Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 747: debated on Monday 25 March 2024


The Secretary of State was asked—

RFA Sir Galahad

1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of publishing all documents relating to the bombing of RFA Sir Galahad. (902161)

I recognise the substantial public and parliamentary interest in this matter. Consequently, I recently visited the National Archives at Kew to view the RFA Sir Galahad files. As a result, we are looking to release a further two files, subject to the Ministry of Defence’s legal advisers confirming that individuals’ rights under the Data Protection Act 2018 would not be contravened. In relation to the five files of witness statements, I want maximum transparency, subject to the Public Records Act 1958 and ensuring that personal data is protected. I shall provide a further update shortly.

On Saturday I attended the first remembrance and reunion event for the survivors and families of those who were lost in the attack on the Sir Galahad. I know that the Minister knows this—and I thank him for his earlier response—but it is deeply important that the remaining documents from the board of inquiry are released, so that we can get to the truth of what happened on 8 June 1982. He has told us what he might release, but, for those who have lived with this for 42 years, can he tell us when we will have those decisions?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the tenacity with which she has pursued this. I have enjoyed our meeting to discuss the matter and also the meetings with the Welsh Guards. It is important that this is handled quickly. We are moving at pace to ensure that we can do so—with, of course, the caveats that I have just described.

I knew people who served in the Welsh Guards at the time—I was myself in the Scots Guards—and a number who did not come back. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on her question. My right hon. Friend says that he is moving at pace, but the key point is that it is now decades since this happened. There is now no question but that some kind of cover-up took place. When he comes to look at those documents again, can he please ensure that, on the balance of judgment, we err in favour of opening up so that, for those who have died and those whose reputations have been trashed, we can stand up and say proudly that it was not them?

The board of inquiry is quite clear about the attribution of blame, and the Welsh Guards were absolutely exonerated, and that is the Government’s position. My position is always for transparency, and certainly that has been at the forefront of my mind when I have been looking at these documents.

I, too, was at the event that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) attended at the weekend. I was there on behalf of my constituent Colin Silva. Many of those who did not come back were from the brave Welsh Guards. I have also visited Fitzroy and seen the location for myself. I was able to assure the people of the Falkland Islands of the united support from this House for their defence and security. May I press the Minister on the timing? Are we talking in terms of weeks, months or years, because time is moving on and we need these answers quickly.

My constituent Oliver Richardson, now the mayor of Deal, was just 21 when he survived the sinking of the Galahad. Forty years on, he says that there is no reason for this supposed secrecy and that many people neither were offered, nor wanted, confidentiality in relation to saying what they had seen. Our armed forces serve us all, and we must honour that service by giving them and the families of those lost and injured on the Galahad the answers they need. I urge the Minister to release all of the Falklands Galahad papers at pace.

The Government will do everything we can in the interests of transparency, but I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that we, like everybody else, are bound by the Data Protection Act.


The UK is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we are putting our regional approach on a long-term strategic footing. I returned this weekend from Australia, where we have been talking to our colleagues there, working hard on the Indo-Pacific programme.

Stability in the Indo-Pacific has been largely aided by the military base presence on Diego Garcia. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the military base and the island of Diego Garcia remaining under full British sovereignty, so that we can help to counter the many threats of the modern world, whether that be China, Iran or others?

As I think my hon. Friend knows, I share the goal of ensuring that the base on Diego Garcia remains permanently available for our use, and for the United States. It is strategically positioned, it is absolutely vital and there is read-across to our military facilities elsewhere. It remains safe in our hands.

When assessing our ability to influence the stability of that region, or any other, has the Secretary of State conducted any kind of impact assessment of the reduction of our investment in international aid from 0.7% of GDP, or the fact that we have the smallest standing Army in the United Kingdom for 200 years?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I look after the Defence budget, rather than the overseas development budget, but I think he will welcome the fact that, because of the Indo-Pacific tilt, we have ships with a permanent presence there—HMS Spey and HMS Tamar—and the littoral response group south, which operates in the Indo-Pacific. We have already sent the carrier strike group previously; it is going to the region again next year. That is in addition to the global combat air programme sixth-generation programme, and of course AUKUS, for which I was in Australia at the weekend. I think we can all agree that we are doing a lot more than ever before in the Indo-Pacific.

As you did, Mr Speaker, I pay tribute to the Armed Forces Minister at his last Defence questions. Since the last election, we have had five Chancellors, four Foreign Secretaries, three Prime Ministers and two Defence Secretaries, but only one Armed Forces Minister. He has been a rare constant in the turmoil of Government, totally committed to defence. We thank him for that and wish him well.

On the Indo-Pacific, we welcome last week’s updated defence agreement with Australia, further progress on AUKUS, and today’s 10-year plan for Barrow to support AUKUS. This is our most important strategic alliance beyond NATO, so why has the Defence Secretary given the leadership of key parts of AUKUS to the most junior Minister in his Department?

