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Topical Questions

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged either at home or abroad.

The Secretary of State will be familiar with the case of Marine Joe Townsend, who was grievously wounded, like so many of our brave service personnel, while on active duty in Afghanistan—in Joe’s case losing his lower limbs entirely. The Secretary of State will know that there was huge public support for Joe when he encountered problems with the planning laws in trying to build a bungalow on his grandfather’s farm to allow him to live independently. It is clear that there are problems here—although Wealden council is trying to work constructively with him, there are lessons to be learned—so will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, representatives of local government and, perhaps, his colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to see whether planning guidance can actually reflect the fact that when we say that wounded servicemen and women are special, the treatment they receive reflects that?

I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman and the spirit behind his question. We have to find a sensible way to enable Joe to live in a house that is suitable to his needs and near to his parents, and that must be a priority for us. Wealden district council is trying to find a sensible way forward and I hope that that is achieved speedily. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to discuss this genuine and important issue.

Sergeant Michael Brennan from my constituency was blown up in Afghanistan, but it happened too early for him to get compensation. Is it not time that the Government paid less money to solicitors to argue why people such as Sergeant Brennan should not be paid and instead paid out to all those service personnel who have been badly injured in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I share his views on solicitors in general. However, in the specific case in question, it is not that his constituent does not have access to any compensation; the issue is that he was injured before the 2005 scheme was introduced, and he can access a war pension under the old war pension scheme. If my hon. Friend wants to meet me to talk about the issue, I am prepared to arrange that.

T3. As the A400M airlift aircraft is not expected to come into service until 2014, and even that date is optimistic, what will the effect be on future Army structure, given that it is heavily dependent on airlift and that airframe capacity is being not just diminished but rapidly exhausted? (257905)

We have a contract with Airbus Military, and we are committed to that contract. We expect Airbus Military to deliver on that contract. If it is unable to do so, we shall have to examine all the options available to us.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the service cadet units in our constituencies and in recognising that, for example, the Air Training Corps in Eastham and the Sea Cadets in New Ferry provide a valuable service to our young people and their communities? (257907)

I am pleased to do so, and I pay tribute to all the young boys and girls, their parents and the volunteers who support the ATC and the Sea Cadets in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They do a brilliant job, and we would like to find ways to encourage more such activity. It is a great grounding for a young person to spend some time in the cadets, and I strongly recommend such an experience for every young boy and girl in this country.

T4. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of any possible implications of, or lessons to be learned from, the recent collision between nuclear submarines for our nuclear fleet and our defence? (257906)

As the hon. Gentleman will know and as the First Sea Lord has made clear, a very careful investigation is taking place into exactly how that event happened and what conclusions we should draw. I do not want to pre-empt that inquiry, but if there are any lessons to be learned—and I suspect that there are—we need to learn them quickly.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the recent increases in fares for the Falkland Islands air bridge and the removal of the child concessions, which have made it more and more difficult for Falkland Islanders to visit this country? That goes against the spirit of what the Government have always professed—that we should increase our contacts with the islanders. (257909)

Progress is being made in discussions with the Falkland Islands Government on this issue, and we hope that we will be able to reach agreement in the very near future and announce the details.

There is a piece of work being done in the Department about the Joint Force Harrier. All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is right that we should look at every option as we prepare for the future, but all the options that we are considering include recognising the principle that it should be a jointly operated force.

Increasing numbers of Territorial Army doctors are serving abroad. For many years, doctors have been trained at Strensall camp just outside York. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient training is given now that they are more likely to be deployed, and does the NHS—the normal full-time employer of those doctors—give enough support to doctors who serve in the Territorial Army?

May I start by paying tribute to the men and women reservists who are in both Iraq and Afghanistan? I visited Afghanistan two weeks ago and met some of them. My hon. Friend’s constituents should rightly be proud of the contribution they are making to training. I have visited York on previous occasions and I should be pleased to do so again if my hon. Friend feels it would be helpful. To try to meet the need for specialist medical provision, there is a new scheme for volunteers from the NHS and currently two NHS nurses are on Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.

