All 26 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 25th Mar 2024

Mon 25th Mar 2024
Mon 25th Mar 2024
Mon 25th Mar 2024
Taiwan Strait
Commons Chamber
(Adjournment Debate)
Mon 25th Mar 2024

House of Commons

Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Monday 25 March 2024
The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

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[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Before we come to questions to the Secretary of State for Defence, may I just say this to Minister Heappey: you will be missed and I am sorry you are stepping down. On a personal level, I thank you for your private briefings to ensure that the House was kept informed. You will be missed and I thank you for that service.

Oral Answers to Questions

Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of publishing all documents relating to the bombing of RFA Sir Galahad.

Andrew Murrison Portrait The Minister for Defence People and Families (Dr Andrew Murrison)
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I recognise the substantial public and parliamentary interest in this matter. Consequently, I recently visited the National Archives at Kew to view the RFA Sir Galahad files. As a result, we are looking to release a further two files, subject to the Ministry of Defence’s legal advisers confirming that individuals’ rights under the Data Protection Act 2018 would not be contravened. In relation to the five files of witness statements, I want maximum transparency, subject to the Public Records Act 1958 and ensuring that personal data is protected. I shall provide a further update shortly.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden
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On Saturday I attended the first remembrance and reunion event for the survivors and families of those who were lost in the attack on the Sir Galahad. I know that the Minister knows this—and I thank him for his earlier response—but it is deeply important that the remaining documents from the board of inquiry are released, so that we can get to the truth of what happened on 8 June 1982. He has told us what he might release, but, for those who have lived with this for 42 years, can he tell us when we will have those decisions?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the tenacity with which she has pursued this. I have enjoyed our meeting to discuss the matter and also the meetings with the Welsh Guards. It is important that this is handled quickly. We are moving at pace to ensure that we can do so—with, of course, the caveats that I have just described.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
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I knew people who served in the Welsh Guards at the time—I was myself in the Scots Guards—and a number who did not come back. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on her question. My right hon. Friend says that he is moving at pace, but the key point is that it is now decades since this happened. There is now no question but that some kind of cover-up took place. When he comes to look at those documents again, can he please ensure that, on the balance of judgment, we err in favour of opening up so that, for those who have died and those whose reputations have been trashed, we can stand up and say proudly that it was not them?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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The board of inquiry is quite clear about the attribution of blame, and the Welsh Guards were absolutely exonerated, and that is the Government’s position. My position is always for transparency, and certainly that has been at the forefront of my mind when I have been looking at these documents.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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I, too, was at the event that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) attended at the weekend. I was there on behalf of my constituent Colin Silva. Many of those who did not come back were from the brave Welsh Guards. I have also visited Fitzroy and seen the location for myself. I was able to assure the people of the Falkland Islands of the united support from this House for their defence and security. May I press the Minister on the timing? Are we talking in terms of weeks, months or years, because time is moving on and we need these answers quickly.

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I will not be drawn on precise times, but it will not be years.

Natalie Elphicke Portrait Mrs Natalie Elphicke (Dover) (Con)
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My constituent Oliver Richardson, now the mayor of Deal, was just 21 when he survived the sinking of the Galahad. Forty years on, he says that there is no reason for this supposed secrecy and that many people neither were offered, nor wanted, confidentiality in relation to saying what they had seen. Our armed forces serve us all, and we must honour that service by giving them and the families of those lost and injured on the Galahad the answers they need. I urge the Minister to release all of the Falklands Galahad papers at pace.

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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The Government will do everything we can in the interests of transparency, but I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that we, like everybody else, are bound by the Data Protection Act.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
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2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific.

Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Grant Shapps)
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The UK is committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we are putting our regional approach on a long-term strategic footing. I returned this weekend from Australia, where we have been talking to our colleagues there, working hard on the Indo-Pacific programme.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith
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Stability in the Indo-Pacific has been largely aided by the military base presence on Diego Garcia. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the military base and the island of Diego Garcia remaining under full British sovereignty, so that we can help to counter the many threats of the modern world, whether that be China, Iran or others?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As I think my hon. Friend knows, I share the goal of ensuring that the base on Diego Garcia remains permanently available for our use, and for the United States. It is strategically positioned, it is absolutely vital and there is read-across to our military facilities elsewhere. It remains safe in our hands.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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When assessing our ability to influence the stability of that region, or any other, has the Secretary of State conducted any kind of impact assessment of the reduction of our investment in international aid from 0.7% of GDP, or the fact that we have the smallest standing Army in the United Kingdom for 200 years?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I look after the Defence budget, rather than the overseas development budget, but I think he will welcome the fact that, because of the Indo-Pacific tilt, we have ships with a permanent presence there—HMS Spey and HMS Tamar—and the littoral response group south, which operates in the Indo-Pacific. We have already sent the carrier strike group previously; it is going to the region again next year. That is in addition to the global combat air programme sixth-generation programme, and of course AUKUS, for which I was in Australia at the weekend. I think we can all agree that we are doing a lot more than ever before in the Indo-Pacific.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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As you did, Mr Speaker, I pay tribute to the Armed Forces Minister at his last Defence questions. Since the last election, we have had five Chancellors, four Foreign Secretaries, three Prime Ministers and two Defence Secretaries, but only one Armed Forces Minister. He has been a rare constant in the turmoil of Government, totally committed to defence. We thank him for that and wish him well.

On the Indo-Pacific, we welcome last week’s updated defence agreement with Australia, further progress on AUKUS, and today’s 10-year plan for Barrow to support AUKUS. This is our most important strategic alliance beyond NATO, so why has the Defence Secretary given the leadership of key parts of AUKUS to the most junior Minister in his Department?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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As I explained, I have just been in Australia talking about AUKUS. I have previously been to Japan, I think at least twice but possibly three times, on AUKUS, and to Italy—sorry, not to Italy, obviously, on AUKUS; that was on GCAP, but with an Indo-Pacific tilt. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Armed Forces Minister, but I am interested to hear his comments on the Indo-Pacific. Back in 2021, when the integrated review suggested a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, he called it a serious flaw in the programme, and urged us not to defocus from elsewhere in the world.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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3. What recent steps Veterans UK has taken to support veterans and their families.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab)
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4. What recent steps Veterans UK has taken to support veterans and their families with the cost of living.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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9. What steps his Department is taking to support veterans.

Paulette Hamilton Portrait Mrs Paulette Hamilton (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
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16. What recent steps Veterans UK has taken to support veterans and their families with the cost of living.

Andrew Murrison Portrait The Minister for Defence People and Families (Dr Andrew Murrison)
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With other Government Departments, the Ministry of Defence delivers a range of services to our brilliant veterans and their families. That includes the administration and payment of armed forces pensions and compensation, the provision of tailored advice and assistance through the veterans welfare service, defence transition services and the integrated personal commissioning for veterans.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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A new report from Northumbria University found that suicide among serving personnel and veterans could be reduced if there was better understanding within existing care provision of the specific challenges that they face. The report also found that military families felt unheard, misunderstood and not cared for during the most difficult periods of their lives, so what steps is the Minister taking, alongside our NHS, to deliver compassionate trauma-informed support for serving personnel and veterans?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that issue. She will know that we have a defence suicide prevention strategy, which is reviewed regularly. She will also know that, overall, suicide in the armed forces is below what we might expect in the civilian population. There is a sub-group within that—young men—where it looks as if the rate is going up. We are looking very closely at that to better understand the reasons for it and how we can prevent it.

Kate Hollern Portrait Kate Hollern
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My constituent joined the Army in 1987 and served in the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment until 1994. During a wrongful operation, he severed all the nerves in his feet. He is now 52 years old and suffers from several conditions that leave him in excruciating pain every day. He was on disability living allowance and then moved to personal independence payments, but 18 months ago he was told that he was no longer eligible. Is that really the way to treat our veterans?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Lady’s constituent. If she would like to write to me with the details, I will be more than happy to take up that case. As I said in my opening remarks, we work with other Departments, and it sounds as if this is not principally the responsibility of the MOD, but I would be more than happy to hear from her about her constituent.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson
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About a year ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) undertook an important and groundbreaking piece of work on behalf of female veterans and women in the armed forces. Following that, I had the honour of helping her to set up the all-party parliamentary group on women in defence, which has given a platform to female veterans and service personnel, as well as those who work in defence and the charitable sector, to talk to Members from across the House at every level. We are very much looking forward to the female veterans strategy. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Government remain committed not just to equal treatment for women in the armed forces, but to an equally positive experience for everyone who chooses to serve?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I pay tribute to him and to our hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) for all their hard work to improve the position of women in our armed forces. Women are absolutely central to the way in which defence will be going in the years ahead, as encapsulated in our target to have our armed forces be 30% female by 2030—a challenging and ambitious target. I should mention our improvements to unform policies, mentoring, flexible service, wrapround childcare, and of course our zero tolerance for unacceptable sexual behaviour, as examples of things we have done recently to improve the lived experience of women in our armed forces.

Paulette Hamilton Portrait Mrs Hamilton
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At the last census, just over 17,000 veterans were living in Birmingham, 35% of whom were over the age of 80. Despite pledges to end veteran homelessness, Government figures show that it rose last year by 14%, and up to 180 veteran households across the UK are made newly homeless each month. Can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that veterans in Birmingham and across the UK, who made enormous sacrifices for our safety and security, do not end up homeless?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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It is plainly not right that anybody should be without a home, be they a veteran or not. We are doing everything in our power to ensure that people are set up well for civilian life as they transition out of the armed forces. The overwhelming majority of people who leave our armed forces are in precisely that position. By using measures such as the defence transition service for those who might have particular problems when they return to civilian life—as all members of the armed forces ultimately do—we are ensuring that we minimise the number of people who have served in our armed forces and are left without a home.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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Is the Minister aware of the excellent work of the Battle Back Centre in Lilleshall in my constituency, a successful collaboration between the Royal British Legion and Sport England? Would he, or perhaps the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, consider visiting the centre soon, given that it has treated more than 6,000 serving and ex-service personnel for all sorts of injuries? The staff there are fabulous and superb, and they deserve a visit.

