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Defence

Volume 486: debated on Monday 12 January 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Overstretch

Before I begin, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan since the House last met. They were Sergeant Christopher Reed, of 6th Battalion the Rifles, and Corporal Robert Deering, Corporal Liam Elms and Lance Corporal Ben Whatley, all of them Royal Marines. Our thoughts and prayers are likewise with the family of the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan yesterday.

Providing effective help and support for service families remains a high priority for the Ministry of Defence. We recognise the challenges that service families face as a result of the current high level of operations and have already made a significant investment—for example, in service accommodation and in making it easier for service personnel and their families to keep in touch during operations. Specialist welfare support staff have also been increased by more than 20 per cent., and we will continue to look at further measures to help in the future.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to those who have given their lives. As somebody with a Marines base in my constituency, I pay particular tribute to the Marines who suffered extensively over recent months in active service. Our thoughts are not just with their immediate families, but with their colleagues who remain to do the job on behalf of our country.

Given that there is an opportunity later this year, when our troops come home at last from Iraq, and given that we know that the evidence shows the effects of overstretch on families, divorces and post-traumatic stress disorder, what proposals does the Secretary of State have for taking advantage of having one less theatre of operation to reduce the burdens generally and support the families who need us so much?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Royal Marines at the beginning of his question; 3 Commando Brigade are doing an outstanding job in Afghanistan today and unfortunately, 42 and 45 Commando have taken very substantial casualties. I am grateful to him for his words of respect and admiration for the Royal Marines, who do a brilliant job for our country.

On service families, the opportunity does present itself later this year, when the operation will significantly change in Iraq, for us to bring about a lessening of the operational tempo for the armed forces, and we are determined to take that opportunity. Of course, we have to keep under careful review the deployment in Afghanistan, and we are looking carefully at what we might need to do there in future weeks and months, but we must and should take advantage of what I think will be a very significant moment later this year to help servicemen and their families adjust to a better way of life, and a period when they can enjoy more contact with each other and their families. That is very much what we are trying to do, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to say that.

I, too, associate myself with the earlier remarks about the support for our forces at this time. One of the best ways in which we can support families is to provide greater clarity regarding the provision of accommodation not only when people are serving, but when they leave the armed forces. Can we look again at the ways in which housing is made available, to make sure that it is more easily available and is provided in the way that many of us would like?

Yes; we are prepared at every time to look at ways in which we can improve how we do the work that my hon. Friend has referred to. He will like to know, I am sure, that the Government have made a commitment to invest significantly in improving the standard of service accommodation that we provide for single, as well as married, soldiers. I hope and believe that that will add significantly to some of the morale and satisfaction issues that he alluded to.

May I also pay tribute to the Royal Marines, whom I, along with other Members of this House, had the privilege of visiting in Camp Bastion before the summer recess, and to the Rifles, which is a Territorial Army unit? What special help are families in the TA units being given when they lose their loved ones or when on deployment, which is a completely different issue for them than for the regulars?

Yes, I do accept that point. This is an issue for the welfare support staff whom the MOD employs, and it is also obviously the work of the TA battalions and their officers and commanding officers to make sure that TA soldiers, airmen and royal naval personnel who are on active service get the appropriate family and welfare support that they must receive. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we put very significant effort into ensuring that the excellent service that the TA renders our armed forces is properly rewarded and that its families do not suffer as a consequence.

May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives since the House last met? When the Secretary of State considers the morale of families, will he take account of the fact that the quality and clarity of the information that they receive while family members are on active duty are vital, that the Ministry of Defence website is sadly lacking in this regard, as are other means of communication from the Ministry, and that because of modern communications, this information is often gained in other ways? I ask him to examine the matter, because I am sure he recognises that it is very important for the morale of families when their loved ones are fighting overseas.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I agree with its central premise: it is incumbent on Ministers and on the services themselves to maintain morale among service families while husbands and other loved ones are on active service. We fully intend to discharge that duty. If there are practical ways in which we can enhance the utility of the MOD’s website—I suspect that it is probably not the principal source of information in this context—we are happy to do that. I shall take away what she has said, consider it carefully and come back to her on it.

Iran

We routinely assess the military capabilities of other nations’ armed forces, including those of Iran.

