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DEFENCE

Volume 472: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans Day

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Royal Air Force Sergeant Duane “Baz” Barwood, who died in Iraq on Friday 29 February. We owe him and others who have lost their lives a deep debt of gratitude.

The third annual Veterans day will take place on 27 June 2008, and we have allocated £350,000 to support events across the UK. In January, I announced that Blackpool will host this year’s national event. To date, more than 80 UK towns and cities will host major events to celebrate the achievements of the country’s veterans, and we expect many more to do so. We are also working to ensure the effective involvement of ex-service organisations and service units.

The whole House associates itself with the Minister’s remarks about Sergeant Barwood, who give his life serving our country. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

Given that the Government are considering options for another bank holiday, is it not time that Veterans day was a bank holiday?

I am sure that there will be a lot of support for that, particularly in the veterans community. As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, the decision is not mine to take, but many veterans have pressed that case and I am sure that they will continue to do so. As Minister with responsibility for veterans, I am the voice for veterans in government, and it is important to make sure that everyone is aware of veterans’ views on that issue.

As we think about Veterans day, can we consider some of the veterans who did not return home, in particular Captain Robert Nairac of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, whose body has never been found following his service in Northern Ireland? Is there any news on Captain Nairac’s body?

I do not have any news, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman after I have returned to the Ministry of Defence and found out any further information.

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the first world war armistice, of which there are a few veterans still alive. Will the Minister say how we will commemorate that occasion, bearing in mind that it was a seminal moment socially, politically and militarily for our country and, indeed, for Europe?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of that moment. My grandfather fought in the first world war, and I am particularly proud of his record—of course, the first world war touched nearly every family in the country. As my hon. Friend knows, we intend to hold a significant event when the passing of the last world war one veteran takes place. He is right to say that we need to do something this year to mark the 90th anniversary, and I will set out more detail for the House at a future date. At the moment, we plan to hold an event around remembrance week. It is also possible that there will be an event in France, and I will discuss that issue with the French Defence Minister.

Although I acknowledge other hon. Members’ contributions on particular veterans’ issues, I want to stress the importance of ensuring that there is a memorial to Sir Keith Park in Trafalgar square, which is in my constituency. There will be a campaign on Sir Keith Park, Bomber Command and the battle of Britain, and although I do not expect a positive answer from the Minister at this juncture, I have put the matter on the record.

As my hon. Friend rightly points out from a sedentary position, the campaign concerns Fighter Command. The Minister should give some credence to that campaign in the months and years ahead.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a great deal of support for that campaign. However, there are many campaigns for different memorials to various acts of heroism and service. He will also know that memorials are usually funded by public subscription, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment at this stage. However, I understand the sentiment that the hon. Gentleman has expressed; I can only praise all those who served in Bomber Command, the rest of the Air Force and the other services during the second and first world wars.

John Patterson is a local hero in my constituency. He flew more than 32 bombing raids into Berlin and ended the war flying Field Marshal Montgomery throughout Africa. As a result of publicity, he met a comrade whom he had not seen for 62 years. Will my hon. Friend consider producing a special magazine that contains the names of all the people who have received a veterans badge so that they can get in contact with old comrades?

I have to be candid with my hon. Friend and say that I had not thought about that until now. I shall certainly have a look at the idea. About 550,000 veterans badges have now been given out and the practice is becoming ever more popular. I do not know whether we can do anything along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend, but I shall write to him.

We Conservatives wish to be associated with the Minister’s message of condolence to the family of Sergeant Duane Barwood, who died serving our country.

Parades and badges are important, but veterans are also looking for a more tangible recognition of their service and sacrifice. Will the Minister use the opportunity of Veterans day to announce, first, his plans to remedy the shortcomings in the management of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans, highlighted last month by the Defence Committee? Secondly, will he announce his plans for ensuring that there is continuity of care throughout the UK for amputees who leave the defence services rehabilitation centre at Headley Court and become reliant on NHS limb centres, which are not as well resourced and may very well have competing clinical priorities?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a number of announcements about PTSD in the past few months. He has visited the medical assessment centre at St. Thomas’s—people can go there to get a mental health assessment, support and help to link in with that from their general practitioner. We have also announced the reservists mental health scheme and a 45 per cent. increase in funding for Combat Stress from January this year.

