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Volume 468: debated on Monday 3 December 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What he expects UK troop levels to be in Iraq in each of the next three years; and if he will make a statement. (169645)

We have set out our plans for Iraq to spring 2008, when we plan to reduce UK troop numbers in southern Iraq to around 2,500. Decisions on the next phase will be made at that time, guided always by the assessments of our military commanders and the actual conditions on the ground.

As this is probably the last Defence questions before Christmas, I should like to send our best wishes and condolences to the families and loved ones of the servicemen who have lost their lives, and our wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured, who are still returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we are to reduce our troops in the Iraq field of operations to approximately 2,500, can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be enough force protection should the current situation deteriorate?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial words, which spoke for everyone in the House, and I associate all on the Government side—and, if I may presume to, everyone else in the House—with them; I am sure that they will be noted. I take this opportunity to commend the hon. Gentleman and thank him on behalf of the whole House for his arrangement of the very welcome welcoming party for 12 Mechanised Brigade in the House. That gave us all an opportunity to say thank you to those brave young men and women for what they have achieved in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which has also been considered in detail in the welcome Defence Committee report published today. I assure the hon. Gentleman and everyone in the House that all our decisions on troop numbers are taken on the best and most detailed military advice. At the top of all our considerations is force protection. Under no circumstances would we take decisions that meant that we did not have sufficient force protection for those whom we deployed into the theatre in Iraq or anywhere else.

Last week, seven members of the all-party group on Iraq returned from a successful visit to Baghdad. We found that refugees are returning from Syria and Jordan to Iraq because the security situation has improved. May I say that we talked to four American generals and the British general as well as the leading figures in Iraq, and that the mood is one of cautious optimism?

I thank my right hon. Friend for two things: first, for her consistent support for the Iraqi people, which stretches well beyond the current circumstances of the operations in Iraq. She consistently supported them through the days of Saddam’s despotism and she deserves to have that recorded in the House on as many occasions as possible. Secondly, I thank her for arranging for a cross-section of the House to go to Iraq with her.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend reports back from Iraq what many of us who have recently been there have seen, namely that there is a significant degree of progress. However, that progress is fragile and, as my right hon. Friend well knows, whether it is sustained depends on the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces being able to take advantage of the opportunity that the surge and other developments have created.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he said about the Defence Committee’s report, which is out today. Is he aware of my dismay, and the dismay that I am sure will be felt by all members of the Select Committee, at the headline in the Daily Mirror today—“UK’s Iraq mission a ‘failure’”? That is not what the Defence Committee said; it said precisely the reverse. Clearly, there are real problems in Basra, not least with the police, but some of the things that our armed forces have been doing there—training the 10th division of the Iraqi army, for example—have been an outstanding success, and deserve congratulations.

I thank all the members of the Defence Committee and the right hon. Gentleman, who chairs it, for what, I repeat, is a welcome report. It is a balanced report; I read it over the weekend, having had an advance copy of it, and I welcomed it in the press release that I issued this morning.

To a degree, I share the dismay of the right hon. Gentleman—and, I am sure, that of other members of his Committee—at how the report has been represented in some quarters of the media. However, I have to say that I am getting used to only one side of the Iraq story ever being told. The report is compulsory reading for those who want to know, in a balanced way, what is happening in Iraq.

Significant progress has been made, and our troops there deserve enormous credit for what they have achieved. I will not go through the list of achievements over the past nine months or thereabouts, in particular, but it is significant. It is a fragile opportunity, however, and the Select Committee has identified the questions that we need to ask and the continuing challenges. In our response to its report, we will endeavour, in so far as we can, to give a comprehensive response to those questions.

The House will surely welcome my right hon. Friend’s reaffirmation of our plans for troop numbers in Iraq, but can he confirm that, beyond the spring of 2008, it is still the intention further to reduce the number of Army personnel in Iraq?

All the responses that I have received to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement to the House about troop numbers have welcomed the reduction, but as against a serious consideration of the conditions on the ground and always qualified by the fact that we need to keep matters under review. It is our plan to reduce troop numbers to 2,500, and over the past 18 months we have consistently been able to meet the plans that we have laid out in advance. Our eventual plan, of course, is that when the Iraqi security forces are able to take over total responsibility for security in the south-eastern part of Iraq, we will hand over to them. However, I believe that we will need to continue to support them beyond that point with some degree of training or mentoring, although that will not need to be done with the numbers that we currently have in theatre. Exactly when we are able to get to that point will depend on developments. We have not yet got to the stage of provincial Iraqi control, although that is planned to happen before the end of the year, and we will need to assess the position then. We will need to carry on as we have over the past months and assess the position as we go along, taking careful steps so that we do not regress.

