The Secretary of State was asked—
Vanguard-class Life Extension Programme
The Vanguard-class life extension and availability sustainment programmes are essential to maintaining the United Kingdom’s continuous at-sea deterrence and are prioritised accordingly. The programmes are managed using established Ministry of Defence processes and, as such, are routinely reviewed.
April this year marks the 50th anniversary of continuous at-sea deterrence, and I pay tribute to the men and women of the submarine service for their dedication over those 50 years. Given the reported delays in the refurbishment programme of the Vanguard class, can the Secretary of State assure the House that CASD will be maintained into the future?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the men and women, both past and present, who have done so much to maintain that at-sea nuclear deterrence. I can give him an absolute assurance that the investment and resources that are needed are being made available to maintain this important deterrence, which has always had a lot of cross-party support.
As the doyenne of British nuclear history, Lord Hennessy, observed recently, the current Vanguard life extension plans are a
“technological leap in the dark”,
which also means there is little room for flexibility in the overhaul and procurement cycle if CASD is to be maintained with two submarines in 2033-34. What discussions has the Secretary of State had in his Department about contingencies around the Vanguard-to-Dreadnought transition, which we know were discussed during the previous transition to Vanguard?
We constantly have discussions right across Government to make sure that our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence can be sustained. We have been investing in technology and parts to make sure that the Vanguard class has everything it needs in the future. But what is critical is the investment we are making: we announced earlier this year an additional £400 million of investment in the Dreadnought class to make sure that is delivered on time and to budget.
But I am afraid to say that, as the misery of the modernising defence programme has shown all of us, the Secretary of State’s Department has much less latitude with large projects than he would like. With the nuclear project sucking up money, as he has just mentioned, from all other lines of spending, how long will it be before this overpriced nuclear weapons programme gets within sight of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury’s white elephant hunt across the Government?
When I look around this Chamber, I see many Members on both sides of the House who are absolute supporters of the importance of the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent and understand how vital it is to keeping Britain safe. That unites both the main parties, and will continue to do so in the long term when we deliver Dreadnought.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Vanguard—and indeed Dreadnought, the next generation of our CASD programme—is probably the best weapon for peace the world has ever had? Will he update the House on plans to celebrate CASD’s 50th anniversary, which will be my birthday, too—we are almost twins?
I cannot imagine either CASD or my hon. Friend reaching 50, and I think we should put my hon. Friend on one of the submarines as part of that celebration. The anniversary shows that our nuclear deterrent has kept Britain, and also our NATO partners, safe over 50 years.
Order. Before we proceed, I feel sure that colleagues throughout the House will wish to join me in extending this afternoon a very warm welcome to the Speaker of the Malaysian Parliament, Mohamad Ariff, whom I had the privilege of welcoming to the Speaker’s briefing meeting this morning—welcome to you, Sir, and to your colleagues—and a similarly warm and effusive welcome to the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, the right hon. Tony Smith. Sir, you are welcome; thank you for joining us and we wish you well in your important work.
Illegal Drone Use: Airports
The Ministry of Defence rapidly deployed counter-unmanned air systems capability in support of Sussex police and the Metropolitan police, both at Gatwick and at Heathrow. We are working with colleagues in the Department for Transport and across the Government, and will continue to do so.
I would like to convey the sincere thanks of the Gatwick management to the Ministry of Defence for its swift action last month during the drone incursion, and I can confirm that they have now bought a very similar system for future use. May I have an assurance that the MOD remains on standby to assist civilian airfields in these situations?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking the RAF for its work. It worked incredibly quickly to get to both Gatwick and Heathrow. Of course, our armed forces are always ready to respond, should they need to, but it should be said that responsibility for drone activity at civilian airports lies with the airport operators.
I have today received a parliamentary answer revealing that no Transport Minister visited Gatwick during the drone crisis. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what contingency plans his own Department had for dealing with drones at airports? Will he also tell us on what date the Transport Department—or, indeed, the Cabinet Office—asked the MOD for help and support during the crisis? How did his Department respond, and when?