As I explained, I have just been in Australia talking about AUKUS. I have previously been to Japan, I think at least twice but possibly three times, on AUKUS, and to Italy—sorry, not to Italy, obviously, on AUKUS; that was on GCAP, but with an Indo-Pacific tilt. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Armed Forces Minister, but I am interested to hear his comments on the Indo-Pacific. Back in 2021, when the integrated review suggested a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, he called it a serious flaw in the programme, and urged us not to defocus from elsewhere in the world.

Support for Veterans

4. What recent steps Veterans UK has taken to support veterans and their families with the cost of living. (902164)

With other Government Departments, the Ministry of Defence delivers a range of services to our brilliant veterans and their families. That includes the administration and payment of armed forces pensions and compensation, the provision of tailored advice and assistance through the veterans welfare service, defence transition services and the integrated personal commissioning for veterans.

A new report from Northumbria University found that suicide among serving personnel and veterans could be reduced if there was better understanding within existing care provision of the specific challenges that they face. The report also found that military families felt unheard, misunderstood and not cared for during the most difficult periods of their lives, so what steps is the Minister taking, alongside our NHS, to deliver compassionate trauma-informed support for serving personnel and veterans?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that issue. She will know that we have a defence suicide prevention strategy, which is reviewed regularly. She will also know that, overall, suicide in the armed forces is below what we might expect in the civilian population. There is a sub-group within that—young men—where it looks as if the rate is going up. We are looking very closely at that to better understand the reasons for it and how we can prevent it.

My constituent joined the Army in 1987 and served in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment until 1994. During a wrongful operation, he severed all the nerves in his feet. He is now 52 years old and suffers from several conditions that leave him in excruciating pain every day. He was on disability living allowance and then moved to personal independence payments, but 18 months ago he was told that he was no longer eligible. Is that really the way to treat our veterans?

I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. If she would like to write to me with the details, I will be more than happy to take up that case. As I said in my opening remarks, we work with other Departments, and it sounds as if this is not principally the responsibility of the MOD, but I would be more than happy to hear from her about her constituent.

About a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) undertook an important and groundbreaking piece of work on behalf of female veterans and women in the armed forces. Following that, I had the honour of helping her to set up the all-party parliamentary group on women in defence, which has given a platform to female veterans and service personnel, as well as those who work in defence and the charitable sector, to talk to Members from across the House at every level. We are very much looking forward to the female veterans strategy. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government remain committed not just to equal treatment for women in the armed forces, but to an equally positive experience for everyone who chooses to serve?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I pay tribute to him and to our hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for all their hard work to improve the position of women in our armed forces. Women are absolutely central to the way in which defence will be going in the years ahead, as encapsulated in our target to have our armed forces be 30% female by 2030—a challenging and ambitious target. I should mention our improvements to unform policies, mentoring, flexible service, wrapround childcare, and of course our zero tolerance for unacceptable sexual behaviour, as examples of things we have done recently to improve the lived experience of women in our armed forces.

At the last census, just over 17,000 veterans were living in Birmingham, 35% of whom were over the age of 80. Despite pledges to end veteran homelessness, Government figures show that it rose last year by 14%, and up to 180 veteran households across the UK are made newly homeless each month. Can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that veterans in Birmingham and across the UK, who made enormous sacrifices for our safety and security, do not end up homeless?

It is plainly not right that anybody should be without a home, be they a veteran or not. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that people are set up well for civilian life as they transition out of the armed forces. The overwhelming majority of people who leave our armed forces are in precisely that position. By using measures such as the defence transition service for those who might have particular problems when they return to civilian life—as all members of the armed forces ultimately do—we are ensuring that we minimise the number of people who have served in our armed forces and are left without a home.

Is the Minister aware of the excellent work of the Battle Back Centre in Lilleshall in my constituency, a successful collaboration between the Royal British Legion and Sport England? Would he, or perhaps the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, consider visiting the centre soon, given that it has treated more than 6,000 serving and ex-service personnel for all sorts of injuries? The staff there are fabulous and superb, and they deserve a visit.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the invitation, which I will most gladly take up. I pay tribute to Battle Back, which does a wonderful job, and to him for his work supporting it.

Veteran Roy Sagar, a familiar face to us all in Morley, recently passed away in his mid-90s. He did so much for veterans and the Royal British Legion locally, and was our parade marshal. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Roy and all our unsung hero veterans for all they do, and in sending thoughts and prayers to Roy’s family?

Yes, I very much do so. Our veterans are a wonderful part of our communities and deserve all the support we can give them. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which is always there for our veterans when they need it—I speak as president of my local branch. The legion is a powerful institution—I know you have had a lot to do with it, Mr Speaker—and an important part of what and who we are, and I pay tribute to it, as well as to my hon. Friend’s late constituent.

I appreciate the Minister’s earlier answer, but when Royal British Legion Industries says that 6,000 veterans are homeless or in danger of becoming so, is there a need for more urgent intervention, or is the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs right to hail getting 500 off the streets as a triumph?

I think that getting 500 off the streets is good—it is certainly a start—but one person without a home is one too many, whether they are a civilian or a veteran. The important thing is that we look at factors that might be peculiar to defence that predispose people to homelessness, because we have a particular duty to those people in accordance with the military covenant. In general, as the hon. Gentleman and I both know, people leaving the armed forces are much better placed for the balance of their lives in civilian life than their equivalents in civil society, but that is not the case for everyone. Some people fall through the cracks, and we must ensure that they are scooped up and looked after.

