personnel rising, what action is the Defence Secretary taking to increase protection for UK personnel in the middle east?

First, Mr Speaker, it is good to be at the Dispatch Box opposite the right hon. Gentleman. I thank him, as well as yourself and others, for their condolences when I was not able to attend the first Defence questions.

In terms of protecting our own personnel, I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to review their position. I made reference to the additional personnel who have moved to the region, but did not mention that several have been moved to Tel Aviv, Beirut and Jordan, all with the aim of protecting both British military personnel and British citizens in the region. We keep that matter under constant review.

Would the Defence Secretary agree that over the past decade, there has been an international failure to pursue a Palestinian peace settlement and tackle the Hamas threat? Middle east escalation risks were not mentioned in the Government’s defence Command Paper update, nor were Hamas or Palestine. With threats increasing, is the Defence Secretary pursuing that defence plan in full, including further deep cuts to the British Army?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that nobody, including the Israelis, saw what Hamas were about to do coming. That points to the need for much greater surveillance, but also—much wider than that—the need to pursue the two-state solution, which is official British policy and is something that the world must do as this conflict, we hope, comes to an end.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about being able to deploy British troops and, indeed, assets is that when I asked the question, the answer came back immediately: “Yes, we can do it, and there is more that we could do should we need to.” I am satisfied that we cut our cloth in order to react to events around the world, which of course came on top of what we are doing in Kosovo and elsewhere. We will certainly make sure that we maintain the resources to carry out those important missions.

Service Accommodation

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of service accommodation for armed forces personnel. (900149)

Currently, 96.5% of the service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard; only those properties should be allocated to service families. The Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation received an investment of £400 million over this financial year and the next as part of the defence Command Paper refresh, meaning that the forecast £380.2 million for this year is more than double last year’s investment in maintenance and improvements.

The Minister will be aware that this time last year, almost 5,000 homes of armed forces personnel were affected by black mould and damp, which obviously included many properties that had children in them. A year on, too many of our service personnel and their families still have this problem. No matter whether it is one house or 5,000 houses, can the Minister set out how he is going to tackle this problem quickly? Our armed forces personnel and their families deserve better than what they have been getting to date.

The hon. Gentleman asks an excellent question. We are aware that what happened last winter was not good enough. Too many homes were affected, particularly by damp and mould. That is why we have prioritised getting the investment in, and it has more than doubled in the current financial year. I am pleased to confirm to him that last week I set out our winter plan. It shows that 4,000 homes in the defence estate would benefit from significant work on damp and mould, which is about 60% of the total number that require that work.

A constituent of mine who lives in Clive barracks at Tern Hill in Shropshire has reported that he lives in rat-infested accommodation, sometimes with two to six soldiers living in the same room. As a result, shipping containers have been placed in the grounds—about 40 at the end of August—and kitted out like budget hotel accommodation for those soldiers to live in. Can the Minister provide any reassurance that these servicemen will be provided with somewhere appropriate to live in the near future?

I am obviously sorry to hear about that case. I would ask the hon. Member to write to me with the details, and I will look into it with the DIO. The key thing is that, wherever we are talking about—whichever specific barracks or base—if we are going to get on with the works, we need the money there, and we have got that. We have put in place the extra £400 million, and as I set out in the winter plan, thousands of forces personnel will now benefit from that work.

The DIO is not fit for purpose, and the Future Defence Infrastructure Services accommodation contract has been a disaster, including completely unacceptable delays in issuing and checking gas and electricity safety certificates. No private landlord would get away with this without being sued. The Secretary of State had a good run out at the Defence Committee last week, and said he was potentially looking at radical reforms in this area. Can I urge the Minister and his boss to do precisely that to honour our service personnel and their families in a way they are not being honoured at present?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. He knows that I share his passion for seeing genuine step change improvements in our accommodation. That is why we have announced the spending that we have. On the performance of the contractors, which the DIO ultimately oversees, one of the important aspects of the winter plan is a significant increase in staff manning the telephone service, so that we see better service to personnel. We expect the average waiting time for one of those calls to go from seven minutes to 29 seconds. It will be very important to service personnel that, when they make those calls, they get answered in good time.

The Minister may be aware that earlier this year one of the accommodation blocks in HMS Collingwood in my Gosport constituency was shut down all together because it just simply was not fit for human habitation. There are also some issues with the accommodation blocks in HMS Sultan. Could I invite the Minister to come to Gosport to have a look at some of the accommodation on offer for our service personnel? It is simply not good enough, and they deserve better.

There is a new Defence Secretary, but it is the same old story in service accommodation, with reports of broken boilers, black mould, leaky roofs and painfully long waits for repairs. Last Christmas, one service family told me that they went without a working boiler for three weeks and were forced to live in a hotel over Christmas and new year. Can the Minister assure me that no one who serves our country in uniform will go without heating, or be forced out of their home this winter because of the dire state of their military accommodation?