I was pleased to go to Heathrow myself just last week—[Hon. Members: “Gatwick.”] I know, but I personally went to Heathrow last week. We responded to the request that we received from Sussex police on 20 December and we have been working with colleagues across the Government, and with the Department for Transport, to ensure that we have all the availability that is needed, and that the airports have the proper advice that they require so that they can get the systems they need to ensure that they can protect their own runways.
The Ministry of Defence is evidently well prepared to respond very quickly to drone threats, once it is asked for assistance, but can the Minister explain the policy whereby installations are not already in place and a crisis has to arise before that assistance is deployed to the airports?
As I was saying, the protection of airports is in fact an issue for those airports. I know that the Department for Transport is working with airfields across the country to ensure that they have the protections they need. The response by the MOD was incredibly swift, and I pay tribute to it for that.
Is it not time that this Government took drones seriously? The fact is that drone technology is advancing very quickly. This is going to be the way in which we wage wars, and the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians are all investing in the technology. Even in our airports, drones present a great danger that we should address immediately.
We are taking this very seriously. The Ministry of Defence has been working on this over the past couple of years, and we are of course working with our allies to ensure that we have the very best technology to protect our armed forces and keep this country safe.
The recent drone intrusions at Gatwick and Heathrow were highly embarrassing and created great inconvenience for thousands of passengers but, more importantly, they presented a real and significant security risk. We are all indebted to the armed forces personnel who worked to tackle those intrusions, but we clearly need a long-term solution to this growing challenge. Will the Minister tell us why it is taking the Government so long to bring forward regulations to introduce a wider exclusion zone around airports and ensure the safety of UK airspace?
We take this matter incredibly seriously, and it is important to get things absolutely right because there are all sorts of implications for the aspects of security that we will need to introduce. We are working across Government, and the MOD is providing its advice and expertise to ensure that we get proper legislation in place to make the response effective.
Outsourcing: Quality of Service
The Ministry of Defence regularly monitors the performance of all its contractors, including for outsourced services. That is carried out through the robust monitoring of contract performance indicators, with action being taken as appropriate when standards are not met.
Capita, which receives millions of pounds through MOD contracts, has consistently missed its recruitment and savings targets, yet it was handed a £500 million fire and rescue contract last year despite receiving a dire financial risk assessment. Following the Carillion fiasco, will the Minister recognise that this Government’s ideological commitment to outsourcing has caused needless precarity for MOD workers in my Lincoln constituency and across the UK?
In the wake of Carillion’s collapse, the Prime Minister commissioned a review of outsourcing, with which the MOD has engaged, that seeks to improve the public service outcomes and value for money of Government outsourcing. However, I gently point out to the hon. Lady that outsourcing also happened under the previous Labour Government.
The Minister will be aware that Members have offered scathing reviews of the Government’s no-deal Brexit outsourcing procurement decisions across portfolios. What no-deal outsourcing contracts has the MOD issued? Will the Minister ensure that there is a comprehensive review of procurement processes before he joins the Secretary of State for Transport in thrusting his Department into a Brexit procurement fiasco?
The Defence Fire Safety Regulator’s leaked report highlighted a catalogue of failures to manage fire safety in single-living accommodation. It appears that the estates contract that was outsourced to CarillionAmey does not include the inspection and maintenance of fire doors and fire escapes, which is a shocking omission that puts servicemen and women in an unacceptable situation. Will the Minister agree to carry out an immediate review of fire safety across all MOD sites and to implement the report’s recommendations in full? Will he also agree to halt the outsourcing of the defence fire and rescue service to Capita, which seems grossly irresponsible in the circumstances?
The Ministry of Defence takes the safety of its people and the findings of the report extremely seriously. We are committed to addressing the shortfalls identified in the report. We have already taken action on some of the recommendations, and we will continue to ensure that we implement the report’s other recommendations.
Syria: Coalition Forces
I have regular conversations with the US Secretary of Defence on a range of issues, including Syria. Last week I had my first discussion with the acting Secretary of Defence, and the MOD will continue those discussions with the US Department of Defence.
One of the many risks of the position taken by President Trump, as recently exposed on Twitter, is that it leaves the Kurdish forces and population in Syria vulnerable to attacks by Russia, Turkey and others. The Kurds have been an important part of the coalition of which we have been part. Will the Secretary of State give me some assurance that, whatever America does, we will continue to stand with those who have stood with us?
