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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 470: debated on Monday 21 January 2008


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ex-service Personnel (Housing)

1. What progress is being made on enabling former ex-service personnel to demonstrate a local connection when applying for council housing. (180002)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who was killed in southern Afghanistan yesterday. His tragic death reminds us of the debt of gratitude that we owe those who have lost their lives in the service of our country and those still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On 28 December, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced that we are taking action, as part of the Housing and Regeneration Bill laid before the House, to ensure that service personnel are treated fairly when applying to councils for social housing or homelessness assistance. We are amending the law so that service personnel will acquire a connection with the area in which they are stationed or living, which will put them on an equal footing with their civilian counterparts.

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. To take him a little further in the debate about council housing, we know that, if action is taken early, we can reduce the numbers leaving our services and becoming homeless in our areas. Are discussions taking place between local authorities and the armed forces to ensure that those brave people obtain houses?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bases and the armed forces have regular discussions with a range of people about housing, including not only local authorities, but charities. The resettlement package that we have put together is quite extensive in terms of providing housing advice, too. The latest figures from the research that has been undertaken show that around 6 or 7 per cent. of the homeless are ex-forces. We have a number of partnerships, working with people to provide accommodation for former service personnel who have become homeless. Last year I visited the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation in East Acton, which has an excellent scheme. Project Compass in London is another fantastic charity providing hope and support, particularly for ex-service personnel, not just on housing but on education and work.

Does the Minister agree that that point is important, and that a particularly heavy burden falls on those towns that have substantial service garrisons within them? Service personnel leaving the armed forces while living in those garrison towns will naturally look first to that town, rather than to their local authority of origin. Will he also look at the burden on the local authority of origin, which is particularly important when armed services personnel happen to leave prematurely and unexpectedly?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course there is a lot of pressure on local housing in garrison towns. Our joint service housing advice office is important for service personnel. As I mentioned earlier, the resettlement package that we have put together includes housing advice. Working with local authorities is an important part of that. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board next time I discuss the issue with officials.

Why cannot there be a national scheme that recognises that every local authority has national obligations? Why cannot every local authority be required to top-slice, in order to put a small percentage of voids at the disposal of ex-service personnel, which would maximise the choice to retiring service personnel and be fair to all local authorities rather than to some? Surely that is the answer. Why is it beyond the wit of men and women to organise such a scheme?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that has perplexed many of us: why do local authorities not give priority to ex-service personnel? Many local authorities in fact do so, and they should be praised. We have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and the Department for Communities and Local Government about such issues, and we will continue to do so. As I said in my opening answer, I am pleased by the announcement about the local connection, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will take such matters up.

Is the Minister aware that of the 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in the borough of Rushmoor, which includes the garrison town of Aldershot, some 600 are service personnel and that an increasing number of those are non-UK citizens who have enlisted in the Army? What action is being taken to warn overseas recruits, particularly those who serve for a short period of time, that there is a severe housing shortage in the United Kingdom?

If I may crave your indulgence as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to seize this opportunity to pay tribute to the Army and to Rushmoor council for last week being selected by the British Olympic Association as the pre-Olympics training base for Britain’s athletes. This may be the most depressing day of the year for the Government, but there is great rejoicing in Aldershot.

I add my congratulations to Aldershot on its being chosen. I am sure that it will help to add to our medal total in the Olympic games. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point on housing. I accept that we need to do all that we can to assist with housing and advice, but if we look back to the time when his party was in government, we will remember the amount of house building that took place and the amount of cuts that it made in social housing. This Government have plans to increase the amount of housing provided in this country.


The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. Levels of violence are still unacceptably high, but there has been significant improvement nationwide over the course of 2007. In and around Baghdad, for example, following action by Iraqi and coalition forces, security has been enhanced. In the south, the security situation remains relatively stable. The increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces, under the leadership of Generals Mohan and Jalil, enabled the successful handover of security responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqi civilian authorities on 16 December. The Iraqi security forces have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred since then, such as the disturbances in Basra and Nasiriyah during last week’s Ashura festival.

Senior elements in the Iraqi army say that they have enough people in Basra but that they are dangerously short of equipment. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the Iraqi Government that British efforts will have been wasted if the Iraqi army is unable to procure the relevant equipment quickly?

