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Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Monday 21 September 2020

I would like to make a statement to the House on recent reports regarding an approach taken by my Department with a media outlet.

Managing information is challenging, particularly where hostile states use disinformation to subvert our security interests and our policymaking. As the House will be aware, all Government media and communication professionals must abide by the Government Communication Service’s propriety guidance and the civil service code. The Ministry of Defence is no different. However, I have been deeply concerned that those standards are alleged not always to have been met in the Department. I am treating the allegation with the utmost seriousness. The Ministry of Defence I lead will treat outlets with fairness and impartiality. I am today writing to defence communicators across the MOD and all services to emphasise that point. I have therefore asked former director general and communications professional Tom Kelly to lead an independent review to look into the allegations that have been made and establish what underlies them. I will report back to the House once the review has been concluded.

The Rolls-Royce distributed generation systems plant in Winsford provides mission-critical power generation for our armed forces and is now expanding into other sectors, including the rail industry, to help to maintain its 50 highly skilled jobs, as well as another 100 across the supply chain. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Rolls-Royce workforce on their sterling support of our defence capability, as well as perhaps recommending their services to other Government Departments?

I am grateful to the Rolls-Royce workforce for their important support for defence and, indeed, during the covid outbreak. The Winsford distributed generation systems plant provides crucial capabilities to our armed forces. I am impressed by the company’s innovative solutions to the challenges we face, for example on sustainability. It is an excellent example of UK engineering and of high-quality jobs. I look forward to seeing Rolls-Royce developing its private and public sector customer base.

The House is grateful to the Secretary of State for his impromptu statement. I wonder whether he could place the terms of reference for the Tom Kelly review in the House of Commons Library. Can he confirm this afternoon when he expects that review to be completed?

Just 79 people were invited to yesterday’s battle of Britain commemoration inside Westminster Abbey, rather than the 2,200 planned. Remembrance Day ceremonies in seven weeks’ time are unthinkable without so many of those who have served in our armed forces. Will the Secretary of State say what special guidance he will give to make sure ceremonies at cenotaphs across the country can go ahead safely and respectfully?

On the first point from the shadow Defence Secretary, I will of course let him know and put in the Library of the House the terms of reference for the review and when we expect it to be completed.

On remembrance, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is the lead. However, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is incredibly important for our Department and our men and women in the armed forces to contribute to it. I am working with the DDCMS to make sure we get that guidance. He is right to highlight the issue and I thank him for doing so.

Of course, some in the veterans community are the most elderly and vulnerable at present, and we have to ensure that whatever we do we protect them in services of remembrance. I took part in VE Day by ringing a number of veterans who could not attend those events. Talking to numerous second world war veterans is quite a moving experience. One raised a problem about being able to get to an optician and it was useful to ring his local regimental association to try to get him that help.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight this issue. As soon as we have worked out the plans, I will share them with the House.

What else for Defence questions, Mr Speaker? My right hon. Friend has previously referred to Iran’s nefarious use of power via the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including Hezbollah and the harassment of UK shipping in the strait of Hormuz. Does he agree that unless its influence is curtailed, the IRGC will continue to be a major threat to the safety and security of British forces, and will he address that in the upcoming integrated review? (906310)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the malign activity of the Iran state in using both proxies and, indeed, the IRGC directly either to harass shipping going about its lawful business or to enable terrorist groups in the region. It does not help any of the peace we seek in that region; nor does it help Iran to join the table of civilised nations, which it aspires to join. The integrated review will look exactly at those things—at threat; defined around threat—whether that is Iranian malign activity, Russian activity on Europe’s borders or, indeed, terrorist threats around the world. It is important that that leads the review. That is what I have committed to, and right in the middle of that will be Iran and the IRGC.

