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Topical Questions

Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

As I have said to the House before, Afghanistan is the main effort of my Department for the near future, along with the preparation of a Green Paper that will lead up to a strategic defence review the other side of an election.

On service mental health, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to address the problem, highlighted by the Royal British Legion, that up to 85 per cent. of GPs across England and Wales have no awareness of his Department’s medical assessment programme or the reservists’ mental health programme?

The Department has a good record on veterans’ mental health: we have six veterans’ health pilot schemes, as well as the medical assessment programme, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, at the hospital across the river. I shall also make an announcement later this year on how we can track veterans through the NHS system—that work will be done with the Department of Health.

T3. Given the Haddon-Cave review’s comprehensively damning indictment of QinetiQ’s role in passing the fatally flawed Nimrod MR2 into service, will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the defence training contract under which, as part of the Metrix consortium, that expensively privatised disaster, QinetiQ, again plans to use an integrated project team? (296709)

We will respond to all the recommendations in the Haddon-Cave report before the Christmas recess.

T2. With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I just pass on my condolences to the friends and family of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid? Although not a constituent of mine, he was based at 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, which is based at the Vauxhall barracks in my constituency. He was, sadly, killed in Afghanistan on Saturday, and that is a salutary reminder of the dangers that that regiment faces every day. To follow up on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), I should mention that a distinguished former serviceman in my constituency attempted to access NHS services recently and discovered that the John Radcliffe hospital, his local community hospital and his own GP’s surgery were completely unaware of the protocol between the Veterans Agency and the NHS. It took him five months— (296707)

The question is: given that it took this man five months to see a consultant, will the Minister do the most that he can to ensure that all our GPs and hospitals are aware of this important protocol?

The commitment to priority access for veterans was part of last year’s Command Paper. We have made great strides and will be producing the annual report shortly. I will also be announcing on Wednesday that the welfare pathway pilot will be conducted first in Kent, to ensure not only that local government takes the case of veteran servicemen and women as a top priority but that local NHS service providers do so too.

T5. Could my hon. Friend give me an update on the progress being made generally with the implementation of the Command Paper to which he has just referred and the work of the external reference group? (296711)

The annual report will be produced shortly but, as I have said, that is a first step. Building on that, I want to ensure that the service Command Paper is embedded at a local level so that local councils, the NHS and other providers think of veterans when they are formulating policy, and the commitments that we gave in the Command Paper are carried out in practice. Clearly, in some areas that is not happening.

T4. Is the Secretary of State confident that Pakistan can extinguish the threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban on its side of the border? (296710)

As I have said, the Pakistanis should be congratulated on the efforts that they are making, but we should not underestimate the degree to which they have a problem. We have seen a concerted attack by terrorist organisations on the population centres in Pakistan over the past few months, so although the Pakistani military has made considerable progress, the terrorists are far from prepared to give in to the kind of assault to which they are being subjected.

Is it not necessary, after eight years, to consider what precisely can be achieved by the British troops in Afghanistan? I am against further troops being sent and I believe that a reappraisal of our entire position there is necessary and what the public want.

Although we have been in Afghanistan for eight years, we have only been there in any numbers in the south of the country for the past three years. There has already been a very substantial troop uplift, largely as a result of American troop uplifts in the south in the past year or so. To retreat from a counter-insurgency operation at this point would, I think, be a big mistake.

T6. On Afghanistan, the Secretary of State has spoken about the inadequacies of the Afghan National police, the corruption of the Government, the difficulties in Pakistan and equipment deficiencies. Although our strategy might be broadly correct, after eight years, does he think that it is working? (296712)

The hon. Gentleman talks about equipment and does so within the frame of eight years. Enemy tactics change—they have changed considerably and massively in the past year—[Interruption.] Yes, ours must change too. To suggest that the equipment that we had eight years ago is applicable to the campaign as it is run today is nonsense.

The Government’s hope is that the endemically corrupt Karzai regime, which has already stolen $20 billion of international aid, will now eliminate corruption among the depraved, drug-addicted thieves of the Afghan police. How will it do that?

My hon. Friend preaches a notion of despair as regards anything that can be done in Afghanistan. We need to accept, first—I am not sure that my hon. Friend does—that Afghanistan poses a direct threat to us in the United Kingdom and that something therefore needs to be done, and, secondly, that the entire region, and Pakistan in particular, is massively important to our security in the United Kingdom. I resile from the despair that he preaches.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the money that was restored to the Territorial Army training budget last week will be committed beyond April next year into the following financial year? When he is looking forward to training budgets, will he bear in mind that units that are based in island communities have needs that relate to recruitment and retention because of geography?