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the invitation, which I will most gladly take up. I pay tribute to Battle Back, which does a wonderful job, and to him for his work supporting it.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
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Veteran Roy Sagar, a familiar face to us all in Morley, recently passed away in his mid-90s. He did so much for veterans and the Royal British Legion locally, and was our parade marshal. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Roy and all our unsung hero veterans for all they do, and in sending thoughts and prayers to Roy’s family?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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Yes, I very much do so. Our veterans are a wonderful part of our communities and deserve all the support we can give them. I also pay tribute to the Royal British Legion, which is always there for our veterans when they need it—I speak as president of my local branch. The legion is a powerful institution—I know you have had a lot to do with it, Mr Speaker—and an important part of what and who we are, and I pay tribute to it, as well as to my hon. Friend’s late constituent.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
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I appreciate the Minister’s earlier answer, but when Royal British Legion Industries says that 6,000 veterans are homeless or in danger of becoming so, is there a need for more urgent intervention, or is the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs right to hail getting 500 off the streets as a triumph?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I think that getting 500 off the streets is good—it is certainly a start—but one person without a home is one too many, whether they are a civilian or a veteran. The important thing is that we look at factors that might be peculiar to defence that predispose people to homelessness, because we have a particular duty to those people in accordance with the military covenant. In general, as the hon. Gentleman and I both know, people leaving the armed forces are much better placed for the balance of their lives in civilian life than their equivalents in civil society, but that is not the case for everyone. Some people fall through the cracks, and we must ensure that they are scooped up and looked after.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
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5. What progress his Department has made on improving the readiness of the armed forces.

James Heappey Portrait The Minister for Armed Forces (James Heappey)
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Mr Speaker, thank you very much indeed for your words at the beginning of questions. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). You were both very kind indeed to say what you said.

The UK armed forces are meeting all of their commitments, but there is no mistaking that they are very busy, as one would expect at such a turbulent geopolitical time. People across the Army, Navy, Air Force and strategic command are working incredibly hard, and we are very grateful to them and their families for their forbearance while they do so. The Government are investing £1.95 billion extra in our resilience and readiness, but more than investment is needed, which is why all three services are getting back into the business of being ready for warfighting. The 3rd (United Kingdom) Division recently exercised its combat service support echelons for the first time in decades; the Royal Navy is operating concurrent task groups as well as forward presence, a test of our naval logistics; and the Royal Air Force is refining its abilities to disperse the force through its agile combat employment mechanism.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford
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Of course, we commend the efforts of all those in our armed services, but the Defence Committee’s “Ready for War?” report substantiates that our armed forces are constantly overstretched and are being deployed above their capacity. When are the Government going to respond appropriately to the scale of the geopolitical challenges by driving up recruitment and retention and making sure that we can face the challenges that we see ahead of us—that we can take them full-on, and are ready for whatever comes our way?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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There is no escaping the fact that the world is incredibly complicated at the moment. In the Euro-Atlantic, we face the challenge of Russia; in the middle east, the challenge of Iran and its proxies; in the Indo-Pacific, the growing competition with China; and then across Africa and other parts of the world there remains the challenge of violent extremism. At a time of such crisis, one would expect the armed forces to be as busy as they are. That does not mean that we should take for granted the effort that they are putting in, but if we were not reaching for them as extensively as we are right now, we would have to question when on earth we would reach for them, given the demands on our nation.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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I pay tribute to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Armed Forces—I am very sad to hear that he is going. He talks of warfighting. As he knows, I am on the Defence Committee. I would challenge the idea that we are ready to fight a sustained war with the armed forces that we have, and bearing in mind all the threats that we face, that possibility has become very real. Bearing in mind that his collective responsibility is about to go, will he now stand at the Dispatch Box and say that we need to spend a lot more money on defence?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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That will go soon, but not yet. Colleagues on both sides of the House will note that whenever I have been invited to respond to such a question, like all good Defence Ministers, I have never missed the opportunity to say yes, but the reality is that our armed forces remain fit. Yes, it is the job of this House and particularly my hon. Friend’s Committee to scrutinise our readiness, as the Committee has done—and I commend the report to colleagues who have not already read it—but reinvestment is needed to sustain our armed forces at warfighting level. That is no scandal; that is the consequence of a peace dividend that rightly allowed successive Governments to disinvest in the resilience that kept our cold war force credible. However, as the Secretary of State so rightly said in his speech the other week, we are now in a “pre-war era”, so it is the responsibility of this Government and those who follow to reinvest in the necessary warfighting capability.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
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The Minister rightly points to the ability to sustain fighting. He knows that an exercise conducted with the Americans showed that the British Army would run out of munitions within 10 days. Battles in Ukraine showed very early on that this would be an artillery war. Why—I have asked this question of several Ministers, so I hope that he has the answer—did it take from March or April 2022 to July 2023 to place the orders for new munitions? We cannot afford this sort of delay in the Ministry of Defence.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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The contract has now been placed, and it increases our supply of .155s significantly. I take issue with the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes: I am not aware of the exercise he referred to, but in exercises that I have seen, in which the UK has operated alongside the US, again and again the American senior commanders have held the UK force elements in the highest regard.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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As I used to do my right hon. Friend’s job, may I join the tributes to the outgoing, outstanding Armed Forces Minister?

The “Ready for War?” report just referenced identified problems with recruitment as one issue that impedes our ability to fight. The Defence Secretary himself has called our recruitment system “ludicrous”, and he told The Times earlier this month that

“the ‘Amazon’ generation, which is used to getting things instantly, were not prepared to wait a year to join the army.”

He is absolutely right, so when will the utterly ludicrous “Crapita” finally be sacked?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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I am unable to answer my right hon. Friend’s specific question, but he will be heartened to hear that as a consequence of all that is going on in the world, and the geopolitical uncertainty that requires us to use our armed forces so extensively, in recent months we have enjoyed record expressions of interest in joining His Majesty’s armed forces. Obviously, we need to make sure that the time between expressing an interest and starting training is as short as possible; all colleagues on the Front Bench perceive the need for that.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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6. What steps his Department is taking to support defence jobs.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con)
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20. What steps his Department is taking to support defence jobs.

James Cartlidge Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (James Cartlidge)
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The most recent estimate shows that the Ministry of Defence supports about 209,000 jobs in industries across the UK. I am pleased to say that this figure will be boosted further by the confirmation last week that BAE Systems will partner with a firm in Australia to build its nuclear-powered submarines. That will support 7,000 additional British jobs across the programme’s lifetime.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby
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Would my hon. Friend agree that MOD procurement from small British companies in rural areas such as North Devon can significantly increase defence-related jobs there, and enhance the local economy, especially when those jobs are in high-wage research and development and manufacturing industries? Will he commit to ensuring that the additional high-skilled jobs and economic benefits resulting from contracts are considered in future procurement decisions?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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That is an excellent point from my hon. Friend, who is a champion of defence small and medium-sized enterprises in her constituency. As to procurement rules supporting SMEs such as those in North Devon, our new integrated procurement model will ensure that UK industrial capability and exportability considerations are included in procurement evaluation criteria for items such as the new medium helicopter. However, to ensure that we absolutely maximise opportunities for British industry, on Friday, I announced that we will undertake a rapid review of how Cabinet Office social value rules impact on the development of sovereign capability.

Mark Pawsey Portrait Mark Pawsey
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The Minister will be aware of the successful export order for high-value naval electric propulsion technology manufactured by GE in my Rugby constituency. That order is going to Singapore, and it was achieved with the assistance of the MOD and the Department for Business and Trade. Does that not show that support for this world-leading British technology enables new business in a fast-developing part of the world, while providing significant, new, high-value jobs for my constituents?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. I welcome the valuable contribution of GE in his constituency in supplying high-tech motors, including for Royal Navy ships, such as Type 26 frigates and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. It is precisely because the Ministry of Defence recognises the importance of GE’s Rugby facility that we were pleased to reach an agreement with the company in 2019 to ensure that those motors continued to be manufactured there. Finally, he is right about export. It is such a key part of our new integrated procurement model, because it boosts industrial resilience and prosperity in constituencies such as his, while strengthening international alliances, such as, in this case, with the people of Singapore and the Singapore navy.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Secretary of State will know that Huddersfield is a centre for defence industries; we have David Brown Gears and Reliance Precision, for example. I talk to them regularly. They say to me that one of the things that they miss is trained personnel. The Army, Navy and Air Force used to be the biggest trainer of personnel in the country. The diminished level of training in the armed services is reflected in the sector, which cannot get enough highly trained people to employ.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am aware of those companies, which do an excellent job supporting the supply chain, particularly for our primes and for key programmes, especially naval programmes. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of training. As he will be aware, defence is the biggest employer of apprentices in the country. We are doing everything we can to support that. The key is to have a close relationship with industry, and to bring it into our requirements early on, so that it can plan and deliver the supply signal, particularly for skills, to match our demand signal.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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I would like to build on the incisive question asked by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois). More than 125,000 applicants to the British Army were rejected in the past five years. It has emerged that 70% of applicants were dropped or withdrew at the paperwork stage. More than 8,000 withdrew their applications, having waited for at least six months. What consequences will Capita face for this record, and when might the Army bring soldier and officer recruitment back in house?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I encourage the hon. Gentleman to direct questions about recruitment to the Minister for Defence People and Families. As to the company the hon. Gentleman talks about, my focus is on industry and supporting jobs, which the original question was about. I think we have a fantastic record, boosted by not only the exports I referred to earlier, but the ones that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) was talking about.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
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Defence procurement can strengthen UK sovereignty, security and economic growth. We on the Opposition Benches believe that defence investment should be directed first to UK businesses, so that we make, buy and sell more in Britain. With that in mind, what steps is the Minister taking in his rapid review to ensure that social value considerations properly take into account the huge advantages to the UK economy of awarding more contracts to British businesses, so that we create more defence jobs here in the UK? That does not seem to happen at present.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I think there is considerable consensus, because I agree with the right hon. Lady about the importance of sovereign defence capability, and not just because of the economic benefits, although those are crucial. As we enter this era, which has been described as pre-war, it is vital that we have a UK sovereign industrial base. As the Ukrainians have learned, there are certain skills and capabilities that we will need in country, should we get to a hotter military situation, and that is why that is such a priority for us.

Keir Mather Portrait Keir Mather (Selby and Ainsty) (Lab)
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7. What steps he is taking to end the hollowing out of the armed forces.

James Heappey Portrait The Minister for Armed Forces (James Heappey)
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I refer the hon. Gentleman to much that I said in response to the readiness question earlier, but the key point on this issue of enablement is that it is the unglamorous stuff that needs to be invested in first. There is no point buying more tanks until we have more tank transporters. The Government are seized of that, and are doing exactly that. This is an opportunity to place on record, in addition to my gratitude to the armed forces, which I have mentioned, that tens of thousands of hard-working MOD civil servants in the MOD main building and around the wider enterprise are hard at work on this problem right now, and I am grateful to them for their efforts.