My constituent David is currently serving in the Army. His brother Dan served for 12 years, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but last year Dan killed himself. David wrote to me about the lack of support that Dan had received while he was serving, and said that the Army really does wash its hands of former soldiers once they have left. I have heard the Minister lay out mental health support plans for the future, but David has written twice to the Ministry of Defence about this situation, and only an email from my office has been replied to, nine months after the first correspondence. Is this really the way we should treat our military personnel? (906312)

On unanswered communications, I will have an investigation into that this afternoon, but look, there has never been more help available for veterans and service personnel. Each individual suicide is a tragedy, and each one I take personally, but we have to be very careful about consistently driving home this narrative that there is no help available. Should we make it easier to access? Should we have better care pathways? Of course, but the reality is that there is help available and people must speak out.

As you are well aware, Mr Speaker, BAE Systems plays an integral role in the economy of Lancashire. May I ask the Secretary of State to continue to push for an integrated approach to acquisition in the air sector so that the groundbreaking work on Tempest, which is vital for the UK to retain its sovereign freedom of action, is at the core of future plans for our outstanding Royal Air Force? (906311)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the RAF must have the very best capabilities to meet future threats. This is naturally a focus of the integrated review, and I can assure him that Lancashire’s critical role in air combat, and the skills it represents, are very much recognised and understood.

The Ministry of Defence has a live firing range near Cape Wrath in the north-west of my constituency. Running through the firing range is a road, which, when the military is not using the range, is popular with visitors and locals alike, particularly because Cape Wrath lighthouse, at the top left-hand corner of our country, is one of the great destinations of the United Kingdom. The road is in bad nick. Would the Ministry of Defence be willing to put its hand in its pocket to help get the road done up? (906314)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, although that road runs through MOD land, it is an adopted road. Having said that, MOD contractors have filled in potholes and cleared ditches and culverts, and we will see what we can do. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Potholes are on the minds of my constituents, but they are not what I have in mind when I ask this question. Will my right hon. Friend give an update on the support that his Department has provided to the civil authorities in London in dealing with the covid outbreak? (906313)

Where to begin? Specialist personnel such as engineers, medical clinicians, logistics planners, advisers, and general duty soldiers and drivers have carried out a variety of tasks to help tackle the covid-19 outbreak in London. They have distributed personal protective equipment; critical care transfer teams for the London ambulance service have assisted in the movement of patients; and they have driven ventilators around London, as well as helping with testing. Finally, they helped build the amazing first Nightingale hospital at the ExCeL.

The GMB union estimates that placing the fleet solid support order with UK shipyards could see the Treasury returned up to £285 million of the £800 million contract in taxes. The award of the contract could have long-term benefits for the shipbuilding sector and the wider economy, giving companies the confidence to train new apprentices and plan for the future. Will the Government support GMB’s call for the FSS order to be placed in UK shipyards? (906315)

We have already started a market engagement exercise and have had a healthy response. I intend to announce the procurement timetable for the warships in due course, after market testing has been completed. We intend to encourage international partners to work alongside UK firms for the bid, which will build on the success of Type 31.

I am delighted to update my hon. Friend. Six months ago we signed a £25 million contract to digitise all the services that Veterans UK provides. I am clear that too many of our people have a poor experience, and the people in Veterans UK have to work in very difficult conditions with lots of paper records and so on. We are putting a lot of money into digitising that, the experience will be replicated in an application that people can download to their smartphones, and vets care will be in the hands of every veteran in the United Kingdom.

I must first declare an interest, as my husband is a veteran and South Lanarkshire Council’s veterans champion. The council has been doing fantastic work and has now agreed cross-party to implement a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans, as many find it very difficult to gain employment after leaving the forces. Is that positive development something that the Veterans Minister could take forward with local authorities—indeed, all levels of government across the UK, including potentially this House—to ensure that there is a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans? (906317)

I thank the hon. Lady for her continued work on this issue. I am clear that getting veterans into employment is the single biggest factor that improves their life chances when they leave. We now have a system that is light years away from where it used to be, but we can always do more. We are bringing in another manifesto pledge to ensure that there is a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans in the civil service, and I am always open to ideas to expand that where we can.