I am aware of the need to ensure that the Iraqi army is properly equipped to carry out the task that is expected of it. Of course, our focus is not only on training troops but on ensuring that the Iraqi Ministry of Defence is able, through its procurement process, which we support specifically by the deployment of support to the Ministry in Baghdad, to spend the increasing levels of income that the Iraqi Government are able to achieve from the sale of oil. We are making significant progress in that regard, and that equipment is improving day by day. I spoke to General Mohan when he visited last week, and I know that he has expressed some frustration about the pace at which that is happening, but that is a result of a number of different things and we are keeping a close eye on the situation. Procurement is improving.

Can the Secretary of State give us an indication of when he expects the last British troops finally to leave Iraq?

As I have said to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions, we keep these matters under review. We are clear about the progress that we have been able to make, particularly over the past 18 months, with regard to the reduction of our troops in Iraq. I have never been prepared to put a date on when we will remove the last of our troops from Iraq—and I am not prepared to do so now—but it will be a function of the conditions on the ground and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide security for their own people.

Reverting to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), one concern about the Iraqi Ministry of Defence’s procurement processes is that some factions within Iraq might be trying to keep the Iraqi army unnecessarily weak. What can we, the British, do about that? General Mohan is short of machine guns and mortars, and he needs a speedy answer to that problem.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman met General Mohan when he was here last week. I am sure that he was impressed, as I was, by the general’s professionalism and dedication to the job. We are all delighted that he has continued in the job beyond the date of his first appointment. He displayed commendable and professional energy and commitment. He did not raise that specific issue with me but I am sure that he raised comprehensively all the issues that he intended to raise with those whom he met. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but I must point out that, last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence was very successful in spending its procurement budget, to the extent of 85 per cent. We believe that the figure will also be about 85 per cent. this year.

My own observations on the restrictions on spending arise from the cumbersome conditions that have been imposed by the coalition authority to prevent corruption. The need for them is understandable, but the Iraqis are sometimes wary of working through them. I have not heard specific comments from any source about ethnic division in relation to procurement, but I can understand why people might think that such an issue might exist. I shall ensure that that does not become a manifest problem in Iraq in the months to come.

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about the security situation in Basra and he told the House that violence there was down by 90 per cent. Today, a member of the public from York wrote to me to say:

“He, the Prime Minister, chose not to mention that this”—

the decline in violence—

“is due entirely to the oppressive methods used by the police force. They impose extreme forms of Islam on the people. Women are unable to venture out in public unless their dress conforms to the extreme Islamic rules”—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not going to read out a full letter on a supplementary question. He is lucky that I called him.

Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the 90 per cent. figure used by the Prime Minister has been used regularly in the House. It relates to the reduction in violence and it is due substantially to the fact that about 80 per cent. of violence in Basra was directed at our troops when they were based there.

I have no way of knowing the provenance of the information that the hon. Gentleman presented to the House. He is perfectly entitled to put his constituent’s observations to us, but unless we know the factual basis of that constituent’s opinion, we have no way of evaluating it. I asked for and was provided with about 45 minutes of candid footage of the centre of Basra a couple of weeks ago. I saw obvious evidence of women moving around in the town’s markets and they were not dressed as the hon. Gentleman described. I was struck by that because of the assertions that many people had made. It seemed to be a bustling city in many respects. There is violence and I understand that, but Generals Mohan and Jalil—and the army and the police force generally—are improving their ability to deal with it. There is still some way to go—no one ever represents the position differently—but from my own observation of candid footage of the centre of the city, it is not capable of being described as the hon. Gentleman put it.

School Places

4. What discussions he has had with the Essex local education authority on provision of school places for the children of personnel to be stationed in super-garrisons with reference to recommendation 5 of the Defence Committee report on educating service children (HC(2005-06) 1054); and if he will make a statement. (180005)

Although Colchester has been identified as a potential super-garrison, it is too early for any firm decision on that. Regardless of that, the Ministry of Defence and Essex local authority officials continue to discuss schooling for the children of Colchester garrison. Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the Government response to the Select Committee on Defence inquiry responded to recommendation 5 and made our position clear.

