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Wales’s Contribution to UK Armed Forces

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Wales’s contribution to the UK armed forces.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms McVey. I should start by declaring an interest, in that my partner is a serving member of the armed forces, based at the Infantry Battle School in Wales.

A little over 18 months ago, I had the privilege of leading my first debate as a Member of Parliament, in which the same subject was considered. That was in February 2020 and of course since then the world has changed, and changed again. I secured this debate as a Member of Parliament with the rare privilege of representing Army, Navy and Royal Air Force facilities in their constituency. I applied for the debate last week when I was sitting in my office thinking of ways I could pile further pressure on the Ministry of Defence regarding its plans to close, in 2027, Brecon barracks, which is an historic site in the heart of my constituency. I have been campaigning on that issue since the moment I was selected as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Brecon and Radnorshire. It is fair to say that I have made something of a nuisance of myself with MOD Ministers, given the number of times that I have raised the issue. One Minister even told me that I was close to the point of becoming “embarrassing”. But the significance of Brecon barracks to my constituency simply cannot be overstated.

The barracks is the home of the Army in Wales. It is the epicentre of our military history and home to the regimental museum of the Royal Welsh. The 24 trees on the Watton in front of the barracks represent the 24th Foot Regiment, which fought at the battle of Rorke’s Drift, immortalised in the film “Zulu”. However, the barracks is not just about a good film and some shiny mess silver. Its operational significance was underlined once again earlier this year when the armed forces’ incredible MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—support to people in Wales was stood up from within the Keep in Brecon barracks. At this point, I want to pay tribute to Brigadier Andrew Dawes, who I hope is watching this debate. Head of 160th Brigade and head of the Army in Wales, he oversaw Operation Rescript on behalf of the Army in Wales. I pay tribute to him and all his team for that crucial work.

It was absolutely vital to campaign to keep the barracks, and I pay tribute to all those who joined the fight, but particularly my predecessor in this role, Chris Davies, and my counterpart in the Welsh Parliament, James Evans. I knew that we were on the right track back in January when Defence Ministers announced a partial change of mind in committing to keep Army HQ in Brecon—after coming with me to the barracks to see the site for themselves. But the phone call last Wednesday night from my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement announcing that the barracks would be retained was truly as if Christmas had come early. Culturally, economically and socially, this is vital news for Brecon—a shot in the arm for a town that is often forgotten about by Ministers in Cardiff Bay.

My hon. Friend, like me, is a border MP. We are very proud in Shrewsbury of being a gateway to Wales, and we have many Welsh citizens and many Welsh veterans living in our constituency. I am very grateful that my hon. Friend is having this debate. I would like her to accept our best wishes from Shropshire about the very strong links that bind us, and our Union, through the armed forces.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am very happy to send our best wishes back to our friends, neighbours and colleagues just across the border.

I am so grateful to the Ministry of Defence for bearing with me in my campaign to keep the barracks open, for listening and for being perhaps so scared of coming to this Westminster Hall debate today that it decided to keep the barracks open. Last week’s announcement by the Secretary of State did so much more than just committing to keep the barracks in Brecon. Bringing the Welsh cavalry, the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, back to Wales is a strong sign that this Government are committed to Wales and to the Union. Soldiers from the QDG have told me just how much they wanted to come home, so I warmly welcome that move—even if they are going to Monmouthshire and not Powys.

I too am delighted that the Queen’s Dragoon Guards are coming back to Wales. The original place where they were planned to be sited was St Athan in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Welsh Government had not made land available for the armed forces so that the Queen’s Dragoon Guards could come to St Athan, which was the originally preferred site? For our Union’s sake, the Welsh Government need to play their full part in welcoming the armed forces to all parts of Wales.

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. He expresses an important point in very clear terms, which I will talk about later. As a result of the Secretary of State’s announcement last week, Wales will see an increase in the Army footprint from 6.7% to 7.3%. A new Reserve unit in Wrexham will significantly increase the presence in the north. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton), who has campaigned so diligently on that. Combined with an Army Reserve of more than 30,000, the British Army will be more than 100,000 strong.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the world has turned significantly since we last came here to discuss this issue. In Wales, over the course of the pandemic, we have once again called on the support of our armed forces. The Army has organised and conducted more than 74,000 tests, 11,000 ambulance responses and almost 70,000 covid vaccine inoculations. Those numbers will certainly have increased since those data were recorded. The Army continues to support the Welsh Ambulance Service by crewing ambulances. It is essential to remember the civilian role played by our armed forces. It can be quickly forgotten but we must take every opportunity to show our gratitude, not just on Remembrance Day.