I am grateful to the hon. Member, and I repeat the point: we recognise that performance was not good enough last winter, which is why the Secretary of State made it an absolute priority to get the extra investment in. Having done that, I am pleased to say that the winter plan does include boiler and heating upgrades for about 1,500 homes.

Armed Forces: Non-combat Incidents and Jurisdictional Constraints

4. What discussions he has had with his US counterpart on increasing awareness of (a) non-combat incidents and (b) jurisdictional constraints affecting the armed forces. (900150)

I thank the Minister for his answer. It is fast approaching the sixth anniversary of Captain Dean Sprouting being killed, in a road traffic accident in 2018 while on operational duties, by US servicemen. The US guardsmen did not adhere to any standard operation procedures or health and safety regulations, driving unsuitable and poorly maintained vehicles on an unnecessary journey. Captain Sprouting’s death was both avoidable and preventable, and it would not have occurred had the US servicemen involved adhered to the regulations. Despite the continuous efforts of his widow, Linda, for the Ministry of Defence to highlight the complicated jurisdictional procedures involved in blue-on-blue incidents, Linda and her boys continue to suffer the consequences on a daily basis. What I would like to ask the Minister is: given that the Defence Minister in the Lords—

Order. I think the Minister must have got the gist by now and be able to answer with something. [Interruption.] Just to help the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), I have to try to get through a list of what are meant to be questions. I gave him a long time to ask a question, and it was not forthcoming. If I do not do this, I will not get through the other people who wish to ask questions.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very complicated case and the widow, to whom I send my condolences, is obviously keen to see the matter resolved. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and I meet to discuss the issue in appropriate detail.

I am happy to look at an Adjournment debate, if that helps, but we have to have short questions to get other people in.

Support for Veterans

The Ministry of Defence 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.

When veterans and their families are compensated for the detrimental impact their service has had on their lives, that is unjustly classed as income when applying for means-tested benefits, rendering veterans and their families ineligible for welfare support under UK Government control, the most significant of which is pension credit. As a result, thousands of veterans miss out on almost £6,000 every year. Will the Minister pledge his support for the Royal British Legion’s Credit their Service campaign? And will he work with the Department for Work and Pensions and his other Cabinet colleagues to ensure that compensation awarded to veterans is disregarded when applying for means-tested benefits?

Of course the MOD works with the DWP on a range of issues. Compensation is set in the full knowledge of how it will be dealt with under the benefits system in the UK. By most measures, the armed forces compensation scheme and the war pension scheme are felt to be sound and appropriate for awarding significant amounts of money to those who have served our country and who, unfortunately, have been disadvantaged as a result.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking The Veterans Charity in North Devon for their Poppies to Paddington operation, which saw 231 wreaths from the Great Western Railway region reach Paddington for Remembrance Day, and for their incredible work to help support our wonderful veterans across the UK?

I absolutely will, and I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend’s in thanking The Veterans Charity in North Devon. I also congratulate her on the extraordinary support she gives to our veterans in her constituency and elsewhere, particularly as we come out of the season of remembrance, which I know you were heavily involved with too, Mr Speaker. It is important to reflect on those who give so much in the service of our country.

Over the past year, the number of veterans claiming universal credit has increased by 31.6%, which is nearly a third. Does the Minister recognise that the King’s Speech failed to help veterans in receipt of universal credit to cope with the increased cost of living caused by his Government’s economic failure? And does he further recognise that some of the long-term sick who his party has been attacking in the media over the last few days are veterans with physical and mental health challenges? What advice has he given his colleagues about the Conservative party rhetoric, and about lending their full support to our veterans and all those who have served?

The hon. Gentleman will know that universal credit is an in-work benefit. Within the system, there are allowances that we offer to our veterans that can be improved. As he knows, that is why we have instituted the quinquennial review and the independent review of veterans’ welfare services, which we will be responding to shortly.

Trident Nuclear Programme

6. If he will make an estimate of the annual maintenance and running costs of the Trident nuclear programme. (900152)

The Ministry of Defence co-ordinates a range of interdependent programmes to support, maintain and renew the nuclear deterrent. The expected cost of the combined defence nuclear enterprise will be set out at supplementary estimates in February.

The estimated costs of Trident’s renewal stand at the moment at £31 billion, with a further £10 billion earmarked for contingency. We know that containment of nuclear material is a problem for the Ministry of Defence, and we also know from recent reports that a Vanguard-class submarine nearly had a collision over the weekend. Our party put in a freedom of information request asking about transportation of nuclear material through Scotland, and that was rebuffed. The UK Government may be content to play second fiddle to the US on weapons of mass destruction, but can the Secretary of State explain the lack of transparency on WMD movement in Scotland, and justify Scotland’s being kept in the dark? Is it not time to abandon this costly and dangerous bomb and get it out of Scotland for good?