I wonder whether the Minister would kindly write to me, and put the letter in the Library, to provide the precise dates when those discussions, and any subsequent ones, commenced. The first the Colchester garrison knew about the proposal to close Alderman Blaxill secondary school, where between 20 and 25 per cent. of pupils are children of military personnel, was when it appeared in Colchester’s Evening Gazette. When did those discussions start and how do they comply with the spirit of the Defence Committee’s recommendations?

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matter and I am happy to meet him to discuss it in further detail. Discussions with the education authority are ongoing and I am assured that MOD officials are content with their involvement in them. I believe that the result of those discussions will be the provision of the best possible education for our service children. As I say, I would be happy to update him at a meeting.

Educational Support

5. If he will make a statement on the provision of educational support to the children of service personnel. (180006)

We believe educational support for children from service families, whether they are in the UK or overseas, is very important. Last year, investment in service schools through the Service Children’s Education agency, in the continuity of education allowance to support children at boarding schools, and in our highly regarded Children’s Education Advisory Service, was more than £230 million. Ministry of Defence officials regularly meet colleagues from the Department for Children, Schools and Families and from devolved Administration Departments to discuss measures to support service children’s education.

I thank the Minister for that answer. My late father served in the Royal Navy for 25 years, so I sampled many different schools around the country. I have to say that the provision today is far superior to what it was when I was travelling up and down Britain. However, will the Minister allude to what is being done for younger children? I appreciate what he is saying about schools, but what about child care for young children, including the issue of vouchers?

I pay tribute to the service of my hon. Friend’s father, of whom I know she is very proud. Our Children’s Education Advisory Service considers regularly the range of education issues and has discussions with local education authorities. Of course, our own education service also provides schools, for example in Germany. Our results are in the top 25 of 150 local education authorities, which is laudable.

My hon. Friend will know that from 10 December 2007 all members of the UK armed forces have had access to the new armed forces child care voucher. They can choose to receive between £30 and £243 per month in child care vouchers instead of cash with salary from the MOD. That is a major step forward. It has been welcomed by the service families federations, and I am sure that it will be well taken up.

Will the Minister bear in mind that across the country about 2 per cent. of children in schools overall, but more than 4 per cent. of service children, have special educational needs? That is down largely to general disruption rather than to any other factor, but it has severe funding implications. Will he draw that to the attention of his colleagues in Government to see whether they can find equitable funding to cope with the tremendous churn in those schools—there are many in my constituency and others—that have a high proportion of service children?

The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point about education for the children of our service families. As he will know from his time on the Defence Committee, our Children’s Education Advisory Service is working hard on the issue, as the Committee has acknowledged. We continue to talk to our colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families and local authorities to ensure that proper support is given. As I am sure that he recognises, the advisory service that we have is first-class and works hard to ensure that support is put in place.

My hon. Friend is aware that the Defence Committee drew attention to the fact that while a lot of good work is being done throughout the UK, we must distinguish between different areas: Scotland, for example, has a different education system from England. In evidence sessions, we found that that was not adequately recognised. When children come from abroad to the UK, it is important that they are made aware of the different education systems. It might be an idea for the education authorities of each of the countries to meet perhaps on a six-monthly basis under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence, to try to collate some of the work that might be done.

My hon. Friend will know that our officials meet with the different Executives and the Assembly Government, and with local authorities, on issues across education. He makes an important point, and I shall consider it and write to him.

The Minister will understand how important it is, in fulfilling our obligations under the military covenant, to ensure that service children are educated as well as possible. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the pupil level annual school census were able to identify service children? What measures is he taking to ensure that service children who join and leave within the academic year, and are therefore not counted, are enumerated for funding purposes?

The Government have introduced a service indicator in the annual school census to gather evidence of any further issues and to fine-tune support for children, which is important. Our Children’s Education Advisory Service is considering the issues of funding and service personnel moving around, and I continue to discuss those issues with colleagues throughout Government. The Command Paper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced recently will consider what more can be done on a range of issues, including education.

The development of super-garrisons will provide great opportunities for stability for service families, and for stability in the education of their children. In response to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), the Minister told the House that his officials have meetings with local authorities about education. Will he assure me, however, that those meetings are meaningful, and that the necessary planning is taking place not just of what is needed for those super-garrisons, but of the funding that local authorities will need to ensure that education is provided around those new super-garrisons?

