Oral Answers to Questions Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Ministry of Defence

Oral Answers to Questions

James Heappey Excerpts
Monday 25th March 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Ian Blackford Portrait Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

6. What steps his Department is taking to support defence jobs.

--- Later in debate ---
Keir Mather Portrait Keir Mather (Selby and Ainsty) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I call the shadow Minister.

Maria Eagle Portrait Maria Eagle (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Can we accelerate the questions, too?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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.

--- Later in debate ---
Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian)  (Alba)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

We do not comment on operational matters of that sort.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham)  (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?

--- Later in debate ---
Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- View Speech - Hansard - -

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)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

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?