House of Commons
Monday 16 May 2011
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in the present Parliament for the constituency of Belfast West in the room of Mr Gerry Adams, who since his election has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.— (Mr McLoughlin.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Royal Navy (Libya)
Before answering my hon. Friend’s question, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to Warrant Officer Class 2 Graham Bean of 73 Engineer Regiment (Volunteers) who died on 3 May while serving in Cyprus on Operation Tosca with the United Nations peacekeeping force based in Nicosia. He had a long and successful career in the British Army for over 35 years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family. Our thoughts are also with the family and friends of the Royal Marine from 42 Commando who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan yesterday. More information will be released shortly after the period of grace requested by his family.
Our assessment of the Royal Navy’s requirements was set out in the strategic defence and security review. Events in Libya have confirmed the review’s recognition of the need to retain naval forces at high readiness for operations.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the recently fallen; we will remember them.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the ship’s company of the frigate HMS Cumberland, with whom a number of us were able to stay as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme? Will he take the opportunity to update us on the question of which frigate has replaced HMS Cumberland for the essential duties she has so far performed in assisting off the coast of Libya?
Speaking as someone who has done two tours of duty with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I know how deep are the bonds of loyalty that can be formed with ships’ companies after such experiences. HMS Cumberland and her crew performed superbly in the initial stages of the Libya operation, evacuating British and other foreign nationals from Benghazi and undertaking enforcement operations in support of UN Security Council resolution 1973. She has now been withdrawn from service and her role off Libya has been taken up by the destroyer, HMS Liverpool.
While NATO’s airstrikes have been successful in reducing Colonel Gaddafi’s ability to attack his people, he continues to target civilians in clear contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and international law. The UK has 23 aircraft and two naval vessels committed to the NATO-led operation. These continue to provide vital capability in support of UN Security Council resolution 1973.
I would like to associate myself and my hon. Friends with the remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), about those brave service personnel who sadly lost their lives in service of their country.
On the Secretary of State’s answer, in view of concerns expressed, not least by the joint chiefs, about the affordability and sustainability of the UK’s continued military operation in Libya, will he advise us of what further diplomatic efforts are being pursued to find a non-military solution to the current conflict?
There is a very clear non-military solution to the current conflict: Colonel Gaddafi could stop attacking the civilian population in Libya. Until he does so, the international community will continue the military action, which we believe to be affordable and sustainable at the present time.
Does the Secretary of State share the assessment of Lady Amos that the bombardment of Misrata and the western mountain regions has led to an unacceptable situation in which aid convoys are unable to get the water, medicine and food that the people of these areas need? What further pressure can be put on the Gaddafi regime to stop this intolerable bombing and shelling?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. In recent days, we have made it very clear through NATO that we intend to continue to degrade Colonel Gaddafi’s command and control capability, including his intelligence network. The regime needs to understand loud and clear that the international community is very resolute: it will continue its military activity as long as this absolutely unacceptable slaughter of the civilian population continues. I hope that the whole House will also be resolute in sending out a very clear message on that front.
Security Council resolution 1973 authorised the use of force for three different purposes: enforcement of the arms embargo, enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya, and the protection of civilians. Those are the clear delineations of our mission, and all the activities in which we have engaged, including our target sets, have fallen within the requirements of resolution 1973.
The Secretary of State is reported to have endorsed, over the weekend, General Richards’s call for an enlargement of the number of targets in Libya to include infrastructure targets. Has he received a legal opinion that that conforms with resolution 1973?
I confirmed over the weekend that NATO is continually reassessing the target sets within the targeting directive, which itself follows from resolution 1973. We believe that at all times the target-setting has been well within the requirements of that resolution, and I take responsibility for the setting, observation and implementation of targets very seriously indeed.
The Secretary of State will know that we are committed to a bipartisan approach on Libya. I join the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), in his condolences and prayers for the family of one officer, Graham Bean, and the as yet unnamed Royal Marine.
