I beg to move,
That this House has considered Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and to have secured the debate. As the Member of Parliament for the Army’s headquarters in Wales, I am hugely motivated to give the armed forces my full support.
The sons of Wales have a valiant history, marked with courage, bravery and a commitment to strengthening the United Kingdom and our armed forces. From Rorke’s Drift, which saw seven Victoria Cross medals awarded to members of the second 24th Foot brigade, to gaining a battle honour at the Somme, and from the heroic landings on D-day to liberate our European allies to landing in Baghdad in support of Operation Telic, Welsh regiments have proudly contributed to every major campaign of the British Army over a 300-year history.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She described the 300-year history. I am very proud of John Fielding from Torfaen, who is one of those who won a Victoria Cross at Rorke’s Drift. He is commemorated every year in Torfaen. However, does she agree that, although there is great heroism on the battlefield, we must do more to ensure that veterans are looked after, particularly in terms of their mental health?
I completely agree. I thank the hon. Member for raising that point, and I will return to it.
In addition to the celebrated military campaigns I mentioned, the Welsh Guards undertake countless public duties, such as standing guard at royal residences or at the trooping of the colour, which is of huge national importance. On Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing Fusilier Llywelyn, the regimental goat of the Royal Welsh, lead out the Welsh rugby team to their Six Nations near-victory against France. I am confident that he will bring us much better luck in a couple of weeks against Scotland.
Right now, a battalion from the 1st Royal Welsh is travelling to Sennelager in Germany to take part in a four-week gun camp. Welsh warriors have ventured across the globe in support of our national interest. They have been integral to protecting the British way of life for generations. Welsh regiments contributed to the defeat of Nazism in Europe, as well as to maintaining the rule of law during the troubles of Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on introducing the debate. Does she agree that the fact that the smaller regions, such as Wales and Northern Ireland, supply such a large amount of service personnel per capita to the UK armed forces, as she mentioned, shows the nature of our dedication to this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? That loyalty and dedication should be recognised.
I certainly agree. I thank the hon. Member for raising that important point. I gently point out that Wales is a country—I do not wish to disagree with him on his use of the term “region”, but I gently stress that.
As well as the contribution made during the troubles in Northern Ireland, 32 Welsh Guards lost their lives following an attack on the Sir Galahad as they sought to uphold British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. Welsh regiments have long stood with their brothers and sisters from across the Union as liberators of those who have been unable to liberate themselves.
It would be remiss of me not to intervene on my hon. Friend, having been in the Falkland Islands last week. There was a very moving service at the memorial to mark the events that she talks about. I put on record the thanks of the people of the Falkland Islands, who really underlined the debt of gratitude that they have to the Welsh Guards.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point, and completely associate myself with her comments.
Wales supports the UK armed forces through all three services. More than 60 Ministry of Defence establishments and bases are currently in operation in Wales. RAF Valley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) supports pilots from across the UK with low-flying and fast-jet training, in addition to the search and rescue operations undertaken from that base. Similarly, HMS Cambria near Cardiff is the location of the only Royal Navy reservists in Wales.
My constituency is home to a number of important military sites, particularly Sennybridge training area, which has been used to train soldiers since the outbreak of world war two. We are also home to the Infantry Battle School, which every year equips more than 3,500 men and women with the skills and tactical abilities they require to become exceptional soldiers in the UK armed forces.
Brecon is the location of HQ Wales and the 160th Brigade. Originally raised in 1908, the brigade saw service in both world wars, including in Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of north-west Europe. Today, the 160th is the link between the Army in Wales, the UK Government, the Welsh Government and wider Welsh society. This week, the 160th will see the retirement of its commanding officer. I put on record my thanks to Brigadier Alan Richmond for his three decades of service, the last four of which have been as the Army commander in Wales. I wish him and his family all the very best as he moves on to his next post in the Army. I look forward to working closely with his successor, Brigadier Andrew Dawes, as we move into a new era for our security and defence. The Army in Wales will no doubt have to contend with international challenges and challenges closer to home in the coming weeks and years.
The proposed closure of the barracks in Brecon, which is scheduled for 2027, would be a tragic loss to our community. I visited the barracks only yesterday and was given a tour by both brigadiers. One of the buildings they showed me is named after Sir Tasker Watkins VC, who is known by many—certainly by me—as the greatest ever Welshman for the bravery he showed in France in 1944. Closing Brecon barracks would close the door on an essential part of Welsh history. The history of Brecon is one of shared pride and intertwined heritage with the military. Many local businesses are supported by the presence of the barracks, not to mention the revenues from tourism, which support local jobs and growth in the rural economy.
The loss of the barracks at Brecon would result in the headquarters for the Army in Wales being relocated from that site. In addition to its truly historical and social significance, it cannot be overstated how critical the facility is to our national security. During times of regional and national crisis, Brecon barracks is the location of the critical response unit, which co-ordinates the actions of the military. The equipment and expertise housed in Brecon are a source of pride and should be protected. Although I will do all I can to prevent the closure of the barracks, if a compromise cannot be found, I will be working closely with colleagues in both the Ministry of Defence and HQ Wales to ensure the impact on the local economy and local identity is minimal.
UK defence spending now supports over 7,700 jobs in Wales in the public and private sectors, an increase from 6,300 just a year ago.