I profoundly disagree about this being the time to abandon the deterrent. I could not think of a worse time. The policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party is not just to abandon the deterrent but to withdraw from NATO. I could not think of a more reckless policy to undertake in the face of Russian aggression. We support the deterrent and we will continue to invest in it.

Does the Minister share my relief that both main parties in the House of Commons support the retention and renewal of the nuclear deterrent? Did he also share my relief that, in July 2016 when the vote was held on whether to renew the nuclear deterrent, there was a massive majority of 355 in favour of doing that? That sends a message to the Scottish nationalists about how unrepresentative their views are.

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that remark. I was delighted that those on the Labour Front Bench showed their agreement by nodding when I gave my previous answer. I am delighted that there is consensus. I think we all agree that, particularly at this time, the country needs the security of a deterrent to deter what would be the most aggressive threats to our nation’s freedom.

May I confirm again that Labour’s support for our nuclear deterrent, which we maintain on behalf of our NATO allies, is total? However, following reports in newspapers about a malfunctioning depth gauge on a Vanguard submarine at sea, can the Minister explain what steps he has taken to ensure that such an incident never happens again?

First, I am delighted to hear confirmation of Labour’s total support for the deterrent. That sends a very powerful message to our adversaries about our national endeavour to support the deterrent and its renewal. On the specific story that the hon. Lady mentions, she will not be surprised to hear that we do not comment on operational matters in respect of our submarines.

This one will break the convention.

Let me also welcome the Secretary of State to their position. The nuclear enterprise has an uncapped budget, and, after the demise of HS2, is the largest single public procurement project on these islands. For those of us on the SNP Benches at least, that is money spent on a weapons system that is designed never to be used, which not only bleeds money from the conventional MOD budget but sucks it from hospitals, schools and social care. On a day when the preview of the autumn statement in the Financial Times reads,

“Stagnation nation: governing the UK when ‘there is no money’”,

can the Minister advise the House what steps his Department is taking to ensure that there are no further cuts to conventional forces or elsewhere because of the uncapped, runaway Trident budget?

The hon. Gentleman talks about budget and cost. I can be open about the figure that matters: 80 million. That is the combined death toll in the first and second world wars. We have not had a third world war and we are profoundly lucky, and I put it to the House that it is not a coincidence.

We know from the official history of the submarine service by Peter Hennessy and James Jinks that, during the transition to Vanguard, contingencies were made in Whitehall for the possible alteration of the continuous at-sea deterrent to take account of the complete breakdown of one or more hulls. This involved diving a Polaris submarine into Loch Long to remain there on a quick reaction alert. Can the Minister advise the House on what discussions his Department is having on the contingencies that we now see arising from an almost 40-year-old Vanguard fleet?

The hon. Gentleman, too, will not be surprised to hear that we will not comment on that, other than to say that we have had a continuous at-sea deterrent since 1969. We should all be proud of that, and I am delighted to see that Members on both sides of the House who support our Union also support the nuclear deterrent.

RAF Aid Flights to the Middle East

Defence assets continue to be ready to supply humanitarian support to the region. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the delivery of aid is impeded by the many challenges around Gaza, but so far we have airlifted 51 tonnes of aid to the country.

As I have said previously, I want to see an end to the violence in the middle east, although I acknowledge that neither Israel nor Hamas agreed to an immediate ceasefire. While negotiations to deliver an enduring peace are ongoing, we must urgently accelerate the delivery of aid via the RAF to alleviate human suffering on the ground. Can the Secretary of State explain why, within two weeks of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria, nearly 100 tonnes of aid was delivered there, yet since the Israel-Hamas war broke out more than a month ago, only 50 tonnes has been delivered by the RAF?

I can. The difference is a war zone. When I said that we had delivered “to the country”, I meant, of course, to Egypt. From there we have to get the aid across the Rafah crossing, which, for all the reasons of complexity, is not always open or available. There are many restrictions to getting that aid in, but I am working very hard on that. The problem is not a lack of resource; we have put in £30 million, more than doubling the existing £27 million, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are further flights leaving later this month.

For more than a month we have witnessed a distressing humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza. It is welcome that the RAF is flying UK humanitarian aid to the region, but so far we have seen only three RAF flights. When will the Government increase the number of flights and the amount of aid given to Palestinians, who have suffered so much and who deserve, at the very least, the basic essentials to try to survive?

The issue is not getting the aid to the region; we could fly more aircraft. The issue is getting the aid into Gaza itself, and in that regard we have the problem of Hamas, a terrorist organisation not in the least bit interested in looking after the citizens of Gaza, and, of course, the problem of the Rafah crossing, which is opened and closed on a fairly arbitrary basis. However, I can assure the hon. Lady that we are working very hard with all the different bodies and Governments in the region to get more of that aid in as quickly as possible. The capacity constraint is not flying it to the region.

Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy

10. What steps he is taking to support Afghan citizens who are eligible for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. (900157)

Some 13,000 eligible persons and their families are now in the UK under the ARAP scheme. We are determined to deliver on our commitments, with many hundreds more arrivals in the UK planned before the end of the year.

In the light of Pakistan’s brutal crackdown on undocumented and temporary visa-bearing Afghan refugees and its forcible deportation of those people back to Afghanistan, can the Minister confirm the security of those eligible for the Afghan citizens resettlement and ARAP schemes in Pakistan, including many whose claims have been unprocessed for two years? Can he expedite those claims to stop people being thrown back into the clutches of the Taliban?

May I gently encourage Members on both sides of the House to change their tone when describing the Government of Pakistan in relation to these matters? We would not have brought out thousands of people had it not been for the support of the Government of Pakistan, and we continue to enjoy their support and co-operation in our efforts to bring out many thousands more. As the hon. Lady well knows, because it has been well covered in the media, the Government of Pakistan have sought to accelerate the deportation of those whom they consider to be there illegally, but our excellent team in the high commission in Islamabad are working day and night with the Government of Pakistan to ensure that that does not happen to those who are in Pakistan under ARAP and ACRS. We are moving at our best pace to bring people back, with the full co-operation of the Government of Pakistan.

Military Support: Ukrainian Armed Forces

We continue to support Ukraine—we provided £2.3 billion of military support in the last year—and will go on doing so, because Putin must not win in Ukraine.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for the consistency of support the British Government have shown and the way they have led our NATO allies in support of the Ukrainians right from the start. How are we going to maintain that lead in the face of another war in the middle east, a certain amount of disarray in the Congress and indeed some visible wavering among our European allies?

My right hon. Friend is right that the UK has led, and we must continue to do so. I have visited Ukraine twice this year, I hosted a Ukrainian family for a year in my own home, and the Government have set up the British-led international fund for Ukraine, which is on its way to delivering, I think, nearly £800 million of support. We have also been first with tanks, with ammunition, with long-range missiles and with permissions, and we intend to be first with this war going forward.

It is vital that we continue to give military aid to Ukraine and to show our steadfast support and leadership in Europe. Has the Secretary of State had a chance, since he came into office, to meet with representatives of the defence industry to talk about how we maintain that level of military aid to Ukraine and, if he has had such a meeting, what was the outcome?

Yes, on several occasions, including in Kyiv and, more recently, last Thursday at the MOD, where I met with large, medium and small defence companies to discuss exactly that issue. There are a whole range of measures in place to increase the amount of arms, particularly arms replenishment, that can come through via UK companies. Having supported Ukraine from the beginning, we must support them all the way through to the end, and we intend to do so.

Armed Forces: Skills for the Future

12. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces have the skills required for the future. (900160)

20. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the armed forces have the skills required for the future. (900170)

In June 2023, the Ministry of Defence published the Haythornthwaite review of armed forces incentivisation. Multiple teams are being stood up across Defence to implement all 67 recommendations, working to establish a reward and incentivisation architecture that will attract and retain skills. Meanwhile, I am delighted to say that the Army has just been named the UK’s No. 1 employer of apprentices for the third consecutive year.

I am aware that the MOD is the biggest single employer of apprentices, with more than 15,000 soldiers currently on the programme, and I have seen the excellent training and development that takes place at the Army Foundation College, which, as my right hon. Friend knows, is located in Harrogate. Does he agree that the apprenticeship scheme is not only bringing in future talent, but ensuring that those individuals have the skills for the remainder of their lives?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I enjoyed my relatively recent visit to Harrogate. More than 95% of all non-commissioned recruits across the armed forces are offered apprenticeships mapped to their training. As he rightly says, that benefits not only Defence but the individual and the wider economy.

Given that the defence of our United Kingdom is reserved and education and skills are devolved, what discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the skills needed by our British armed forces are being developed across our whole United Kingdom?

The Ministry of Defence actively engages with the devolved Administrations to align education, skills and development, and will continue to do so, using the UK-wide pan-Defence skills framework, which ensures that the armed forces skills requirements are met across the country and contribute to the wider economy that we share.

I thank the Minister for that response. Beyond the Battlefield, an independent charity in my constituency, does incredible work with veterans who are homeless, giving them accommodation and some skills. I have extended an invitation to the Minister to come to Northern Ireland to visit Beyond the Battlefield, so I will extend that again. I think he will be impressed—I know I am—and he will see that what we do in Northern Ireland can be done elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

It is always a joy to visit Strangford—one of the most beautiful places in these islands, if I may say so. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s invitation; I have it at the front of my mind and when I am in Northern Ireland I will ensure that I visit.

