Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024

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.