There is also an important new project, in which the Ministry of Defence will work with Combat Stress and the health service to develop specific pilots to address the mental health problems of veterans. Clearly, that is still at an early stage. We will continue to consider what more we can do to improve support for veterans. Given that we have much better knowledge of PTSD and mental health these days, I suspect that we can always do more.

It is important that we understand that the quality of the prosthetic limbs that our service people get at Headley Court is world class. If they have to leave the services, such people will obviously come under the care of the national health service. It is important that we have a system that will maintain that standard of prosthetic limb. That is why we are working with the national health service and talking to a number of health trusts about how we can provide such a service.

Health Care

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on arrangements for ex-service personnel to receive continuing secondary health care. (190359)

I have regular contact with my Department of Health counterparts. Recently, I discussed our response to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into Defence Medical Services. The issues that the Committee raised, including continuity of care for veterans, will be covered in the Government’s formal response to its report.

In the light of that answer, will the Minister expand on the progress that has been made with the regional pilots that are being used to improve the mental health of ex-service personnel?

I have visited pilots in Stafford and Camden and am pleased to see that they are developing well. There are, of course, other pilots in Wales, St. Austell, Cleveland and Scotland. The pilots are important because they will allow us to develop a service tailored to the particular needs of veterans suffering from a mental health problem.

I should like to make it specifically clear that the issue is not about the actual standard of treatment and care—that is the same whether the patient is a civilian or from the services. The issue is about understanding the culture of the armed forces and about the experiences that might have led to the mental health problems of those who have served in them. There is a greater understanding and therefore better care; that is the important point to make. That links in with Combat Stress, with which we are working very closely.

The House will understand that the Government now understand the issues and we are grateful for that.

The Minister mentioned continuing health care. Will he also consult the ex-service associations and make it plain to those dealing with wills that the estates of those whose deaths, whether early or late, might have been brought forward by war service or wounds, can be inherited tax-free?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer to that today, but I shall certainly write to him with my views on the issue.

As a Department, we work closely with ex-service organisations on a range of issues; I meet their representatives regularly. That partnership is an important part of the support that we give those who have lost loved ones on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere and of the treatment of the wounded and veterans. That relationship is important for us.

As the Minister knows, I have a constituent who is suffering from post-combat mental stress. In the first instance, he is finding it very difficult to get a GP referral, and in the second instance, he is being told that he cannot get any treatment for it in the north of England, so he has to travel to the south of England, which is adding to the stress of his condition and that for his mother and the rest of his family. This is simply not acceptable, and I hope that the Minister will look at some alternatives so that we can have treatment for these very brave soldiers nearer to their homes.

That is why we are looking at mental health pilots to see how we can develop a system around the country so that people can get treated near to home. Although we are currently offering the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’s, we pay travel expenses for someone to go there. That support is important. Our doctor there, Dr. Ian Palmer, who is a former Army medic, will be able to link in with the individual’s GP to help to advise on the best course of treatment for that individual. If my memory serves me right, I think that I have written to the hon. Lady about this issue, and I urge her to advise her constituents to take that advice.

3. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of ongoing care provided for servicemen and women wounded on operations; and if he will make a statement. (190360)

I am confident that the enhancements we have made to the ongoing care for service personnel have created a first-class service. The House of Commons Defence Committee agrees, declaring in its February 2008 Report “Medical Care for the Armed Forces”:

“The clinical care for Servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none. Defence Medical Services personnel, working with the NHS, provide world-class care and we pay tribute to them”.

We are not complacent and continue to examine what further improvements we can make in the medical care and welfare of our service personnel.

Alarming stories are emerging from servicemen who are being treated, under the MOD’s contract for trauma stress, with The Priory Group. We have heard stories of people being told not to talk about their experiences for fear of upsetting civilian members of the group. We also heard of one case where an individual was sitting next to a woman who was receiving bereavement counselling for the loss of her cat. Does the Minister accept that it is not entirely appropriate that the psychological welfare of servicemen traumatised by war is being subcontracted out to an organisation such as The Priory Group?

Hon. Members will remember that we heard similar stories about various cases at Selly Oak. I will be happy to look at any individual case for which the hon. Gentleman can give me evidence. The Priory Group has, rightly, been treating our service personnel, but it works very closely with our department of community mental health, which visits it on a regular basis. Personally, I have not had any complaints, and I meet very many veterans, some of whom have been to the Priory. That is not to say that things do not go wrong on occasion. If the hon. Gentleman, or any other hon. Members, can give me details of specific cases, I assure him that I will have them investigated. As I say, we heard the same sort of stories about Selly Oak, but we have just had the report back about the medical services that are provided there for our injured service personnel, which are first class. I am not suggesting that we can never improve anywhere, but the Select Committee looked at current mental health care provision as well, and said that it was very good.