T9. Some Defence questions ago, the Minister indicated that he was willing to respond to the number of forces personnel who have been deafened in action, and I am pleased that some constructive discussions are going on between the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Minister’s Department, but does he acknowledge that the United States gives both better equipment and much better support and compensation for servicemen and women who are deafened on active service? Can he ensure that we provide exactly the same quality of support as the Americans do for their troops? (257911)

Following the right hon. Gentleman’s raising the issue, I had a meeting in the Department with the RNID, along with the Surgeon General, and we are now working together, which includes having representatives from the RNID on working groups. Later this year, I hope to announce a joint working approach with the RNID, which we both feel will be constructive and helpful for servicemen and women. I do not agree that the United States is doing more than we are in this field. The constructive approach taken by both the Ministry of Defence and the RNID is a positive way forward.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware, my constituent Willie Leith lobbies me almost daily about the Yangtze incident. I have written to my right hon. Friend to raise the issue with him, but will he put the Government’s position on the record so that I can reassure my constituent, Mr. Leith?

I have replied to my hon. Friend in the past and I am more than happy to meet him if he wants more detail about the issue.

When our brave servicemen and women return home after they have been injured, many of them receive compensation but many need help from local social services for adaptations. Is the Secretary of State aware that some local authorities refuse to give adaptations unless people pay, because their compensation has come through and they are above the threshold? Can we do something to prevent local authorities from taking compensation away and ensure that they give people the adaptations they really need?

That is an issue that I am addressing. Councils should be disregarding compensation lump sums in respect of adaptations. This is part of a bigger piece of work I have asked the Department to do on what is called a welfare pathway, so that when people leave the armed forces we do not just forget about them, but make sure that local authorities and other agencies take into account the fact that those people have been on active service and we owe them a debt of gratitude. That work will be produced later this year, and I am working with other Departments and COBSEO—the Confederation of British Service and Ex-service Organisations—to pull it together. As part of the regional visits, I shall be meeting local authorities to stress the need to treat veterans as a special case.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State expressed his desire that Iran should stop meddling in the middle east. Iran needs financial means to engage in that activity. Lloyds TSB recently had to admit that it had facilitated some financial transactions, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to have talks with his Treasury colleagues to make sure that no other British banks are involved and that no financial transactions from the UK put our troops at risk?

I shall certainly look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises, but I am sure that she will be aware of recent steps that we in the United Kingdom have taken to freeze Iranian assets and to deal with the flow of money that is used to support causes that directly target the health, safety and well-being of British forces.

To take the Secretary of State back to the issue of Afghanistan, let me say that I fully support our troops being there, but I am not sure that they are helped by his definition of “progress”. Could he say what kind of progress there has been, given that two years ago non-government organisations could operate freely in about 80 per cent. of the south, whereas today they can barely operate anywhere in the south at all?

I am not sure that the UK forces would welcome that assessment of progress, either. [Hon. Members: “It’s true.”] No. In the south, and in Helmand, which has become the principal focus of Taliban insurgent activity, the situation remains seriously challenging, both for local Afghans and for British forces. However, we recently saw significant success in operations in Helmand, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least welcome that.

May I remind the Secretary of State that when British forces were first deployed to Afghanistan back in 2002, we were promised a six-month deployment, yet we have been there for a period longer than the second world war? May I also draw his attention to the fact that he has issued revised defence planning assumptions that still class Afghanistan as a contingent operation instead of a standing commitment? Is it not about time that we treated our Afghan deployment as a standing commitment, and configured our armed forces accordingly?

Whatever our armed forces need to conduct successful operations in Afghanistan, they will have; I do not think that it matters very much what label we attach to that operation. They will get whatever help, support and resources they need to succeed.

Will the Government help those of us who are concerned about the proposal to sell the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond upon Thames? It is highly valued by people who are disabled. It is not only a place for service personnel who were disabled in conflict, but a war memorial, and it should not be disposed of in the way proposed by the trustees.

I understand the passion to which the issue gives rise, but it is a matter for the trustees. However, if my hon. Friend would like to write to me on the subject, I should be happy to meet him and others who raise such concerns.