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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 458: debated on Monday 26 March 2007


The Secretary of State was asked—

Manning Levels

1. What assessment he has made of the references in the report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to the adequacy of manning levels in respect of operational commitments. (129295)

Mr. Speaker, with the leave of the House, let me begin by saying that I know that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to the 15 members of HMS Cornwall currently detained by Iran. Our thoughts go out to their friends in theatre and to their families back here in the UK. I do not intend to comment further on the issue, other than to say that we are doing everything possible to secure their release. At an appropriate time in the near future, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will inform the House of the diplomatic efforts that are being pursued.

We welcome the 2007 independent report by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and acknowledge the issue that it raises about manning levels. On 1 March, I announced that the Government had accepted the report’s recommendations and would implement them in full without delay. As a result, all service personnel will receive at least a 3.3 per cent. pay increase, with the 13,000 lowest paid receiving 9.2 per cent. In total, about £350 million more a year will go into pay and allowances. I also announced that we are committing £17 million to financial retention initiatives in areas where we face particular manning challenges, including the infantry and the marines—an approach endorsed by the AFPRB and the National Audit Office. We are doing all that we can to sustain manning levels for our operational commitments, and I and the chiefs of staff continue to judge that current commitments are manageable.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of every Member will be with those illegally detained by the Iranian Government, and with their friends and families.

The Secretary of State will know that the AFPRB’s report described manning levels in the armed forces as critical and fragile. Recruitment and retention in the armed forces rely on trust, but how can people trust what the Government say about forces’ funding? Last week in the Budget, the Chancellor sought to give the impression that there is an extra £400 million for forces’ funding, but it turns out to be nothing of the sort: it is operational costs, which will be paid out of the Treasury reserve next year in the usual way. So how can men and women in the armed forces trust what the Government say, when even on something as fundamental as forces’ funding the Chancellor of the Exchequer is playing smoke and mirrors?

There can be no criticism of the Treasury’s support for the armed forces in the form of resources not just for pay and operational allowances—we have been able to announce the operational bonus in recent months—but for other areas. It would be much easier to conduct this debate about funding, including what comes from the reserve and what comes from the core Ministry of Defence budget, if other hon. Members—I excuse the hon. Gentleman from this—did not seek to give the impression that operational costs come from the MOD’s core budget. It is well known that in every Budget and pre-Budget report, the Chancellor refers to the access to the reserve for supporting operations.

I join the Secretary of State in his comments; our thoughts go out to the families of the 15 members of HMS Cornwall, which is of course a Plymouth-based ship.

The 9.2 per cent. pay increase for the lowest paid personnel is welcome, and is not the real message from the pay review board that one can do a great deal about retention and recruitment by targeting money? I also thank my right hon. Friend for the money that was spent on rewarding medical service personnel.

I am very grateful to the AFPRB and to the National Audit Office for pointing out in their respective reports the way in which targeted incentives or financial help can assist in meeting the challenge of recruitment and retention. This year, we intended that the armed forces’ settlement would help particularly the least well off—the worst paid among our troops. That was exactly what the AFPRB recommended, and I was very pleased to be able to accept that recommendation.

Will the Secretary of State accept my congratulations on the pay settlement? Is he able to tell us what the consequences of the Budget tax changes will be, and how they will affect the lowest paid in the armed forces?

I accept with alacrity the right hon. Gentleman’s congratulations on the armed forces pay review settlement. The Budget’s impact is different for different people; for example, single-earner couples with children on a private’s salary will gain from the package by more than £300 a year, and I could give more examples. He asked specifically about the lowest paid. He will know that their salary will go up to £15,677, ignoring the operational bonus. The strict effect of the Budget is that those who are single and in receipt of that amount of money will be worse off by the equivalent of about £1 per week, but one has to take into account the fact that almost all of them are likely to attract the operational bonus, so that must be factored in, too.

Harmony guidelines have been consistently broken, planning assumptions breached, readiness targets not met and essential training requirements not fulfilled. Even the Chief of the Defence Staff says that the armed forces are very stretched, so just what does it take for the Defence Secretary to admit that we are asking too much of our armed forces?

The hon. Gentleman sought to get the Chief of the Defence Staff to agree at the Defence Committee evidence session that we were asking too much of the armed forces, but he would not agree. It takes exactly the same for me, as for the Chief of the Defence Staff, to admit to that, which is not correct. We are not asking too much of our armed forces; we are operating at levels that are higher than the assumptions that informed our operational planning. If that is not addressed, we know what the long-term consequences will be; but the hon. Gentleman was told by the Chief of the Defence Staff during the evidence session that we are already taking steps to address those issues. As the Chief of the Defence Staff said, the screw is being somewhat loosened by the decisions that have already been made in relation to the tightened circumstances of the armed forces..