Following on from the previous question, if all personnel returning from war-torn areas are subject to counselling, what is the quality of that counselling?

The process is that if someone who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan develops a mental health problem, they can go and see a community psychiatric nurse and, if necessary, a consultant. Many can be treated or cared for in operational service out there, and some will need to be sent back to the UK. We have our departments of community mental health around the country, which can provide them with support, and eventually, as we have just heard, they could be admitted to the Priory for further intensive care. In addition to that, our service personnel go through a period of decompression before they come back, which is very important. We also have in service the new trauma risk management system—TRiM—which was originally used by the Royal Marines and now by the Army. All the feedback on that from service personnel says that it is very good and helps people. There is effective support in theatre and back in the UK as well.

I pay tribute to the treatment that Lance Corporal Nick Davis, of my constituency, has received both at Selly Oak and at Headley Court. Although his amputation has been traumatic, he has been treated well, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that his family found it extremely difficult to visit him. His mother has been living with him in Birmingham, and then down in Epsom, but his father has had no support, with the children or with his job, to enable him to visit his gallant son. May I ask the Minister to consider giving support in these circumstances?

I give the hon. Gentleman a clear assurance that I will look into the case. When wounded services personnel are taken to Selly Oak, families are given funding to visit, and there is accommodation there for families. That provision is based on medical need, which is obvious when an injury first takes place and the person in question is admitted to Selly Oak.

With regard to Headley Court, if there is a clinical, medical need for it, support for families can be given. The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association— SSAFA—has just invested in a house for families there. I am surprised to hear what the hon. Gentleman said, but if he gives me the details I assure him that I will look into the matter and get back to him.

Following on from that answer, I understand that an appeal is being launched in Birmingham to extend facilities where families can stay to support those in Selly Oak. Can the Minister assure me that his Department will support that appeal as much as possible?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, as I did with regard to the SSAFA house at Headley Court. SSAFA already helps with housing support at Selly Oak, and the new hospital being built there means that it will get even better facilities. It is an important part of the process that SSAFA is involved in the delivery of more housing for the families of injured service personnel. That is good because it shows the ex-service and charitable sector working with the Government to provide care, and it gives members of the public a chance to show their support for the armed forces.

In addition to the first-class medical care offered to our soldiers returning from Afghanistan, is it not high time that we recognised their great gallantry by striking a gallantry medal for those who have been wounded or even killed there? Perhaps we ought to call it the Prince Harry.

Iraqi Forces (Training)

4. What progress has been made on the mentoring, monitoring and training of Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq. (190361)

We continue to make good progress in our monitoring, mentoring and training efforts with the Iraqi security forces. They have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred. The most recent include operations to counter smuggling, border enforcement and successful containment of the religiously motivated violence at the Ashura festival in January.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As he indicated, this is a crucial matter for us. Will he provide evidence of how overwatch is delivered by our armed forces in southern Iraq?

Contrary to some commentary on our forces’ activities in southern Iraq, we continue to play an important role there. I have already referred to the mentoring, monitoring and training of the Iraqi security forces. The view is that the 10th Division of the Iraqi army has improved significantly under that training, and that the 14th Division is progressing, although it is some way behind the 10th. Frequently, we support those troops in active operations, such as the counter-smuggling operation I referred to, which involved the seizing of 15 smuggling barges in the Shatt al-Arab waterway recently. That notable success was principally achieved by the Iraqi army. Where necessary, and at the request of the Iraqi army or their forces, we provide them with capabilities that they do not have access to, such as air cover, fast air support or aerial surveillance. Of course, we do that while retaining the ability and willingness to intervene if called upon to do so by the Iraqi army, but increasingly, that is becoming unlikely.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the men and women of the armed forces doing such important work in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes, whatever Prince Harry may modestly say about himself, and that we can be utterly proud of what they are doing? Is the Secretary of State on Facebook? Has he been invited to join a group demanding an apology from the Drudge Report?

I have not specifically been invited. With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman and his advice, which I normally respect immensely, it might be unwise for me to join Facebook. However, I support the tenor of his question. All those who serve us in Iraq and Afghanistan—and in other places, including Sierra Leone, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently visited—are entitled to be considered heroes. On the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about Prince Harry and his treatment by the media, I thought the most important thing Prince Harry did was put into context the heroism of those with whom he had served.

