The Secretary of State was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Lance Corporal James Bateman and Private Jeff Doherty of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Thursday 12 June. They were young men of remarkable courage and professionalism, and we owe them an enormous debt.
The primary focus of the international security assistance force—ISAF—is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in the maintenance and extension of security. Practical support for reconstruction and development efforts is one of ISAF’s key supporting tasks.
I am grateful for the opportunity to ask that question, and I echo my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on those who continue to give their lives to secure peace and security in Afghanistan—I send them my eternal thanks. Does he agree that the best way for the people of Afghanistan to have confidence in the work that is taking place there is to forge ahead with the health and education programmes that are crucial to that work? Education and health are a basic right, and people in Afghanistan will come to understand that when those programmes are rolled out throughout the country.
From her own professional experience in health, my hon. Friend knows how important health care is, particularly to women. I am pleased to say that, as a result of ISAF’s effect in Afghanistan, 80 per cent. of people now have access to basic health care—less than 10 per cent. did so before. Education offers a long-term sustainable future for Afghanistan, and there are now 6 million children in education, one third of whom are girls. We should remember that the Taliban refuse to educate girls, and they still kill those teachers who educate girls, and try to destroy the schools.
From a parliamentary reply from the Department for International Development, I notice that there is just one single non-governmental organisation operating in Helmand province. Seven years after the invasion, it is astonishing to discover that we cannot invest more and encourage NGOs to do their work. If that is the case, why do the Royal Engineers not have one single Trojan or Terrier vehicle, which would mean that they, instead of DFID, could help the reconstruction and development work? It appears that we have taken over responsibility for the provisional reconstruction team, but we are not doing enough about it.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I respect his informed observations about Afghanistan—he takes a lot of time and trouble to inform himself. I am sure that he will accept that, from my recent visit to Afghanistan, I have seen significant improvements in reconstruction. When I was in Lashkar Gah a couple of weeks ago, 30 projects were under way across that city. I may have more to say later in some detail about what is happening across Afghanistan, but he can be assured, in terms of reconstruction and development, that we, with our allies, are investing $12 million a week in Helmand province alone.
With respect, my hon. Friend always manages to make a partial analysis of what is going on in a country of great complexity. He forgets to remind the House that while civilian deaths caused by ISAF forces are accidental, deeply regretted and always investigated, they are part of the Taliban’s plan. Indeed, they intend to do that, and that is the substantial difference between us. As for his other two observations, I know from my work with Bob Gates, who is the US Secretary for Defence, and from the American Government, that they are doing a significant amount to get the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan to work across their common border to deal with insurgent and other terrorist activity that blight both countries, and cause significant difficulties for them. A lot of positive work is under way: I just wish that my hon. Friend would occasionally refer to that as well.
I was in Lashkar Gah the week before the Secretary of State and with reference to his earlier answer he did not tell the House that there are fewer schools and health clinics open in Helmand province this year than last year. One of the principal concerns that I heard from my colleagues in the Royal Engineers is that they are frustrated that, while they have been asked to undertake reconstruction and development work—and progress has been made by the stabilisation unit—the time that it takes to obtain the money for the project is getting longer. What can we do to help that time line?
I do not recognise the statistics that the hon. Gentleman has shared with the House, and they certainly do not correspond with the briefing that I was given.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is true, but I do not recognise those statistics. For example, during the week that I was in Helmand province, the hospital in Garmsir opened for the first time in two years, because of the work achieved by Scots soldiers and Americans working together in that part of the province.
The brigadier in charge of our troops in Helmand province took me through a list of construction projects that were going on and told me a very interesting anecdote about his presence at the opening of a secondary school. It opened for the first time ever, because, after having been built, it had been closed by the Taliban.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the investment of funds not only in quick-impact projects but in long-term development projects. I remind him of what I told the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood): we are currently investing $12 million a week through projects in Helmand province, which is $600 million a year. I think that that is quite a significant amount of money. The ability to invest there stretches the capacity and capability not only of the Afghans, but of our own forces.
May I associate myself with those whose thoughts are with the Paras who died last week? Having visited Afghanistan on a number of occasions, including southern Afghanistan, I have always found morale among our armed forces personnel to be very high, and that they are very proud of what they are achieving in southern Afghanistan. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to keep up a constant battle to ensure that their good work and the sacrifices that they make are kept at the forefront not only of the news agenda, but of the minds of the British public?