The Defence Secretary says that the goalposts have moved and we can now have 2,500 British troops in Iraq—whereas the Minister for the Armed Forces previously said that we would need 5,000 to ensure their security—because we now know more about the tasks that those 2,500 troops will be undertaking. But how many will be involved in training the Iraqi forces—for example, in operations on the Iran-Iraq border—and what proportion will be reliant on Iraqi security forces for their security?

That issue was raised in some detail in my evidence session before the Select Committee, which may well be the source of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The reason for the difference between myself and the Minister is simply that he was talking at a different time, and the situation has moved on. I accept that the precise figures that the hon. Gentleman looks for will have to be given to the House in the broadest possible sense—consistent with force security, of course—but we are not yet at that stage because we do not yet have provincial Iraqi control. This is all conditions based and based on military advice. As we go along, we will move towards our planned figure of about 2,500 troops. However, the precise figure, as well as exactly which of them will be training and mentoring, which will be involved in operations including protection of routes or operations around the border, and which will be there for force protection and/or to stand ready to support the Iraqi security forces if necessary will be a matter for judgment and military advice at that time. I am not yet in a position to give those precise figures.

I thank the Secretary of State for his comments about the Defence Committee’s report. We look forward to receiving his reply. With the space that has been created by our troops for the Iraqis to take increasing responsibility for themselves, what is happening about the economic initiatives planned for Basra province, which the Prime Minister told the House about on 8 October?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am, however, Secretary of State for Defence, not for development, and I do not want to anticipate announcements that will be made after the time when there is provincial Iraqi control. That will be the appropriate time to make those announcements, because that is when those complementary economic initiatives can be launched. It is no secret that the Government intend to support an economic initiative that is based on Basra, in particular, and is designed to exploit the resources of the Iraqi Government, who have sufficient resources from their oil revenues to be able to invest there. Apart from that, support is available from other countries in the international community to make the best of the oil exploration opportunities, especially given that Basra is a very important city for Iraq because of the port at Umm Qasr and Basra airport, which has been subject to significant development and is now increasingly handling commercial traffic. Such opportunities will be taken forward with the staff of the construction agencies, some of whom are volunteers from the international business community.

Since the Government are maintaining an intention to reintervene in Iraq, what would be the criteria for such reintervention, and where would the men come from, given that the Army is 3,600 men short? According to the Government’s most senior military adviser for the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, our reserves to meet the unexpected are almost non-existent. Is it not time that the Secretary of State told the Prime Minister to stop betraying our armed forces and gave the nation’s finest the tools to do the job?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that the support this Government have given the armed forces has been second to none in terms of investment. He comes at this issue with the same disability as all of those in his Front-Bench team, which is that he always fails to make a spending commitment—oh no, of course, he did. On “Newsnight”, he made a commitment to spend more on the armed forces, but that was a personal commitment, not one for his Government, as I understand it—sorry, I meant his party in Government.

As for reintervention, the most important point about the process of provincial Iraqi control is that a judgment is taken as to whether Iraqi security forces are able to look after the security of the province that is handed over to them. We in Government, with the Iraqi Government and our allies, have done that successfully three times now, and on each occasion we have handed over provinces where we have not had to go back and intervene. That has been achieved because part of the calculation involves the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle problems that may arise. There will be of the order of 50,000 trained Iraqi security forces in the Basra area and surrounding areas by the time we move to provincial Iraqi control. Our judgment is that the responsibility for an area lies first with them; we will have sufficient forces in theatre to support them should the need arise, but it has not, and that is part of the judgment governing the decision to hand over control in the first place.

Ministerial Responsibilities

2. What proportion of his working time he spent on his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence in the last month. (169646)

I am always conscious of my responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence and I am constantly ready to exercise them. It is not possible accurately to determine what proportion of my time is spent on defence issues or Scotland Office issues, however.

I know that the Secretary of State is an extremely conscientious and thoroughly decent man, but last Wednesday he was answering questions from me and others on Scottish affairs, and back in the summer I recall an occasion when one of his deputies had to make a statement on defence because he was still up in Scotland. Does he understand why people on duty 24 hours a day in Afghanistan, facing the most difficult fighting since Korea, or those risking their lives in Iraq, question the commitment of this Government, and does he understand why they say that it is inappropriate and insulting that his job should be a part-time one?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks at the outset of his question. Factually, his account of events was, to a degree, inaccurate. There has been no occasion when I have not been able to answer a question or make a statement at the Dispatch Box while I have been both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is thinking of something that happened about 18 months ago, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), had to make a statement because I could not get back from my constituency. That was before I had both sets of responsibilities. What he said is accurate in fact, but not in time.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, but my constituency is in Scotland—I cannot help that. I cannot move it.