There were reports in yesterday’s papers that the Government are to bring forward the withdrawal of a further 1,000 troops from Iraq. Will the Secretary of State make any comment that he feels fit on that? Will he also give us an estimate of the final date for withdrawing all British troops from Iraq?

Currently, we have approximately 4,100 troops serving in southern Iraq and we continue to work on detailed plans with our allies, including the Iraqi security forces and other coalition partners, to determine the appropriate number of troops. Those decisions will be made on the basis of military advice, and when I am ready to make a further statement to the House about numbers, I will do so, just as I have kept the House informed as numbers have reduced.

On the final part of my hon. Friend’s question, a final decision will be based on an assessment of the Iraqis’ ability to provide security for themselves and their people.

Aircraft Carriers

5. What his policy is on whether aircraft carriers are a necessary component of the UK’s defence requirement. (190362)

The future carriers will be a key component of the improved expeditionary capabilities that we need to confront the diverse range of threats in today’s security environment. They deliver on the Government’s commitment in the strategic defence review.

If the Secretary of State believes that there is a future role for the aircraft carriers, he should get on and replace them as his inaction is becoming an embarrassment not only to him but to the Royal Navy. The Illustrious has twice had to be towed back into port after breakdowns, and a tug is on standby in case it breaks down again. There is no air defence cover for the fleet until well into the next decade. Does the Secretary of State not agree that that smacks of a Government who do not understand the nature of maritime power and the lead times involved—unless he is looking to cancel the project?

If what lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments is a question about whether there is any change in the in-service dates for the carriers, there is not.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the article in February’s Parliamentary Brief by Dr. Eric Grove, director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies, on “Tomorrow’s Navy for tomorrow’s world”? It concludes that, by 2020, “the Brown years” may be seen to be those

“when the seeds were finally laid for a renaissance of British maritime power and global presence”.

I am not qualified to see that far into the future and retrospectively assess the position. However, since 1997, when the Government came to power, 31 new ships have been brought into service. We plan to spend approximately £14 billion on naval equipment in the next 10 to 15 years. That constitutes historic investment in our Navy, which will significantly increase its capability. I am sure that future generations will thank us for that investment.

I was pleased to join the Secretary of State at Rosyth dockyard last month for the signing of the contract to extend the dock to take the aircraft carriers. Why has yet another month passed without the main contracts for the aircraft carrier being signed?

As I have said repeatedly, we are working closely with the industry over months for this complex contract to be ready for signature. In the mean time, however, as the hon. Gentleman knows—I was in his constituency awarding a contract—a number of contracts have been placed in the supply chain, for design, engineering data, materials in support of the manufacture of the carriers and infrastructure, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which will be necessary to construct the carriers after the individual elements have been built. We are getting on with the job, and as long as the in-service dates remain the same—and they do remain the same—he can rest assured that we will contract at the appropriate time.

My right hon. Friend said that we could not look that far into the future, but the purchase of aircraft carriers that will remain in service for many years requires us to do so. When we look at future defence requirements and defence expenditure, should we perhaps not be asking our European allies to enter into an arrangement whereby we can joint-purchase such equipment, to be leased to the nation that needs it at any point in time?

The Government’s approach has been to encourage each individual country to meet its own commitments to invest in its capabilities and armed forces. That process has paid dividends—not as quickly as we would have wanted in some respects, although progress is being made. In particular, Afghanistan has been a transformatory process for a number of countries in that regard.

The Select Committee on Defence said 18 months ago:

“If the In-Service Dates for the”

carrier

“programme are substantially later than 2012, there is a serious risk of a capability gap emerging which would impact upon the ability of the Royal Navy to undertake its role effectively.”

Last July, the Government announced that they had delayed the in-service dates by two years, to between 2014 and 2016. Reports this weekend suggest further delays and that even if the matter is not delayed, the contractors will be asked to delay cutting metal. If there is no further delay, as the Secretary of State has just told the House, why is the Prime Minister dithering about a programme described by his own Minister responsible for security, Admiral Lord West of Spithead, as the

“jewel in the crown of the Strategic Defence Review”?