The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with the families of those taken illegally by the Iranians in the past few days. Because we are aware of the diplomatic sensitivity, we shall not press the Government on the issue today, but we obviously want Parliament to have a chance to discuss it as soon as possible. I am sure that the House would also like to send condolences to the families of the submariners of HMS Tireless who were killed on active service—another example that shows how much they risk in our name.

On the question of overstretch in the armed forces, the basic problem is that the Government produced the strategic defence review, defence planning assumptions came from that and a budget was designed to suit it. The Government then exceeded those defence planning assumptions in the past five years. At the same time, they are cutting the size of the Navy, the Army and the RAF, yet they are increasing expectations and activity levels. When will it dawn on them that with defence spending of only 2.2 per cent. of GDP, the lowest since 1930, they cannot conduct wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with peacetime resources, because the people who will ultimately suffer are those in our armed forces, with the inevitable consequences for recruitment and retention that we are now beginning to see.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that a statement will be made to the House as soon as appropriate, which will be in the near future. I join him in his condolences to the families and comrades of those who lost their lives on HMS Tireless and, indeed to the submariner who was injured in that incident.

The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged views a number of times at the Dispatch Box about how properly to interpret the investment that we are making in our armed forces year on year. I see now that he has moved on from the criticism he used to level at us, and now says that we are cutting the amount of money that we spend on the armed forces as a percentage of GDP. The fact is that we spend £32 billion a year on the defence budget. That, of course, as we have already discussed at Question Times, is supplemented by access to the special reserve in relation to operations. The hon. Gentleman has had plenty of time to indicate whether, if his party comes into government, he will increase that amount of money, or not increase—

RAF Innsworth

2. What consideration he is giving to the ongoing use of the RAF Innsworth site; and if he will make a statement. (129296)

There is no further Royal Air Force requirement for the Innsworth site beyond 2008. As is normal practice, we are now assessing whether there is any other military use for the site. It is too early to make any firm commitments, but one option being considered is that it should house British forces returning from Germany in the 2008-12 time frame.

I thank the Minister for the response and the letter that I received from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on 13 March regarding that possible transfer. Innsworth is quite a deprived area and the armed forces provide the life blood of it, so it came as a body blow to the area when the announcement was made to close the site as an RAF site. I urge the Minister to give serious consideration to moving another operation to the area, to make that decision as soon as possible, and to make the transfer, should it be to Innsworth, as soon as possible, because we do not want too long a gap between the two.

I share the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman about the impact on local communities when such a closure takes place, but I am sure that he will appreciate that what we are seeking to do by co-locating the two main RAF headquarters on one site makes sense in defence terms, for a whole lot of good value-for-money reasons, as well as people reasons. In terms of the future use, my view is that we should be looking, as progressively as we can, to move forward the timetables. I would not like to see a major planning blight descending on that site for any length of time, if at all. It is an important site. That is why we have designated it as a potential—probable—site for other military use. If that does not happen, we should make our decisions quickly so that alternatives uses can be found.

Ballistic Missiles

3. What preliminary proposals for ballistic missile defence installations in the United Kingdom have been discussed with the United States. (129297)

The UK makes a valuable contribution to the US ballistic missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and our well established technical co-operation programmes. We regularly discuss with the United States our ongoing support and, as I and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have said on many occasions, we will inform the House of any change to the current position.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the position of NATO’s missile defence programmes?

The position in relation to NATO is that there was a process of assessment as to whether the ballistic missile defence would make a contribution to NATO defence. That process reported, indicating that such a contribution could be made, following the completion of the feasibility study. NATO continues to examine the options for and the implications of territorial missile defence, but it has no plans, nor has it set a timetable for any specific decision.

What part will RAF Fylingdales and the US base at Menwith Hill play in any negotiations with the US on missile defence? Will there be a full and public discussion of any developments at those sites?

When the decision was made to incorporate RAF Fylingdales into the US missile defence system, there was a full debate in the House in relation to the role that it would play. That role—[Interruption.] I am not going to go into the detail of that. There was a full debate. An important contribution is made, in radar terms, to the system. No decisions have been taken in relation to any other facility or site. The discussions are ongoing and, as I told the House when I answered questions on the matter last month, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to explore, both through the United States and our NATO allies, the implications that any system of this nature might offer for the security of the UK. That is the stage that we are at. That is what we are currently doing. When there is anything further to report, we will of course report to the House.

