(2 months ago)Commons Chamber
What recent assessment the Government have made of the potential effect of a US trade agreement on SMEs. 
We are working on a dedicated small and medium-sized enterprise chapter in the US trade deal to help the UK’s 5.9 million small businesses. Some 31,600 UK SMEs already export to the US, and we want to help them by cutting red tape on customs and tariffs.
SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy, but while the US Government are engaging with their SMEs, SMEs in the UK say that there is no equivalent engagement from the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State commit to having a dedicated chapter in every trade deal that they are looking to develop, and will she create a mechanism for SMEs themselves to help shape it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have been in touch with a number of organisations representing SMEs—for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which has come out in favour of a US trade deal, saying:
“For small businesses, the US is the number one single market of choice for importers and exporters for the next three years, which is why these negotiations are so critical.”
We are committed to working with businesses of all sizes in this trade process through our expert trade advisory groups, which we have with all industry sectors, and I am very happy to engage with the hon. Lady about how even more SMEs can be involved in this process.
What assessment she has made of the potential merits of a free trade agreement with the US. 
What assessment she has made of the potential merits of a free trade agreement with the US. 
A free trade agreement with the United States is set to deliver a £15 billion increase in bilateral trade, benefiting every region of the UK, including the nation of Wales and the great county of Yorkshire, and delivering an extra £1.8 billion for workers’ wages.
In the light of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in globally, I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on setting up talks with the US. With the UK set to leave the EU at the end of the year, it is also important that we have free trade agreements in place with other nations, particularly our Commonwealth partners and countries in the far east. Therefore, could my right hon. Friend provide an update on progress with the potential trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and pressing for early accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an important step in diversifying our trade and making sure we are not just dependent on a small number of countries for our imports and exports. It is also important that we work with like-minded free market democracies to help set global standards in trade.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all parts of the UK and all economic sectors stand to gain from a trade deal with the United States? However, some lobbyists are concerned about their specific interests, so what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that fairness to both the UK and the US, as well as economic opportunities for all parts of the country, will be central to her thinking in the negotiations?
A free trade deal with the United States is set to benefit every nation and region in the UK, including Wales. We will strike a hard bargain, and seek a deal that is fair for our producers. For example, we want to make sure that we gain access for British lamb and Welsh lamb in the United States market. It is the second biggest importer of lamb in the world, and it represents a massive opportunity for our farming sector and for the nation of Wales.
I thank the Secretary of State for the warm welcome that she has given me in this new role and for the co-operative discussions that we have enjoyed so far in relation to both coronavirus and US trade. On the latter subject, she will be aware that the Trump Administration and the US Congress see the US-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade as a template for every other free trade agreement that they are looking to sign around the world. Can the Secretary of State make it clear to them today that she will not agree to any version of article 32.10 of the USMCA that would constrain the UK’s ability to negotiate our own trade agreement with China and therefore represent an unacceptable breach of the sovereignty of this Parliament?
First, I welcome the right hon. Lady to her seat. It is great to see her in the flesh, even though we have had a number of calls over the last few weeks. I am committed to working with the Opposition to ensure that we get the best possible deal for all parts of the UK in the US trade deal. I can assure her that when we negotiate with the United States we will negotiate in the UK’s interest, ensuring that we have full freedom of manoeuvre and making our own sovereign decisions as a country. Of course, we are looking at a number of precursor agreements for the text we use in those trade negotiations, but my No. 1 priority is to ensure that we have our own sovereign capability to trade with the rest of the world as we see fit. One important benefit of a US trade deal and the trade deal we are looking to strike with Japan is that we need to be setting standards with fellow free market democracies and ensuring that we have proper transparency in our operations and proper setting of standards.
The Secretary of State really needs to think about the other Members who need to get in, so if she could shorten her answers, it would be helpful to all the Members who are waiting. [Interruption.] It is very good, actually.
Business and trade are all about the bottom line and numbers, and we know from the Treasury estimate that Brexit will cost about 6% of GDP. An American trade deal—and remember that the USA is a quarter of the global economy—will only give an average lift of about 0.2% to GDP, or a thirtieth of what Brexit will cost. Is there any prospect of that number improving? What are the GDP lifts for the deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership? We need to get to the numbers at the bottom of Brexit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that there is a projected benefit to Scotland from a US trade deal of over half a billion pounds on gross value added, which is a significant figure. In fact, Scotland is one of the parts of the UK likely to benefit most from a US deal. We will shortly publish the economics behind the Japan, Australia and New Zealand deals when we launch the respective trade negotiations.
