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Topical Questions

Volume 671: debated on Monday 3 February 2020

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.