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Topical Questions

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

My Department’s 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 military tasks in which they are engaging, either at home or abroad.

Given that the British public expect that a decent level of compensation will be guaranteed for service personnel who suffer injury, disability or loss of limb while on service, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to update us on the armed forces compensation scheme review that this Government initiated last year?

It was this Government who introduced the armed forces compensation scheme in 2005. Prior to that nobody received any kind of lump sum payment and people depended on a pension when injured in the service of the nation. We introduced the scheme and then in 2008 we doubled the level of up-front compensation for the most seriously injured personnel. We are in the middle of a review, which is being conducted on our behalf by Admiral the Lord Boyce. Various aspects of the compensation scheme are being examined and we hope that he will report in the near future.

T7. Yesterday’s Sunday Herald reported that the initial gate decision on Trident has been delayed—yet again—perhaps until after the general election. Will the Minister announce when he intends to take that decision or, preferably, that he is abandoning plans for the like-for-like replacement of this outdated, unnecessary and very expensive weapons system? (309597)

We are certainly not going to announce that we are abandoning that project, for the important reasons that I set out in response to an earlier question. As I said in that response, as soon as we have gone through all the various technical options—one or two have arisen recently and we have to examine them seriously and profoundly—we will come to a decision about the right technical solution for the design of the successor class submarine. We will then go through what we call “initial gate” and we will make an announcement to the House at that time, and that is a matter of a few months away.

T2. Can the Secretary of State bring us up to date on the defence advisory forum’s review of the future for modern warfare? (309591)

The defence advisory forum has been of great assistance in the preparation of the Green Paper. Not only have we allowed and encouraged various experts to give us the benefit of their views as we have been drawing up the paper, but we have managed to encourage the other two political parties to participate—we tried to ensure that the Green Paper has a broad political base for the propositions that it makes.

T8. Although the Royal Navy and our allies can tackle pirates off the horn of Africa, they cannot tackle the sources of piracy. What more needs to be done by the international community to tackle piracy at source? (309598)

This is a significantly acute challenge. The Royal Navy is doing an immense amount, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, it is the source of piracy that needs to be tackled. That requires a comprehensive approach, including significant investment and governance action in Somalia.

T3. Given the importance of the aircraft carrier project to future national security and to jobs in my constituency, in central Scotland and in other parts of the UK, how safe is the carrier project investment with this Government? (309592)

The project is 100 per cent. safe in our hands. We are 100 per cent. committed to going through with the project to build these two vital 60,000 tonne carriers for the future defence of the nation. My hon. Friend will not get the same kind of ambiguous response on this matter, sadly, from the Opposition.

Over the Christmas holidays, I met serving military and their families in my constituency and they mentioned a whole range of welfare issues, from warm jackets being inadequate in Afghanistan to the lack of housing repairs. Will the Minister name an official in his office to whom we can go with these kinds of problems? Most could be resolved with a decent dose of common sense.

It seems to me that the hon. Lady is covering an array of issues. If she is concerned about welfare or housing, will she please contact my private office? Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that I take complaints very seriously.

T4. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in which many brave Salford lads serve, has recently come home after a distinguished and courageous tour of Afghanistan. Like all our troops, in the years to come they will need the highest standards of care and support. On that basis, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously consider supporting the excellent manifesto issued by the Royal British Legion on behalf of our troops? (309594)

Like my right hon. Friend, I support the excellent work done by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Musa Qala and Sangin valley. I know that she has been a strong advocate of the work that it has been undertaking. I also agree that the manifesto of the Royal British Legion is a substantial document that contains many significant and positive ideas, a number of which are already being implemented, and I endorse it.

Ahead of the Afghanistan conference later this month, will the Secretary of State pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins the Canadians, who have lost 137 armed forces personnel and had 400 injured, many of them seriously? Indeed, will he comment on supporting those of us who want to see that courage and commitment given beyond 2011?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am sure that the Canadian armed forces will too. They have provided a very capable high-end fighting capability in Afghanistan, which has been much appreciated by all those who have worked alongside them. We encourage and hope that the Canadians will continue to make a contribution in Afghanistan. They have been real allies in every sense of the word.

T6. Does the Secretary of State recall the very skilful operation in September 2008, which saw considerable loss of life, in which British soldiers took a turbine to the Kajaki dam? Why is it that that turbine has not functioned since its delivery? Can we be told why not? Is it still in kit form? What is the problem, because it cost us dearly? (309596)

There is a project to increase the electricity supply to the whole of Afghanistan and the turbine at Kajaki is an important part of that. It is not all that we have relied on, and there have been local generation schemes, too. Of course it took a great deal of effort to get that turbine up to Kajaki; it was a tremendous achievement to get it there. Although we have not made the kind of progress that we would have wanted to make within the time scales that we would have wanted to meet in order to get the benefit of that achievement, the Kajaki dam none the less delivers electricity, and we are hopeful that we can increase the amount of electricity that it provides.

Order. I want several more colleagues to get in, but I need very short questions and very short answers.

Do Ministers share the concerns that have been expressed to me by servicemen who have recently returned from Afghanistan that, although they welcome the arrival of new equipment, in many cases the first time that they get an opportunity to use it is in theatre because it is not yet available for training outside Afghanistan?