There is no dithering. We are talking about a complex contract. It was announced in July that we were going forward, and there has been no change to the in-service dates. The important thing is the real-terms increases in defence investment for which the Government have been responsible, year on year and planned into the future of the comprehensive spending review—exactly the same investment, I understand, that the Conservative party has agreed it would make if it came into government, although that is now in some doubt because of other commitments that have been made. Those who are interested in defence spending might wonder where those additional cuts might be made. However, there will be no change in the in-service dates, and the hon. Gentleman should not consider this idle speculation.

My right hon. Friend is aware that we are talking about two important platforms from which the Royal Navy will project its presence round the world. However, to go with those platforms, we need the joint strike fighter. Can he ensure that we will not see any delays in that order?

The JSF programme is developing. Indeed, flight testing of the JSF has been commenced and is progressing well. In fact, I understand that the first short take-off and vertical landing aircraft was rolled out in December 2007 and is undergoing testing, with the first flight planned later this year. We remain committed to the joint strike fighter as the optimal solution to operate from the future carriers, as the joint combat aircraft requirement. As is normal in a programme of such size and technical complexity, reports may emerge concerning progress—that issue was raised in the last Defence questions—but we remain committed to the aircraft.

Kosovo

6. What forces he has identified for possible deployment to Kosovo; and for how long he expects such forces to be liable for deployment to Kosovo. (190363)

As part of our long-standing commitment to the Balkans, the UK remains ready to deploy a battalion to Kosovo until the end of 2008, as part of the NATO pan-Balkans operational reserve force. Any deployment would be for an initial period of 30 days, after which we will re-examine the requirement with NATO. The 1 Welsh Guards is currently on standby to deploy if necessary.

If UK troops are deployed, the armed forces, which are already at breaking point, will be heavily overstretched. Will the Minister confirm what effect the deployment may have on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?

It would not have any effect on operations in Afghanistan and Iran—[Hon. Members: “Iraq.”] In Iraq. This is a long-standing commitment that is being provided for within our planning assumptions, and 1 Welsh Guards stand ready to deploy. The lead element would be ready, if necessary, within four days; the rest of the battalion would be ready within seven days. We have been prepared for that for some time.

Given our overstretch and the regrettable reluctance of European Union NATO countries to take on their share in Afghanistan, does the Minister not agree that those countries should bear the brunt of any troop deployment for peacekeeping purposes in Kosovo?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just told me that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. We share responsibility for the reserve with Italy and Germany. It happens that, in 2008, that responsibility falls to us, and we have prepared for that deployment, which is all catered for within our assumptions. As I have said, 1 Welsh Guards will take on that responsibility for the first three months; after that, the responsibility will fall to 2 Rifles.

How does my right hon. Friend respond to the remarks made by Commander John Muxworthy, the chief executive of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, that the Ministry of Defence would be

“heaving a sigh of relief”

if no more troops were required in Kosovo, because the British armed forces are in chronic crisis?

I would respond by saying that this is a deployment that has been prepared for, and a commitment that we have known about. It started on 1 January and, to date, there has been no requirement for the reserve to be deployed. Let us all hope that that situation pertains, but I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else in the House would deny the fact that our forces have played an extremely positive role in Kosovo and in the wider former Yugoslav republic over a period of time. People will recognise the capability that we have been able to put in there, and the considerable effect that that has had over the past few years in helping to stabilise that part of the world.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but what efforts are he and his colleagues making to ensure that other European nations hold to their commitments and realise that, due to our commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, it is possible that they might be asked to do more?

As my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members know, there is an ongoing debate to try to ensure burden sharing across NATO. We are trying to achieve that to the maximum possible degree, taking into account not only our NATO allies’ preparedness to deploy in various places—whether in Afghanistan or Kosovo—but their capability to do so. We ought to be enormously proud of the fact that this country has a very real military capability that we have been able to use very effectively in the Balkans. We have accepted responsibility for this deployment as part of that. As I have already said, it is shared with Italy and Germany, which will take turns to be able to provide the reserve capability. It has not been called on for the first three months of this year. Let us hope that it will not be necessary to provide it, but our people stand ready and able to undertake the deployment, should it become so.

Russia’s new President, Mr. Medvedev, visited Belgrade twice during his campaign to show solidarity with the Serbs over Kosovo. Russia’s newly appointed ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, has warned that Russia could use military force if the situation in Kosovo worsened. What assessment have the Government made of how the new Russian Government might affect the security situation in Kosovo?

