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Topical Questions

Volume 472: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

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.