My hon. Friend has identified the importance of stability for service families, and one of the benefits of the super-garrisons is that they will increase that stability. A key problem experienced by service personnel is the number of times they have to move, and the effect of that on their children’s education. I have given officials a clear direction that planning must include real involvement and detailed discussions about the impact of super-garrisons on a range of services, including health and, in particular, education. I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that we take the issue very seriously and will continue to focus on it strongly.


7. What changes he expects to make to the numbers of ships and submarines in the Royal Navy in the next three years. (180008)

While the defence programme is kept under regular review, the only planned change in the number of major surface warships in the Royal Navy over the next three years will be the reduction to two aircraft carriers when HMS Invincible is finally withdrawn from service in 2010. However, the number of destroyers in service at any one time may vary as the Type 45 destroyer steadily replaces the Type 42. As previously announced, our fleet of attack submarines will be reduced from nine to eight at the end of this year.

Given the great reluctance with which the Royal Navy accepted the cut in frigate and destroyer totals from 35 to 32 in 1998, and the fact that the Government subsequently cut the number from 32 to 25, will the Minister guarantee that there will be no further cuts?

The hon. Gentleman tries desperately—as do some of his hon. Friends—to give the impression that the Royal Navy is losing capability, although he knows that the new aircraft carriers that have been ordered will be the biggest ships ever run by the Navy, and that the Type 45 destroyer has a capability well beyond that of the ships that it is replacing. We intend to maintain the Royal Navy as one of the most powerful navies in the world, just as we intend to maintain the capability to build those ships for the Royal Navy.

That reply, and the earlier replies, will interest people who work in the dockyard and the naval base in Plymouth. I thank my right hon. Friend for agreeing to meet a delegation of trade unionists later this week to discuss the work that will be available to the dockyard in the next few years particularly, but may I ask him to tell the House, for the record, of the importance that he attaches to Plymouth dockyard’s ability to carry out not just submarine work but refitting and maintenance of surface ships?

My hon. Friend continues to be assiduous in the interests of her constituency, but she will know that the naval base review has decided that all three naval bases will continue to be needed. We must not only commit ourselves to the continuing use of those bases, but ensure that we preserve the skill base in the areas involved. That applies to Plymouth, as it applies to the Clyde and to Portsmouth. I am pleased to be able to meet my hon. Friend and her delegation—tomorrow, I believe.

We welcome the new aircraft carriers that are due to be commissioned from Rosyth dockyard, but does the Minister understand the frustration felt by my constituents and those of the Prime Minister over constant reports of delays? Can he make a clear statement that there will be no delays, or, if there are to be delays, can he explain how the skills will be maintained in yards throughout the country in the meantime?

There are always rumours in these circumstances, but there is no delay to the in-service dates of the aircraft carriers. We are working with the companies, and progress is being made in establishing the joint venture that is needed to ensure their timely build for the Royal Navy.

I thank the Minister for his responses so far, but for the benefit of this House and of the Opposition party, who are sending out their leaflets in my constituency, will he—

Order. Please just put a supplementary question to the Minister. Do not mention the Opposition party; it can take care of itself.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s commitment to building new, modern ships with a modern capability enables the Royal Navy to discharge its operations both at home and overseas and has contributed to securing Portsmouth naval base’s future?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have visited Portsmouth and seen the good work going on there and its warship build capability. The naval base review is complete and Portsmouth’s position is secure within that. Of course we must look at how we maintain that capability and I am sure my hon. Friend will continue to represent her constituency as she has done over the past year during the review. Portsmouth has not only a fantastic Royal Navy history, but a fantastic Navy future as well.

As the Minister knows, however heroically the Navy tries—it does try heroically—its capabilities have been degraded because of the number of its ships and its inevitable inability to carry out the declared tasks that it handled when it had many more ships. How many escorts does the Minister anticipate one of the new carriers will require when it goes to sea?

There will be sufficient escorts for the carrier task fleets and that will be in line with the defence strategy as laid out to the House. We will make sure that the task fleets are fully capable in every aspect of the work that they need to do in order to give the Royal Navy the kind of power projection it must continue to have in future generations.

