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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 671: debated on Monday 3 February 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Personnel: Vexatious Claims

1. What steps his Department plans to take to tackle vexatious claims against armed forces personnel. (900535)

5. What steps his Department plans to take to tackle vexatious claims against armed forces personnel. (900539)

24. What steps his Department is taking to tackle vexatious claims made against armed forces personnel. (900559)

My thoughts are with the injured victims of the Streatham attack and their families, and I express my sympathy and support on the Government’s behalf. I also pay tribute to the brave police officers who so speedily confronted and dealt with the attacker and to the other emergency services who assisted the victims and others.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, who perform exceptional feats to protect this country in incredibly difficult circumstances. While our servicemen and women are rightly held to the highest standards of behaviour, we must ensure that the law is applied consistently, promptly and fairly.

With Combermere barracks and Victoria barracks in the Windsor constituency, we are proud to be home to the Irish Guards, the Welsh Guards and the Household Cavalry. Following their many years of service to our nation, I want them to feel safe and secure in the knowledge that they will not be hounded and harassed by vexatious litigation for decades to come. How soon will our veterans be able to stand at ease?

As Her Majesty said in the Gracious Speech, the Government will shortly introduce a legislative package to ensure that our service personnel and veterans have access to the legal protections they deserve. That will build on the consultation held last summer on proposed legal protections and measures for armed forces personnel and veterans who have served in operations outside the UK. We expect those measures to be brought forward soon.

We owe an immense debt of gratitude to our armed forces, who should never face malicious or unfair treatment after their service when there is no reason to do so. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all Members to back our troops and get behind our plans to tackle vexatious claims?

Many Members of this House support our troops, and I hope that they will be able to support all the measures that we bring forward to protect personnel from vexatious claims and inquests.

What action is being taken to halt the prosecutions currently under way in Northern Ireland of those who served in our armed forces and in the police during the troubles while a review is being undertaken?

My hon. Friend will know that it is obviously not for the Executive or the Government to interfere once a prosecution is under way. Prosecutions are a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions, either here or in Northern Ireland. However, no one must be above the law where there is genuine evidence of wrongdoing, but when the process is abused for vexatious purposes, it is right that the Government step forward with measures to stop that happening.

Protecting veterans is a priority for this Government, but their families are just as important. Changes to the war widows’ pension scheme mean that, while the majority of war widows receive a pension for life, a small group, some of whom live in my constituency, whose husbands died after 1973 and who themselves remarried before 2005, fall outside the scheme. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to address that injustice?

The Government recognise the unique commitment that service families make to our country and remain sympathetic to the circumstances of those widows who remarried and cohabited before 1 April 2015. However, the Government currently have no plans to reinstate war widows’ pensions for war widows who remarried between 1973 and 2005—before the 2015 changes took effect. However, I hear my hon. Friend’s call, and my colleague the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has already met representatives from the War Widows’ Association, and we are examining alternative methods to see whether we can mitigate the impact.

The Opposition’s thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by yesterday’s attack in Streatham, and I pay tribute to the police and emergency services for all their heroic work.

The Government have repeatedly promised to take action on vexatious claims against personnel and veterans, but we are yet to see any concrete plans. I heard what the Secretary of State said today, but will he give us the exact date on which the Government will introduce legislation?

The Government made a commitment in our manifesto and in other statements to bring forward measures within 100 days to deal with vexatious claims against our veterans. That 100-day period ends towards the end of March, which is when the timetable will be in place.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment regarding our armed services personnel and look forward to that working out in the fullness of time. Will he ensure that other Cabinet colleagues are aware of the implications of vexatious claims for police officers who served in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. I served alongside RUC Special Branch in my time, and I have the highest regard for the RUC officers, many of whom lost their lives in fighting during the troubles. Obviously, we will look at what we can do around other Crown servants to make sure that they are protected from that same vexatious industry that is going on at the moment in Northern Ireland.

Frigates and Destroyers

The Prime Minister has announced that the Government will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war. We remain committed to ensuring that the Royal Navy will have the ships required to fulfil its defence commitments.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. While I welcome that commitment, may I raise concerns that many are bringing to me—that at the minute we simply do not have enough ships to protect our two new aircraft carriers should they ever have to go to sea at the same time? Is it still the commitment of the Government to have two wholly UK sovereign deployable carrier groups to deploy at the same time, should we ever have to, while maintaining our other commitments overseas?

Although that has never been the policy of the Government, both aircraft carriers have been brought into service to ensure that one is always available 100% of the time. Although the precise number and mix of vessels deployed within a maritime task group would depend on operational circumstances, we will be able to draw from a range of highly capable vessels, such as Type 45 destroyers, Type 23 frigates, and the Astute class submarines—and, in the near future, Type 26 frigates as well.

I associate myself with the words of the Secretary of State about what happened yesterday; our thoughts and prayers are with the emergency services and those involved. I also congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) on an excellent question.