We are aware of the geographical needs of the island communities, and we showed that with regard to the decision that was taken on the ranges not so far away. We have not yet settled our budget for next year.

Would my hon. Friend the Veterans Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Royal British Legion on the 2009 poppy appeal and the benefits that we receive from it?

I certainly would, and I should like to draw the House’s and public’s attention not only to the poppy appeal, but to the work that the Royal British Legion and other service charities do throughout the year. I should also like to put on record and thank the army of volunteers who work for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and for the Royal British Legion who—week in, week out, without pay—assist and help service veterans.

T7. In Crewe and Nantwich, there are a number of veterans who were affected by the British testing of nuclear weapons in Australia and Christmas Island during the 1950s and 1960s. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what progress has been made, as part of the investigation into the health needs of those nuclear-test veterans, with the follow-up to the Rowland report on chromosomal damage, as the Ministry of Defence promised? (296713)

I announced in a written answer earlier this year that we would set up a study of the health effects and health needs of nuclear test veterans. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association has been meeting my officials to scope the study. We are now putting it out to tender, to ensure that we get a competent organisation to undertake it, and I will keep the House informed as that work goes on.

I had the privilege of being in the Gulf with the Royal Navy during the summer recess. The temperature was about 90 to 100°, yet on level 2, naval personnel still have to wear heavy-duty gear all through the summer. Can we not talk to the Australians, Japanese or someone else to consider fireproof, lightweight uniforms, so that naval personnel can be not just comfortable but more effective?

We look at all those issues to ensure that we can do things most effectively, but there is no substitute, and we will not take shortcuts on the safety of our personnel in operation. We will keep looking, but we will not come up with a quick-fix solution that would put people at risk.

T8. Apart from the United States, what representations have been made to other NATO Governments about increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan? (296714)

Representations have been made and discussions have been held across the piece, not only in NATO but in other ISAF-supporting nations. Some commitments have been made, although they are small at the moment. We await the outcome of President Obama’s deliberations on the McChrystal review.

T9. The tragic death of Colonel Thorneloe brought back to our minds the scandalous shortfall in helicopters. Over the weekend, it became clear—the Secretary of State himself said—that the Government had had offers of helicopters. So it is clear that this involves a financial resource and therefore a political problem. It should have been answered by a Minister. Why did they put up Sir Jock Stirrup to answer the question? Will they continue to compound their strategic incompetence with political cowardice? (296715)

The right hon. Gentleman should have watched the weekend television with a bit more care—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces answered questions in this regard as well—and it is clear that we have offers of helicopters for supplies and logistics. What we do not have, and have not had, is an offer of helicopters of the kind of capability and with the defensive aids that would be necessary to ferry our troops around in a very dangerous theatre. That is the point, and the claims made over the weekend are not true.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly and rightly said that many things have changed in Afghanistan since our original intervention in 2001. May I put it to him that one of the things that have changed is that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to this country? Al-Qaeda has moved elsewhere; it does not need caves in the Tora Bora mountains now, because it is able to operate from safe homes in four or five different countries, probably including Britain.

But the only reason that they are not in Afghanistan is because our troops are there. If they were not there, the Afghan Government would not be capable of standing up on their own. They would fall. There is a high risk that the Taliban Government would be back, and those camps would therefore be welcomed back in Afghanistan and would resume the position of threat that they once held.

The statement on helicopters last week suggested to the House that we are seriously looking at cutting expenditure—those were the reports in the press over the weekend—and that the MOD staff are not on top of the issue. I would like reassurances that those reports are nonsensical.

The position on helicopters is clear. Let me say solemnly to the House, because this is an important matter, that no commander, no senior officer, has ever said to me in Afghanistan or here—that includes Sir Richard Dannatt, who I think has a certain credibility with those on the Opposition Benches—that there are insufficient helicopters in theatre to enable our troops to fulfil their mission, but all the commanders would like to have more. That is why we are supplying more. The House has already heard the figures for the past three years—an increase of 60 per cent. in helicopters and of more than 80 per cent. in helicopter hours available. On top of that, in the past year or so, we have refitted the Lynx helicopters with new engines—22 of those, which will be available next year—

In October 2007 the Government ranked the Ministry of Defence as the sixth most important Department. Last week it was revealed that it is now the 21st most important Department. Why on earth have the Government taken this action?