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Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Permanent Structured Co-operation Projects

1. What assessment his Department has made of the potential merits of participating in further EU permanent structured co-operation projects. (901512)

The Department’s priority is to finalise entry into the permanent structured co-operation military mobility project before considering involvement in other projects. However, we assess that the EU’s standard “third country” terms for PESCO projects involving procurement or capability development will continue to impose significant constraint on UK involvement.

I appreciate that the UK Government’s attitude to PESCO is to take each project on a case-by-case basis, but may I suggest that publishing criteria for that case-by-case assessment would be useful? It is obvious to the dogs in the street that PESCO will evolve at light-speed, and the UK risks missing out on a lot of important co-operation that could be beneficial. Will the Minister publish that guidance? Otherwise, I will be tabling 68 parliamentary questions to cover each of the 68 PESCO mechanisms.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I fear that my answer will give him encouragement to table the 68 questions, because it is right that we consider each opportunity in PESCO on its merits. PESCO is a vehicle for increasing military mobility around the continent. Non-EU NATO partners support that fully, and the UK is among them, but industrial or technological co-operation will not always be in the UK’s interest, or in the interest of UK industry, so it is right that we consider these things case by case.

Ukraine: Military Support

During his visit to Ukraine on 12 January, the Prime Minister signed an historic UK-Ukraine agreement on security co-operation with President Zelensky, illustrating our long-term commitment to supporting Ukraine. The Prime Minister announced that the UK will provide £2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine in 2024-25—a £200 million increase on the previous two years—to cover rapid procurement and gifting of equipment, development of international capability coalitions, and training through Operation Interflex.

I thank the Minister for that response. There is clearly widespread support in this House and the country for helping Ukraine to resist Russian aggression, but there are concerns, given that President Zelensky has recently identified a shortage of arms and ammunition, particularly in the light of the impasse in the US Congress. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the EU and other European nations about helping to bridge the gap in the short term, and on how we will deal with it if, in the longer term, the election of President Trump reduces NATO spending in general, and its spending on Ukraine in particular?

Of course, we are aware of the scepticism among Republican presidential candidates and in the US Congress about funding for Ukraine. That is why UK Ministers—the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and I —have been in Washington to make the case for the US continuing to support Ukraine, no matter the outcome of the election. Second-guessing the outcome of the US electoral system is probably not sensible, but notwithstanding the fantastic efforts, led by Prime Minister Kallas of Estonia, to increase the manufacturing of ammunition in particular, it is clear that European manufacturing capacity is not yet at even half the target set. That should be cause for all of us to consider how we might urgently ramp up manufacturing if the worst comes to the worst.

Ukraine can win the war, and must win the war. The Minister touched on the provision of ammunition and equipment, but Ukraine also needs hundreds of thousands of trained personnel. I very much welcome the extension of Operation Interflex, and the work that we are doing, but could we not be doing far more of that with our allies to assist Ukraine?

My right hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of the training effort. That gives me the opportunity to reflect on this week being the 10-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Crimea, which gave rise to Operation Orbital. Since then, across Operation Orbital and Operation Interflex, 60,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained. Continuing to train them, not as individuals but increasingly as formations, is undoubtedly the key to unlocking the real potential of the Ukrainian armed forces.

We have all seen the events that have taken place in the past few days regarding the Russian offensive in Ukraine. They must act a wake-up call to all of us. This is our problem, and our fight, with the Ukrainians, to defeat Putin. We need to make sure that we step up the amount of ammunition and arms that we ship to Ukraine. We need to do that with our European partners, and we need a plan, not just for the short term but for the long term, so that we defeat Putin. What talks are the Minister and the Cabinet Secretary having with our European allies to ensure that Ukraine wins this war?

Such conversations happen all the time. Only last week, the Secretary of State was at the latest donor conference, followed by NATO Defence Ministers. I was in Norway a week or so earlier, having exactly those conversations with allies. As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, while traditional armaments such as artillery ammunition are important, so too, increasingly, are the novel precision weapons systems that the UK is very much at the forefront of supplying to our Ukraine friends.

Is it not time that both sides of the House came together to agree on a common policy of increasing defence expenditure, so that by increasing our support for Ukraine, we can set an example to our American allies, without whose help there can be no future for peace and security in Europe?

My colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench know that I try not to throw gratuitous punches in the House, and I know that they are enthusiasts for military spending, but their colleague the shadow Chancellor has thus far declined to say that she would adopt anything other than the 2% target for NATO spending, which is not the same as what the Government are currently spending, or what they currently intend to increase spending to, so the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) is timely. It would be fantastic if, in the next hour, the shadow Secretary of State were to make the same commitment as we have.