Armed Forces Readiness

Mr Speaker, thank you very much indeed for your words at the beginning of questions. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). You were both very kind indeed to say what you said.

The UK armed forces are meeting all of their commitments, but there is no mistaking that they are very busy, as one would expect at such a turbulent geopolitical time. People across the Army, Navy, Air Force and strategic command are working incredibly hard, and we are very grateful to them and their families for their forbearance while they do so. The Government are investing £1.95 billion extra in our resilience and readiness, but more than investment is needed, which is why all three services are getting back into the business of being ready for warfighting. The 3rd (United Kingdom) Division recently exercised its combat service support echelons for the first time in decades; the Royal Navy is operating concurrent task groups as well as forward presence, a test of our naval logistics; and the Royal Air Force is refining its abilities to disperse the force through its agile combat employment mechanism.

Of course, we commend the efforts of all those in our armed services, but the Defence Committee’s “Ready for War?” report substantiates that our armed forces are constantly overstretched and are being deployed above their capacity. When are the Government going to respond appropriately to the scale of the geopolitical challenges by driving up recruitment and retention and making sure that we can face the challenges that we see ahead of us—that we can take them full-on, and are ready for whatever comes our way?

There is no escaping the fact that the world is incredibly complicated at the moment. In the Euro-Atlantic, we face the challenge of Russia; in the middle east, the challenge of Iran and its proxies; in the Indo-Pacific, the growing competition with China; and then across Africa and other parts of the world there remains the challenge of violent extremism. At a time of such crisis, one would expect the armed forces to be as busy as they are. That does not mean that we should take for granted the effort that they are putting in, but if we were not reaching for them as extensively as we are right now, we would have to question when on earth we would reach for them, given the demands on our nation.

I pay tribute to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Armed Forces—I am very sad to hear that he is going. He talks of warfighting. As he knows, I am on the Defence Committee. I would challenge the idea that we are ready to fight a sustained war with the armed forces that we have, and bearing in mind all the threats that we face, that possibility has become very real. Bearing in mind that his collective responsibility is about to go, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and say that we need to spend a lot more money on defence?

That will go soon, but not yet. Colleagues on both sides of the House will note that whenever I have been invited to respond to such a question, like all good Defence Ministers, I have never missed the opportunity to say yes, but the reality is that our armed forces remain fit. Yes, it is the job of this House and particularly my hon. Friend’s Committee to scrutinise our readiness, as the Committee has done—and I commend the report to colleagues who have not already read it—but reinvestment is needed to sustain our armed forces at warfighting level. That is no scandal; that is the consequence of a peace dividend that rightly allowed successive Governments to disinvest in the resilience that kept our cold war force credible. However, as the Secretary of State so rightly said in his speech the other week, we are now in a “pre-war era”, so it is the responsibility of this Government and those who follow to reinvest in the necessary warfighting capability.

The Minister rightly points to the ability to sustain fighting. He knows that an exercise conducted with the Americans showed that the British Army would run out of munitions within 10 days. Battles in Ukraine showed very early on that this would be an artillery war. Why—I have asked this question of several Ministers, so I hope that he has the answer—did it take from March or April 2022 to July 2023 to place the orders for new munitions? We cannot afford this sort of delay in the Ministry of Defence.

The contract has now been placed, and it increases our supply of .155s significantly. I take issue with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes: I am not aware of the exercise he referred to, but in exercises that I have seen, in which the UK has operated alongside the US, again and again the American senior commanders have held the UK force elements in the highest regard.

As I used to do my right hon. Friend’s job, may I join the tributes to the outgoing, outstanding Armed Forces Minister?

The “Ready for War?” report just referenced identified problems with recruitment as one issue that impedes our ability to fight. The Defence Secretary himself has called our recruitment system “ludicrous”, and he told The Times earlier this month that

“the ‘Amazon’ generation, which is used to getting things instantly, were not prepared to wait a year to join the army.”

He is absolutely right, so when will the utterly ludicrous “Crapita” finally be sacked?

I am unable to answer my right hon. Friend’s specific question, but he will be heartened to hear that as a consequence of all that is going on in the world, and the geopolitical uncertainty that requires us to use our armed forces so extensively, in recent months we have enjoyed record expressions of interest in joining His Majesty’s armed forces. Obviously, we need to make sure that the time between expressing an interest and starting training is as short as possible; all colleagues on the Front Bench perceive the need for that.

Defence Jobs

The most recent estimate shows that the Ministry of Defence supports about 209,000 jobs in industries across the UK. I am pleased to say that this figure will be boosted further by the confirmation last week that BAE Systems will partner with a firm in Australia to build its nuclear-powered submarines. That will support 7,000 additional British jobs across the programme’s lifetime.

