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Topical Questions

Volume 482: debated on Monday 3 November 2008

My responsibilities as Secretary of State are to make and execute defence policy, to provide our armed forces with the capabilities they need to achieve success in current and future operations and, finally, to ensure that the service of all those who wear or have worn the Queen’s uniform is properly honoured and recognised.

Last week’s announcement of £700 million of spending on vehicles and other forms of protection for our troops in Afghanistan was very welcome. On previous occasions when hon. Members, including me, have asked about the use of Snatch Land Rovers in Afghanistan, we have been told of previous procurements of alternative vehicles. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that last week’s announcement is additional and represents procurement over and above what we have been told about in the past?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I can also tell him that as and when the security threat changes in Afghanistan or Iraq, we will not hesitate to meet the requests put to us by our operational commanders for any change or upgrading of the equipment available for them. Our first and principal responsibility is for the health, safety and well-being of our troops in the front line. Nothing that we do will ever get in the way of, or compromise, that fundamental objective.

T2. Does the Secretary of State understand my concern, as chairman of the all-party group on deafness and a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, about the increasing numbers of our servicemen coming back from active service with serious hearing impairment and damage? Will he accept the invitation of the RNID to work together to prevent this damage through better protection methods and to ensure that those who suffer damage have adequate support and compensation? Will he ensure that Ministers and his officials do not implausibly attribute the deafness to causes unrelated to active service when, in so many cases, it clearly is caused by that service? (232073)

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), gave a full and comprehensive answer to an earlier question. We take this issue very seriously indeed, and we stand ready to work with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the service charities and others to see whether there are ways of continuing to improve the protection we give our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have made significant upgrades in the available equipment, but we stand ready at all times and in all places to work with those who share our concern to provide the maximum possible protection for our forces. We will always do that.

Will the Secretary of State give us a clear assurance that the phenomenal amounts of money being spent on AWE Aldermaston are not being used for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons that has not yet been debated or decided in the House?

No, there is no question of that. Decisions will be made in the House at the right time about all those matters. It is, however, vital for the long-term strategic security of the United Kingdom that we maintain our minimum nuclear deterrent. We are absolutely committed to doing so, and that will not change.

T3. Let me ask what is by no means a hostile question and declare a partial interest, in that a close family member is involved. A significant number of people have been discharged from our armed forces because of mental illness over the past seven years. What are Ministers doing to ensure that that number is addressed and reduced? (232074)

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, the Under-Secretary, has principal responsibility for that issue. Perhaps he and the hon. Gentleman could meet to discuss it.

We invest significant resources in ensuring the well-being of members of the armed forces who have to be medically discharged after active service. It is a responsibility that we regard as important and continuing: it does not end simply because those men and women have left the service of Queen and country. We will continue to ensure that mental health services are as good as they can be. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that we will be making an announcement in the very near future about how those services can be improved.

T4. At a recent open day at Lympstone, the parents of young men who are shortly to emerge as fully fledged Royal Marines were advised by a senior officer to purchase a piece of equipment—body armour—of a better, more suitable specification than what is currently issued. If senior officers consider equipment important enough for parents to buy it for their sons, should not quartermasters be in a position to issue it? In answering that question, will the Secretary of State ensure that no aspersions are cast on the senior officer involved? (232075)

No, I will not cast any aspersions on the senior officer, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give me more information about the circumstances that he has described.

We have invested significant resources in improving the body armour available to our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think that the Osprey body kit is pretty good stuff. It is heavy, which of course carries a risk for those who have to wear it, but I do not consider that risk to be any greater than the risk of being shot at.

If the hon. Gentleman has any specific concerns I shall be happy to explore them with him in more detail, but I am not aware of any advice that has come to Ministers suggesting that the Osprey is anything other than totally fit for purpose

I recently had the good fortune to speak to some defence workers at Rosyth naval base in Fife. They spoke very warmly of their former colleague and Member of Parliament, John MacDougall. However, they are genuinely concerned about their long-term security of employment. Can my right hon. Friend assure them and the House that it will be safeguarded?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All of us who knew and worked with John MacDougall know what a fine Member of Parliament he was, and what a great friend he was of Scotland and jobs at Rosyth. My personal view, for what it is worth, is that defence jobs in Scotland would be directly at risk if the Scottish National party were ever to form an Administration with responsibility for those matters. We must not let that happen, and the best way in which we can avoid it is by voting Labour on Thursday.

Will the Ministry of Defence follow the example of the United States armed forces, who now make laser surgery available free of charge to correct the sight defects of all troops going out to the front line? Does he accept not only that wearing spectacles is clearly far from ideal in combat conditions, but that contact lenses can be very uncomfortable in the heat and, particularly, dust of Iraq and Afghanistan, which often gives rise to time off because of eye inflammations and infections? Is he aware that the Metropolitan police are now providing such surgery for key personnel, including bomb disposal experts, who understandably find it quite useful to be able to see properly? Will he establish a central budget in the Ministry, so that this simple and effective surgery can be provided for all our armed services before they go out to the front line?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a commitment from the Dispatch Box to do that today, but I can give him a commitment that I will look into this issue. In all such areas, however, we take advice from the Surgeon General and the appropriate authorities within the armed forces, and that is the basis on which we make decisions.