In the last year of the last Labour Government, we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, a level that has not been matched in any of the subsequent 14 Tory years.

Like the Defence Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and I were in Munich at the weekend, and the urgency of the need for more help for Ukraine ran through every discussion. Everyone was also profoundly moved by the words of Yulia Navalnaya, speaking even after the news of her husband’s death at Putin’s hands. This is the brutality that the Ukrainians are fighting, and this is why UK support must not falter. We strongly back last month’s UK-Ukraine security agreement, which the Defence Secretary has described as “a 100-year alliance”. Will the Government take the necessary next step and provide an implementation plan for this year and future years, to ensure that Ukraine receives the help that it needs now and for tomorrow?

While I am grateful for the history lesson on what was spent under the last Labour Government, the commitment to match our spending in a future Government was conspicuously absent from the right hon. Gentleman’s question. However, let me return to the collegiate spirit in which Defence questions are normally conducted. I absolutely agree that what the Secretary of State set out in his speech about the partnership with Ukraine requires a strategic approach, with very long horizons set for what our co-operation, both industrial and military, could look like.

Long horizons are fine, but Ukraine needs more help now. I am concerned about the £2.5 billion for Ukraine that was announced last month and described by the Prime Minister as

“the biggest single package of defence aid to Ukraine since the war began”.—[Official Report, 15 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 578.]

The Minister has said much the same today. In response to a question from me last week, however, he would not rule out using that money to cover the UK’s operational costs at NATO bases. Will he rule that out today? Will he confirm today that every penny and every pound of the £2.5 billion for Ukraine will go to Ukraine?

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has missed something over the last two years. The £2.3 billion that the Government have provided for operations to support Ukraine has always included not just the gifting in kind that takes the headlines, but Operation Interflex and other avenues through which we support the Ukrainians. The fact is that next year’s spending and that of the year after will match exactly what we did in previous years, in terms of the breadth of that contribution. It is also true that the long-term strategic alliance that the Secretary of State set out and the commitment year on year to spend more than any other European ally are not mutually exclusive; we are doing both.

On 17 February, at the Munich conference, Prime Minister Frederiksen of the Kingdom of Denmark said:

“If you ask Ukrainians, they are asking for ammunition now, artillery now. From the Danish side, we decided to donate our entire artillery.”

Does the Minister not agree that allies should be a little more like Denmark when it comes to recognising the consequences of not meeting Ukraine’s needs?

We are full of admiration for our Danish colleagues, but the reality is that the UK has provided almost its entire heavy artillery capability, in terms of AS-90s. Those that we have held on to are those that service the battlegroup in Estonia and the very high readiness armoured battlegroup. Similarly, we have been generous with our ammunition stocks, while retaining those that we need for our very high readiness forces. More than that, we have catalysed the production of 155 mm ammunition in the UK, and even further, we have been buying up as much 152 mm and 122 mm ammunition around the world as we possibly can. The UK’s contribution to the Ukrainian artillery fight is not confined to what we have in our own ammunition stockpiles; it is much, much bigger, and amounts to hundreds of thousands of rounds.

To paraphrase a former Member, the Government’s response has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Given the Czech Republic’s profound donations of artillery and shells, on top of the Danish donation, as well as a commitment of over 1 million shells from the EU, I hope the Minister can come to the Dispatch Box and correct the balance. Can he advise the House on how much of this new investment, which is welcome, is in tactical armaments and artillery?

The overseas ammunition acquisition plan from previous years remains broadly as it was, which amounts to about 300,000 rounds bought on international markets and provided to Ukraine. The 155 mm manufacture acceleration is subject to a different funding package that the Secretary of State and his Ukrainian counterpart have been working on. It is important to note that the £200 million additional money from last year to this is focused on the provision of drones, and those tactical drones are proving to be most significant, in terms of their impact in the battle space.

Army: Size

The latest figure for the full-time strength of the Army is 73,520. The Army is continuing to work towards its “Future Soldier” structure of 73,000 regular and 30,000 reserve personnel. There are no plans to change this. The good news is that provisional figures suggest that January had the highest number of Army applications for six years.