Would my hon. Friend agree that MOD procurement from small British companies in rural areas such as North Devon can significantly increase defence-related jobs there, and enhance the local economy, especially when those jobs are in high-wage research and development and manufacturing industries? Will he commit to ensuring that the additional high-skilled jobs and economic benefits resulting from contracts are considered in future procurement decisions?

That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, who is a champion of defence small and medium-sized enterprises in her constituency. As to procurement rules supporting SMEs such as those in North Devon, our new integrated procurement model will ensure that UK industrial capability and exportability considerations are included in procurement evaluation criteria for items such as the new medium helicopter. However, to ensure that we absolutely maximise opportunities for British industry, on Friday, I announced that we will undertake a rapid review of how Cabinet Office social value rules impact on the development of sovereign capability.

The Minister will be aware of the successful export order for high-value naval electric propulsion technology manufactured by GE in my Rugby constituency. That order is going to Singapore, and it was achieved with the assistance of the MOD and the Department for Business and Trade. Does that not show that support for this world-leading British technology enables new business in a fast-developing part of the world, while providing significant, new, high-value jobs for my constituents?

My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. I welcome the valuable contribution of GE in his constituency in supplying high-tech motors, including for Royal Navy ships, such as Type 26 frigates and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. It is precisely because the Ministry of Defence recognises the importance of GE’s Rugby facility that we were pleased to reach an agreement with the company in 2019 to ensure that those motors continued to be manufactured there. Finally, he is right about export. It is such a key part of our new integrated procurement model, because it boosts industrial resilience and prosperity in constituencies such as his, while strengthening international alliances, such as, in this case, with the people of Singapore and the Singapore navy.

The Secretary of State will know that Huddersfield is a centre for defence industries; we have David Brown Gears and Reliance Precision, for example. I talk to them regularly. They say to me that one of the things that they miss is trained personnel. The Army, Navy and Air Force used to be the biggest trainer of personnel in the country. The diminished level of training in the armed services is reflected in the sector, which cannot get enough highly trained people to employ.

I am aware of those companies, which do an excellent job supporting the supply chain, particularly for our primes and for key programmes, especially naval programmes. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of training. As he will be aware, defence is the biggest employer of apprentices in the country. We are doing everything we can to support that. The key is to have a close relationship with industry, and to bring it into our requirements early on, so that it can plan and deliver the supply signal, particularly for skills, to match our demand signal.

I would like to build on the incisive question asked by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). More than 125,000 applicants to the British Army were rejected in the past five years. It has emerged that 70% of applicants were dropped or withdrew at the paperwork stage. More than 8,000 withdrew their applications, having waited for at least six months. What consequences will Capita face for this record, and when might the Army bring soldier and officer recruitment back in house?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to direct questions about recruitment to the Minister for Defence People and Families. As to the company the hon. Gentleman talks about, my focus is on industry and supporting jobs, which the original question was about. I think we have a fantastic record, boosted by not only the exports I referred to earlier, but the ones that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) was talking about.

Defence procurement can strengthen UK sovereignty, security and economic growth. We on the Opposition Benches believe that defence investment should be directed first to UK businesses, so that we make, buy and sell more in Britain. With that in mind, what steps is the Minister taking in his rapid review to ensure that social value considerations properly take into account the huge advantages to the UK economy of awarding more contracts to British businesses, so that we create more defence jobs here in the UK? That does not seem to happen at present.

I think there is considerable consensus, because I agree with the right hon. Lady about the importance of sovereign defence capability, and not just because of the economic benefits, although those are crucial. As we enter this era, which has been described as pre-war, it is vital that we have a UK sovereign industrial base. As the Ukrainians have learned, there are certain skills and capabilities that we will need in country, should we get to a hotter military situation, and that is why that is such a priority for us.

Armed Forces Personnel

I refer the hon. Gentleman to much that I said in response to the readiness question earlier, but the key point on this issue of enablement is that it is the unglamorous stuff that needs to be invested in first. There is no point buying more tanks until we have more tank transporters. The Government are seized of that, and are doing exactly that. This is an opportunity to place on record, in addition to my gratitude to the armed forces, which I have mentioned, that tens of thousands of hard-working MOD civil servants in the MOD main building and around the wider enterprise are hard at work on this problem right now, and I am grateful to them for their efforts.

Like other colleagues, I thank the Minister for his years of service. Since 2010, the size of our armed forces has decreased by over 43,000 personnel; the number of Royal Navy warships has decreased by a fifth; more than 200 aircraft have been removed from service in just the last five years; and recruitment targets are being missed year on year. Which of those legacies of 14 years of Conservative Government is the Minister most proud of? What actions could he undertake to do better?

The thing that I am most proud of, beyond the exceptional operational output of His Majesty’s armed forces every time they are called on, is that the Government have increased the defence budget to more than £50 billion a year for the first time. The hon. Gentleman, whose interest in defence is very welcome indeed, should be enormously concerned about the shadow Chancellor’s repeated refusal to commit to anything more than the 2% NATO floor for defence spending. If his concern for defence is to last, he should immediately be concerned about the fact that unless his party changes policy urgently, it will equal a £7 billion cut in defence spending on day one of a Labour Government.

