Mr Ben Wallace debates with Department for International Trade

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Tue 12th May 2020 Oral Answers to Questions 36 interactions (1,664 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

Mr Ben Wallace Excerpts
Tuesday 12th May 2020

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for International Trade
Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Con) - Hansard

Whether the Royal Navy plans to continue operations in the South China sea. [902468]

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace) - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:05 a.m.

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.

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer [V] - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Mr Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con) - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Dr Jamie Wallis Portrait Dr Jamie Wallis (Bridgend) (Con) - Hansard

What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. [902472]

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con) - Hansard

What support his Department has provided in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. [902477]

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace) - Hansard

On any given day, up to 4,000 men and women of the armed forces support the Government’s response to covid.

Dr Jamie Wallis Portrait Dr Wallis [V] - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker - Hansard

Let us head up to north of the border to David Duguid.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid [V] - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker - Hansard

In calling the new shadow Secretary of State, I welcome him to his post.

John Healey Portrait John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab) - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker - Hansard

We need to shorten the answers.

John Healey Portrait John Healey - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Stephen McPartland Portrait Stephen McPartland (Stevenage) (Con) - Hansard

What assessment his Department has made of the additional support that armed forces personnel could provide to help tackle the covid-19 outbreak. [902479]

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace) - Hansard
12 May 2020, midnight

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.

Stephen McPartland Portrait Stephen McPartland [V] - Hansard
12 May 2020, midnight

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Royston Smith (Southampton, Itchen) (Con) - Hansard

What assessment he has made of the contribution of the armed forces in tackling the covid-19 outbreak. [902484]

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace) - Hansard
12 May 2020, midnight

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.

Royston Smith [V] - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker - Hansard

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.

Mrs Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab) [V] - Hansard
12 May 2020, midnight

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

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.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP) - Hansard

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling the spread of disinformation on covid-19. [902492]

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace) - Hansard
12 May 2020, midnight

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.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law [V] - Hansard

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?

Mr Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace - Hansard

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.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) - Hansard

What work the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is undertaking to tackle the spread of covid-19. [902469]