What recent progress her Department has made on negotiating free trade deals. 
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This is an important opportunity for the UK to form closer ties with a fast-growing group of countries and look forward to joining the CPTPP, which comprises 11% of the global economy.
I warmly welcome the ambitious agenda that my right hon. Friend sets out. Can she confirm that any trade deal with the United States will not lower our standards on imported food and that these talks and the other ones she referred to represent a great opportunity for world-leading companies in west Norfolk such as Bespak and other pharmaceutical, engineering and manufacturing firms to benefit from reduced tariffs and the removal of other barriers to trade?
I can confirm that we will not lower our food import standards as a result of the US deal. We are going to maintain those standards; it is an important part of the quality assurance we have here in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are lots of opportunities for Norfolk farmers and producers from a US trade deal, and overall the east of England stands to benefit by £345 million.
Around a third of the value added of UK trade comes from indirect trade—indirect links—where goods and services are first exported to one country and subsequently exported to the UK. Given the importance of indirect trade and value chains generally, I am sure the Secretary of State would agree with the Dutch Trade Minister that we should rethink our trade deals to take a closer look at the sustainability of those value chains. Will she go further and agree that we should not just be looking at sustainability, but that trade deals should be as inclusive as possible and based on World Trade Organisation rules, and because of the importance of value chains and indirect trade—
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say it is very important that we have resilient trade as well as trade that benefits our economy. That is why our strategy is to strike trade deals with more partners, to ensure that our companies have more options and that we are trading with a wider variety of nations than we were before.
Our priorities for the last four years were supposed to be in this order: first, securing a free trade agreement with the EU; secondly, rolling over all our existing deals with third countries; and thirdly, agreeing free trade deals with the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have failed on all three?
I would argue strongly that we are succeeding on all three of those aims. We have opened talks with the United States; David Frost is making significant progress in his talks with the EU; and we are making significant progress in increasing the number of countries that we are able to agree continuity trade deals with. We are on course to succeed in all those areas.
As the WTO makes clear, coronavirus will lead to a substantial fall in global trade. It suggests a reduction in the range of between 13% and 32% in 2020. Although it is true that this is primarily a health issue, trade will be an important ingredient of the recovery, so does the Secretary of State agree with the WTO that keeping markets open and predictable will be crucial to secure the renewed investment that we need?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is right that protectionism would be a disaster for the global economy at the moment. That is why we have been pressing at the WTO to keep trade open, and why the UK has unilaterally lowered tariffs on key medical goods, to keep that trade flowing.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what the UK’s approach will be to chemicals regulation during any future trade negotiations? Will we retain the precautionary principle, or is she looking to relax our current laws?
It is a very important principle that the UK Government have responsibility for their own regulations. That is not something that we will trade away in a trade deal; that is a matter for UK sovereign Government regulation.
As we emerge from the Covid crisis, it is vital that we keep free trade flowing. That is why the UK has been making that case with G20 Trade Ministers and the WTO. We have another G20 meeting this Thursday, where I want to see further action to cut tariffs on medical products, and for longer-term WTO reform.
Stilton producers, such as the excellent dairies of Cropwell Bishop and Colston Bassett in my constituency, face a 25% tariff when they export to the US market. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress has been made, in the first week of negotiations, to reduce those tariffs?
We are determined to get those tariffs reduced and removed on products like Stilton, and the brilliant producers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association has backed a US deal, saying that a US free trade agreement will help recognise Stilton cheese further in the US, and bring down some of the existing barriers that we are currently facing.
12. What steps he is taking to expedite the import of essential medical products during the Covid-19 outbreak. 
13. What steps he is taking to expedite the import of essential medical products during the Covid-19 outbreak. 
We continue to work tirelessly to secure vital supplies of medical equipment from overseas partners to meet UK demand. Hundreds of millions of units of PPE have been procured and over 2,000 ventilators have arrived in the UK thanks to our trade and FCO networks.
Across the world, we are being advised to wash our hands with soap regularly to keep us safe from the virus, but the average import tariff on soap among WTO members stands at 17%, with some countries charging tariffs of up to 65%. What steps has the Minister taken to seek global agreement to reduce tariffs on the import of soap and other hygiene products, to combat the spread of covid-19?