We conduct those ongoing assessments, along with our NATO allies, and we can only hope that the Russians will play a constructive part in exerting the very real influence that they have on the Serb side of the reaction to Kosovo. Let us hope that everybody plays a constructive role and that peace prevails, so that we do not need to deploy the reserve force and the transition to the new status in Kosovo takes place in a peaceful manner.

It was no secret that the date on which Kosovo was expected to declare independence would fall in the early part of 2008, yet the Government did not make an arrangement with any other NATO country to provide troops for the operational reserve force. If, as many worry, the security situation worsens and we have to deploy British troops to the area, it will have an impact on our armed forces. At a time when roughly 20 per cent. of the British armed forces are deployed overseas, is not that just another example of the Government failing to plan properly and our allies failing to carry their share of the burden fairly?

If the hon. Gentleman would listen—I have said that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. The commitment was long expected and planned for; and throughout the run-up to what has subsequently happened in Kosovo we knew that from 1 January we would have to meet the commitment, should it become necessary and be required. That was part of our planning assumptions. We are now three months into the year, and it has not been necessary yet—let us hope that it does not become necessary. Should the deployment be necessary, however, we have the ability and we have done the planning in order to be able to meet our commitments, and we will do precisely that.

Iraq

The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. Although levels of violence remain unacceptably high in some provinces, the security situation in Iraq improved significantly over the course of 2007. In and around Baghdad, violence has reduced to levels not seen since 2005. In the south, the security situation remains relatively stable, following the successful transfer of security responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqi authorities in December. We continue to work with the Iraqis and our coalition partners to develop further the capacity of the Iraqi security forces and to consolidate the solid progress to date, underpinned by various economic development initiatives that we are undertaking in the south.

Yet another British serviceman was killed in Iraq last week. There is widespread concern that rockets being used to kill our servicemen are, in fact, made in Iran. Is that true?

Of course I would like to take this opportunity, as have other hon. Members, to express my sympathy and condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of the RAF sergeant who was killed in that dreadful incident on Friday. Recently, there has been an increase in indirect fire attacks against our forces in Basra, but they are still at a significantly lower level than they were last summer. We now deploy quite significant resources to protect those troops deployed in the contingency operating base from such attacks.

I am unable to say whether, specifically in relation to that attack, those missiles were thought to have been manufactured in Iran, but I can say—there is undoubted evidence—that in the past we have interdicted equipment, particularly weapons, which have clearly been manufactured in Iran. As I understand it, they are more likely to have been an improvised explosive device than of the missile variety. Over the past few days, President Ahmadinejad of Iran has visited Iraq and been welcomed there. There is no question but that, because of the geography of that part of the world, the Iranians will have a continuing and significant influence on Iraq—never mind the history of those two countries. My message to the Iranians—

My right hon. Friend will know that, last week, we were pleased to welcome six Iraqi trade unionists to the House of Commons, and they all talked about improved security. There were two women among them—one from Basra, one from Baghdad—and they were concerned about the continuing intimidation of and threats against women. Next time my right hon. Friend meets the leadership in Iraq, will he please impress on them the importance of saying that women in Iraq must be protected against threats and intimidation and that they have a role to play in the future of the country?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and her consistent support of trade unionists, women and others in Iraq over a long period—long before many others wanted to be engaged in that country. Her point is well made; I have made it in previous meetings with the Iraqi Government, and will seek an early opportunity to do so again. Although violence has decreased in Basra, there is some evidence of continuing violence against women. It is hopeful that General Jalil, who is in charge of the police, has identified that as a priority. I will continue to support him in that through our forces.

Bearing in mind our military commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, and the Army’s lack of medium-weight vehicles, will the Secretary of State confirm that future rapid effect system vehicle design will be based on current and foreseeable future operational requirements, and that recent lessons regarding troop protection will not be forgotten?

I give the hon. Lady that assurance with regard to the design of the FRES, particularly its hull, to which she alludes and which is most important. Valuable lessons have been learned, as can be seen in the improvement of the vehicles supplied over the past couple of years, and will be taken into account.

Pay Settlement

8. What factors he took into account in determining the recent pay settlement for the armed forces; and if he will make a statement. (190365)

Pay rates for UK service personnel are recommended by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which bases its recommendations on a wide range of factors. The Government accepted in full its recommendations, which will be implemented with effect from 1 April 2008.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Is he content that the recent pay award will improve recruitment and retention in our armed forces? Is he also content that the views and aspirations of our armed forces are reflected accurately under the current structure, particularly in the lower ranks?