I simply do not accept that the morale of our deployed personnel is lowered by my working patterns. I say that advisedly because I regularly visit members of our armed forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have many issues on their mind, which they are not shy about raising with me, ranging from issues involving their families, their colleagues and the task in hand to their equipment, but they have never, once, raised the issue that the hon. Gentleman asked about. I remind him that, the other day, thanks to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), I spent some considerable time with members of the 12 Mech Brigade who had returned from Afghanistan. I spoke to quite a number of them and not one of them raised that issue.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he need take no notice whatsoever of the pathetic jibes from the military wing of the Tory party? Talking of which, was he as surprised as I was at the antics of the former top brass from their comfortable billets in another place considering that only three days earlier, General Sir Richard Dannatt and Colonel Richard Westley came to the House and, in front of a briefing attended by some 50 Members of this House and the other place, acknowledged the significant new investment in equipment and facilities for our armed forces?

My position, which is supported by those who have seen the operational theatre, by those who are deployed there and by their equipment, is that our forces have never been better equipped. I accept that the challenge is now to maintain that level of equipment for our troops when we deploy them in the future. It is unfortunate, at best, that people constantly refer to our troops’ not being properly equipped to do the job when that is not the case. It is also potentially dangerous because the enemy listens to every single thing that is said in this House or reported in our media. Our troops’ force protection is, in my view, undermined by people who misdescribe the level of protection that they have.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether, while juggling the time between his responsibilities in Scotland and at the Ministry, he has found time to visit Headley Court to see the work that is being done there for wounded soldiers? Will he pay tribute to The Sunday Times’s fundraising campaign to make the facilities there more appropriate to recuperation and to the estimable Jeremy Clarkson, who is leading the campaign? Is it not rather sad that a charitable campaign is doing that rather than a grateful nation?

I have visited Headley Court. It is appropriate that such visits are done privately and not publicised. I have no intention in the future of publicising any such visits. I know that hon. Members from all parties visit our troops in hospital and in rehabilitation centres. They do so quietly; that is entirely appropriate, and I am pleased that they are prepared to do that. I have seen the miracle of rehabilitation—it is nothing short of that—that takes place at Headley Court. Some of the prosthetic limbs that I have seen people working on are miraculous. They are wonders of modern science, and give people a degree of freedom of movement that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I welcome the public support for Headley Court, but there is no lack of Government support for the facility and we only recently paid for a significant new annexe. The Government support Headley Court just as much as anyone else.

At a time when many Members have perfectly legitimate but very well-paid jobs outside the House and earn tens of thousands of pounds while presumably being part-time Members of the House, should we not be thanking the Secretary of State for doing two jobs for the price of one?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I will merely say what I have said every time that I have been questioned about the subject: if people have an issue of substance to raise about the way in which I carry out my job as Secretary of State for Defence, they ought to raise that issue rather than the issue of perceived principle, wrongly calling in aid support from troops on the front line. I do not believe that that support for the argument exists, and I have certainly seen no evidence of it. Although I accept what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said from a sedentary position earlier, I have no doubt that that sort of discontent might now be stamped out.

The Secretary of State will have spent much time preparing for the imminent publication of the board of inquiry into the Nimrod tragedy in Afghanistan. Will he assure the House that all lessons learned from that board of inquiry will be implemented as a matter of priority across the ageing Nimrod fleet?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I intend to make a full statement to the House and he will have an opportunity then to ask me questions—in an informed way, I trust—about the recommendations? It would be inappropriate and disrespectful to the families for me to discuss anything that comes out of the board of inquiry before they have an opportunity to consider its report’s findings.

The Secretary of State evidently did not read the comments of five former chiefs of the defence staff if he genuinely thinks that it is not believed that his having two jobs sends out a terrible signal to members of the armed forces. He will recall that, earlier this month, I asked whether his ministerial salary was paid to him entirely for his duties as Secretary of State for Defence, and he failed to give me a direct reply. However, the Library has spoken to the Cabinet Office and a note to me states that a second official at the Cabinet Office informed the Library that

“following the recent cabinet reshuffle, the Ministry of Defence was instructed to pay Des Browne a ministerial salary and the Scotland Office was instructed not to.”