Keir Mather Portrait Keir Mather
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Like other colleagues, I thank the Minister for his years of service. Since 2010, the size of our armed forces has decreased by over 43,000 personnel; the number of Royal Navy warships has decreased by a fifth; more than 200 aircraft have been removed from service in just the last five years; and recruitment targets are being missed year on year. Which of those legacies of 14 years of Conservative Government is the Minister most proud of? What actions could he undertake to do better?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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The thing that I am most proud of, beyond the exceptional operational output of His Majesty’s armed forces every time they are called on, is that the Government have increased the defence budget to more than £50 billion a year for the first time. The hon. Gentleman, whose interest in defence is very welcome indeed, should be enormously concerned about the shadow Chancellor’s repeated refusal to commit to anything more than the 2% NATO floor for defence spending. If his concern for defence is to last, he should immediately be concerned about the fact that unless his party changes policy urgently, it will equal a £7 billion cut in defence spending on day one of a Labour Government.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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The question of whether our armed forces are fit for purpose should centre on whether they can carry out the defence tasks set by the MOD, and I believe that they can. If I may carry on in the same vein as the previous response, does the Minister agree that Labour’s failure to commit to spending more than 2% of GDP on defence presents a much bigger risk to UK security, objectively, than any matter of debate among Members on this side of the House?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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Absolutely. We should urgently achieve 2.5% of GDP; the fiscal situation is improving, and the Conservative party has made that commitment. As the Secretary of State rightly said in an interview the other day, both main parties should strongly consider a further increase in defence spending in the next Parliament.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
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As the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), told the House last January, the Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” the UK military over the last 14 years. That is in large part due to their total failure on armed forces recruitment, and damning new figures show that over the last decade, 800,000 people who were willing to serve and defend their country simply gave up and withdrew their application. The current Defence Secretary says that the recruitment system is “ludicrous”, and the organisation running it got called the wrong name by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), but where is the plan to fix this? It is not working.

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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The right hon. Lady is conflating two separate issues. The former Secretary of State for Defence and I, and everybody else who has served on the Government Front Bench since we have returned to the prospect of state-on-state war, have referred to a hollowing out of the force. That is a consequence of decisions made not just by this Government, but by Governments since the fall of the Berlin wall, because the force that we maintained for the cold war and all its enablement was not necessary when we were fighting counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is what is meant by hollowing out. The sooner the right hon. Lady starts to deal with that issue, rather than conflating it with others to make political points, the sooner she will start to contribute to an important debate.

As far as recruitment goes, record interest has been shown in joining our nation’s armed forces, and there is no hiding from the fact that we need to rapidly accelerate the time between expressing an interest and being in training.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Can we accelerate the questions, too?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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8. What assessment he has made of the security of the sovereign base areas and the armed forces in Cyprus.

James Heappey Portrait The Minister for Armed Forces (James Heappey)
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The UK continually assesses potential threats to our overseas territories, including the sovereign base areas on the island of Cyprus. British Forces Cyprus provides a permanent military presence, and we are investing in the SBAs to combat current and future threats, in order to ensure local, regional and global security.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the Minister for his response. The Secretary of State has said:

“We want to do everything possible to ensure the security of Cyprus”.

Does the Minister agree that it would be appropriate to keep the Cypriot Government informed of all UK military operations conducted from their island? Should not that be an official obligation, for the security of Cyprus?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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The SBAs are sovereign bases, so of course we reserve the right to operate from them as needed, based on the UK national interest. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hear that the Secretary of State, his predecessors, other Ministers in the MOD and I have very good relations with the Cypriots, and we seek to tell them as much as we can about operations that we mount from SBAs there.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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I would like to add to the warm words said about my right hon. Friend. He has been particularly supportive of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces, and the armed forces parliamentary scheme, both of which I chair. Does he agree that the sovereign base areas in Cyprus have a particularly important role to play in our activities in the Red sea?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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Cyprus is in an incredibly important strategic location, which means that it is of great use to our operations in the southern Red sea, as well as in the eastern Mediterranean, the western Balkans, central Asia and beyond. It is a vital mountain base for so much that the UK armed forces do. We are incredibly fortunate to have that facility.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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10. What steps his Department is taking to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince (Colchester) (Con)
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18. What steps his Department is taking to assist in the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab)
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19. What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to increase the number of aid shipments to the middle east.

Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Grant Shapps)
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There is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support to Gaza. The UK, including the Ministry of Defence, is working collectively with allies, partners and international organisations to deliver desperately needed aid to the Gazan population.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds
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My constituents are rightly proud of the work that our armed forces are doing to facilitate the delivery of aid, to prevent a colossal humanitarian catastrophe. What further steps can be taken to ensure that British aid finds its way to civilians in need, rather than into the hands of Hamas fighters?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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That is one of the greatest challenges in the current situation. We are working with the British Red Cross, UNICEF, the UN World Food Programme, the Egyptian Red Crescent and others to ensure that aid gets to the right places. That is extremely challenging, and has slowed down aid delivery.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince
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The Israeli Government have said that they want to “flood” Gaza with aid. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will work with our partners globally to get more aid into the hands of civilians in Gaza, and will assist the Israelis to deliver on that pledge as soon as possible?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I inform my hon. Friend that we have already delivered 74 tonnes of humanitarian aid via the RAF, and 87 tonnes through the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. In addition, we are pursuing land, air and maritime routes.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins
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With half of Gaza already starving and the rest teetering on the edge of famine, and the UN Security Council voting for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, access to humanitarian aid is crucial. This month, the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK would support the building of a temporary pier in Gaza to allow hundreds of extra daily truckloads of aid into the strip. Will the Secretary of State outline what steps he is taking, along with the Foreign Secretary, to ensure that the pier is constructed as quickly as possible?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that I have sent teams both to Tampa to work with US Central Command and to the region to help with planning and constructing that pier. In addition, right at the beginning of the conflict, I ensured that we did hydrographic research, to aid in exactly this kind of situation, when the conditions were right to get a pier built. This is not a trivial endeavour, but we are working to deliver the pier as quickly as possible; there is the potential to get 2.5 million meals a day to Gaza.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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The UK Government’s ability to deliver humanitarian aid depends on the UK’s relationship with its middle eastern partners. What impact does the Secretary of State think that recent events and UK Government foreign policy decisions have had on that crucial relationship with those middle eastern partners?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I have been very proactive in speaking to and making multiple visits to the region. I have visited the majority of countries in the middle east and Gulf region to discuss exactly the points that she has raised. There is now a large-scale programme of using a pier to get food in, in addition to the many other efforts made. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) pointed out, the issue is not just getting the aid there, but then distributing it; that is a great concern.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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When will the Government make a further public determination on Israel’s commitment to international humanitarian law, given the man-made famine unfolding in northern Gaza, which is compounded by Israeli moves to obstruct access to aid? If the UK finds, as the UN Secretary-General, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International did, that the Israeli Government and the Israel Defence Forces have violated international law, what steps will the UK Government take to prohibit further arms sales to Israel, pending a resolution of the situation? Given that the Security Council has just called for a ceasefire, what steps will the Government take through the defence sector to accelerate all available aid for civilians in Gaza?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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It is a pity to ask all those questions without referencing the 100-plus hostages who are still being held by Hamas, who brutally slaughtered the population deliberately rather than as a by-product of war. The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions. I can tell him that on arms exports to Israel, an issue for which I am responsible, it is, to put it in proportion—I think, from the top of my head—just £48 million for the past year. The numbers are actually very small indeed. He will know that his latter question is one for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the defence procurement system.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock (Barnsley East) (Lab)
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14. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the defence procurement system.

Khalid Mahmood Portrait Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)
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15. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the defence procurement system.

James Cartlidge Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (James Cartlidge)
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The Department uses a range of measures to assess the effectiveness of defence acquisition. We have reduced the average time taken to deliver our projects and programmes, but we must go further to drive pace, so last month I announced our new integrated procurement model.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith
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The National Audit Office has previously highlighted MOD pilot training procurement failures, so is the RAF now meeting its pilot training quotas? Is the Minister satisfied with progress in that key area?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman asks a very important question. Of course, training is fundamental to bringing in the next generation to man our capability. I recently had the pleasure of visiting RAF Valley, where I discussed the issue with the RAF. It was able to confirm to me that, for the first time in a long time, there were more students taking up their places rather than in holds. That is a key metric in which we are seeing significant progress, but yes we want to go further.

Stephanie Peacock Portrait Stephanie Peacock
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Last March, the Government said that they would have their Ajax scheme ready between October 2028 and September 2029. Given that only 25% of armoured vehicles have been produced, are the Government on target to meet that deadline?

Khalid Mahmood Portrait Mr Mahmood
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Notwithstanding the waste of £5 billion in procurement since 2019, will the Minister join the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) in a campaign to make in Britain, ensuring our industry and economy move together to support not just our defence, but our economy? How will he achieve that given that Tata Steel—to which we have paid £500 million —is cutting down its blast furnace capacity? How will we be able to proceed with the AUKUS contract and other contracts without virgin steel?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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On the important question of steel, we do not expect the closure of Port Talbot to have a significant impact on defence, but obviously we will continue to monitor that situation. I would just gently point out that in 2022-23, the last year for which we have figures available, 89% of spend by the MOD with industry was with British industry. It will be an awful lot harder to make that level of spend if Labour is unable to commit to matching our spending commitments. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned, perhaps he will join other colleagues on the Labour Benches in insisting that the shadow Secretary of State confirms whether he will match 2.3% of GDP now and our target of 2.5% as soon as the economy supports it.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Sir Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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May I take this opportunity to also place on record my thanks to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) for all the work he has done? It was a joy to work with him when I was in the Department.

I thank the Minister for Defence Procurement for his procurement review. It is an excellent document, moving forward in a pragmatic way. As part of that review, will he reassess where potential gaps might occur between old platforms being retired and new platforms being delayed? Does he agree that housing procurement—accommodation for our armed forces—is as much an operational capability as a tank?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He made a similar point in the debate on readiness last week about the importance of accommodation. I think we can all agree that there is a tendency in defence to focus on the big shiny platforms. Accommodation is a key priority; we are very committed to improving accommodation. We know that in the winter before this one performance was not satisfactory. That is why we put in extra investment of £400 million and announced a winter plan. I am pleased to say that we have made huge progress, for example in ensuring that thousands of properties have work achieved on damp and mould.