The increases provided for by the pay review body this year will include not only the 2.6 per cent. but the addition of the X factor to increase the remuneration of the lower ranks by about 3.5 per cent. My hon. Friend needs to recognise that that is on top of the 9 per cent. for the lower ranks provided for last year. The operational bonus will also increase by 3.6 per cent. In addition, the retention packages for certain pinch-point trades will be continued to try to maintain skills in those areas where they are most needed. The package will be welcomed by the armed forces, including the lower ranks, and adds to what we achieved last year.

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 that they need to achieve success in their military tasks at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in future.

I do not have to remind you, Mr. Speaker, as an ex-Territorial, that we are four weeks from the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Territorial Army. Between Lord Kitchener writing them off as a town clerks army in 1915, and Sir Henry Wilson, the outgoing Chief of the General Staff, trying to disband them in 1918, they formed almost half the fighting units in the first world war and won 77 Victoria Crosses in the process. Can I urge today’s Government to bear in mind the huge potential that the Territorials still have, including providing fighting units, not just specialists, and gap-filling for their regular counterparts?

The hon. Gentleman is consistent in his support for the Territorial Army, and he knows of my admiration for it. When I visit the operational theatres I always make a point of spending time with those who are deployed there, and I know that they are very proud of their service. Interestingly, our post-appointment interviews suggest that the effect of Territorial Army members’ deployment is that they want more of it. I am very impressed by the job that they do, and I know that the regular soldiers who work with them are as well.

During the past week I have been privileged to speak to a number of veterans in my constituency, and one of the subjects that they wanted to discuss was burden sharing in southern Afghanistan. Will my right hon. Friend give his assessment of the current direction of travel in that respect?

Our military have done an excellent job. There has been a focus on the job they have been doing over the past few days, and I think that the understanding of the people of this country has improved. They have a sense of the nature of the task and the skills being deployed, and also of the effect that those skills have had: the Taliban have been significantly affected. We hope to be able to construct the other elements of what is necessary to rebuild that part of Afghanistan, which has not seen proper governance for the best part of 25 or 30 years.

Are Ministers able to update the House on recruitment to the services? Are they alarmed that the rate of drop-out from basic Army training has jumped from a quarter to a third? Will they confirm that there is a shortfall in manpower among recruiting staff? Given that the most recent figures show—again—that the number of people leaving the forces exceeds those coming in, is not recruitment from the Commonwealth rather saving the day? What are Ministers doing to improve the situation?

I am not trying to suggest that we do not face challenges, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the current level of recruitment is 96.9 per cent. of the required level. The drop-out rate in the services is lower than that in many other areas of employment, and certainly much lower than that in industry in civilian life.

Of course we need to do more: we need to do as much as we can on retention. We have packages to cover certain pinch-point trades that we badly need to keep the skills in the armed forces. Our task is challenging, but I think that the pay review body’s award and the morale of the armed forces will enable us to maintain recruitment at sustainable levels in the near future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best investment that we can make in our armed forces in order to ensure the continuation of recruitment, retention and future capability is in training—not just training for service life, but training that will equip our servicemen and servicewomen throughout their working life? Does he think that the defence training review and the military academy at St. Athan will achieve that?

Yet again, as the hon. Gentleman says.

Of course training plays an important part in recruitment and retention, but I think it should be recognised that it has a far wider purpose. I do not think that the importance of its role in military life is appreciated in civilian life. When the military have to act they have to get it right, and their training must therefore be first-class and extensive. The defence training review should put us on a better footing, and that includes the provisions made at St. Athan in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

T2. Like other hon. Members, I have visited Basra and Baghdad, and I have heard incoming fire very early in the mornings. Progress is being made in Basra to harden troops’ canteens and living facilities, but when will we start to make progress in hardening defences for our troops in their sleeping accommodation? Will the Secretary of State give us an undertaking that he will start that process, so that we can give our troops in Basra more protection from incoming rockets? (190384)

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the need for hardened accommodation, but there are many other ways of improving security for troops against that threat. Changes have been made—I will not go into detail, but I would be happy to let the hon. Gentleman have a private briefing if he wishes—that have significantly improved the personal security of sleeping troops. The changes proved to be very effective against a recent missile strike.