There may not be enough money in the defence budget for helicopters, but there is enough for the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I shall endeavour, Mr. Speaker, to answer in relation to the original question, which was about the time that I spend on my respective duties. I ask the hon. Gentleman, as I have asked all his colleagues, to judge me by my actions rather than the criticisms that he can manufacture. Our record in the Ministry in the past six months, when I have held both responsibilities, is, in my view, impressive. We have improved the operational welfare package, with council tax relief and free post; offered financial and practical support to assist inquests and improved compensation for those with multiple injuries; sustained outstanding operational medical capability; improved commitments and funding for accommodation, especially single-living accommodation; settled the comprehensive spending review, meaning an additional £7.7 billion for defence spending in the next three years, and—a matter that is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart— ordered two new aircraft carriers, which are the largest vessels ever to be commissioned for the Royal Navy.

Sustainable Procurement

3. What account his Department takes of the Government’s code for sustainable procurement in contracting for procuring food and drink for the armed forces. (169647)

The Ministry of Defence is committed to developing sustainable procurement for food and drink, and we are working with our contractors to identify opportunities. However, we need to ensure that value for money and transparency are maintained in our contracting.

At a time when British livestock farmers are recovering from a foot and mouth disease outbreak, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ministry buying British meat is not only sustainable but good sense? Will he refuse to listen to Ministry buyers who say that price is the obstacle? When the Ministry has worked with the Red Meat Industry Forum to change out-of-date specifications from the Ministry, everybody benefits—from the Ministry to the individual farmer who supplies.

I am more than happy to listen to the points that my hon. Friend or the industry wish to make. Some progress has been made, but price is a barrier in some cases. More than half the beef that we procure is from British sources. That applies to all the pork and all the turkeys, but to only 13 per cent. of the lamb because there are problems with both the product that is provided and its price. If there are ways in which we can work around that, we will examine them and try to move in that direction.

Given the sheer scale of the new project to build a military training academy in St. Athan in my constituency, will the code of the practice be part of the main-gate contract to be signed next year? Will sustainable procurement apply to food and drink at the new tri-service academy?

We will try to implement the code in every aspect of our procurement policy, including applying it to the new facilities at St. Athan, as my hon. Friend requests.

Is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure that he is—that the NAAFI in Cyprus is now being operated by the French? The first thing that they will do to try to make savings is stop British products being sold in the NAAFI shop. Does he agree that that is unacceptable for our troops?

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am not aware of that specific instance. I shall look into it afterwards and talk to him further.

Joint Pay Award Allowances

4. What recent assessment he has made of the operation of the joint pay award allowances system; and if he will make a statement. (169648)

The introduction of the joint personnel administration system has been a significant achievement. It is one of the most complex business change projects in the private or public sector ever introduced. There are no known systemic problems with JPA affecting the payment of allowances to armed forces personnel. Although errors have occurred, much has been achieved to ensure the quality of the service being provided to address problems, including additional training and guidance.

My interest is in the register.

The Minister says that there are no systemic problems, but let me tell him of one. The system is not paying Army cadet force personnel or Territorial Army officers on the unposted list. I spoke to an officer a weekend ago who told me that he had arrears of £5,000. He was articulate and was able to persuade someone to pay him out of an imprest account, but there are hundreds of much less articulate personnel out there who are not being paid. Will the Minister do something about that?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course errors have occurred and would occur in any payroll of that size and complexity, in terms of allowances and the number of people who have to be paid. I am aware that the issue that he has raised has been looked into and I understand that a solution has been found on which work is progressing.

Departmental Policy

5. What steps his Department is taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that the needs of armed forces personnel and their families are taken into account in the formation and implementation of policy; and if he will make a statement. (169649)

The Government recently announced work to develop the first ever cross-Government strategy for supporting our armed forces personnel, their families and veterans. The Command Paper will outline future initiatives and report on those steps that have already been taken in areas such as medical care, welfare and accommodation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that the best interests of members of our armed forces at every rank and their families would be served not by a trade union, but by an armed forces federation similar to those in other countries? That would be better than the current system of having to wait until the generals retire and find a safe place in the other place.

I am not sure whether retired generals would be elected in such a federation. Establishing such a body would change the ethos of our armed forces, so we should not go in that direction without considerable thought. The issue of receiving complaints from our armed forces is very important, and my hon. Friend will be aware of our recent appointment of a service complaints commissioner, a post designed to improve exactly that area of work and ensure that all the complaints that our service personnel raise are dealt with appropriately and thoroughly.