The question of whether our armed forces are fit for purpose should centre on whether they can carry out the defence tasks set by the MOD, and I believe that they can. If I may carry on in the same vein as the previous response, does the Minister agree that Labour’s failure to commit to spending more than 2% of GDP on defence presents a much bigger risk to UK security than any objective debate on this side of the House?

Absolutely. We should urgently achieve 2.5% of GDP; the fiscal situation is improving, and the Conservative party has made that commitment. As the Secretary of State rightly said in an interview the other day, both main parties should strongly consider a further increase in defence spending in the next Parliament.

As the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), told the House last January, the Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” the UK military over the last 14 years. That is in large part due to their total failure on armed forces recruitment, and damning new figures show that over the last decade, 800,000 people who were willing to serve and defend their country simply gave up and withdrew their application. The current Defence Secretary says that the recruitment system is “ludicrous”, and the organisation running it got called the wrong name by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), but where is the plan to fix this? It is not working.

The right hon. Lady is conflating two separate issues. The former Secretary of State for Defence and I, and everybody else who has served on the Government Front Bench since we have returned to the prospect of state-on-state war, have referred to a hollowing out of the force. That is a consequence of decisions made not just by this Government, but by Governments since the fall of the Berlin wall, because the force that we maintained for the cold war and all its enablement was not necessary when we were fighting counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what is meant by hollowing out. The sooner the right hon. Lady starts to deal with that issue, rather than conflating it with others to make political points, the sooner she will start to contribute to an important debate.

As far as recruitment goes, record interest has been shown in joining our nation’s armed forces, and there is no hiding from the fact that we need to rapidly accelerate the time between expressing an interest and being in training.

Cyprus: Sovereign Base Areas

8. What assessment he has made of the security of the sovereign base areas and the armed forces in Cyprus. (902168)

The UK continually assesses potential threats to our overseas territories, including the sovereign base areas on the island of Cyprus. British Forces Cyprus provides a permanent military presence, and we are investing in the SBAs to combat current and future threats, in order to ensure local, regional and global security.

I thank the Minister for his response. The Secretary of State has said:

“We want to do everything possible to ensure the security of Cyprus”.

Does the Minister agree that it would be appropriate to keep the Cypriot Government informed of all UK military operations conducted from their island? Should not that be an official obligation, for the security of Cyprus?

The SBAs are sovereign bases, so of course we reserve the right to operate from them as needed, based on the UK national interest. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear that the Secretary of State, his predecessors, other Ministers in the MOD and I have very good relations with the Cypriots, and we seek to tell them as much as we can about operations that we mount from SBAs there.

I would like to add to the warm words said about my right hon. Friend. He has been particularly supportive of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, and the armed forces parliamentary scheme, both of which I chair. Does he agree that the sovereign base areas in Cyprus have a particularly important role to play in our activities in the Red sea?

Cyprus is in an incredibly important strategic location, which means that it is of great use to our operations in the southern Red sea, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean, the western Balkans, central Asia and beyond. It is a vital mountain base for so much that the UK armed forces do. We are incredibly fortunate to have that facility.

Gaza: Humanitarian Aid

19. What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to increase the number of aid shipments to the middle east. (902180)

There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. The UK, including the Ministry of Defence, is working collectively with allies, partners and international organisations to deliver desperately needed aid to the Gazan population.

My constituents are rightly proud of the work that our armed forces are doing to facilitate the delivery of aid, to prevent a colossal humanitarian catastrophe. What further steps can be taken to ensure that British aid finds its way to civilians in need, rather than into the hands of Hamas fighters?

That is one of the greatest challenges in the current situation. We are working with the British Red Cross, UNICEF, the UN World Food Programme, the Egyptian Red Crescent and others to ensure that aid gets to the right places. That is extremely challenging, and has slowed down aid delivery.

The Israeli Government have said that they want to “flood” Gaza with aid. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will work with our partners globally to get more aid into the hands of civilians in Gaza, and will assist the Israelis to deliver on that pledge as soon as possible?

I inform my hon. Friend that we have already delivered 74 tonnes of humanitarian aid via the RAF, and 87 tonnes through the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. In addition, we are pursuing land, air and maritime routes.

With half of Gaza already starving and the rest teetering on the edge of famine, and the UN Security Council voting for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, access to humanitarian aid is crucial. This month, the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK would support the building of a temporary pier in Gaza to allow hundreds of extra daily truckloads of aid into the strip. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking, along with the Foreign Secretary, to ensure that the pier is constructed as quickly as possible?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that I have sent teams both to Tampa to work with US Central Command and to the region to help with planning and constructing that pier. In addition, right at the beginning of the conflict, I ensured that we did hydrographic research, to aid in exactly this kind of situation, when the conditions were right to get a pier built. This is not a trivial endeavour, but we are working to deliver the pier as quickly as possible; there is the potential to get 2.5 million meals a day to Gaza.

The UK Government’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid depends on the UK’s relationship with its middle eastern partners. What impact does the Secretary of State think that recent events and UK Government foreign policy decisions have had on that crucial relationship with those middle eastern partners?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have been very proactive in speaking to and making multiple visits to the region. I have visited the majority of countries in the middle east and Gulf region to discuss exactly the points that she has raised. There is now a large-scale programme of using a pier to get food in, in addition to the many other efforts made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) pointed out, the issue is not just getting the aid there, but then distributing it; that is a great concern.