The Secretary of State will not know that I am the son of a coppersmith in what was the greatest yard in the Clyde, John Brown’s—my own constituency office now occupies that land. I am very much aware of the vagaries of shipbuilding and the skills involved in it across the UK. I am heartened to hear what the Minister said to his hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, but I want to ask about Fleet Solid Support Ships—

Order. Questions should be sharp and punchy, because there are people further down the Order Paper.

Unless the Minister starts baying at me.

The Fleet Solid Support Ships have the ability to use skills and create work across yards not currently involved in the Type 26 or 31. Will the Under-Secretary assure me that he will maximise that public delivery by taking it across and then keeping it within the UK?

In November, the Secretary of State agreed that the Fleet Solid Support Ship competition should be stopped as it had become clear that a value-for-money solution could not be reached. The Department is now considering the most appropriate way forward.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), does the Minister agree that it would be an unwise inefficiency for there to be too little protection for our aircraft carriers? Given that we have taken this important decision to project airpower, we must have adequate surface ships to keep those aircraft carriers safe.

Of course these assets of huge national importance must be properly protected. The Royal Navy will make sure that the required number of ships are available for exactly that purpose.

The issue is not just about the number of ships that the Royal Navy possesses, but whether they are operationally effective or not. From July 2018 to July 2019, two of the six Type 45 destroyers did not put to sea, and a third spent fewer than 100 days at sea. What will the Minister be doing to ensure that the existing ships are operationally ready?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and very much share the sentiment in it. Since being appointed in December, I have been more concerned by the number of ships tied up against walls in Plymouth and Portsmouth than by those at sea. The Secretary of State has made the delivery of more ships for the fleet his priority for the Navy.

Defence Manufacturing

3. What recent assessment his Department has made of the economic effect on local communities of UK defence manufacturing. (900537)

In the financial year 2018-19, expenditure across the UK was £19.2 billion, supporting around 119,000 jobs. In my hon. Friend’s region of the north- west, we spent just under £2 billion supporting around 12,500 jobs, many of which were in Barrow.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, almost one in five of my constituents works either in the delivery of the national endeavour of the nuclear deterrent or in the supply chain businesses in Barrow; the economic impact is therefore huge. The proposed marina village development in Barrow would help to ensure that money spent there serves our local economy. Will he agree to meet me and back this endeavour, and to meet my local council to support that initiative?

My hon. Friend has certainly hit the ground running. I have been in post for less than two months, and he has been here for the same time, yet this is the second time he has lobbied me on this important development. He will be pleased to know that as a consequence of his formidable advocacy for Barrow, I have already raised this matter directly with the chief executive of BAE Systems. My Department will do all it can to support his campaign, and I know my hon. Friend has also secured towns fund money from my colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

I welcome the new defence procurement Minister to his place. Several of his predecessors promised to factor in wider socioeconomic value when awarding contracts for defence manufacturing. When will the MOD actually start doing that for every contract? Given that the Department can no longer hide behind EU procurement rules, will he now award the contract for the Fleet Solid Support Ships to a UK firm?

On the Fleet Solid Support Ships, the competition has not yet been restarted. May I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the Type 31, where there is a requirement that it should be built in the United Kingdom? That is a model we should be looking to emulate as much as possible.

Support for Veterans

The strategy for our veterans outlines a 10-year vision. The MOD has launched a new holistic transition policy, broadening the support offered to our people. Resettlement policy and the career transition partnership provide this employment support.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking businesses in my constituency, such as Iggesund, James Walker & Co and TSP Engineering, among others, that have actively recruited veterans? Will he pledge his support for companies like them to help veterans after their valued service?

I certainly pay tribute to my hon. Friend and the company he mentions. Veterans in this country are a significant untapped resource, and one primary objective of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs is to re-evaluate what the perception of veterans is in this country. They bring so much to so many companies across the land, including the one he mentions.

An area where we can do more to tackle disadvantage that families face is in helping bereaved services children in the education system. Will my hon. Friend therefore look favourably at proposals from Scotty’s Little Soldiers, an excellent charity based in King’s Lynn, in my constituency, to track and support 1,000 bereaved services children in our schools?

Absolutely. I pay tribute to those at Scotty’s Little Soldiers, who have done a remarkable job over the years, and I am seeing them tomorrow. Data is an area where the Government are determined to do their work to make sure that all of our policies are evidence-based and that they reach the people who need them tracking service families, particularly bereaved families, through schools is an important part of that work.

Since 2013, four men have been lost to their families following their deaths during Army training in the Brecon area. The parents of one of these men, Craig Roberts, are in the Gallery today. At the latest inquest, the coroner criticised the Minister’s Department, saying that lessons were not being learnt from these tragedies. She has already granted one extension to respond—when will the Minister respond?

I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives on these exercises. Indeed, on the Select Committee, I worked on a report that was determined to make sure that every question the parents will have about these tragic accidents is investigated. The report is being gone over at the moment, and I want to make sure it is right and that it applies the lessons that have been learned. No child should die in training in our UK armed forces, although we must remain cognisant of the fact that it needs to remain as aggressive and warlike as we can make it. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents to find out what more we can do to narrow that delta in training.