I know that the Secretary of State is aware that the Polish newspaper, Trybuna, on 7 October last year published an article that stated:

“the United Kingdom has revised its stance and—there are many indications of this—it will make the Orkneys accessible for building the second base of universal application.”

The Secretary of State was good enough to tell me in a telephone conversation last October that that was not the case. Will he confirm that denial today and will he also confirm that neither Orkney, nor for that matter Shetland, is being considered by the United Kingdom Government in relation to an installation of this nature?

I know of no change in the information that I gave the hon. Gentleman when he last spoke to me in relation to this matter. As I have told the House, no sites are being considered in our very preliminary discussions in relation to the siting of any missile defence.

But the Government have taken a decision in principle to support missile defence as something that the Americans may wish to deploy. We know that from the memoirs of Sir Christopher Meyer, who wrote of the toothpaste summit when the Prime Minister first met President Bush in Washington, back in President Bush’s first year of office. We have had a tremendous debate about nuclear weapons in this country. When are we going to have a proper debate in the House about the principle of missile defence? That issue is dividing NATO and destabilising relations with Russia.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the United Kingdom already makes a contribution to the US missile defence system through RAF Fylingdales and that there is other co-operation through technical programmes. All that is entirely consistent with the issue of principle. The House also knows that the Government’s position—I think that most hon. Members share this view—is that it would be irresponsible not to explore with the US and its NATO allies the possible implications of the system for the security of the UK—[Interruption.] I can tell the hon. Gentleman that when there is something to report to the House, a report will be made. However, no decisions have been taken at this stage, and there are no developments that require the matter to be reported to, and debated in, the House.

Given the ever-increasing prospect of rogue states, including perhaps Iran, acquiring a ballistic missile capability, does not the Secretary of State understand that it is his duty to engage in public debate, not to hide behind spurious claims that he needs to protect international relations? As far as the Fylingdales upgrade is concerned, may I remind him that there was so little debate that the Defence Committee issued a report in January 2003 that said:

“We strongly regret … the way in which the issue has been handled by the Government. We believe that it was a mistake on the part of the MoD to fail to respond to calls for a public debate of this issue for much of last year”?

Why cannot the Secretary of State share with us the assessment that he has made of the risk, and of the benefits or drawbacks, that might result from the UK’s participation in positioning ground-based interceptors on our soil? Alternatively, as was the case with the Fylingdales experience, are we once again to be bounced into a decision without the House or the public being engaged?

I know of the support of the hon. Gentleman and his party for engagement in ballistic missile defence. As he says, there are developments throughout the world that suggest that ballistic missile defence will make a significant contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom. This is a US system, and, currently, the US has not asked to examine any UK sites—for example, regarding any element of its missile defence system. I am reporting to the House the current state of our relations with the United States on this issue. I have given hon. Members an undertaking that when the situation moves beyond that, I will report to the House.

Red Arrows

I am delighted to hear that answer. However, there is concern about the future of RAF Scampton, the base at which the Red Arrows are located. There have been rumours in the press that the Government’s penny-pinching on the defence budget means that the colours of smoke used in the displays are under threat. Will the Minister give a commitment that no aspect of the Red Arrows will change and that they will remain at the forefront of display teams in the UK?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I will certainly examine the matter because we take great pride in what the Red Arrows do, not only in this country, but internationally.

I will come to RAF Scampton in a moment. I am trying to pay tribute to the Red Arrows, which I thought that the hon. Gentleman would want me to do. The Red Arrows make a major contribution in many ways. They fly the flag for this country and help recruitment to the RAF.

RAF Scampton, like several RAF airfields, is under review because we need to find the optimal basing for all our RAF assets. We have already taken some decisions on the Nimrod MRA4 and on future basing for the joint combat aircraft and Typhoon. We will continue to examine what the best lay-down will be and announcements will be made in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his straightforward answer. However, may I press him a little further and suggest that he should increase the budget of the Red Arrows? As we know, all young people, such as Chorley air cadets, aspire to join the RAF and especially want to join the Red Arrows. Will he ensure that we will have the fine aircraft and the fine personnel that keep them flying, and that there is a bonus for BAE workers in Lancashire, which is why I am pressing him to increase the funding?

I can tell my hon. Friend that in the next three financial years the funding will be £5.6 million, £5.7 million and £5.9 million. He can take some credit for putting pressure on us to ensure that increase in the budget. Of course, there are other associated costs, too. The Red Arrows are not under threat; it does not matter what newspapers say or what criticisms people concoct. They are not under threat—end of story.