My hon. Friend mentioned Brigadier Andrew Dawes in passing. It is worth highlighting that when he was in the Ministry of Defence, he masterminded the link between Parliament and the MOD, and particularly the armed forces parliamentary scheme. He is an absolutely first-class individual, as is his twin brother Ed, who runs the Wiltshire side of things, and he will be a great asset.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I do not want to prejudice my application to the armed forces parliamentary scheme by saying anything further, but I thank him very much.
The 2018-19 financial year was the first in history during which the UK spent over £1 billion on defence in Wales, so there has never been a better time to celebrate the prominence of Wales in the UK’s defence estate. Wales is quickly becoming a defence industry hub: thanks to an expansion in cutting-edge innovation and pioneering technologies, the whole of the UK armed forces will benefit from research and development undertaken in Wales. It is encouraging that the MOD’s Defence Electronics and Components Agency, based in Sealand in north Wales, has been selected as the global repair hub for the F-35 Lightning aircraft.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on having secured this debate. I agree with her about additional defence spending, the need to have bases in Wales, and the need for that barracks to not leave Brecon, if she can negotiate that with the Minister. However, one of my concerns about spending is that, in my constituency and other constituencies across Wales, because of the austerity we have seen over the past decade, cenotaphs that need refurbishment or improved record keeping are falling behind on maintenance, rather than being kept to the good and proper standard that they should be. In my own constituency, the community in Gilfach Goch has come together to refurbish the cenotaph there. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that, while the MOD is moving forward with all this additional spending, it also makes sure that it marks those who died in conflicts and that we maintain cenotaphs to the very high standard the public expect?
The hon. Lady has mentioned the F-35. The work on that aircraft is based in Alyn and Deeside, which I obviously welcome; it is vital that we have it. However, over the years, there has been a lot of uncertainty regarding that site because of the chopping and changing that has happened, with the MOD changing how contracts are placed and moving work forward or back. We need longer-term planning if we are to maintain that important strategic work.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I will be moving on to a related point in a few minutes.
Although investment in the regional defence industry is increasing, proportionately Wales continues to contribute more personnel to the UK armed forces than any other nation in the Union. Consequently, we have a high number of veterans in Wales. The Government have made huge progress in this area, including through the creation of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. However, when it comes to mental health, we can do more to ensure that returning servicemen and servicewomen can access the care they need. I am grateful that the veterans Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), has agreed to meet me to discuss this issue shortly.
Before my hon. Friend makes further progress, I want to return to the point about veterans. Does she agree that the Government’s important proposal to roll out a veterans’ card should encompass all veterans, wherever they are in the UK and regardless of devolution boundaries? A way must be found to ensure that all veterans across the UK can benefit at the same time.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I know that discussions are ongoing between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and I am very optimistic that a way forward can, and must, be found.
Despite their admirable pride in being Welsh, none of our regular infantry units is permanently based in Wales. The 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards is based at Robertson barracks, in Norwich in Norfolk. That barracks is scheduled for closure in 2031, which may present an opportunity to bring one of our regiments home to Wales—I know that my constituents in Brecon and Radnorshire would welcome it with open arms. I am confident that the Prime Minister’s major security and defence review will seek to embolden and expand the armed forces presence in Wales. The most significant review for decades will no doubt further commit the UK to NATO’s 2% of GDP spending target. The significance of that target and its impact on spending in Wales cannot be overstated.
With an evolving and complex international security situation, it has never been more appropriate to have the Welsh warriors take a leading role in promoting the UK’s defence and forging policy priorities. Later this year, the Royal Welsh will be conducting joint training exercises with the US, Canada and France, our NATO allies. In testing geopolitical times, that regiment will be underscoring its determination to strengthen the UK’s bond to the alliance. The 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards will be conducting pre-deployment training for operations in Mali, where it will hold the crucial role of supporting the significant peacekeeping effort in that country—a strategic priority for the UK’s interests in the region. The Welsh Guards will be deployed to Kenya and Belize later this year, as well as taking part in the Queen’s birthday parade in the spring. That international outlook should reassure us all regarding the UK’s position as a global security leader.
The Welsh regiments have a brave history matched by few, and a future as bright as any, and it now falls to us all to ensure that our commitment to those regiments matches their commitment to supporting the UK’s armed forces. As many generations before them have done, sons—and now daughters—with the red dragon on their arm will assume their place representing the very best of Wales and the very best of our Union.
Diolch, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) for having secured this important debate. As a former air cadet with strong family connections to the military, I share her passion for Wales’s proud military history. Only a few weeks ago, we in Parliament were lucky enough to be joined by the three principal Welsh regiments, the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, the Welsh Guards and the Royal Welsh, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for having sponsored that event.
All three of those Welsh regiments have a long and distinguished history and retain a significant footprint back home, in my constituency of Pontypridd and across Rhondda Cynon Taf. That local authority was one of the first in Wales to sign an armed forces community covenant, setting out the support it offers to serving and retired armed forces personnel. I put on the record my thanks to our deputy leader, Maureen Webber, for the massive amount of work she has done in this area. She has been a really strong champion for our armed forces.