Too many times in the past five years, I have met veterans in my constituency office who have been unable to access the mental health support they need. The Minister has mentioned a holistic approach to transition. Will he give mental healthcare a top priority in that?

One of my primary duties in this role is to ensure that no veteran does not know where to turn in this country for help, and that is particularly pertinent to mental health. We have some brilliant services across the country. A reconfiguration is going on at the moment, from third sectors into the NHS, but I am looking to launch a veterans’ mental health strategy later on this year. I am determined that within six to 12 months there will be no veteran in this country who will not know where to turn to for help.

Veterans who served in Northern Ireland on Operation Banner will, along with many of their families, I am sure, welcome the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive—but not at the price of selling our veterans down the river to appease Sinn Féin. When the Prime Minister stood for the leadership of the Conservative party, he said clearly in writing in The Sun that he would legislate to protect veterans, including Northern Ireland veterans, from vexatious prosecution. Will the Minister absolutely reiterate that promise today and assure us all that we will defend those who defended us?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s question. Let me be absolutely clear: no Government in history have done more to talk about or to try to deliver protection for our servicemen and women from vexatious claims and inquests. This Government are committed to resolving the issue, the Prime Minister has promised to do so, and my right hon. Friend has heard from the Secretary of State this afternoon that it will be done within 100 days.

First, I echo the comments of others in the Chamber about yesterday’s tragic events in Streatham.

In North East Fife, there is a fantastic military co-working scheme at Leuchars that helps veterans, spouses of serving personnel and other non-serving members of the armed forces community. It helps people to find work, to access support and to make friends. May I invite the Minister to visit the co-working hub in Leuchars and, as a former career transition partnership employee, ask what plans he has to promote similar schemes throughout the country?

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady and the team at Leuchars, who do a fantastic job. I am currently carrying out a programme of visits to a lot of bases. CTP is a huge part of what we offer for people transitioning from the military into civilian life, and more money is going into it than ever before, but I am determined to learn from best practice, which is what it sounds like the hon. Lady has in Leuchars, so I would be delighted to visit her in due course.

Defence Relationships: South East Asia

6. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of the UK’s defence relationships in south-east Asia. (900541)

The UK continues to have a strong defence relationship with south-east Asia. We maintain a garrison in Brunei and have kept a persistent naval presence in the region since 2018. We work with many countries in the region to help to improve regional security and build capacity. This is done both bilaterally and multilaterally, including through the five power defence arrangements, the only formal defence agreement in the whole region.

Given the importance of the South China sea, not only as a major navigation route but as a source of a growing number of intra-nation disputes, does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK has a vital role to play in ensuring freedom of navigation, providing defence and cyber solutions to south-east Asia, and boosting that five-nation power arrangement, as part of our deepening relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?

I agree with my hon. Friend. If any part of the world is a place where the international rules-based system is being threatened, it is in Asia and across the Pacific and the South China sea. That is why we want to strengthen and continue to work with the five power defence arrangements, to work with many of the countries in the region, and to deepen our bilateral relationship with ASEAN member states.

On the one hand, the Government have rightly been challenging China’s aggressive military actions in the seas around south-east Asia, yet on the other hand, despite the Secretary of State himself having reportedly branded China a “friend of no one”, the Government have granted Huawei significant access to the superhighways of our cyber and telecoms systems. Will the Secretary of State clarify exactly what his Government’s strategy in relation to China is?

The Government’s strategy towards China is that we treat it in a way that befits its actions but measure our response when China does things that we do not like. For example, we test freedom of navigation in the Pacific but also seek to listen to the experts when it comes to issues such as Huawei. That is why the Government made the choice last week to allow Huawei to have a limited amount of the 5G market. Our policy towards Huawei is to cap it, to ban it in other parts of the network, and to reduce over time our dependency on that company and others like it.

Outsourced Contracts

7. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of service provided under contracts outsourced by his Department. (900542)

The Ministry of Defence regularly scrutinises the quality of service provided by all contractors. It is good commercial practice to routinely monitor performance against contract targets and we will not hesitate to take appropriate action when quality standards are not met.

I am not sure that that is happening. Latest figures show that the Army is currently more than 10% under strength and that the full-time trade-trained strength is well below the Government’s stated target. It beggars belief that Capita still holds the recruitment contract. Despite what the Minister says, have the Government just given up trying to hold them to account, or will they actually sack them?

Since resetting their relationship in 2018, the Army and Capita have worked on improving all aspects of the recruiting pipeline. Halfway through the recruiting year, two thirds of the Army’s regular soldier requirement have either started training or are due to do so.

Defence Exports

9. What recent steps he has taken with the Secretary of State for International Trade to support UK defence manufacturing by promoting defence exports. (900544)

On behalf of the Prime Minister, I chair the defence, security and exports working group, which is attended by the International Trade Secretary. Ministers from Defence and International Trade support regular overseas trade missions and attend a wide range of international exhibitions, most notably last year’s Defence and Security Equipment International, where we jointly hosted 58 international delegations, demonstrating the best of British defence exports.