When will the Government make a further public determination on Israel’s commitment to international humanitarian law, given the man-made famine unfolding in northern Gaza, which is compounded by Israeli moves to obstruct access to aid? If the UK finds, as the UN Secretary-General, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did, that the Israeli Government and the Israel Defence Forces have violated international law, what steps will the UK Government take to prohibit further arms sales to Israel, pending a resolution of the situation? Given that the Security Council has just called for a ceasefire, what steps will the Government take through the defence sector to accelerate all available aid for civilians in Gaza?

It is a pity to ask all those questions without referencing the 100-plus hostages who are still being held by Hamas, who brutally slaughtered the population deliberately rather than as a by-product of war. The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. I can tell him that on arms exports to Israel, an issue for which I am responsible, it is, to put it in proportion—I think, from the top of my head—just £48 million for the past year. The numbers are actually very small indeed. He will know that his latter question is one for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Defence Procurement

The Department uses a range of measures to assess the effectiveness of defence acquisition. We have reduced the average time taken to deliver our projects and programmes, but we must go further to drive pace, so last month I announced our new integrated procurement model.

The National Audit Office has previously highlighted MOD pilot training procurement failures, so is the RAF now meeting its pilot training quotas? Is the Minister satisfied with progress in that key area?

The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question. Of course, training is fundamental to bringing in the next generation to man our capability. I recently had the pleasure of visiting RAF Valley, where I discussed the issue with the RAF. It was able to confirm to me that, for the first time in a long time, there were more students taking up their places rather than in holds. That is a key metric in which we are seeing significant progress, but yes we want to go further.

Last March, the Government said that they would have their Ajax scheme ready between October 2028 and September 2029. Given that only 25% of armoured vehicles have been produced, are the Government on target to meet that deadline?

Notwithstanding the waste of £5 billion in procurement since 2019, will the Minister join the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in a campaign to make in Britain, ensuring our industry and economy move together to support not just our defence, but our economy? How will he achieve that given that Tata Steel—to which we have paid £500 million —is cutting down its blast furnace capacity? How will we be able to proceed with the AUKUS contract and other contracts without virgin steel?

On the important question of steel, we do not expect the closure of Port Talbot to have a significant impact on defence, but obviously we will continue to monitor that situation. I would just gently point out that in 2022-23, the last year for which we have figures available, 89% of spend by the MOD with industry was with British industry. It will be an awful lot harder to make that level of spend if Labour is unable to commit to matching our spending commitments. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned, perhaps he will join other colleagues on the Labour Benches in insisting that the shadow Secretary of State confirms whether he will match 2.3% of GDP now and our target of 2.5% as soon as the economy supports it.

May I take this opportunity to also place on record my thanks to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) for all the work he has done? It was a joy to work with him when I was in the Department.

I thank the Minister for Defence Procurement for his procurement review. It is an excellent document, moving forward in a pragmatic way. As part of that review, will he reassess where potential gaps might occur between old platforms being retired and new platforms being delayed? Does he agree that housing procurement—accommodation for our armed forces—is as much an operational capability as a tank?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He made a similar point in the debate on readiness last week about the importance of accommodation. I think we can all agree that there is a tendency in defence to focus on the big shiny platforms. Accommodation is a key priority; we are very committed to improving accommodation. We know that in the winter before this one performance was not satisfactory. That is why we put in extra investment of £400 million and announced a winter plan. I am pleased to say that we have made huge progress, for example in ensuring that thousands of properties have work achieved on damp and mould.

I am delighted that the MOD has confirmed the procurement of additional Chinooks, given that RAF Odiham, in my constituency, is the home of the Chinook force. However, it is also home to the fleet’s frontline maintenance, second line engine repair, and in-depth upgrade and modification. Given that 85% of the Chinook fleet sustainment takes place in the UK today, can I have my hon. Friend’s assurance that RAF Odiham will remain the home of the Chinook, and that there will be a similar, if not higher, level of maintenance of the new variants here and across Britain?

I greatly enjoyed my visit to Odiham, where my hon. Friend and I discussed a wide variety of issues. He is right to draw attention to our commitment to the procurement of 14 extended-range Chinooks—they have a huge range, of 1,000 miles—but there is also the industrial benefit to the UK and, of course, to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm that not only has that procurement made us a £300 million saving, but it will contribute £150 million-worth of benefit to the UK’s prosperity.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress made with UK-Ukraine defence manufacturing co-operation, especially with regard to removing the hurdles? Is there anything more that the Government should be doing?

My hon. Friend has championed this matter consistently. I am pleased to say that we held the first UK trade mission in December, and that there will be further such missions. I can confirm most importantly that, following that mission, UK defence companies and the Ukrainian Government have signed the following agreements. Babcock has been being awarded a three-year contract by the Ukraine ministry of defence to support and maintain two mine countermeasure vessels; BAE Systems and AMS Integrated Solutions have signed an agreement that will enable them to offer specialised artillery systems support directly to the Ukrainian armed forces; and Thales has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ukrainian drone company AeroDrone, which will bring together the best of Ukrainian and Northern Irish engineering to deliver new capability to Ukraine’s forces.