Colleagues will be aware that the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, formed in 1959, has roots in Cardiff, which is just down the road from my patch. These regiments work across the world: later this year, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards will be conducting pre-deployment training for operations in west Africa, where it will provide expertise in an effort to keep peace. However, colleagues will also know that following the 2010 defence review, the regiment faced the threat of cuts and was reduced to one regular battalion.
In 2015, the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards returned to the UK from Germany, and is now based in Norfolk. I know Norfolk is a lovely part of the country, but it seems strange that our regiments are not located closer to home. The journey from Wales to Norfolk is not a swift one, so I urge all Members present to support the case for moving the Queen’s Dragoon Guards closer to Wales. Otherwise, the long distance will impact on recruitment and retention: the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that the number of personnel in Wales has already decreased by 900 since 2012.
I congratulate my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on having secured this excellent debate, and on the manner in which she has opened it. I join the calls to move the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards to Wales, and add that doing so would benefit our cadets across Wales, who we have not mentioned. They do great things across our constituencies, both for civic pride and to encourage young people to get involved in what is a great profession.
As a former air cadet, I totally agree with those points.
Our Welsh soldiers, who have families and partners in Wales, will find the cost of commuting prohibitive. We need to do all we can to encourage new recruits to join, rather than put up barriers to prevent new starters. The cadets have a great offer for people who want to join our Air Force, Army and Navy. We need to encourage those new starters.
The Welsh cavalry will be moved in the next decade due to the planned closure of the Robertson barracks in 2031, so this is the perfect time for the Government to consider moving the regiment to Wales. I hope that the Minister and his Department will support such a move and bring our cavalry home.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on setting out her case excellently and on securing this important and timely debate. I intend to speak for only a few moments; I will make a few brief points about Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces. Wales has been an important recruitment ground for soldiers for the British Army and for other branches of the armed forces over many generations and centuries. Long may that continue.
My first point relates to the recruitment of soldiers from Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is present, but I want to address the long-running campaign that some Plaid Cymru politicians have run over the years to try to stop the armed forces from visiting schools in Wales for careers purposes and other events. It is a good thing that members of the armed forces visit schools and have a presence there, so they can demonstrate what excellent role models they are for young people and what interesting and rewarding career paths the armed forces can offer Welsh pupils.
I want Wales to continue to be an important recruitment ground into the UK armed forces. I have concerns, which constituents have raised with me in recent years, about the changes to the structure of recruitment in Wales, and about the move to the Capita contract. I was a Minister when those changes were happening. Concerns were raised internally in Government about the consequences of moving to the Capita contract. I hope that the Minister can provide us with more upbeat information to dispel some of my concerns and gloom about recruitment in Wales. I hope that moving to the Capita contract has not resulted in a decline in recruitment to the armed forces from Wales.
The kinds of issues that constituents have raised with me relate to applications taking a long time; the website not working; and wasted visits to Swansea—a long journey there and back from Pembrokeshire—for meaningless recruitment discussions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say to show that there have been improvements in the way that the recruitment experience works.
My second point also relates to recruitment, in a way. The armed forces play an important role in social mobility across the United Kingdom, but particularly in Wales. As I have said before in the House, no other institution in our national life comes close to what the British Army does in terms of taking young people from some of the most challenging communities and most difficult backgrounds, giving them excellent training and a career path and moulding them as leaders. The armed forces provide an incredibly transformational thing for young people from challenging and often disadvantaged backgrounds.
I am concerned, however, that when I see senior officers from our armed forces interviewed in the media, and when they come here to brief us as Members of Parliament, I never hear a Welsh accent among them. I meet soldiers from the other ranks with Welsh accents, as when the three Welsh regiments came to the House the other day, and when I visit other regiments I hear Geordie and Liverpudlian accents, but when I meet the senior officers, I do not hear those regional or other national accents. Much emphasis is being placed on demonstrating to people that they can go from the factory floor or the shop floor to the boardroom in other businesses and organisations. We want to demonstrate to people being recruited into the armed forces that there are not twin tracks—that they will not be labelled as “other ranks” and get stuck, while a separate officer track takes people to senior leadership positions.
I have an anecdotal story about my husband, who is a posh Dubliner. When he joined the Royal Navy, he was told that he had to get rid of his regional accent. There are people in the armed forces who are not celebrating regional or national accents in the way that the right hon. Gentleman would like.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I do not want to overstate the point, but it needs to be made in the context of the social mobility that the armed forces provide for many young people. We want opportunities to provide a pathway right to the top of the organisation, and we are not seeing that at the moment.
Finally, as a trailer, my debate in this place tomorrow relates to the base in my constituency, Cawdor barracks, which has been home to the 14th Signal Regiment for more than 15 years. The Minister knows the argument that I will make tomorrow, but I want to flag that, as well as agreeing with the points made about relocating a historical Welsh regiment back to Wales, we already have a base in far-west Wales, in Pembrokeshire, that provides a home to a very important part of the armed forces. The 14th Signal Regiment has unique capabilities in the field of electronic warfare. Because of those capabilities and the kind of work it does, it was used heavily in Operation Telic and other operations that we do not hear about in the media. The soldiers and their families love being in Pembrokeshire. I will say more about that tomorrow.