In my conversations with our troops on the ground in Helmand province, Kandahar and, indeed, Kabul, very many of them have said to me that their deepest frustration is with the failure of people back in this country to appreciate exactly what progress is being made—the concentration always on the negative and the lack of understanding about how difficult an environment it is. I remind the House that Afghanistan has gone through the best part of four decades of violence and lost 2 million of its own people, and two generations in respect of education. In many parts of the country, only between 17 and 22 per cent. of the indigenous population can read and write. There needs to be some strategic patience with what we are trying to do. Nothing will happen year to year on a metric that meets the demands of some unreasonable commentators on what is happening in Afghanistan.
Is the Secretary of State aware of a report, which was published by Oxfam earlier this year, that found that the provincial reconstruction teams had extended beyond the remit that was originally intended at the expense of delivery by the local Afghan institutions? Does the Secretary of State believe that that is true? If so, how does he think that we can build up the capacity of the Afghan institutions so that they can deliver much more of their own aid, development and reconstruction?
I read many reports written by people about Afghanistan. The reports that I place greatest store by are those from people who are on the ground in Afghanistan, living and working in that environment. There is, however, an issue about provincial reconstruction teams. At present, the second in command of ISAF, who is a very experienced British general, is, at the request of the previous commander of ISAF, undertaking work on provincial reconstruction teams. On the question whether it is time in certain parts of Afghanistan to move from that sort of reconstruction support to longer term development, I think that the general will almost certainly conclude that in some circumstances provincial reconstruction can exist for too long. At present, however, that is hardly likely to apply to the south of Afghanistan, where most of the most difficult work is being done. Reconstruction is at the heart of what we need to do there.
Service Pay and Conditions
A number of measures have been implemented to improve armed forces pay and conditions, including a 2.6 per cent. pay rise, along with a 1 per cent. increase in the X factor component of basic pay from 1 April this year. The operational allowance, introduced in October 2006, now stands at £2,380 for a six-month deployment. Recent enhancements to the wider remuneration package include the council tax relief scheme announced in September 2007, increased separation allowances and financial retention initiatives.
A variety of factors affect recruitment and retention. Currently, the good thing is that recruitment is up, and retention, certainly in terms of outflow, is broadly similar to what it has been in recent years. We always face challenges and we always look at various initiatives to deal with them. For instance, we obviously take advice from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and we have implemented its recommendations, but we continue to look at what more we can do to improve the pay and conditions of our armed forces.
My hon. Friend will recognise that it is very important that we get pay and conditions right because that helps with retention. Can he also ensure that we help forces personnel to get on to the property ladder by helping them with deposits and in other ways so that they can have their own properties for the sake of their long-term interests?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very keen to help our armed forces personnel to get the opportunity to acquire property and to buy equity in property, and we are considering a number of ways in which we can do that. As a result of the 2008 pay review, my right hon. Friend announced money for that purpose this year and for future years. At this stage we are working on the relevant plans; of course, when we have something further to say we will do so.
I am grateful to colleagues.
Is the Minister aware that one aspect of conditions causing concern to commanders is the lack of rehabilitation facilities for men and women who have been injured physically or mentally? Is he aware that the Royal hospital, Haslar, is ideally suited to provide such rehabilitation facilities, and will he work with charities and others who are striving to develop those facilities?
The hon. Gentleman, who is a great defender of Haslar hospital, has done a lot of work over the years on the issue, and I recognise that he feels very strongly about it. However, I do not recognise his viewpoint as regards rehabilitation. Only a few weeks ago, we announced a £24 million investment in Headley Court, which is our main rehabilitation centre. I think that everyone accepts that it is doing remarkable work in rehabilitating and helping our injured service personnel. In many cases that care now means that they can stay in the service and not necessarily leave. We also have a regional group of rehabilitation centres providing world-class treatment and support. We are continuing to invest in rehabilitation for our armed forces personnel to ensure that they get the best possible care and treatment.