I know how much people in my constituency appreciate that support from the shifts I did as a volunteer at my local vaccination centre on the Royal Welsh showground at Builth Wells. We were fortunate to be joined by members of the RAF band, who were deployed to Builth, Bronllys and Ystradgynlais as part of the vaccine roll-out. Yesterday, I was back at the showground for the winter fair and was delighted to learn from the chief executive that members of the band have been invited back to the Royal Welsh show next July for a celebration event.

We saw earlier this year that the armed forces deliver for Wales, but Wales also delivers for the armed forces. Even during the pandemic this year, I was delighted to visit Exercise Cambrian Patrol organised in my constituency. I pay tribute to everybody who managed to get Exercise Cambrian Patrol off the ground again this year. This fantastic event, known well to all armed forces personnel, is an arduous challenge of more than 40 miles. Teams of eight come from around the globe to compete in the Black mountains and the Brecon Beacons national park. It is the Olympic gold medal of military training and I am delighted it takes place in Wales. I congratulate all who took part this year.

So far this speech has been full of nothing but praise for the Government, which is somewhat unusual for me. When discussing our service personnel, it is imperative to consider our support for former service personnel in Wales, and I do feel that veterans in Wales are being short-changed. They are unable to access the same kind of support that their counterparts in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland can rely on. Wales is currently the only country in the United Kingdom not to have the support of an independent veterans commissioner. For years, Welsh Conservative colleagues in the Senedd in Cardiff have been arguing for that role to be created. Of course, the armed forces are a UK-wide policy area but, with public services in Wales devolved to the Welsh Government, Ministers in Cardiff Bay need to agree to recognise the role, in order for it to make a meaningful difference.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on the debate and the points she is making, particularly highlighting the work of our armed forces during the pandemic. I am sure she will agree that we need to highlight the work of the Welsh Government in funding the seven armed forces liaison officers who are currently working across Wales and the work the Welsh Government are doing with the NHS pathway, hoping to have that health and social care support. Does she also agree that the reluctance of the Government to agree the future of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs will hamper that work going forward?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I certainly agree and pay tribute to all of the armed forces liaison officers that we have in Wales. I was about to talk about them. I am due to meet the armed forces liaison officer for Powys in the next few days. They do fantastic work—long may they remain in post. However, there is a role for someone to oversee that work so that, as a veteran moves around Wales, they can guarantee the same kind of mental health support and education provision. That consistency is key.

In 2013, the late and much missed former Minister in the Welsh Government, Carl Sargeant, expressed support for creating the role of the veterans commissioner, but argued that funding had not been made available by the UK Government. However, after much persistence from a number of colleagues, including myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, our right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the funding in the Budget this year specifically for an Office for Veterans’ Affairs in Wales. As it stands, Westminster Ministers have written the cheque and Ministry of Defence Ministers are willing to start interviewing candidates, but the Welsh Government continue to play for time. I cannot understand why the Welsh Government in Cardiff Bay are reluctant.

As I mentioned in my response to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), a veterans commissioner would oversee public services in Wales and make sure that they work for the tens of thousands of former military personnel across Wales, especially those who live in Brecon and Radnorshire. More than that—this is the point I was making—that person would ensure that the mental health support available to veterans is consistent whether they live in Brecon, Beddgelert or Barry Island. It is time for Welsh Labour to stop neglecting this community. Once again, I find myself urging the Welsh Labour Government to confirm that they will give the role their blessing and work with us so that the process can go forward.

I know other colleagues want to contribute, so I will bring my remarks to a close. If I have waffled in my speech, it is because the Ministry of Defence has forced me to rewrite it at the last minute. I came here to give the Government another broadside on the barracks and to press once again for the QDG to come home. The Secretary of State stole my thunder, but I could not be more grateful. Although this could be the opportunity for me to restore my credibility with the Ministry of Defence and go quietly, it is time for me to think of a new campaign that will help the Government demonstrate their support for the armed forces in Wales.

