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Topical Questions

Volume 711: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

You are aware of this, Mr Speaker, but a number of hon. Members have inquired and the Defence Secretary would not want it to be thought that he means any discourtesy to the House: he has had a brief brush with covid, and I can assure the House on behalf of the Department, the armed forces and the Ministers here present that it has neither stopped him nor slowed him down. He has had a second negative test today, and I am assured that by this evening he will be as present physically as he has been virtually over the last few days.

The Ministry of Defence continues to deliver against the objectives of the integrated review and the defence Command Paper, which recognise that Russia remains the most acute threat to our security. We remain on course to deliver a more modernised and threat-focused defence alongside our international allies, just as we have worked with them on Ukraine.

Recent weeks have only reinforced the need to invest in our defence, which is important for our economy and vital for our security. With that in mind, why will Ministers not give a clear commitment to British-built by default in defence procurement?

The events of the last few weeks show the critical importance of having the right kit in the hands of our armed forces. On many occasions the need can be met by British supply, but I would not write off the kit we can procure from our US and NATO allies, nor would I wish them to write off the prospect of buying kit from us. We are part of an alliance, and I am convinced that our approach of supporting British industry, supporting British investment and supporting capability through the defence and security industrial strategy, while keeping a weather eye on what else is available to ensure our armed forces are well armed, is the right one.

T2. The Secretary of State’s decision to send lethal defensive military aid to Ukraine before Russia’s invasion was inspired, and it is probably one of the best decisions he has ever taken. What is the initial assessment of the Minister for the Armed Forces of the operational effectiveness in theatre of the next generation light anti-tank weapons we have sent to Ukraine? (906317)

One pauses because these weapon systems, every time they are effective, kill the entire crew of an armoured vehicle. My hon. Friend will take no pleasure from it, but he will be interested to note that these weapon systems have been prolific in their success. The Ukrainian armed forces value them enormously. They are accurate, reliable and deadly.

The UK’s anti-tank and anti-air weapons are proving vital to the Ukrainians in fighting the Russian invasion. The Prime Minister pledged at NATO last week that we will supply a further 6,000 missiles. Both NLAW and Starstreak are made in Britain by British workers, as the Minister for Defence Procurement said in response to the hon. Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) on Question 17, but has production started to replace the British stockpiles of these missiles?

We are working closely with industry. Some lines have continued, but I would rather not get into operational details of as and when stockpiles will be replenished. Suffice it to say that we are in active conversations with industry, as the right hon. Gentleman would expect.

T3. It is 40 years this coming week since the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the violation of British sovereignty by Argentina. It is five weeks since the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty by Russia. As China eyes up Taiwan, does the Minister agree that it is time that the Government started to plan for an increase in defence spending, maybe to 3% of GDP? (906318)

I hear what my hon. Friend says and I note his concern. As the integrated review made clear, we always look at spending on a threat basis: what is required, we fund. I also remind him that we are the biggest defence spender in Europe and the second biggest in NATO, and we were pleased to receive a £24 billion uplift in the current spending period.

T9. As a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, I had the pleasure of visiting Lossiemouth earlier this year. Leuchars airfield in my constituency is still maintained as a back-up site for operations. Given the current situation, can the Minister advise on sonar and radar upgrades? It is important that back-up facilities are also fit for purpose. (906324)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think I wrote to her last in November of last year on that issue. I am afraid we have not moved on yet and we are still studying exactly what radar configurations will be required, but it is actively being looked at and I certainly commit to updating her when I can give her an assurance one way or the other.

T4. Fleeing for their lives when Kabul fell, some Afghans with UK connections entered Pakistan without documentation. Will Ministers urgently devise a practical plan safely to bring to the UK those Afghans who have entry visas to come to this country, but who are still being hunted by the Pakistani police, whose Government apparently want to hand them back to the Taliban? (906319)

My right hon. Friend knows that I have been engaged in this matter for him for some time. I am told from my phone that the high commissioner has now reached out to explain the situation. For the benefit of the wider House, the challenge is that for those who arrive in Pakistan with eligibility to come to the UK under whichever Government scheme they are intending to use, but have not entered Pakistan legally, the Pakistan Government are taking a view on limiting our ability to process those people. We are working hard to persuade the Pakistan Government to take a different approach.

Joram is a veteran and constituent who came to Britain in 2001 and served in the armed forces, with tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. That left scars: he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and took to drinking, and as a result served time in prison. He turned his life around and is now a painter and decorator and a father of two, but the Home Office is seeking to deport him to Zimbabwe, where he has no connections and where, when he was last there 15 years ago, he was tortured for having served in our armed forces. That risks happening again. Will the Minister intervene to stop Joram, a veteran, being deported?

T5. It is vital that we protect our veterans from vexatious legal claims, something that we have already put in place for those who have served overseas. Will the Minister agree to work with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Government to ensure that legislation is also urgently brought forward to help to protect our Northern Ireland veterans? (906320)

We are grateful to all veterans of Operation Banner and seek to give them closure with honour and finality. I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will in due course bring forward the requisite Bill.

The most effective deployment of our submarine forces in response to Russian deployment is surely intelligence-dependent. Membership of the joint expeditionary force is not synonymous with that of NATO. I press the Minister: are we making every effort to glean intelligence on Russian naval deployment from those other countries?

Our intelligence on Russian submarine movements is, as the hon. Gentleman can imagine, some of the most sensitive, but he will be reassured to know that we are absolutely working with allies to ensure that our understanding of where Russian submarines are is the best it can possibly be, and that we are postured to ensure that we meet whatever threat there may be as a consequence.