Last month, Iran conducted a major naval exercise in the gulf of Oman, involving more than 60 warships and military aircraft. Next month, the first shipments of liquefied natural gas will start sailing from Qatar to Milford Haven, and in due course LNG from the Persian gulf will account for some 25 per cent. of the gas consumed in this country. To what extent does the Secretary of State recognise the military threat of Iran to the security of British energy supply and to what extent is the UK working with its allies and the Gulf Co-operation Council to counter it?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He will understand that we take a close interest in these matters. Iran has the ability to contribute not just to greater global security, but to greater global energy security. Unfortunately, it is not doing that, so its influence remains malign and it poses a significant threat not just to global security, but to regional security. Naturally, we keep all those matters under careful review and we discuss all these concerns closely with our allies in the Gulf and elsewhere, but it remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that energy supply routes through the gulf of Aden remain open, and we have forces in place there to achieve just that.

I am unsure whether my right hon. Friend will have seen yesterday’s report by Steve Erlanger in The New York Times. It stated:

“Hamas, with training from Iran and Hezbollah, has used the last two years to turn Gaza into a deadly maze of tunnels, booby traps and sophisticated roadside bombs.”

That came from The New York Times, not any other source. Does the Secretary of State agree that Iran’s involvement in the current crisis, including the smuggling of Fajr-3 missiles into the hands of Hamas, is a great danger and that the warm relationship between the leadership of Hamas and the current anti-Semitic leadership of Iran also indicates just what a poisonous role Iran is playing generally in the region and further afield?

I did not see that edition of The New York Times, unlike my right hon. Friend. I shall just repeat my earlier comment that Iran’s influence in the region is malign. We want the situation to be transformed, and we are actively pursuing better dialogue and engagement with Iran, but there can be no regional security as long as Iran continues to support not just terrorist organisations in the middle east, but, for example, Taliban elements in Afghanistan, and as long as Iran continues to have active and close links with some of the terrorists and insurgent groups in Iraq. That has to change. Iran has suffered as a result of the isolation that her foreign policy has brought upon her, and that can change if Iran changes her attitude and approach to these issues. Her Majesty’s Government are clear about the need for peace and stability in the middle east, and that is not helped by the current policies of the Iranian Government.

Iran can pose such a local and strategic threat because of the technological assistance on missile defence and missile development that it continues to receive from both China and Russia. Can the Secretary of State tell us what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to try to stop that flow from China and Russia?

I do not want to go into the detail of that point on the Floor of the House; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand. We share his concerns about the possibility of defence forces in Iran being enhanced by such technology and we are in discussions with several nations to try to prevent that from happening.

The news coming from Washington, from President-elect Obama, is that he seeks, and is willing, to engage with Iran. Is that a lead that the Government might want to follow?

We have diplomatic relations with Iran. As I said earlier, we seek an active engagement and dialogue with the Government of Iran, because they are potentially significant partners for peace and security in that region of the world, which is so sorely troubled by the absence of security, but that engagement has to be on the basis of respect for other nations’ borders and frontiers and the right of other nations to live in peace and security. Currently, the Iranian Government do not respect those principles, and until they do, Iran will remain an international pariah state.

May I associate those on the Opposition Front Bench with the tribute paid to our service personnel who have died or been wounded since the House last met?

In the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), the Secretary of State seemed to accept that Iran could, if it chose, pose a major naval threat to our fuel supplies. Does he accept that in countering such a threat our attack submarine fleet would be crucial? For that reason, will he consider restoring the promise that the Government made in 2004 to build eight Astute submarines?

We have looked very carefully at all these matters. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are currently envisaging building seven Astute submarines, and that remains the Government’s position. I do not dispute the important role of the ship submersible nuclear fleet in securing those trade routes, and I can assure him that, along with other naval assets from this country and our NATO partners, we retain credible naval forces designed to ensure that our energy supply routes, especially from the middle east, remain open.

Inquests

3. What progress is being made in reducing the time taken to complete inquests on members of the armed forces killed on operations? (246442)

We have managed largely to eliminate the backlog of inquests. We have established the Defence Inquests Unit to lead our drive to improve co-ordination and support for families, coroners and others. However, some inquests, due to their complexity, will always take time, and it is only right that they are allowed to do so when necessary.

I thank the Minister for that response, but perhaps he could tell us what lessons have been learned that will enable to us to continue to improve the service we give to the families of service personnel?