Media reports have suggested that white men have been actively discriminated against in recruitment, and that security checks may be relaxed due to promoting ethnic diversity within the Army. A number of senior military figures have purportedly warned that the pervasiveness of woke ideology being pushed on to the armed forces is a real and present threat to national security, and will give aid and comfort to the King’s enemies. Will the planned review of diversity policies seek to address those concerns?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, but I do not recognise the situation that he describes. We take security extremely seriously and ensure that all personnel have security clearance appropriate to their job. Checks normally require at least three years’ UK residency, but Commonwealth candidates are permitted to accrue qualifying residency while serving, although they cannot take up roles and ranks that require higher levels of vetting. This policy has been in place for several years, and it has not changed.

Figures in The Times last month showed that the British Army will shrink to as small as 67,000 by 2026 due to the crisis in recruitment and retention. As threats to the UK increase, will the Minister finally commit to halting the cuts that he continues to make to the Army?

The Government are sticking to 73,000 regular and 30,000 reserved personnel, as I said earlier. Those figures are in “Future Soldier”, published in 2021, and they remain unchanged.

Gaza: Humanitarian Aid

The Ministry of Defence continues to stand ready to support the effort, led by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to pursue land, air and maritime routes to deliver urgently needed humanitarian aid.

Many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South are extremely concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and want to see much more aid getting into Gaza. It is vital for the innocent civilian population there. Will the Secretary of State update us on what more is being done to ensure additional routes, and particularly a sea route, into Gaza for humanitarian aid to innocent civilians?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that I have been to the region on a number of occasions—I have visited Israel and Cyprus twice, as well as visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia—with the specific intention of trying to resolve the problem that he describes. We have already delivered 150 tonnes of aid, but the problem is getting that aid into Gaza. Although we have persuaded the Israelis to open Kerem Shalom, we desperately need Ashdod to be opened, too. As we have discussed with the Cypriots, we could then create a humanitarian aid route from Cyprus direct to Ashdod and straight into Gaza via Kerem Shalom.

“Living in our Shoes” Report

5. If he will continue to issue online updates on the implementation of accepted recommendations from the “Living in our Shoes” report, published on 30 June 2020. (901517)

Families are an integral part of the armed forces community. Our commitment to them remains strong and is reinforced by the Haythornthwaite review, the defence Command Paper refresh, the families strategy, which was published in January 2022, and my hon. Friend’s excellent “Living in our Shoes” framework for delivering more family-sympathetic policies.

The families of armed forces personnel have to put up with more separation, relocation and danger to their loved ones than the families of any other public servants, and they often feel slightly disenfranchised. They might not know their Member of Parliament, and they might fear to approach them because of the impact it might have on their spouse or partner’s career. Does my right hon. Friend agree it is incredibly important that the public can see the follow-through on the 86 recommendations that the Ministry of Defence accepted in full and on the 20 recommendations that it accepted in part?

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that I have a slightly different number. My number is that 106 of his report’s 110 recommendations have been accepted. Regardless of the exact figure, I entirely agree on the importance of making sure that armed forces families live in decent accommodation. When we ask armed forces personnel to fight abroad, they should live in good accommodation when they come home.

My hon. Friend is familiar with the steering group, which includes families, federations and the authors of his excellent report, and he will be pleased to hear that it meets again on 28 February.

Armed Forces Recruitment

In a challenging labour market, we continue to apply an array of measures to support recruitment and retention and to refine the armed forces’ offer. These include the biggest pay rise in 20 years, flexible service and an improved accommodation offer. The Haythornthwaite review has a key part to play, and teams have been stood up across the Ministry of Defence to implement all 67 recommendations, working to establish a reward and incentivisation architecture that will attract and retain the skills we need.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer, but the quality of forces accommodation is also an important factor in both recruitment and retention. Will he consider giving local commanders greater agency in getting small repairs done locally if the national contractors fail to act quickly enough?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Heads of establishment can access an approved funding pot to address minor maintenance works, up to a maximum value of £25,000 per item, which is extremely helpful and gets away from some of the bureaucracy involved with the prime contractors.

Seven experienced personnel are leaving for each five recruited. Despite the diversity and inclusion policies, some of which are counterproductive in my opinion, and in addition to Capita’s initiatives, last year there was a net loss of 310 servicewomen. Falling retention rates are overshadowing operational effectiveness. Can the Minister outline what he is doing on retention?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and ministerial predecessor. Over the past two years, the Ministry of Defence has put servicewomen at the heart of developing and delivering a range of initiatives, from uniform policies to the provision of accessible sanitary products, mentoring, the introduction of flexible service, wraparound childcare, parental leave, and zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour. There will be further measures in response to the Wigston review, the Gray review and my hon. Friend’s report. I pay tribute to those who have been driving change, but it is far from job done.