I am mindful that various colleagues want to speak. It is a very crowded room for a 30-minute debate. If people will be mindful of the time, we will get to the Minister for a response no later than 11.20 am.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) on securing this debate.

It might seem strange that I wish to speak today when I represent a constituency without a major military presence, but we have deep and real connections to our armed forces in Aberconwy. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have been privileged to visit military bases across the UK to speak to enlisted men and women and officers. A recurring theme in conversations is the importance of people. The commanding officer of HMS Dragon, for example, spoke more about the team around him than the £1.2 billion vessel we were standing on at the time.

I cannot speak today about Wales’s contribution to the armed forces without speaking again about Welsh veterans. I am proud to say that in Aberconwy we have many, and we are home to several inspirational charities that offer support. It has long been recognised that active military service has the potential to adversely impact mental health and wellbeing, with physical, mental and emotional symptoms commonly reported by veterans. I note and welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about the importance of support, and I ask: is it the place of the Welsh Government to stand between UK funds being made available for UK citizens in such a way at this time?

Concerns regarding impaired health and wellbeing have achieved a high profile recently. I want to take this opportunity to thank the veterans of Aberconwy for their years of service to the United Kingdom. I also wish to pay tribute to organisations throughout Aberconwy that work in their support, including the Royal British Legion, Blind Veterans UK and Homes for Veterans Cymru-Alabaré. Those are established, but on Saturday I had the extra pleasure of meeting a new initiative—the Military Minds football club. The founders—David Owen, Ryan Davies and Kyle King—and I sat together in Llandudno. They have set up that new charity football club to help veterans, and I have no doubt that this initiative will provide support in the months and years ahead. As someone who is passionate about football and about supporting our armed forces and veterans, I will follow their adventure with interest.

In truth, we do have a military presence in Aberconwy. The training camp in Capel Curig has been the temporary home to many thousands who have trodden our hills in pursuit of physical and technical expertise: Snowdonia/Eryri offers a unique environment for that. However, I do not want to speak about what happens on our hills, but about what happens in the skies above them. Along the coast, at RAF Valley in the constituency of Ynys Môn, is the training centre for our fast jet pilots. The UK and our allies face ever-greater and ever-changing military and security threats, especially from an increasingly belligerent China, Russia and Iran. Among many responses being developed, this year, for the first time in over a decade, a carrier strike group of the Royal Navy—the senior service—sailed on active operations. After 11 years without aircraft carriers, it is a milestone of note that the UK has re-established our ability to project air power from the sea once again.

The pilots of the RAF and Royal Navy F-35 Lightnings are trained at RAF Valley, one of the finest centres of military aviation in the world. There is a whole force team there of over 1,500 people, which is an important contribution—a Welsh contribution—to the UK’s ability to defend our interests and our allies around the world. Crucially, those training flights bring those jets over Aberconwy. There is no doubt that the sound of birdsong and insects on a sunny day in Dyffryn Conwy is a thing of beauty: it nourishes the soul. There is also no doubt that that bucolic idyll is shattered by the noise of the Texan T1s, the basic fast jet training aircraft used at RAF Valley. I know that this can be a real source of annoyance, and even distress, to many of my constituents. I acknowledge those concerns and have been working with colleagues to mitigate this issue, moving more flights over the sea rather than the land and reducing the windows during which those flights take place. I am also encouraging colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to make more effort to explain the work that is happening. This is a partnership—a real relationship that needs communication, and can be helped only through greater and better understanding.

For now, while I continue to represent the concerns of constituents who are affected by the sound of those swirling, soaring Texans overhead, whether in their homes, in their businesses or on their farms, I must also recognise that it is the sound of freedom. This is a real price: a local contribution that many pay daily. It is a real part of Wales’s and Aberconwy’s contribution to our nation’s defence, so in conclusion, I offer my thanks to my constituents for the part they play.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) for securing today’s debate. With the Defence Secretary’s recent future soldier Army restructuring announcement last week, this is a fitting time to discuss the benefit of Wales to the UK armed forces. As a Welsh MP with an interest in veterans and our armed forces, and who sits on the Select Committee on Defence, this is comfortable ground for me. I want to touch on two points: first, the Welsh military footprint, and secondly, the contribution made to the defence sector in Wales more widely.

