Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 691: debated on Monday 15 March 2021

Included in my responsibilities is the duty to uphold the duty of care to our workforce. We were all appalled by the reporting we saw of the incident involving members of the RAF Regiment at the weekend. The RAF police are investigating the incident and the victims have been offered our full support. The Chief of the Air Staff and I had a discussion about the incident over the weekend and he has, with my support, acted quickly. He has removed officers from the immediate chain of command without prejudice pending the findings of the police investigation, and the unit involved, the Support Weapons Flight, will be disbanded with immediate effect. Bullying, harassment and discrimination has no place in our armed forces. I will not tolerate it and nor will the Chief of the Air Staff.

What proportion of servicemen and women are currently deployed in UN peacekeeping, what was it last year and how is it set to change over the next three years?

I can write to the hon. Lady with the exact proportions. All I can say is that there has been a significant increase recently, with the deployment to Mali of our forces to assist in the United Nations mission there. We also have a number of forces deployed in Somalia, assisting that fragile state in trying to come to terms with the consequences of the civil war. The Government are determined to continue to contribute to UN missions wherever we can, lending military support—not necessarily operational support, but in the logistics, the enabling and humanitarian aid.

Russia is rearming, Daesh is regrouping and China is nudging us out of military and trade partnerships across Africa, yet we are about to witness a shocking reduction in our conventional hard power and full-spectrum capabilities. That is overshadowed by the fanfare of announcements promoting a tilt towards niche capabilities, including electronic warfare and autonomous platforms. Yes, we must adapt to new threats, but that does not mean that the old threats have disappeared. Severe cuts to our infantry regiments, main battle tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and Hercules C-130s will worry our closest allies and delight our competitors. Regarding the F-35 jets, does the Secretary of State agree that cutting back our order from 138 to 48 will mean that, if required, we could never unilaterally operate both carriers in strike mode simultaneously?

I have listened to my right hon. Friend’s consistent messaging over the last few months. I think the thing that we can all agree with is that, as he said at the weekend,

“we must modernise—but first let’s agree the threat—& then design the right defence posture.”

That is exactly what we have been doing. Obviously, in the Ministry of Defence, we have made sure that we have been doing that in conjunction with our serving personnel, our allies and the threats. I think playing by the Ladybird book of defence design is not the way to progress.

Why are Britain’s full-time armed forces still 10,000 short of the numbers that the last defence review, in 2015, said were needed to meet the threats and keep the country safe, which the Defence Secretary’s Government pledged to meet?

I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman. We are 6,000 under. The strength is 76,500 from the 82,000 that was pledged. He will of course know—it is well documented—that under the previous coalition Government and Conservative Government there was not a satisfactory outcome by the recruiting process. That has now been fixed. Until the covid break, we were on target to fulfil the pipeline and target for that recruiting. We have to make sure we continue to invest in that. That is why we are investing in people. We will continue to invest throughout the process and next week there will be announcements that put people at the heart of our defence review.

The Secretary of State may want to check the numbers. I was talking about the full-time armed forces, not the full-time Army numbers. He has rightly said before that our forces personnel will go to war alongside robots in the future, but robots do not seize and hold vital ground from the enemy. They do not keep the peace or rebuild broken societies, and they do not give covid jabs. Size matters and no Government can secure the nations with under-strength armed forces. Is it not the truth that over the past decade we have seen our armed forces run down—numbers down, pay down, morale down—and that all the indication from stories ahead of tomorrow’s integrated review is that Ministers are set to make the same mistakes as in the last reviews, with our servicemen and women paying the price for cuts and bad defence budgeting?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to forget that for the past three or four decades we have had that characteristic, where Government after Government have been over-ambitious and underfunded the defence policy. His Government did it. The Governments before mine have done the same things. I only have to point him, as I do during at every defence questions, to the National Audit Office report into the processes of his Government in 2010 and our previous Governments to show that the biggest problem is that we have been promising soldiers, men and women of the armed forces equipment they never got, or numbers gains when just tying them up alongside. That is not the way to confront an enemy. The way to confront the enemy is to invest in the people, give them the right equipment to take on the threat, and make sure they are active, busy and forward. As a soldier, being active, busy and forward is what keeps you engaged and in there.

