Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Monday 16 March 2020

The UK Government are working with the devolved Administrations, the World Health Organisation and international partners to keep the UK safe against the outbreak of covid-19. The men and women of our armed forces are deeply professional and always work to tackle threats to our security wherever they may be. This situation is no different. We stand ready to work with other Government Departments, secure in the knowledge that our armed forces bring calmness and resilience to any task. Meanwhile, the delivery of key operations and outputs will continue to be maintained.

Members across the House take huge pride in the people in their constituency who join our armed forces, but would it not give greater focus to our pride if figures were published regularly to show how many from each constituency join each year? Will the Secretary of State see if such statistics can be provided, so that the people of Chesterfield can take pride in the number of people from there who join our armed forces each year?

I would be delighted to try to get that important data to hon. Members. I would also like to try to get the data on how many people are leaving our armed forces and going back into our constituencies. As president of an association, I know how hard it is to get in touch with soldiers from my regiment to make sure that they get the assistance they deserve. I take the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which I worked on for years but which was always blocked by data protection. Now I am the Secretary of State for Defence, I would be delighted to try to deliver it for him.

T2. Does the Minister agree that British businesses, such as Martin-Baker aircraft company, based in Denham, are at the heart of our defence industry? Can I tempt him to join me for the opening of our new facility in the coming months? (901550)

My hon. Friend is right. Martin-Baker produces the ejector seats for our F-35s that fly off HMS Queen Elizabeth. Diary permitting, I would be delighted to join her.

This weekend there has been widespread concern about the Government’s communication strategy on the coronavirus pandemic, including a number of anonymous briefings to the media, such as one on the role of the Army. As well as providing more detail about Operation Broadshare, can the Secretary of State explain reports that the Government are working on the assumption that at least 20% of personnel will contract the virus? What arrangements are in place to mitigate any impact that that may have on operations?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about media stories, some of which are entirely fictional. There is no Operation Hades, contrary to one report. There are absolutely no plans to send military personnel to guard supermarkets. However, despite our trying to clarify that with the media, there is still an intention in some parts of the media to continue to write these stories; indeed, there is some suspicion about where some of these stories are developed.

Of course we have made all sorts of assumptions that reflect, first, infection rates in the general population and, secondly, the unique aspects of the armed forces’ working life. We will make sure that we look after our armed forces and continue operationally.

T4. I am proud to support the Royal British Legion in Blyth and Cramlington, which supports ex-servicemen and women all year round. Will the Minister please inform me what action is being taken to support personnel, and will he assure the House that the Government will do their utmost to deliver mental health support without delay to those who need it? (901552)

This Government are doing more than any before in this area. We have set up the UK’s first Office for Veterans’ Affairs; we were the last Five Eyes nation to do so. I am clear that in the nation’s offering to her veterans, good mental health provision is absolutely critical. Next month we will launch, jointly with the NHS, a through-life mental healthcare plan, which I am sure my hon. Friend will be interested in.

T3. I welcome the strong commitment from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans to supporting the mental health of personnel and veterans. He is probably aware of the interesting international research on the use of MDMA to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Will he meet me and others to discuss how we can make it easier to carry out that research in the UK? (901551)

I am very clear on two points. One is that we will stop at nothing to understand what is the best mental healthcare treatment that we can provide to our veterans in this country; the other is that obviously the classification of substances remains with the Home Office, and there are no plans to change that at the moment.

T5. I very much welcome the Ministry of Defence submarine sonar contract being awarded to Crawley-based Thales. Can my hon. Friend say a little more about the employment possibilities that the contract brings? (901554)

This £330 million sonar and mast contract is indeed good news. It will secure or create highly skilled jobs in Thales in Scotland, Greater Manchester and Somerset—and 30, I am delighted to say, in the constituency of my hon. Friend and neighbour in Crawley.

T6. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of Covid-19 on plans to commemorate Victory over Japan Day in August with surviving veterans, and in association with the Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission? (901555)

I thank the hon. Lady for her very important question. Clearly, we are watching Government advice closely, and it will be taken into account when considering how to proceed with those commemorations.

T7. David Brown Santasalo engineering in my constituency has been manufacturing engineering parts for the Ministry of Defence for many years, including propulsion gears for our Dreadnought submarines and our Type 26 frigates. It has shown a real commitment to quality apprenticeships. Will the ministerial team continue to show such commitment to great companies like it in the MOD supply chain? In fact, will the Minister visit David Brown Santasalo, and see at first hand its excellence in engineering? (901557)

My hon. Friend has in the past raised this company, its work and particularly its apprenticeships with me. Diary permitting, I would be very pleased to visit it with him.

If companies such as David Brown are to be sustained, they need orders, as does the shipbuilding industry. Once again I ask whether we can start behaving like every other country. Will the Minister tell us from the Dispatch Box when he will start the fleet solid support vessels programme again, and tell us that these ships will be built in British yards?