A part of the protected mobility package in which my right hon. Friend announced investment last week is the Jackal vehicle, 200 of which have already been contracted for, and which are made in Devonport dockyard. Will my right hon. Friend explain the capability that the Jackal adds to those available to commanders in the field, in terms of the choices that they can make?

I pay tribute, via my hon. Friend, to the good work done at Devonport. We are delighted that we will be taking delivery of these new vehicles. The great point about the Jackal is that it is both fast and very mobile and also very heavily armoured, so in some respects it offers the best of all possible worlds. With the announcement made last week that we will provide a further 700 protected and armoured vehicles for Afghanistan, added to the Mastiffs and the other new armoured vehicles that are already in theatre, there will be 1,200 armoured and protected vehicles in theatre, where 8,000 troops are currently deployed.

T5. In June, three members of my former regiment were killed in a Snatch Land Rover in Afghanistan. Their squadron commander has now resigned, citing their deaths as one reason for his resignation, but he finds himself blamed for them by a Minister of the Crown. Apart from the very real pain that any commander feels at the death of one of his troops, no special forces would ever choose a Land Rover without proper cross-country capability for operations. These were, however, the only vehicles available. Will the Secretary of State disassociate himself from the remarks of his—very junior—Minister, and apologise not only to Major Morley, but to the families of the dead? The father of one said today— (232076)

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not know that this morning outside the House I expressed my regrets to the father of one of our gallant soldiers who has died, and who apparently said via the media—he did not say this directly to me—that he had been upset by my remarks. I apologised unreservedly to him and expressed my deep regrets. Obviously, any offence caused was entirely inadvertent; I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that. If I were to have some reason to suppose that operational commanders have been offended by any remarks I have made, I would also apologise very clearly and directly to them. I take it the hon. Gentleman did not hear the broadcast in question, but if he were to do me the courtesy of reading the full transcript—

Well, in that case the hon. Gentleman will have seen that a lot of my argument was designed to explain that it was quite wrong and totally impossible to blame retrospectively, with hindsight, commanding officers for decisions that had been taken and where eventually there had been fatalities, as, unfortunately, happens in warfare. He will have seen from that transcript that some—deservedly—laudatory remarks were made about the quality of our commanding officers and, of course, of our troops as a whole.

T6. You, Mr. Speaker, will know that there is a protocol that Ministers never blame civil servants, and there is a similar protocol that Ministry of Defence Ministers never blame commanders in the field. Whatever the weasel words we have just heard, will the Secretary of State— (232077)

Order. Temperate language is so important these days, and the hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that that was out of order.

T8. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the likelihood of British troops being sent to the Congo as part of the European rapid response force, and what are the implications of that for force overstretch? (232079)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have received no such request to deploy any UK forces to the Congo, but there are two points that I would want to make to him. First, the situation there requires a reopening of political dialogue between the combatant parties; it is important that that is done quickly, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been in the region to try to encourage that. Secondly, there are 18,000 UN forces on the ground in the Congo now, and they can make a difference much more quickly than any deployed force from Europe or anywhere else could, so the priority should be to make sure that UN forces are deployed in such a way as both to protect the civilian population and to advance the humanitarian cause, as is so desperately needed there.

May I return to the Metrix training contract, in the light of the unsatisfactory answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies)—our new hon. Friend—and, indeed, the answer given to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard)? The contract costs are more than £1 million a day and are soaring into the stratosphere. Will the Minister say whether or not the following quote was well sourced? The defence training review executive board investigated “major affordability issues” that could not be disclosed to the project board as they were “too sensitive”. What is going wrong with the contract?

The costs to which my hon. Friend refers cover the provision of the defence training package over a 30-year programme, so he should not be surprised if some of the figures are high. I am sorry that he found what I said to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) unsatisfactory, but we have re-examined affordability and remain convinced that the package is the best option going forward and that it is better than the in-house alternative in providing the quality of training that we need at a reasonable price—a good price for the taxpayer.

T9. As the ministerial head of the armed forces, the Secretary of State will appreciate the importance of loyalty, as will all his fellow Ministers. On that basis, will he advise those Ministers to use temperate language when referring to our commanders in the field and the great things that they, and those who fight for them and for this country, do? (232080)

All Defence Ministers will use temperate language to describe all these matters. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has dealt with this matter very clearly. In this place, it is right and proper that we all give praise where praise is due, and nowhere is that more appropriate, right now, than in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan. That is the collective view of Ministers, and I strongly sense that it is the collective view of the House.