Armed Forces Personnel: Recruitment

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces and recognise the importance of recruitment to achieve that. We are responding to immediate challenges with a programme aimed at increasing the breath of potential candidates and driving efficiencies in recruitment. Meanwhile, the services continue to meet all their operational commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

Since my election, I have met many new recruits during visits with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and I have always been incredibly impressed by their sense of duty, their commitment to serve their country and their recognition of the great careers that lie before them, but we know that there are still shortages in recruitment. How can my right hon. Friend ensure that all parts of the armed forces recruit the right number of people, with the right mix of skills and experience to keep our nation safe in these increasingly dangerous times?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that recruitment to the armed forces is mixed—some of it is good, some of it less good—across the western world. We are struggling to recruit people into our armed forces, and we must redouble our efforts. That is why we have had the Haythornthwaite review and the tri-service recruitment model, which I am convinced will plug the gaps that we have in skills and overall numbers.

Ministry of Defence Guard Service

15. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the operational MGS employment contract on applications for promotion in the Ministry of Defence Guard Service. (900165)

Order. Look, I do not need Members making signals to me on taking questions—it is quite obvious that I go from the Government side to the Opposition side.

There is no evidence that the operational MOD Guard Service employment contract has had a material bearing on workflow, recruitment and retention. However, it is not possible to conduct an accurate assessment of the impact that OMEC has had on applications from staff seeking promotion, because of the way applications are filed. That said, the MOD Guard Service is encouraged by the volume of applications received for vacancies through fair and open competition, no doubt encouraged by the fact that OMEC terms and conditions of service remain highly favourable when compared with private sector security companies.

I thank the Minister for his response but, respectfully, I do not find it sufficient. My constituent has provided more than a decade’s service within the Ministry of Defence Guard Service. He reports that he and his contemporaries are disincentivised to apply for promotion, because it would mean switching to the new OMEC contracts from their legacy contracts and an extra six hours’ work a week. Many are leaving. Will the Minister promise to investigate this issue thoroughly?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The new way of working was passed through the trade union consultation process, of course, and in terms of pay, pension, leave and sickness benefits and working hours, the MOD Guard Service performs well, as I have said, against private security companies. That is why we appear to be recruiting and retaining well.

Indo-Pacific Region: Stability

The tempo of our engagements and operations in the Indo-Pacific grows all the time on land, sea and air. We are also strengthening regional resilience among our partners to uphold freedom of navigation, deter security threats and build support for international law throughout the Indo-Pacific.

I agree that relationships with several south-east Asian states have reached new highs as a result of partnerships in areas such as space and cyber as well as air and maritime capabilities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should do more to ensure that the United Nations convention on the law of the sea is maintained in the South China sea, working closely with our partners in the region?

My hon. Friend hides his light under a bushel, because as a trade envoy in the region he will have had much to do with the improved relationships we enjoy there. Furthermore, HMS Spey transited the Straits of Malacca only this weekend, demonstrating the UK’s and the Royal Navy’s commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the South China sea and around.

Does the Minister believe the appointment of Lord Cameron as Foreign Secretary strengthens or weakens the Prime Minister’s stance that China poses an “epoch-defining challenge” to global security?

Medium-sized Helicopter Industry

17. What steps his Department is taking to help support the medium-sized helicopter industry in the south-west. (900167)

Helicopters form an important part of our integrated operating concept. Through past and current investment in rotary capability, the UK industrial base remains well placed to support existing and future helicopter platforms. Positive progress is being made towards the next stage of the competition with the three downselected suppliers: Airbus Helicopters UK, Leonardo Helicopters UK and Lockheed Martin UK.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the invitation to negotiate for the medium-sized helicopter will indeed be issued by the end of December?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are keen to get on with this, and that is certainly our intention. At the moment, we are in the process of securing final cross-Government approval. As I said, that is our aim, but I cannot absolutely guarantee it.

Defence Jobs

The most recent estimate shows that MOD investment supports more than 200,000 jobs in industries across the UK, and continued investment in defence along with the changes we continue to make as part of our defence and security industrial strategy are contributing to further economic growth and prosperity across the Union.

I thank the Minister for his answer. As a Member from north-east Wales, I am interested in how we promote defence spending in all regions of the United Kingdom, meaning that there is some balance, with defence jobs and investment not concentrated in the same part of England every time. What can the Minister do to assure my constituents in Delyn that they will have as much opportunity as those in places such as the south-west of England?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Obviously, we strongly want to see defence expenditure benefiting every part of the Union. I can confirm expenditure with industry in Wales amounting to about £744 million. Just to reassure him and show him how importantly we regard Wales, the week before last I heard I held my small and medium-sized enterprise forum in Cardiff at Space Forge, a brilliant Welsh SME that we are supporting with half a million pounds of funding to develop in-space manufacturing of semiconductors. That is a strong example of how we are supporting Welsh SMEs in the defence sector.