Our whole country owes a great debt of gratitude to the Syrian Democratic Forces and many of the Kurdish forces that are part of it. I am in continuing discussions with my French and US counterparts to ensure that we do everything we can to continue to support the SDF. The war that they have waged alongside us against Daesh has been vital, and we should not forget the debt of gratitude that we owe them.
Following Turkish President Erdoğan’s refusal to meet US National Security Adviser John Bolton in Ankara last week to discuss the future of the Kurdish YPG forces fighting Daesh in Syria, is the Secretary of State worried that the withdrawal of US forces from Syria will allow Turkey to crush the Kurdish fighters, whom it regards as terrorists? Can the Government offer any further reassurances to the Kurdish forces that they will continue to support their efforts to overcome Daesh in Syria, and will the Government persuade our NATO ally Turkey to refrain from using its military might against the Kurds?
We should recognise the fact that Daesh has been considerably degraded over the last few years and has been deprived of considerable amounts of territory, but we should not be complacent about the threat it continues to pose. We need to work with allies such as the SDF, as well as with Syria’s other neighbours, to make sure we continue to put pressure on Daesh and do not give it the space to do us harm in this country. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we also need to be speaking to our partners, including Turkey, to make sure that everyone comes to the table to create a long-lasting peace in Syria that, importantly, includes the Kurds.
Leaving the EU: Defence Co-operation
The UK is a global player. We will remain engaged in the world and central to European foreign and security policy as we leave the EU. Much of our engagement is managed bilaterally or in other organisations.
No deal would have a disastrous impact on defence co-operation, and the UK’s defence sector relies on pan-European supply chains. Will the Government finally provide some certainty to workers in the wider defence sector by accepting that a permanent customs union with the EU is essential?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, 90% of our industrial collaboration with other European countries on defence is actually on a bilateral basis, not through the European Union. I imagine that that pattern will go long into the future. When we look at the defence of Europe, is it based on the European Union or on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation? I would argue it is based on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, not the European Union.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity, in the light of tomorrow’s important votes, to explain his view of the claims made by some observers outside this place that the defence and security clauses of the withdrawal agreement would somehow cede control over defence operations and military procurement from Her Majesty’s Government to EU institutions?
In order to appease the hard right of the Conservative party, the Prime Minister has spent the last two years presenting no deal as a viable option, but no deal would mean that we would have to withdraw from all common security and defence policy missions, with our seconded personnel sent home forthwith. We would be permanently shut out of the European Defence Agency and the defence fund, undermining vital research and industrial co-operation, and our defence industry would be hit by crippling tariffs and delays at the border, putting in jeopardy the equipment that our armed forces need. Given all that, does the Secretary of State agree that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for defence and security?
I do not agree at all. Our country can and will succeed, whatever it has to deal with and whatever it faces. Much of our defence collaboration is done through third-party organisations, whether they be NATO, the United Nations or joint expeditionary forces. As I have already touched upon, most of our defence industrial collaboration is done not through the European Union, but on a bilateral basis.
Why can the Secretary of State not just say, absolutely unequivocally, that no deal is not just undesirable but completely unthinkable? Does he agree with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who has warned that no deal would be an “irresponsible act of self-harm”? It would be dangerous for Britain. Instead of using a no deal to blackmail MPs into supporting the Prime Minister’s unworkable deal, why will the Government not do the responsible thing and rule out no deal once and for all?
Obviously, the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to take part in the debate this afternoon and tomorrow. The Prime Minister has negotiated a deal with the EU that she is putting to this House, and perhaps the hon. Lady will support it. But it is also clear that this country always has and always will succeed, whether we are in the EU or outside it; whether we have a deal or no deal, Britain will succeed and Britain will prosper.
Following the Prime Minister’s commitment to participate in aspects of the EU’s defence framework, can the Defence Secretary advise as to the carve-outs the UK has negotiated, or intends to negotiate, from strict third country participation criteria in any common security and defence policy initiative?
Illegal Immigration (English Channel)
As the House is aware, HMS Mersey, an offshore patrol vessel—OPV—was deployed on 3 January in support of Border Force activity in the channel. Additionally, our support includes the deployment of up to 20 suitably qualified naval personnel on Border Force cutters to provide additional capacity.