It is important to maintain the military footprint across Wales. We use that phrase, but it must be meaningful, and we make it meaningful by keeping people and infrastructure in places that might not be convenient to the senior echelons of the armed forces but that, nevertheless, maintain historical roots and connections with local communities.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to local connections. I declare an interest as a former part-time soldier in the Territorial Army and the Royal Artillery. We trained in Wales every second year, so the connection between Wales and Northern Ireland is strong. It is important to have those connections.
Absolutely. I understand that there are resource constraints, but having a wide and deep footprint across the United Kingdom provides the opportunity for connections between different parts of the United Kingdom, which fosters good relationships and is important for the Union.
It is always a pleasure to speak in a debate on the armed forces in Wales. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing the debate. I am sure that she will make an important contribution on these issues, particularly given the presence of the armed forces in her constituency, which I have had the pleasure of visiting.
It is partly through my experience of working with our Welsh regiments in the Army, and with the Royal Navy and the Air Force, locally in the constituency and more broadly, that I have learned to respect and be inspired by their work. I have also seen at first hand some of the challenging training that they undergo, particularly in locations in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I had the pleasure of spending time there with the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Welsh, the reserve Army grouping, and with other Army formations, including the special forces, in some of the training areas that she mentioned. I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of maintaining those areas in Wales and the crucial role that they play in preparing our armed forces for operations around the world.
As vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, and having spent time on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the crucial role that the Welsh contribution to our armed forces—the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Air Force—has played is clear to me. That is particularly true in my constituency. We hosted a reception here a couple of weeks ago, as has been mentioned, where I met constituents from St Mellons and Splott who had just joined the Army and were excited about their future careers.
We have a proud Royal Navy and merchant navy tradition in Cardiff and Cardiff bay. As has been mentioned, HMS Cambria is located on the edge of my constituency, but will be moving into Cardiff bay as part of a new development, which we all fully welcome. Given that history, we look forward to seeing the progress of the Navy’s work there to build a flagship for the Royal Navy as a base in Cardiff.
There is also a history with the Royal Air Force, particularly due to the location of St Athan down the road in the Vale of Glamorgan. The famous Guy Gibson, one of the Dambusters from 617 Squadron, spent time in Penarth. RAF Pengam Green was based in part of my constituency in the past. We have long been a recruiting ground for the armed forces and there continues to be a significant presence in the near vicinity.
I emphasise the point made by many colleagues: the Army in particular has historically recruited disproportionately from Wales—usually about 7% or 8% of the Army are recruited from Wales, which represents only 5% of the UK population. However, it has been mentioned that the presence of the armed forces in Wales is much lower than that, at just 2%, as highlighted by the Welsh Affairs Committee report, and it is potentially dropping to just 1%.
That is a real concern. I agree with many of the comments made by colleagues from across the Chamber about that presence. It is crucial to ensuring that Wales is properly represented in our United Kingdom armed forces, but also, given the importance of strengthening the Union, to ensuring that that contribution is recognised. We need to maintain that presence. I certainly support calls for the Ministry of Defence to look at rebasing some of the Welsh contribution to the armed forces in Wales itself, particularly through the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and to see the Army coming to Wales.
As someone who undertook her Northern Ireland training in the Brecon Beacons back in the 1980s, I fully support what we all want here. Does the hon. Member—and does the Minister —agree that Wales deserves at least one garrison town, given its past and present commitment to the military?
Effectively, we do already have one garrison town to a degree, through the presence in the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, but I agree that we want to see more of the Welsh contribution stationed in Wales, and indeed other units. Given the wide range of training environments, it often makes more sense for forces, particularly Welsh-originating forces, to be located nearer to families so that they can get back at weekends and when they have time off on leave.
I will touch quickly on three issues. The first is recruitment; I am very proud of the history of recruitment from my own constituency, particularly to the Army, but when I have visited recruitment offices in Cardiff, and in the discussions I have had with officials from the Ministry of Defence and with Ministers on this, there does not seem to be the type of recruitment going on to bring in the diversity that I know that the Army wants to see in our armed forces.
The point applies particularly to the black and minority ethnic community. It is absolutely crucial that our armed forces of today, particularly our Army, represent the country that they fight for and defend. We have a fantastic BME contribution in the Army, but that is often made up of Commonwealth contributors. They are absolutely fantastic and do a brilliant job—I have spent time with them out in a Warrior on Salisbury Plain with the Royal Welsh—but it is important that we also ensure that young people from communities such as Butetown, Grangetown and Splott in my constituency get the chances offered by the armed forces. I think there is a disjunct there in the levels of recruitment. I urge the Ministry of Defence officials to work closely with Members of Parliament and others who can ensure that the opportunities provided, including some of the fantastic opportunities offered by places such as Harrogate and Welbeck, are also available to people from my communities.
Secondly, on veterans, I work very closely with a number of veterans’ organisations locally, including the Welsh Veterans Partnership, Woody’s Lodge and many others. They do excellent work, but one of the frustrations that we often have is that there are national programmes announced at a UK-wide level, but when we ask, “What is the Welsh option? What is the Welsh contribution?” it is often not there. I know that has been the case with some of the local organisations. They are doing brilliant work on housing, for example, working with local veterans; yet, when they have approached UK-wide organisations that say, “We are working with Government money to provide housing for veterans,” they are told, “Oh, well, that doesn’t apply in Wales.” There is a bit of a disjunct there. I would like to see the UK Government and the Welsh Government working as closely as they can on these issues.