RAF Surveillance Aircraft

19. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of RAF surveillance aircraft on UK strategy and operations overseas. (900169)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the work of the slightly less glamorous part of the Royal Air Force that does long-distance surveillance missions. They are an important part of the UK’s defence strategy and our ability to monitor and observe what our adversaries are doing. Their work over the past year above the north Atlantic and the high north, the Baltic, the Black sea, the eastern Mediterranean and across the middle east has been central to defence operations. The team at RAF Waddington and at Lossiemouth should be congratulated.

We understand that UK surveillance assets such as Rivet Joint are providing surveillance support to Israel. I appreciate that, for reasons of operational security, the Minister cannot comment on the operational specifics of this activity, but will he rule out the possibility that these platforms are being used to support target acquisition?

While I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial question, he also gives me an opportunity to make an important clarification. Rivet Joint is not flying in support of Israel; it is flying to observe the risk of escalation in the region, to inform decision making in the UK MOD, and for nothing else.

Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the volcanic activity in Iceland at the moment? The P-8 regularly uses Keflavik airport near Reykjavik. Could that be interrupted by the threatened volcanic activity?

To the relief of people everywhere hoping for a Christmas getaway, I am told that this particular volcanic ash is not the same as that of last time and thus does not pose such a threat to aviation. However, we are, of course, monitoring it carefully and have contingencies.

Topical Questions

My first months as Defence Secretary have strengthened my long-held belief that we need to strengthen our national defence as the world grows ever-more dangerous. With the challenges in Ukraine, the middle east and the Indo-Pacific, these are more contested times than any since the cold war. The servicemen and women of our armed forces are our greatest asset. As has been mentioned, as we ask them to do extraordinarily difficult things around the world and they do deserve comfort back home. That is why I have put service accommodation at the forefront of my mission.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Will he add his thanks to volunteers such as Trevor Simcock, Mal Mullet and Chris Smith, who work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission locally in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke? Ahead of the Armistice Weekend, I was proud to join them at Burslem cemetery with my daughter Amelia to clean the headstones of 130 of our brave and fallen heroes. Will he add his thanks and come to visit those great volunteers?

I am delighted to add my thanks to my hon. Friend’s brilliant volunteers. It is an opportunity to mention from the Dispatch Box the many thousands of people who turned out across the country on Remembrance Weekend to commemorate and remember those who bravely gave of themselves so that we can be here in freedom today.

The Defence Secretary said recently that, despite middle east tensions, we must not forget about Ukraine. I welcome that statement, but the UK’s leadership on support for Ukraine is flagging, so will Wednesday’s autumn statement, as a minimum, confirm the commitment to match this year’s £2.3 billion in military aid funding for next year?

I do not know when the right hon. Gentleman was last able to visit Kyiv himself, but when he does go, he will discover that the attitude there is that no country in the world has been more forward-leaning and progressive in its support, and that remains the same today as it was before this conflict began. We have trained 52,000 Ukrainian troops since 2014. Our support is not for today or tomorrow or the short term; it is forever.

T4.   What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the strategic importance to UK national security, and indeed that of the United States, of retaining British sovereignty over Diego Garcia? (900174)

It is essential that we maintain our position, to be able to assist ourselves and the United States, in Diego Garcia.

T2. I am proud that my constituency is home to hundreds of armed forces personnel and their families and former families, but as Members on both sides of the House have mentioned, last winter far too many of them found themselves living in accommodation that simply was not fit for purpose. Can the Minister confirm how we will be getting tough with the contractors who are letting down our families this winter, and can we have some clarity on when all armed forces families will finally be able to live in homes that are fit for their heroes? (900172)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for raising this important matter for his constituency, and I am pleased to work with him on what we offer his service personnel. I have said that last winter was not good enough, but this year we are ramping up massively. We have at times withheld profit from contractors where they have not performed, but what I want to see from them above all is delivery. We have put in place the £400 million and I now want to see that delivered as improvements to houses, including work being done on boilers and on damp and mould. Thousands of homes will be supported this winter and hopefully we will be in a far better position.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are more secure as a country when the world is a safer and more peaceful place, and that a successful two-state solution for the Israel and Palestine question is therefore a part of our own national security too? (900175)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The way that we can start along that path is that Hamas could release the 242 innocent civilians that they are holding hostage, which includes some Brits. That would open the door to starting to be able to get a resolution. That is what they should do, but sadly, I doubt that they are about to.