T6. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that Poland’s recent decision to award Babcock the contract for the Arrowhead frigates for the Polish navy is a brilliant example of British shipbuilding capabilities being used to support our NATO allies. (906321)

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that downselection. There is still a process to go, but if it has finally got over the line, as I hope, that will be great news for Babcock, great news for Scotland and great news for British shipbuilding. I have on multiple occasions been to see my opposite number in Poland and hosted them here in the UK. I think they are making a great choice.

In June last year, one of my constituents, a British-Afghan dual national, travelled to Afghanistan to visit his wife and three children aged under 10. During the evacuation, they were advised to proceed to Baron Hotel but were not processed before the suicide attack. Since then they have been trying to get to the UK, but the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office says they need a visa and the Home Office says they are ineligible for the resettlement scheme. What urgent action can the Minister take, with colleagues in the Home Office, to ensure that my constituent can return safely to the UK with his young family?

The hon. Lady’s question implies, I think, that her constituent was not eligible to come under the Ministry of Defence-administered Afghan relocations and assistance policy. I know that will be of no consolation to him or his family in Afghanistan. We are working hard with other Government Departments to make sure that those who were called forward under the leave outside the rules scheme that was in operation during Operation Pitting are still looked after. However, I will need to have this discussion with other Ministers, and I will ask one of them to write to her with an update on the case.

T7. I understand that Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles are being made available to Ukraine. Could this kit be used to protect humanitarian corridors and nuclear power plants? (906322)

It certainly could be—it is a highly effective weapons system—but we are not seeking to be in any way prescriptive with the Ukrainians about how it is employed, as they will understand their plan better than we do. We give them these weapons systems confident that they will bring them to good use, and thus far that has proved correct.

Does the Minister share my concern that the agility and mobility hoped for in the Future Soldier programme will be thwarted if those soldiers are stuck in traffic on the M6 near Weeton barracks? Would it not be much better to keep Dale barracks in Chester open and have a wider operational footprint for our future soldiers?

That is an ingenious construction. We always think about this, but I am afraid we do not have any plans to change that element of the defence estate optimisation portfolio at this point.

T8.   Ukraine is becoming one of the most contaminated countries in the world, with explosive weapons, land-mines, cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance posing a threat to military and civilians alike. Will the Minister meet me and leaders of EOD UK, a mine action community, to discuss how we can plan for the enormous decontamination task ahead of us? (906323)

I certainly will. I have had the opportunity—I am not sure if it is the misfortune or good fortune—to visit a number of countries that have been heavily mined in the past. We see the tragic human cost that comes in countries that have been heavily mined, but also the hope that comes with a meaningful demining programme. I would be delighted to meet the organisation my hon. Friend suggests.

The national security vetting services have never played such an important role, and the skill there is incredibly high. When will the Minister announce that they will remain in York when the MOD moves forward with its plans for the Imphal barracks site?

T10. Over the weekend I was pleased to see two Royal Navy vessels join five other joint expeditionary force nations in escorting British and Danish supply ships. They successfully delivered military vehicles and equipment to the UK-led NATO battle group in Estonia. Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as playing a vital role in NATO, it is important for the UK to continue to lead the joint expeditionary force? (906325)

I certainly do. NATO has been the absolute cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security since the end of the second world war, and long may it continue to be so. Neither the JEF, the EU nor anything else should be seen as an alternative. However, there is a market for complementary organisations such as the JEF, which do not require consensus. The JEF is absolutely showing its value in the way that it is being used at the moment.

The veterans strategy action plan includes a commitment to address the historical hurt or disadvantage that sections of the veteran community have experienced. Will that include compensation for LGBT veterans?

I look forward to announcing further progress on the review in due course. I do not want to pre-empt the terms and conditions of the chair, but I think that they will be reassuringly broad.

While it is perfectly true that any sensible person in the west would rather President Putin were not the President of the Russian republic, does the Minister agree that it is vital that we reiterate at every second that we can that NATO is a defensive alliance among 30 members and that we will react if one boot goes over the line on to NATO land, but the presidency of Russia must be a matter for the Russian people, not for us?

My hon. Friend is correct. NATO is a defensive alliance, and we are working closely together. As my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said, we are undertaking measures to ensure that NATO retains that deterrence and defensive posture that is appropriate in these times. However, we are focused bilaterally on Ukraine and on supporting Ukraine—that is the focus of our policy.

At the last Defence questions, I got what I hoped was an encouraging answer on behalf of the nuclear test veterans for what will be the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear tests. Will the Minister update us on where we are in recognising those veterans and their families for their sacrifice?

Ministers have said that we have supplied 4,000 NLAWs and other equipment and deployments, and that we are supplying 6,000 more. Meanwhile, Germany says that it will supply 1,000 and France has not stated what it will supply—as far as I know, nothing has been supplied—so what advice do we give to our colleagues in Europe about how to get their equipment into Ukraine?

It is not just advice; we offer a service whereby we will go to countries around Europe and pick up stuff and ensure that it gets to Ukraine. At the international donor co-ordination centre in Stuttgart, which I had the pleasure of visiting last week, the UK’s 104 Brigade headquarters is the global lead on co-ordinating how all that lethal and non-lethal aid arrives in countries that neighbour Ukraine and how it is moved on thereafter.

With the next generation Challenger 3 turrets being built in the north-east, supporting hundreds of jobs, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory working with Newcastle and other local universities and Cook Defence Systems in my constituency providing armoured vehicle tracks for not just British tanks but those of NATO and European allies, will my hon. Friend ensure that the north-east’s firms and workers remain at the heart of British defence procurement?

They are. Last Thursday, I had a great day opening the AI hub for DSTL in Newcastle and pressing the button to start production of the turrets for our Challenger 3 tanks, to which my hon. Friend referred. There is a great history of defence manufacturing in the north-east, and it will have an even greater future.