The armed forces, including the 14th Signal Regiment based in Pembrokeshire, continue to provide fabulous career opportunities for young people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, now more than ever, we need to encourage Army visits to schools, and that the long campaign by nationalists in Wales to stop those visits damages social mobility and aspiration?

I share my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm entirely. The armed forces are a huge engine for social mobility. In the last year, the Army achieved over 5,000 school engagement visits across the United Kingdom, each at the school’s request. The British Army is the public’s Army. It is important it engages with the people it serves, despite the best efforts of some on the left and the nationalists, to whom he refers.

The London Borough of Bexley is home to several excellent cadet and reserve units that teach vital life skills. Will the Minister update the House on progress on the cadet expansion programme and what work is being undertaken to strengthen the pathways into His Majesty’s armed forces?

I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. The joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Education cadet expansion programme is progressing extremely well, with over 54,000 cadets in school cadet units. The cadet expansion programme has focused on growth in the state sector. Since its introduction in 2012, the number of cadet units in state schools has grown by over 400% to 268 schools. Some new units have also opened in independent schools, where there has been a 12% increase. I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming that transformation.

Local service personnel routinely cite issues in service accommodation as a barrier to recruitment and retention, so I was disappointed to hear that the Government have no plans to improve the quality of the nearly 900 single-living accommodation bed spaces in my constituency at Chicksands that currently fall into the lowest grades. Will the Minister commit to revisiting that decision to ensure we do right by all service personnel serving on the base before it closes?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of service accommodation. He will be aware of the huge Government investment to improve the quality of both service-family accommodation and single-living accommodation. Our people deserve the best. It is public knowledge that they have not had the best for some considerable time, but we are committed to remedying that for his constituents.

Does the Minister not wake up in the morning sometimes and want to check in on reality? We have had seven Secretaries of State for Defence since 2010 and absolute turmoil in our armed forces. Why would people join the British Army when this Government have run us down to 72,000 serving personnel? I campaigned when the number went below 100,000! The Minister should wake up and invest in the defence of our country in a troubled world.

Those are interesting reflections. I suggest the hon. Gentleman has a word with the shadow Ministers on his Front Bench, particularly the shadow Chancellor who, to date, has failed to commit to the level of spending on the defence of this country to which the Government are completely committed.

The rise of so-called “woke” culture has been infecting our society for many years and it should be unsurprising that it is now infecting our military. Does the Minister think that the rise of “woke” makes it easier or more difficult to recruit the right sort of people into our armed forces?

I completely reject the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. If he is talking about increasing the number of women in our armed forces, Lord Etherton’s review into LGBT personnel in our armed forces historically, or our ambition to make our armed forces more reflective of the society from which they are drawn and that they serve, then I am guilty as charged.

The Minister and others will be aware that recruitment across Northern Ireland to the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy has always been exceptional. However, the number of personnel in Territorial Army regiments is set at a figure that those regiments cannot go above. Will the Minister look at increasing the number of TA soldiers to ensure that recruitment in Northern Ireland can exceed the current numbers?

I pay tribute to the people of Northern Ireland who, as the hon. Gentleman says, have disproportionately contributed to the defence of our country. He will know that we are committed to growing our reserve forces across the United Kingdom.

We have 24,000 fewer troops, 4,000 fewer sailors, 200 fewer aircraft and the removal of one in five ships. The Conservatives have failed our armed forces over the past 14 years, missing their recruitment target every year since taking power in 2010 and hollowing out our military. Does the Minister honestly believe that he can look the public in the eye and claim that five more years will fix the mess that they have created, or is it time for a fresh start?

Oh, I think the hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say in response to his question, and that is to invite him to have a conversation with the shadow Chancellor to see whether she will commit to the same level of spending on defence that this Government are committed to and, indeed, are spending right now. Will he make a spending commitment here and now in the House of Commons? If so, I am all ears.

Rotary Wing Enterprise

The rotary wing enterprise programme seeks to improve aircraft availability across support solutions for Apache, Chinook, Merlin and Wildcat from within existing budgets. It will do so by driving synergies between platforms, modernising support solutions and pursuing delivery-focused commercial mechanisms.

Mr Speaker, as you know, Fleetlands in Gosport has been the home of military helicopter maintenance for more than 65 years. This highly skilled engineering work is really key to levelling up the area, providing much-needed jobs and opportunities. Does the Minister agree that the MOD’s rotary wing enterprise and new medium helicopter programme would benefit greatly from these generations of expertise and skills right there in Gosport?