I have said to the House on previous occasions that one of my priorities in this job was to eliminate unnecessary delay, because it just adds to the pain and suffering of people who have lost their loved ones when we delay our inquiries, and often therefore the coroner’s inquiries. We had to get on top of that, and we had to ensure that we eliminated such delay. We have done that over a period of time, and I am enormously pleased by that. We also need to look, as we are doing, at the level of service that we give to families when they have suffered a bereavement, to try to ensure that we give them the most professional support without breaking the vital link between the families and the individual regiments and units to which their loved ones belonged. That is also important.

The Minister will be aware of the good progress made between the UK and Scottish Governments on ensuring that investigations can take place in Scotland into the deaths of service personnel who normally reside there, but I understand that some work remains to be done before that becomes a routine measure. What progress is being made and when is that likely to happen?

The hon. Gentleman may know that the then Secretary of State wrote to the Scottish Government in March last year on this issue. We eventually received a reply in November, and we will respond as soon as we are able to do so. I hope that that will be very shortly.

I pay particular tribute to the retiring Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, who has done a superb job in getting the backlog down and in carrying out very difficult inquests such as that into XV179, the Hercules that was downed in Iraq. In the town of Wootton Bassett in my constituency, we see the return of the bodies week by week. Surely it is time for the Government to consider something rather like the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) is suggesting with regard to Scotland. Rather than using local coroners in Oxfordshire and now in Wiltshire to carry out these difficult inquests, would it not be possible to have the inquests in the places where the servicemen are based?

First, let me join the hon. Gentleman in praising the work of the Wiltshire coroner, whose dedication and thoroughness in his work are quite tremendous and should be applauded. We attempt to have inquests undertaken in the local area wherever possible and we have made some progress in that. We do so overwhelmingly for the benefit of the families. It is not possible in Scotland, but we are looking to sort that out and hope to have the assistance of the Scottish Government in doing so. Mr. Masters has undertaken a lot of inquests, and on the odd occasion he has taken inquests back when it was felt that the expertise that he was able to apply would be more useful than a local inquest. He has been very constructive in that regard.

Fallen service personnel are repatriated through Lyneham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). The office and office staff, however, are in Salisbury. The retiring coroner said last week that he feared for the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire because a decision was made with no consultation to move the office and staff from Salisbury to Devizes, the excellent constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is in his place. The coroner fears that the expertise of those staff will be entirely lost. It is a complex and difficult situation involving relations with the military. Will the Minister undertake to look very closely at the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire to ensure that a service that serves the nation is not lost but, far from that, is enhanced?

I think that I ought to concentrate on trying to do my job as Minister for the Armed Forces rather than trying to run the coroner service as well. I would be worried if we lost the expertise. I am worried that we will lose the expertise that Mr. Masters has built up over time. He is due to retire, so that is possibly inevitable, but we need to try to keep that expertise. The hon. Gentleman laughs, but there is a possibility that we will not be able to retain Mr. Masters’s services. I do not know whether that is the case, and it is not a matter for me. I would like us to do whatever we can to maintain the expertise that we have had, but it is not a matter for the MOD in the first instance.

Veterans (Homelessness)

We have introduced a number of measures that will make it easier for our service personnel to access social housing, become home owners and occupy void MOD properties as an interim measure before leaving service. Following the successful launch of Mike Jackson house, a 25-bed unit in Aldershot, we aim to gift land in Catterick for a similar project. It will offer more veterans short-term housing while they plan their return to independent living.

In thanking my hon. Friend for that response, I ask him to reassure the House that the statistics held on the number of veterans who are seeking good housing are accurate. We are aware that London’s figures have improved enormously, but what about the rest of the country and, in particular, the north-east? It is time that the MOD spoke to every local authority and housing association to ensure that men and women who have served their country are treated with dignity when it is their turn to be housed or rehoused.

I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this subject, which I know goes back many years. I also thank her for her work in County Durham in promoting the cadets force. This is a real issue. The MOD, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, commissioned York university to carry out a study into London veterans, which showed that 6 per cent. of the London homeless population are veterans, down from 22 per cent. in 1997. I will be placing a copy of that report in the Library of the House. My hon. Friend also raises an important point about the extension of the problem in the rest of the country. I, along with the Department—I also had a meeting with service charities a couple of weeks ago—will try to commission similar research to ensure that we know not only what the state of the problem is but what can be done about it.

A significant proportion of rough sleepers in my constituency appear to have a services background. Will the Minister give his support to a new project run by my local Salvation Army to set up a hostel for rough sleepers, and will he look into whether some MOD funding might be made available to help the project get off the ground?

