Topical Questions

Defence – in the House of Commons at on 25 March 2024.

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Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

Like others in the House, I pay tribute to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. and gallant Friend James Heappey—soldier, MP, and Minister during almost the entire Parliament. His knowledge of this subject is matched only by his great passion for it, and we are all very grateful for his service.

Last week I was in Australia, signing an historic defence treaty to enhance our Indo-Pacific security, and meanwhile our trilateral AUKUS partnership with the United States is accelerating. As the House will know, ASC and BAE Systems have a multibillion-pound contract for the SSN-AUKUS. Earlier today the Prime Minister and I launched our very first nuclear defence Command Paper, which will set out the true benefit of this great enterprise, making it a wholly national effort.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I welcome the publication of the Command Paper, and in particular the important role played by Rolls-Royce in Derby, but does my right hon. Friend agree that for this to be a truly national enterprise, there must be a truly national supply chain and access to jobs for people throughout the country?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend is right about the extent of the supply chain. In addition to the very large investment in Rolls-Royce, to which the Australians contributed £2.4 billion last week, and all the work in Barrow that is described in the Command Paper, there are benefits for virtually every constituency in the country.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

We condemn the deadly terrorist attack in Moscow on Friday, and our thoughts are with all those affected, but the attack must not become a Kremlin cover for Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine. In recent days, we have seen multiple Russian strikes on Ukrainian cities, yet the last UK air defence support was announced last year. When is the next one?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I join the right hon. Gentleman in sending our condolences following the horrific terror attack. He is absolutely right to say that we are aware of no connection whatsoever with Ukraine; indeed, ISIS has claimed responsibility. We must resist Putin’s efforts to try to link the two.

With regard to air defence, there have been much more recent attempts to aid our Ukrainian friends, including through the International Fund for Ukraine, which has laid 27 contracts. We have a £900 million fund, run by the UK on behalf of a large number of other countries.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

Of course, anything more recent was from the International Fund for Ukraine, not the UK, which is why we strongly welcomed the £2.5 billion of UK military support for 2024. However, for nearly three months since that announcement, Ministers have said that the first deliveries to Ukraine will not happen until Q1 of the new financial year. Wars do not follow financial years, so when will the UK move beyond this stop-start military aid and help Ukraine with the spring/summer offensive?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we have a constant flow of foreign materiel that we are buying and sending into Ukraine. I recently announced £325 million for British-Ukrainian drones, and we have increased the overall amount of money going to Ukraine from the previous two years’ £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion. I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman—this has been raised by a couple of my colleagues today—that he needs to explain how the Opposition would manage an increased budget for Ukraine, when their plan is to cut £7 billion from the overall defence budget.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner

An Army non-serving partner says of her children’s mental health treatment:

“When you move, they close the case, and then you have to go all the way back through the system, which takes forever. By the time you get in, you are moving again.”

Can my right hon. Friend please give the House an update on recommendations 74, 75 and 76 of the “Living in our Shoes” report, which deal with this issue?

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and, as ever, pay tribute to him for the work he has done in this area. It is the case that when people move around the country, they are disadvantaged. We recognise that, which is why integrated care boards are now running a pilot scheme on how we can get around people losing their places on waiting lists when they travel around the country. Obviously, the issue involves other Government Departments too. Nevertheless, we have a responsibility, which we discharge in a number of ways. For example, HeadFIT is being adapted and adopted at the moment to ensure that our veterans and service families are able to access much of its content.

Photo of Kenny MacAskill Kenny MacAskill Alba, East Lothian

The Government have previously refused to confirm or deny whether Israeli F-35s have been using RAF airbases or, indeed, other military co-operation between the UK and Israel. Given the decision of the International Court of Justice, and now the decision of the UN Security Council to call for an immediate ceasefire, what are the operational or policy reasons that deny UK citizens the right to know whether their Government have been complicit in Israeli genocide in Gaza?

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Qatar hosts Hamas’s most senior leaders in Doha, and should have been applying far more pressure on the terror group to release the Israeli hostages and to surrender. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Qatar’s malign activities bolster our adversaries and therefore weaken our own defence?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am not entirely sure that I do agree. I will leave the Foreign Office to talk about the diplomatic angles that it is pursuing, but in my experience, Qatar has been an incredibly helpful partner across a whole load of things over the past few years. We enjoy the opportunity to strengthen that partnership, both through the sale of UK-built defence capabilities and through increasingly operating together in areas of mutual concern. It is a relationship on which the UK can build further, and has great potential.

