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Ministerial Responsibilities

Volume 468: debated on Monday 3 December 2007

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.