The men and women of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air force have done remarkable work in and around Libya. However, may I ask the Secretary of State about the comment by the First Sea Lord that if operations around Libya were to last longer than six months, a significant “challenge” would be created? Does the Secretary of State agree with that assessment, and what military advice has he received about maintaining the current UK tempo of military activity beyond those six months?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support, but, as he is well aware, contingency planning goes on because we do not know how long Colonel Gaddafi will continue his resistance to international opinion and in the face of international law. We will continue to look at the range of contingencies, but we all hope that Colonel Gaddafi will recognise that the game is up either sooner or later—hopefully sooner—so that the cost, in terms not just of money but, more important, of lives, is minimised in the months ahead. We will look at all contingencies, but it is important to recognise that we are resolute and that the work of the international community, whose military leaders met at the weekend, will not cease until the task is properly carried out.
I welcome that response, but today’s newspapers report further MOD cuts and the fact that the MOD is undertaking a three-month internal spending review. The Secretary of State says ,“We will look at all contingencies”, but in the light of those reports, the events in Libya and the rest of north Africa, and the further events that are spreading across the middle east, should he not finally agree with Lord Ashdown, General Dannatt, the Army Families Federation and most members of the defence community that now is the time to reopen the rushed and increasingly discredited Government defence review?
Those who wish us to reopen the strategic defence and security review, and who are looking at the same real world and at the same financial constraints, need to tell us whether they would provide a larger defence budget. If they continue with the same assumptions in the same real world but do not increase the budget, they will see the same outcome because they will be under the same constraints. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will finally tell us whether Labour intends to retain the same defence budget or to reduce the defence budget, because that is the key element in the equation.
Advanced manufacturing industry in the UK makes such an important contribution to defence and the armed forces. We have recently concluded public consultation on the Green Paper “Equipment, Support and Technology for UK Defence and Security”, in which we make it clear that the purpose of defence procurement is to deliver the capabilities that the armed forces need, now and in the future. We will set out our future policy on the issue in a White Paper later in the year.
Last month BAE Systems announced 100 job losses at its plant in Scotswood, Newcastle. As well as devastating families, those job losses will reduce our advanced engineering skills base. What specific measures is the Minister taking to ensure that procurement supports skills that are essential to our national infrastructure, and how do they sit with the Government’s policy of buying off the shelf without taking industrial needs into account?
The hon. Lady tempts me to pre-judge the outcome of my own consultation, which I must not do, but let me say this: I share her passion for advanced manufacturing and I again pay tribute to its role in defence. We are committed to both a vigorous promotion of exports and boosting UK defence companies in the UK, and to boosting the work of small and medium-sized enterprises, which are innovative and bring new ideas and skills to defence. We are also committed to maintaining the science budget, as called for in response to our consultation by all those advanced manufacturing companies of which she spoke. We are doing a lot to help advanced manufacturing, but the hon. Lady will have to be a little more patient and wait until the White Paper is published.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Government spending on defence research and technology is absolutely essential for maintaining the battle-winning edge for our armed forces in 25 years’ time? Does he also agree that if there is a reduction in defence research because of short-term budget pressures, the long-term effect will be very great indeed?
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I could not agree more. I can confirm what I have said to him in the past: the budget for science and technology will increase in cash terms over the comprehensive spending review period. However, I share his enthusiasm about ensuring that we maintain future capabilities as well. It is very important that the science budget is not simply focused on current operations. It must be forward looking, too, to ensure that we have the capabilities that we need.
The Minister will be aware that there is considerable concern that the Government might be planning to announce an extremely limited definition of what constitutes sovereign capability in their forthcoming White Paper, meaning that in many important sectors the Government will retreat to their default position and, to quote the Government’s Green Paper,
“to buy off-the-shelf where we can”.
Will the Minister assure the House that the White Paper will be an opportunity to set a clear strategy to use defence procurement to support our manufacturing base, in particular the intellectual property here in the United Kingdom, thus recognising the contribution that defence makes to the wider economy?
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that specific assurance. Defence money is for defence purposes, but I share his enthusiasm for the defence industrial base. I understand exactly what he says. We will be scrupulously honest with the British people and UK defence companies. I am afraid that although the previous defence industrial strategy was immensely popular, it did not have the money to match its promises. We will deliver what we promise.