Wales has a proud military history, as indeed does my constituency. Wrexham is home to Hightown barracks, once the home of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose roots date back to 1689. Last week’s announcement by the Defence Secretary is hugely welcomed: Hightown barracks will now house a reserve company, the 3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh. The barracks, once destined to become a housing estate, now has a new lease of life and will regenerate the military stamp in Wrexham. Although there will be a scaling down of the Army mass nationally, I am pleased that Wales is the only nation not to see a reduction in its capacity or capability, and the announcement of a £320 million investment in Wales to enforce this is most welcome. If there were to be one example of Wales’s contribution to the armed forces and the UK Government’s commitment to the military in Wales, this is it.

I will not reiterate the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made about the armed forces’ extensive contribution to the Welsh Government’s covid recovery plan, nor will I reiterate the need for the Welsh Government to get on board with a veterans’ commissioner. I know that another Member wants to speak, so I will just make one other point, which is about the significant contribution that the defence sector makes in Wales in jobs, opportunities, equipment, the supply chain and the defence pound. We have a large military footprint in Wales, with over 4,000 jobs in the military chain alone. North-east Wales is a hub for defence businesses, including Qioptiq in St Asaph; Airbus in Broughton; MOD Sealand, which is home to the Defence Electronics and Components Agency and sits on the border with Chester; and Raytheon at Hawarden airport. Earlier this month, Raytheon was awarded a £110 million contract to upgrade the RAF’s Shadow surveillance aircraft, creating hundreds of new jobs in the area, including in my constituency of Wrexham. All those companies have invested in the covenant, making the gap between the serving and civilian sectors smaller, and in the workforce not only of the present but of the future. With this Conservative Government’s vote of confidence in Wales—the cancellation of the closure of Brecon barracks, subjecting future generations of soldiers to the wild delights of the Beacons, and the boost to Hightown barracks in Wrexham—the symbiotic relationship between the military and Wales is clearly defined for the future.

It is pleasure to respond to the debate under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I congratulate my hon. Friend, the outstanding Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), on securing not only this debate but so many debates on the future of Brecon barracks. The armed forces in Wales have an extraordinary ally in her, and she has made her mark in speaking up for them and, particularly, for her constituency. She is right to say that she has changed the MOD’s mind. Her predecessor struggled—in fact, did not find the time at all—to ask any questions in Parliament about the future of the barracks. That goes to show what a sound choice the people of Brecon and Radnorshire made in returning her in 2019, so that she can take up the fight on behalf of the community, something that matters enormously to them, and what a fantastic champion they have in their MP, who takes these local issues to Ministers so persistently and brings home victories.

I also thank all those who have joined the debate today. It is great to see such fantastic attendance, which underlines that the armed forces in Wales are supported well by all their MPs. I pay particular tribute, of course, to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, but I have found that, in all my dealings with Welsh MPs, there is support for our armed forces that crosses party lines. I know that that matters enormously to our armed forces in Wales. I hope that the First Minister will take this in the spirit in which it is intended, but there was a view in Army headquarters that he might not be the most responsive to a relationship with the military. However, I know from the team in Brecon that he has worked enthusiastically alongside us in the last 18 months, and we are very proud of the way in which that relationship has developed.

I am encouraged by the Minister’s comments about the First Minister. However, does he share my concern that the Welsh Government prioritised a business park over a major new military unit that was earmarked for St Athan? With the Special Forces Support Group remaining at West Camp, St Athan’s long history with it will remain, but the significance of East Camp will now be lost to a business park as a result of the Welsh Government’s not making land available for a major military unit.

I accept that observation. It is a shame that the full potential of St Athan could not be realised. I know that the Welsh Government take a view on the value of the development that they are undertaking at that site, but clearly, from an MOD perspective, we felt that there was an opportunity to develop further. That is an opportunity that will now not be available to us.