That is a very good question and I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking it. We are working tirelessly, at different international fora, to ensure that trade barriers—either long-standing barriers or ones that have been thrown up as a result of the crisis—are reduced or removed. For example, just last month, at the UK’s initiative, the G20 Trade Ministers met and discussed a lot of these and took significant action. We have also been lobbying bilaterally, most successfully, with India to ensure that such barriers are reduced or removed.
It is shameful that our national stockpile of PPE dwindled during years of austerity. The Government’s response since has been one of confusion and panic—missing three chances to join the EU scheme to bulk buy PPE, and with the recent fiasco of flying in unusable gowns from Turkey. What discussions are Ministers having with the Governments of New Zealand, Singapore and other WTO countries to support global efforts to keep medical supply chains running during and beyond this crisis?
We are extremely active at the WTO and other forums, including the G20, to ensure that products flow. We have delivered 1.22 billion items of PPE to the NHS, which is a tremendous achievement. That includes 40 million safety goggles and 1.3 billion face masks; the numbers are substantial. On the action that we are taking at the WTO, we continue to lobby at all levels. May I just correct the hon. Gentleman on one point—about the delivery of 400,000 Turkish gowns? That number represents a tiny proportion of the total, and only a tiny proportion of those gowns were actually found to be defective. We are very thankful to Turkish suppliers for what they have done.
It would be remiss of me not to welcome the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) to her new role.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I also thank my colleagues for asking such vital questions about shortages of PPE and other essential medical supplies?
One area where we have, thankfully, not seen shortages to date is the supply of prescription medicines, thanks to the so-called Brexit buffer of supplies built up in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. But given that this buffer only provides somewhere between three to six months of supplies, will the Minister tell us how the Government are getting on with replenishing these stocks from imports, so that we do not experience any shortages once the Brexit buffer starts to run out?
I join the Secretary of the State in welcoming the right hon. Lady to her position. After four years of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), we always look forward to seeing somebody new at the Dispatch Box.
Again, we are active in all available forums to ensure that the UK’s supply of prescription and non-prescription medicines continues. For example, following the restrictions that India put in place on 3 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been very active with the Indian Trade Minister to get almost all those restrictions removed. We will continue to be active with all our trade partners to ensure that products continue to flow to our NHS at this time.
15. What recent discussions she has had with UK trade partners on including clauses on human rights in future trade deals. 
The UK has a strong history of safeguarding human rights and promoting our values globally. Our strong economic relationships with trading partners allow the Government to have open discussions on a range of important issues, including human rights. We continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
Twenty-one countries have been listed where negotiations are ongoing with regard to rolling over existing trade agreements beyond 31 December. A number of those countries have shockingly poor human rights records, including Cameroon, Egypt, Singapore, Uganda and South Sudan. Will the Minister tell us whether human rights are part of those discussions? Also, in order to ensure that there is no saying one thing and doing another while everyone is diverted by coronavirus, will he guarantee the inclusion of human rights clauses in any eventual deals?
I think the hon. Lady is referring to the various EU agreements. She was a passionate campaigner —and, I think, still is—to remain in the EU. Of course, if we had remained we would still be in those trade agreements with the self-same countries that she mentioned, but we are clear that the UK will remain a strong voice for human rights and that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights, and we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
16. What recent steps she has taken to support businesses trading internationally that are affected by the covid-19 pandemic. 
17. What recent steps she has taken to support businesses trading internationally that are affected by the covid-19 pandemic. 
In response to covid-19, the Department continues to support UK businesses to trade. Office for National Statistics data states that 75.4% of businesses are continuing to trade.
For British companies that trade overseas, the one thing guaranteed to make a very bad situation even worse would be the loss of free frictionless trade with the rest of the EU at the end of the year, so will the Minister reassure UK firms that the top priority when it comes to trade is securing the free trade agreement that we need with Europe?
Of course. The hon. Lady will have seen that the UK is continuing the negotiations, which the chief negotiator David Frost has been doing virtually. We have completed the first round and we look forward to getting the trade agreement that I believe is in the interests of both sides and which will bring relief to British business and others at this important time.
In Sunderland and the wider north-east, lots of businesses—large, small and start-ups—rely on international supply chains as they trade internationally. What are the Government doing in these challenging times to ensure that international supply chains are protected?
The hon. Lady asks a good question. One important thing that we will learn from this crisis is the importance of the robustness of supply chains. Currently, most of the focus is obviously on medical supplies, but that will extend more broadly. We need to make sure that we have diverse sources of supply, that the supply chains that ensue are robust, and that we have choice and diversity in respect of where we procure our goods from.