Illegal seaborne immigration in small boats across the English channel is driven by people traffickers. The way to stop people traffickers and the illegal immigration is by returning those rescued at sea to the port from whence they came in France. Is the Royal Navy doing that?
Migration control is, of course, not a responsibility of the Ministry of Defence or the Royal Navy; it is a responsibility of the Home Office, so my hon. Friend’s question is probably better directed to the Home Secretary. In this particular case, the Royal Navy is simply supplying support under normal MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—rules.
The Royal Navy has a proud and glorious history, in respect not just of forming the wooden walls of this country, but being the nobility of Neptune’s realm, and it has a proud humanitarian record. But the question related to preventing illegal immigration, so could the Minister tell us what the orders of the day are and what the Royal Navy is doing to prevent people from landing in this country?
I do not know how to follow that, but I will try. The Secretary of State has been waxing lyrical about the fleet ready escort being based on England’s southern coast to deal with this phantom menace of mass immigration, with no plans for basing OPVs in Scotland, as he admitted to me in parliamentary questions. So will the Minister, on behalf of the Secretary of State, advise the House as to whether they have received any representation from the Scottish Conservative cohort in this House about basing fishery protection vessels anywhere remotely near Scotland?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he seems to be confusing a number of different issues. The role of the fleet ready escort is certainly very different from that in which HMS Mersey is currently being engaged, as indeed is fishery protection, which is a matter devolved to the Scottish Government.
Global Navigation Satellite System
Some £92 million has been allocated from the Treasury EU exit fund to the engineering, development and design phase of a UK global navigation satellite system, which is currently under way. The UK Space Agency is leading the work, with the full support of the Ministry of Defence.
And yet the reality is that £1.2 billion of UK investment in the Galileo system may now have been wasted because of this Government’s failed negotiation. This Government now want us to spend billions more on a delayed, diplomatically divisive and sketchy system just to cover up for their failure. How much more does the Minister expect the women and men of our armed forces to suffer as a result of lower investment in them because of this Government’s botched Brexit negotiations?
Galileo is an issue because our armed forces need to know that we have absolute faith in their secure systems. The EU decided not to allow us to have that information, which is why we are coming out. However, we are working across Government to look into the alternatives, which is why the Prime Minister has put the funding in place.
It will obviously replicate very much what the US system has, but it will also ensure that we have additional capability should we need it. It is really important that our armed forces have all the equipment they need and that they have systems such as GPS so that we can put them in a safe environment when they are defending our country.
We understand that because of the Government’s failure to negotiate our continued involvement in Galileo they are exploring other options to build their own global satellite navigation system, possibly in co-operation with the United States of America. We know that that will cost the country up to £5 billion, but can the Secretary of State or his Minister tell us how many British companies have lost out on important Galileo contracts as a result of the Government’s failure?
We have in this country an exciting space industry that is working incredibly hard and is part of the 18-month engineering, development and design study that is expected to conclude in 2020. I am looking forward to seeing the results of that study, because I am sure that the great British industry that we have will provide us with the system that we need.
Russian Military Activity (NATO Discussions)
I have regular discussions with my NATO counterparts on Russia. Most recently, the alliance strongly supported the finding of the United States that Russia is in material breach of its obligations under the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty. NATO has also agreed further steps to bolster its ability to deter and defend against the growing threats we face.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his analysis. By investing in defence along the eastern border against the threat of Russia, we are as much investing in our security here in the United Kingdom as we are investing in the security of nations such as Poland, Estonia and Romania. We need to continue to do this, and other nations need to step up to the mark as well.
Recent Russian military activities fall well below the provisions of article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty. Does the Secretary of State share my sadness that the public do not understand articles 1, 2 and 3 of that treaty, which promote peace, security, justice, stability and mutual aid, all of which are vital to our defence capability?
We have to be confident about what NATO can deliver, and we must increasingly make the arguments for what NATO delivers for everyone and explain its full remit. As we look to the future, we are seeing nations such as Russia and, increasingly, China operating in a grey zone, just below the level of conflict. That does not mean that those actions are any less dangerous. In Ukraine, the grey zone has merged with conventional power.