I know from my recent visit that my right hon. Friend is a champion not only for defence in her constituency, but for defence jobs in particular. She is right about StandardAero Fleetlands, which is a valued actor in the maintenance of our rotary wing platforms. The rotary wing enterprise is due to enter its detailed design this year. As part of that, it will consider wider social value, including the extent to which economic prosperity is supported. But as this is a specific potential procurement, I cannot comment any further. I also cannot comment on the role of particular companies in the new medium helicopter programme, but we hope to say more on that very soon.

The Government have delayed producing the information required for the invitation to negotiate for the new medium-lift helicopter four times since September 2022. Can the Minister explain what has caused this 18-month delay? Given the reports last week about his Department freezing capital spending until at least the new financial year, when will the Government get their act together to get this competition under way? Can he promise that the delay will not push back the delivery date for this vital capability for our forces?

I am pleased to say two things to the hon. Lady. First, we will have the announcement on the next stage of the new medium helicopter very soon. I am also pleased to confirm that we have been clear on our spending position. To echo my right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Families, if the hon. Lady wants to talk about stuff that is rumoured in the press—we do not have those sorts of capital spending controls—can she confirm whether the shadow Chancellor will honour our defence spending commitments?


AUKUS partners continue to make good progress on the optimal pathway to deliver conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and to develop the advanced capabilities required.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. AUKUS is a bold project that rightfully identifies the greater need for co-operation in the Pacific between our great nations. However, I do not think that it should be limited just to defence. In my own report for the 1922 foreign affairs policy committee, we found that there is not only a need, but an appetite for wider scope—the inclusion of Canada, for example. Does my right hon. Friend agree that AUKUS cannot just be about defence policy. Will we be reaping the maximum benefits for Britain by consigning this to be just a defence procurement exercise? Where is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in all of this?

My hon. Friend is right to say that AUKUS can and should be a programme that extends beyond the three core nations—the UK, the US, and Australia—but that is very much a matter for pillar 2 arrangements rather than pillar 1, which the House will know is about the nuclear-powered submarine for Australia and the joint procurement. He will be pleased to hear that, in November, I was in the US signing up to a programme of pillar 2 work, which could ultimately extend to others, including Canada and New Zealand.

Royal Navy Capabilities

10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Royal Navy’s capabilities to engage land-based targets. (901524)

The Royal Navy has a range of capabilities to support the engagement of land-based targets. Specific threat planning is considered for every deployment or contingency, and measures are taken to reduce or mitigate those expected threats as dictated by operational priority.

My right hon. Friend asks an excellent question. I know that there has been a lot of interest, following the deployment in the Red sea, in what the lessons are. I can confirm that the Sea Viper capability has been at the forefront of this, being the Navy’s weapon of choice in the first shooting down of an aerial threat in more than 30 years. It is a cutting-edge weapons system, and I can confirm that Sea Viper will be upgraded, to further enhance this capability against the more complex and evolving threats that we face, including the ability to intercept missiles in their terminal phase.

Defence Manufacturing: Employment

11. What assessment he has made of trends in levels of employment in the defence manufacturing sector in the next 12 months. (901525)

In 2022-23, the Ministry of Defence spent £25 billion with UK industry. The most recent estimate shows that that supported 209,000 jobs across the country, of which 47,000 were in manufacturing.

My Tewkesbury constituency contains a lot of aerospace manufacturing, particularly for the defence sectors, but those companies have long complained to me that they cannot attract enough young people, particularly to take engineering jobs. The all-party parliamentary group on aerospace, which I co-chair, has the objective of enticing young people to go into engineering or at least consider it as a career. Will the Government do anything more to persuade young people to consider taking up the engineering opportunities that are there?

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. It helps that we have lots of school groups and young people in the Gallery today, it being half term. I can confirm that last year’s defence Command Paper identified skills as a priority, including the shortage of engineering, digital, cyber, STEM, nuclear, and space-based skills. The defence head of profession for engineering, who also supports the Government science and engineering head of profession, has a defence youth engagement strategy that drives STEM outreach activities and the encouragement of engineering uptake in individuals aged four to 14.

Ukraine: Military Support

13. What recent discussions he has had with international partners on future military support for Ukraine. (901528)

Everything that I had intended to say in response to the hon. Gentleman was covered in response to the supplementaries to Question 2.

Lord Ismay said of NATO that it existed, among other things,

“to keep the Soviet Union out”

and “the Americans in”. The Foreign Secretary was misunderstood on a recent visit to the United States when he proposed that Congress should pass a new military aid package for Ukraine, and he was rebuffed by some Republicans in the House of Representatives. What can the Defence Secretary do to encourage the US to maintain its commitment to Ukraine and to NATO?