18. What assessment she has made of the effect of trade barriers to UK exports on the UK’s contribution to the global economic recovery from the covid-19 pandemic. 
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the negative impact of trade barriers. OECD analysis shows that cutting tariffs and addressing unnecessary costs associated with non-tariff measures could increase trade by more than 20% among G20 economies. We are working to remove barriers for UK exporters around the world—from helping British beef and lamb to export in Japan to obtaining geographic protection for Scotch whisky in Indonesia.
The most recent WTO review saw G20 economies implement 28 new trade-restrictive measures, estimated to cover around $460 billion of trade, and import-restrictive measures in force for the period January-October 2019 are now estimated to cover $1.6 trillion, suggesting that import restrictions have continued to grow. It is obvious that we need resilience in our economies, but does the Minister agree that that cannot be an excuse to engage in economic protectionism or simply close down value chains?
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady; she is absolutely right. Pre-covid, over the past decade, perhaps since the financial crash, there has been an increase in the number of trade barriers that have been erected, which is why, as an independent nation once again, we are so determined to champion free trade and to use the WTO and the other international fora referred to by colleagues to make sure that we make that case. It will lead to prosperity for all.
19. What recent progress her Department has made on trade negotiations with African countries. 
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the all-party group on Ethiopia and Djibouti. The UK has signed continuity trade agreements that secure our long-term trading relationship with 11 African countries, and a further 35 will benefit from our unilateral preferences scheme. We continue to work with our partners on arrangements for the remaining African countries covered by EU agreements, in a way that reflects the current economic and public health realities.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that trade is the best way out of poverty for developing countries? Bringing that idea together with the fact that the United Kingdom is looking to forge trade agreements around the world would create a bigger benefit. Will the Minister do everything he possibly can to bring about strong trade agreements with African countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a win-win situation for the UK economy and those developing countries in Africa, and it is so important that we work together. To those considering seeking to put up barriers to foreign produce in our consideration of the Agriculture Bill tomorrow, I should say that not only would that breach the WTO’s global rules and hurt our good name in the international community, but it could also have the effect of restricting imports from developing countries, including those in Africa. Surely no one should wish for that.
Whether the Royal Navy plans to continue operations in the South China sea. 
May I just pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces who have risen to the challenge of helping to deal with covid? We will find them up and down this country, and indeed in Whitehall, embedded right across the system helping to deliver the response. May I also welcome to his place the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)? I look forward to working with him to tackle the issues around defence.
The Royal Navy, along with other NATO allies, will continue to uphold the right of navigation across the globe. This is an inviolable right, and, where it is threatened, the UK will always be at the forefront of defending it.
The Royal Navy is at its best when it works closely with our allies. Will the Minister update the House on recent co-operation with the Royal Australian Navy?
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy collaborate across the globe on a near daily basis. Only this morning, I had an hour-long conversation with my counterpart in Australia. The Type 26 Hunter-class frigate partnership has flourished through the Global Combat Ship user group. Operationally, we have worked closely on the management and challenges of covid-19 in the maritime sector, as well as in the Strait of Hormuz, providing security to global shipping.
I echo the comments of the Defence Secretary and say thank you to our armed forces for what they are doing to tackle the coronavirus. The British people may have come together as one nation, but the same cannot be said on an international level, which is a very different picture. Our world order was already in a fragile state, but now, under the fog of covid-19, countries such as China and Russia are exploiting this global distraction to further their own geopolitical agendas. May I ask him to call for an urgent meeting of the National Security Council to review our competitors’ activities, which, left unchecked, could lead to serious conflict in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point that there are adversaries and competitors around the world seeking to use this horrendous outbreak not only to exploit our differences, but to further their ambitions. I urge them to focus on the matter at hand, which is tackling covid collectively around the world, rather than taking advantage of that. On the point about the NSC, the decision to call an NSC meeting is a matter for the Government Security Directorate in the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. It is not the case that, by not having such a meeting, we have no agenda on security. We meet the threat every single day and, indeed, many of the decisions made at NSC are enduring and do not need to be refreshed unless there is a major turn of events. We will keep the situation under review, as will, I know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. 
What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. 
On any given day, up to 4,000 men and women of the armed forces support the Government’s response to covid.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in times of crisis such as the current covid-19 pandemic, our best approach is a united one? Can he therefore describe how the military has helped the people of Wales in dealing with covid-19?