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
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I am delighted that the MOD has confirmed the procurement of additional Chinooks, given that RAF Odiham, in my constituency, is the home of the Chinook force. However, it is also home to the fleet’s frontline maintenance, second line engine repair, and in-depth upgrade and modification. Given that 85% of the Chinook fleet sustainment takes place in the UK today, can I have my hon. Friend’s assurance that RAF Odiham will remain the home of the Chinook, and that there will be a similar, if not higher, level of maintenance of the new variants here and across Britain?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I greatly enjoyed my visit to Odiham, where my hon. Friend and I discussed a wide variety of issues. He is right to draw attention to our commitment to the procurement of 14 extended-range Chinooks—they have a huge range, of 1,000 miles—but there is also the industrial benefit to the UK and, of course, to my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can confirm that not only has that procurement made us a £300 million saving, but it will contribute £150 million-worth of benefit to the UK’s prosperity.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
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Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress made with UK-Ukraine defence manufacturing co-operation, especially with regard to removing the hurdles? Is there anything more that the Government should be doing?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend has championed this matter consistently. I am pleased to say that we held the first UK trade mission in December, and that there will be further such missions. I can confirm most importantly that, following that mission, UK defence companies and the Ukrainian Government have signed the following agreements. Babcock has been being awarded a three-year contract by the Ukraine ministry of defence to support and maintain two mine countermeasure vessels; BAE Systems and AMS Integrated Solutions have signed an agreement that will enable them to offer specialised artillery systems support directly to the Ukrainian armed forces; and Thales has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ukrainian drone company AeroDrone, which will bring together the best of Ukrainian and Northern Irish engineering to deliver new capability to Ukraine’s forces.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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Procurement of the new medium-lift helicopter has been characteristically suboptimal under the present Government, but this particular Defence Procurement Minister has managed, with his inverse Midas touch, to ensure that costs have grown from about £1 billion to £1.3 billion, delivery forecasts have slipped six delayed years to 2031, and the number of assets to be received has fallen from 44 to 35. Given that the forecast will inevitably slip to the right, service personnel will be under-resourced and the budget will almost certainly grow, what possible confidence can anyone have in this Defence Procurement Minister?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I will take no lectures from the hon. Gentleman, whose party has been unable even to procure a ferry. [Hon. Members: “It says here!”] I know the subject, and I can confirm to him, because I am very proud of this, that at my insistence our competition for the new medium helicopter will involve a far greater emphasis both on supporting UK industry and on supporting exports. It is by supporting exports that we secure industrial resilience and support for prosperity across the United Kingdom. Of course it is a competition, but we have three very good entrants.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con)
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T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Grant Shapps)
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Like others in the House, I pay tribute to the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (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.

Nigel Mills Portrait Nigel Mills
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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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab)
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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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

John Healey Portrait John Healey
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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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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T3. 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?

Andrew Murrison Portrait The Minister for Defence People and Families (Dr Andrew Murrison)
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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.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian)  (Alba)
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T5. 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?

James Heappey Portrait The Minister for Armed Forces (James Heappey)
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We do not comment on operational matters of that sort.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham)  (Con)
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T4. 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?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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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.

Samantha Dixon Portrait Samantha Dixon (City of Chester) (Lab)
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T6. 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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

Paul Howell Portrait Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
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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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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T7. 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?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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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.

Caroline Dinenage Portrait Dame Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con)
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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?

James Cartlidge Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (James Cartlidge)
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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.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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T8. 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?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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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.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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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?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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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.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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T9. 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?

James Heappey Portrait James Heappey
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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.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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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?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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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.

Cyber-security and UK Democracy

Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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15:36
Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister (Oliver Dowden)
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With permission, I will make a statement about malicious cyber-activity targeting the United Kingdom by actors that we assess are affiliated to the Chinese state. I want to update the House on our assessment of this activity and to reassure it on the steps that the Government have taken to shore up our resilience and hold those actors to account.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will recognise the seriousness of this issue, particularly in a year when so many democratic elections will be taking place around the world. Members will want to be reassured that the Government are taking steps to address the associated threat.

I can confirm today that Chinese state-affiliated actors were responsible for two malicious cyber-campaigns targeting both our democratic institutions and parliamentarians by, first, compromising the United Kingdom’s Electoral Commission between 2021 and 2022, as was announced last summer, and secondly, by attempting reconnaissance activity against UK parliamentary accounts in a separate campaign in 2021.

Later today, a number of our international partners, including the United States, will issue similar statements to expose this activity and to hold China to account for the ongoing patterns of hostile activity targeting our collective democracies. Mr Speaker, you and parliamentary security have already been briefed on this activity. We want now to be as open as possible with the House and with the British public, because part of our defence is in calling out this behaviour.

This is the latest in a clear pattern of hostile activity originating in China, including the targeting of democratic institutions and parliamentarians in the United Kingdom and beyond. We have seen this in China’s continued disregard for universal human rights and international commitments in Xinjiang, in China’s erasure of dissenting voices and stifling of the opposition under the new national security law in Hong Kong, and in the disturbing reports of Chinese intimidation and aggressive behaviour in the South China sea. That is why this Government have investigated and called out so-called Chinese overseas police service stations and instructed the Chinese embassy to close them.

However, China’s cumulative attempts to interfere with the UK’s democracy have not succeeded. Last summer, the Electoral Commission stated that it had been a victim of a complex cyber-attack between 2021 and 2022. That was the work of Chinese state-affiliated actors who gained access to the Electoral Commission’s email and file-sharing systems, which contain copies of the electoral register. As the Electoral Commission stated in 2023, when that attack was first made public, the compromise has “not affected” the security of elections. It will not impact how people register, vote or otherwise participate in democratic processes. I want to reassure people that the compromise of that information, although obviously concerning, typically does not create a risk to those affected. I want to further reassure the House that the commission has worked with security specialists to investigate the incident and remove the threat from its systems, and has since taken further steps to increase the resilience of its systems.

In addition, the National Cyber Security Centre assesses that it is almost certain that the Chinese state-affiliated cyber-actor known as APT31 attempted to conduct reconnaissance activity against UK parliamentary accounts during a separate campaign in 2021. Hon. Members may recall that APT31 was one of several cyber-actors attributed to the Chinese Ministry of State Security by the UK and its allies in July 2021. That email campaign by APT31 was blocked by Parliament’s cyber-security measures; in this case, it was entirely unsuccessful. However, any targeting of Members of this House by foreign state actors is completely unacceptable.

Taken together, the UK judges that those actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour that signals hostile intent from China. That is why the UK has today sanctioned two individuals and one entity associated with the Chinese state-affiliated APT31 group for involvement in malicious cyber-activity targeting officials, Government entities and parliamentarians around the world. We are today acting to warn of the breadth of targeting emanating from Chinese state-affiliated actors such as APT31, to sanction those actors who attempt to threaten our democratic institutions, and to deter both China and all those who seek to do the same.

Last week, at the summit for democracy in Seoul, I said that we would call out malicious attempts to undermine our democracy wherever we find them. This is an important tool in our armoury and today we are doing just that. The UK does not accept that China’s relationship with the UK is set on a predetermined course, but that depends on the choices China makes. That is why the Foreign Office will be summoning the Chinese ambassador to account for China’s conduct in these incidents. The UK’s policy towards China is anchored in our core national interests. We will engage with the Chinese Government where it is consistent with those interests, but we will not hesitate to take swift and robust actions wherever the Chinese Government threaten the UK’s interests—we have done so today and previously. This Government will continue to hold China and other state actors accountable for their actions.

We will also take serious action to prevent this behaviour from affecting our security. The steps we have taken in recent years have made the UK a harder operating environment for foreign state actors seeking to target our values and our institutions. Through the National Security Act 2023, we now have, for the first time, a specific offence of foreign interference. That new offence will allow law enforcement to disrupt state-linked efforts to undermine our institutions, rights or political system.

Our National Security and Investment Act 2021 has overhauled our scrutiny of investment into the United Kingdom by giving the Government powers to block, unwind or put conditions on investments that could create national security risks. We have significantly reduced China’s involvement in the UK’s civil nuclear sector, taking ownership of the CGN stake in the Sizewell C nuclear power project and ensuring Chinese state-owned nuclear energy corporations will have no further role in the project.

We have put in place measures to prevent hostile infiltration of our universities, including protecting campuses from interference through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. The Procurement Act 2023 includes national security devolvement provisions that allow us to act where we see malicious influence in our public procurement. I have taken steps to reduce the Government’s exposure to Chinese operators, banning Hikvision and TikTok from Government buildings and devices. Through the national cyber-security strategy, we are investing £2.6 billion to increase the cyber-resilience of our critical national infrastructure by 2025, making the most important parts of our digital environment a harder target for state and non-state actors.

The Government are continuing to build the tools, expertise and knowledge to respond to the systemic challenge that China poses to the United Kingdom’s security and its values. The integrated review refresh in 2023 took steps toward this, doubling funding for a Government-wide programme, including investment in Mandarin language training and deepening diplomatic expertise.

We must be clear that this is not a problem for the Government to solve alone. That is why we created the National Protective Security Authority within MI5 to help businesses and institutions play their part in protecting our security and prosperity. The NPSA will help organisations in the UK’s most sensitive fields, including critical national infrastructure operators and world-leading science and tech sectors, to protect themselves against state threats. I set up the economic security public-private forum to ensure businesses and business leaders in crucial sectors understand the threat to the UK and what they can do to defeat it.

In Parliament, the National Cyber Security Centre has launched an opt-in service for Members of both Houses. This allows the NCSC to alert high-risk individuals if they identify evidence of malicious activity on their personal devices or account, and swiftly advise them on steps to take to protect their information. Today, the NCSC has published new guidance for political organisations, including political parties and think-tanks, which will help these organisations take effective action to protect their systems and their data. The NCSC is also working with all political parties to increase the uptake of their active cyber-defence services in the lead up to a general election. A key component of increasing our resilience is supporting the NCSC and parliamentary authorities by taking up that cyber-security offer. I urge all Members of this House to do so. I will be writing to colleagues later today, setting out again the steps that they can take.

At the summit for democracy, I was struck by the powerful strength of our collective voices when we work together to defend our democratic freedoms. The summit provided the United Kingdom Government with a platform to build international agreements on a new global Government compact on countering deceptive use of AI by foreign states in elections. It is important and welcome that our partners across the Five Eyes, as well as those in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, are standing in solidarity with our efforts to call out malicious cyber-activity. I pay tribute to the dedicated public servants, whose painstaking work has continued to expose the reality of the threat we face.

Our political processes and institutions have not been harmed by these attacks. The Government will continue to call out and condemn this kind of activity in the strongest terms. We will continue to work with our allies to ensure that Chinese state-affiliated actors suffer the consequences of their behaviour. We will take preventive action to ensure these attempts do not succeed. The cyber-threat posed by China-affiliated actors is real and serious, but it is more than equalled by our determination and resolve to resist it. That is how we defend ourselves and our precious democracy, and I commend this statement to the House.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. This was an important statement, which is why it has run on quite a lot longer than the normal 10 minutes. I am sure everybody will agree that if the two Front-Bench speakers need a little extra time, we will be flexible in exactly the same way. I call the shadow Secretary of State, Pat McFadden.