Would my hon. Friend accept my condolences, along with those of others, not only for those who have recently so tragically died in Afghanistan but for all those who have fallen in the service of this country, and will he recognise the courage that they have shown in their activities? Does he accept that the role of a member of our armed forces is unique? Unlike any other public sector servant, our servicemen and women promise, by contract, to serve even until death. The public therefore need to be reassured that the remuneration that we are giving to those young men and women is adequate to the sacrifice that they are prepared to make. Some misleading comments have been made over the past month or two. Is he in a position to tell us about the value of packages available to soldiers serving, say, in Afghanistan so that we can cut through some of those stories and the public can be told what is the very minimum that is paid to a young soldier in Afghanistan?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the remuneration of our armed forces personnel. Of course, we set a high store by that. That is why we have accepted the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendations in full—I must stress that to the House. In the case of a newly trained private who is going to Afghanistan, if we take into account certain benefits that they might receive, such as the operational allowance and the separation allowance, and the excellent contribution made by the very good pension scheme, the package can amount to about £25,000. It will depend on which pay scale they are on and will increase accordingly, but that is roughly what one of our most junior privates would get on coming out of training. Let me add that last year we recognised that there was an issue with pay for the most junior ranks and increased their pay by the best pay award in the public sector—over 9 per cent.
Yes, but it was not funded, was it?
On Saturday morning, I attended the latest welcome home parade for the crews of the Chinooks that are coming back from Afghanistan. Those personnel are over there on a regular, rolling basis. The people of Odiham showed a huge degree of appreciation for the wonderful work of those men and women. I was not able to speak to them all because they were lining the streets three deep to welcome home those members of the armed forces, and others, but those to whom I did speak agreed unanimously with the remarks of the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, who says that we need to have a debate about the priority that we give to our armed forces. The work that those people are doing is second to none. Does the Minister agree?
Our armed forces are absolutely outstanding—I think that they are the best in the world. Like my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces, I have visited our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen what they do, and they undertake quite an amazing job. It is important when looking at pay and conditions that we take a strong view about how we pay and remunerate our armed forces, which is why the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is independent. It goes all around the world, talking to armed forces personnel and their families. I was in Cyprus just a few weeks ago after its representatives visited to talk to families there about remuneration and the conditions of service package. We have implemented those recommendations in full.
Is it not a source of concern to the Minister when senior military personnel say:
“A friend of mine told me that a survey done in his battalion in the past couple of weeks found that 58 per cent. of them were unhappy with their pay—that gives an idea of the levels of frustration amongst ordinary soldiers.”
Does that not concern the Minister?
I do not think that anyone is in the position to say, “If asked if they would like more pay, most people would say no.” I understand the concerns, but having spoken to service personnel over the past two years about pay awards, the feedback I have got has been positive, particularly from chiefs of staff. The chiefs’ aspirations are the same as those of Ministers—to ensure that we get the best possible pay awards for our armed forces personnel. I stress to the House that we accepted in full the recommendations of the independent pay review board.
Of course, the question is much wider than one of pay, which is why we are spending £8.4 billion over the next 10 years to improve a lot of service family accommodation. We are trying to put right decades of neglect. We also have world-class medical services for our injured service personnel, whether in Selly Oak, in the field hospitals in Iraq or Afghanistan or back at the rehabilitation centres. We are ensuring that our armed forces personnel are given a range of support.
It was a very serious matter for the Chief of the General Staff to express his continuing concern at the level of pay for our front-line forces. Is he mistaken in his view; otherwise, why is the Minister so complacent about the level of pay?
I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not complacent about the level of pay. I have clearly stressed that we have an independent review body, and we accepted its recommendations in full. Additionally, we introduced an operational allowance, the separation allowance has been increased, we have introduced a council tax rebate and we are looking at what else we can do. The pay review body talks to armed forces personnel and their families around the world to get their view of conditions. The Chief of the General Staff and the other chiefs want to see further improvements and so does this ministerial team. I know for a fact that when I spoke to the Chief of the General Staff, he was pleased about the increase given this year.
Rent to be paid in the financial year 2008-09 is £150 million. That represents 42 per cent. of the agreed market rental price for the properties listed from Annington Homes.
I pay tribute to the five soldiers from the Colchester garrison who lost their lives in Afghanistan in the last week, and I extend condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those five brave young men. The town mourns, but there is immense pride in the knowledge that the Army is doing an excellent job. They did not die in vain.