The implications of Russian policy in the near east may be more dramatic now that the US has withdrawn from Syria. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether there is a cross-departmental plan on the implications of the new regional dynamic for us and our other partners?
Russian incursions into Scottish waters are increasingly blatant, yet still no major naval surface ships are based in Scotland. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with his NATO counterparts about the UK’s responsibility to patrol its north Atlantic maritime territory properly?
What we have seen is increased investment in the North Atlantic, whether that is the deployment of P8s to Lossiemouth or the continued investment in our submarine forces at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, and we will continue to make that investment. We are very much leading the way in dealing with the challenges that increased Russian activity in the North Atlantic presents not just to us but to the whole of NATO.
Leaving the EU: Future Defence Relationship
The UK will pursue a distinctive, independent and sovereign foreign and defence policy that meets British interests and promotes our values. The political declaration negotiated with the EU recognises the shared threats and values of the UK and the EU and provides a framework for an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible future relationship.
The EU Common Security and Defence Policy missions play an extremely important role for peace and security in the European continent and beyond. Can the Minister confirm that, post-Brexit, we will not be withdrawing personnel and operational support from such missions?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course, up until recently, we actually led Op Atalanta, which was the counter-piracy operation in Somalia, although that has now handed over to a joint mission between Italy and Spain. In the future, the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that, just because we are leaving the European Union, it does not mean to say that we are leaving our responsibilities over security in the European Union. We will look at contributing to missions where we can when it is in both the UK and EU’s interests.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we regain our position as an independent and global presence on the world stage, it is even more important that the United Kingdom is seen as a reliable and credible partner and ally across the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a golden opportunity for us to look to expand our footprint across the world. Only this year, we have seen Royal Navy warships in the far east—three in fact—and that is just the sort of presence that we look to continue in the future.
Royal Marines Bases
Before I answer this question, Mr Speaker, may I join you in welcoming our overseas guests here today? They are strong, important and valued Commonwealth allies. In particular, I thank our Australian representative: Sydney hosted the Invictus games in October and did an absolutely fantastic job in reminding all of us that there is life after injury, and that, through sport, people can develop a new chapter as they advance.
On the Royal Marines, I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will join me in congratulating the Royal Marines as they celebrate 355 years since their formation. They have a fantastic history: helping Lord Nelson secure victory at Trafalgar; ensuring that we secured The Rock in 1704; enabling us to land at Normandy with 17,500 Marines; and, of course, helping in the liberation of the Falklands. We all owe those who earned the coveted Green Beret a huge debt of gratitude.
That is characteristically gracious of the right hon. Gentleman. I just add that Melbourne is also hosting, over the next fortnight, the Australian Open, one of the great sporting events of the calendar and, for this Chair, now and again, a respite from politics.
Since my Adjournment debate on the Royal Marines’ basing arrangements last week, I have received lots of feedback from those who have served in the Royal Marines. It is clear that the association between the Royal Marines and Stonehouse is a bond worth preserving. Will the Minister consider extending the closure date of Stonehouse barracks in Plymouth from 2023 to 2025 or later to allow enough time to build the state of the art Royal Marines superbase in the city that our Royal Marines rightly deserve?
I join the hon. Gentleman—I hope the whole House will agree with me—in saying thank you to all those who have served and who are serving in the Royal Marines. He is aware that we had a series of debates last week supporting the Royal Marines and confirming an important continued presence in the south-west. He will be aware that 3 Commando Brigade will remain in the Plymouth area; 29 Commando Royal Artillery must move from the Citadel, which is no longer fit for purpose; 40 Commando will move from Taunton; 42 Commando will remain in Bickleigh; 45 Commando will remain in Condor; and our close protection unit looking after our nuclear assets and Lympstone will continue as well.
The Minister’s predecessor assured me that Plymouth would remain the centre of gravity for amphibious operations in this country. Will the Minister confirm that, whatever happens in this rebasing strategy, Plymouth will remain the centre of gravity for amphibious operations in the United Kingdom?