Council Tax Rebates
5. Whether he has discussed with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government the merits of a council tax rebate for members of the armed forces who are serving overseas. (55359)
The Government recognise the value of council tax rebates for many members of the armed forces. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make an announcement to the House on this matter later today.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. One constituent who raised the question with me was not looking for blanket discretion for all deployments, but said that there was some resentment among those deployed to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq when they found that different local authorities exercised their discretion in different ways. Will the Minister encourage consistency and generosity in this matter?
I am delighted to be able to agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We would encourage consistency. I will not pre-empt what the Secretary of State will say at 3.30 pm. [Interruption]. I will not pre-empt what the Secretary of State will say at 3.30 pm. However, if people are in receipt of the deployed welfare package, they get council tax relief, which is paid for by the Ministry of Defence. What local councils do at the moment is up to them. We encourage them to give due discretion where possible and to assist our members deployed on operations overseas.
Security Situation (Pakistan and Afghanistan)
I regularly discuss a number of security and defence issues with my counterparts in the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The death of Osama bin Laden is a positive development in terms of our counter-terrorism effort, but it does not change our strategy in Afghanistan. We remain committed to our military, diplomatic, and development work to build a stable and secure Afghanistan.
The head of the snake may have been removed, but the bombings in Pakistan at the weekend show that there is still considerable al-Qaeda activity in the region. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that the Prime Minister’s potential announcement of early withdrawals of troops in the summer is of concern, particularly given the fears expressed publicly by defence staff for the safety of British residents at home and abroad as a result of that policy?
We are committed to maintaining the level of troops that we need for our main effort in the southern part of Afghanistan. The number of combat troops that we have had in Helmand has been at a consistent level, our force densities have improved and we intend to make no changes to those numbers until we see an improvement in the security situation there.
Is it not rather depressing that after everything that has happened in Afghanistan and, in particular, to the former Taliban regime there, people in the Taliban have not learned their lesson that al-Qaeda is poison to them? That was shown by the demonstrations against the death of bin Laden on the part of the Pakistani Taliban. If the Taliban want to be part of a settlement, is it not time that they realised how poisonous the al-Qaeda connection has always been?
My hon. Friend makes a truly excellent point. We need to recognise that al-Qaeda involves violent political extremism that will guarantee no country and none of its people’s safety and security. The quicker that those who have previously dallied with the Taliban recognise that that cannot be a route for peace and reconciliation in the long term, the better.
Further to the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), I fully agree that any troop withdrawal should be based on sound military advice and that the lives of our brave servicemen and women, and civilians, should not be put at risk by any kind of premature withdrawal. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he will resist the temptation to make any announcements about early withdrawal that may coincide with the visit of President Obama?
As I have pointed out in the House before, we maintain a core force of some 9,500 troops in Afghanistan. The number has risen to as high as 11,000 over the past year, partly due to temporary surges. It is a normal part of the process in Afghanistan that that number will rise and fall but, as I said, the important element in respect of that number is that we maintain our core commitment to the south of Afghanistan and our combat force there.
Armed Forces Day 2012
7. When he expects to make a decision on the location of events to mark the 2012 Armed Forces day for the nation. (55361)
Plans for the national event to mark Armed Forces day 2012 are being considered and a decision will be announced as soon as possible. In the meantime, I look forward to this year’s Armed Forces day on Saturday 25 June, including the national event, which will be hosted by Edinburgh.
On the subject of honouring our armed forces, I think that the whole House would wish me to remind everyone that today is Albuhera day—the Middlesex day. Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Albuhera, and that explains the naming of Middlesex day. The Middlesex Regiment subsequently became known as the Duke of Cambridge’s Own Regiment, which is particularly fitting this year.
In answer to my hon. Friend’s question about Armed Forces day, I can say that there are no set criteria. However, I have heard at great length his pleas on behalf of Plymouth and I shall certainly bear them in mind.