The Secretary of State will know how much of our defence equipment pipeline is coming from the US. He will also know how much our excellent UK defence industry sells into the US. Will he make sure that, as we start the US-UK free trade agreement discussions, the defence sector is one of the sectors that is prioritised?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The US defence market is incredibly important for both the United States and the United Kingdom. Some of my honourable colleagues in this House and I lobbied for the original UK-US defence tech trade treaty in 2006. I can see the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) sitting on the back row of the Labour Benches—we went together. We believe that it is so important. The reality is that, yes, we have more work to do. These trade deals will be incredibly important to make sure that we secure British jobs in order to sell aerospace and partner in aerospace across both countries.

Can the Secretary of State indicate when his Government plan to introduce the excellent recommendations in the report by the right hon. Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne)?

A number of those recommendations have already been implemented. I will meet, and regularly do meet, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne) to discuss the matter. It is incredibly important that we make sure not only that we link prosperity to our defence industry through the products that we commission for our services, but that, overseas, we secure prosperity for our jobs.

The Secretary of State and his team are doing valuable work looking at defence manufacturing for the UK and externally. Will he reassure me that radar is part of that? As I am sure that he remembers, radar was built in the Isle of Wight for the Royal Navy ships.

It will not surprise you to know, Mr Speaker, that Britain builds pretty much the best of everything in the world when it comes to aerospace. As a former aerospace worker, and a Member of Parliament who represents a good few thousand aerospace workers, I know at first hand how much the international community needs and wants our products. The trick is to make sure that we sell them, and the best way to sell them is for us to buy British and show that the best armed forces in the world use British kit.

If the Minister really wants to see the best of what Britain can do in manufacturing, a long-term partner in defence procurement and in making the turbines and gears for the armed services is David Brown Gears in Huddersfield. Will he visit that company? It is a brilliant company. It manufactures for our armed services and it exports. May I invite him to visit to see how excellent it is?

Armed Forces: Capabilities

10. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the capabilities of the armed forces are adequate to meet future threats. (900545)

As announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech, the Prime Minister has committed to undertake the deepest review of Britain’s foreign policy, defence, security and development since the cold war. It will consider all aspects of our defence and security capabilities, including our approach to procurement and maintaining our technological edge against current and future threats.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and for this Government’s ongoing commitment to our security. Now that we have left the EU, our ongoing relationship on security with the EU will inevitably change, so what steps is he taking to strengthen our role within NATO for the future?

The United Kingdom is a full member of NATO and completely committed to ensuring that that alliance has a long-term future. The announcements that we made at the NATO summit in December set NATO on the right path of expanding into areas of hybrid threat and cyber. I am confident that, with Britain and our partners working to ensure NATO’s success, NATO will have a long and fruitful future.

But military capability also depends on industrial defence capability, which depends on a steady workstream. As a number of Members have said, now that we have come out of the EU, why will the Secretary of State not back our shipbuilding industry, start the new contract and specify that support ships should be built in British yards by British firms? Here is the opportunity—why will he not do it?

The right hon. Member will have heard that we stopped the competition for the future solid support vessels. We will look at why that competition could not proceed but, like shipbuilders, I have a lot of faith in the British shipbuilding industry, which is why we have the Type 31 and the Type 26 and excellent aircraft carriers that were delivered on time and on budget, and we will continue to invest in the yards. It is also important to make sure that this SDSR and everything else are budgeted for. No SDSR that I can remember, going back to the early ’90s, has been properly funded to back up the ambitions.

Can I welcome the defence, security and foreign policy review—or the integrated review, as I understand it is to be called? It is a fantastic opportunity to upgrade our defence posture, given the threats that we face. Previous reviews have been hampered by limitations imposed by spending reviews, which, coincidentally, happened at the very same time. So could the Secretary of State spell out the context, the timeframe and the parliamentary engagement for the forthcoming review?

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. Perhaps, given his time in the Department, he will enjoy being able to scrutinise some of his own decisions, and I look forward to his questioning me.

We will publish the details of the review in very quick time as we go forward. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that, if these reviews are to be worth anything, they have to be properly funded. That requires honesty from the Department, wider Government, and the Treasury, and for the ambitions for what we want our country to do and be around the world. If we match our appetites with stomachs, it will have a long-lasting legacy.

We have had as many defence reviews as you have had hot dinners, Mr Speaker, and I am beginning to think that I have got to the point where I have heard so many Defence Ministers tell us that it is going to be different this time. There have been repeated reviews, and as the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said, too often there is a mismatch between the money and the plans. What, realistically, will the Secretary of State do that is different, because every delay in this costs money and every tough decision ducked does no service to our armed services or the security of our country?

