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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.