15:50
Pat McFadden Portrait Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
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I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and for advance sight of it. It is a statement about which there has been significant briefing in the press over the past couple of days. On questions of national security, Labour will support the Government in efforts to counter attempts by China, or any other state, to interfere with or undermine the democratic process, or attempts to stop elected representatives going about their business, voicing their opinions, or casting their votes without fear or favour. With that in mind, I pay tribute to the efforts made every day by the intelligence and security services to protect the public, and to protect our democracy and way of life. The economic relationship between the United Kingdom and China can never mean compromising on national security or our democratic integrity.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s statement touches on a number of issues, and I have some questions about them. Will he say more about the Government’s assessment of Chinese motives? Does he believe, for example, that Beijing wants to disrupt our democratic process, or instead to gather data about our citizens for some other reason? On the specific issue of the Electoral Commission and the electoral register, why does he think that the Chinese Government hacked what is a publicly available database? Does he believe they were after the details of those who may not be on a public register for good reasons, for example because they might be employed in security-sensitive areas? Does he believe they were after details and the personal data of political donors, or was there some other motive?

The Deputy Prime Minister referred to the democratic electoral process, and with an election coming it is vital that people have confidence in their ability to register and to vote. Will he confirm that our electronic register to vote system is sufficiently well protected? He said that the attacks on parliamentary accounts were unsuccessful. Does he believe that China now wants to engage in the kind of hack and leak activity that we have in recent years associated with Russia, in order to compromise either individual politicians or the wider democratic process? On sanctions, only last week the Minister of State was reluctant to respond to the claim that the Foreign Office “indefinitely paused” targeted sanctions against Chinese officials late last year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain what has changed in the past week?

We are grateful for the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, and the report it issued on China last year, which covered much of the same ground that the Deputy Prime Minister covered in his statement. When discussing individual politicians, paragraph 98 of that report stated:

“Targets are not necessarily limited to serving politicians either. They can include former political figures, if they are sufficiently high profile. For example, it is possible that David Cameron’s role as Vice President of a £1bn China–UK investment fund…was in some part engineered by the Chinese state to lend credibility to Chinese investment,”.

What have the Government done to look into that allegation from the Intelligence and Security Committee? How can Ministers ensure that those leaving politics are not targeted in that way?

In that spirit, Mr Speaker, I have read reports that the Conservative Back-Bench 1922 committee is to be briefed on these matters later today. Given the importance of national and democratic security to all the parties in this House, is the Deputy Prime Minister intending to arrange a briefing for the Leader of the Opposition, the Intelligence and Security Committee and, indeed, the other political parties represented in the House?

Experts in this field have warned of China’s voracious appetite for data, and its potential uses as computing power improves—for example, as quantum computing develops. The UK’s record on data security is patchy, to put it mildly. What are the Government doing to protect complex and valuable datasets from being stolen now, possibly in order to be manipulated later by more powerful computers that are controlled by authoritarian adversaries?

Finally, Mr Speaker, on the broader issue, does the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister chose to make this statement today signal a fundamental reassessment of the overall threat? He referred to the United States and our allies. On 12 February, the US Administration warned Congress that the cyber-threat from China was changing. Previously, a threat that largely involved spying and influencing now looked like it was getting ready to disrupt critical American infrastructure—aviation, energy, healthcare and other sectors. Is it now the UK Government’s view that we should change our assessment of the threat in a similar way? If so, this is of the utmost importance, and we would need to know what corresponding improvements the Government would make to the preparedness of our critical infrastructure, because if the threat really has changed then so too should our response.

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I shall seek to address as many of them as I can.

When it comes to Chinese motivations, ultimately, it is a matter for the Chinese to be able justify their motivations, but the points that the right hon. Gentleman made were apposite. First, the Chinese look at successful democratic countries, such as the United Kingdom, Japan or the Republic of Korea where I was last week, and they want to seek to undermine them. It is no surprise therefore that they should seek to interfere in electoral processes, in the way that we have seen conduct from Russia that aligns with that. Indeed, the successful democratic elections around the world right now stand in contrast to the sham elections that we saw in Russia last weekend.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the public record of the Electoral Commission, I think that that is the essence of what has happened here. These attacks and these attempts were ultimately pretty unsuccessful. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman and Members of this House that there was no infiltration of the closed register of the Electoral Commission, so the concerns that he raised have not arisen. On the further strengthening of the electoral register, that is precisely the work that the National Cyber Security Centre does in co-ordination with GCHQ, working with Government agencies, including the Electoral Commission.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to raise the risk of hack and leak. It is certainly something that we saw in previous elections, and I remain concerned. I also remain very concerned about artificial intelligence, deep fakes in particular, being used to disrupt elections, hence the work that I undertook at the conference last week and the progress that we are making with the accord on artificial intelligence use by malign states.

In relation to targeted sanctions, it is not the case that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office paused targeted sanctions. On the conduct of the former Foreign Secretary—[Interruption.] I am not sacking the Foreign Secretary from the Dispatch Box. On the conduct of the current Foreign Secretary, who sits in the other place, all appointments to Government are subject to the usual propriety and ethic processes. Lord Cameron is addressing the 1922 Committee in his capacity as Foreign Secretary in the usual way, addressing a wide range of issues. It is not a specific briefing on this issue, but if leaders of the principal Opposition parties wish to have a further briefing on this issue I am of course very happy to facilitate that, in the way that they know I have done in relation to other national security issues.

We are highly alert to the risks of hostile states hoovering up currently quantum-encrypted information that could subsequently be decoded with advances in quantum computing. We do extensive work with the National Cyber Security Centre and the Ministerial Cyber Board on critical national infrastructure to ensure that we guard ourselves against exactly that risk. On our relationship with China more broadly, Members of this House should take this moment very seriously. It is a grave moment, against a backdrop of an escalating threat from China, and we will take proportionate action in response to that escalating threat.

Iain Duncan Smith Portrait Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
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Tomorrow, it will be three years since parliamentarians here were sanctioned; your defence of us, Mr Speaker, has been remarkable. Although I welcome the two sanctions from the Government, it is a little bit like an elephant giving birth to a mouse. The reality is that in those three years the Chinese have trashed the Sino-British agreement and been committing murder, slave labour and genocide in Xinjiang. We have had broken churches, and, in Hong Kong, false court cases against Jimmy Lai. My question is: why two? America has sanctioned more than 40 people in Hong Kong; we have sanctioned none, and only three lowly officials in Xinjiang. Surely the integrated review should be changed. China is not an epoch-defining challenge, strange as that may be, but it is surely a threat. Can the Government now correct that, so that we all know where we are with China?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend’s views are well known to me, I genuinely welcome the constructive, at most times, debate that I have with him, but nobody should be in any doubt about the gravity of this matter. These are not the actions of a friendly state, and they require our serious attention. As he has described, this is an escalating situation. The measures that we have announced today are the first step, but the Government will respond proportionately at all times to the facts in front of us. No one should be in any doubt about the Government’s determination to face down and deal with threats to our national security, from wherever they come.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and for advanced sight of it. In the statement, he said:

“I have taken steps to reduce the Government’s exposure to Chinese operators, banning Hikvision and TikTok from Government buildings and devices”,

but the reality is that the Hikvision ban extends only to sensitive sites, despite the fact that we have pushed him to ensure that it extends to all public buildings. Surely the majority of things that happen in government involve some sort of confidential information. Will he confirm whether he is extending the ban beyond sensitive sites to all Government sites, as we have been calling for for a number of years? The attacks on the Electoral Commission and parliamentarian accounts happened nearly three years ago. Will we be sitting here in 2027 hearing about an attack that is happening right now? The EU is currently delivering €240 million for cyber-security to improve its collective resilience. Will the Government deliver an equivalent fund for these islands? Finally, without more action, can he give us real assurances that this year’s general election will take place without international interference?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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As the hon. Lady is aware, we currently ban Hikvision, and indeed any other Chinese technology relating to CCTV. We continue to keep that under review. I do not rule out a further progression in the policy, but that is not the case right now.

On the time taken, it is essential that, before Ministers stand at the Dispatch Box and make assertions attributing such activity to a hostile state, we are absolutely sure of the basis on which we do so. That requires extensive work by our intelligence agencies, it requires fine judgments to be made, and it requires work to be done with our allies around the world—there will be comments from the United States shortly after my statement. I would rather we did this in the proper way.

We have invested £2.6 billion on cyber-security during this spending review. I can never be totally confident in relation to cyber-security—no Government Minister anywhere in the world can be; it is an environment in which the risks are escalating all the time and are turbocharged by artificial intelligence—but I can assure the hon. Lady and other Members that we are constantly increasing our activity and vigilance in the face of it.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I am rather underwhelmed by this statement. In the three years since seven parliamentarians were sanctioned, we have been subject to intimidation, impersonation and hacking, as have the families of exiles from China with whom we have associated. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister has described hostile actors’ malign acts towards the integrity of our electoral system and parliamentary democracy—foreign interference—and sanctioned two individuals and one company employing 50 people with a turnover of £208,000. Does he think that that is proportionate, and can he confirm that the Government will put the whole of the Chinese Communist Government in the enhanced tier of the foreign influence registration scheme?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend may be aware that we are currently in the process of collective Government agreement in relation to the enhanced tier of the foreign interference registration scheme. Clearly, the conduct that I have described today will have a very strong bearing on the decision that we make in respect of it.

In relation to the sanctions, it is worth noting that this is the first time that the Government have imposed sanctions in respect of cyber-activity. I believe that they are proportionate and targeted, but they also sit in the context of actions that we have been taking with our international allies. They are a first step, and we remain totally open to taking further steps as the situation evolves. The path we are going on with this is clear.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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My first reaction is: “Is that it?” The spin was clearly not matched by this statement. The Deputy Prime Minister says that there is an issue around nuclear and higher education. That is because the Government encouraged China to invest in nuclear, and cut the budgets of our universities so they are reliant on Chinese students. The Deputy Prime Minister also ducked the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) about Lord Cameron. Will Lord Cameron publish all the money and interactions that he had with Chinese entities when he was out of government? The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is committed to the security services. Why, then, in the Budget on 6 March, was the security budget cut by £600 million next year? That is not a sign of a Government who are taking this issue seriously.

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The Foreign Secretary has provided a full declaration of all his interests—

None Portrait Hon. Members
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No he hasn’t!