The hon. Lady makes very genuine and good observations about these defence reviews. I was a soldier serving under defence reviews that never translated into either money or the funding. The first thing that we can do is be honest with the men and women of our armed forces about what we can afford and what we will give them, and at the same time be honest with the public about what our ambitions are globally, and make that honesty not hunkered in sentimentality but based on financial reality, making sure that the whole Government buy into that, and that we explain that fully across the House and to all Members, including the hon. Lady’s Committee.

Defence Manufacturing

11. What steps his Department is taking to maintain the capabilities of UK defence manufacturing. (900546)

17. What steps his Department is taking to maintain the capabilities of UK defence manufacturing. [R] (900552)

The MOD is committed to supporting the UK defence manufacturing industry. Since 2015, we have published a national shipbuilding strategy, launched the combat air strategy and refreshed our defence industrial policy. Through the defence prosperity programme, we are working to sustain and develop an internationally competitive and productive UK defence sector.

The help that the Government give to our indigenous exporting firms is of huge value. I thank the Minister for the Department’s help with exports of the Leonardo AW159 Wildcat helicopter, and I note that the Republic of Korea has an opportunity to increase its world-leading Wildcat capability, built in Yeovil, to give its people maximum protection and forge an increasingly significant and dynamic relationship with the United Kingdom.

The Wildcat, designed and built in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and with the sweat of my own constituents, has been tried and tested on operations with the Royal Navy. The Government will continue to do all that we can to support the export of Wildcat to South Korea, including making a Royal Navy Wildcat available for it to test and evaluate in the coming months.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The combat air strategy has led to Team Tempest, a world-leading programme providing not only fast jet capability to replace the Typhoon for the Royal Air Force, but real STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—inspiration by employing 1,000 people directly. Can the Minister assure me that its position will be secure in the upcoming defence review?

The Government will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the cold war. The terms of reference will be announced in due course, but the UK combat air strategy that was published in July 2018 will be used to inform the review.

It is mostly French and Swedish steel that has been used to build our ships recently. Does the Minister agree that it is time to factor in the economic value of awarding defence contracts to UK steel suppliers when making procurement decisions in the future?

I have already had the opportunity to visit Barrow, which is a shipyard full of British boats. I understand that the order books on the Clyde and at Rosyth are similarly full.

Talking about the order book for the Clyde, will the Minister give us an assurance that there will be a continuous drumbeat and no delays for future Type 26 frigates that are ordered?

The commitment to building Type 26 frigates is absolute. In fact, defence spending in Scotland secures 10,200 jobs; that is the Royal Navy supporting 10,200 jobs in Scotland.

Safety of Personnel Overseas

The Ministry of Defence constantly reviews the security of its personnel, sites and capabilities to ensure that they remain safe and secure, and that the measures in place remain proportionate, including in response to any changes in threat or risk.

I think we would all agree on the importance of protecting our servicemen and women from threats abroad. However, harmful drinking is more common than post-traumatic stress disorder in the armed forces, and double that of the general population. What is the Minister doing to support the health and wellbeing of our armed forces, to whom we all owe so much?

My hon. Friend will know that there are specific areas where the armed forces have challenges when it comes to drinking, including alcohol abuse and so on. There are a number of programmes running throughout the military. We have a good record on this matter, but there is more to do. I am aware that this issue is baked into some of the culture of previous years. We are doing much better now, but there is work to do on that front.

Last week, three rockets struck the US embassy compound in Baghdad, leaving one person injured. In the light of increased tensions following the US action against Qasem Soleimani, will the Minister tell us what measures are being taken to reduce the risk to our troops in the region, and will he update us on progress in relation to our counter-Daesh programme?

I am clearly not going to go into operational security from the Dispatch Box, but the hon. Member can rest assured that all the correct measures have been taken to ensure that our service personnel are protected abroad, whether it be in Baghdad or the other places where our troops are deployed. The Secretary of State will be providing a formal update on our counter-Daesh programme in due course.

Defence Procurement

14. What recent estimate his Department has made of the number of jobs that defence procurement supports in the UK. (900549)

MOD expenditure with UK industry and commerce supported 119,000 jobs in the UK in the financial year 2018-19, including more than 10,000 jobs in the midlands engine.

Many businesses across Amber Valley benefit from MOD contracts, but there are many more that could. What more can the Department do to work alongside businesses to help spread out these contracts and jobs around the country?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue. Since taking on this brief, I have been interested to discover how the MOD might broaden access for small and medium-sized enterprises, and he represents exactly the sort of constituency where such opportunities are greatest. There will be businesses in his area that can contribute directly to the MOD supply chain, but with Rolls-Royce in Derby immediately to the south of his constituency, we can work with our prime contractors to ensure that they can also access those supply chains.

Armed Forces: Social Mobility

23. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of social mobility in the armed forces. (900558)

The armed forces aim to attract talent from the widest possible base across the United Kingdom, regardless of socioeconomic background, educational status or ethnicity. The skills, education and training provided enable recruits to progress and benefit from promotion based on merit.