I can confirm that Plymouth will remain the centre of gravity for the Royal Marines commandos. As I just said, 3 Commando headquarters will remain there. Confirmation of our commitment to the Royal Marines was made this year when the Defence Secretary was able to confirm the continuation of Albion and Bulwark, those stalwart workhorses required for amphibious capability.
UK Airstrikes Against Daesh
Royal Air Force airstrikes have played a vital role in the campaign against Daesh. By supporting local troops on the ground in both Iraq and Syria, we have helped them to retake more than 99% of the territory that Daesh once occupied across both countries. This is a significant success, but Daesh still holds pockets of territory. We must continue to fight the terrorist threat that Daesh poses in the middle east and, of course, in the United Kingdom.
As the Secretary of State has alluded to, it is estimated that 99% of the territory once held by Daesh is now gone. In the light of the coalition’s success in helping to degrade Daesh in Syria, what further actions does my right hon. Friend propose when airstrikes are no longer required?
We have seen 51 airstrikes against Daesh in the last month, 27 of which occurred in the last two weeks alone, so the tempo of activity and the amount of resource that the coalition will continue to have to commit will still be substantial over the long term. We will continue to work closely with our allies to see what kind of support package needs to be offered to continue to put pressure on Daesh, whether that is in Iraq or other countries.
The Ministry of Defence is committed to exploiting offensive cyber as a warfighting tool. We are developing and employing capabilities through the national offensive cyber programme, and ensuring that offensive cyber is fully integrated with military full-spectrum operations.
Working with the private sector and keeping legislation up to date is essential when it comes to developing cyber-capabilities, offensive or otherwise. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the private sector is appropriately involved and that legislation is kept up to date?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can reassure the House that all our offensive cyber operations comply with the law of armed conflict, and with national and international law. This is very much a 21st century technology, which is why we apply the enterprise approach and work closely with the private sector when it comes to developing this capability.
Of course, the private sector is a real success story; there is huge growth in the area. What more can the Government do to work with the private sector—in the context not just of defensive cyber, but of offensive cyber—to ensure that we can bring forward technology that assists not only the country, but UK firms as well?
The short answer is by utilising the skillsets of the private sector. In many ways we have done this by recognising the use of reserves. We cannot always compete with the salaries paid by the private sector, but many of those working in the private sector are committed to national security. That is why this has very much been a growth area when it comes to the use of reserves.
Cyber-security is supposed to be a priority of the modernising defence programme, yet post-Brexit we are going to lose access to the European arrest warrant, Europol and the sharing of data used in EU frameworks. How is the Ministry of Defence going to deal with those challenges?
Capita’s Army Recruitment Contract
The Army is working closely with Capita, with multiple interventions now in place and delivering improvements. Regular soldier applications are at a five-year high, supported by last year’s award-winning “This is Belonging” marketing campaign. It will take longer to see increases in trained strength due to the length of the recruitment and training pipelines.
There are certainly alternative plans in place should this contract not perform, and the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that he has not ruled that out. However, I am pleased that in recent months, after interventions by Capita, we have seen a dramatic improvement in the contract. One of the indications of that is that applications are now at a five-year high.
Capita’s complete failure to deliver on its Army recruitment contract is frustrating the ambitions of many youngsters whose only desire is to serve their country. In the light of all this, may I ask the Minister again: can Capita be trusted to run the defence contract, and that of the fire service as well?
We have been quite open about the fact that there have been challenges in this contract. Equally, the Chief of the Defence Staff, in his appearance before the Select Committee the other day, recognised that some of these issues were of the Army’s own making historically. I can only repeat again that I am confident—this has occupied much of my time in recent months—that improvements have been made to the contract, and we are now seeing that pipeline working. It is much more effective than it has been in the past, and I think the results will be seen in a few months’ time.
Armed Forces Personnel: Trends
We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and we have a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention. The challenge is kept under constant review.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his confidence in me. With respect, he is rather missing the point of the latest recruitment campaign. We will always have core intenders who want to join the military, but equally we are trying to attract a whole group of people who do not realise that the modern military requires many skills other than the ability to use a bayonet. That is precisely why, when it comes to looking at peacekeeping operations, we need to use the compassion of the so-called snowflakes who can sit there and be effective operators in the humanitarian environment.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very kind of you to give me your best wishes.
