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.