I shall resist the temptation to describe the Minister’s reply to the very specific questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in the terms that he has recently made famous, although I point out that the price of the Hansard on eBay is currently £77. Instead, I remind him that it was made clear in written answers on 9 and 29 October that, on current plans, the amount of attack submarines will go down to seven and the number of frigates and destroyers will go down to 23 unless more orders are placed. Will he now give us a guarantee that the orders will be placed, so that we do not have fewer than the eight attack submarines and the 25 frigates and destroyers promised by the Government in 2004?

We will make announcements to the House as and when we are ready to do so. The hon. Gentleman continues to try to say that the Royal Navy’s capability is not as is needed when he knows that the situation is otherwise. The Type 45 destroyer is one of the most powerful ships afloat, and the carriers will be the biggest ships afloat. The Government have put a considerable amount of shipbuilding into our yards over recent years and will continue to do so in the future. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case.

Patrol Vehicles

8. What steps he is taking to increase the operational range of protected patrol vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (180010)

We take the protection of our servicemen and women very seriously. Since 2003, we have approved over £2 billion of spending on force protection and have delivered Mastiff heavy-protected patrol vehicles to Iraq and Mastiff and Vector light-protected patrol vehicles to Afghanistan. In addition, we are procuring 150 Ridgback medium-protected patrol vehicles, which will be available for deployment to Afghanistan.

Will my right hon. Friend tell us what progress has been made on the wider aspects of force protection for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend is right to say that protected patrol vehicles, which have, rightly, gained a lot of attention, are at the limit of what we need to provide to protect our troops. Over the spending period that I addressed in my original answer, we have developed and improved a range of capabilities: not only protected patrol vehicles; but new body armour, which we continue to develop and consider how it can be improved; communications and surveillance equipment, particularly unmanned aerial vehicles; night-vision equipment, which has been improved significantly; electronic countermeasures for our vehicles and other transport; and, of course, base security. I am sure that the House will understand that I do not want to go into the details of the security measures because I do not want our enemies to know them. I repeat the offer that I consistently make in this House; if Members wish to receive a confidential briefing on those issues, I am happy to give one in the Ministry of Defence.

Given the Secretary of State’s remarks to the Sunday Mail a couple of Sundays ago, and those of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles about the length of time that our forces are likely to remain in Afghanistan, should not our procurement policy now be carried out on the assumption that we are there until further notice?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I have consistently said in this House—before the Defence Committee and from this Dispatch Box—and on other opportunities for communication beyond the House that our commitment to Afghanistan is a long-term one. I do not believe that we will be war fighting in the long term, but I do believe that deployable forces requiring the sort of protection and equipment that we have been developing and deploying over the past few years in particular will be the norm for our forces in the future. We intend to take just that approach. We have made progress in readjusting our procurement processes so that they have the agility and ability to respond to the changing environments in which we deploy our troops. We have had considerable success in that regard, particularly over the past couple of years.

European Security and Defence Policy

9. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on developments in the European security and defence policy. (180011)

I meet my European defence ministerial colleagues regularly, both bilaterally and at meetings of EU Defence Ministers. The most recent meeting of EU Defence Ministers was held in Brussels on 19 November, when we discussed a range of issues including Operation Althea and military capabilities, Chad and the European Defence Agency.

The new Lisbon treaty contains various unhelpful developments on defence and security policy. For example, the new high representative for the common foreign and security policy will become a vice-chairman of the Commission and will chair the foreign policy aspect of the Council of Ministers; the EU Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry; is calling for a single market in the defence industry and the new solidarity clause has emerged. Will the Secretary of State tell us specifically what assessment he has made of new treaty provisions that are judiciable by the European Court of Justice?

First, the House should know that the new reform treaty text states that NATO

“remains the foundation of their”

—the members’—

“collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

My assessment of the treaty—I understand that it is widely held to be the correct interpretation, including by some eminent legal authorities—is that it in no way affects current UK military operations. Such operations will not be affected, and decisions about troop deployment will still need to be made unanimously. For the first time, the Lisbon treaty expressly excludes jurisdiction from common foreign and security policy provisions and the Acts adopted under them. So the answer to his question is none.

During those discussions, was there any talk about what might be required on Kosovo? Should time be given for a consensual agreement or arrangement to be reached on Kosovo’s status?