T3.   Labour Party research on waste in the Ministry of Defence shows that over £15 billion has been squandered since 2010, so when are the Government going to get a grip on defence procurement and secure value for money for the British taxpayer? (900173)

On all the key metrics there has been a significant improvement since the hon. Gentleman’s party was in office. If you were to ask, Mr Speaker, what the key test was for a procurement system, I would say it is wartime. Of course we are not ourselves directly at war, but in supporting Ukraine, we have seen excellence in procurement, particularly at Defence Equipment and Support, getting equipment—

May I take this opportunity to formally welcome the Secretary of State to his position? I am grateful for his comments on military accommodation being a priority for him. The Select Committee is undertaking an inquiry into that as well. One of the issues that has come up is the absence of a military uniformed accommodation officer who is responsible for continually inspecting accommodation and then liaising with the contractors to ensure that the repairs take place. Is that something my hon. Friend the Minister will consider?

I strongly congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming Chair of the Defence Committee and I look forward to working with him. I know that, predating his appointment, he had a strong interest in accommodation, and I enjoyed visiting his constituency to look at the accommodation for Brize Norton. I will consider his point and write to him.

T6. In 2022, 11.2% of British Army recruits were women. That is down from 12.6% in 2020. In 2021, 9% of British Army recruits were from ethnic minority backgrounds, and that is down from 11.7% in 2020. What is the Secretary of State doing to urgently remedy this reduction in the diversity of recruits? (900176)

I want to make it absolutely clear that I think everyone working within the civil service as part of the Ministry of Defence and, indeed, working in the UK armed forces should feel able to be represented and be a part of it. I want to challenge the hon. Lady’s figures: the numbers I have for female representation between last year and this year are 10.4%, rising to 11.5%—it has actually gone up, not down—and civilian representation at SCS level stands at 45%. None the less, I accept the overall point that we need to see a far more balanced armed forces in the future.

Two years ago, the Defence Select Committee undertook an inquiry into the experiences of women in the armed forces. While progress has been made, the culture within defence remains unacceptable. We now understand that 60 female senior civil servants at the MOD have made allegations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse. Would my right hon. Friend like to comment?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her question, and I reiterate once again my thanks for all the hard work she has done on behalf of women in defence. She is quite right: it is unacceptable. Today, the permanent secretary has written to the Department with an action plan on how to deal with the specific issue my hon. Friend has raised, in particular asking our non-executive directors to conduct a review, so that we can ensure that what we are doing stands up to muster against the norms in other large organisations.

T7. The Ukraine conflict has reinforced the need for a thriving defence industry to underpin our security. Will the Secretary of State now take the opportunity to revisit his predecessor’s policy of placing so many orders abroad, rather than in British industry with British workers, and in particular, the building of the fleet solid support ships in foreign yards? (900177)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the fleet solid support ships being built in foreign yards. I can assure him that recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting Harland & Wolff at its Appledore yard in north Devon. That is in the UK, and it is where a significant part of the FSS contract will be made.

Rock Barracks in my constituency is home to the excellent 23 Parachute Regiment. I know the Government have invested a lot of money in new accommodation, but people are being let down. We know that Pinnacle is the problem, but it also worries me that people feel they cannot approach their MP directly because of retaliation if they make a complaint. I encourage the Minister to come and visit so that we can fix this problem properly.

I am alarmed to hear that. It is a pleasure to take a question from my right hon. Friend, who is my constituency neighbour; it is not far for me to travel, and I would be delighted to do so.

T8. I welcome the Minister’s statement last week that 60% of homes with damp and mould will be receiving support, because that has been such a big issue at RAF Shawbury in my constituency. Can he explain what is going to happen to the other 40% of homes that have damp and mould, and will he commit to a minimum standard for service accommodation for military families? (900178)

The hon. Lady asks a very good question. To be clear, the figure of 4,000 homes with damp and mould is for this winter: we have put in place £400 million of additional spending. Of course, as we move into next year, we will look at what further work can be undertaken so that we can deal with all the other properties.

Will the Minister confirm that the Ministry would never put serving personnel at risk by putting an open camp for illegal migrants in a serving base, and therefore any undertaking about that is worthless—that the most we will get at RAF Catterick is a closed detention centre?

T9.   Has the MOD made any further payments in addition to the £480 million it paid to General Dynamics in March of this year? I understand that subcontractors on the programme are not being paid, or are not being paid the amounts they expected. Is there any reason why General Dynamics should not be paying its subcontractors on this programme? (900179)

The right hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable on these matters, and I am more than happy for him to write to me about them. The Ajax contract is a firm price contract, and I am very pleased to say that we are getting very positive feedback from the Household Cavalry about that platform’s capability, its sensors and its cannon. I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question about payments to subcontractors, so he is more than welcome to write to me.

Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss a British company, Christy Aerospace and Technology, which has the capability to dramatically reduce the time it takes to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, and does he agree that we need to do everything we can to accelerate the rate at which we can get those pilots trained?