Again, we covered this earlier, but it is an important issue. The Secretary of State and I, and other Ministers from the MOD and across Government, put our shoulder to the wheel whenever we are in Washington, to impress on the US not only the importance of its continued commitment to Ukrainian security, but that Euro-Atlantic security is integral to US security. The US cannot simply look towards the Pacific; it needs to remain engaged in the Euro-Atlantic, in its own interests as well as those of NATO allies.

On my last visit to Ukraine a couple of weeks ago, I had several meetings with Ukrainian Ministers, who voiced their frustration and concern about the delay in setting up joint operations with UK defence manufacturers. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is doing everything possible to speed the process up to allow the Ukrainians to produce their own kit, with our help, to help win the war?

The Secretary of State and the Minister for Defence Procurement have both been heavily engaged in this; indeed, the Minister for Defence Procurement led a delegation to Kyiv to catalyse exactly the idea that my hon. Friend mentions.

Emissions: Armed Forces

The MOD has already started its decarbonisation journey in support of the UK’s net zero commitment. At the Royal International Air Tattoo last year, I was pleased to sign the defence aviation net zero charter on behalf of the MOD. Working closely with our industrial partners, we are moving to cleaner and more efficient technology. The Army is building solar farms, and has invested £14 million in battlefield electrification. The Royal Navy’s cutting-edge catalytic systems are reducing emissions of greenhouse gases in its patrol vessels by up to 97%. Finally, the RAF is pioneering the use of sustainable aviation fuel.

It was a pleasure to attend the Global Charge dinner last October, and to see so many members of the armed forces, from all ranks, committed to tackling the climate crisis. However, the Defence Committee has described the MOD’s current reduction targets as “insufficiently demanding” under the greening government commitments—they are the lowest across all Departments. Will the Minister ensure that the next round of CC commitments will contain more demanding targets, not least to reflect the real ambitions and for members of the armed forces on the ground to see the devastation of climate change?

I know the hon. Lady is very passionate about this issue. I have just listed the ways in which the individual services are taking steps to reduce their emissions, but we always have to balance that against our overwhelming priority as a Department, which is to support the ability of our armed forces to defend these islands.

Innovative Defence Technologies

Defence is investing over £6.6 billion in advanced research and development. We are working with UK industry and academia to identify and invest in innovative technologies, ensuring that we have the capabilities we need to defeat our adversaries.

The RAF has traditionally had a very poor record when it closes bases in Lincolnshire—just walking away, leaving them to go to rack and ruin—but at RAF Scampton we had wonderful schemes for innovative defence technologies, such as a spaceport. Will the Minister now work with the Home Office and me to try to release the bulk of that base so that we can get all these exciting technologies going? The MOD cannot just wash its hands of the base, now that it has been passed to the Home Office. We are supposed to have joined-up government.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As he knows, RAF Scampton is no longer part of the defence estate, which means we do not have formal responsibility for it. What I would stress to him is that we are investing in innovation in Lincolnshire, including the significant investment into RAF Waddington associated with our Protector capability.

Trident Renewal

The Dreadnought submarine programme remains within overall budget and on track for the first of class, HMS Dreadnought, to enter service in the early 2030s. Inflation has remained higher than expected for an extended period and has had an adverse impact on the cost forecasts for the programme compared with the forecasts from a year earlier. As the programme is in its preliminary phases, it is too early to provide cost estimates for the replacement warhead programme.

I think that means the Minister does not know what the total lifetime cost of Trident replacement is going to be. Budgets in Government Departments and households alike are under immense pressure because of rampant inflation. Why do everybody else’s budgets have to be under pressure but there seems to be a blank-cheque approach to the renewal of Trident?

That is an extraordinary thing for the hon. Gentleman to say. He knows that we will shortly be publishing, before the end of the financial year, our supplementary estimate for the defence nuclear enterprise for the financial year. But as he knows, there is a cost in not having a deterrent. That is his policy: to do away with the deterrent on a unilateral basis, despite all the terrible threats we can see in the world and the nuclear sabre-rattling from Russia. His policy would be abject folly. We will invest in providing that ultimate guarantee to the people of the United Kingdom.

I know that the Minister and most of the House, leaving aside those on the Scottish National Benches, will agree that the continuous at-sea deterrent is absolutely central to the defence of the realm—there is no question about that at all. Does he agree that we must find a way of replacing Trident within budget, and that the worst possible thing that could happen to Trident would be an SNP Government in Scotland?