That is not true. People have equipment available during pre-deployment training for their operations in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will remember that just before Christmas we announced a diversion of resources from other programmes to ensure that the equipment that people are expected to fight in will be available to them far earlier. That diversion was opposed by many Opposition Members at the time, but I see from the newspapers that they are now prepared to cut the defence budget, albeit that they will protect the mission in Afghanistan.

Has the Secretary of State seen the report in The Times of India about a secret conclave of the Indian general staff in Simla last month in which a planned military attack on Pakistan was discussed openly? Is it really helpful for a Commonwealth partner and nuclear power to talk about attacking Pakistan at this stage? Will he write to ask his Indian opposite number to stop beating the drums of war?

I did not see the article. I think that we have made considerable progress in our relationship with Pakistan, which has begun to see the insurgency and terrorism as a big part of the existential threat to Pakistan. We want it to continue in that direction, and so good relations with India have a vital part to play if we are to achieve that.

One injured serviceman recently said to me that his fear for other injured servicemen in receipt of lump-sum compensation packages was that they got no financial advice on how to manage that money. For some of them, it is a large sum of the sort that they have never had before. Will the Minister consider that issue to make sure that they get the proper financial advice?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The issue has also been raised with me and is part of Lord Boyce’s review.

Can the Secretary of State describe any possible future situation in which this country will use its nuclear weapons independently?

Our independent nuclear deterrent exists to provide us with a response to the kind of blackmail that we could potentially face from other states that are armed with nuclear weapons. I therefore believe that while such threats exist we need to continue to possess a nuclear deterrent.

Major-General Andrew Mackay, the commander of British forces in Helmand, recently reported that the UK had “consistently failed” to understand the motivations of local Afghans, and called for a fresh “hearts and minds” strategy focusing on the local culture. When will we see that new strategy?

There is not going to be a new strategy. We have a strategy, which is a comprehensive and political strategy as well as a military strategy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our understanding of the reasons behind the insurgency, and of local culture, needs to be strengthened. In any conflict, we need to learn those lessons as quickly as possible and get to a level of skill and understanding as soon as we can. We are not perfect at that, as the Afghan and Iraq operations have proved. That is one of the issues that we need to address in a future strategic defence review.

In The Times today, Robin Greenwood of Christian Aid writes:

“senior military officers complain that aid workers spend too much time and money empowering Afghan women.”

That refers to a quote from an article last week by reporters from The Times. Is that an accurate view of Britain’s senior military personnel?

Our military personnel working in Helmand province—I have seen them working alongside their civilian counterparts—recognise completely the absolutely essential role that civilians play, and the need to empower Afghan institutions. We can do things on our own without any involvement from the Afghan authorities, but they will not be lasting, and they will fall apart as soon as we let them go.

Given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, when are the remaining Merlin helicopters in Iraq going to be moved into theatre?[Official Report, 25 January 2010, Vol. 504, c. 3MC.]

We have already begun to deploy them. The first Merlin arrived before Christmas, and Merlins are in the process of being deployed there. Over the next few months, we will deploy not only more Merlins, but more Chinooks and the re-engined Lynxes, which can fly 365 days a year. As I said earlier, between July last year and July this year, there is to be a 50 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, and an even greater increase in available flying hours.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will be aware that a review is under way of the future of Navy buildings in Greenock. Given that the review is four months old, and given that the issue is extremely important to the people who work there, will he provide an update on that review? If not, will he agree to meet me to discuss the matter?

I refer the Secretary of State to the typically excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). What evidence is there that any of the Taliban whom we have killed in Helmand had anything to do with bomb plots against this country?

There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaeda’s power remains in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may well currently reside on the Pakistan side of that border, but if our troops were not on the Afghan side of the border, the threat would be bound to return, in my opinion, and a return of the direct threat to this country would result from that.

In my constituency returning veterans and their families are made homeless. That is no way to treat them. Will the Minister take steps to force recalcitrant councils to give housing priority to our returning heroes and their families?

The housing priority is already in place, but I shall roll out the welfare pathway, which was launched in Kent in November. That is about councils working together with other agencies, the Ministry of Defence and service charities to bring together maximum help for veterans, service personnel and their families. There is now one phone number for anyone who needs help; it is 08000 223366.

I, too, have a constituent who was tragically bereaved by the Chinook accident. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any circumstances in which he might reopen the matter and review a decision that is increasingly challenged and that looks more and more unhappy?

The Ministry of Defence has always made it clear that if new evidence is brought forward that directly focuses on the issues and provides evidence of technical failure, we would reopen the investigation. No such new evidence has been forthcoming.

Will Ministers learn the lesson from the tragic death last year of Andrew Watson, my constituent, who, having served in Iraq, had continuing mental health problems, and will they make sure that when servicemen and women return, they always have 24-hour-a-day access to mental health services that understand their past and their difficulties?

They already do, in terms of decompression at Camp Bloodhound in Cyprus, but I am pleased that today, my counterpart, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien) and I signed a memorandum of understanding with Combat Stress, concentrating not just on veterans but on their expertise, and on how we can ensure that the lessons from the six mental health pilots are included in mainstream services in the NHS.