It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend. He has been an absolute champion on the Ukraine issue, and I would be delighted to meet him to see what more we can do.

T10.   Ian Bernard is a constituent of mine who served in the Royal Air Force and witnessed the nuclear tests on Christmas Island. Ian is still to receive his nuclear veteran’s medal, and he has asked me to ask the Minister whether that omission could be rectified. (900180)

I am disturbed to hear that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent has not received his medal, because they have been minted and distributed. If he would like to write to me with the details, I will chase it up.

Local mosques in Bolton are collecting donations, yet there seem to be major problems in getting those donations and aid into Gaza. What discussions is the Department having with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Israeli Government about ensuring that those donations get to those most in need? Not doing so will only escalate the conflict.

As I have described, it is a complex position on the ground to get the aid all the way through, but I am happy to either meet or take details from my hon. Friend to ensure that those donations get where they are intended.

Defence Ministers will be aware that the situation in Kosovo is deteriorating dramatically. Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that the current international military presence there is sufficient to counter any threat from Belgrade?

When the Supreme Allied Commander Europe asked us for additional support for the Kosovo-Serbian border, the answer was immediately yes, that weekend, and we have a battalion there now, which is doing a great job. That has contributed to a lessening of tensions, and we are keeping a close eye on it in our conversations, to ensure that we do not see the situation erupt.

This weekend we witnessed the third attack in a year on a commercial vessel in international waters. The cargo ship Galaxy Leader has been described by the Israeli Government as British owned and Japanese operated. What actions will the Minister take to prevent such acts of terrorism on British vessels?

We are very aware of the incident that my hon. Friend describes. The US navy has a presence in the Red sea, and the Royal Navy always keeps under review options to deploy there too.

Gurkha soldiers who retired before 1997 receive a lower pension than other British soldiers. Will the Minister update the House on the current negotiations between the UK and the Government of Nepal to solve that difficult issue?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am seeing a bilateral committee with veterans and the Nepalese ambassador on Wednesday. This is an ongoing process. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that pension schemes are extremely complicated, and in many cases the Gurkha pension scheme and offer to transfer subsequently represents good value for many of our brave Gurkha veterans. I am certainly in discussion with the interested parties. I am afraid that I cannot offer any promises at all, but nevertheless discussions are ongoing.

The great south-west region is home to cutting-edge defence companies such as Supacat, which makes military vehicles for our armed forces. The Jackal 3 is an incredible vehicle that is being put to good use in Ukraine. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that more defence jobs come to the south-west?

It is brilliant to see south-west colleagues standing up for the defence sector in their constituencies, and my hon. Friend is right about Supacat—it is a brilliant platform. In February 2023 Supacat was awarded a £90 million contract by the MOD for 70 high-mobility truck vehicles, to be delivered by the end of the financial year, securing 100 jobs in the UK. Supacat already has two other direct contracts with the MOD for the Jackal military enhancement programme, which is valued at a total of £4.5 million.

We must ensure that Putin does not win. We must co-operate and help with the reconstruction of Ukraine. Is it not time that we started seizing Russian state assets to help pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine?

A long time ago, when the war started, I was Transport Secretary. We seized quite a lot of yachts and aircraft, which have still not been released, to ensure that they did not benefit from their closeness to Putin. The hon. Gentleman is right that over time we must keep cranking up the different ways by which we ensure that money is not flowing to that regime, and we will continue to keep that under review.

I believe that the ability to make virgin steel is crucial to the UK’s defence capabilities. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has been a long-running champion of the steel sector and its importance to her constituents. Of course, we want a smooth transition between blast furnace and electronic arc steel making technology. Steel remains incredibly important to the defence sector. Take the Type 26: almost 50% of that is British steel. That is 1,400 tonnes per ship. That underlines why it is so important that, in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s, we continue to support the steel sector.[Official Report, 27 November 2023, Vol. 741, c. 6MC.]

The Secretary of State and his predecessors rightly called out the wanton and unlawful destruction of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine—homes, hospitals and schools. Why can they not show equal uproar at what is happening to civilians in Gaza?

There is a principle in international law that a country can defend itself. Ukraine was attacked for absolutely no reason whatsoever. While we call on Israel, both privately and publicly, to protect civilians in whatever way it can, Hamas are using civilians as human shields, and deliberately using the infrastructure on top of them to hide behind. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman could see the difference.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that his counterparts in the US Administration realise that if Putin does not lose in Ukraine, the peace and security of the whole of Europe is called into question, so it is in their short and medium-term interests to make sure that Putin is seen to fail?

My right hon. Friend is characteristically correct about this, but I would widen that point: we are talking about the security of not just Europe, but the Indo-Pacific, and indeed the entire world. Putin must not win.