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Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer given today in another place:

“Since I last updated the House on 24 October, the situation on the ground has remained largely unchanged. The armed forces of Ukraine continue to make slow but steady progress in their fight to retake their country, while a small crossing of the Dnipro has been established. Russian forces have made small advances in the northern axis of a pincer movement with which they are attempting to surround the town of Avdiivka.

Over the weekend, Russia launched what is likely the largest wave of one-way attack drone strikes on Ukraine of the war so far, ahead of another likely winter campaign of strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Ukraine neutralised most of the incoming weapons from this latest assault, and international partners, including the UK, are working with Ukraine to further strengthen its defences.

We will continue to support priority areas for Ukraine in the coming months, including air defence and hardening critical national infrastructure sites. Our foundational supply of critical artillery ammunition continues. We also continue to develop Ukraine’s maritime capabilities, helping it to deny Russia control in the western Black Sea. With government help, a UK-based commercial insurance provider has developed an insurance facility for shipping using the Ukraine maritime corridor. This facility charges premiums in line with those under the Black Sea grain initiative, which is crucial for reattracting commercial shipping.

The UK has committed £4.6 billion of military support to date, as we continue to donate significant amounts of ammunition and matériel from our own stocks, as well as those purchased from across the globe. In addition, we have trained more than 52,000 soldiers since 2015. Our support for next year is being finalised, both internally within the Government and with our partners around the world, and will be announced shortly”.

My Lords, the people of Ukraine are on the front line of our collective fight against totalitarianism. They deserve nothing less than our full-throated and complete support. Can the Minister assure the House that as we are yet to see the promised 2023 action plan for Ukraine, we might get sight of the 2024 plan before 2025? Will he promise your Lordships’ House that it will be accompanied by a funding commitment, which we are yet to see, for year three of the war?

My Lords, the UK strongly condemns the appalling and illegal unprovoked attack that President Putin has launched on the people of Ukraine. We stand with Ukraine and continue to support its right to be a sovereign, independent and democratic nation. On the question of what our commitment is for the year to come, this is Ukraine’s plan for what it intends to do in 2024; it is not ours. Once Ukraine is ready to share that plan with the forces, we will of course be there in full support.

My Lords, the Minister should be able to answer, I hope, not on Ukraine’s plan but that of His Majesty’s Government. The Statement repeat suggested that support for next year is being finalised, talking about “within government” but also

“with our partners around the world”.

Can the Minister say whether that includes talking with industry? Unless we have access to adequate matériel and ammunition, we are not going to be able to deliver what is needed for Ukraine.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that the world will not have the relevant stockpiles unless the orders are placed with industry. There is an expectation of what the commitment will be and the rate of fire that is currently being managed—that is probably the best word—by the Ukrainian armed forces is its start point. Orders have been placed across the world with industry, and this country is not outwith that.

My Lords, I belatedly welcome the noble Earl to his place and remind him that we once shared Chelsea barracks, nearly half a century ago. The Government have been very good and admirable in their behaviour with Ukraine, so let us congratulate them on that. However, I return to what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, just said. Can the Minister reassure me and the House, and the country, that our armoury is full and replenished after all the stuff that we have given to Ukraine?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those fond memories of serving Her Majesty. The question about replenishment is not on a like-for-like basis. A lot of what we have gifted to Ukraine has been from stockpiles. When you deplenish stockpiles, you replace with what is more current, what is new and what is more appropriate to the area of operation that we find ourselves in. We are not preparing for a Cold War; we are preparing for something very different, as I am sure everybody in this House is fully aware. Therefore, the orders that have been placed for missiles, cannons, rifle rounds and shells are appropriate for the weaponry that we are bringing in and currently have, rather than some of the gifted matériel that we have got rid of in recent years.

My Lords, I was interested to hear the reference to the insurance for shipping. We are all aware, I think, of the vital importance of getting the grain out of Ukraine, both to support the Ukrainian economy and because it is making such a difference in feeding many parts of the world. Can the Minister tell us whether other contingency plans are being made in case shipping lanes get blocked again, and not least whether there other ways of getting grain out of Ukraine while we have the time to make those preparations?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a very good point. There is an alternative route to get grain out, which is across the land. However, it comes at a cost, which is highly punitive. I think that, before the war commenced, Ukraine accounted for between 8% and 10% of global wheat exports and about 10% to 12% of corn and barley exports. This is a significant logistical problem. The idea of shifting that amount of grain out of Ukraine via vehicles and trains is obviously quite a challenge, so the sea route is extremely important. We can take great credit for succeeding in getting insurance in place. This allows ship movements out, which are increasing quite dramatically, at the recognised premium rate rather than what I might call a war rate.

My Lords, in Ukraine the snows have come early. As the Minister has said, the military situation on the ground remains largely as it was when he gave his last Statement. Are the Government aware of any pressures, or are they party to any pressures now, on the Ukrainian Government to reach a territorial compromise?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right that winter has arrived in some force, as it has across quite a lot of southern Europe and further afield. The question of reaching a territorial compromise is obviously not something for us to be too involved in; it is for Ukraine. Ukraine has been absolutely resolute that it will not enter those conversations until all Ukrainian land is back within its sovereign right.

My Lords, would my noble friend pay tribute to the extraordinary skills of the British service men and women who are training these brave Ukrainian warriors? Would he further agree that now that general winter has a grip of the battle line, we are in for a period where there will be not much movement on either side, and therefore it is essential that Ukraine understands our unswerving commitment to it in the future.?

My Lords, I entirely agree with that statement. We can be extremely proud of the way that UK forces have trained Ukrainian soldiers to withstand the onslaught of the Russian might. This is basic training, which a number of us here have gone through. It is not particularly pleasant, but if you have not gone through it then the idea of facing up to the Russians is not something to be looked forward to. The Government are absolutely resolute not only in continuing this level of training but in supporting Ukraine right through to the finish.

My Lords, the Minister will know that, in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine, a number of children were removed from their families. Could the Minister assure the House that everything is being done to help these children be reunited with their parents?

The noble Lord is absolutely right; this is an atrocious war crime. All pressure which is possible to be laid is being done so. To take children away from families is beyond expectation.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am hosting a Ukrainian refugee family through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The scheme was originally for two years, and I believe it started last April. What are the Government’s plans for renewing this scheme or replacing it with something else when it expires next April?

My Lords, this is not within my brief; this is for those at the Home Office. I will certainly contact them and find out exactly where they are in their thinking. My understanding is that there is no intention to do anything other than continue the current situation.

My Lords, in 2008 it was declared by NATO that Ukraine should become a member. Yesterday Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, declared that it was the intention now that Ukraine should become a member. Will the Government tell us the timetable for Ukraine to become a member of NATO and, thereby, to have the full protection of that organisation?

My Lords, I am not aware of any timetable, and I am not certain there is one. For Ukraine to become a member of NATO, the prerequisite is that there are no foreign troops on its soil. There certainly are foreign troops on its soil in vast quantities. Until that is resolved, I cannot believe that the NATO alliance can do anything other than continue in its resilient resistance.