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I will take lectures from Labour Members on action in relation to security threats with a pinch of salt. It was this Government who introduced the National Security and Investment Act 2021; it was this Government who passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023; it was this Government who passed the National Security Act 2023—none of which we saw from the Labour party during its years in office.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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We have seen reports of espionage on UK campuses, aggression on UK soil, massive cyber-attacks and hostile corporate takeovers. It is abundantly clear that China is a hostile state and poses an unprecedented threat to our national security. As Home Secretary, I oversaw the enactment of the National Security Act, which built the foreign influence registration scheme designed specifically to deal with such threats so that our authorities have the right powers to tackle them. Is there not a compelling case for China to be listed on that register, and if not now, when?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend for the work that she did—she and I worked closely together on many of those things. There is a strong case, and my right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the process that we go through to determine that. It has to be agreed through a collective Government agreement.

On the point about hostile states, though, I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend; it is not the case that any Five Eyes nation has designated China explicitly as a hostile state. The language I have used in relation to China reflects the complex situation of that state, but I want colleagues to be in no doubt about the direction that Government policy is taking, how gravely we take this issue, and the overall escalation of our stance on it.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
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I, too, am quite surprised at the difference between what was briefed and some of the information that the Deputy Prime Minister has given us today, and the sum of the action taken. He said that the Government had taken rapid and robust action when talking about things that happened three and four years ago, and the sanctioning of two individuals and a minor company does not seem to meet the definition of robust. How does he think that taking the tiny steps he has announced today will deter the Chinese from carrying on in the way they have been doing, as the Deputy Prime Minister has outlined and is very clear from the China report that the Intelligence and Security Committee was finally allowed to publish late?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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First, in relation to briefings, I can categorically assure you, Mr Speaker, and Members of this House that there has been no briefing whatsoever from me or my Department in respect of this matter. As ever, I would say, “Don’t believe everything that you read in the newspapers.”

As for the overall direction of Government policy, it is clearly set. This is not just about offensive action, but the extensive defensive action we have taken to continuously increase the security of our Government systems. I make no apology for the time we have taken to properly call out China in this respect. I want to make sure that when I stand at the Dispatch Box, I am able to do so on a solid basis, painstakingly put together by our allies and our security agencies.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Who shall we go to? A former Attorney General, no less.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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The front page of The Telegraph today reports Whitehall sources saying that China, Russia and Iran are even fuelling disinformation about the Princess of Wales to destabilise the nation. Hostile states with leaders who fake their own elections and are hated by their own people are spreading wild conspiracy theories about the royal family, among many other things—our royal family who are hugely popular and much loved. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that British people will ignore that grotesque disinformation despite the pathetic attempts of those autocratic regimes?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for raising the issue, and extend my best wishes to members of the royal family at this very difficult time. The appalling speculation that we have seen over the past few weeks comes as a reminder to us all that it is important for us to ensure that we deal with valid and trusted information, and are appropriately sceptical about many online sources.

Stewart Malcolm McDonald Portrait Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Glasgow South) (SNP)
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As one of the parliamentarians targeted, can I thank the security officials for the work they did to repel this attack? I am glad it was not successful.

However, I have to say that the Deputy Prime Minister has turned up at a gunfight with a wooden spoon. The attack that he stood up and announced at the Dispatch Box happened three years ago, but he comes to the House and calls this “swift”. He comes to the House and says he has taken robust action but, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned, the entity he has sanctioned has fewer than 50 employees and has a turnover of £200,000 a year. He has not sanctioned a single Chinese state official. He has not even told the House whether the Chinese ambassador has been summoned, after what he has come to the Dispatch Box to tell us today. [Interruption.] Forgive me, he says he has been summoned—my apologies.

Can I press the Deputy Prime Minister on the enhanced tier of the foreign influence registration scheme? What possible good excuse could there be for not having China in that, and if we do not take more robust action and see a proper sea change in Government thinking, rather than this tinkering around the edges, will this not happen more and more and get worse and worse?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I think everything about the hon. Gentleman’s question suggests that he did not actually listen to the statement I made. I said that there had been a démarche, and that is exactly what is happening. I have already set out the position in relation to the foreign influence registration system.

Greg Clark Portrait Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
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The Deputy Prime Minister knows that cyber-attacks on UK institutions come from a wide range of actors—states and criminals—as we saw in the recent big attack on the British Library, and it is important that our laws are up to date to protect against this. In 2022 the Government announced that they would update the Network and Information Systems Regulations 2018 to

“protect essential and digital services against increasingly sophisticated and frequent cyber attacks both now and in the future.”

In 2022 that was to be done as soon as parliamentary time allowed. Why has it not been done, and when will it be done?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The work is pretty much complete, and as soon as parliamentary time allows we will be bringing forward those measures.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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I am sorry, but I find the Deputy Prime Minister today utterly unconvincing. The idea that “swift” means taking three years to publish something that has already been published by a Committee of this House is utterly preposterous. It means that if there were an attempt this year, we would hear about it long after the general election and possibly after another general election after that. The truth is that, if he actually thinks this is the sum total of all the Chinese state’s attempts to disrupt the British democratic system, he is wilfully blind and is therefore dangerous.

There are two things that the Government could do immediately to enhance confidence in this area: first, bring forward the motion to allow the Foreign Secretary to answer questions in this House from Members of the House of Commons; and secondly, publish the full unexpurgated Russia report.

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I am sorry that the hon. Member is not happy with the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is sitting to my right, and who I think does an excellent job of answering questions in this House. On the time that this has taken, there is a difference between acknowledging, as the Electoral Commission did, the fact that an attack has taken place, and the process of attribution, which takes a longer period of time for the reasons I have set out repeatedly from this Dispatch Box.

Alec Shelbrooke Portrait Sir Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con)
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I am proud to have the British Library at Boston Spa in my constituency, and I will be meeting it in a week’s time to talk about the cyber-attack. That is just one aspect of what has happened recently, but we are talking about the protection of democracy as well, and the timeframes on which we are moving on some issues does concern me. One of the big concerns will be deepfake news profiles—with people alleged to have said things, and videos of people allegedly doing things—at the next election. I urge my right hon. Friend to work now to try to establish procedures so that everybody across this House will be able to call out efficiently the fake news that may be used to try to influence the election. As he has said, people should be careful what they believe, but what can people believe in unless there are robust systems to call out what is absolutely fake?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. We are working with tech companies on, for example, the watermarking of images to ensure that people have a sense of whether they are real. However, this cannot just be action from the UK Government; we have to work internationally, which is why at the global summit for democracy we launched the global Government compact on countering the deceptive use of AI by foreign states in elections. That is the United Kingdom leading across nations around the world to ensure that we can act in co-ordination to address this issue. Moreover, everyone in this rapidly evolving technological world needs to be mindful of the fact that information cannot be trusted in the way it used to be just a few years ago.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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The Deputy Prime Minister talked in his statement about

“the powerful strength of our collective voices”.

We can contrast the sanctions that have been announced this afternoon with those that followed the Novichok poisoning in 2018. On that occasion, 130 Russian diplomats were expelled from more than 25 countries, and the EU ambassador to Moscow was withdrawn. What steps are the Government taking to co-ordinate a robust response to this alleged attack on democracy by working with our democratic allies?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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That is exactly what we are doing. I raised the issue with opposite numbers in Japan and Korea when I was there, and I have raised it with the United States, with whom we have been co-ordinating exceptionally closely. The US will be making a statement on its actions shortly, if not currently. We have proceeded in this way precisely to ensure that we act not alone but with like-minded states. Interestingly, that is in relation not just to the Five Eyes but to European partners and international partners, particularly in the Asia-Pacific. This issue requires that kind of co-ordinated action, at a time when our democratic institutions not just here, but around the world, are under increased threat. It is important that democratic nations work together in concert, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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May I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to all those who do so much in the UK intelligence community? Will he join me in reassuring those on the shadow Front Bench that Lord Cameron in the other place oversees GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service, and he is probably in a good place to know what is going on? Reference has been made to the China report published in July 2023—I was one of the co-authors, with one or two others in this Chamber. Page 198 of that report referred to the UK security services facing “a formidable challenge”. I welcome the fact that the Government have played catch-up—that was another criticism—and have caught up to a certain extent. I particularly welcome the £2.6 billion over the past three years going to cyber-protection for our critical national infrastructure.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We were going to finish because, in fairness to the Deputy Prime Minister, he indicated that he wanted to finish early because of other things happening around the world. If he is happy to continue, then so I am.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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In which case, let us carry on.

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I am sure that I will regret saying that, Mr Speaker.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to pay tribute to our intelligence agencies. I see their work at first hand, day in, day out. We are one of a very small number of countries that have intelligence agencies of this standard. It enables us all to be more secure.

Ben Bradshaw Portrait Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
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I welcome the tone of vigilance, which is in stark contrast to the nonchalance shown by the Johnson Government over earlier Russian interference in our elections and the Brexit referendum. Why should we believe the Government’s honest intentions when they still have not implemented all the recommendations of the Russia report?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the conduct of the Government and, for example, the further sanctions we imposed on Russia just a few months ago. We have not hesitated in taking robust action in relation to Russia, just as we will continue to do with any threats from China.

Richard Drax Portrait Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con)
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Bearing in mind all that my right hon. Friend has said, he may be concerned to hear what we have heard in the Defence Committee. English Ministry of Defence companies are having a nightmare in employing those with specialist AI skills from university, because they are all Chinese. Is he aware of that, and what will he do to counter this potential threat to our security?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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Clearly, anyone employed by a relevant defence company or in the UK Government will be subject to advanced vetting, which would likely preclude a number of the individuals my hon. Friend described. The main thing that we have got to do is increase our skills in this country, which is why we are investing in science, technology, engineering and maths. We are very fortunate in having three or four of the top 10 universities in the world in the United Kingdom—wherever I go in the world, people look at that with envy—which is a base from which both our intelligence agencies and industry can draw.

Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
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These cyber-attacks occurred in 2021 and 2022, so we really must ask how it has taken the Government so long to make this statement. We should reflect on the Deputy Prime Minister saying that these actors

“gained access to the Electoral Commission’s email and file-sharing systems, which contain copies of the electoral register.”

This is an election year, and it should put fear into the hearts of all of us that the Chinese have access to the UK’s electoral register, at a time like this when we are already worried about bad actors, about cyber-attacks taking place and about the use of AI.