The Minister will be aware that the armed forces recruit heavily in areas such as mine in Hull. However, a recent Sutton Trust report showed that people from private schools are seven times more likely to reach the top of the armed forces. What steps is his Department taking to ensure that there is equality of opportunity for all and that our talented people starting on the lowest rungs get the same chance to reach the top?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. For me, the military remains the single fastest accelerant of life chances in this country for those from slightly more challenging backgrounds. The figure she refers to regarding public school and reaching the top is a challenge that has been there for a while, but our figures for Sandhurst are now very different from what they were 10 years ago. Certainly, in my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, socioeconomic background has absolutely nothing to do with someone’s ability to prevail in the military.

With the cost of university going up, many would-be graduates will look at the armed forces as an alternative career path. However, it is still extremely difficult for someone to gain a commission if they do not have a university degree, particularly an Oxbridge degree, with 18% of commissioned officers having an Oxbridge degree. How will the Minister change things to ensure that people who go into the forces without a degree can gain a commission in future?

I and many of my colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Defence, did not have a degree. The military has been more accessible than ever before for people without a degree. This is something we consistently work on. However, I come back to my point: every applicant is judged on what they can bring and add to the organisation of the UK armed forces, irrespective of their background and conscious of the fact that we must always do more to make sure that it is equal.

A constituent of mine was serving in a UK base in Cyprus and his children have special educational needs. The school is operated by the Ministry of Defence, which was unable to offer them adequate support. They therefore had to relocate back to the UK. Will my hon. Friend work with his Department to make sure that children of our brave armed forces have the support they need and that those serving have all the instruments needed to progress their careers?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I have a specific team within the MOD dedicated to SEND children. I am more than happy to look at her case. We are bringing in legislation for the armed forces covenant. The Prime Minister is absolutely clear that no one should suffer any disadvantage as a result of their military service. That will become law during this Parliament and we will see fewer of these cases going forward.

Red Arrows

I am most grateful to the Minister for those comments. We in North West Cambridgeshire firmly believe that RAF Wittering would be the ideal new home for the Red Arrows. With that in mind, will he kindly agree to stay in close contact with me throughout this process in case he or his officials require any further information? Of course, I would be happy to have another ministerial meeting if it would help to press our case further.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s offer of assistance. I assure him that all three potential basing options are still being considered. I would welcome the opportunity to meet him and other interested colleagues in the very near future.

Defence Manufacturing

Our approach to procurement recognises the need to assure the UK’s operational advantage and freedom of action in relation to certain capabilities.

In addition to measures to protect national security, the Government have secured legally binding commitments that there will be significant protection of jobs in the UK, that Cobham’s headquarters will remain in the UK, and that there will be guaranteed spend on research and development. Of course, this is not just a one-way street. I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the acquisition by BAE Systems of two very high-tech and interesting companies in America last week.

Armed Forces: Recruitment and Retention

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces. There is a range of measures under way to improve recruitment and retention, and these are kept under constant review.

Can the Minister assure me that his Department intends to keep the present number of Marines, not decrease it, bearing in mind that they are such a vital force to protect this country?

I can confirm that we have no plans to reduce the size of the Royal Marines. They are an extremely important part of this country’s defence. They contribute 47% of individuals who go off to our UK special forces group. They are evolving and developing; the future commando force concept is very exciting. There are no plans to reduce the number of Royal Marines at this stage.

Strait of Hormuz: UK Shipping

20. What steps his Department is taking to ensure the safe passage of UK shipping in the strait of Hormuz. (900555)

The UK is part of the International Maritime Security Construct, which is safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Gulf. It is now under the command of a Royal Navy officer. The Ministry of Defence, with the Department for Transport, is monitoring the situation closely and stands ready to counter threats, should the need arise.

Since the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles, finance terror groups, harass shipping in the strait of Hormuz and generally act as a bad influence in the region. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the strategic threat to both the UK and our allies in the region, including Israel and the Gulf states?

Iran’s interference in the region is a strategic threat to its near neighbours and, indeed, to UK interests and her allies. The use of proxy forces, terrorists and the constant incursion against our ships in the strait pose a real problem, which was why we joined the International Maritime Security Construct and will continue to be part of it.

Armed Forces Personnel

I am not very well, Mr Speaker. It is not coronavirus; it is worse—it is man flu. It would have seen the Secretary of State in bed for a week.

We remain committed to maintaining the overall size of the armed forces, and a range of measures to improve recruitment and retention is under way. Those measures are kept under constant review. Importantly, the services continue to meet all their current commitments, keeping the country and its interests safe.

Independent analysis by the House of Commons Library has found that Army numbers could fall to just 65,000 by the end of this Parliament if the current rate of decline continues. Instead of giving us more warm words, can the Minister tell us what specific steps his Department is taking to avoid that?

On recruitment, we are at just under 100% of our year-long target, which comes round in April. More people are looking to join the Army than we have seen since 2010. There is a massively positive story to tell. There are no plans to reduce the number of armed forces personnel. It is a fantastic time to join up.