I commend that initiative. On 2 December, I chaired a meeting of the Veterans Forum, which brings together service charities and others interested in the subject, to discuss homelessness. Later this week I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my counterpart in that Department, to talk about how local authorities and other charities can draw upon the existing expertise, as well as the money available for rough sleepers not only in London but across the country, so I would be interested in having details of the project to which the hon. Gentleman referred to see what assistance I can give.

I welcome what my hon. Friend said about help for homeless ex-servicemen and women, but many who leave the armed forces have problems moving from service to civilian life. What is being done to promote the Veterans Agency as the first point of contact for servicemen and women who need help?

I pay tribute to the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency for its work in helping servicemen and veterans. My right hon. Friend highlights the transition stage. Clearly, one answer lies in projects such as Mike Jackson house and I want to explore with service charities and the Department for Communities and Local Government how we can expand the network of support throughout the country. Later this year, I intend to conduct a number of regional meetings with the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to promote its work in the regions, and ensure that veterans, local authorities and other stakeholders know about the agency’s excellent work.

The Minister will be aware that in my constituency the Army is paying in excess of £700,000 a year for more than 200 Army family houses to stand empty. On homeless ex-soldiers, may I draw his attention to the excellent charity Veterans Aid? Can further support be given to the charity in assisting former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who have fallen on hard times and giving them somewhere decent to live?

I certainly commend the work of Veterans Aid. I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency before Christmas, and one problem with some of the accommodation there is that it is waiting for refurbishment. There are other problems arising from the Addington Homes contract, on which I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert. When MOD property becomes surplus the Department is conscious of and keen to look at opportunities for providing it on a short-term basis, or even longer term, to servicemen and women when they leave the armed forces. We shall certainly do what we can to help.

Pakistan/Afghanistan

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan. (246444)

Our assessment of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan is continuously reviewed. We are grateful to the Government of Pakistan for their support for resupply operations for UK and other ISAF—international security assistance force—members in Afghanistan. Through those efforts our lines of supply have not been significantly threatened and remain open and effective.

The recent closure of the crucial Khyber pass route into northern Afghanistan will no doubt have stretched our air bridge supply lines and the strategic transport aircraft fleet. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he is satisfied with the supply route options available and, more narrowly, whether there have been any problems at all with delivery to our servicemen and women in theatre of the all-important morale-boosting mail from home during the Christmas period and the weeks since?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s concern. I can assure him that all the mail got through, and there is more than one supply route into Afghanistan. He referred to the recent closure of the Khyber pass; it was closed by the Pakistani security forces as part of a sweep to clear insurgents from that part of the Khyber agency, and it has been successful. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that our lines of supply and communication to Afghanistan are robust and secure, and we have an effective air bridge. Clearly, the air bridge needs to be adequate and sufficient and, if necessary, we will not hesitate to provide additional resources to complement those that we have deployed.

In view of the attacks on the supply route, is the Secretary of State considering acquiring new C-17 or C-130 aircraft, and if he is, will they be funded from the contingency reserve?

We are looking at all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the C-17s; we recently acquired additional C-17s, and we are looking at the possibility of acquiring more, yes.

Along with other hon. Members, I visited Pakistan last week and met the President, the Prime Minister, senior Government figures and Opposition leaders. All were committed to democracy, and were encouraging about the support that the British Government have been giving, but they all expressed concern about Americans bombing and about drone missiles in the north of Pakistan. That not only undermines attempts to introduce democracy, but gives substance to the claims of terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to influence the Americans on that issue?

I have some sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend raises, but essentially those matters are between the US Government and the Government of Pakistan. It would be remiss of me if I did not point out to the House that the attacks have had a significant degrading effect on al-Qaeda operations in the area and, to that extent, have advanced the security of UK and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

As the British Government reassess their strategy with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, alongside our American allies, will the Secretary of State comment on reports of an apparent fraying of relations between the British and American militaries? Will he take this opportunity to underline how important it is to our country that we should be able to offer the Americans effective military aid in support of their efforts, so that we remain as important to them as they are to us?