Can the Minister confirm that service wives and families will be talked to when the gap between operational tours is fixed? There is not enough time for men and women to return to their spouses, because there are not enough troops and because disastrous decisions have been made about recruiting and the disbandment of three battalions. Unless the Minister gets the issue right, force levels will drop even further and service families’ morale will be further dented.

I am talking to service families, as the hon. Gentleman does. I know that people are pushed. Their lives can be made difficult in those circumstances, but harmony guidelines are being adhered to in the majority of cases. The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for three further battalions, but he needs to talk not only to the Government, but to those on his own Front Bench, because I understand that although they support that proposal, they do so at no additional cost to the MOD, which would therefore result in cuts elsewhere. The Opposition cannot go on about the Navy, the Air Force and the Army without saying whether they would be prepared to spend additional money on defence. The silence from the Conservative Benches on that issue is deafening.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that advice from the former chiefs of defence staff would be of greater value if it were not couched in personalised and politicised terms, as it was a week or two ago? Does he think that the recent efforts of General Guthrie, the new Tory party adviser, have helped or hindered the efforts of the current chiefs of staff?

My hon. Friend makes a point. We welcome any contribution to the debate about the future funding and development of our armed forces. However, we would not want it to be couched in personal or political terms, because that would only detract from the weight of the points made.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the cross-departmental strategy, as no matter where in the UK armed forces personnel and their families or veterans are based, it is vital to ensure that they receive the same quality of service. Will the Minister ensure that that quality of service is assured in Scotland and Wales as well? When we took evidence from the Scottish Parliament last month on this very issue of health services, we were appalled by the quality of service provided in Scotland.

During the process of drawing up the Command Paper, we need to consult veterans’ organisations, family associations, local government and devolved Administrations as well as the whole of Government in order to get it right. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made a similar point last month in the Chamber and it applies equally to Scotland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does the Minister realise that the most devout hope of the families of any serviceman on operations is that he or she should have the right equipment to undertake their jobs? Although much of the personal equipment is very good on operations, what steps are the Government and all their Departments taking to ensure that more helicopters are got to our forces on operations as soon as possible?

I think the hon. Gentleman knows that we have six new Merlins coming into service and that the first will arrive in spring next year. We are also converting eight Chinooks. Together, those will considerably increase our helicopter capability. We have also done some modifications on Sea Kings to enable them to be capable in the Afghan theatre and they will provide us with greater flexibility. Yes, we understand the need for helicopter capability and we are taking steps to improve it.

Armed Forces

The Ministry of Defence records the number of UK nationals in the armed forces. Specifying national identity within the UK is not mandated, so it is not possible to provide accurate figures for the total number who are Welsh.

May I suggest that, notwithstanding the Ministry’s not knowing the figures, we are pretty sure in Wales that we produce a higher proportion of members of the armed forces than any other of the constituent parts of the UK? Is it not clear that Wales has a strong and proud military tradition? If we are to continue it, do we not need to ensure that when Welsh regiments return from operations tours—as have members of the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh—a proper welcome is given to them in Wales? Should we not pay tribute to their work and, in this particular case, pay tribute to those who died in Iraq, including Private Craig Barber, Lance Corporal Ryan Francis and Corporal Paul Joszko?

Let me say to my hon. Friend that we are very proud of the work that the UK armed forces do and that the Welsh play a very important part in that. I pay tribute to their contribution to the armed forces and to their magnificent and outstanding achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, and there are also the Welsh Guards, who returned from Bosnia. It is very important to recognise what our armed forces do throughout the UK and that they are given a proper welcome home. We have seen examples of that recently and I am delighted to support them.

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). When my father served in the British Army, he often acted as an unofficial interpreter for those of his compatriots who did not have fluency in English. Given the number of Welsh speakers who join the armed forces every year, will the Minister consider allowing those who wish it the facility to receive at least some of their basic training through the medium of Welsh?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way we do the training. Of course, I will look further into issues surrounding the Welsh language and decide whether there is anything more we can do to help.

Veterans' Badges

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that veterans’ badges have been a tremendous success, but they are only one part of the covenant that exists between the Government, the British people and members of the armed forces. What further action does he intend to take in recognising the unique nature of military service?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the recognition of veterans. More than half a million veterans’ badges have now been presented, but the awarding of badges is just one of a number of things that we are doing to support veterans. Veterans day itself is an important aspect of what we are doing, and I am sure that next year even more Members will support it than did so this year. We now have a Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and the Government have appointed a veterans Minister.

Recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made an announcement about priority treatment and I announced new mental health pilots for veterans. The Ministry of Defence will work with the national health service to provide even better support for veterans’ mental health.

The Minister has sensibly led me to my question. Veterans who receive their badges will be interested by Ministers’ announcement of the expansion of NHS priority treatment to all veterans whose injuries or ill health are suspected of being due to service. A veteran hearing that announcement could have been forgiven for thinking that it represented a policy change, but, as the Minister knows, he said exactly the same in a letter to me earlier this year.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should simply ask the Minister whether it represents a policy change.

In his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it clear that he was reiterating the policy on veterans and the priority given to their health. Hull primary care trust has also made veterans’ treatment a priority when their GPs consider that they may have a condition resulting from their service. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it is important for us to convey the message about veterans’ priority treatment, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend was able to make that announcement.

Army Recruitment

The Army as a whole uses a range of methods to attract individuals to a career in the Army. They include the use of targeted advertising campaigns, the latest of which is aimed at potential infantry soldiers among others. A further education bursary scheme is being piloted in recognition of the fact that more youngsters are staying in further education. A dedicated careers website was relaunched earlier this year featuring an online recruiting office where individuals can chat to a recruiter. There are also 39 armed forces careers offices and 84 army careers information offices in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.

I thank my friend for all that information, but am I right in thinking that 7.5 per cent. of the British Army is drawn from Commonwealth countries? Is that number too high, and should a cap be placed on it to reduce our dependence on our friends in the Commonwealth?

We have always recruited from Commonwealth countries, and we think that the balance is about right. It is important that we continue to recruit from the Commonwealth, and we welcome and value the contribution of our armed forces personnel from those countries.

Although he did not mention them, I am sure the Minister will agree that student presentation teams do a very good job in boosting recruitment. Indeed, on 7 February he said:

“These presentations are extremely well received”,

adding that they offered

“significant benefits for future recruiting.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2007; Vol. 456, c. 922W.]

Why, then, at a time when our armed forces are so grossly under-recruited, is the Minister scrapping those formidable recruiting sergeants? Is it to save the blushes of the Secretary of State for Defence in his other part-time job, given left-wing opposition to the teams’ entering Scottish and Welsh schools?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is slightly confused. As his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) will know, the purpose of the presentation teams was not to recruit but to get the defence message across in schools. However, he is right in saying that they did a very good and important job.

We wanted to discover how we could deal with communications better with the resources that we had. That is why we introduced Defence Dynamics, a web-based system. The hon. Gentleman may wish to have a look at it. Only a week ago I visited a school where it has been launched, and found that it was very popular and being used to good effect in lessons. It plays an important role in conveying defence issues to young people in the classroom.

My hon. Friend will know that the Army is putting together a people programme, which will look at the facilities offered to our service personnel when they are not on operations. He knows that peer-group pressure is one method we can use—when people return home, they can explain to their friends what a great life it is being in the forces. Will he, however, look into our traditional recruiting areas and whether they were damaged by the mergers of the battalions and regiments, and will he present a review of that to the House?

My hon. Friend will see that recruitment to the Army has increased: there was a 25 per cent. rise in the last financial year, and we continue to work hard to ensure that that is the case. He is right in one respect, however: the best ambassadors are our armed forces personnel themselves when they go back to their communities; another is people seeing the outstanding job being doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the important role the forces continue to play elsewhere in the world and in the UK. It is also important that we link in our veterans, as they are great ambassadors for the armed forces, too. I believe that we continue to do well in terms of recruitment in what is currently a very buoyant economy where there are many different opportunities for young people.

Topical Questions

As Secretary of State for Defence, my departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need to achieve success in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in the future. I have today made written ministerial statements on the signing of a contract for the purchase of a sixth C-17 Globemaster aircraft to be delivered in 2008, and on the letting of a contract for the future provision of marine services to the Royal Navy.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the representations that have been made in relation to MOD Beith in my constituency and the continuation of an apprenticeship scheme there. Will he hear further representations on the business case for such an apprenticeship scheme, and will he meet the relevant trade unions?