Topical Questions

This year I visited the United States—the White House and Capitol Hill—to lobby on behalf of Ukraine, as discussed today; Saudi Arabia and Egypt, given the crisis in the middle east; HMS Diamond, to thank the ship’s crew; and our sovereign base at Akrotiri, to thank the Typhoon pilots. Cyprus itself was also visited. Last week I was in Brussels for the NATO meeting and in Munich for the security conference. The whole House will know that defence never sleeps and will wish to join me in thanking the brave men and women who make that possible.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on progress made at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting, particularly with regard to support for Ukraine?

Alongside the NATO meeting, there was the Ukraine defence contact group—a group of 52 countries, all of which support Ukraine. The big concern, of course, is ensuring that Ukraine has the things that it needs now and the planning to ensure that it can sustain the fight and push back against the enemy in 2024. That is why I have announced £200 million for drones, and why we have a 15-nation coalition for MPI—the multinational procurement initiative. At my request, we have also welcomed Australia to the international fund for Ukraine, with its commitment of 50 million Australian dollars to a fund that is now worth £900 million.

The agonies of the Palestinian people are extreme. We all want the fighting to stop now, for hostages to be returned now, for aid to be ramped up now, and a ceasefire that lasts permanently. What is the Defence Secretary doing to help his Israeli counterpart to accept that their threatened offensive against Rafah just cannot happen?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the seriousness of the situation. As he has just heard, I visited Israel before the new year and had those conversations directly. I believe that it is in Israel’s interest, obviously in Gaza’s interest, and in the world’s interest to see that immediate cessation followed by a permanent ceasefire. We are doing everything we can to persuade the Israelis of that necessity and to put pressure on Hamas, who still hold hostages—if they were to release them, this thing could finish very quickly. We are also helping by ensuring that we work on plans for what happens in the north of the country and in southern Lebanon.

T4. Carshalton and Wallington is home to more than 1,700 veterans who have provided, and continue to provide, amazing service to our great nation. What steps are we taking as a Government to provide better support for veterans in our country? (901548)

Since 2011, the armed forces covenant and its consequentials have been the absolute lynchpin of public commitment to those who have served, and they have materially improved the lived experience of the service community. The Ministry of Defence is responsible for a number of services for veterans. The Veterans Welfare Service, for example, supports around 50,000 veterans every year, and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs co-ordinates across Government to advance support for veterans and their families.

The number of veterans claiming welfare benefits is rising steadily, and more than 52,000 are now in receipt of universal credit. Does the Minister find that a cause for celebration or concern?

I am a veteran, and I talk to veterans all the time, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. I do not recognise the picture that the shadow Minister describes. Since 2011, we have materially improved the lived experience of our veteran community and their families, and we will continue to do so—of that, he can be absolutely sure.

T7. When defence contracts are awarded, a 10% to 20% weighting is given to social value, which is the benefit that the contract would have for the local and wider community. Does that community benefit apply entirely for the UK, or are overseas companies and their communities considered equally? (901553)

That is a very good question. The distinction is between the Cabinet Office social value rules, which are applied across Government and are irrespective, and the rules that the Ministry of Defence applies to our procurement. There was discussion of the new medium helicopter earlier, for example. When that comes out, as I hope it will soon, we will be clear that we are looking to incentivise a strong commitment to the UK industrial base.

T2. The MOD recently published the findings of the inquiry into the fatal accident involving a Scimitar fighting vehicle on Salisbury plain, in which a young soldier tragically lost his life. One of my constituents was a witness to the accident, which has inevitably had a profound impact on him. The Government have said that they do not plan to make a formal response to the inquiry report, which is a harrowing read, but they have accepted all 52 recommendations. Does the Minister not think that the report requires a full and formal response from the Government, with a detailed action plan for adopting the 52 recommendations, given the seriousness of the incident and the wider implications— (901546)

Order. Please, just remember that this is topical questions and I have to get other Members in.

Very simply, I read that report and, as the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, accepted all of its findings. We do not usually take it further, but I will certainly be happy to take a look at the case she has raised.

On the subject of recruitment and retention, on 7 November the Chief of the General Staff, Patrick Sanders—arguably the best general of his generation—told the Defence Committee:

“We are taking 400 soldiers out of the field army to put them alongside recruiters, because—guess what?—it takes a soldier to recruit a soldier.”