Joint Military Command Wales has provided mobile decontamination teams and drivers to support the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust. It has also provided general duties personnel to unload PPE from aircraft at Cardiff Airport and transfer it to civilian trucks for onward distribution to Bridgend. As of 10 May, there are 30 military planners also embedded with the Welsh Government.
I welcome the intervention of the Ministry of Defence in supporting the covid-19 testing capacity across the whole UK, but can my right hon. Friend tell me what discussions he has had with the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of those MOD testing facilities, and will he meet me, at least virtually, to discuss specific issues that we have had recently in Peterhead in my own constituency?
Mobile testing is a capability developed between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence under DHSC direction. NHS Scotland decides on the location to which each mobile testing unit will be deployed in Scotland. Peterhead, to which my hon. Friend refers, was an isolated incident in which the opening of the site was delayed due to capacity issues with central laboratories. Unfortunately, the site incorrectly remained open on the digital booking portal for a few hours longer. Such bookings were accepted when the site opened on 4 May. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the use and deployment of mobile facilities throughout Scotland.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, too. It is a privilege to take on this role, which has always been so important to the Labour party. We will do right by our armed forces and veterans and we will promote their role as a force for good at home and abroad. Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our military’s essential role in helping the country to respond to the covid crisis. They are keeping us safe, and it is right that we do everything we can to keep them safe.
The US Defence Department has increased its testing capacity to 30,000 military personnel a week. It has set out a strategic testing plan and has now tested everyone deemed a priority for national security, including strategic deterrence, nuclear deterrence, anti-terror forces and healthcare as well as, of course, its entire covid support force. Has the Secretary of State done the same here in the UK?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. May I place on record a tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who did a great job as shadow Defence Secretary, sometimes in difficult circumstances? We have done it slightly differently from the United States with testing our personnel. We have no problems whatsoever testing whoever we want, when we want. The best example I can give is that, before embarkation, we tested all 799 of the crew of the Queen Elizabeth carrier. We will test them again throughout their period of sailing and when they return.
We have a strategy around protecting the national security-vital parts of our forces, which involves testing and quarantine. That is also being carried out in areas that I will not particularly comment on; nevertheless, the right hon. Member mentioned what the Americans view as strategically important. We do not have a mass programme; we have testing that is available—we do not have any problems acquiring it—and, as we bring forces up to either readiness or deployment, there is an opportunity if required, if quarantine has not done the job, to test them as well.
The Secretary of State talked about testing who we want when we want, but he gave no definition of that. The last published figures show that we had tested just 1% of our entire military personnel. This is about keeping our armed forces safe and safeguarding our national security. There is no fix for coronavirus without mass testing, and we really expect the Ministry of Defence to lead the way, not lag behind, so will he get a grip of this? Will he produce a plan for testing our military, set a target for the number of tests and publish the results, just as our allies in the US have done?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. The reality is that we have a grip, because we do have a plan. We have certain individuals whom we treat as a priority and, at the same time, we have all the availability we need for testing; getting it is not a problem. He will know that the vast majority of our military in the UK have been sent home to self-isolate in their homes and follow what the rest of society is doing; they are not on duty, en masse back in their barracks unless they are part of the covid force.
Those who are part of the covid force and either feel symptoms or come into contact with someone will be tested. There is a clear path for them, through the medical officers and the direction of the commands, to get testing. There is a plan. Unlike the United States, we have sent many of our personnel home. They can acquire testing, if they feel the need, in the same way as the rest of the public. When we bring them back for duty, we will have a proper regime for getting back to work, following the Government’s changes to advice. In getting back to work, a comprehensive testing plan will be included.
What assessment his Department has made of the additional support that armed forces personnel could provide to help tackle the covid-19 outbreak. 
Defence remains ready to contribute however requested, with a further 16,000 troops available at high readiness if required. We keep our support under constant review and adjust the capabilities available to meet demand. We have liaison officers deployed in the other Government Departments and local resilience fora, which provide the standing joint commander and the Defence head office with insight into developing needs.
As the crisis develops in our care homes across the country, does my right hon. Friend agree that our military are ready and able to help our local authorities if they need that support to get into care homes and provide the logistical support to get PPE to the people who need it?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point about care homes. There are two parts to the issue: one is infections in care homes; and one is, effectively, leakage of infections from care homes into the wider community. Only this morning I spoke to the Prime Minister about offering up more military support if needed to make sure that our local resilience fora and care homes get the assistance they need, whether that is bringing testing to care homes or helping them with the routine and structure of decontamination, so that staff can come and go better from care homes. We stand ready to do that as required by the Department of Health and Social Care and any other stakeholder.