A cyber-security conference is one of the only places on earth where women never have to queue for the loo. That is because there are so few of us in the industry—approximately 10% when I left in 2019. Given that cyber-security is vital to our nation’s defence and that there is a global talent shortage, how will the Government work with industry to encourage more women into cyber-security and to address the skills gap? (913381)

I am sorry that that has been my hon. Friend’s experience. I think in the public sector it is cyber-security. In the intelligence services I worked with when I was Security Minister and in key parts of the armed forces, such as the Signal Regiment, there are higher proportions of women. I think that is something on which the state can lead. That is why the state signed up and sponsored the CyberFirst campaign, designed to stimulate among girls at school an interest in cyber and to invest in them. Hopefully, we are seeing an increase in that. But she can rest assured that with the next stage of the defence review she will see us making sure that, loud and clear, the sign “women are welcome” will be put above the door.

As I mentioned at the previous defence questions, workers at RAF Leeming have been striking since January over a £5,000 pay disparity. Just last week, Faslane and Coulport workers walked out over low wages and the looming break-up of their single bargaining unit. What action can the Minister take to stop these loyal staff being exploited? (913380)

The hon. Lady refers to two bits of potential industrial action. I have written to her about RAF Leeming in the last month. Obviously, it is a source of concern when employers and employees fall out, but I am not going to get into discussions on the specific action involved. We urge all those involved to come to an agreement.

I very much welcome the Government’s efforts to forge new trade links with India. However, given we share many common security threats and the fact that it is a key strategic ally in the Indo-Pacific region, can my hon. Friend outline what efforts are being made to better strengthen our defence relationship with India? (913382)

The UK Government are committed to working with the Government of India and increasing our efforts to combat shared threats. In particular, the UK is focused on increasing bilateral maritime co-operation in the Indian ocean and on ensuring a closer defence industrial relationship in line with Prime Minister Modi’s made in India policy. We are also committed to uplifting our defence education and training relationship to enable us to work together more effectively. I am certain that my hon. Friend and our friends in India will be hugely excited by what may follow in the integrated review.

The MOD itself estimates that its equipment plan is underfunded by about £8.3 billion in its first five years. We also know, for example, that the MOD will need to spend perhaps billions of pounds to bring its single-person living accommodation up to even a basic minimum tolerable standard. Will the Minister tell us how much of the additional money that the Prime Minister trumpeted at the spending review in November will be genuinely new money and how much of it will be swallowed up to fill these and other existing black holes in the defence budget? (913383)

I am not going to prejudge in advance of the announcements that are going to be made. They will all be made in the next eight days or so. The hon. Gentleman will be able to see for himself, but I assure him that we have gone through the numbers very closely and there is a lot of new money coming into defence—a £24 billion increase in the amount of money being spent on defence. We can see an awful lot of benefit coming through to our armed forces and our personnel.

With the Government’s integrated review due to be published imminently, potential investment in programmes such as Tempest would clearly align with the Government’s agenda for skills, development and social value. The defence sector employs unique, high-end design and manufacturing capabilities across the UK, with significant export potential, so how will constituents benefit from this? (913385)

Many constituencies and many constituents will benefit from it. I know my hon. Friend is a fierce advocate for Leonardo helicopters in his part of the world. In that particular case, we really value our strategic partnership arrangements and recognise the contribution that they make to UK prosperity. We will shortly be publishing the findings of our review into the defence and security industrial strategy, setting out our strategic approach to a number of sectors.