The citizens of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire take huge pride in what the Red Arrows do, and I am glad to hear from the Minister that their budget will not be cut. However, we should not consider them to be purely a flag-flying operation, as they clearly provide crucial battle flying skills for the RAF. Will the Minister please assure me that crew will continue to be trained regularly, and that the expense will be borne, so that the skills that they acquire can be spread throughout the Royal Air Force?

I do not think that we can keep the Red Arrows flying without meeting that commitment, because it takes the highest skill to fly those aircraft, no matter what colour the smoke coming out of the back. I am sure that the fact that we are retaining the Red Arrows means that the element of the requirement that the hon. Gentleman mentions will be retained.

As an east midlands MP I am pleased that the Red Arrows are based at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. I am sure that the Minister will agree that the Red Arrows are a public display of the pride, talent and professionalism of our armed forces. Will he confirm that the figures that he has just announced to the House, which represent barely half a day’s worth of the annual defence budget of £32 billion, will be protected in the medium and long term?

The original question was about the commitment over the next three years, and I have given that firm commitment. It would be very easy for me to say, after all the plaudits that I have given, that I do not see any chance of the situation altering, and I do not, but I cannot make commitments for what my hon. Friend calls the medium and long term, and that would apply to any part of defence expenditure. I have given a firm commitment: there is no threat to the Red Arrows and the budget is increasing over the next three years.

Bullying (Armed Forces)

5. What steps he is taking to combat harassment, discrimination and bullying in the armed forces relating to gender, race and ethnicity; and if he will make a statement. (129299)

In 2006 the Ministry of Defence published an overarching equality and diversity scheme that sets out our approach to equality and diversity. Measures that we intend to undertake are set out in our annual action plan, published in conjunction with the scheme. The armed forces have entered into formal agreements with the Commission for Racial Equality to promote racial equality and take action to prevent racial harassment and discrimination, and with the Equal Opportunities Commission to prevent and deal with sexual harassment.

In the light of recent comments that again highlighted the continuing existence of racism in the armed forces, will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will address any forms of latent or overt racism in the armed forces by developing measures to tackle the problem head-on—for example by developing an independent military complaints body to give voice to those who have experienced any form of discrimination and bullying?

On the point about an independent military complaints authority, we set up an independent complaints system as part of a Bill that recently went through Parliament. There is no place at all for discrimination or harassment in the armed forces, and I can tell the hon. Lady that from the very highest levels downward, there is clear commitment to making sure that they do not take place and to dealing with them when they do. For instance, we ensure that progress reports are made to the Equal Opportunities Commission, and we have a new complaints procedure in place. Of course, training and education are key, and above all else, it is leadership that delivers that. That is why I am confident that the armed forces are clearly moving forward on the issue. Any discrimination or harassment is just not acceptable.

Last Thursday and Friday, I visited Her Majesty’s naval base Clyde at Faslane, and I was impressed by the quality of the new single living accommodation for new recruits to the Navy. There was slight concern that because the new accommodation is en suite, there is a danger that the young ratings will just go to their rooms of an evening, so bullying and harassment may go undetected. Does my hon. Friend agree that commanding officers will have to take on board and recognise that? Although the new accommodation is much better for the ratings, commanding officers have to recognise that such a problem could occur.

Like my hon. Friend, I have visited a number of single living accommodation units in recent months, and I was very impressed by their quality and standard. I have also talked through the issue with commanding officers. For instance, I have discussed with regimental sergeant majors how we can ensure that protection, advice and training are given to look after our young recruits. She may have noticed that the adult learning inspectorate recently concluded that substantial improvements had been made everywhere, and that there were some marked achievements. It described our achievements as

“something of a triumph of focused effort to resolve serious problems.”

A tremendous amount of effort and time have gone into ensuring that we deal with bullying and look after our new recruits. The living accommodation in the new facilities that we have put in place is one way of doing so.

This evening, “Panorama” will show a programme about a huge increase in soldiers going absent without leave from active service. If that is the case, does it have something to do with bullying, or are our servicemen being stretched too far and not receiving the medical back-up that they need?

I totally rebut any such allegations. In fact, there has been a decrease in the past few years in the number of people going absent without leave. The latest figures are lower than they were seven years ago, and there is strong support for people who have developed mental health problems in the armed forces, on the bases and elsewhere. Some of the evidence shows that a key reason for members of the armed forces going absent without leave is relationship issues. In my surgery on Saturday, I met someone who had been in that position and wants to rejoin the Army—that was exactly the position in which they found themselves. That is how many of the issues arise. The support is there, and there is a welfare line that people can contact, so I reject and rebut the allegations completely.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is clearly not aware of the excellent provision for a service complaints commissioner in the Armed Forces Act 2006. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me when that office will be set up? I have tabled written questions on the issue, but because of the snail’s pace at which the Department answers questions, I have yet to receive a reply.