Procurement of the new medium-lift helicopter has been characteristically suboptimal under the present Government, but this particular Defence Procurement Minister has managed, with his inverse Midas touch, to ensure that costs have grown from about £1 billion to £1.3 billion, delivery forecasts have slipped six delayed years to 2031, and the number of assets to be received has fallen from 44 to 35. Given that the forecast will inevitably slip to the right, service personnel will be under-resourced and the budget will almost certainly grow, what possible confidence can anyone have in this Defence Procurement Minister?

I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman, whose party has been unable even to procure a ferry. [Hon. Members: “It says here!”] I know the subject, and I can confirm to him, because I am very proud of this, that at my insistence our competition for the new medium helicopter will involve a far greater emphasis both on supporting UK industry and on supporting exports. It is by supporting exports that we secure industrial resilience and support for prosperity across the United Kingdom. Of course it is a competition, but we have three very good entrants.

Topical Questions

Like others in the House, I pay tribute to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey)—soldier, MP, and Minister during almost the entire Parliament. His knowledge of this subject is matched only by his great passion for it, and we are all very grateful for his service.

Last week I was in Australia, signing an historic defence treaty to enhance our Indo-Pacific security, and meanwhile our trilateral AUKUS partnership with the United States is accelerating. As the House will know, ASC and BAE Systems have a multibillion-pound contract for the SSN-AUKUS. Earlier today the Prime Minister and I launched our very first nuclear defence Command Paper, which will set out the true benefit of this great enterprise, making it a wholly national effort.

I welcome the publication of the Command Paper, and in particular the important role played by Rolls-Royce in Derby, but does my right hon. Friend agree that for this to be a truly national enterprise, there must be a truly national supply chain and access to jobs for people throughout the country?

My hon. Friend is right about the extent of the supply chain. In addition to the very large investment in Rolls-Royce, to which the Australians contributed £2.4 billion last week, and all the work in Barrow that is described in the Command Paper, there are benefits for virtually every constituency in the country.

We condemn the deadly terrorist attack in Moscow on Friday, and our thoughts are with all those affected, but the attack must not become a Kremlin cover for Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. In recent days, we have seen multiple Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities, yet the last UK air defence support was announced last year. When is the next one?

I join the right hon. Gentleman in sending our condolences following the horrific terror attack. He is absolutely right to say that we are aware of no connection whatsoever with Ukraine; indeed, ISIS has claimed responsibility. We must resist Putin’s efforts to try to link the two.

With regard to air defence, there have been much more recent attempts to aid our Ukrainian friends, including through the International Fund for Ukraine, which has laid 27 contracts. We have a £900 million fund, run by the UK on behalf of a large number of other countries.

Of course, anything more recent was from the International Fund for Ukraine, not the UK, which is why we strongly welcomed the £2.5 billion of UK military support for 2024. However, for nearly three months since that announcement, Ministers have said that the first deliveries to Ukraine will not happen until Q1 of the new financial year. Wars do not follow financial years, so when will the UK move beyond this stop-start military aid and help Ukraine with the spring/summer offensive?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have a constant flow of foreign materiel that we are buying and sending into Ukraine. I recently announced £325 million for British-Ukrainian drones, and we have increased the overall amount of money going to Ukraine from the previous two years’ £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion. I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman—this has been raised by a couple of my colleagues today—that he needs to explain how the Opposition would manage an increased budget for Ukraine, when their plan is to cut £7 billion from the overall defence budget.

T3. An Army non-serving partner says of her children’s mental health treatment: “When you move, they close the case, and then you have to go all the way back through the system, which takes forever. By the time you get in, you are moving again.”Can my right hon. Friend please give the House an update on recommendations 74, 75 and 76 of the “Living in our Shoes” report, which deal with this issue? (902188)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, as ever, pay tribute to him for the work he has done in this area. It is the case that when people move around the country, they are disadvantaged. We recognise that, which is why integrated care boards are now running a pilot scheme on how we can get around people losing their places on waiting lists when they travel around the country. Obviously, the issue involves other Government Departments too. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility, which we discharge in a number of ways. For example, HeadFIT is being adapted and adopted at the moment to ensure that our veterans and service families are able to access much of its content.

T5. The Government have previously refused to confirm or deny whether Israeli F-35s have been using RAF airbases or, indeed, other military co-operation between the UK and Israel. Given the decision of the International Court of Justice, and now the decision of the UN Security Council to call for an immediate ceasefire, what are the operational or policy reasons that deny UK citizens the right to know whether their Government have been complicit in Israeli genocide in Gaza? (902190)

T4. Qatar hosts Hamas’s most senior leaders in Doha, and should have been applying far more pressure on the terror group to release the Israeli hostages and to surrender. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Qatar’s malign activities bolster our adversaries and therefore weaken our own defence? (902189)

I am not entirely sure that I do agree. I will leave the Foreign Office to talk about the diplomatic angles that it is pursuing, but in my experience, Qatar has been an incredibly helpful partner across a whole load of things over the past few years. We enjoy the opportunity to strengthen that partnership, both through the sale of UK-built defence capabilities and through increasingly operating together in areas of mutual concern. It is a relationship on which the UK can build further, and has great potential.

