As part of the carrier strike group deployment on
We pay tribute to the total professionalism of the HMS Defender crew.
This is a profound moment for the more than 150,000 UK men and women who served in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to their service and their sacrifice, especially those of the 457 who have lost their lives. Where does this withdrawal leave the UK strategy of forward deployment in a region that sits between Russia, China and Iran—three of the main state-based threats identified in the integrated review—and how will the Government ensure that Afghanistan does not again become an operating base for terrorism directed against the west?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in his tribute to the men and women who fought, some of whom never came back, and contributed during the many years in Afghanistan. I have previously placed on the record the fact that in my view the United States leaving made it very difficult for us to continue that mission. It left many of us unable to continue that without a significant international uplift. That has not been forthcoming, and therefore we are in a position where we, too, are on the path of withdrawal, with all the risks that may leave in the future—in the next 10, 20 years—so we have to do our very best with what we have now. That means we will continue to work with the Afghan Government. We will continue to focus on the threats that emanate from Afghanistan and may grow towards the United Kingdom and our allies. We will do whatever we can. However, it is important, in forward presence, that we are always in such countries with the consent of those countries. There was a Doha peace agreement, and that means we have to consider what we are going to do next.
These are topicals—short and sweet. I call the Chair of the Select Committee.
I am pleased to welcome reports in the weekend papers that suggest that the aid budget may return to 0.7%. The utility of hard power without soft power invariably leads to failure, as sadly illustrated in Afghanistan, where the sudden exodus of NATO forces means that there is now a high risk of civil war, with the Taliban advancing and securing more districts by the day. I repeat my call for a formal inquiry so that we can understand how this NATO mission, endorsed by the UN, lasted two decades, has now ended in failure. We are now abandoning the country to the very insurgent organisation that we went in to defeat in the first place. This cannot be what we expected when we went in, and it is not the exit strategy that we anticipated. Our presence gave legitimacy to the Afghan authorities, and our exodus will be seen as a victory for the Taliban. Please let us have the inquiry.
Can I just remind people—Front Benchers as well, and Chairs of Select Committees—that if they want a long question, they should go in questions earlier? These are short and punchy questions, and we have to keep it that way to get the rest in.
I would say two things. First, my right hon. Friend, as I said earlier, has the means of his own salvation. He chairs the Select Committee, and if the Select Committee wishes to have an inquiry, I will be happy to make sure the Department services it.
In my constituency, a significant risk of homelessness comes with having served in the armed forces and suffered trauma during that time. A lot of the rough sleepers in my constituency are former members of the armed forces. With the eviction moratorium now ending, what further steps will the Ministry of Defence be taking to help those who have previously served who are now at risk of losing their homes?
First, I would not like the hon. Lady to strengthen the wrong perception that a greater number of our armed forces personnel are rough-sleeping or a greater number suffer certain things; the numbers nearly always either reflect the national trend in wider society or, indeed, in some cases are significant lower. There are plenty of schemes that we encourage and support to get behind our veterans and get them back into work, and we are also working with a range of non-governmental organisations. Of course, I would be very happy to meet her to discuss issues in her own constituency and what more can be done to make sure that, if they are rough sleepers, veterans get the best support they can.
The Harlow branch of Royal British Legion is supported by thousands of local residents, and they do much to keep the light of remembrance burning strong in our town, and support our veterans. What steps are the Government taking, working with local authorities, to support the Royal British Legion, especially when clubs face difficulties with maintenance and capital building costs for older premises? Will the Minister join me on a visit to the Harlow Royal British Legion branch to see the wonderful work it does?
In Newcastle, the armed forces community covenant commits the council to tackling disadvantage in access to employment, education, housing and healthcare. Does the Minister share my concern that by not covering all those important areas in the Armed Forces Bill and therefore setting a legal standard in the armed forces covenant that is below existing voluntary commitments such as those in Newcastle, the Government risk creating a postcode lottery for many veterans in accessing services?
No, I do not agree. The Armed Forces Bill and the statutory guidance focus on the critical areas of housing, healthcare and education. If we need to broaden that statutory guidance in future to include more areas—it is evergreen, much like the Ministry of Defence ministerial team—we will.
Leonardo helicopters, based in Yeovil, is a big employer for my West Dorset constituency. Its success in gaining foreign direct investments rests on the Government choosing its state-of-the-art AW149 for the military’s new medium helicopter. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will be supporting West Dorset, and indeed the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Fysh), with a British manufacturer of helicopters when making this choice?