Again, I am very grateful—I am spending all my time today saying how grateful I am to hon. Members—to the hon. Gentleman, and I can give him an assurance. The reports are complete rubbish, and they do not reflect the current state of relations—military, political or diplomatic—between the UK and the United States. The United States remains our principal international ally. UK forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have done a superb job of advancing British policy, and the policies and security of our friends and allies around the world, and—I believe this to be true—they have no critics in the US military at all; it respects and appreciates the work of the UK’s armed forces. That is a tribute to the professionalism and bravery of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. It remains my clear view that everything that we in the Ministry of Defence do will be designed to enhance that relationship and ensure that it remains strong and reliable in the years to come.

My right hon. Friend rightly spelled out the need for more heavy-lift aircraft, but he mentioned using C-130s; where does that leave the A400M programme?

That is a very good question. The A400M programme is now likely to be subject to considerable delay—[Interruption]—because of problems that EADS is having in producing the aircraft, not because of any policy decision made by the UK Government or any other partner nations involved in the project. We cannot accept a three or four-year delay in the delivery of those aircraft. That would impose an unnecessary, unacceptable strain on our air assets. We, along with all our partner nations, will have to consider very carefully what the right response to the problem is.

One of the consequences of a better security situation in Iraq is that many of the fanatical extremists are moving up to the north-west frontier in Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State comment on the measures that he is trying to take to prevent the constant flow of extremists from the madrassahs in Pakistan to the front line, where they confront our troops? It is demoralising for our troops always to find that there can be replenishment by the Taliban, and reoccupation of sites that our armed forces had taken, once they have pulled back in order to retrench.

I agree absolutely with the central thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said—the need for greater border security between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority, and I am glad, for example, that Presidents Karzai and Zardari recently agreed to focus additional effort on border security, which we welcome. The Pakistani frontier corps is making a significant effort, both in Baluchistan and in Waziristan in the tribal areas, to try to get a proper grip on what is happening. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is demoralising to see Pakistan used as a sanctuary and a source of resupply and reinforcement for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The solution to that problem will primarily require a greater focus of effort on the Afghan side of the border and on the Pakistan side, but I can assure him that British military advisers are involved in those debates and discussions, and we are looking at what further help we can provide, on both the Afghan and Pakistan sides of the border, to address those serious issues.

Further to that, does the Secretary of State not agree that the federally administered tribal areas provide an enduring criminal sanctuary? They provide command and control for the Afghan insurgency, with financial support and training. Is not the bottom line that we cannot achieve our objectives in Afghanistan until we disrupt at the very least the al-Qaeda-Taliban network that is attacking from Pakistan? When the United States takes out al-Qaeda leaders, should we not celebrate, rather than criticise?

I think that that is exactly what I did a few minutes ago. They are our mortal enemy, and we are involved in a fundamental struggle with them, in which we must prevail. I accept the need for greater security in Afghanistan, which will be met to a great extent if we can tighten the freedom of movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The challenge is the best way to do so. It is primarily an Afghan and Pakistan issue of security that must be addressed, but we are doing everything that we possibly can to enhance the safety and security of the British mission, and that of our allies and partners in Afghanistan, as we deal with al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. That will continue to be my absolute priority during my time as Secretary of State for Defence.

To guarantee the security of supplies when they reach Afghanistan, we need a rural security presence, especially with a dispersed rural population. Does the Secretary of State believe that we have sufficient forces to clear and hold territory, then build on that, whether from the international security assistance force, Operation Enduring Freedom or the Afghan national security forces? If extra forces are required, how can we get our allies to shoulder their fair share of the international security burden? Surely, joint security implies joint commitment?

Yes, I agree very strongly with that, too, and we continually make the case in NATO that our allies should take more responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. I believe that the conflict in Afghanistan will be the defining conflict of the 21st century for NATO, and will confirm its relevance or otherwise, so it is absolutely essential that there is proper and effective burden sharing. As for troop levels in Afghanistan, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an announcement recently about additional deployments to Afghanistan, partly to advance some of the operations to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. We need more security, particularly around Lashkagar, and that is what Operation Sond Chara was designed to do over Christmas and early in the new year. It has been a resounding success. The theatre capability review has just been completed in Afghanistan, and we are considering its findings. If there is a case, and if there is an announcement to be made about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this will be the first place to hear it.

Veterans

The nation’s commitment to service personnel, dependants and veterans was set out in the service personnel Command Paper published last July, which received widespread publicity. Benefits and assisted support are publicised through Government and ex-service organisation websites and publications, and through local and national press articles. We are also determined to use the armed forces day on 27 June this year to publicise the range of benefits and support available to our veterans.