As for Annington Homes, will the Minister confirm that over the past 12 years, the Government have paid more rent to Annington Homes than the Tory Government received during the privatisation in 1996? If that money could be invested in upgrading the homes of Army families, instead of lining the pockets of Annington, perhaps retention would be better than it is.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the amount paid for the sale was around £1.6 billion, and I have written to him with the details of the rent that is being paid. The key thing is that most people now accept that that deal, which was done by the previous Government, was not in the interests of armed forces personnel or their families, and we have had to deal with a legacy of decades of underinvestment. After 18 years in power, the Opposition could not solve that problem. We are spending a significant amount of money on housing—more than £8 billion in the next 10 years—and we are making inroads and improving a large amount of family accommodation and single-living accommodation. There is more to do. We are not complacent about the matter, and we will continue to press for improvements.
Not only does that deal not represent good value for money, as my hon. Friend confirmed, but Annington Homes must be making a handsome profit out of the arrangement. People are always looking to the Government for such things, but it is right to look to industries that make handsome profits out of the defence market. What discussions has the Under-Secretary had with Annington Homes to ask what it can do to put money back into the armed services?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that she takes a great interest in the matter. There is a contract, which was signed under the previous Government, to pay a set amount of money to Annington Homes under a deal that most people now recognise as pretty disastrous for accommodation for armed forces personnel. We have met representatives of Annington Homes to discuss what more we can to do to improve the housing position of our armed forces personnel. They are willing to discuss things with us—we are considering several ideas with them at the moment. When we reach a conclusion, I will be happy to report further on the matter.
But does the Under-Secretary agree that what matters to our armed forces and their families is the quality of the management of those homes? The Defence Committee found lamentable shortcomings in everyday management—taps working, loos flushing—issues that matter so much. In the new supergarrisons, will there be a new housing management system, which is an improvement on the current system? Will polyclinics be considered with the Defence Medical Services, as is happening in Tidworth in Wiltshire?
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the matters that we are considering. The response, repair and maintenance service in England and Wales now shows sustained performance levels, with more than 96 per cent. of service family accommodation meeting the move-in standard. More than 99 per cent. of emergency calls are dealt with in 24 hours, and customer satisfaction with the response, repair and maintenance service is consistently above 90 per cent. However, I accept that more needs to be done. We must ensure that we stop the problems occurring in future and that services continue to improve. We will obviously examine a variety of ways in which to do that, but I stress that we are considering a relatively new contract. There were many teething problems when it came into being, but significant improvements have been made. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we will continue to monitor the position and put a great deal of effort and work into ensuring that we get the further improvements.
Forward Equipment Programme
The Department reconciles the equipment programme and the available resources through its regular planning round process, which enables us to adjust priorities, not least in response to the experience of operations. To inform the 2009 planning round, we are undertaking a short examination of the equipment programme to look at our planning assumptions in the next 10 years. That aims to bear down on costs and shift the balance of defence procurement to support operations.
But the truth is that that short examination confirms what everyone knows: the forward equipment programme is inconsistent with the state of the defence budget. Will the Minister confirm that the examination is therefore likely to conclude that salami-slicing will no longer be enough and that a major amputation of an entire programme is probably required?
We need to try to ensure that we have got the focus on our current operations right and that it is sufficient. We need to ensure that we do more for our people, if we can. To do so, we need to examine the cost issues in the equipment programme to ascertain whether we can bear down on them. A review is necessary, sensible and exactly what we are doing.
Will the Minister assure me that any such review will not delay signing the contract for my aircraft carriers? Will he further confirm that, if the future of the Scottish naval shipyards is to be assured, it is essential that they maintain access to the United Kingdom market—no Union, no shipyards?
Is it not clear that a review of the major equipment programme is just another opportunity for the Government to push decisions “to the right”, as the Ministry of Defence jargon goes, in order to delay expenditure for as long as possible, in the hope that the Government can get through a general election before they have to cancel anything? Is it not time for the Government to accept that they will not be able to deliver the capabilities that they originally promised in the strategic defence review under the current defence budget?
I saw the hon. Gentleman talking to his hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who is sitting in front of him, so it is surprising that he should stand up and say exactly the opposite. His hon. Friend said that the review will expose certain things; he says that it is a way of delaying them. The review is a short review. If the hon. Gentleman had paid any attention to what I said, he would know that the review is there to inform our decisions in the 2009 spending round.
