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Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

Since the Minister for the Armed Forces last updated the House on 28 November, the situation on the ground has remained largely unchanged. Ukraine has been fortifying its border with Belarus with dragon’s teeth, razor wire and anti-tank ditches, and is pivoting to a more defensive posture following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s call on 1 December for rapid fortification across the front.

On 12 December, Kyivstar, Ukraine’s largest mobile network operator, suffered a cyber-attack. The incident is likely one of the highest impact disruptive cyber-attacks on Ukrainian networks since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. The Russian air force is highly likely to have carried out the first use of the AS-24 Killjoy air-launched ballistic missile since August 2023. Killjoy has almost certainly had a mixed combat debut. Many of its launches have likely missed their intended targets, while Ukraine has also succeeded in shooting down examples of the supposedly undefeatable system.

We will continue to support priority areas for Ukraine in the coming months, including air defence and hardening critical national infrastructure sites. Our foundational supply of critical artillery ammunition continues. Most recently, on 11 December, the Defence Secretary announced that the UK will lead a new maritime capability coalition alongside Norway, delivering ships and vehicles to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to operate at sea. This represents a step change in the UK’s support for Ukraine in both defending against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion and developing Ukraine’s future maritime capability. The new coalition will deliver long-term support to Ukraine, including training, equipment, and infrastructure to bolster security in the Black sea. We could not be more clear: as the Prime Minster has said, we are in this for as much and as long as it takes.

The maritime capability coalition initiative reinforces our collective long-term commitment to Ukraine and provides a permanent mechanism through which we can support the development of Ukraine’s maritime capability. Agreed during recent meetings of the 50-nation-strong Ukraine defence contact group, it forms part of a series of capability coalitions to strengthen Ukraine’s operations in other domains including on land and in the air. On 13 and 14 December, the Ministry of Defence, along with the Department of Business and Trade, successfully conducted the first UK trade mission to Kyiv since the invasion in 2022. The mission enabled discussions with and between UK and Ukraine officials and industry on opportunities for long-term co-operation, and resulted in tangible agreements for industry.

The UK has committed £4.6 billion of military support to date, as we continue to donate significant amounts of ammunition and matériel from our own stocks, as well as those purchased from across the globe. In addition, we have trained more than 52,000 soldiers since 2015. The UK and our allies have been clear that we will not stand by as the Kremlin persists in its disregard for the sovereignty of Ukraine and international law. That includes the recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty over its territorial waters, which is established in accordance with international maritime law.

I thank the Minister for his words but, with due respect, the House should hear from the Defence Secretary himself. He may have urgent business today—we understand that—but he has been in post for four months and he has not made an oral statement in Parliament on Ukraine, from the top, to reassure Ukrainians that Britain will stand with them for as long as it takes to win, to warn President Putin that Britain remains resolute in confronting Russian aggression, and to explain to people why the defence of the UK starts in Ukraine. This is a war in Europe. Last week, nearly two years on, Putin declared that his goals have not changed. If he prevails, he will not stop at Ukraine. That is why the Government have had, and will continue to have, Labour’s fullest support for military aid to Ukraine and for reinforcing NATO allies.

Ukrainians face another winter with war, and another tough year beyond. Yesterday, a top general said that they face ammunition shortages across the entire frontline. At the very time Ukraine needs unfailing support, the UK is falling behind other nations: no new UK weaponry since July; no UK military funding for next year; and no 2024 plan for Ukraine. The UK is united behind Ukraine. I am proud of the UK leadership on Ukraine, but I want to be proud in six months’ time. When will the military aid funding for next year be agreed? Will it be multi-year? When will the international fund for Ukraine commit the half a billion pounds so far unspent? How many next-generation light anti-tank weapons have been produced under the new contract signed 12 months ago, and delivered to Ukraine? Another two minehunter ships were announced last week for Ukraine—the same ships pledged by Ministers in June 2021.

Madam Deputy Speaker, 2024 will be a critical year for Ukraine. We must have the Defence Secretary himself in the House to set out the UK’s plans—military, economic and diplomatic—to support Ukraine through 2024 and beyond.