I met with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs the other day at a reception—the hon. Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) was there too—and raised some of those issues. We need to ensure better joined-up working. It is not a competition between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and we need to ensure that that work is joined up, so we can support all our veterans and all those who have supported our country over many years.
My final point is about the presence of the Navy. I mentioned HMS Cambria coming into Cardiff South and Penarth, which is fantastic, but it was also suggested by, I think, the former Defence Secretary that HMS Severn, which is one of the River-class patrol vessels, was going to be forward deployed, along with the other River-class patrol vessels, at locations near to their namesakes. I was hoping that HMS Severn would perhaps be spending time in Cardiff, Newport and other locations nearby. That seems to be in some doubt at the moment, so perhaps the Minister can provide some clarity.
We are looking forward to the new HMS Cardiff; I visited her previous iteration, but we welcome the naming of one of the new Type-26 frigates. Of course, that naval history was crucial during the NATO summit, which Wales hosted so admirably in Newport and which we all contributed to. It was a highlight for me to see naval vessels from around the world in Cardiff bay and for local young people to go on board to meet our armed forces personnel. I also spent time recently on HMS Monmouth when it was berthed in Cardiff bay; I spent time in the galley, cooking with the chef, and with the engineering teams, to really understand some of the realities and day-to-day experiences of our naval personnel.
The armed forces play a huge part in the history of Wales and in the history of Cardiff South and Penarth. They have a huge role to play in the future. I would not be here if not for the armed forces in Wales, because one of my dad’s last postings in the Army was at Maindy barracks in Cardiff, where I will be returning this weekend for the St David’s day dinner. I know the contribution that that has made in my life. My dad went on to serve in youth work in our communities in south Wales, through his involvement in the Army youth teams, which operated in communities across Cardiff in the 1970s and 1980s. It has made a huge impact in my family’s life. I am sure it has a huge contribution to make in the future, but we need to ensure that Wales gets its fair share and fair representation in our armed forces family across the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on giving us this opportunity today to thank our armed forces, who make such an important contribution to our national life. As she did so very eloquently, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have served, past and present, from my constituency and across Wales.
I will make a few mentions for my constituency, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) has just done. Raglan barracks in Newport is an established base for several reservist units, including the 104th Regiment Royal Artillery, which is the only Army Reserve artillery regiment in Wales. The Gwent and Powys Army Cadet Force also has successful detachments in our area, including in Newport and in Caldicot. Llanwern High School in my constituency is one of the very few state schools to play host to the Combined Cadet Force, developing skills and qualifications that I know are valued both by employers and further education institutions, and it provides a brilliant experience. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which has two branches in my constituency, in Caldicot and in Newport. They undertake great work all year round to support the forces community, including our veterans.
The Welsh Government have a strong track record in supporting the armed forces community in Wales, including through initiatives such as Veterans NHS Wales—we are the only part of the UK to have that. It has supported thousands of veterans since being set up in 2010. Every local authority in Wales has signed the armed forces community covenant, and last year Newport City Council was one of the employers to be recognised by the Ministry of Defence with the gold award.
There is also great work going on in the voluntary sector. Last month, Help for Heroes set up a new hub in Newport International Sports Village to promote sports recovery activities. Newport County AFC—no debate is without a reference to Newport County AFC—working with Newport City Council and veterans’ charities, has helped to establish a local weekly drop-in for veterans at Bar Amber.
Although there is lots to celebrate and lots on offer, we need to reflect on what more can be done for veterans in Wales and across the UK. Service in our armed forces offers young men and young women from Wales a huge range of amazing careers and life-enhancing opportunities, but for some, sadly, there are longer-term issues arising from their service experiences, including conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. I am indebted to my constituent Anthony Lock, who served with the Royal Welsh Regiment in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and who has campaigned tirelessly to bring about change and to help others. In his book “Broken by War” he harrowingly describes the life-changing injuries he sustained as a result of two improvised explosive device attacks during his service in Helmand, which left a long-term legacy of depression and PTSD and which, sadly and wrongly, damaged his employment opportunities. It is a really powerful book, which I recommend to others. His experience is not a positive one, but it has encouraged others to seek support and to campaign for change, which is really important. We need a joined-up and robust approach to signposting mental health support services within the community, as well as a better way of handling compensation and pension claims.
I know my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) is keen to speak so I will just make a few final points. As has been mentioned, none of our Regular Army combat units are based in Wales. I too support relocating the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, as do others.
Finally, as the title of today’s debate is Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces, I want to mention a group of people who have made a huge contribution to the UK’s armed forces. I have the great privilege of representing a number of Afghan interpreters who are settled in Wales and in Newport. They came here under the Government’s scheme following the huge sacrifices that they made to help our armed forces. I very much value their contribution and pay tribute to them. I know there have been a few problems with the scheme in the past, but I hope the Government will do all they can to support them in the years ahead.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing the debate. The last time I saw her, we had completed a 10-mile walk. I am glad the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is present, because we walked in aid of his close friend, Steffan Lewis, the Assembly Member who sadly lost his life to bowel cancer. We raised a lot of money that day. We often argue about politics, but there is more that unites us than divides us.