Topical Questions

The MOD has provided extensive support to the cross-government response to the outbreak of coronavirus to ensure the safety of British nationals abroad. That has included medical support on the repatriation flight from Wuhan, the use of RAF Brize Norton and contingencies for handling evacuees in the UK. The Department continues to support planning across Whitehall.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Does he agree that, after facing implacable foes armed with guns and RPGs, it is entirely wrong that our service personnel come home only to face foes armed with subpoenas and LLBs? Will he reiterate the Government’s reassurance that they will not be pursued for historical convictions when no new evidence is found?

I assure my hon. Friend of the importance that we attach to this area, given the stress under which it puts members of the armed forces. This is the first time in my living memory that all the Front-Bench team served on operations and were members of the regular armed forces. That is why we feel it personally, as do the Government. We are determined to deal with this vexatious issue for our armed forces, which is why we will introduce measures in the next 100 days.

Our armed forces were due to have access to Galileo’s encrypted system when it becomes fully operational in 2026, but now we have left the EU, that will not be the case. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when the UK’s own global navigation satellite system will be fully up and running? Given that the first satellites may only be launched by 2025, and the system will not be operational until 2030, what will fill the gap in capabilities that this presents?

The hon. Lady will be aware that all our systems currently run under GPS—the global positioning system—and it is not necessary for us to operate under any other system. This is about resilience and whether we need an alternative system. What happens in our negotiations with Europe between now and the end of the year will obviously be a matter for the negotiators, but I am confident that we will continue to work alongside the United States on GPS or, indeed, that we will provide further details to the House on what we plan to increase resilience.

The Government have actually said that the cost of any system could be up to £5 billion. If the plan is to have this UK option, what assurance has the Secretary of State received that the money will not have to come out of the existing defence budget, which is already under strain, leading to more cuts in other areas?

As I said in my first answer, we are currently dependent on using GPS with the United States. We will keep any alternatives that we need under review. I will of course make representations to the Treasury, as will the wider parts of Government that also rely on satellite navigation—it is not just Defence—to make sure that, if any funding is required, that is taken from across Government or indeed from the Treasury.

T2. RAF Valley trains fast jet pilots and helicopter crews, and it is the second largest employer in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State join me in praising the vital work that RAF Valley does in training and developing the next generation to keep our country safe, and could I invite him to visit Ynys Môn? (900576)

Ynys Môn is an incredibly important island and, indeed, RAF Valley is incredibly important for our RAF and our pilot training. I know that at first hand, in that I have spent a large part of my year at the end of a runway at RAF Valley—literally, although not as an air spotter, I have to say. I go on my holidays to Anglesey, and I know how important RAF Valley is to both the economy and the community. The Government continue to invest in RAF Valley. I greatly look forward to working with my hon. Friend to make sure that voices about the needs of that airport are heard. I am delighted that only recently a new runway was completed to make sure that it has a long-term future in providing our fighter pilot training.

Will the Secretary of State comment on what he makes of the European Commission’s vision of structural consultation on defence and security, and will he be advising the Prime Minister to establish a framework to allow us to continue the excellent work we do with our fellow Europeans?

On a number of deployments with the European Union, we do excellent work, such as in Kosovo and so on. We will make sure that, where there is a requirement for us to work together and there is a mutual need for our security, we will of course enter into such working relationships. However, one of the conditions will be that we can unilaterally enter and unilaterally leave—we will not be tied in. Of course, the security of Europe is always important to the United Kingdom, and we will continue to uphold that policy.

T3. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will keep in active service both of the aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales which, as I know he will agree, are vital for Britain’s overseas interests? (900577)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. These aircraft carriers are bought and paid for: they have been committed to. One is only on sea trials, and I would urge him to give it a chance—we will finish the sea trials. The aircraft carriers are really important to our strategic reach. We will design them so that we always have one available in a carrier strike group around the world, to be delivered should we need to do so. There are absolutely no plans whatsoever to get rid of them.

T4. When a service child moves to a new school, it is up to the old school to flag this on the student’s file, otherwise there could be a delay in receiving the service pupil premium. What discussions has the Minister had with the Education Secretary about the guidance provided to schools to ensure that every service child gets the education they deserve? (900578)

I have had meetings with the Minister for School Standards to make sure that the process is a lot smoother and that people who can access the service pupil premium can do so further in advance of their posting. Again, this issue comes under the armed forces covenant. I am confident that, when this Government do legislate to make sure that no individual is disadvantaged because of their service, such incidents will be no more.

T5. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will recall the recruitment campaign that highlighted how many people—how many young men and women—born in Blyth Valley have made their careers in the armed forces. Can he tell me and the House what steps he has taken to ensure that the young men and women who put themselves forward to serve are retained and valued? (900579)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and to the men and women of Blyth Valley who have contributed so much to this nation’s defence. We are acutely aware that although we are now doing pretty well in recruitment, we have a challenge with retention, and for the first time a Secretary of State has come into role and started talking about how we can better look after our people. I am confident that with wraparound childcare, and all the other things we are doing, we will improve the offer and tackle retention, and that the men and women of Blyth Valley will continue to serve well in our armed forces.