I am extremely proud to stand here and defend the Government’s very strong record in supporting Ukraine. The Secretary of State gave a very important statement yesterday on the future of UK fast jet capability, and the trade mission that we sent to Ukraine last week makes it timely that I stand here now. The public understand the huge amount of support that we have given, and it is important to emphasise that we now need to move to the next phase—the long term—of helping Ukraine’s industry to support itself, working closely with Ukrainian partners. As procurement Minister, I have that as an absolute priority, as demonstrated in the last week by the trade mission.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s other points, I totally agree about the risk of Putin prevailing, and I am grateful for the cross-party support. On ammunition shortages, he specifically asked about NLAWs. Of course, that is not the only anti-tank weapon we have sent. In total, we have sent around 10,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, plus about 4 million small-round ammo, 300,000 artillery shells, 20 AS90 self-propelled guns, a squadron of tanks and a huge amount of air defence systems and uncrewed systems. The list goes on: 82,000 helmets, and training for over 50,000 Ukrainians in the UK to enable them to go back and fight for the freedom of their country. I am very proud of that record, but the Prime Minister has been clear: we know there is much more to do.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we have sent a great deal of ammunition to Ukraine. The question is, have we been able to replace that ammunition, especially in the context of a war that seems to be attritional and likely to go on for a considerable amount of time?

My right hon. Friend is an expert in these matters, and always asks pertinent questions. My constituents strongly support the effort we have undertaken to give all the weapons we have to Ukraine—not all gifted from this country, it should be stressed. Equally, they want us to replenish those stocks. That is why we have already signed contracts for NLAWs and lightweight multi-role missiles, and we have already taken delivery of the Archer 6x6, which is the interim replacement for the AS90 gun. It happens in parallel. We have to keep supporting Ukraine but, absolutely, we put the additional money from the budget to support the replenishment of our own armed forces.

We are approaching dangerous territory with regards to the west’s ongoing support for those who fight for our democracy and the rule of law in the trenches and farm buildings of eastern Ukraine. We see Putin’s plan to sit and wait while democracies lose interest in Ukraine come to fruition, in politically motivated budget wrangling in Washington, in the clientelism of Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, in the exhausted replenishment efforts of the west’s defence industry and in the vagaries of the west’s media cycle. The west must act decisively and with endurance to thwart Putin’s plan, and the SNP stands fully behind the Government’s actions to deliver on that priority.

The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the UK will continue to support Ukraine in the defence against Putin. What further details can this Defence Minister provide about that, and about what discussions the Secretary of State for Defence—it is a pity that he is not here—has had with the Foreign Secretary about the continued support for Ukraine? What will it look like, and what will be the scale of it? Finally, can the UK Government encourage, through some means, the Government and the Prime Minister of Hungary to lift their block on EU funding for Ukraine?

I believe that until recently the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Defence Committee, and I am grateful for that support from him and from his party. He asked a number of questions, but I think the most important was the one about what we could say about the support we are providing for Ukraine right now.

In my opening remarks I emphasised the importance of the maritime capability coalition, and Members will be more than aware of the importance of the Black sea and getting grain out of Ukraine. Since that corridor reopened, some 5 million tonnes of grain have been exported, and it is extremely important for us to retain that. We should also recognise that Ukraine has had significant success in pushing the Russian fleet eastwards to enable that to happen. However, we must not be complacent, which is why we are providing this naval support. We and Norway are joint leaders of the MCC, and when I visited Norway last week, it was clear that we are very strong naval partners because of the shared threat to our home waters that we face from Russian submarines, but we will keep on looking at what more we can do, and I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House for their support.

In response to the question from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), my hon. Friend referred to UK companies helping Ukraine to build out its own defence capabilities. That is obviously to be welcomed, but can he also reassure us that the work we are doing to resupply Ukraine is an opportunity we are seizing to broaden and deepen UK defence capabilities, so that in the worst-case scenarios we can enhance our own ability to restock ourselves and our allies?

It is a pleasure to take a question from my right hon. Friend. He was an excellent Minister for Defence Procurement and an excellent Minister generally, and I always enjoyed the many Cobra meetings that were overseen by him, but he speaks with equal strength from the Back Benches, and his question is very important. When it comes to opportunities for future industrial production in Ukraine, I would like to see an opportunity for us to work together for our mutual benefit to create ordnance not just for Ukraine but for ourselves, because maximising that demand signal is the best way in which to secure the strongest possible military industrial base.

I readily acknowledge the support that we have given to Ukraine to try and ensure that Putin cannot win. That is an objective shared in all parts of the House, but the scale of the conflict requires more, especially in the form of artillery and munitions. Why did it take the Government more than a year to sign the contract for new capacity for shell production, not only for Ukraine but to restock our own supplies?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right, and he speaks with experience as a former Defence Minister, but we have signed the contract on the 155 shell, as the Prime Minister announced last July. That contract sits alongside many others, including the lightweight multi-role missile and STARStreak contracts. This is, of course, for our own defence, but, as I have said, we recently delivered the 300,000th artillery shell to Ukraine, and we should be proud of that effort.