T4. We welcome Prince Harry back from Afghanistan and celebrate the achievements of the British military there, but we must avoid missing the big picture, which is that there is strategic confusion in Afghanistan. We have no UN co-ordinator, there is a divided command chain, several allies have different caveats on their armed forces and there is little evidence that the aid effort will have a long-term impact on the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. When will these matters be resolved? Will they be addressed at the Bucharest summit? (190386)

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify those as the priorities on Afghanistan. It is crucial that the leadership of the international community in the form of a UN special representative be appointed sooner rather than later to give coherence to the international community. It is regrettable that a previous appointment fell apart in the way it did. The other points that he made are also important and it is to be hoped that we will make significant progress at or about the time of the Bucharest summit on those points, all of which identify priorities of the Government on Afghanistan.

In my constituency we obviously welcome the two new aircraft carriers and the six Type 45 destroyers, not least because VT Shipbuilding will be playing, and does play, a large part in their construction. However, will the Minister elaborate on how the orders are consistent with the maritime industrial strategy?

My hon. Friend points to an important issue. We need not only to maintain our capability for today and the immediate future by the provision of capability for, in this case, the Royal Navy, but to maintain the capability to produce new ships, which is exactly what the defence industrial strategy and, in this case, the maritime industrial strategy are all about. Of course we need the maximum efficiency to provide the best possible equipment for our Navy and armed forces, but we have made a commitment to all three naval bases, including, of course, Portsmouth.

T5. Further to the question from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), will the Secretary of State tell the House specifically the shortfall in infantry battalions, whether it is caused by an inability to recruit the right calibre of young men or by the flood of young officers and other ranks leaving the Army, and to which Government policies he ascribes the shortfall? (190388)

There is no shortfall of infantry battalions. The Conservatives have made a commitment to increase the number of infantry battalions—we are all aware of that—but plan to do so without increasing defence spending. If they are to increase the number of infantry battalions by three, the natural corollary of that is that they will cut the size of either the Navy or the RAF. It is up to the hon. Gentleman and his party to tell us what they would do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and I recently visited RNAS—Royal Naval Air Station—Yeovilton, and I pay tribute to the helicopter squadrons who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Lynx aircraft, however, plays a crucial operational role for our surface fleet, and it is reaching the end of its flying life. Will the Minister confirm when he expects to sign the contracts for the future Lynx project?

We are not yet ready to make any announcements on the future Lynx project, or on any other possible future projects under consideration.

T6. Will the appropriate Minister give an unequivocal commitment that future FRES vehicles, which have, of course, to be air-transportable, will have monocoque V-shaped hulls, which deflect blasts, leaving the vehicle repairable after it has experienced an explosion? That is critical to the safety of our armed services personnel. (190389)

I fully understand how important the hon. Gentleman’s point is—and he knows why. In answer to an earlier question, I made it clear that I would expect the design of the hull to take account of our learning experience over the past two years in particular. I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box the unequivocal undertaking he seeks, but he can rest assured that I consider the shape of the hull to be extremely important to the safety of the vehicle.

In order for the Government to fulfil their 2004 commitment for a fleet with 25 frigates and destroyers and eight submarines, they need to order eight Type 45 destroyers and eight Astute class submarines. Do they intend to do so?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have ordered six Type 45 destroyers. We have made no commitment yet to hulls seven and eight, and we are not ready to make any announcement on that. If the hon. Gentleman had followed what is said in Hansard rather than what he hoped was said, he would know that back in December I told him that the plan was eventually for there to be seven Astute class submarines, not eight.

T7. Will the Minister for the Armed Forces confirm that the costs of the joint strike fighter are now ballooning out of control, and that it will be impossible to achieve the original number that the Ministry of Defence was to order? (190390)

As I said earlier in answer to another question on the JSF, that programme is developing. We are working closely with the United States to monitor the programme, and although we do not intend to order production aircraft, when we are satisfied that the aircraft’s development has matured sufficiently and that it is affordable, we will place the order. Currently, we are committed to the JSF providing the joint combat aircraft for the carrier force.

T9. What progress has the Department made on reaching a common position with the Americans on the eradication of opium poppy farms so that the men involved in that are not driven into the hands of the Taliban? (190392)

The hon. Gentleman knows our Government’s policy on opium production in southern Afghanistan, which is to drive forward on a number of pillars of the counter-narcotics strategy that we share with all our allies and coalition partners, including the United States of America. We have made significant progress in Afghanistan more widely than just in the south by increasing significantly the number of poppy-free provinces, but it continues to be an important part of our policy on the eradication of opium in southern Afghanistan that alternative livelihoods are available to farmers.