I confirm our intention to acquire a new medium lift helicopter for the armed forces later this decade, and I assure my hon. Friend that all options will be considered to ensure the best outcome for our defence and security requirements, and indeed for the prosperity of the UK.
As a community interest company, Operation Veteran in North Tyneside is not always able to access funds under the armed forces covenant, even though it often helps bigger charities with urgent help for veterans. Will the Minister consider making it easier for CICs such as Operation Veteran to access funding, and will he thank people for all the work they did in keeping that service going during the pandemic?
I absolutely give those thanks, and I commend the hon. Lady’s work in support of that group. If she would like to send me details of that individual case, I will consider it.
I am delighted to confirm that we have enough people. They are highly motivated and well-trained, and when meeting new draft recruits to the senior service, as I did in HMS Raleigh last week, one gets a tremendous sense of confidence and excitement about the magnificent diversity of opportunity available for those joining the armed forces.
One in 30 homeless people in this country have served in our armed forces. Could Ministers improve that position by making the provision of acceptable civilian accommodation part of the discharge process?
I am not entirely sure that that is the case—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me with the details, I will look at that. I confirm that we do everything we can, especially through the period of transition, to ensure that when people leave, they are housed.
The Ministry of Defence’s own figures suggest that just 20 out of 200 non-UK service personnel who left the regulars in 2019-20 were covered by the Government’s proposed visa scheme. Is it time that the Government woke up to the injustice of our brave Commonwealth and overseas service personnel paying twice for their citizenship?
The hon. Gentleman has often raised this cause, and I entirely agree with him. That is why we are now in the middle of a consultation to waive those visa fees for service personnel who have served over 12 years. We think that is absolutely right, and no doubt he will contribute to that consultation.
The residents of Blackpool are sick and tired of seeing the images of illegal immigrants crossing the English channel on a daily basis. While the legislation proposed by the Home Secretary in the autumn will help to address this issue in the longer term, many people are becoming increasingly frustrated at our inability to deal conclusively with the problem. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Home Office in relation to the use of Royal Navy vessels to help address this issue?
Defence has collaborated with the Home Office on this issue for several years, providing a range of support, including surface vessels, surveillance aircraft and planning expertise. Most recently, Defence has provided planning support to catalyse operations for this summer, and we continue to work closely with the Home Office to identify where defence capability can most appropriately support Border Force to address this important issue.
This week we learned that the Ajax programme has been withdrawn for a second time, on health and safety grounds. Experts say the problems are so serious that the Government should cancel the £5.5 billion deal. Does the Minister agree that Britain’s defence procurement strategy wastes billions of pounds and actually puts lives at risk?
No, I do not agree with that contention. This is a firm price contract. We are working closely with General Dynamics to ensure that it gets delivered, but as the hon. Gentleman would be the first to say—as we would all say in this House—the safety of our personnel must come first, which is why we paused those trials. As soon as we can get them going again, we will, but we will do so only if that can be done safely and appropriately.
I welcome the defence memorandum of implementation signed between the UK and Ukraine, which will see our two countries working together on new Ukrainian naval bases and eight fast missile warships. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we will not be deterred, and the Royal Navy will not be deterred, by Russia’s recent attempts at intimidation in the Black sea?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the real importance that we attach to Ukraine as a friend and a partner, and to reiterate the fact that the Royal Navy will always uphold international law and will not be deterred by bullying. The transit by HMS Defender was through Ukrainian waters; we do not recognise Russia’s claim on Crimea. Our Navy will continue to uphold the rule of law wherever she sails.
The right hon. Lady makes a really good suggestion. I have slight scars on my back from dealing with something called the naming committee of the Royal Navy, but I absolutely welcome her suggestion. We should absolutely think about how we name our ships and use them more to remind us of great events but also to inspire a future generation.
As the Secretary of State will know, Sir John Moore barracks has been home to the Army Training Regiment in Winchester since 1986, when the Light Division moved from Peninsula barracks. He will also know that it is being disposed of, and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation is consulting on a masterplan. Will he or a member of his team please meet me at the conclusion of this exercise to ensure that what comes out of it is something that Winchester will be proud of and not just thousands of new houses to meet quota?
I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.