Kosovo engages the discussions of European Defence Ministers every time we meet and has done so consistently in my experience. The EU stands ready to provide, and is providing, support for training in Kosovo, particularly for the police. The EU’s assessment has to be on the basis of what is realistically likely to happen in Kosovo and it is commonly viewed that something approaching the Ahtisaari recommendations is likely to be what will happen on the ground in Kosovo. When that happens—because it is on our doorstep—the EU is required to stand ready to support peace and stability in the country, and will do so.

Because of our high level of commitment to Iraq and to NATO in Afghanistan, the Government told us that we would have minimal commitment to the French-inspired EU military mission to Chad. We are sending only two officers to Chad, yet we are spending £5.9 million on the mission. Can the Secretary of State tell us what on earth we are spending that money on?

We are making a contribution to stability in that important part of Africa, and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. He knows that although the mission is to Chad, it is important to try to sustain some degree of stability in Sudan to support peace and the peace talks there. That is our contribution. Other parts of Government are making significant contributions to that part of Africa and it would seem distinctly inappropriate were we not to make a contribution that reinforces those wider and greater contributions, financial and otherwise.

Is not the truth that under Athena we are required to make a financial commitment to the EU operation, and that some of our EU and NATO partners are more willing to fund their EU commitments than their NATO commitments? The UK, the US, the Dutch and the Canadians carry the bulk of the military and financial burden in southern Afghanistan. The US has 15,000 troops and we have almost 8,000, but Spain, for example, has fewer than 800 and Portugal has 163. Is not it clear that the EU’s drive towards a common security policy threatens to undermine NATO? With defence, Britain cannot have two best friends; it cannot be both the EU and the United States through NATO.

The hon. Gentleman asked what the money was for and I told him. He may have been disappointed that the answer was so specific. The mechanism by which the money is paid is not what the money is for, and he asked what the money was for. He tempts me to agree that the EU has no contribution to make to nation building and stability across the world. I do not agree. What NATO offers ought to be at the heart of our military alliance and commitment to peace and security across the world, and our own security. But working with our EU partners comprehensively, we have an opportunity to bring to bear capabilities that NATO does not have and is unlikely ever to have.

Policy Development

12. What steps he is taking to encourage other Government Departments to take the needs of armed forces personnel and their families into consideration in developing relevant policies. (180014)

The Government are publishing in the spring the first ever cross-Government strategy setting out our vision for supporting service personnel, their families and veterans. Since we announced it, I have been encouraged by the response. The Department of Health has introduced an extension of priority medical treatment to all veterans with a service-attributable condition and, with the MOD, a mental health community pilot scheme. The Department for Communities and Local Government has extended the open market home-buy scheme to members of the armed forces to help make home ownership more achievable in all regions of England, and we intend to remove local connection legislation to ensure fairness for our armed forces in housing allocations.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the British Legion’s Honour the Covenant campaign, which among other things emphasises the need to provide priority medical support for servicemen and their families, and ex-servicemen. Can he tell me what progress is being made?

The Royal British Legion is part of the group that we are consulting with regard to the Command Paper and it is free to raise whatever issues that it wishes within that process. Additionally, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has regular meetings with the Royal British Legion and others to chase up issues and to ensure that we respond appropriately to the needs of our armed forces personnel, as well as to those of the veterans’ community.

Mastiff Vehicle

Procurement of the Mastiff protected patrol vehicle has been a huge success. Just 23 weeks after the decision to procure was taken, Mastiff had been built, upgraded, tested and shipped out to theatre, along with a developed support package. It has proven itself in the field as highly capable and is hugely popular with troops on the ground, providing vital protection with effective mobility.

With respect to the hon. Lady, I am withholding further information on vehicle availability, as the disclosure of this information would or would be likely to prejudice the security and operational effectiveness of our armed forces, but I extend to her the offer that I have made to her regularly; if she wants to know the detail of that information, I am happy to provide it on a confidential basis in a personal briefing.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He is aware that one of the reasons why the Mastiff vehicle is so popular with our troops and has proved such a success is that enhanced security was designed into the vehicle from the outset in its V-shaped hull. It is built from commercial components, so that if it is, by any chance, hit by a mine, replacements can be easily bolted back on to the vehicle, to ensure that it returns to action in double-quick time. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the future rapid effect system vehicle will exhibit those admirable attributes, which save the lives of British servicemen day by day?