T6. As my hon. Friend knows, Stafford is the proud home of the 22 Signal Regiment and the RAF Tactical Supply Wing. Will he commit to ensuring that our armed forces, including those in my constituency, continue to receive the funding they need to help to keep us safe? (900580)

My hon. Friend is right to be proud of the Army and RAF units in her constituency. We attach the very highest priority to ensuring that all three services have what they need to protect our country and its interests around the world. Our manifesto was perfectly clear: we are proud of our armed forces and will fund them properly.

T8. My constituent, Tom, who is an ex-serviceman, needed his medical records from the Army Personnel Centre in order to apply for a hearing aid. When he got in touch last July, he was told that it would take six months to get his records, because the Army Personnel Centre could not meet demand and was putting in place measures to deal with the backlog. Will the Minister update the House on whether that waiting time has been reduced so that our veterans can access the support they need? (900582)

There should be no waiting time whatsoever for medical records that are going from regular regiments to a local GP. We are looking at ways of improving the system, and incentivising, to ensure that the gap is much smaller. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me about his constituent, I will find out what is going on in that case and ensure it is sorted out.

T9. The ability of GCHQ to keep our country safe in cyber-space relies on it securing a pipeline of talent. In that spirit, will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing well all the girls who are participating in the CyberFirst Girls Competition at the National Cyber Security Centre—the semi-final is on 8 February—and encouraging them into a career in cyber-security? (900583)

Absolutely. The first winner of that competition was Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, which was in my former constituency—it is now in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). It is brilliant that so many girls are entering that sphere. Cyber-security is a real future career, as are other cyber measures, such as cyber-espionage—very good—and I want more and more women to do it. I think it is fantastic. The competition has my full support, and I hope it is won again in Lancashire.

Sergeant Michael Rowley served his country for 25 years. As a result of combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, he started drinking heavily and gambling—not an uncommon story. The charity Help a Squaddie helped Michael to get his life back together, but many are not so fortunate. What are the Government doing specifically to help victims who are at risk of or struggling with those issues?

The Government are funding the NHS to bring in the veterans mental health transition, intervention and liaison service, and the veterans’ mental health complex treatment service. We are bringing in a high-intensity service, and those measures will be brought together to bring forward a coherent veterans strategy for mental health. We are determined that by the end of this year, no veteran will not know where to turn when they need such support.

T10. What progress has been made in aligning the goals of the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence? (900584)

The Ministry of Defence continues to work closely with colleagues in DFID and across the Government to ensure that activity is co-ordinated and mutually reinforced in support of our national security objectives. The Government have announced that they will undertake the deepest review of Britain’s security, defence and foreign policy since the end of the cold war, and that will cover all aspects from defence to diplomacy and development.

Given Capita’s lamentable track record—it was referred to earlier—is there any chance that the Minister will guarantee that it will not get its hands on the MOD fire and rescue service?

There is fair competition in that area, as there always will be. What happened with Capita has been roundly acknowledged by the Ministry of Defence and we have gripped those issues. However, there will be an open and fair competition for that contract.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the announcement he made on Armistice Day last year, at the start of the election campaign, about service personnel not being repeatedly reinvestigated without compelling new evidence broadly corresponds to the recommendations of the 17th report of the last Parliament’s Select Committee on Defence, and does he have a reply to that report ready to give to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), my successor as Chair of the Defence Committee, as soon as the new Committee is formed?

I stand by the statements I made. I apologise for the time taken to respond to the Committee. The reason is that the original draft reply did not reflect the policy commitment and does not reflect the result of the general election. I am determined that all my Department’s replies to Committees are correct, accurate and answer the questions put to them. I hope that when my right hon. Friend reads the reply, he will be happy that it responds to some of the very good recommendations in his Committee’s report.

The Veterans Minister and I finally get to meet next week, at a meeting originally promised with his predecessor about my constituent Tony Pitt, who was worried about funding life-saving treatment for a rare condition he contracted in the Army and feared he had only six months to live. It will just be me and his widow at the meeting. Does the Minister accept that the armed forces covenant promise to fund advanced medical care is just not working, given that my constituent died while waiting to meet him?

Of course we will look at that issue again. It comes under the armed forces covenant: no individual should suffer disadvantage because of the time they served. I look forward to meeting the hon. Lady next week.

A key factor in retaining members of our armed forces is the state of their accommodation. As a former Guards officer based at Wellington barracks, I hear rumours that they are not good. Is the Minister happy that accommodation generally throughout the armed forces meets the required standard?

This Government are putting more money than ever before into armed forces accommodation. I am clear that some of the accommodation we ask our personnel to live in is nowhere near good enough. We have a new programme of inspections and we are determined to get a grip on the issue. I am confident that in the next 12 to 24 months, servicemen and women in this country will see a significant uplift in the standard of their accommodation.