I, too, support the development of that process, and may I assure my hon. Friend that progress is being made, and we will certainly be in a position to make a further announcement?

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that while of course there is no place for bullying and discrimination, it is nevertheless a fact that those young men and women, who are covering themselves in immense distinction under circumstances of great difficulty in Iraq and Afghanistan, can do so because they go through a very tough and robust training programme, which is designed to prepare them for what they are likely to meet if they have to go on active service? Will he therefore be very careful, and not be seduced in any way by the siren voice of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), whose talk is of a kind unknown to the armed forces, which want to get on with it and do the job that they know they need to do, and be trained to do it.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Clearly, we have to have robust and challenging training, because of the nature of operations and service that our armed forces have to undertake. Again, I have visited a number of training establishments in the six months I have been in this job. I have been impressed both by the robustness and the challenges of the training for recruits, and by welfare support and support generally, given the issues that recruits may encounter. I completely accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman—we need robust and challenging training, but we must put procedures in place to make sure any complaints can be dealt with and that people are comfortable, if they suffer any difficulties, with the system for making a complaint.

South Africa

6. What support his Department has allocated to peace support training in South Africa in 2007-08. (129300)

Building peace support capacity will remain a high priority for the MOD in support of the UK’s overall approach to conflict prevention across sub-Saharan Africa during 2007 and 2008. In South Africa, the nine-man British peace support team, which is 50 per cent. funded by the South Africa national defence force, will continue to provide training and advisory support in the areas of military education, peacekeeping, doctrine development, training and sustainment. In addition, the team co-ordinates UK-funded attendance of South African personnel on related courses in the UK and across Africa. We have allocated £1.3 million to support this effort in 2007-08.

I congratulate the armed forces on the vital work that they are doing in that area. Does my right hon. Friend agree that military capacity must be aligned to political will in South Africa? As Zimbabwe spirals ever closer to anarchy, does he agree that South Africa must provide regional leadership for intervention and conflict prevention in that country?

My hon. Friend asks about a very important aspect. With international allies, we have been trying to get regional groupings together, with the support of the African nations. In the west of Africa there is a well functioning organisation in place, ECOWAS—the Economic Community of West African States. SADC—the Southern African Development Community—in the south is somewhat limited because of Zimbabwe’s presence within it. There is a similar initiative in the east of Africa. My hon. Friend is right. It is about building not just the military capacity of the African nations, but their capacity to govern outwith their own area. As ever, there is the strapline of African solutions to African problems. We will continue to help wherever we can to meet those problems as they arise, as part of international coalitions in friendship with those African nations.

Veterans Day

The Department has increased the support available to regional veterans day events for 2007. Organisers can bid for up to £10,000 for their individual regional events. Officials have also provided advice to all 65 bids so far received on conveying effectively the key messages and on the presentation of veterans badges by leading members of the community as a central feature of the day.

I thank the Government for their establishment of and continued support for veterans day. The Minister is aware that last year the main celebration in Scotland took place in Dundee in my constituency and was a resounding success, thanks mainly to Government funding and the hard work of the local combined ex-service association ably led by Bruce Kelly and Victor Herd. This year, however, there seems to be a problem with funding. Will the Minister agree to meet me so that we can ensure that the success of Dundee’s day last year will be repeated this year?

I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend. As he probably knows, we have increased the amount of funding available this year. Whereas last year we centred it on major cities, this year we are trying to involve many more towns and cities and therefore spreading the funding around. We have had an enormous number of bids. I am pleased to say that Birmingham has been agreed for a national event and of course there will be events in Greenwich in London as well. This is a great opportunity for us to celebrate and get across the importance of veterans, their contribution to our society and the services that are available for them.

Will the Minister bear it in mind that veterans are increasingly young and that on the whole, when we celebrate Armistice day, we are celebrating an historic event, but when we celebrate veterans day, we are celebrating contemporary people who have served recently in the forces? We need to shift the focus of public understanding to the contribution made by the current generation to the armed services, which is in danger of being lost.

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Veterans are of all ages. One whom I met a few weeks ago was 22, and a Normandy veteran was 86 or 87. At a veterans event that I attended recently in my constituency, I was struck by the ages of veterans. I met a number of young veterans and discussed the issues affecting them. It is right to get across the diversity of age and the important role that veterans of all ages and backgrounds have played in protecting the peace and representing this country as a force for good.

Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State for Defence himself recently came to present badges to veterans in my constituency? The event was a great success, even though we did not get the amount of money that Dundee did. We managed to raise the money ourselves. Will the Secretary of State visit my constituency again, and will he recognise that veterans in my constituency are very proud of the fact that they served with others from other parts of the United Kingdom, and that an artificial division between those who served from Scotland and those who served from other parts of the United Kingdom, as some would wish, would be absurd and obscene?

I agree with my hon. Friend that that would be absurd.

The veterans badge has been a widespread success. More than 400,000 badges have been issued, and there are more applications to come in. We are gradually increasing the time frame for applications. I recently announced that 1984 will be the next stage when people can apply for veterans badges, which will take the Falklands campaign into account. Feedback from veterans indicates that they value the badge, and I would be more than happy to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency to present some badges.

I wish the Minister well with this year’s veterans day. If we are to have the maximum public participation and recognition, should not we all be able to take part and should it not be a public holiday?

I will not go down the road of a public holiday at this point. It is important that we all take part. A number of hon. Members have said that they are involved in events that will take place in the week of veterans day. It is crucial that Members of Parliament give their support—many have already done so—which is increasing all the time. Any support or encouragement that Members of Parliament can give to their local events will be most welcome.

The best way to support the splendid innovation of veterans day is to back the campaign by the loved ones of 98 of the soldiers who have fallen in Iraq to have the work “Queen and Country” by the official war artist, Steve McQueen, which includes photographs of those 98 fallen soldiers, produced in the form of a postage stamp by the Post Office as an act of commemoration.

I repeat my earlier comments about the importance of veterans day and of the various events and initiatives to raise the profile of veterans. I am happy to speak to my hon. Friend to discuss that issue, of which I have no knowledge at this time.

I commend the Ministry of Defence on its work on veterans day. The Minister mentioned the Falkland Islands in an earlier answer to a supplementary question: is he placing any emphasis on the fact that this year is the 25th anniversary of the defeat of the Argentineans and their expulsion from the Falkland Islands? Is he allocating any particular resources to recognising the contributions that our veterans of the Army, Navy and Air Force played in that epic event in our history?

The hon. Gentleman has been supportive in maintaining the profile of the Falklands campaign. We pay tribute to all the veterans who took part in that campaign, some of whom are still serving today. Last week, I met some of them in Portsmouth—they did a tremendous thing for this country. We are focusing on the Falklands this year, and commemorations and funding have been agreed. I am going out to the Falklands later this year with the veterans to visit the area and meet people. That is an important part of the focus of this year’s veterans day, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will play his part.

Armed Forces Pay

8. What changes there were in rates of pay for the UK armed forces in each of the last 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (129302)

As my hon. Friend will be aware, pay rates for the armed forces are recommended annually by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Since 1998, the average increase has been 3.3 per cent.

A number of units within our armed forces seem to be regularly rotated into front-line action, and rightly so—one thinks of the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. In an earlier answer, my right hon. Friend said that he will focus on better pay and conditions in those particular units to ensure that recruitment stays high. I welcome his commitment to support a 9.2 per cent. increase for the lowest paid members of our armed forces, but what more can we do to ensure that those elements of our forces that regularly rotate on to the front line are rewarded properly?

My hon. Friend will know that there is a tax-free operational allowance, which is £2,240 for six months—in my view, and, I think, in the view of the armed forces, it goes some way to recognising the contribution made on operations. As well as those who get a 9.2 per cent. pay rise, the next band up gets a 6.2 per cent. pay rise as a result of the acceptance of the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body report reflects the fact that there are a number of specific incentives, one of which concerns the retention of marines, to address pinch points that result in retention problems in the armed forces. In the past, such approaches have improved our ability to hold on to those who have the skills that we need, whether or not they were deployed in operational theatres, and that is what we will continue to do.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will take a close personal interest in the fact that next month the Army will have its first pay run under the new joint personnel administration—JPA. He will remember that when the system was rolled out in the RAF and the Navy there were errors in the pay of 6,500 members of the RAF and 10,000 Navy personnel. Will he assure the House that he has taken steps to ensure that such errors will not be repeated in the Army’s pay run next month?

I was aware of the teething problems with the roll-out of JPA to the RAF and Royal Navy. The hon. Gentleman will know that when the system was rolled out to the Royal Navy in October 2006 we were able, as a result of the RAF experience, to anticipate some problems and to respond to others timeously for those affected. I am advised that the programme is on track to go live in the Army from March 2007. He may rest assured that it has put in place a number of contingency plans to deal with any possibilities that may arise.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, more than 20,000 people who are employed by the Ministry of Defence live in Scotland; given an average salary of £20,000, that means that nearly £500 million is being pump-primed into the Scottish economy. Is my figure correct? Would he like to speculate on the security of that investment in Scotland in the short, medium and long-term?