It is clearly very important that we support our friends in Ukraine, but it is equally important that we support our NATO allies in the region, such as Romania. My hon. Friend has mentioned the support being given in the Black sea. The port of Constanta is vital to the export of Ukrainian grain and other produce, so may I ask what extra support the Government are giving to Romania to ensure that this vital sea lane is kept free?

My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. I recently had the pleasure of meeting my Romanian counterpart in the main building at the Ministry of Defence, and we spoke about a number of issues. Like us, the Romanians are absolutely committed to supporting Ukraine. I think that Romania is one of the countries that are joining the MCC, but I will check that and write to my hon. Friend. We need to work closely with allies on these wider strategic issues.

Last month I was concerned to note that the Chancellor barely mentioned Ukraine in his autumn statement, and since then he has made hardly any new commitments to supporting its people. The Government and the Opposition have stood shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine, and the UK must not waver in its leadership on this issue. Can the Minister reassure me—and, more important, can he reassure the families who have come from Ukraine and settled in my constituency—that the UK will be committed to supporting Ukraine in the coming months?

Absolutely: I can send that message to the families—and, by the way, the hon. Lady has also made an important point in reminding us of the huge generosity that we have shown by taking in so many of those families, a number of whom are in my constituency. I can certainly reassure her, on the basis of what has happened literally in the last week. We should be judged not by words but by action, having created a maritime coalition that will support the crucial strategic interests of the Black sea. I am talking about access to the Black sea, security, and the ability to get grain in and out. We have also continued to provide those crucial weapons, including air defence systems.

I congratulate the Government on their global leadership, which we all recognise, but a couple of matters concern me. First, the importance of supplying basic kit has been stressed by Members on both sides of the House. The supply of 155 and 155-2 shells is critical, and it needs a long-term plan. It is great that we have supplied 300,000 shells, but the Russians are using up to 15,000 shells a day, and the Ukrainians are responding with between 3,000 and 7,000, so this is a massive artillery war. Secondly, Putin’s regime is gaining ground politically because the Russians are holding ground while they target western support. So the long-term supply is critical physically, but it is also critical in terms of the message we send that we are not cutting and running but are in for the long haul.

My hon. Friend, who of course served in intelligence, makes some excellent points. On the particular importance of artillery, I have already spoken about the volume of shells and the guns that have been gifted, but I should add the spare parts to support them, which are easy to forget about. I spoke earlier about the Ukraine defence contact group. I recently attended a Teams call with all my fellow Ministers involved in that, under US leadership. Country after country listed its latest gifting, including artillery and many other munitions. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that we need a long-term plan. I think there is huge determination across the west and all our allies to continue this effort. Of course it is challenging, but that is why we need to bring in that additional element of ensuring that Ukrainian industry can start to rise to the occasion.

The language from the Government remains robust, but the details of practical help, military and otherwise, are lacking. There are 12 days left of this year, and we still do not have a full schedule for what aid the Government will provide for 2024. When can we expect to have it?

I respect the hon. Gentleman, with whom I spent time at the Ministry of Justice, but he has suggested that this is “talk”. We are one of the key reasons why Ukraine is still a free country. It has regained about 50% of the land taken by Russia, and we played a decisive role in that. I know that there is strong consensus on keeping it going, but I hope that that can be recognised. I have already listed the enormous amount of ordnance that we have provided: 300,000 artillery shells and 4 million rounds of ammunition. Of course we want to keep on doing that, and we are. I have also explained how we will be supporting Ukraine in the naval domain, which I believe will be crucial.

My constituency has warmly welcomed many Ukrainians to our community, and we are supportive of the UK Government’s ongoing efforts to back Ukraine and our NATO allies. Can my hon. Friend update the House on the support for Ukraine’s own military industrial capacity?

That too is an excellent question. I spoke earlier about the visit last week. Why is that so important? It is important because, as I said, we know there is huge support across the country, and indeed across Parliament, for the efforts that we have undertaken to support Ukraine. However, we now need to help its industry to support it. I think that our defence industry, which is world-leading, can play a key role in that, and I am very pleased that major UK primes were out there last week, already starting to sign agreements with their Ukrainian counterparts.