Some 2,300 recruits came from Wales in the last two years. That means that, as a ratio of population, Wales outperforms England in recruitment to our armed forces. Indeed, 7% of new starters in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines were from Wales over that period. There are 2,100 regular armed forces based in Wales. As we have discussed, the return of an additional unit to Wales means that an increased percentage of the UK armed forces will be based in Wales as a consequence of what was announced earlier in the week.

The Welsh units have been busy. The 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, the most well-equipped and most highly ready battle group in NATO, was deployed on Operation Cabrit, the enhanced forward presence mission to Estonia. Last Christmas, I had the sad duty of sending them all to the M23 in Kent to swab the throats of truckers as their reward for doing so well in a tour to Estonia. That was particularly hard, given that a friend of mine who I served alongside in 2 Rifles is now the commanding officer of that battalion. They did an amazing job, responding at an hour’s notice to get Dover flowing as quickly as possible. It was a fantastic performance.

The Welsh Guards have been on public duties in London and have also been deployed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Last week in Mali, although they were keeping a low profile because they are arriving in theatre, the 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards are shortly to take over command of the MINUSMA mission, bringing stability and security to a part of Mali that is very troubled indeed. I know that they will do that brilliantly. Indeed, the squadron of 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards that has been in Mali for the previous tour under the command of the Royal Anglian Regiment has acquitted itself brilliantly and shown just what a fantastic outfit the Welsh Cavalry is.

It is not just the regulars; the 3rd Battalion The Royal Welsh generated a full company to serve in Operation Rescript—our response to covid. The Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers generated a squadron. There have been reservists serving as liaison officers across Wales, working with our police forces, councils and other local agencies in order to co-ordinate the covid response.

I pay tribute to Brigadier Andrew Dawes, who my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned. He is an outstanding commander for the British Army in Wales, and he really gets what is required as a regional point of command and interface with local authorities. There have been 36 requests for military aid to civilian authorities, requiring 1,500 troops drawn from 80 units, some from within Wales and many from without. The most high profile of those is the ongoing support to the south Wales ambulance service, where 110 drivers have now been serving for seven months, and have been involved in 15,000 call-outs.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I register my own interest. Will he say something about the fantastic foreign and Commonwealth soldiers who support Welsh units in the British Army? A lot of them are concerned that they get forgotten and are not supported, particularly when they leave our armed forces. Many settle in Wales and have close relationships there.

I absolutely will. Foreign and Commonwealth soldiers play an extraordinary role in the British armed forces. I suspect that when someone is recruited from Fiji or Grenada and find themselves in Brecon in January, they have a bit of a sense of humour failure, but it is a testament to the hospitality that Welsh people provide that, despite that coldness, they choose to settle in Wales afterwards. I will briefly mention the veterans commissioner, because I think that is important to that point.

Castlemartin, Caerwent and Sennybridge are key training areas used by the British armed forces to prepare us for our operation output, and the fantastic Welsh landscape makes for adventurous training. I note the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) about the noise of the fast air over north Wales, but it is a world-class training environment for the very best fighter pilots. It is a tribute to RAF Valley that so many from overseas wish to come and train in that environment.

On prosperity, nearly £1 billion is invested in industry in Wales, generating 4,940 military and civilian roles, 770 private sector jobs and thousands more across supply chains across a range of capabilities from fast air all the way through to armoured vehicles.

I agree that is conspicuous that Wales does not yet have a veterans commissioner, but I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, with officials in the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, is engaged in this. Working with the Welsh Government, we hope to find a resolution on that soon.

Across Wales, there is an extraordinary contribution from our armed forces to the United Kingdom. I hope that the people of Wales reflect on how well the UK armed forces serve them in their hours of need and how well they represent Wales when serving overseas.

In the 30 seconds remaining, I would like to mark the departure of General Sir Nick Carter as Chief of the Defence Staff. He is being drummed out from the Ministry of Defence as I speak. His has been a career of over 40 years’ extraordinary service to our Queen and country. He has done immeasurable good in his time as Chief of the General Staff and as CDS, most notably— I know my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) will champion this more than anyone—in ensuring that all frontline roles are now available to men and women. He will be missed, and we welcome his successor Sir Tony Radakin.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.