May I add my message of sympathy to those families who have lost a member of their family serving in the armed forces since the last time the House met. May I also pay tribute to Mr. Victor Herd and Mr. Bruce Kelly of the Combined Ex-Services Association in Dundee, whose time, effort and commitment ensure that Veterans day in Dundee has been a success every year since it was inaugurated. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that respect and recognition are due to those who have served this country, whether that comes via health care priority, the veterans’ badge or, indeed, Veterans day. Could the Minister outline in more detail the Government’s plans for the newly titled armed forces day 2009?

I add my congratulations to those two individuals. They are part of an army of volunteers throughout the country who serve charities and do unpaid voluntary work, and we should thank them wholeheartedly. I will make an announcement later this month on the successful city that has been chosen for Veterans day. Alongside that, I will publish suggestions about how towns, cities and communities can get involved, and I would like individual Members of Parliament to do what they can to promote armed forces and Veterans day.

Will the Minister join me in praising the work of the Fife Veterans Association, which does the sort of work that he described—voluntary work, promoting and standing up for veterans throughout the kingdom? The association does a splendid job promoting the rights of those veterans, and it deserves the support of the House and beyond.

I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Fife veterans. I visited Scotland before Christmas and met Veterans Scotland. I pay tribute to them and the range of organisations involved in Veterans Scotland that are doing a fantastic job in Scotland to promote veterans’ affairs and offer practical assistance to veterans.

My hon. Friend recognises that we have made tremendous strides recently with regard to veterans. One measure that particularly pleased me and, I am sure, my hon. Friend and everyone else is the free university education for veterans and free training and qualifications for veterans. Have we yet linked up universities and colleges through the MOD and Army sites to allow veterans to be aware of where they can go, what qualifications they can get and the fact that they can take that up free?

Like my hon. Friend, I am pleased that that was a key part of the service command paper. Later this year we will announce the first individuals who will be taking advantage of that. Armed forces day will be part of the promotion of the steps that we have taken and where we are up to in implementing the recommendations in the service command paper. As my hon. Friend knows, in July this year the evaluation paper will be placed before Parliament showing exactly what we have done and how far we have got in implementing those measures, which our servicemen and women rightly deserve.

The right to priority treatment for occupational illness caused by service in the armed forces is implicit in the military covenant, yet the UK is shamed by its allies’ superior effort in raising awareness among servicemen, veterans, health care professionals and the general public of the potentially crippling nature of combat stress and what can be done about it. What plans does the Minister have for active combat stress case finding, or are his Government content simply to allow the increasing number of veterans with severe service-attributable mental ill health to go undiscovered and untreated?

I am shocked and surprised that someone who is a clinician does not understand what we have done. An excellent report recently produced by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research outlines 10 years of research ranging from the issues associated with Gulf war syndrome to a very good study, which I suggest the hon. Gentleman should read, on Operation Telic, which looked at 7,000 people—3,000 who did not attend operations and 3,000 who did. It brings out some very good figures, and shows, for example, that some of the alarmist statements about post-traumatic stress disorder are not being found. That is not being complacent; it is making sure that we have the evidence in place to ensure that the services that those individuals deserve are available. I do not accept that the Government or the United Kingdom are doing any less than any other country. They are, perhaps, doing more.

Shipping Safety (Horn of Africa)

7. If he will hold discussions with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the safety of shipping in the waters off the horn of Africa. (246446)

We continue to discuss the issue of shipping safety off the horn of Africa within the international community. UK officials and officials from the People’s Republic of China will be in attendance at the contact group, which is due to meet this week to discuss a coherent international response to this difficult problem. The People’s Republic of China has sent three vessels to the gulf of Aden and international forces are liaising with them to ensure that their activities are co-ordinated. We welcome China’s contribution.

Following on from the Minister’s welcome, does he feel that this is an opportunity to work more closely and co-operatively with the People’s Republic of China on defence matters in the African continent and the middle east as a whole?

We try to have appropriate contacts with the Chinese military, on a military-to-military basis. The Chinese military’s potential is considerable because of their size; if they can be made to be a contributor to international efforts, as they already are in so many areas, that is to be welcomed. It is a positive move, and we do everything that we can to encourage it.

Topical Questions

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 the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to any tasks that might arise in the future.

What impact will sterling’s collapse have on the UK’s contribution to the joint strike fighter?

To answer that, we would have to think of what the exchange rate will be in five or 10 years’ time, and I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman or I would want to engage in that kind of speculation.