The Deputy Prime Minister talked about taking robust action—good grief: two individuals are being sanctioned. Reference has been made to what happened over Novichok, when we swiftly took action to expel diplomats from this country and around the world. I hope that when the Chinese ambassador meets the Deputy Prime Minister, he will be told that diplomats will be expelled. Will the Deputy Prime Minister come back to the House tomorrow and tell us about the robust action that he should be taking?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I will answer the question slightly less aggressively than how it was put; I will make my point in my own way. First, as the Electoral Commission said in its statement, the data contained in electoral registers is limited, and much of it is already in the public domain. The Electoral Commission had already declared the fact of the attack. What is different today is that, contrary to some speculation at the time, we are announcing that it was in relation to Chinese-related actors. That is what has changed. On our overall approach, I have set out a direction. These are grave threats, which we take seriously. We are taking proportionate action now, and we will continue to take steps as required.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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A successful deterrent requires the capability and the will to retaliate. Have we got either?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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Yes, we do, on both fronts. My right hon. Friend will be well aware of our National Cyber Force, but I do not comment on the conduct of that from the Dispatch Box.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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In January 2023, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton—prior to his appointment as Foreign Secretary, of course—went to Sri Lanka to drum up investment for Port City Colombo, which is a belt and road project launched by President Xi, which many believe will become a military base for the Chinese navy. Following Lord Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary, many freedom of information requests have been submitted to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to try to shed some light on his visit to Sri Lanka, including who he met and what sort of conversations took place, but to date not a single one of those FOI requests has been complied with by the FCDO. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that that is a matter of the highest public interest and that sunlight is the best form of disinfectant, and therefore the FCDO should comply with those FOI requests as a matter of urgency?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office always deals with FOI requests in the proper way. I have to say that trying to link Chinese cyber-attacks to our current Foreign Secretary is pretty desperate stuff. It just does not wash.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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It is absolutely right that we call out these malicious actions, because otherwise they will become normalised. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that when it comes to our security, and indeed our economic interests, there is an important parity between the digital space and our physical terrain, and that that should be reflected in defence spending? Does he also agree that Beijing is watching today’s events and will no doubt retaliate? Should we brace ourselves for further individual sanctions against British personnel?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for investment. That is precisely why, in the last spending review period, we put £2.6 billion into our wider cyber-defences. I am confident that we will be able to deal with any retaliatory action by Beijing effectively.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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We should be worried about Chinese influence in various areas of Government. Graham Barrow, the Companies House expert, has been warning for quite some time about dubious company incorporations that have originated in China. He believes that they are being created using an algorithm, and there is evidence that companies are being incorporated using stolen UK credentials, from UK addresses, streets at a time. What conversations has the Deputy Prime Minister had with Companies House, and would he be willing to meet Graham Barrow to hear his conclusions?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I, or another Minister, will be happy to meet him. That is precisely why we set up the National Cyber Security Centre, which uses GCHQ expertise to inform our approach to cyber, and engages with businesses and individuals. That approach is renowned and admired around the world, because we can give high-quality advice through the National Cyber Security Centre. Week after week, I receive delegations from around the world who want to see what we have done with the National Cyber Security Centre.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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The £2.6 billion in additional money to counter cyber threats is very welcome. This field is constantly evolving, and those who wish us harm are innovating further. I accept that my right hon. Friend will not comment on the exact detail, but will he at least assure the House that the £2.6 billion outguns what those who wish us harm spend on new threats?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The amount of spending compares extremely favourably with that spent in similar G7 countries around the world. I am confident that we have world-leading expertise, and we are constantly evolving our capabilities in this space.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and his answers. I had occasion just five weeks ago to see Mr Speaker about an incident. The Deputy Prime Minister may be aware—if not, he will be shortly—that the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I chair, had its website hacked, and the text that questioned human rights violations by China was removed. I reported it to Mr Speaker and made him aware of what took place. It is clear that nothing whatsoever is sacred to the Chinese. The work of the elected Members of this House is not treated with respect. Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to stop handling the Chinese oversteps—for want of a better description—with kid gloves, and instead handle them with authority, and help China to understand that it will not trample over democracy in this place, or elsewhere, without being held accountable in the very strictest terms?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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We will certainly hold China to account in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. I will happily make sure that the parliamentary authorities and the National Cyber Security Centre are in touch with him about the attack that he described.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Portrait Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
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We know that legacy IT systems are most likely to be cyber-attacked. Has the Deputy Prime Minister ordered an inventory of all Government IT equipment, to see where particular vulnerabilities lie?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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Yes. My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The first step is to properly understand where those vulnerabilities lie. We have undertaken extensive work to ensure that we know where risks lie, and we are putting in place measures to remediate those risks.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
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This is too little, too late. It is reactive, not proactive. Two lowly officials get sanctioned when half the UK population’s data and electoral roll get cyber-attacked. I do not feel that the issue is being taken seriously enough. Let me remind the House how serious this is: in October last year, MI5 warned of the “epic scale” of Chinese espionage, and reported that more than 20,000 people in the UK had been covertly approached online by Chinese spies. Our Commons Intelligence and Security Committee said that China was “prolifically and aggressively” targeting the UK, and had managed successfully to penetrate every sector of the UK’s economy. My question is simple: how can any of us here, or outside in society, trust this UK Government, when they are far too late, and do very little of what needs to be done?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I simply do not accept that characterisation, given that it was this Government who set up the NCSC, this Government who set up the ministerial cyber board, and this Government who invested £2.6 billion in our cyber-defences. I have consistently warned, time and again, about the cyber-threats facing the United Kingdom, and we are taking steps to address them.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Every time the Deputy Prime Minister comes to the House, he lays out his plans eloquently, and is more assertive; he says, “We are doing this new thing, and that new thing, to react to the threat.” Do we not still need much greater coherence across all Government Departments in how we deal with the threat, whether the issue is students, the protection of Hong Kong citizens, intellectual property or cyber-attacks?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend raises an important point. I pay tribute to the work that he has done in this space, and I have discussed the issue with him on many occasions. He is right that the UK Government, in common with the US Government and others around the world, have evolved enormously in their approach to China. The sort of China we had hoped for even a decade ago is not the China we have now, whether we are talking about Hong Kong, Xinjiang or elsewhere. We continue to increase our efforts on the matters that he describes. That is precisely why we set up the defending democracy taskforce, led by the Minister for Security.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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The Deputy Prime Minister is right to address these issues and, as he said, call them out, but just calling them out does not really cut the mustard. There is certainly no appearance of urgency. There is a worrying sense of “nothing to see here” in some of his responses. He referenced human rights. We know well the issues there, including the horrific forced labour and worse faced by the Uyghur population. The action he is outlining on all those fronts is very underwhelming, and actually a bit baffling. Does he think that the large number of Members across the House who are obviously very much underwhelmed by his statement are all wrong, or is it possible that his statement somehow misses the mark?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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First of all, it is important to remember that ultimately—I want to reassure the House and the public—these attempts were unsuccessful. I am not being complacent; I am setting out the facts. As for the risk, at CYBERUK in Belfast last year, I warned that cyber-threats continue to come from the usual suspects—Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. In the Government security conference, I called out Russian state interference, and we created Secure by Design. We have not hesitated to take action, and we will continue to do so.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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Democracy is not perfect, but the right to choose who makes the laws that govern us is really precious, and it is really scary to hear that a foreign power might be trying to intervene in that. Mr Deputy Speaker, as one of the few women who has spoken during this statement, I want to remind you again how concerned I am about the threats and harassment that women get when standing for Parliament, especially as we get closer to an election. As well as cyber-security, I am very concerned about physical security. Two and a half years ago, my Essex neighbour was murdered at his constituency surgery. Last Friday, at my constituency surgery, the security operatives recommended by this Parliament failed to show up for the second time this year. I am very grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for recently putting extra money into security for both parliamentarians and candidates, but will he look again at the workings of this House, and at how our security is governed, because that funding is not getting to those of us on the frontline?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend makes a concerning allegation, which I will take up for the Government, working with the House authorities. As she will be aware, we take the threat exceptionally seriously, which is why we agreed an unprecedented increase in protective security for Members of this House and other elected representatives. We should all take that threat very seriously, not least in the light of the two appalling murders of parliamentarians that I have seen in my time in this House.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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When it comes to matters of national security such as this, my inclination is to work on a cross-party basis, and for us to show a unified face, but does the Deputy Prime Minister not understand that the relative weakness of the response to this terrible series of attacks, combined with his evasiveness over questions about the financial interests of the Foreign Secretary, is bound to increase people’s concerns? It is understood that Lord Cameron still has close links with the Chinese state in respect of numerous business ventures, and it was reported last week that the Government had secretly softened their policy against Chinese businesses implicated in human rights abuses. Will the Deputy Prime Minister strengthen his response, and demonstrate by his actions and through transparency that this soft-pedalling is nothing suspicious?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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The hon. Gentleman says that we should have a cross-party approach, and then immediately seeks, on political grounds, to denigrate the Foreign Secretary and turn this into a party political matter. I am afraid that he will have to choose one approach or the other.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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When we think ahead to the election, we should bear in mind the point raised today about artificial intelligence and the threat to democracy. We often talk about the concept of deepfake news—which used to be just fake news—but this is not just about deepfakes. It is also about the risk of rumour bombs to dissuade people from going to the polls on the day, and about voice clones; people are telephoned by someone pretending to be a daughter or other family member, who says, “Do not go and vote today.” There are many risks of which we may not even be aware, and the data that we are talking about today may be used in conjunction with data from Facebook and other sources to enable people to pretend that they are something they are not. Along with the work taking place in Government and with tech companies, could there be an education campaign, to let the public know that there are better ways to become aware of the risks that they may face during the election?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend has made an important point. At a time of rapidly evolving technology, particularly artificial intelligence, there will always be limits to the ability of agencies, or companies, to call this stuff out. There needs to be greater awareness among the public of the risks, and of the need to treat images of this kind with much more scepticism, and I will take that up with my colleague the Education Secretary.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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Professor Jim Saker, the president of the Institute of the Motor Industry, has warned about the threat that Chinese-manufactured electric vehicles could pose, in giving China access to big data and personal information. He has said that

“connected electric vehicles flooding the country could be the most effective Trojan Horse that the Chinese establishment has”

to impact the UK. What consideration has the Deputy Prime Minister given to the threat posed by those vehicles?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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That too is an important point. Obviously, any new technology or cars put on the UK market will have to meet our safety standards, and that will include an assessment of the threats to which the hon. Lady has referred. Under the National Security and Investment Act 2021, I can decide to block or impose conditions on any investments or transactions, from whichever state, and whichever company, in any country. That is another tool in our weaponry that we did not have previously.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that the Electoral Commission failed a National Cyber Security Centre cyber essentials audit at about the time when these breaches occurred. Among the failings identified was the fact that staff laptops and smartphones were running outdated systems—including Windows 10 Enterprise, which, at the time, was no longer receiving security updates. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that these failings look awfully like extraordinary negligence on the part of the Electoral Commission, and how satisfied is he that the commission has done everything necessary to regularise its procedures?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend is right to highlight that issue. It is precisely because of those concerns that we have ensured that the Electoral Commission is working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre to achieve a significant step up in its capabilities and its cyber resilience. It was essential for that work to be undertaken, and it has been undertaken.