Some days ago, I read with great interest a piece in The Times saying that the intention is to deploy Royal Navy warships to the high north to safeguard trade routes via the Arctic. Given the limited range of conventionally powered warships, is there a case for relocating warships further north within the United Kingdom? (913387)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. First and foremost, I can give him some reassurance that not only are we continuing to move our submarines from the south to the north to invest in basing in Scotland—for submarine basing, and submarines pose just as lethal a threat to our adversaries as any surface fleet—but we continue to patrol the high north, recently in the Barents sea, and earlier in the year when we returned for the first time since the cold war, joining NATO allies to make sure that those vital trade routes are invested in. From my point of view, the key place for a ship is at sea doing its job on operations. The bases are very important, but let us remember that the way we protect our coast is by being out at sea.

The International Criminal Court’s announcement that it is opening an investigation into Israel sets a precedent, potentially opening the door for non-state actors in Afghanistan or Iraq to initiate proceedings against our armed forces. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support Israel against this probe and to ensure that democratic states will not be prevented from combating terrorist threats? (913386)

My hon. Friend is right to ask about the actions of the ICC. We of course respect the independence of the ICC, but we expect it to exercise due prosecutorial and judicial discipline. We continue to engage with the ICC and international partners to make those points.

The Veterans Minister will recall that in defence questions in November, I raised the concerns that I have about veterans’ mental health. Since then, I have been made aware that demand for services has increased 74% during lockdown. Does he think that the funding that goes into veterans’ mental health is enough, and because waiting times have continued to be longer for veterans, what more can we do to support veterans with mental health difficulties? (913398)

Under Op Courage, the new NHS pathway for all veterans’ mental health, there is an ability to monitor waiting times in almost real-time data, and I am absolutely committed to meeting those targets. There is significant investment going into it. I will always argue for more investment in something that has historically been underinvested in for so long. But I am confident that, as we stand here today, we have a world-class offering of mental health provision for our veterans, and it is incumbent on all of us to get that cohort to understand where that help is, to understand what the care pathways are and to have hope, because they can get better and they will be looked after.

How have the emerging military technologies that are being used in the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh impacted my right hon. Friend’s Department’s assessment of threat, ahead of the integrated review? (913388)

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated with brutal clarity the devastating impact of unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and traditional artillery when combined to produce a lethal cocktail of precision, lethality and range. The destruction of Armenian forces throughout the battlefield, not just on the frontline, demonstrated the vulnerability even of armoured forces on the modern battlefield. This includes our own forces, which is not something that, as Defence Secretary, I am willing to ignore any further. I will set out further details in the future review.

The Secretary of State will be well aware of the historic failure of the Government to repay the £400 million International Military Services debt to Iran. My constituent Anoosheh Ashoori is just one of the dual nationals being held hostage in Iran as diplomatic leverage. There is no doubt that this debt has caused their detainment; officials in Iran have confirmed that. What action is the Secretary of State, along with colleagues in the Foreign Office, going to take to resolve this shameful situation with urgency? (913400)

The hon. Member will know that I held a debate in the House as a Back-Bencher about that very debt and the need and determination to repay it, as it is a stain on Britain’s honour from when we dealt with this in the 1970s. It is definitely the intention that we comply with any court orders that are made against us, and we continue to do so, but we have to ensure that whatever we do is in line with both this law and the sanctions law that we have to observe as well.

The BAE Systems site at Warton in my constituency employs more than 6,000 people, serving as a source of high-skilled employment and playing a critical role in UK defence capability. With the Team Tempest project reaching its critical phase, does my hon. Friend agree that the project must be at the heart of the Government’s defence plans and must be provided with the backing it needs to give it certainty for the future? (913389)

Warton plays a key role in the UK’s combat air sector and Tempest is the future of that sector, with over 1,800 highly skilled engineers already involved in the programme, going up to 2,500 next year. As the Prime Minister has made clear, this Government are committed to investing in the future of our combat air strategy.