What assessment he has made of the contribution of the armed forces in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. 
Reflecting on where the armed forces have been needed most shows that we have helped the most in logistics, command and control, and testing. The MOD’s strengths of moving at pace, assessing the situation, and resilience have been key enablers to the rest of Government.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all our armed forces personnel for their significant contribution to the nation’s efforts to tackle the covid-19 virus. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for service personnel in the continuing battle as we enter phase two of this process?
As I have said, the armed forces have played a vital role in supporting the NHS and others to manage the situation, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to them. Defence remains ready to contribute, as requested, by any civil authorities through the MACA—military assistance to civilian authority—system. After this crisis started, as Defence Secretary, I took the decision very early on to devolve the power to grant military assistance right down to the regional commands—so it is not from my desk, from the bureaucracy of head office—and those regional commanders stand ready to call on the whole forces of the covid force for support as needed.
We go up to Sunderland again—I welcome the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), to her new position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The armed forces are indeed playing a vital part in helping the country through this coronavirus crisis, as are our veterans, who, across the country, are volunteering to help their local community, and I commend them all for their contribution. Many are helping other veterans because the Government have closed the Veterans UK helpline. Will the Secretary of State set out why he decided to close the helpline in the midst of this crisis, when many veterans will need its help and support?
From my understanding of the helpline, the activity that it did remained and, in fact, the vast majority moved online, reflecting the changes to the working patterns that we all have to face. We have found that the services are still being delivered. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has reported that there is no decline in the service being given to those veterans—this is about the medium that is currently being used. However, as soon as possible—indeed, maybe it has already started—we will be returning to some form of telephone service alongside the online service. The feedback, both from charities and veterans, is that they are getting the service they require, and my hon. Friend is absolutely, on a daily basis, keeping on top of that.
What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling the spread of disinformation on covid-19. 
Defence is supporting the Government’s campaign against covid-19 disinformation, specifically to counter disinformation, misinformation and malign information from abroad. The Government are also working closely with social media platforms, academia and civil society to tackle this issue, although I stress that this is not a role undertaken by our military personnel. The Government’s particular focus remains on promoting factual public health advice and countering inaccurate content.
In many cases, disinformation about covid-19 can travel faster than the virus itself and pose just as great a threat to our security. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with the majority of the public surveyed by the Open Knowledge Foundation that the Government need urgently to impose compulsory action on social media sites to clamp down on the spread of such disinformation?
The hon. Member will know that, not just in this world of the coronavirus battle but previously, in the world of exploitation, misinformation, radicalisation and other areas, the biggest challenge for Governments across Europe has been how to deal with social media companies, many of which are based abroad. The extent of our powers and jurisdiction is sometimes limited. We have consulted widely about duties of care, but in this outbreak we are seeing media outlets way away from this part of the world that have no regard for the fact or truth magnifying or spreading propaganda in real time. That is the challenge we have. No amount of legislation will be able to deal with some foreign outlets that are based elsewhere or linked to Governments elsewhere, and that is a challenge. To be fair, the mainstream social media outlets, which are often United States-based, have been more responsible in this; Facebook, Twitter and so on have stood up to the plate and removed lots of content when it has been pointed out to them.
What work the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is undertaking to tackle the spread of covid-19. 
Two hundred and seventy-five civilian scientists and 13 embedded military personnel from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory are currently deploying their unique capabilities right across Government. That includes statistical analysis, decontamination trials, assistance on testing laboratories, and experiments on how the virus survives in the atmosphere.
It has been reported that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is conducting studies on Citriodiol, an ingredient found in insect repellent, to test its effect on covid-19. Can the Minister tell us if and how our armed forces are involved in those tests? If the tests show that the ingredient is effective against the virus, when will it be available for use on the covid frontline?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, Citriodiol is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil, and it is readily available to the public in a range of insect repellents. It has been issued to members of the armed forces to use at their discretion if they wish to. We are aware that it was efficacious against SARS. There is no evidence as yet as to whether it is useful against covid-19, but I can confirm, as per the hon. Lady’s question, that, at the request of the Surgeon General, DSTL is conducting tests on this product to see whether it is efficacious. If it is, we will of course let the House know and let that be known more widely as soon as possible.