Alexander Stafford Portrait Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)
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In May this year, Rotherham will hold a local election, like other places throughout the country. At the last local election, in 2021, Labour kept control of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council by a margin of only 54 electors. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that when people cast their votes for the Conservatives in Rotherham, those votes to end 50 years of Labour rule are secure?

Oliver Dowden Portrait The Deputy Prime Minister
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I trust and hope that we will achieve that outcome. I would like to assure Members that we have every confidence in the integrity of the elections. Through the defending democracy taskforce and the action taken by the Minister responsible for local government, my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), who has written to all local authorities in the past week, we are ensuring that the integrity of those important elections is preserved.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement today, and for responding to questions for over an hour.

Women’s State Pension Age

Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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16:44
Mel Stride Portrait The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mel Stride)
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With permission, I would like to make a statement to provide an interim update on the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s investigation into the way that changes to the state pension age were communicated to women born in the 1950s. I am grateful to the ombudsman for conducting this investigation.

I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, and it is important to set out the wider context and our initial understanding of the report itself. The fact that it has taken over five years for the ombudsman to produce the final report reflects the complexity of this matter. The period that the investigation considers spans around 30 years, dating back to the decision that Parliament took in 1995 to equalise the state pension age for men and women gradually from 2010. Since then, changes have been made through a series of Acts of Parliament introduced by successive Governments, which resulted in the state pension age for women rising to 65 by November 2018, and then to 66 by October 2020.

The announcement in 1993 about equalising the state pension age addressed a long-standing inequality between men and women. The changes were about maintaining the right balance between the sustainability of the state pension, fairness between generations and ensuring a dignified retirement in later life. Women retiring today can still expect to receive the state pension for more than 21 years on average—over two years longer than for men. Had the Government not equalised the state pension age, women would have been retiring today at 60, and they could have spent, on average, over 40% of their adult lives in receipt of the state pension. That would have been unfair, because, by the 1990s, life expectancy had significantly increased compared with 1948, when the state pension age for women was set at 60.

Turning to the investigation itself, it is important to be clear about what the ombudsman has not said, particularly following some of the inaccurate and misleading commentary since the report was published. The ombudsman has looked not at the decision to equalise the state pension age, but at how that decision was communicated by the Department for Work and Pensions. The report hinges on the Department’s decisions over a narrow period between 2005 and 2007, and on the effect of those decisions on individual notifications. The ombudsman has not found that women have directly lost out financially as a result of DWP’s actions. The report states:

“We do not find that it”—

meaning DWP’s communication—resulted in the complainants

“suffering direct financial loss”.

The final report has not said that all women born in the 1950s will have been adversely impacted, as many women were aware that the state pension age had changed.

In his stage 1 report, the ombudsman found that

“between 1995 and 2004, DWP’s communication of changes to State Pension age reflected the standards we would expect it to meet.”

The report also confirms that accurate information about changes to the state pension age was publicly available in leaflets, through DWP’s pension education campaigns, through DWP’s agencies, and on its website. However, when considering the DWP’s actions between August 2005 and December 2007, the ombudsman came to the view that those actions resulted in 1950s-born women receiving individual notice later than they might, had different decisions been made.

It is important to remember that during the course of the ombudsman’s investigation, the state pension age changes were considered by the courts. In 2019 and 2020, the High Court and the Court of Appeal respectively found no fault with the actions of the DWP. The courts made it clear that under successive Governments dating back to 1995, the action taken was entirely lawful and did not discriminate on any grounds. During these proceedings, the Court of Appeal held that the High Court was entitled to conclude as a fact that there had been

“adequate and reasonable notification given by the publicity campaigns implemented by the Department over a number of years.”

The ombudsman has taken five years to produce his final report. As the chief executive of the ombudsman herself has set out, the DWP has fully co-operated with the ombudsman’s investigation throughout this time and provided thousands of pages of detailed evidence. We continue to take the work of the ombudsman very seriously, and it is only right that we now fully and properly consider the findings and details of what is a substantial document. The ombudsman has noted in his report the challenges and complexities of this issue. In laying the report before Parliament, the ombudsman has brought matters to the attention of the House, and we will provide a further update to the House once we have considered the report’s findings.

This Government have a strong track record of supporting all pensioners. In 2023-24, we will spend over £151 billion on support for pensioners. That is 5.5% of GDP, and includes around £124 billion for the state pension. We are committed to ensuring that the state pension remains the foundation of income in retirement now and for future generations. That is why we are honouring the triple lock by increasing the basic and new state pensions by 8.5% from next month. This sees the full rate of the new state pension rise by £900 a year and it follows last year’s rise of 10.1%.

We now have 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty after housing costs than there were in 2010. Our sustained commitment to the triple lock demonstrates our determination to continue to combat pensioner poverty in the future. That is why we have reformed the state pension as well as workplace pensions, improving the retirement outcomes for many women. Our commitment to pensioners is why we introduced automatic enrolment, which has seen millions more women saving into a workplace pension.

This Government are committed to supporting pensioners in a sustainable way, providing them with a dignified retirement while also being fair to them and to taxpayers. I have set out our strong track record of backing our pensioners. I have also set out our commitment to the full and proper consideration of the ombudsman’s report. I note that the ombudsman has laid his final report on this issue before Parliament, and of course I can assure the House that the Government will continue to engage fully and constructively with Parliament, as we have done with the ombudsman.

16:53
Liz Kendall Portrait Liz Kendall (Leicester West) (Lab)
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I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement, and thank the ombudsman and his staff for all their hard work. This is a serious report that requires serious consideration. The ombudsman has rightly said that it is for the Government to respond but that Parliament should also consider its findings. Labour Members will look carefully at the report too, and continue to listen respectfully to those involved, as we have done from the start.

The Secretary of State says that he will provide a further update to the House on this matter. When will he do so after the House returns from its Easter recess? This has been going on for years. He rightly says that issues around the changes to the state pension age have spanned multiple Parliaments, but those of us who have been around a little while will remember that the turning point that sparked the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign was the Pensions Act 2011, in which the then Chancellor, George Osborne decided to accelerate the state pension age increases with very little notice. His comment that this

“probably saved more money than anything else we’ve done”

understandably angered many women. At the time, Labour tabled amendments that would have ensured proper notice was given so that women could plan for their retirement, which would have gone some way towards dealing with this problem.

The ombudsman began investigating how changes to the state pension age were communicated in 2019. In the same year, the High Court ruled that the ombudsman could not recommend changes to the state pension age itself or the reimbursement of lost pensions, because that had been decided by Parliament.

The ombudsman’s final report, published last week, says that, in 2004, internal research from the Department for Work and Pensions found that around 40% of the women affected knew about the changes to the state pension age. Does that remain the Government’s assessment? What is their assessment of the total number of women who would receive compensation based on the ombudsman’s different options? How many of them are the poorest pensioners on pension credit? How many are already retired or have, sadly, passed away? Given the Department already knew there were problems with communicating changes to the state pension age, why did the Government press ahead with the changes in the 2011 Act in the way they did, and in the way that sparked the WASPI campaign?

The Government are currently committed to providing 10 years’ notice of future changes to the state pension age, but Labour’s 2005 pension commission called for 15 years’ notice. Have the Government considered the merits of a longer timeframe, and how they would improve communications in future? Labour is fully committed to guaranteeing that information about any future changes to the state pension age is provided in a timely and targeted way that is, wherever possible, tailored to individual needs. Will the Government now do the same?

Crucially, the Secretary of State omitted to say that the ombudsman took the rare decision to ask Parliament to intervene on this issue because the ombudsman strongly doubts that the Department will provide a remedy. In the light of these concerns, and in order to aid Parliament in its work, will the Secretary of State now commit to laying all the relevant information about this issue, including all impact assessments and related correspondence, in the House of Commons Library so that lessons can be learned and so that Members across the House can properly do their job? Our current and future pensioners deserve nothing less.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I thank the hon. Lady for her response, not least on the apparent points of agreement between us. We accept that there are strong feelings about these complex issues, and she is right to say that they must be given serious consideration and that we should listen respectfully to all those affected. She asks when the Government will return to the House with a further update, and I can assure her that there will be no undue delay.

The hon. Lady made a slightly political point about the 2011 Act, and I gently remind her that the ombudsman’s report focuses on the period between 2005 and 2007, when her party was in government.

The hon. Lady asked a series of questions about various assessments based on the findings in the report. Of course, that goes to the heart of my response, which is—and I think she agrees with this—that we should look closely at the report in order to make those assessments.

On the hon. Lady’s specific point about notice of changes to state pension age, it has always been the position that that should be adequate. Indeed, in the last review that I undertook of it, there was a delay in the decision to increase the state pension age to 68 into the next Parliament. Among other reasons, that was to allow for just that point to be addressed.

What is particularly important now is that we will fully engage with Parliament, as we did with the ombudsman. On the hon. Lady’s point about the ombudsman, its chief executive stated on Sky News on Thursday, the day the report was published:

“The Government, the DWP, completely co-operated with our report, with our investigation, and over the period of time we have been working they have provided us with the evidence that we asked for.”

That is our record in this particular matter, but may I once again assure the House that the Government will continue to engage fully and constructively with Parliament, as we have done with the ombudsman?

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments and his emphasis that this is a complex matter—of course it is. However, the WASPI women have been waiting five years for the outcome of the ombudsman’s report. In his report and subsequent to it, when he wrote to various Select Committee Chairs from across the House, he gently encouraged us to keep a weather eye on how quickly the Government come forward with a solution. I recognise that this is an interim update, but I gently press my right hon. Friend: the WASPI women have been waiting five years for the ombudsman and they will not want to wait for a Select Committee inquiry into this report in order to see action from the Government.

Mel Stride Portrait Mel Stride
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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s question. Let me reassure her, as I have just reassured the House, that there will be no undue delay in our approach to this matter. We engaged fully with the ombudsman— that included more than 1,000 pages of evidence and a full commentary in respect of the previous interim report that it published. This report is more than 100 pages in length and it is very detailed, so it is only right that we do, in an appropriate manner, give it the due attention that it deserves.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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The timid response from the Labour party is truly shocking. Regardless of what we have just heard, WASPI women have at long last been vindicat