The north-east sends a higher proportion of people into the armed forces than any other region, but it also has historically high levels of unemployment. Service charities are concerned that the scope of the Armed Forces Bill is too narrow and that it does not address specific challenges such as employment. Given the challenges of the transition from service to civilian life, will the Government commit to ensuring that all areas of potential disadvantage are addressed for north-east veterans? (913408)

The Armed Forces Bill is an important opportunity to enshrine the armed forces covenant. I understand that for some it goes too far and for some it does not go far enough. I say to the hon. Member that it is the start of the process and the start of a conversation to ensure that the experience of being a veteran is levelled up across this country, and I look forward to working with her in the years ahead.

The hundred or so families at Lyneham in my constituency who are facing eviction from Annington homes will very much welcome the Minister’s remark a moment ago that he is to extend the eviction notice period until next March. They will also be glad that there are to be negotiations with Wiltshire County Council about this, but is the Minister aware of the further complication that those homes get their utilities from within the base? Annington Homes has so far said that that would preclude them from being sold. Will he instruct officials to look into what can be done about that particular circumstance? (913390)

I hope we may have found a technical solution that would enable base-dependent sites to be dealt with to allow sales to social housing providers if the parties agree. Our advice is that the transfer of supply can generally be effected relatively rapidly, and we are willing to share this advice with Annington, which will need to be satisfied that it can perform connections to mains networks safely and efficiently with tenants in situ.

It should be possible to restore the pensions of the small cohort of war widows who lost them on remarriage or cohabitation without setting a precedent that would open the floodgates in respect of other cohorts, so what progress is the Department making in addressing this debt of honour? (913391)

I am aligned with my right hon. Friend’s views. The Secretary of State has worked tirelessly on this issue to try to correct the historic injustice of war widows’ pensions. We continue to examine all possibilities, including the ex gratia scheme and all the other ideas that my right hon. Friend has come up with in his tireless campaigning. We will arrive at a solution. Like I said, the Secretary of State is committed to resolving it, and we will get there in the end.

The Government maintain that every F-35 built has 15% UK content, but I understand that the MOD’s definition of “content” includes work carried out for UK companies by US subsidiaries. Will the Minister therefore publish how he defines UK content in the programme, so that I can decide what is done in the UK and what is done in the US?

I have received a large number of parliamentary questions from the right hon. Gentleman, and I believe that I have answered that question as part of them. If not, I will make certain that it is clear to him. It is 15% by value, and we are proud of the contribution that is being made by UK manufacturing to the F-35. I will make certain that that is covered again.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The ministerial code is clear that

“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”

I know that you believe this principle to be fundamental to the proper role of Parliament and the accountability of Ministers. We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement tomorrow on the integrated review, yet over the last week there have been a series of detailed media briefings about decisions in that integrated review. With the Defence Secretary in his place, can you offer guidance to the House, ahead of the follow-up Command Paper on Monday and the defence industrial strategy on Tuesday, so that we do not have the same serious disregard of the ministerial code and disrespect for Parliament?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We have indeed seen a steady drumbeat of media stories promoting radical changes to our defence posture, but the Defence Committee has not received any of those briefings, despite frequent departmental requests. What troubles me the most is the MOD’s decision to share with the media the desire to increase our nuclear stockpile with the purchase of 200 W93 US-made warheads. I am a firm supporter of continuous at-sea deterrence, but changes to our non-proliferation policy deserve proper oversight in this House and should not be used a sweetener to overshadow dramatic cuts to our conventional defence posture. May I ask for your guidance on how we can encourage the MOD to brief the Defence Committee—perhaps in the Ladybird book form that the Defence Secretary likes to promote—and to ensure that any announcements on CASD are made in this Chamber first?

I am grateful to both right hon. Gentlemen for giving me notice of their points of order. “Erskine May” states that

“The Speaker has made it clear that the media should not be informed about the content of statements before they have been made to the House”.

When a statement is made, Members will of course have an opportunity to ask about any advance briefing given to the media, but my position is clear: I want important policy announcements to be made first to this House. Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard the comments of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the Chair of the Defence, Committee as well as this response. I expect that that response will be shared with all Ministers and that they will act accordingly. Thank you.

I suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.