I want to begin by talking about the British nuclear test veterans. Why am I talking about them? In 1993, Councillor Stan Jenkins was elected as the mayor for Islwyn Borough Council; in that role, he met some British nuclear test veterans and he was moved by their plight. Many of them were exposed to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s. They suffered a terrible ordeal; many had illnesses and problems throughout their entire life, but they were largely ignored by Governments throughout the years. In 1993, Stan decided to do something about it. It was one of my privileges when I was first elected to this place—as a very young boy—to walk through Risca town centre with British nuclear test veterans in order to lay a wreath in the memorial garden and to lower the standard, which was put in the local church until it fades away.
That was nine years ago, and the British test veterans still do not have justice. They have not been compensated and, more importantly, they have not been recognised. As we head towards Armed Forces Day on 27 June, what better way is there to celebrate their contribution than for the Government to finally recognise their service by striking a medal to thank them for what they have done? It is a small compensation, and as their numbers dwindle it would be very important to the families left behind. I hope the Minister will look favourably on that as we move towards June.
Time is of the essence and I want to be critical at this point. We have heard about garrison towns and service accommodation, but there is a scandal that goes back years and years: the state of our service accommodation. It has been an issue under Governments of all colours, but when I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee I was shocked by a report we had from the National Audit Office on the conduct of CarillionAmey. Carillion has gone bust, but its legacy should not be forgotten. The company left many of our service families without heating or hot water in damp and mouldy homes with stained carpets and faulty equipment. They tried to do something about it, but they could not get through for weeks. That says a lot.
This debate is about the respect we have for our armed forces. That respect should extend beyond our servicemen and women, to their families. If we expect people to put their lives on the line—it is not like working for a bank or building society—they should be respected, and their families should be honoured. When we allow them to live in substandard accommodation, we should be rightfully ashamed. The problem is that when the Secretary of State called in CarillionAmey about its performance, it said there had been a miraculous recovery, and then the Government renewed the contract. Carillion went bust, and still the problem continues.
I have two asks for the Minister. The first is on the nuclear test veterans: please give them a medal. Secondly, please—finally—do something about the scandal of service accommodation. I wish I had more time, and I place on record my personal thanks for all the hard work that brave men and women do in our forces. If we love freedom, we should thank our servicemen and women.
It is a pleasure to be here for the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on clearly setting out the importance of the Welsh defence footprint. I totally endorse her remarks: Wales is a country, and one that, much like Scotland, has historically made a great contribution to the UK armed forces by providing bases, training grounds, recruits, and defence and aerospace developments.
We have heard contributions from the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who talked about his experience in the Navy. I was slightly concerned that he was let loose in the chef’s area—maybe I can hear more about that after the debate.
The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about the veterans charities that do such great work, and about her constituent who had life-changing injuries and faced various challenges. By total coincidence, I met British nuclear test veterans this morning, so it was really interesting to hear the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) talk about them. I met Alan Owen, and I fully endorse the hon. Member’s comments about medals: there is absolutely no reason why these people should not have some recognition of what they went through in the Pacific during the British nuclear tests.
It is disappointing that there has been a general declining trend in recent years in the presence of the armed forces in Wales. Although Wales represents 5% of the UK’s population, only 2% of the armed forces are currently stationed in Wales. According to 2018 figures, there are approximately 3,250 MOD personnel in Wales—down 900 from 2012. The Government’s proposals to further reduce the defence estate and to relocate personnel currently based in Wales is a major blow. If the closure of the Brecon barracks goes ahead, the percentage of UK armed forces stationed in Wales could drop to as little as 1%. That figure corresponds with the pattern of over-concentration of forces in England, with the clustering of bases.
The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the Capita contract. We have been complaining about that for many years now, and it is something that unites Members of different parties. The arrangement has been poorly administered and Capita has failed to meet targets for recruitment, yet it still blunders on.
Given that approximately one third of the defence pound returns to the local community through personnel spending, and that there is a multiplier effect as military families spend money near the base, local communities bear the brunt of bases being closed.
I can understand the frustration of Welsh Members who have noted the proposals to reduce the defence estate in Wales and to relocate personnel currently based there. In Scotland we have a litany of broken promises on this issue, on defence spending and on troop numbers. We were promised all sorts in the run-up to the independence referendum in 2014, including an increase in troop numbers and investment in Scotland’s military footprint. We were told our numbers would increase to 12,500 personnel by 2020. Not only has that target not been delivered; it has actually moved backwards. In 2013 we had 10,600 defence personnel, but that has now fallen to 9,680—7% of the UK’s total, and below Scotland’s personnel share of 8%. To put it bluntly, we have been short-changed by approximately 3,000 full-time personnel.
Like Scotland, Wales needs a properly funded and maintained defence force. The UK Government have a duty to ensure that Wales contains a fair proportion of military presence for the size of its population. Following the recommendations of the Welsh Affairs Committee, will the UK Government reconsider their defence estate strategy to ensure that any base closures do not result in negative outcomes? We need explicit commitments from the Government on the number of personnel based in the other nations. Scotland and Wales need their fair share.