As far as I can see, the Scottish people intend to stay part of the United Kingdom, so my hon. Friend may be reassured that the contribution that is being made and the economic consequences of that contribution to the Scottish economy will continue. Of course, the people of Scotland must take into account—this is why they are so intent on staying in the United Kingdom—the fact that taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom, particularly if it were ruled by those who propose to do so, would mean coming out of NATO. In such circumstances, there would be no need for those who currently serve the British armed forces to serve the armed forces of an independent Scotland.

UK/EU Navies

9. What recent assessment he has made of the performance and requirements of the navies of (a) the United Kingdom and (b) other EU member states. (129303)

We regularly assess the performance and requirements of the Royal Navy through routine departmental planning processes. The performance and requirements of navies belonging to EU member states are matters for the countries concerned.

At this time, we should remember with pride the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century, as well as 400-odd years of excellent service to this country. Instead, under this Government, the Navy has been cut, cut and cut again, to the extent that the First Sea Lord has said that this country’s naval capability risks being turned into that of Belgium. He has called in particular for two carriers, which the Government have promised. The main gate decision should have been taken in April 2004; three years later, we must ask when, if ever, the order for the carriers will be placed.

The hon. Gentleman began by discussing the slave trade, and I echo his sentiments on that. We are talking about not only the passing of an Act of Parliament in terms of the abolition of slavery, but the bravery of the Royal Navy—in the main—on the high seas; it tried to stop that ongoing trade after the passing of the relevant Act in this House all those years ago, and many lives were lost in its doing so. The bravery of the Royal Navy should be marked, alongside all the other events that are taking place in respect of the abolition of the slave trade.

The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions, but his main question was about the carriers. We are still committed to carriers, and an announcement will be made when we are ready to make it.

The Minister will know that there were two birthday celebrations last week: the European Union was 50 years old and, last Thursday, our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary was 55. At the celebrations in Berlin, there was a discussion about further co-operation between our EU partners. Following on from St. Malo in 1998 and Le Touquet in 2003, is the Minister satisfied that, as regards the Navy, we have the capabilities required to work more closely with our colleagues so that we can have a more collective approach to our armed services?

I recognise one of the birthdays. Let me deal with the EU aspect. In building up our capabilities with NATO and EU, not only as regards the Royal Navy but across our armed forces, we are meeting the various challenges that have been set, including the headline goals that were laid down for 2010. That is part of the process of ensuring that we have the capabilities required not only to meet the foreseeable demands as best we can anticipate but to be ready for, and able to address, the unforeseen. There are many examples of joint training taking place to build up that interoperability between nations. It is important that we work with our allies in the EU and in NATO and that we stop those who are advocating part of this proud nation coming out of NATO, which would diminish our capacity to defend these shores and work against good European tradition.

Is not one of the requirements of the United Kingdom Navy to obey the rules of engagement set by the Ministry of Defence? Did not the current rules of engagement that allow no conflict in Iraqi waters with Iranian forces lead directly to 15 of our service personnel being abducted by the Iranians?

Rather than speculate about events, let us stand back and understand the sensitivity of the situation. There is too much speculation about what happened and what did not happen. Those carrying out that mission clearly have to respond to the level of threat that is posed to them. We will have to investigate that when they are safely returned to these shores and we get their version of events rather than the speculation that is being paraded around in the media and elsewhere.

Clearly, the most important requirement for the Royal Navy is personnel. One of its great sources of new recruits is the sea cadet units around the country, including HMS Minerva in Llwynypia in Rhondda. However, those units get no direct guaranteed funding from the Ministry of Defence. Is it not time that we put them on a proper footing?

If my hon. Friend looks into this, he will find that that is because of the way in which the sea cadets have been set up as a charitable organisation. I do not have all the information to hand as to the precise structure, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who has responsibility for this, responds to him in detail.

Most of the 29 ships that have joined the fleet since this Government came to office were ordered under the previous, Conservative Government. Is it not a fact that in the past five years the only warship order has been for a single, solitary offshore patrol vessel? When the order for the carriers eventually, and belatedly, comes through, will the Minister guarantee that it will not be used as cover for the cancellation of the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers, which the Navy says it needs to ensure that the carrier taskforces are properly protected?

As has been said many times from the Dispatch Box by previous Administrations as well as this one, there is a continuum in the defence of this country. It does not surprise me that ships that have been commissioned in the past 10 years were ordered in previous periods. The important aspect is that those orders were carried out because it was acknowledged that it is important to maintain the strength of the Royal Navy. On top of that, there is a projected £14 billion capital programme for the Royal Navy in the next decade. That includes carriers, Type 45s and other vessels for the Royal Navy. At the end of that, it will be a formidable Navy.