The right hon. Member is a proper champion for British shipbuilding. After we ceased the competition, because it was delinquent the first time round, I have re-examined many of the terms and conditions of the contract, so he should watch this space.

On the subject of social mobility, you and I know, Mr Speaker, that the Royal Marines ensures that training includes not only officers but enlisted men, together. I think it is the only organisation in NATO which does that. Is there a lesson to be learned, and should other branches of the armed forces also engage in combined training?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this important matter. Every service establishment where we conduct training is a mixture of enlisted men and women and commissioned ranks. We are always seeking to do more, although the division between the two is not a struggle that we persistently see.

Like the Minister, I attend our local armed forces breakfast clubs. One veteran there told me recently that he barely survives on benefit of £5 per week. Is the Minister not ashamed that those who have sacrificed so much are afforded so little by the Government?

I shall be more than happy to meet the hon. Member and speak to her about this case. I find it hard to understand why an individual would be receiving £5 a week, but if that is indeed so, I am of course prepared to look into it. We are determined that this should be the best country on earth in which to be a veteran.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the world-class military training at RAF Valley in my constituency, which prepares our fighter pilots for mountain and maritime operations throughout the world?

As my hon. Friend knows, she and I share a love of Anglesey and, indeed, RAF Valley, which is at the forefront of the training of our next generation of pilots. The priority that I have given the Chief of the Air Staff is to ensure that that operation is delivering on time and on target. As we know from the National Audit Office, it has a bad track record, having left a glut of some 250 pilots stuck in the system. However, I am pleased to report that that is improving, and I hope to have some better news in the future.

The Government are very clear about the fact that all possible help will be given to those who are self-isolating. A number of measures were released in the Budget last week, and there will be more in due course. We all have a duty to the most vulnerable in this country. However, I do not accept that that constitutes a large proportion of veterans, the vast majority of whom are greatly enhanced by their service.

The coronavirus will test the nation in ways that we have not seen since the war. I think that it is about when, not if, the armed forces will be mobilised. We know that they will rise to the occasion to help other Departments, but the threats that are there today will continue to exist. Will the Minister ensure that we do not drop our guard so that those who mean us harm do not take advantage while we are distracted by the coronavirus?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the main task of Defence, which is defending the nation. Only this morning I held meetings with senior officials and military personnel to ensure that both our routine and our units were in place to deliver, first and foremost, the priority of defending the nation. When we see changes, they will be in areas such as exercising and non-essential travel, so that we can ensure that the personnel concerned are there to support the rest of the country when it comes to the coronavirus.

In my constituency we have a number of veterans with mental health issues who find it very difficult to gain access to GPs who are equipped to deal with veterans’ mental health. What measures does the Minister suggest should be taken to ensure that GPs are equipped to do that?

I pay tribute to the work done by Dr Jonathan Leach with the Department. He has doggedly gone around making sure that our GP surgeries are veteran-friendly, and I plan to audit them to ensure that when a veteran does engage with those services, he is treated as I would want him to be. However, there is still work to be done. I shall be launching a veterans’ mental health programme in April, which will highlight clearly where veterans can gain access to state mental health care.

As my hon. Friend knows, the future of air combat, on which we have published a review, is an incredibly important aspect of our future defence, but I will not speculate on individual aspects of the integrated review, because it would be inappropriate to do so. We should be looking at the whole process of defence, and all the capabilities that we need to keep ourselves and our allies safe in the future.

Her Majesty’s armed forces owe a huge debt of gratitude to Commonwealth citizens. On the issue of right to remain, can I ask the Minister what new protocols will be put in place between the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office?

Last week I met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who is the immigration Minister, and I am absolutely determined to make sure that there are specialist teams—for example, there was an NHS cell in the Home Office that dealt with UK Visas and Immigration, and I am looking at measures to try to replicate that. We have made it clear that if those who have served their nation are entitled to remain we will facilitate that process.

May I ask my hon. Friend, in relation to social mobility and the British Army, how many serving officers went to a state school, and what we are doing to increase that proportion?

I recognise the question, but this simply is not the issue that it perhaps was 20 or 30 years ago. We have far more people from state schools going to Sandhurst and other military establishments. I am cognisant of the fact that we can always do more, but we have some extraordinary social mobility stories that I am more than happy to share with my hon. Friend. We are absolutely committed, regardless of someone’s socioeconomic background, ethnicity or anything like that, and the armed forces are perhaps the greatest exponent of social mobility in this country.

Given that the Government are on track to deal with the hounding of our veterans within 100 days of taking office, how many days will it take to produce an ex gratia plan for the compensation of the estimated 265 war widows who lost their pension on remarriage or cohabitation?

I have met my right hon. Friend a number of times to discuss this issue. Indeed, I have met the war widows groups. The Secretary of State made a statement to the House, and we continue to look at schemes on how we can help those who have lost their husband or wife in the service of this nation. We have made it clear that we owe them a debt of gratitude, and we will look to set up some sort of fund or payment that will rightly recognise their sacrifice for the nation.