I commend my hon. Friend for her support for the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Beith. I have a personal interest in this matter as my older brother served his apprenticeship there many years ago when it was another institution. I recently wrote to my hon. Friend about the decision taken in 2004 to close the apprenticeship training scheme at Beith. I know that that disappointed her, but the decision was based on the analysis of the business requirement over the next 10 years. There is a declining market for the complex weapons that are processed at Beith, and there was not a sustainable opportunity for apprenticeships in the context of such a business case. However, my hon. Friend is, of course, entitled to make representations on behalf of her constituents and businesses in her constituency, including this one, and I will be happy to meet her at an early opportunity, when we can also discuss whether I need to meet others who wish to make representations.

T2. Given that our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made an immense effort to build relations between the UK and India, what is the Ministry of Defence doing to strengthen relations between ourselves and India on defence issues? (169636)

We see India as an increasingly important strategic partner across a wide range of issues. India is increasingly engaged globally, including as a supplier of troops to the United Nations. We expect the current high level of defence engagement to continue. We see India as an important strategic partner and we continue to engage with it very strongly on defence.

The Chief of the General Staff says that the Army has

“almost no capability to react to the unexpected”,

and the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff says that

“the current material state of the fleet is not good; the Royal Navy would be challenged to mount a medium-scale operation in accordance with current policy against a technologically capable adversary”.

Which of those statements should the country be more worried about?

The Army is stretched—I have accepted that. I have been saying for some time that if we continue to ask it to operate at this tempo in the long term, that will be unsustainable. Over that period, we have been reducing the pressure on the Army. It is recognised that with the conclusion of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland and of the operation in Bosnia, and the planned reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, a significant amount of that pressure will be reduced.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech to the Conservative party conference suggested that the Army needed three further battalions. I do not believe that the Army needs that or that it thinks that it needs that. I accept that we need a balanced force structure in the Army, but that debate will not be helped by people seeking soundbites, particularly the sort that do not bring with them the commitment to invest the £700 million that would be necessary to make them reality.

On the Navy, the process of reducing the fleet was started by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported at the end of the cold war, and has continued in line with the White Paper of 2004 in respect of numbers. The most important thing about our Navy is that with fewer ships it can deliver precisely the same tactical effect as before. I recognise that that does not mean that it can deliver the same strategic effect—that is a function of numbers rather than one of capability—but the ships that the Navy has have significantly greater capability.

But it is not just about manning where there is a gap. There are real gaps at the moment—we have a real shortage of battlefield helicopters, as I saw in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. That came as a direct result of this Government’s decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004. We may be getting more helicopters now, but people in the field are asking what sort of idiots cut the helicopter budget in the middle of two wars. We have ended up with not enough helicopters, soldiers or ships, we are not even paying all our troops and the Prime Minister gives us a part-time Defence Secretary to boot. Do Ministers understand that it is not only former defence chiefs who are angry about this, but increasing numbers inside and outside the armed forces?

The hon. Gentleman knows two things about helicopters from his trip to Afghanistan. The first is that operational helicopter hours in Afghanistan have increased significantly over the past months and that there are plans to increase the number of helicopters quite significantly. He also knows that that investment has been made and that one cannot just buy helicopters off the shelf—one must get them from the production line and make them deployable, and that takes some time.

T4. Has my right hon. Friend seen the opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan, commissioned by the BBC and published today, which shows massive public support for the NATO military presence in Afghanistan and only 4 per cent. of respondents supporting the Taliban? Is that not an encouraging vindication of the great efforts and sacrifice of our troops on the ground, whose courage and professionalism we all so much admire in this House? (169638)

My hon. Friend is right about what we have achieved in Afghanistan. Those who had the pleasure of speaking to the representatives of 12 Mech Brigade when they were in this House last Thursday would know why. Those troops and others who have been on the ground in Afghanistan know fine well what they have been achieving over the past six months, building on the work of the taskforce that was there before them. Those who say that we face strategic defeat in Afghanistan do not understand what our troops have achieved there. Every time we have faced the Taliban, we have defeated them. That is why 60 to 70 per cent. of the people of Afghanistan support the presence of the international security assistance force troops.

T3. On 19 November, the Secretary of State skilfully avoided the question of whether Lord Drayson “approved in advance” the closure of the Defence Export Services Organisation. The reply given was: “The decision…was taken by the Prime Minister. The Defence Secretary was consulted.”—[Official Report, 19 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 475W.]Will the Secretary of State give a one-word answer to the question whether Lord Drayson knew? (169637)

The hon. Gentleman knows fine well that the structure of Government is a matter for the Prime Minister. It has been so for every Government who have ever governed this country, and it will continue to be so.