In July this year, I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine with Siobhan’s Trust and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). It was clear that many of the soldiers were being injured and were not receiving enough support, and also that training was a huge issue. I realise that there are sensitivities surrounding what western countries can do when it comes to providing training, but can the Minister explain what kind of help is being provided for soldiers, in terms of recovery but also to ensure that they have proper support so that they are not going into conflict—into war—unprepared?

The hon. Lady asks an excellent question on training. It was one of my most insightful visits as a Defence Minister early on to go to Salisbury plain and see the Irish Guards, together with our New Zealand and Australian colleagues, training Ukrainians who, let us be frank, would have some weeks of training then go out to experience pretty severe trench warfare. I am proud of the role we played in that, but she is right to say that a crucial part of it is the medical element. I believe that we have trained around 65 medical personnel, but I will check that detail and write to her, because this is important.

Recently the United States has been wobbling over funding. What assessments do our Government make of that and of how we engage in Ukraine? This is the second Christmas that many Ukrainians will be experiencing in a time not in peace. Could the Minister send the Government’s gratitude to organisations such as the Ukrainian Social and Cultural Centre in Bolton, headed by Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn, during what should be a joyous time for families around the world but is a difficult time for the Ukrainian community?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion the community groups supporting Ukraine. On his other point about the US, I can only speak from my own experience. I referred to the contact group meeting we had on Teams recently. Secretary Austin led that from the beginning to the end, emphasising all the way through that as far as he was concerned, the US was in it for the long haul. I believe that that is the case. This is about freedom. Freedom is at stake here. We have fought this far to protect it, and we have to keep doing that job if we are to defend freedom across our continent.

In August this year, the then Defence Secretary said that he would publish the action plan for Ukraine in 2023. Will it be published before the end of the year?

I simply say to the right hon. Lady, as I have been saying throughout, that we are delivering action every week in Ukraine. The amount of ordnance we have supplied and continue to supply—particularly in terms of air defence, which is now increasingly crucial—is huge. I have listed the many numbers. Some of it, of course, we cannot talk about. There are technologies that we are testing out there, ensuring that our munitions are successful. What I can say is that if we look at the work of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, for example—as I say, I cannot talk about the detail—we can see that it has had a huge bearing on the impact of what we have donated into theatre.

I welcome the support that the Government have given, and indeed the lead that they have taken, in ensuring that while others were dragging their feet we gave support to Ukraine in its vital defence of freedom. As it is clear that the Russians are now settling in for a long war, consolidating the ground that they have taken and hoping to sit out the west’s opposition to their invasion, can the Minister give us some indication whether he is ensuring that we have the physical capacity to continue our support and that we are making the necessary financial commitments? What plans does he have to launch a diplomatic offensive to ensure that people stay in line on giving support to Ukraine?

We are trying to do all those things. I should like to put on record that it was an absolute pleasure to visit the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency to launch Armed Forces Week back in the summer. I know that he is a passionate supporter of our armed forces and of our efforts in Ukraine, and that he shares my pride in the provision of NLAW, which is made in Belfast. He is absolutely right on all those counts, and on the diplomatic one in particular. There’s huge unity in the west. We all know that the stakes are incredibly high, but we now have to persist. We are all in it for the long haul.

It is clearly Putin’s strategy to sit this out as long as is necessary in the hope that Ukraine’s allies lose the political will to provide the support that has been there so far. In that regard, the Foreign Secretary indicated to the other place earlier this month that he was prepared to increase the amount of funding available to Ukraine next year. Is the Minister able to confirm that that is indeed the case and tell us how much additional funding will be in place?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that these matters are still under discussion. The Prime Minister has been clear about the strength of our commitment, and I go back to the previous point made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), which backs this up. A huge way in which we have ensured support and funding for Ukraine is not just from what we have provided but by being a convenor of an international effort. We have played a decisive role in that, but of course there is more to do.

Those of us on the SNP Benches remain steadfast in our support for Ukraine in its defence against its unprovoked Russian aggressor. Ukraine has been given substantial support by a great many countries, particularly the UK and the USA, but as we have heard, that support is under threat. How concerned is the Minister about the rhetoric on Ukraine aid that is coming from the US Republicans driven by Donald Trump, who is too busy praising Vladimir Putin, and about what that means for the US’s aid to Ukraine in the long term?