We need to consider our equipment programme, with the exceptions of decisions that have already been taken, through the review, although I cannot pre-empt those decisions. We shall aim for the minimum of delay in decision making. The review will not take that long, but it needs to be conducted, and we need to look further on than we were able to during the 2008 spending round.
In looking at the forward equipment programme, perhaps the Minister can look at the past equipment programme, too. We all want to see value for money, but does he really think that it is value for money for this country to have bought eight Chinooks that are now lying idle in a hangar? [Hon. Members: “You bought them.”] Having said that—[Interruption.] I know exactly what the Minister is saying, but can he give the House an assurance that he will look at all the contracts on which we are now expending money, to ensure that there is no waste whatever in the equipment that our armed forces need?
The hon. Gentleman knows that those eight Chinooks were ordered by the previous Conservative Government. That procurement was found to be completely within the terms of the procurement procedures. We could not go back to Boeing, because it had done what it had been asked to do, but those Chinooks were not compatible with our safety requirements. That was a pretty disastrous situation. We have decided to make those Chinooks fit for purpose, so that we can get them into theatre as quickly as possible. It was a pretty complicated mess in which we found ourselves in the first place, and yes, it has taken some sorting out.
To have the most accurate correlation possible between a complex forward equipment programme and the associated budgets provided, the MOD needs the highest order of financial advice available at its top levels. In the light of the two National Audit Office reports—one relating to the Chinook helicopter disaster, the other to the flog-off of QinetiQ, where senior management enriched themselves by ensuring that the price was well below the market value—what quality of financial advice are Ministers receiving in this benighted Department?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see the huge success that QinetiQ has been, but that was not guaranteed at the time. However, the Government made nearly £1 billion—an 800 per cent. profit—on their shares in QinetiQ.
We have procured a substantial number of protected mobility vehicles over the last 12 months and invested heavily in further improvements to their physical protection as threats have emerged. We have delivered Mastiff and Vector protected mobility vehicles to Afghanistan and they are on the streets saving lives now. We are procuring a total of more than 450 of these vehicles, which is clearly a significant investment. In addition, the Prime Minister has recently announced the procurement of 150 additional protected vehicles for operational use, which will be known as Ridgeback.
A number of constituents have expressed to me in the strongest possible words their deep concern about the number of our armed forces personnel who have died as a result of explosive devices at the roadside, and ask me whether that might be due to a lack of sufficient protective vehicles. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House today that when commanders take decisions in matching operations and vehicles, their choice of vehicle is not compromised by an absence of sufficient protected vehicles?
A number of commanders have been able to say to us quite clearly that over the last few years the equipment provided to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has fundamentally improved. The House needs to ensure that we do not try to second-guess decisions that are quite rightly taken by commanders about which vehicle is appropriate for use on a particular operation. We need a range of vehicles; we cannot do everything from a Mastiff. Our responsibility is clearly to ensure that there are sufficient of all the different kinds of vehicle available to commanders so that they have a free choice to pick the right vehicle for the right job as they see it at the time. That is what we are seeking to do and I hope my hon. Friend would appreciate that we have done so with a substantial degree of success over the last couple of years.
I commend the Secretary of State for ordering the Ridgeback vehicles—the four-wheeled version of the Mastiffs, which have an outstanding track record in Afghanistan and are very popular with the troops. Does not the Minister accept, however, that with the arrival of the future rapid effect utility vehicles, the balance between vehicles designed for blast deflection rather than blast absorption will be tipped too much towards the latter type?
Yes, of course we have to ensure that we have the right balance in the range of vehicles available. The hon. Lady should not be under any illusion, however, that in the development process of FRES––future rapid effect system—adequate mine protection will not need to be proven and tested to destruction as appropriate. Our problem is that we are not able to expose those tests in the same way as civilian organisations because that would put our troops at risk. But we need a vehicle with a high degree of mobility, which will of course need to be set off against the essential requirement for mine protection and blast deflection to be built into the vehicle’s design.
But does not the Minister share my sense of concern and, indeed, embarrassment that those brave soldiers who willingly and enthusiastically drive those vehicles in their protective duties are paid so much less than those drivers of trucks who are currently holding the nation to ransom?