Never was a truer word spoken. So when are we finally going to sack Capita?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question—I knew he would get Capita in there somewhere. He will be familiar with the Engage to Recruit programme, which is currently underway and having some success in getting soldiers to recruit soldiers. That is probably why, as I touched on in my earlier answer, we are now seeing some extremely promising recruiting figures, including in January—the best figures for six years.

T3. So far, Israel has ignored international appeals to not indiscriminately attack civilians and not take steps that are basically razing Gaza to the ground. It now looks as though it is going to ignore international opinion about entering Rafah, so has the time not now come for us to consider not selling to Israel arms that can be used in those totally unacceptable ways? (901547)

Arms deals and export licences are dealt with in the normal way, but the hon. Member will be interested to hear that actually, not many arms sales take place in the direction of Israel at all. Off the top of my head, I think it was just £42 million last year, and that was mostly for protective equipment.

Late last year, diesel got into the water supply at the Trenchard Lines camp near Upavon in my constituency. I commend the resilience of the families who live there, and also of the MOD, which acted very quickly to ensure that there was a temporary supply of water. Those families are still living on that temporary supply, so can the Minister assure me that attention is being given to sorting out this problem and ensuring a permanent supply of clean water?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter—he is a champion of the defence community in his constituency, and I thank him for his early engagement on it. I understand that the local authority regulator, following the completion of rigorous testing, has confirmed that the water quality at Trenchard Lines is acceptable, and it is now safe for personnel working and living there to use the mains supply. I will double-check that and write to him, but I am grateful for his comments on the performance of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation in that regard.

T5. Today we have seen news of another serious attack by the Houthis on a commercial vessel in the gulf of Aden. Do Ministers think that more Royal Navy ships will need to be deployed to the region, given the ongoing threat to merchant shipping? (901551)

The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with answers I gave last week or the week before at the Dispatch Box, when I said that we will always look at what is happening in the Red sea. I have been there to meet the crews myself, and will make a judgment based on the reality on the ground. There is now also input from a conglomeration of EU countries that are coming to join Prosperity Guardian, and we welcome that input.

In the debate on the Red sea on 24 January, I asked for confirmation that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark would not only not be scrapped, but would not be mothballed. The deputy Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), with the Secretary of State for Defence alongside him, said in response that I was

“absolutely right to detect the supportive view of the Secretary of State for Defence.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 402.]

However, a journalist was subsequently told by the Ministry of Defence that nothing had changed, so are those ships going to be mothballed or not?

My right hon. Friend can rest easy: I have been down to visit HMS Albion since those questions, and I can confirm that one of those ships will always be being made ready to sail. He can therefore be very relieved.

T6. Suicide rates among veterans under the age of 24 are two to four times higher than in the civilian population, but figures show that this group is less likely to be in touch with mental health services. How will the Minister ensure that young veterans can access the support they need? (901552)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question—she has been consistent in her inquiry into this matter. She will be reassured to know that across the service community, the rate of suicide is lower than we would expect in the civilian population. There is a subset of young men within the serving population for whom there is an excess, and we are looking very closely at that. I very much commend to the hon. Lady the suicide action plan that we have published, which lays out what Defence is doing to drive down the suicide rate in our armed forces. Whichever figure it is, it is too high.

The whole House would like to see a larger Army, Navy and Air Force—there is unanimity on that point. Central to that must be not only the armed forces recruitment programme, but the Army centralised training scheme. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the pause in capital spending by the MOD, which was announced last week in the press, will not affect those two schemes, and that they will continue in as full-blooded a way as they are at the moment?

T8. The Royal Navy carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales entered service six and seven years late respectively, with their cost rocketing to over £8,000 million—more than 20 times that of Scotland’s ferries—while being plagued with problems and a lack of aircraft. What assurances can we have that these hugely expensive carriers will provide the defence capability for which they were designed? (901554)

The whole House recognises the irony of an SNP Member talking about ships being delivered late. The whole House will want to welcome the extraordinary work done by those on HMS Prince of Wales who got the ship ready to leave not at 30 days’ readiness, which is what they were ranked for, but in eight days. I would have thought that congratulating the ship’s company would be the right thing to do.

Does the Secretary of State remember that the British Army used to be the biggest trainer of young men and women in the country and that we produced so many skilled people? When can he take us back to those balmy days?

Since 2014, we have been training 60,000 Ukrainian troops, proving that we know how to get troops trained. We still train extraordinary numbers. I think I am right that, on all forms of training more broadly, we are breaking some of those records. We will ensure that we have armed forces that are fit for the 21st century.