The hon. Lady is consistent in her questioning and in her interest. She has substantial knowledge of the capabilities of protected vehicles, and I commend her for being so consistent and well informed in that regard. I assure her that she is no less informed in relation to these matters than those who have to make the decision about FRES, not least senior officers in the Army.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities that 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.

When I asked the Secretary of State how many RAF personnel there were at RAF Feltwell, the answer was none. When I asked why, I was told that there was no requirement for any RAF personnel at RAF Feltwell. Is it not time that we acknowledged the reality and started calling such bases US bases? Is it not symptomatic of British defence policy that we pretend to be in control, when we are little more than the back end of a penny-farthing to President Bush?

I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman has struck an important point for the defence of the realm in the question that he asked. I will consider the point that he makes about the naming of RAF Feltwell, but I suspect that I will come to the conclusion that we will continue to call it RAF Feltwell.

There is no question about the independence of our defence policy. However, we are part of the most successful military and political alliance that the world has known in NATO. The Americans are a very valued ally and I make no apology to the House for working closely with them. Among other things, I am proud to say that because of our discussions with the Americans, they will deploy significant additional resources to southern Afghanistan in support of our troops and those of the other countries present there. That is the sort of support that the Americans give us and I am proud of the fact that they are prepared to do it.

T2. Will the Secretary of State confirm that none of those armed forces pensioners who have been overpaid will have to pay anything back? If the Treasury will not write off the money, will he have to make cuts in his Department? If so, where? (179978)

The hon. Gentleman refers to part of a project announced in a written statement to the House on 11 July 2006. Just under 1,300 pensioners have been awarded increases to their pension and 98 cases were reported in the media today. We are making the case for a write-off to the Treasury, and I will not pre-empt its decision.

T5. The Minister will acknowledge that the Army cadet movement is excellent and gives young people opportunities that they would otherwise never have had. What is the Ministry of Defence’s thinking on the future of the cadet movement and what aims does it have further to develop that excellent movement? (179981)

My hon. Friend is honorary colonel of the Durham Army cadet force, which is a privileged position. I thank her for her long-standing support; I know that she takes a significant interest in the cadets. I believe that it is the best youth movement in the country by a mile. I am always delighted to talk to cadets; on a tri-service basis, of course. As she may recall, we announced last year that new combined cadet forces will be set up at six schools. I believe that cadet forces will continue to thrive. They give young people a fantastic experience and many opportunities to do things that they would not normally do. As I say, I think that it is the best youth service in the country.

What assessment have the Government made of the new Polish Government’s attitude to ballistic missile defence, particularly since the Russians sent a visitor to Warsaw warning of the implications of such a scheme? Also, what assessment have the Government made of changing opinion in the Czech Republic? In the light of those developments, is it not time that we had a debate on the subject in the House?

As I understand it, the Polish Government’s position on ballistic missile defence is that they are discussing the possibility of basing some missiles on their soil, under an agreement with the United States of America. I am not, and would not be expected to be, in a position to report the detail of those discussions to the House. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait, along with the rest of us, to see how those discussions take place and what their outcome is. As for holding a debate in the House on ballistic missile defence, we have regular debates on defence issues. I had some research done and, to my knowledge, since I have been Secretary of State for Defence, on only one occasion has someone made a contribution on the subject of ballistic missile defence in one of those debates. That is how much demand there is for such a debate, despite the posturing of members of his party outside the House.

T3. With a decision on the future rapid effect system utility variant vehicle expected before April 2008, will the Secretary of State confirm his views are on the sharing of intellectual property once that decision has been made? Would it be better for Britain to have the French VBCI vehicle, or the General Dynamics vehicle? We know about the track record of General Dynamics on sharing intellectual property. (179979)

The hon. Gentleman asks an appropriate and specific question. If he and the House will excuse me, I would prefer to put the answer in writing, because it raises a number of issues of some complexity. I am conscious of all the issues that he mentioned and when we make decisions on utility vehicles, their procurement and deployment, and the sharing of information, we will take them all into account.