I respect the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I hear nothing but total support for Ukraine from the US Administration. They recognise the strategic issues. Let us be clear about this. To all voices in the US and elsewhere, this is not just about Ukraine. As the shadow Secretary of State said earlier, we should not underestimate what the impact would have been, had Russia succeeded early on in terms of other strategic issues, not least China and so on. We have to see the big picture, and that means standing together as allies.

The Minister is clear about the support for Ukraine from the UK, but does he agree that it is important that we keep full support from our NATO allies? Two weeks ago at the transatlantic NATO forum, I and other delegates were concerned about the lukewarm response from certain members of Congress on continuing support. What more can we do to get the message across to members of Congress that the commitment is not only solid here but also backed by cash, with around $133 billion coming from the UK and the European institutions?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; this follows on from the previous point. As I said, when I look at the US I see steadfast support in the Administration in terms of the enormous amount of munitions they have provided and in many other ways, including financially, and I hope that that can continue. My observation from the contact group was that, day to day, they are leading that and ensuring that we, with them, continue to convene other nations. But the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we all need to be in it for the long haul.

The Minister obfuscated and did not properly answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), so let me try again. In a bid to provide long-term certainty of UK support for our friends in Ukraine to help repel Russia’s invasion, the Defence Secretary’s predecessor last August promised a 2023 action plan for Ukraine, but it is still nowhere to be seen and there are less than two weeks of 2023 left. So, Minister, why has this action plan not been published and when will it be?

I was not obfuscating; I was simply referring to the actual actions we have been delivering on the ground, day in, day out, in Ukraine right from the beginning and before—after all, we have been training Ukrainians since 2014. So yes, we are delivering action on the ground and it has helped to keep Ukraine a free country, largely.

The signals that we send from this place are obviously important, as I am sure the Minister will agree, and in the messages that we are hearing from the EU and the US there is perhaps some wavering going on. I come back to the previous question and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South. Will the Minister commit today to publishing the action plan for Ukraine before the end of this year?

Well of course, this is the last sitting day. I would simply say—[Interruption.] I might sound like a stuck record, but this is so important. In this game, what matters is what we actually do on the ground. We have just announced a maritime coalition. We continue to send air defence systems, which are incredibly important. We have sent 300,000 artillery shells, thousands and thousands of helmets, 4 million pieces of small arms ammo. This is what matters. This is the action that delivers. We know there is more to do, and we are going to keep playing that role.

The Russian energy giant Gazprom earned £39 million last year from the North sea Sillimanite gas field, which is partly underneath UK waters. Gazprom is majority owned by the Russian state and is Russia’s largest taxpayer. Will the Minister talk to his counterparts in the Department for Business and Trade to avoid a situation where UK defence is giving generous military aid while the new Office of Trade Sanctions Implementation overlooks the Russian state funding of its aggression from the proceeds of the sale of North sea gas?

Two years in and the hardship and devastation continue for the people of Ukraine, especially as we enter the harsh winter months. Western officials have repeatedly assessed that Russian forces are currently firing artillery at a rate five to seven times greater than their Ukrainian counterparts. What more are the Government doing to ensure an adequate supply of ammunition for Ukraine to win this war?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about the issues arising as we move into winter, which obviously brings its own challenges. I have spoken about the significant amount of ordnance supplied to date. As she knows, we do not talk about the specifics of how it arrives in country. Needless to say, we work strongly with our allies and, of course, with the Ukrainian armed forces. The key point is that we continue to work strongly on supplying munitions into Ukraine, but our trade mission was one of the most important developments because we now have to focus on helping Ukrainian industry to manufacture its own arms. We want to do that jointly with Ukraine. We have a strong track record of world-leading defence businesses, which is part of the key to this.

I thank the Minister for his positive response. No one, inside or outside this House, can doubt the commitment of the United Kingdom Government and Ministers to helping Ukraine.

As the hustle and bustle of Christmas is upon us, it is easy for us to forget that Ukraine is still at war and holding its own against Russian aggression. Can the Minister update the House on how families with children are receiving aid and education to ensure that we do not have a lost generation of young adults with no learning and no vocational training?

As ever, we save the best for last. It is always a pleasure to take questions from the hon. Gentleman, who always speaks with such passion and compassion. He is absolutely right about this important issue. We have been talking about financial support and, as he will be aware, the totality of our support to Ukraine—not just military aid but humanitarian aid—is £9.3 billion. Of course we need to focus on the humanitarian side but, ultimately, I feel most proud of our contribution when I imagine what would have happened if Ukraine had been totally conquered. That does not bear thinking about.