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Topical Questions

Volume 741: debated on Monday 20 November 2023

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.