Earlier this year, I met councillors and residents in Kirton Lindsey who want to repurpose Vincent hall as a community gym. The Department has been incredibly helpful so far. Will it continue to work with me to bring forward that excellent plan? (906318)

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for her constituents. We have recently received a bid from the council for that asset of community value, and will be contacting it to discuss the offer and the value it would deliver for taxpayers.

May I press the Secretary of State further on the fleet solid support ships? Back in July in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), he said that“such ships are not highly complex, so once the competition happens and it is placed, I do not think it will take long to build them…British shipbuilding and British yards produce some of the best ships in the world and we should support them as best as we can and ensure our navy gets some great British-made kit.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 660.]As EU regulations are no longer the excuse—if they ever really were the reason—why will the Secretary of State not commit today not only to build those ships in British yards, but to get a move on? (906331)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that one of the challenges for our yards is not that they cannot make ships: it is simply that there is feast and famine. Sometimes we go from a pipeline that is full to a pipeline that is empty, and it is incredibly important that we schedule our shipbuilding to make sure we keep as much productivity and throughput in our yards as possible. On the point of the fleet solid support ship, as I have said, we have started discussions and the competition will be issued. He will know that the previous competition was stopped. I am keen to make sure that we get it right for our Royal Navy, and the right hon. Gentleman should wait for the competition to be issued.

Having served in the UK armed forces, I know what a rewarding career it can be. Covid has created many challenges in terms of not just health, but the hit on the economy and the pressure on employment. Many people are probably now looking at ways to supplement their income. Would my hon. Friend therefore redouble his efforts to encourage young people to consider a career in our reserve forces? (906319)

I absolutely would. Hansard will show an earlier pitch for joining the regular armed forces, and now it will show a pitch for joining the reserve armed forces. Over the last few months, we have needed all the skills and experience that our reservists bring, and as the integrated review seeks to draw ever more on the expertise of those serving in the reserve as we expand our capability into new domains, now is a great time for someone to go down to their local reserve centre and join.

The Secretary of State recently stated that the Ministry of Defence’s greatest asset was not tanks or aeroplanes, but its people. However, over the last decade, the Conservative Government have proceeded to make huge cuts in the level of armed forces personnel, and there has been a corresponding decrease in morale within the forces, going down from 60% in 2010 to 45% in 2020 so will the Secretary of State commit to finally putting a stop to these cuts in our brave armed forces? (906336)

The hon. Member is wrong to make a connection between morale and numbers in that way. In my experience, and in the case of the soldiers and sailors I have been meeting recently, morale is high. In my experience in serving, morale is mainly about when someone is used to do things usefully and when they are there on operations. He may like to reflect on the current operational decline in our activity in our forces, which may well have some effect on morale.

On the issue of numbers, it is important not to reduce any armed forces debate to numbers alone. We need the size of the armed forces to be fit to meet the threat. It may be more, it may be less, but the key thing is to make sure we meet the threat and invest in those men and women we have who are serving.

I have recently spoken with the founder of the Combat2Coffee project in Ipswich, which does vital work supporting local veterans’ wellbeing. One of the key issues that he and other veterans are facing is the bureaucratic and sometimes distressing health assessments that they have to go through to get the pensions and benefits that they are entitled to. Will my hon. Friend look at streamlining this process to make sure that veterans living with challenges such as PTSD are not put off accessing the support they deserve? (906321)

I pay tribute to the men and women who work at Veterans UK. They have been working with historical records—paper records—for a long time. It could be a fairly unloved part of what the Government do. We are completely changing that, and digitising all these records. It is our ambition that veterans’ care is in the palm of people’s hands, on a smartphone application by the end of this Government, and we will make sure that this is the best country in the world in which to be a veteran.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I will suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.