The armed forces are stretched, but the chiefs of staff advise me that the current situation is manageable. Some of our people are working harder than is the ideal. We are, however, taking steps to alleviate the pressures on individuals through a number of financial and non-financial measures aimed at improving retention and balancing manpower in areas of current risk.
This weekend, President Bush stressed the importance of listening to our generals when making decisions about troop deployment. Has the Minister listened to General Sir Richard Dannatt’s warning that overstretch has left us with “almost no capability” to deal with the unexpected? Does the Minister agree with the general?
I just said that we talked to the chiefs of staff, and they have assured us that, although there is stretch in the armed forces, the situation is manageable. The Chief of the General Staff is one of those chiefs. He is part of those discussions. Of course he has been consulted; of course he continues to be consulted. The opinion that I have just given is the opinion that is expressed by the Chief of the General Staff as well as the other chiefs.
Our armed forces would be stretched beyond breaking point had it not been for the dedicated and courageous service of non-UK nationals. A decade ago, there were just 600 non-UK non-Nepalese soldiers in the British Army. Today, there are around 7,000 and rising. Will the Minister be sorting out his manning difficulties by making a career in the Army more attractive to young people or will he continue to buck the UK labour market in favour of overseas recruitment?
Our recruitment in the last couple of years has been pretty buoyant. We are able to get people into the armed forces. Recruitment figures achieved in 2007-08 were nearly 1,500 higher than in the previous year, but we know that retention is a problem, which is why we have brought in the various allowances—most recently, the commitment bonus of £15,000. It is not the intention to depend on overseas recruits. It is the intention to be able to recruit within the UK. Let us make it clear: the package available to a young infantryman is worth, by any estimate, £25,000, which is more than that for a parking attendant.
Following on from that, about 10 days ago I was privileged to be on HMS Bulwark, where morale was exceptionally high, and I want to use this opportunity to send my congratulations on that to Captain Jeremy Blunden and the ship’s company. We came across a number of Commonwealth citizens—some on secondment, some direct recruits. What assessment has the Department made of the extra training that we can give to increase the strength of the Royal Navy among our allies and thus help the campaigns that we have to face?
The Royal Navy co-operates with all our allies in trying to assist whenever it can. Anyone who goes down to Flag Officer Sea Training at Plymouth will invariably see other navies participating alongside our own and trying not only to develop their interoperability, but to learn any lessons that they can from us, as we should learn any lessons we can from other nations.
Does the Minister not accept that retention is a serious problem and that many experienced, trained soldiers are leaving the forces early, for whatever reason? That was highlighted to me recently when my wife and I attended beating the retreat on Horse Guards as guests of the Army Benevolent Fund. Those soldiers said to us both that retention is very difficult. Can we not do more to try to retain those whom we have trained at great expense and who are of huge value to our armed services?
Retention is a huge issue—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—but pay in itself is not the only answer to it. There are many complexities to the retention issue. We lose an awful lot of people during training and the Army is actively considering whether it can lose fewer during that process—without lowering standards, but by looking at its procedures.
There is also the issue of the soldiering that our people do today. They willingly face complex and dangerous circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if one talks to them in theatre, they say that they enjoy what they do. But they get their soldiering experience much quicker, over a shorter time scale, than previous generations. Therefore, retention will remain a difficult, complex issue. We must continue to strive to do everything that we can to meet that challenge. The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot afford to lose the skills in which we have invested so much.
NATO Transformation Programme
NATO remains the bedrock of our security and defence policy. We are determined to ensure its effectiveness and efficiency in current and future operations, and in delivering the capabilities that we need. At last week’s NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting, we took stock of progress, including on British initiatives to make more helicopters and other key capabilities available for operations. I have agreed to host a special NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting on transformation in September in London. Our aim is that that will allow Ministers to give political direction to help to resolve such transformation issues.
It is accepted that NATO has found it difficult to transform itself from the most effective political-military organisation that the world has ever known, and one which was configured for a cold war situation, into one that can respond to the modern challenges. A common view is that a transformed NATO will have the capabilities that it needs to succeed in operations of the sort to which we currently deploy NATO troops, such as in Afghanistan or Kosovo; will use its resources efficiently to support our future needs; will have all its members sharing the burdens and risk of operations; will work better with organisations such as the European Union, UN and African Union; and will have a slimmed-down command structure, suitable for modern operations.