Photo of Samantha Dixon Samantha Dixon Opposition Whip (Commons)

HMS Albion is twinned with Chester, and we deeply value the ship and her company. Can the Secretary of State provide the next date on which HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark will be at sea, or will he just admit that he has mothballed them both?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady be pleased to know that I was on HMS Albion the other week and that she has not been mothballed. The other ship will be the first to sail—I do not know the timing, as that will depend on operational requirements—but they are both continuing in operation.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

Like many colleagues across the House, I attended the all-party parliamentary group for UK-Israel and Friends of Israel event. We were joined by two released hostages and a delegation consisting of young siblings, sons, daughters, grandchildren and cousins of those being held hostage in Gaza. It is now five months since the hostages were taken, so will the Secretary of State ensure that those victims remain right at the front of his mind in all decisions that are taken on the middle east?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend can absolutely have that assurance. It is shocking to see what is happening in the region, but it is too often forgotten—including in this House today by some Opposition Members—that this all began with the taking of those hostages. We will never forget.

Photo of Martyn Day Martyn Day Scottish National Party, Linlithgow and East Falkirk

Pension justice is on everybody’s lips just now, so can the Minister tell me what this Government have done to support the 30,000 veterans who left service before 1975 and who have lost out on preserved pensions?

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows very well, consecutive Governments have made it plain that we do not make changes to pensions retrospectively. As for pensions for the armed forces overall, Mr Speaker, you will know, as I do as a beneficiary, that they are equitable, fair and generous.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation

The 2016 better defence estate plans earmarked Fort Blockhouse in Gosport for disposal, yet eight years later after numerous delays, the site is still rotting at the taxpayer’s expense. It is doing nothing for the local economy, the local community or the MOD. Will the Minister please update me on when can we will finally see some progress on that site?

Photo of James Cartlidge James Cartlidge The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency, where we looked at a range of infrastructure and accommodation. I appreciate that she wants to see progress, but I stress that while we are engaging as closely as possible with Gosport Council on this and want to make progress, it is a complex site with significant defence events assets still in place relating to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation and the Royal Navy. I am committed to looking at what more we can do and to engaging further with her.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Shadow Minister (Wales)

Tens of thousands of pregnant women in Gaza are suffering from malnutrition and are at serious risk of delivering their babies unsafely and without healthcare. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking, along with the Foreign Secretary, to support the delivery of food and medical supplies to those particularly vulnerable women?

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps The Secretary of State for Defence

We are working to try to bring supplies to all the citizens of Gaza. I did not run through the list of provisions, but it does include provisions for those in medical need, particularly women who may be pregnant. As I mentioned, we are working on plans with the Americans in particular, but also with the Jordanians, to provide vastly greater amounts of aid into Gaza.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

The terrible terrorist attack in Moscow reminds us that jihadi extremism has not disappeared. Given its ideology, its reach and its strength, does the Secretary of State agree that ISIS-K is just as much of a threat to the west as it is to Russia?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a perception that Daesh has gone away. The Daesh core is cooped up in prisons in northern Syria, but Daesh affiliates are growing alarmingly quickly in other parts of the world. The attack in Moscow is a reminder to us all that we must continue to focus on the counter-terror threat as well as on the state threat.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

May I wish the Minister for the Armed Forces all the very best for his next posting? He will recall that on 1 February he made a commitment to reassess the Afghan relocations and assistance policy eligibility, specifically for former members of the triples, and said that the process would take 12 weeks. Will he update the House on what progress has been made on that work to date?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

It is disappointing to finish on a down note, but as the hon. Gentleman knows from a written answer that I gave him last week, it has taken longer than I wanted to establish an independent group of new casework assessors, and that 12 week period has therefore not yet begun. I was told by officials, when I reluctantly signed off the answer to him last week, that that process was nigh-on complete and that the 12-week period should therefore start imminently. He will not be surprised to learn that, pre-empting his question, I have encouraged them by suggesting that eight weeks would sound an awful lot better than 12, given the delay in getting started.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy Security and Net Zero)

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At Defence questions on 8 January, I asked the Defence Procurement Minister a very straightforward question about HMS Argyll—the type of question to which I would expect him to have an answer at his fingertips. Instead he said, as quickly and as curtly as he could, that he would write to me with an answer. It is almost three months later, and I regret to inform you and the House that I have received no such information from the Defence Procurement Minister, and neither have I received an acknowledgment that he intends to write to me.

May I ask your advice, Mr Speaker? When right hon. and hon. Members have a slippery Minister on the hook and that Minister chooses to wriggle off it by promising to write, what recourse do we have when the Minister does not write?

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee

First, I think we ought to choose our language when we want a response. I have a lot sympathy and, although the point of order does not relate to this Question Time, I will give you the benefit of the doubt because this is an important matter. As you are a senior Member of the SNP and have been its spokesperson, I expect you to get timely replies. I do not expect replies to take so long. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench have heard, and I would expect a response to be sent rather quickly following this point of order.