T6. Before the next Cabinet meeting, will the Secretary of State meet his colleague, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, to discuss the bar on Departments sponsoring academies and to discuss building on the excellent work of Skill Force, which is based in my shire? The Secretary of State will know that people who retire from the Army can be, in a sense, recycled: they can put their knowledge to good use in good works such as helping young people to get back into work, or to get the skills that they need. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families whether the Ministry of Defence could consider sponsoring an academy? (179982)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue regarding the involvement of ex-service personnel in Skill Force and the excellent work that they do. In fact, a year or so ago, not long after I was appointed to my post, I went to Knowsley and Skelmersdale to see the work that the organisation does and I was extremely impressed. I cannot comment on his proposal that the MOD sponsor an academy, but there have been discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families about the general issue of academy sponsorship. As he knows, however, there is an important opportunity, particularly for cadet forces, so I can assure him that we will continue to have discussions with my colleagues in that Department on the issue.

T8. In the light of weekend reports, will the Secretary of State give details of future troop withdrawals from Iraq, bearing in mind the number of our constituents who write to us about the military covenant, suggesting that our British servicewomen and men are not treated well, either in service or when they leave service?[Official Report, 28 January 2008, Vol. 471; c. 2MC.] (179984)

I refute the assertion that our servicemen are not treated well either in or after service. I do not demur from my responsibility to meet the challenge of increased expectations in the 21st century, particularly those resulting from the deployments in which we have asked our servicemen and women to take part. We have made significant improvements, day by day, week by week, year by year, in that regard.

As for specific numbers, there is a constant assertion, often fed by politicians, that information about troop numbers in Iraq is erroneous. It is not. Troop numbers were reduced to about 4,500 before the turn of the year. Indeed, only last week there were 4,330 troops in Iraq, but that number fluctuates because of rest and recuperation, and sometimes because of temporary troop deployments. It is of no help to families who have to live with those concerns to suggest that information is inaccurate, as that is not the case. They are general figures, but the trend is for a reduction. We will meet the reduction that we announced in the House and when appropriate we will make another statement about a reduction in numbers.

T9. There are alarming reports that the joint strike fighter is in deep trouble with its principal customer—the United States air force—which would have catastrophic consequences for our forward defence equipment programme, which is already unaffordable, 10 years out. Will the Secretary of State make a statement? (179985)

I am happy to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, in relation to the facts, not in relation to speculation or rumour. I will be in touch with him and I will put a copy of the letter in the House setting out our understanding of the position on the joint strike fighter in relation to the American programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) referred earlier to ex-service personnel and their relationship with local authorities. Will the Minister tell the House what steps he has taken to ensure that serving personnel are made aware of their key worker status when applying for housing?

We are going to use all the methods available to us, including internal communications, service publications, websites and any other method we can use, to make sure that our service personnel are aware of their eligibility in that regard.

T10. Sir Glenn Torpy, Chief of the Air Staff, has indicated that Ministers are considering 0, 44 and 88 as the number of aircraft in tranche 3 of the Eurofighter programme. Will the Minister who responds confirm that those are the options that are being considered, and can he give an indication to the thousands of aerospace workers in my constituency as to when a decision will be made? (179986)

As we always say in relation to these issues, when there is an announcement to be made we will make it to the House of Commons. When there is a further announcement to be made about Eurofighter, we will make it here. I do not think that it serves anyone to feed speculation by putting numbers into the public domain for consideration prior to our making a decision. When a decision is made, we will say it here.

This year is the Territorial Army’s centenary. I am sure that Ministers would like to congratulate it on its past, present and future service, and on the commitment that it has shown, and continues to show, in support of the regular forces. Will they ensure that the TA does not suffer the cuts that have been proposed, so that that organisation, which is second to none, can continue?

We need to look at the role that our reserve forces—not only the Territorial Army, but other reserves as well—play in our armed forces. They have made a tremendous contribution and we need to make sure that our planning properly reflects their capability.

Can the Secretary of State explain why every British combat unit currently serving in Iraq is seriously under strength?

I do not accept that the combat units serving in Iraq are seriously undertrained; in fact, the opposite is the case. We specifically ensure that the forces deployed into the operational theatres are appropriately trained for their operations. That may mean on some occasions that the training needs to take place partly here and partly in the operational theatre. However, I do not accept that the forces being deployed are undertrained for what they are being asked to do.