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.
The Secretary of State and his team will know of the fantastic work done by Skill Force’s retired armed services trainers in putting something back into the community. In the Haddon Park and William Sharp schools in my constituency, they are helping some of the most difficult-to-reach young people. Will he commend the success of Skill Force and its trainers, and consider whether the Ministry of Defence or any one of the armed services might sponsor an academy as universities and private businesses do? Will he consider taking the Skill Force example further and have the MOD or one of the services sponsor an academy in a tough area?
My hon. Friend is right to recognise that when the armed services have a relationship with schools such as that of Skill Force, it is of mutual benefit, with the young people and children in those schools benefiting most. I have not seen Skill Force operate in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I have seen it operate in schools in Scotland to significant effect. Until he raised the issue of academy sponsorship, I had not thought of extending the relationship in such a way, and we have no plans to do so. But if he wants to put a proposal to me, I will certainly discuss it with the chiefs of staff and the appropriate Secretary of State.
General Sir Richard Dannatt is an extremely successful and well-regarded soldier who has risen to the top of the Army. There is a process that took him there and respected all his skills and talents, and there is a process that will determine his future. No doubt I shall receive advice in due course from those who are equipped to give it to me, and I shall follow that process to the letter.
In November 2006, the Government decided to take the lead internationally in addressing the humanitarian concerns posed by certain types of cluster munitions. Since that date the United Kingdom has been actively engaged with the convention on conventional weapons, and in February 2007 it decided to join the Oslo process to drive the issue forward and secure the best possible humanitarian result. In March 2007, we withdrew two types of cluster munitions from service because we took the view that they would inflict unacceptable harm. We were the first country to do that after the Oslo conference, and we are one of the 46 nations to have supported the Oslo process from the outset. The Government are delighted with the outcome of the Dublin conference, where we gave a very strong lead. I am proud of what we have achieved, and I know that it is supported throughout the House and in the other place.
Can the Secretary of State cast any light on the BBC reports of a week or so ago that by the end of the year the Government would be in a position to announce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq? We have heard President Bush warn against it, but yesterday the Foreign Secretary said in a BBC interview:
“We have to complete what we have started and the priority… was the training of the 14th Division around Basra.”
What is the Government’s estimate of the time scale for completion of that work? Are there any other specific projects that we “have to complete” before we have concluded our task? Will we be in a position to tell a new United States President next January that the sustainability of our long-term commitment in Afghanistan necessitates a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq?
The hon. Gentleman—understandably—raises this issue regularly at Question Time and during debates, and I think that I consistently give him the same answer: that decisions about the level of our forces in Iraq will depend on military advice, which in turn will reflect the conditions. As he knows, during my time as Secretary of State the number of our troops in Iraq has roughly halved, which reflects the changing conditions.
We have set ourselves a number of tasks. At the end of the day, we will make a decision on whether the Iraqi security forces are sufficiently trained to be able to hold and sustain the security that we, along with other allies, have helped them to create. The hon. Gentleman and the House can rest assured that when that day comes, I or another member of the Government will come here and tell the House, not the BBC.
I shall talk to my hon. Friend about the details of her question, and ensure that we do the maximum that is reasonable in the circumstances.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Sir Peter Viggers) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), both of whom are hugely respected in the House, and both of whom richly deserve the honour that was bestowed on them at the weekend.
On the subject of respect, I am sure that the Secretary of State shares my respect for all the current chiefs of staff, and also shares General Dannatt’s concern for the welfare of our soldiers. Can he confirm what we must all assume—that the Prime Minister holds all the chiefs of staff in the same high regard—and does he believe that to discriminate against anyone because they had, in the words of a Whitehall source, “made a lot of enemies among the senior reaches of the Labour party” would be characteristic of petty, vindictive, small-minded politicians, and quite alien to the ethos of the military?
I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to those Members, who were rightly recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours list. They have contributed significantly to public life, and the recognition is well deserved.
I value the advice and support of, and the relationship I have with, all my chiefs of staff. The hon. Gentleman ought not to believe everything he reads in the papers, even if he, or one of his colleagues, might have briefed them.