Does the Minister not accept that the number of fully trained personnel in each of the armed services is now lower than it was this time last year, making a mockery of the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to maintain the overall size of the armed forces?
As part of the future accommodation model, service personnel are being forced off-patch. This could increase the loneliness among service personnel that has been identified by the Royal British Legion. Has the Minister made an assessment of the implications for people and for the attractiveness of coming into the forces that that will induce?
Let us be absolutely clear. The future accommodation model is about choice. It is about recognising that not everybody necessarily wants to live on the patch, and about creating a more stable armed forces. For example, creating super-garrisons means that families are not being moved around the country the whole time. The aim is to create a good retention tool and, crucially, to give our service personnel choice in how they live their lives.
Modernising the Defence Estate
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the better defence estate programme is a 25-year programme to rationalise the defence estate, which is far too large for our present circumstances. We need to look at our training areas and our garrisons, and we need to provide places for civilian housing too. He will be aware that Chester is involved in that programme.
Does the Minister share my concern that reducing the number of barracks and concentrating them in one place—for example, in the north-west, at Weeton in Preston—reduces the operational footprint of the Army in the north-west or elsewhere in the country and therefore reduces operational effectiveness? Might it not be better to keep open some barracks, such as the Dale barracks in Chester, to maintain a better operational spread?
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman raises our footprint in the north-west of England, which is a very large recruitment area, because the Defence Secretary was talking about that this morning. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the decisions that have been made concerning the Dale barracks. The 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment and the Royal Logistic Corps units will be moving. The Fox barracks will remain, and the Army Reserve will be there, but his point is well made, and we will try to act upon it.
Millions of pounds have been invested in the Norton Manor site, where 40 Commando is based, in Taunton Deane. It is ideally located for the marines, and more than 150 people aside from the marines work on the extensive site. This place has a great deal to recommend it, so will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that all those aspects will be assessed in the overall plan to rationalise the defence estate?
Armed Forces: Morale
The hon. Lady is right to raise concerns about morale in our armed forces. The continuous attitude survey is critical for us to understand the views of our armed forces personnel. We often talk about training, exercises and operations, but the welfare of our personnel and their families is critical.
I thank the Minister for his response. A recent survey of armed forces personnel found that only two in five are satisfied with service life in general. That has been linked to low pay and poor-quality accommodation. What are the Government doing specifically to reverse the decline in our armed forces’ morale?
As I mentioned in my opening remarks, that is a concern, and we must address it. Pay has never been an issue in the armed forces. When I joined up, it was not an issue. People do not join the armed forces for the money, but we do not want it to become an issue. I was pleased that the pay freeze was lifted last year, with a 2% rise. Effort is also being made to improve accommodation and provide flexible working, which is the main ingredient that forces people to depart, because they are unable to spend enough time with their families. Those changes have been introduced, and I hope they will affect the morale of our armed forces.
As we start the new year, I want to pay tribute to the men and women who spent Christmas away from home in service of their country. Over the Christmas period, I visited UK armed forces personnel in Ukraine, South Sudan and Kenya. It was excellent to see the work they are doing in the security, peacekeeping and humanitarian fields.
What we are seeing in Ukraine is the most dreadful of situations, where Russia’s aggressive acts include Ukrainian sailors being held against their will, and they continue to be held against their will. As an act to demonstrate their intent for 2019, Russia and the Kremlin should be looking at letting these men return to their families and friends at the earliest possible opportunity. We are supporting the Ukrainian people. We have already seen HMS Echo visiting Odessa, and the Royal Marines will start training with Ukrainian forces in the very early part of this year.
I am afraid what the hon. Gentleman says is simply untrue. The Guardsman concerned gave his specific permission for his photograph to be used on that poster and understood exactly the content of the campaign.
I have had the great privilege of seeing our service personnel who are part of the UN mission, and the work that they are doing in combating sexual violence in South Sudan is something we can all feel rightly proud of. We have seen them take action to deal with some of the threats that many women and children are facing every day, but we have to look at how we can do more. Earlier last year, we saw the opening of a new training programme at Shrivenham, and we need to look at how we can step up that work.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgment. In cases like this, it is absolutely right that collectively across the House we should act in the way we have. I am delighted that we have managed to put things in place to help the family.