T2. Will the Secretary of State let the House know his plans to airlift kit and equipment from Iraq to our troops in Afghanistan, particularly as with our troops leaving Iraq it would be extremely helpful to replace Snatch Land Rovers in the country so that we do not have any further problems there? (246466)

We will have to address those issues at the time. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have already made it clear that I would look to redeploy the Merlin helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan as soon as is feasible; I think that that will be towards the end of this year.

The chief of joint operations General Sir Nick Houghton has recently given advice to Ministers about the continuing use of Snatch Land Rovers, which we regard as important. However, that has to be seen alongside our commitment to a very significant investment in new armoured vehicles: nearly 1,200 new, better-armoured vehicles—Jackals, Mastiffs and others—will form the front line of the force on active patrol outside the base perimeters. They will provide significantly enhanced capabilities. The eventual destination point of all the equipment currently in Iraq is a matter that Ministers will decide on the advice of the service chiefs themselves.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the furore in the press over the weekend about Prince Harry’s description of a fellow officer as a “Paki”. Does he agree that although most people would accept that Prince Harry has grown up since then and that he probably did not intend to be abusive, very many people who originate from the Indian subcontinent find that term deeply offensive? It would be a shame if the very real efforts that the armed forces have made to recruit from diverse communities were undermined by the coverage of that incident.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that all in the House would accept that the use of that kind of language has no place at all. I also accept her other point. Prince Harry has made, I think, a very genuine apology and I believe that no individual offence was intended by his remarks. I understand that Prince Harry will be interviewed by his commanding officer in the next few days.

I also agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about this matter. We have received the apology, and it is time for us to move on. We should not lose sight of one very important fact in all this: Prince Harry has served his country on active service in Afghanistan, and I believe strongly that there is no better example of public service than that.

The House is aware of the pressures on the defence budget. We have seen warship numbers reduced, the carriers delayed, helicopter numbers reduced, and the future rapid effect system programme reordered and delayed. Given the economic climate and the priority that the Prime Minister, in particular, is giving to jobs, will the Secretary of State stress to his Government colleagues the warnings from the defence industries and the fact that if the Government would invest in the defence programme now, durable jobs could be saved for the long term, and that if they do not, some of them will be lost for ever?

The hon. Gentleman refers to the equipment examination. The outcome of that was designed to save, protect and preserve jobs in the defence manufacturing base, and it will do so. In the west country, his own part of the country, the decision that will be made on the future Lynx helicopter will safeguard hundreds of jobs in Yeovil and thousands of jobs across the supply chain, mainly in the south-west. As regards naval construction, we have the largest programme under way since the end of the first world war. Therefore, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we will not take any lectures from him or his party, who are not even committed to matching the current levels that this Government are spending on defence.

T3. Just before Christmas, the Department announced, by way of written rather than oral statement, substantial cuts and delays in the defence equipment programme. What does it say about the current order of Government priorities that while they are throwing scores of billions at the economy in a desperate effort to avert disaster, far from accelerating the defence equipment programme, they are cutting it? (246467)

We are not cutting defence spending. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take a closer look at the examination outcome. [Interruption.] No, we are not cutting the levels of defence spending announced in the comprehensive spending review, so there are no cuts in the MOD’s defence budget. That is a fact. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to go away and see whether I am right or wrong; he will find that I am right.

I join colleagues who have acknowledged the sad loss of life from current deployments; we should also acknowledge the severe injuries that are often happening. In respect of armed forces day, does the Secretary of State recognise that one of the key purposes of the first such day will be to acknowledge recent and current deployments, and can he assure me that that will be fully taken into account in the selection of the national focal point?

As I told the House earlier, I will be making an announcement later of the successful venue for the national celebrations. Let me emphasise to my hon. Friend and other Members that what is needed is that all communities, large or small, take active part in armed forces and Veterans day. I urge her and other hon. Members to ensure that they play a key part in encouraging local communities, councils and others to do so.

T4. The Minister with responsibility for defence procurement has considerable understanding of the German political system, so may I ask him what steps he is going to take in the continuing discussions among the partner countries in the Eurofighter consortium to ensure that the discussions on the shape, size and timing of tranche 3 are concluded well ahead of the German elections? (246468)

The right hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in pressing me on that, and I understand and respect the reasons for his doing so. He knows a lot about the background. I am sorry to say that I cannot take him much further forward today. Those discussions with the Germans and our other partners are continuing, and until we have concluded them we cannot make any announcement about the draw-downs of tranche 3. Of course, as soon as I can make a statement to the House, I will do so.