In addition, the UK Government need to protect the remaining bases in Wales and provide certainty about any changes to unit locations that could negatively impact the Welsh economy and local communities. The Government say that all UK countries are valued and that opportunity and investment must be spread to every part, but we question that sentiment when looking at the defence figures, which show that, while the Government focus defence efforts, resources and investment in England, the other nations are being left behind.
Wales plays and wants to continue playing its role in the global community. The Government must support Welsh defence personnel and the Welsh defence industry to enable them do so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing this important debate. We have had a very consensual and positive debate about the contribution that Wales makes to Her Majesty’s armed forces.
The hon. Lady talked about the historic and significant contribution that Wales has made to the armed forces and highlighted her concerns about the future of the Brecon barracks, which I will come back to later in my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about bringing the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards closer, if not home, to Wales.
The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) mentioned his concerns, which I am sure we all share, about the Capita contract and the recruitment issues that have beset the armed forces in recent years. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about his vast experience of support for our armed forces and his constituency’s historic links to the merchant navy and other parts of our armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke about the role of her constituency, particularly with the Royal British Legion, and about the need to offer better support to our veterans, with which I am sure we all agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke about the need for justice and recognition for the nuclear test veterans, as well as about the issue of service accommodation, which is, I am sure, of concern to many hon. Members.
We in Wales have clearly punched above our weight in terms of our contribution to the armed forces across the United Kingdom. As we have heard, the armed forces—particularly the Army—have a long-standing and significant presence in Wales. Wales is currently home to 2,200 regular forces, 1,490 of whom are Army personnel.
Of the Welsh combat units, which recruit predominantly from Wales, the Royal Welsh Regiment is composed of 731 personnel; the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards has a current size of 403 personnel; and the Welsh Guards has a current size of 579 personnel. Wales therefore continues to contribute meaningfully to our armed forces and that is something to be celebrated.
I will be pleased and proud to be in Merthyr Tydfil town centre on Saturday as we welcome the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Welsh to the town for their St David’s day parade, which the whole local community will support and enjoy. Across the House, we all share a pride in our armed forces, and that was demonstrated recently as many—if not most—Welsh MPs attended the reception hosted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth.
As we have heard, the MOD intends to close Cawdor barracks and Brecon barracks, two of the main Army bases in Wales, in 2024 and 2027 respectively, and to dispose of the Sennybridge storage compound in 2025. We appreciate that, as time passes, there is a need to modernise and adapt our defence estate to ensure that it is fit for the 21st century, but we are concerned that the closures will have a negative impact on Wales’ military presence, with a negative spill-over effect on the Welsh economy and local communities. Will the Minister revisit the defence estate strategy to ensure that if the base closures go ahead, they do not result in a reduced military presence in Wales?
There has also been a lack of clarity over the future location of the 14th Signal Regiment based at Cawdor, as well as over the future of MOD St Athan and its No. 4 School of Technical Training. That contributes to significant uncertainty for all personnel, including MOD civilian personnel, as well as the local communities. I would be grateful if the Minister provided a much-needed update on that.
In 2013, the Army basing programme reorganised Army units in the UK to accommodate those returning from Germany and to consolidate their presence around seven major centres in the UK. None of those major centres was to be in Wales. The Welsh combat units that I and other hon. Members have mentioned all remain outside Wales. That is quite unlike Scotland, where the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and several battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland are all based.
Given the association of the Welsh combat units with Wales, it makes sense for at least one of them to be based in Wales, as other hon. Members have highlighted. That is important not only for those units to retain their Welsh connections and identity, but for recruitment and retention. From the Robertson barracks to Cardiff is a five-hour car journey and a six-hour journey by rail via London, which no doubt has an effect on recruitment and retention of Welsh personnel. This is also about defence visibility; clustering our troops in certain areas means that fewer people are able to see them in action.
Will the Minister give an assurance that, when moving the Welsh dragoon guards from Norfolk in future, the Government will consider moving them to Wales and working with the Welsh Government, ensuring that the next base for the Welsh cavalry is in Wales?
I echo the remark made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), that the debate has been very consensual. Looking around, I can see that no one in the Chamber would disagree that the first duty of Government is the security of the nation, and this Government are absolutely committed to maintaining a strong defence through well equipped and highly trained armed forces.
The UK’s armed forces are rightly renowned and respected around the world. People from every corner of our country and our Union share pride in what the armed forces achieve. Wales’ contribution to our defence and to the ongoing success of our armed forces is immense. I am delighted that, for my first outing as a Defence Minister, I have the opportunity to reply to this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing it and on her excellent speech. I will respond by drawing out three themes: Wales’ contribution to capability, to defence support, and to recruitment, which is the lifeblood of our armed forces, as many hon. Members have mentioned.
In determining the location of our armed forces, our priority is to have units that not only fight together, but live together and are based close to their training areas, generating centres of military specialisation, which gives the UK the best possible operational capability. Currently, there are 2,200 Regular Army forces personnel based in Wales, many at Brecon’s Infantry Battle School and associated training facilities and the headquarters of 160th Brigade. I reiterate to my hon. Friend that 160th Brigade headquarters will remain in Wales. My Department is undertaking an assessment study to determine the precise location. She is lobbying hard for the Brecon area, and we hear her loud and clear. We are sympathetic, and I look forward to ongoing discussions.