T6. HMS Albion is twinned with Chester, and we deeply value the ship and her company. Can the Secretary of State provide the next date on which HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark will be at sea, or will he just admit that he has mothballed them both? (902191)

The hon. Lady be pleased to know that I was on HMS Albion the other week and that she has not been mothballed. The other ship will be the first to sail—I do not know the timing, as that will depend on operational requirements—but they are both continuing in operation.

Like many colleagues across the House, I attended the all-party parliamentary group for UK-Israel and Friends of Israel event. We were joined by two released hostages and a delegation consisting of young siblings, sons, daughters, grandchildren and cousins of those being held hostage in Gaza. It is now five months since the hostages were taken, so will the Secretary of State ensure that those victims remain right at the front of his mind in all decisions that are taken on the middle east?

My hon. Friend can absolutely have that assurance. It is shocking to see what is happening in the region, but it is too often forgotten—including in this House today by some Opposition Members—that this all began with the taking of those hostages. We will never forget.

T7. Pension justice is on everybody’s lips just now, so can the Minister tell me what this Government have done to support the 30,000 veterans who left service before 1975 and who have lost out on preserved pensions? (902193)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows very well, consecutive Governments have made it plain that we do not make changes to pensions retrospectively. As for pensions for the armed forces overall, Mr Speaker, you will know, as I do as a beneficiary, that they are equitable, fair and generous.

The 2016 better defence estate plans earmarked Fort Blockhouse in Gosport for disposal, yet eight years later after numerous delays, the site is still rotting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is doing nothing for the local economy, the local community or the MOD. Will the Minister please update me on when can we will finally see some progress on that site?

I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, where we looked at a range of infrastructure and accommodation. I appreciate that she wants to see progress, but I stress that while we are engaging as closely as possible with Gosport Council on this and want to make progress, it is a complex site with significant defence events assets still in place relating to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Royal Navy. I am committed to looking at what more we can do and to engaging further with her.

T8. Tens of thousands of pregnant women in Gaza are suffering from malnutrition and are at serious risk of delivering their babies unsafely and without healthcare. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking, along with the Foreign Secretary, to support the delivery of food and medical supplies to those particularly vulnerable women? (902194)

We are working to try to bring supplies to all the citizens of Gaza. I did not run through the list of provisions, but it does include provisions for those in medical need, particularly women who may be pregnant. As I mentioned, we are working on plans with the Americans in particular, but also with the Jordanians, to provide vastly greater amounts of aid into Gaza.

The terrible terrorist attack in Moscow reminds us that jihadi extremism has not disappeared. Given its ideology, its reach and its strength, does the Secretary of State agree that ISIS-K is just as much of a threat to the west as it is to Russia?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a perception that Daesh has gone away. The Daesh core is cooped up in prisons in northern Syria, but Daesh affiliates are growing alarmingly quickly in other parts of the world. The attack in Moscow is a reminder to us all that we must continue to focus on the counter-terror threat as well as on the state threat.

T9. May I wish the Minister for the Armed Forces all the very best for his next posting? He will recall that on 1 February he made a commitment to reassess the Afghan relocations and assistance policy eligibility, specifically for former members of the triples, and said that the process would take 12 weeks. Will he update the House on what progress has been made on that work to date? (902195)

It is disappointing to finish on a down note, but as the hon. Gentleman knows from a written answer that I gave him last week, it has taken longer than I wanted to establish an independent group of new casework assessors, and that 12 week period has therefore not yet begun. I was told by officials, when I reluctantly signed off the answer to him last week, that that process was nigh-on complete and that the 12-week period should therefore start imminently. He will not be surprised to learn that, pre-empting his question, I have encouraged them by suggesting that eight weeks would sound an awful lot better than 12, given the delay in getting started.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Defence questions on 8 January, I asked the Defence Procurement Minister a very straightforward question about HMS Argyll—the type of question to which I would expect him to have an answer at his fingertips. Instead he said, as quickly and as curtly as he could, that he would write to me with an answer. It is almost three months later, and I regret to inform you and the House that I have received no such information from the Defence Procurement Minister, and neither have I received an acknowledgment that he intends to write to me.

May I ask your advice, Mr Speaker? When right hon. and hon. Members have a slippery Minister on the hook and that Minister chooses to wriggle off it by promising to write, what recourse do we have when the Minister does not write?

First, I think we ought to choose our language when we want a response. I have a lot sympathy and, although the point of order does not relate to this Question Time, I will give you the benefit of the doubt because this is an important matter. As you are a senior Member of the SNP and have been its spokesperson, I expect you to get timely replies. I do not expect replies to take so long. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench have heard, and I would expect a response to be sent rather quickly following this point of order.