The Royal Navy is at the point of change—change for the better.

Injured Troops

10. What progress has been made in improving health care provided to troops injured on operations on their return to the UK. (129306)

Selly Oak hospital, part of the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the primary reception hospital for operational casualties. It is a centre of excellence for treating the injuries sustained by our troops. A military-managed ward reached initial operating capability in December 2006. There are 22 military nurses, including military nursing managers, who work at all levels on the ward. That allows the presence of military nursing staff on duty on every shift. We have also increased the overall number of military psychiatric support nurses and have military welfare staff and liaison officers at the hospital.

Personnel who require rehabilitation following hospital treatment may receive it at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court. That world-class facility provides high-quality, appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and individually tailored as necessary to the specific patient.

My hon. Friend knows that a large contingent of personnel from Plymouth is currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot emphasise enough the importance to the families of understanding that there is a decent health care service in place for those who are injured, and equally for those who return from stressful tours of duty. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, despite the recent incident in Cyprus, the Ministry will continue to support decompression programmes—one of which I saw on HMS Temeraire—to assist, for example, Iraq veterans back into regular Army service?

It is clear that we provide top quality, world-class medical support and treatment for our injured service personnel. I have talked to many injured service personnel and their families in recent months. A recent survey at Selly Oak of those who had been discharged showed everybody saying that their care and treatment had been excellent, very good or good. It is clearly an important facility, which we are continuing to develop. We are taking an initiative on reservists and mental health. Mental health support exists pre and post-deployment.

Decompression is important, and commanding officers decide how it is handled and delivered. It clearly has an important role to play in allowing service personnel who return from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to come to terms with their experiences, discuss any difficult problems that they may need to take forward and, of course, relax. That is all part of the process before returning home to their loved ones.

Given the success of Defence Medical Services in keeping alive injured troops who, in earlier times, would have died, is the Under-Secretary satisfied with the aftercare available, especially for those injured out of the services? Is he content with the long waiting list for former servicemen to access psychiatric services? Given increasing awareness of the services available and the problems that former servicemen experience, will he expand the defence psychiatric service to make it the equal of those in America, Australia and the Netherlands?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Defence Medical Services is responsible for such services, pre and post-deployment. As he rightly said, once personnel leave the armed forces, they become the responsibility of the NHS. In October, we announced the reservist mental health care plan, whereby reservists who visit their GPs are referred to the defence medical mental health unit at Chilwell. We are currently working with the Department of Health and Combat Stress to improve further the mental health support for our veterans.

We hope to get several pilot schemes up and running in the not-too-distant future to consider how we improve both the understanding of mental health problems that result from being on operations or in the armed forces and education and support for that throughout the health service. I shall report further to the House as that develops.

Will my hon. Friend note that it is very important that servicemen be treated within units where they are totally comfortable and surrounded by those who they most want to be with? Will he resist any attempt to divide the specialist units from the main national health service providers because it is essential that they be given a wide range of treatments and are not left in conditions that are inadequate in comparison with other NHS patients?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the decision to move away from military hospitals was taken some time ago and it was based on expert clinical and medical advice. It is important to ensure that practitioners, clinicians and military medical staff are able to develop their experience, see a range of cases and be given a range of skills to use out on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq and back home when injured soldiers return. The best way for that to happen is in the context of a large NHS trust where those skills can be developed and honed. The experience they gain there can be used for the benefit of injured armed forces personnel.

General Sir Richard Dannatt said that we may see a dedicated military ward at Selly Oak within three years, but at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister did not seem to believe in the concept at all and we now know from contractors at Selly Oak that it will be at least five years before such a unit is up and running. What is the truth in all that shambles? People in this country think that our troops deserve better than the confusion and contradiction that they are getting and want to see an exclusive military unit inside the NHS as soon as possible.

We are now seeing the best medical treatment ever for our armed forces personnel, thanks to the quality and expertise at places like Selly Oak as well as in the field hospitals in operations out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me make it clear that we are moving towards a military managed ward with initial operating capability and by the early summer we will have full capability. Alterations and works are taking place at Selly Oak hospital to do that. As to General Dannatt’s comments, he raised the issue of having a fully military ward—in other words, a ward with no civilian patients—but it is a problem when there are empty beds and civilian patients need them. It is important to think about how to deal with that problem. With the developments coming up over the next few years, including the development of new units at the hospital at Selly Oak, we will be looking further into how to introduce a military ward into the new facility. We are working with people at Selly Oak and elsewhere to do that, as General Dannatt understands.