T5. A written answer earlier this year showed that the Government have spent more than £2.3 billion on external consultants. Does the Secretary of State think that that was good value for money and could it not have been better spent on, for example, our ageing helicopter fleet? (169639)

Significant money has been spent on our helicopter fleet, as we have already discussed. The value of consultants is in whether they genuinely add value to a process and bring skills into government that government does not have. One cannot answer that question in the general sense without examining every contract involved. I am certain that every contract was let on the basis that the consultants coming in would add value.

Last Thursday and Friday, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I had the privilege of attending the defence ethics seminar at Shrivenham. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that seminar is given the support it needs to continue in the future? It is a valuable asset for our services. In addition, will he ensure that other Members of Parliament also enjoy the privilege of attending?

T6. There is real concern among some troops training to go on operations that they do not have access to some of the equipment that they will use on those operations. Will the Secretary of State assure members of 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example, that they will have full access to some of the excellent equipment that is being made available, especially night-vision goggles for drivers, which is of great concern to all ranks? (169640)

So far as it is possible to do so, yes. The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an issue that is raised tangentially, if not directly, in the Select Committee report that was published this morning. The success of urgent operational requirements—UORs—has generated another challenge. Our ability to get good equipment into theatre generates another challenge of providing enough of it to enable people to train with it in anticipation of deployment. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that we meet that demand.

T7. The Minister will be aware of errors that have occurred in the salaries of members of the armed forces. Will he undertake to review the joint personnel administration system, and perhaps to introduce a 24-hour hotline for members of armed forces to query such errors? (169641)

This is one of the biggest systems ever introduced, as I said earlier. If we consider where we were last year, with the problems that we had with the RAF, compared with where we are today, following the introduction of the system to the Army, we can see that we have taken a tremendous step forward. Improving the training, guidance and instructions has been an important aspect of improving the overall efficiency of the system. We are always seeking to improve access for service personnel who have queries about their pay and allowances, including those on operations, and we continue to make improvements.

In my constituency, which is the home of the Royal Navy, we greatly welcomed the announcement of the order for two new aircraft carriers. Can my hon. Friend give me any indication of the progress of the joint venture that will help to deliver them?

Progress on the joint venture is going well and there is no truth in any of the stories in the press about problems in that regard. The two aircraft carriers will be welcomed by my hon. Friend’s constituents, as they will be by the Royal Navy and the nation as a whole.

T8. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with his NATO counterparts about additional combat troops for Afghanistan if, as seems likely, Canada pulls its troops out next year? (169643)

The answer is yes, I have such conversations regularly. I do not accept that it is likely that Canada will pull its troops out. It is of course for the Canadian Government and Parliament to make a decision, but by no stretch of the imagination is the situation as pessimistic as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

T9. Why does the Secretary of State think Lord Guthrie described the Government’s attitude to the armed forces as “mystifying”? (169644)

I am happy to speak for myself, but I am not content to stand at the Dispatch Box and speak for Lord Guthrie. Just as I ask people to judge me by my actions, so people should perhaps judge Lord Guthrie by his actions and then they can come to their own conclusions about why he did what he did.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments of Field Marshal Lord Inge who in a debate in the other place on 22 November cautioned the people who were arguing for the immediate need to resuscitate the three battalions? Is not the onus on individuals who argue for the three battalions, including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to say where they will find the money to pay for them?

I welcome debate about our armed forces—about their size, their deployment and our support for them. However, I am mystified about the three battalions, which appear to have support from Conservative Front-Bench Members. They will cost £700 million if they are added to the Army, yet Tory Front Benchers want to be able to tell the country that they do not intend to spend any additional money on the armed forces. That does not make sense to me, but perhaps they will explain it to the country at some stage.

I thank Defence Ministers for working with their colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to provide more financial resources for Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire, which has been of great comfort to the bereaved. What progress is the Secretary of State making with the Scottish Executive on a seamless approach to the problem of the repatriation of the bodies of those who have fallen? What progress can we expect to see in the near future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of what has been achieved between our Department and, principally, the Ministry of Justice in challenging and difficult circumstances. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the support and co-operation we have all received from all coroners, whether in Wiltshire, Oxford or elsewhere in the country, in dealing with those issues. There is a challenge for the Scottish jurisdiction, because it does not enjoy the power to hold inquiries into deaths that take place abroad. Discussions have been ongoing for some time and they will continue. There is willingness on the part of Scottish Ministers to try to resolve the issue, against the challenges it might generate for their jurisdiction more broadly, which I understand. There is willingness to resolve the issue, but it should not be resolved to the detriment of the families, so we have to be careful how we do it.