On balance, the defence estate review is neutral for Wales, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) mentioned and as was picked up by other Members including the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Some planned defence closures are envisaged, including Cawdor barracks—I know I will hear a lot more about that from my right hon. Friend. Questions tomorrow will be interesting, although I would not say that I am anticipating them eagerly. We plan to relocate an infantry unit to Wales, however, and have identified our preferred location as MOD St Athan, on which there will be more to come.
In the air, RAF Valley is our Air Force’s key Welsh location. All new fighter pilots pass through RAF Valley’s fast jet course before reaching their frontline squadrons. Its runway was restored as part of a £20 million refurbishment.
May I press the Minister to revisit the estate strategy? Please will he ask his Department to produce a paper specifically looking at whether one of our Welsh regiments could be based in Brecon? This afternoon, we have heard cross-party support for that idea. It would be great if the Ministry of Defence and the Minister on his first outing—he is doing brilliantly—supported that consensus.
At the risk of labouring the point, as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) mentioned, there is cross-party unanimity on that. The Minister would therefore not only ensure that a Welsh regiment was based in Wales, but succeed in getting the support of all parties represented Wales. He would also achieve the rare feat for a Minister of fulfilling a recommendation of a Welsh Affairs Committee report on the issue.
I thank both hon. Gentlemen for their honeyed words and kind remarks. I am afraid that I will not respond with an answer to satisfy them fully. We have made clear our preference for the location of the extra infantry unit at St Athan. We recognise the case for Brecon as the ongoing location in some form—in that area—for the 160th Brigade headquarters. I cannot fully satisfy the hon. Gentlemen, but defence is always an area in which tough decisions have to be taken, and we will not always make the ones that either of them like, but we are where we are. There is a decision, in preference, for St Athan as the location for the new military unit.
We have discussed the RAF, so moving on to the Royal Navy, the £11 million Royal Naval Reserve base in Cardiff will be completed in 2020. I see that the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is pleased with that, and he referred to it in his speech.
In addition to the physical presence of thousands of armed forces personnel, vital elements of our military equipment capability are manufactured and maintained in Wales. For example, the Army’s next generation of Ajax armoured fighting vehicles are made at General Dynamics UK in Merthyr Tydfil and Oakdale. The RAF’s Shadow aircraft will be supported by Raytheon in Broughton for the next decade under a £250 million contract. Furthermore, MOD Sealand has been designated as the global F-35 component repair and maintenance hub. Sealand is also the home to the Defence Electronics and Components Agency which, as mentioned in the debate, makes north Wales a national centre of excellence in this field.
Not only does Wales supply invaluable equipment to the armed forces, but it generates prosperity and jobs. The F-35 programme alone will generate more than £2 billion in revenue over the next 30 years. I was delighted that my Department’s procurement spend in Wales increased by 11% in the last financial year to £1.08 billion—the highest percentage increase in all the UK’s regions and countries. That investment supports more than 7,500 jobs directly and thousands more across wider supply chains, including 1,150 highly skilled private sector jobs at RAF Valley, making it the second biggest employer on Anglesey. There is more to come, with 200 jobs on Shadow at Raytheon’s intelligence and surveillance hub, additional Qioptiq personnel at St Asaph, and the new Cardiff Royal Naval Reserve centre supporting about 300 jobs locally.
Defence equipment investment supports vital roles across Wales, but all in the Chamber would agree that the most important jobs are those undertaken by the men and women who join our armed forces. Traditionally, Wales has always been a strong recruiting area for our services, especially our land forces, and that proud tradition continues. I have some reassurance for my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Capita was discussed during the debate but, over the past year, it has been reinvigorated and there has been a far better performance on the contract. I am delighted that 77,000 people applied to be regular soldiers alone in the course of the past year, which is a 33% increase. Change needed to be made, and we have made changes, so that contract is performing far better.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth referred to the need to have diversity, and I could not agree more. It is absolutely the Army’s intention to ensure that the armed forces reflect the country that they serve. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the most recent recruiting campaign, he will see that that is absolutely front and centre to how we perform.
I am afraid I cannot be precise about the numbers of recruits from Wales as we do not maintain regional recruitment figures, but given the strengths of the connections of the Welsh regiments—the Welsh Guards, the Royal Welsh and the Queen’s Dragoon Guards—I am absolutely certain they will get more than their fair share.
I wish to say so much more in the debate, but I am being tugged down to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire to respond. I hope on other occasions we will be able to talk about veterans and service families accommodation. I would be delighted to speak to the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) in particular on that issue. I apologise that I have not been able to respond to more of the points made in the debate, but I wish to allow my hon. Friend an opportunity to respond.
I very much welcome the Minister’s reply and welcome him to his place—it was remiss of me not to do so in the first instance. I am extremely grateful for the assurances he has given and look forward to working with him over the next few weeks. He has kindly already agreed to meet me to talk about the future of the barracks, and I am grateful for that. I appreciate we may be far apart, but I will continue to do all I can to ensure that we get the very best outcome for Brecon. I am grateful to him, his Department and indeed all Members for their contributions to this important debate.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).