T5. Having prolonged periods in combat zones without proper rest is described as the No. 1 negative retention factor for officers and soldiers in the latest Army survey. Given that many Army units are in breach of the harmony guidelines, which recommend that units have a period of two years between operational tours, what will the Government do to try to give our troops the proper support that they fully deserve? (246469)

The hon. Gentleman knows, as does the whole House, that we have been operating above our defence planning assumptions for some time. That has led to the breach of harmony guidelines in several areas, although there has been an overall improvement in recent times. However, harmony guidelines issues still affect some units considerably. As the Secretary of State said, as we draw down to a lower level of commitment in Iraq, we must take the opportunity to look at what is needed in Afghanistan, and put ourselves on a sustainable footing with regard to individual and unit harmony guidelines as well as to what is needed in the operational theatre.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that recruitment and retention is crucial to the long-term future of our armed forces. Would he therefore inform the House what incentive is in place to ensure that those who choose the armed forces as a career are given every opportunity to reach the very top, provided that they are capable? Any class system that exists should be dismantled.

This week the Government will set out new proposals to enhance the issue of social mobility; the armed forces must, above all else, be a genuine meritocracy. If there are practical steps that we can take to extend opportunities for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to reach the top in all of the three services, we should take advantage of them, and I hope that we will do so in the weeks and months ahead.

The Secretary of State was keen to try to defend the Government against accusations by my hon. Friends that they have cut the budget. But I put it to him that the future Lynx programme has been cut, the FRES programme has been virtually abandoned, and the MARS programme—military afloat reach and sustainability—has been delayed, and he told the House in a written statement before Christmas that the aircraft carriers will be delayed by one or two years. While the Prime Minister is busy telling the rest of the country that he is spraying money around here, there and everywhere to stimulate projects, why does he not invest in the defence industry of this country? It is a high-tech industry with the capability to deliver high-quality jobs, and more importantly it can deliver for the armed forces of our country. The French are investing €2 billion in their defence budget; why will the Secretary of State not do so? Is it because the Prime Minister has little sympathy for the armed forces, or because the Secretary of State has little influence?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, defence spending in this country is rising, not falling, correcting a trend that we inherited. It has taken us time to put that right. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we will not take lectures on procurement from him or his colleagues because, at best, all that they have promised to do is match our current levels of spending. Until he can come to the Dispatch Box and say that he will spend more, we will take everything that he says with a giant pinch of salt.

Will the Secretary of State say why anyone of Pakistani origin should join the armed forces, or give support to the British armed forces, when there will be a widespread feeling that such racist attitudes are prominent? Was it proper for the—

We are covering the same ground covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) earlier, and I hoped that I had dealt with the point then. The armed forces will tackle discrimination wherever it rears its ugly and unacceptable head, and we have shown that we are prepared to do that. On the fundamental question of why British Pakistani citizens should join the armed forces, they should do so for the same reason that others do: to serve the country in the spirit of public service. We welcome them to do that.

T7. Given that the Government have stated that the two aircraft carriers that were ordered are critical not just to future defence policy and operations, but to the future of the Royal Navy, can the Secretary of State give us a full explanation of how long the aircraft carriers will be delayed and of the impact that that will have on future operations and policy? Why should the rest of the country not see that as a full defence cut? (246471)

It was not a defence cut in any sense. What we have done is to align better the in-service date of the two carriers with the in-service date of the new JSF aircraft designed to fly off them. The rescheduling of the carriers by between one and two years makes a lot of sense, and is without any cost whatsoever to the nation’s defence capability.

T8. Under the Helix project, the Ministry of Defence is shortly to take a decision on the replacement of three Nimrod R1 aircraft. There is a danger that the Government will order the Boeing Rivet Joint aircraft, which is much older than the Nimrod R1, when instead they could use the MRA4 platform, which would guarantee the jobs that the Government rightly want to achieve at this time of credit crisis. Will they seriously consider the MRA4 platform, and not purchase an older aircraft from overseas? (246472)

I have noticed the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion on the subject. He makes a forceful and formidable case, as the House always expects him to, in favour of the MRA4 rather than the Rivet Joint. There are points to be taken into account on the other side of the argument, as I know he will appreciate, and no decision has yet been taken.