The Secretary of State is right: we ought to leave aside the vulgarity of the conduct of politics. So let us get on to the substance: can he tell us the value of the Ministry of Defence estate in Northern Ireland, and can he give us a simple guarantee that every penny from any sales will go to the MOD and not to Stormont as a result of any grubby political deals?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that figure, but he knows that I will be consistent in my approach to the House, and I will make sure that he is given the figure and the detail underpinning it. I do not know the current estimate of the value of the real estate we hold in Northern Ireland. I do know, however, that I and the Government intend that where any of that estate is realised, those resources will be reinvested in our armed forces in some fashion or other. That is the plan. No deals were made. The hon. Gentleman ought to accept the assurances that I have no doubt were given to him personally by Members who are much closer politically to him than to me that they made their decision in relation to the vote the other night on a matter of principle, as I am sure he also did.
Facilitated by a White Paper, the House recently had extensive discussions over a period of months on the decision to maintain the nuclear deterrent. There will be further decisions to take further down the line, however, and they will, of course, be brought to the House, but the House took a decision on the continuation of the nuclear deterrent in principle.
My hon. Friend raises a very important matter. The names of the latest service personnel to have lost their lives will of course be put on the memorial in the National Memorial Arboretum, in Staffordshire. Various parts of the armed forces themselves have a number of memorials. The decision regarding recognition for those who died in service was recently announced, and we will announce the details in due course.
Twenty-six dolphins died in my constituency in a mass stranding last week, and more than 70 were involved in the incident. In the immediate aftermath, defence spokespeople insisted that the only sonar in use in the area was aboard a survey vessel using a low-powered seabed scanner. This turned out to be a high-frequency sonar, and over the weekend it transpired that Merlin helicopters were also exercising in the area, using a mid-range frequency sonar that has been associated with cetacean strandings in the past. Can the Minister explain why his Department appears to have issued so many contradictory statements in relation to this incident, and will he commit to full co-operation in an inquiry?
The hon. Lady is effectively making allegations about the cause of the tragedy involving the dolphins. There is no evidence that this was caused by any activities of the Royal Navy, but of course we will co-operate with any ongoing investigations that there might be into this matter.
Retention and recruitment is indeed a problem, but is that not as much to do with the fact that we have virtually zero unemployment out there, and will that not continue to be a problem? Surely we should be welcoming those from other Commonwealth countries coming into this country, unlike the Opposition.
I have made it clear in the past from this Dispatch Box that I value the increasingly improving relationship between our schools and the armed forces. I have said before—this is my observation—that the more that, around Easter time, certain organisations bring attention to this issue in a critical fashion, the more demand we get for the armed forces to visit schools. So I am quite content that this issue be in the forefront of people’s minds because unequivocally, when the armed forces visit schools, as they do through the Skill Force programme, they add significant value to those schools.
May I press the Minister for an early completion of the review into the tariff levels of the armed forces compensation scheme? Will he also give an assurance to the House that when that review is completed, it will be published? This is important to many ex-service organisations, the Royal British Legion in particular, and to many of our constituents.
As my hon. Friend knows, we made some changes to the scheme last year to take account of multiple injuries, but as I announced previously in the House, a review is under way, on which I can assure him there will be wide consultation. We are considering a variety of matters, and we will publish the review when it has been completed.
In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the recent announcement on the carriers, may I ask him to confirm that this is not only an affirmation of the needs of the Royal Navy but a statement of confidence in those who rarely feature on honours lists or wear a uniform, but who are essential for the defence effort of this country—our shipyard workers? Will he make it plain that, whatever the outcome of a future review, the carrier programme will remain at the centre of the Royal Navy’s needs and of the shipbuilding of this country?
My right hon. Friend is singularly well-placed to be able to comment on these issues, not just because of his contribution to the maintenance of our armed forces through serving as Minister for the Armed Forces and Secretary of State for Defence, but through his crucial contribution to the maintenance, preservation and building up of our shipbuilding industry when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. My right hon. Friend knows more than anybody else how dependent on such work the shipbuilding industry is, particularly in Scotland, and the extent to which that relationship is at the heart of the United Kingdom. Those who work in those yards know fine well that if they are to preserve the skill base and to continue the historic contribution that they have made into the future for decades or more, it will depend on the British Government relying on their skill base in order to maintain the capability of the Royal Navy.