I am pleased to say that the majority of people make the transition into civilian life without a problem, but there are those who require our support, and we have provided a new programme through the mental health and wellbeing strategy to emphasise this approach. We are also focusing on the veterans strategy, which will provide for a consultation on what more we can do to support those affected by PTSD.
We expect the final clean-up to be completed by March. I pay tribute to all the service personnel across all three services who have done so much in dealing with the attack. Additionally, we will be training Royal Marines to be those best able to deal with the challenges of nerve agents, to make sure we deepen our resilience against future threats.
The medal campaign group for Bomber Command has identified that it is the only main campaign not to be recognised by the Air Crew Europe Star. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that the committee responsible considers its submission to address that issue?
I am very sympathetic to those calls. However, the award of the clasp rather than the medal for the aircrew who served with Bomber Command is consistent with the policy for other awards in recognition of service during world war two, which simply dictated that campaign medals would reflect involvement in broad theatres of war. Exactly the same policy applied to Fighter Command, who received a clasp for their service during the battle of Britain.
Further to that question, my constituent, Wing Commander Jim Wright, is a 95-year-old veteran who has campaigned long and hard for those changes to be made in respect of Bomber Command. I hear what the Minister is saying, but we owe these gentlemen a debt for their heroic acts. Given that time is marching on, surely they should be recognised in the way that they deserve?
Redevelopment of the REEMA sites in Carterton is an urgent priority for west Oxfordshire, not only for RAF personnel who depend on the housing, but because of its effect on west Oxfordshire’s housing stock. Will the Minister meet me again to discuss how we can progress this urgent matter?
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee), may I press the Minister on recruitment? MOD figures reveal that in the first quarter of last year, Capita failed to bring in 90% of the recruits that the British Army needs. When I wrote to the Minister about this issue, he simply referenced old data. When will the Government recognise the crisis of failed privatisation and bring recruitment back in-house?
The reality is that there is a delay between people applying to join the Army and coming through the pipeline as trained soldiers. What I am trying to explain to the House is that, as a result of the recent recruitment campaign, applications to the armed forces, in particular the Army, are up significantly—indeed, they are at a five-year high. In time, that will work its way through into actual numbers serving in the Army.
The Russian annexation of Crimea has been followed by the construction of the Kerch bridge to the Russian mainland. To date, no NATO ship has entered under the bridge into the sea of Azov. When does the Ministry of Defence expect that situation to change?
We can be very proud that the Royal Navy was the first navy to enter the Black sea and go to Odessa in solidarity with our Ukrainian friends. Currently we have no plans, but we will continue to keep this situation under review; and we plan to make sure that further Royal Navy vessels visit the Black sea later this year.
What progress is the Minister making with the Home Office to help those Afghan interpreters who came here under the Government’s scheme but are now finding huge difficulties in being reunited with their families because normal immigration rules apply? They deserve our support.
We have regular discussions with the Department of Health. We recognise that properly supporting veterans is not something that the Ministry of Defence can do on its own; something has to be done right across Government. That is why the creation of a veterans board, working across Government and bringing the Department of Health together with other Departments, is vital. As part of the veterans board, the Department of Health for England, as well as the devolved nations, is working on how we can enhance the support that we give to veterans.
Order. I point out, as much for the benefit of our visitors as for right hon. and hon. Members, that the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) not merely represents Bridgend and is a member of the Defence Committee, but is President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and we are very proud of that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Civilian authorities and agencies are now often on the frontline in dealing with cyber-attacks, chemical weapons attacks and drone incursions. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence is stepping up training and resilience capability of our civilian agencies to ensure that the skills transfers are there, so that they too are able to defend our country?
Yes; of course we always have that backstop of being able to step in and support civilian authorities as well. Increasingly, as we touched on earlier, there is a growing grey zone where people who wish to do us harm are acting, and we need to consider how we support civilian authorities more in future to help them best deal with those threats.
Again, in the name of the intelligibility of our proceedings to those visiting, I point out that we are about to have a point of order—not just any old point of order, but a point of order from the Mother of the House, the female Member with the longest uninterrupted service, since 28 October 1982, if my research is correct or my recollection accurate.