May I, too, put on the record my thanks to the armed forces, particularly for helping with building the NHS Louisa Jordan in my home city, Glasgow?
This Citriodiol issue is deeply serious. The Minister has just said himself that there is no evidence that it is effective in the fight against covid-19, yet it was dished out to the armed forces without being tested. Can he tell us on what basis it was given out? Will he publish the guidance that was given to members of the armed forces? Did it go through an ethics committee? Who signed off on it without it being tested? A false sense of security can be deadly.
As I emphasised in response to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), Citriodiol is a natural product—it is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil—and it is readily available to the public as an insect repellent. We know that it was efficacious in the past, and the view was that if it was efficacious against SARS in the past, it may have properties that are useful against covid-19, but we have been very clear that that is not as a result of tests. It is very early days. Those tests are ongoing. If they prove that there are positive properties, that will be shared. However, this is just one very small element in a range of protections provided to our armed forces personnel, including appropriate PPE and all the appropriate hygiene and other instructions that are widely shared and widely known.
What steps his Department has taken to support Government procurement during the covid-19 outbreak. 
Defence’s considerable commercial expertise is actively supporting the national effort in providing procurement, supply chain and logistics advice and expertise across Government. As a purchaser of some £19 billion of equipment and services annually, we are also working closely with our suppliers to support them at this difficult time.
In times of trouble, we rely on our armed forces as much now as we did 75 years ago, as embodied by Basildon resident and veteran Don Sheppard, who celebrated his 100th birthday last week. There are many who also rely on defence procurement for their livelihoods. How has my hon. Friend ensured that small businesses and the jobs they provide, which are particularly important in my constituency, are being protected at this time?
I am sure we would all wish to congratulate Mr Sheppard on his century, just as we all thank his extraordinary generation for their fortitude and service to our country.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of defence jobs. There are 119,000 employed directly in the defence industry, and we are hugely grateful to all who have persevered in maintaining critical defence tasks at this difficult time. Our suppliers have made clear their determination to ensure safe working environments. We have worked with them to support the industry right through the supply chain, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, and we are grateful for all their work.
What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on the defence industry. 
We remain closely engaged with our strategic suppliers and continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on the defence sector during this difficult time. We are engaged with defence primes and with SMEs, directly and via the prime contractors. As I said, the sector employs 119,000 people directly, and we are committed to its success.
It’s always sunny here, Mr Speaker.
The UK’s world-leading defence industry is critical to our national security as well as our prosperity, particularly here in the north-west, as the Minister has just outlined, but its future capability is inextricably linked to the aviation industry, which is now suffering a collapse in demand. Will the Government now commit to bringing forward major research and development programmes and clean tech to help support the whole sector, especially SMEs and others, to retain jobs and capability?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question from sunny Manchester. The Government are providing a range of help and support across the board to every industry, as she is aware. In defence in particular—she is absolutely right that many defence companies have aerospace arms—we have been clear that we want to do everything we can to help. That includes ensuring prompt payment and looking, where appropriate, at interim payments to support companies where they are requested and required. We are doing our utmost to work with the industry, and I will be saying that again at the defence suppliers forum, which I will chair virtually later this week.
What steps his Department is taking to ensure that the projected capabilities of the armed forces over the next 10 years are adequate to meet future expected threats to national security. 
The Ministry of Defence has rigorous processes to test its capabilities and force structure to ensure they are robust against the ever evolving threats to our country and our allies. We will be assisted in doing this by the forthcoming cross-Government integrated review.
I pay tribute to everyone involved in the covid support force. Will the Minister give an early indication of how this current deployment might influence the integrated review and whether defence planning assumptions will be amended to reflect the fact that the MOD has again provided extensive liability to support the civil power?
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right that the lessons learned will be picked up by the IR. There will be many points to take on board from what has been a formidable military effort, including the value of being plugged in early for effective working at regional and devolved level. The huge value of our reserves, not only to their local links but for the specialist skills they can bring to bear, and for their agility in coping with all the tasks of our brilliant military planners and logisticians, is a point that will not be lost on my hon. and gallant Friend, a former commanding officer of 27 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps.
What steps his Department is taking to commemorate VE Day. 
I am sure the whole country was disappointed that the planned parades and commemorations could not take place, but the activities we did manage were, I felt, still a very fitting tribute to the greatest generation. From the Red Arrows over London to our ships at sea and the military banners in the gardens of Downing Street, I was proud of the way our armed forces still managed to mark such an important moment for our nation.
My dad fought in Burma during the second world war, and clearly VJ Day has always been very significant to my family. What plans does my hon. Friend have to celebrate VJ Day in the middle of August?
First, may I thank my hon. Friend for her unstinting support for our nation’s armed forces? Like everybody, I am hoping the lockdown measures will have been lifted further to allow us to celebrate and commemorate VJ Day properly later in the summer. That day is every bit as important as VE Day, and the MOD wants to make sure that it is marked just as enthusiastically.
What support his Department has provided to the overseas territories during the covid-19 pandemic. 
HMS Medway and RFA Argus, along with 30 military personnel, are currently deployed in the Caribbean, and our garrisons in the overseas territories have been engaged in supporting the local communities as they are required.
It is great to hear how our country has helped the Caribbean overseas territories during this emergency. Will the Minister also assure me that our armed forces will have enough resources to support any future humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, if that is needed?
People in the overseas territories will be reassured to see their plight being raised by my hon. Friend in the House today. HMS Medway and RFA Argus are already on post in the Caribbean, but additional naval assets and personnel are on standby. The commitment of our armed forces to support the overseas territories in times of pandemic or national disaster, or whatever else, is unwavering.
What support his Department has provided to veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. 
What support his Department is providing for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. 
What support his Department is providing for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. 
What support his Department is providing for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. 
What support his Department is providing for veterans during the covid-19 outbreak. 
I have used this unprecedented situation to continue to modernise and improve our support to veterans in the UK. Last week, I launch the first stage in placing veterans’ care in the palm of the hand of every veteran in the country, with the launch of the smartphone application of Veterans UK. I have also secured £6 million of funding from the Treasury for service charities at this time.
Although the UK was unable to celebrate VE Day as originally planned, because of the threat of covid-19, it is still important that we remember and support the veterans who bravely played their part in fighting for peace and who sacrificed so much for our freedom. The UK’s armed forces compensation scheme, which helps veterans claim for injuries obtained while in the armed forces, was temporarily paused because of the covid-19 lockdown. Can the Minister assure my constituents that payments will be made as soon as possible? When will those payments be made?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am afraid he may be slightly misinformed; we have not missed any payments. We made 470,000 payments last month. Veterans’ care has not been suspended in the UK. We have, as the Secretary of State alluded to earlier, changed the way we provide services, but I am unaware of a single veteran currently in the care of Veterans UK who has not had their need met during this time.
But that is not good enough. Other Departments and businesses have found ways of operating call centres safely, so at a time when the nation has been awed by the efforts of Captain Tom Moore, why has the Ministry of Defence closed its vital Veterans UK helpline—the telephone service? It is not good enough.
I am certainly not going to take lectures on what is and is not good enough from a Labour party whose veterans’ care I experienced over a number of years. No services have been closed. We have changed the way of doing business. Clearly we cannot do new face-to-face consultations at this time. Again, I reiterate that not a single veteran in the care of Veterans UK has had their needs unmet at this time. I would caution Members against politicising what is clearly a very important issue.
Half of respondents to a recent Army Families Federation survey said that they had received no information at all about the Ministry of Defence’s future accommodation model. What are the Government doing to rectify that?
Again, I find that hard to believe, because we have gone out on a huge programme of engagement around the future accommodation model. This is a significant part of what the Government are doing to invest in what we call the offer to keep people within the military. If anybody requires that information, I am more than happy for them to get in touch with me. We have used the Army Families Federation’s publications and so on. I am always happy to do more. This is a communications battle we are determined to win. It is a positive step, and I look forward to engaging further with the Army Families Federation in future.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister has heard me speak previously about how fortunate veterans in Hull are to be supported by the Hull Veterans Support Centre and Hull 4 Heroes, which have been doing an incredible job in providing resources and mental health support. But I remain concerned that these are charities and are therefore competing with all other charities for donations at this time. So what specific funding can the Minister make available to support veterans’ charities?
I pay tribute to Hull 4 Heroes, which the hon. Lady knows I have been in contact with. It has done an amazing job during this time, as have many in the veterans’ sector. We have secured an initial £6 million out of the Treasury to support veterans’ charities at this time. But make no mistake—the environment that these charities operate in is changing, and will change, as a result of covid-19. I am absolutely determined to make sure that the ambition the Prime Minister has set out—that this is the best country in the world to be a veteran—is realised in due course.