May I urge that one criterion might be that the area sends a lot of young men and women into the armed forces? That would enable the Minister, next year or in a future year, to consider using not just the major cities or the major places where people are based, but an area such as the south Wales valleys, which sends a very large number of people into the armed forces—that is, as long as he has not made the wrong decision about 160 Brigade being based in Brecon.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have made no decisions about 160 Brigade. Of course the main national event for Armed Forces day was in Cardiff last year. It is the responsibility of local authorities to deal with the infrastructure and the work involved in the Armed Forces day celebrations. If people in the south Wales valleys say that they will arrange a great event there that could be the national focus, I am sure that we would listen to that sympathetically as well.
Recent events in the middle east have demonstrated that the central finding of the strategic defence and security review—the need for the UK to adopt an adaptable posture with flexible forces—was appropriate. Given the vital importance of the region to the UK’s long-term interests, we will continue to monitor the still evolving situation before drawing conclusions on if and how it could influence the Department’s policies.
Does my hon. Friend agree that our allies in the Gulf play a vital role in ensuring security and stability in the region and that it is imperative that our Government continue to engage constructively and positively with them, particularly in these uncertain times?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Gulf states are key partners in the battle against international terrorism and more widely. That said, we are concerned at events in some of the Gulf states. We urge all Governments to meet their human rights obligations, to uphold political freedoms and to recognise that those things do not run contrary to security but are in fact integral to longer-term stability. We believe that dialogue is the way to fulfil the aspirations of all, and we urge all sides, including opposition groupings, to engage.
The Government, rightly in my view, are calling for Colonel Gaddafi to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that the President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, should be similarly referred because he is killing and torturing just as many people in Syria as Gaddafi is in Libya?
I understand that Gaddafi has already been referred to the court and that that decision was taken internationally at the ICC. I entirely see the comparison that the right hon. Gentleman is drawing and it would seem to me that the international forces that reached the conclusions they did about Gaddafi are highly likely to arrive at a similar conclusion.
Improvised Explosive Devices (Afghanistan)
An impressive range of capabilities is in service to counter the threat from IEDs that our armed forces in Afghanistan face; our personnel are trained and equipped to apply a range of tactics, techniques and procedures. Defeating the threat is a vital part of the counter-insurgency campaign, and the equipment we are fielding against these sordid devices is widely recognised as being better than ever. However, as demonstrated by the weekend’s tragic news, which I reported to the House earlier, we are up against a determined enemy and must continue to invest in this area.
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority as a gunner who served in Afghanistan two years ago. He certainly knows what he is talking about. I can reassure him that equipping and training the Afghan national security force is a crucial part of NATO’s common counter-IED strategy. It is of course the job of the international security assistance force, which has the lead for training and equipment. I can assure him that the UK comfortably meets its responsibilities in this respect, but it is a challenging task and one to which we are fully committed because it forms the foundation for our eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Will the Minister assure the House that the review and the spending difficulties that the Department has will not affect in any way his commitment to the speed of manufacture, and the number of vehicles manufactured, of the light protected patrol vehicles that are so badly needed in Afghanistan?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I hold him in very high regard and personal esteem, and with some affection. I gently remind him that it is not a problem we have but a problem we inherited, and we are dealing with it. I can, though, give him the categorical assurance that he is seeking that those matters will have no impact on the operations in Afghanistan.
The UK is playing a leading role in the push to modernise NATO through the reform of its supporting agencies and improving its financial management and programming. The UK is also a leading proponent of important work to streamline NATO’s command structure. We hope to reach final agreement at a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers next month, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be attending.
The role and purpose of NATO has changed radically over the past 20 years. Does the Minister agree that NATO needs to concentrate on reviewing its strategic purpose as well as finding new ways of interacting with other international institutions in a world that is radically different from that of the cold war?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, but I suggest to him not only that article 5 is absolutely central to NATO’s mission but that since 1989, as Afghanistan, the anti-piracy operations in the Arabian sea and the Libyan operation have shown, NATO has already developed remarkable flexibility and is working with other institutions, most notably the European Union, where we are seeking to ensure there is no duplication.
Does the Minister agree that any modernisation of NATO should ensure that those member nations who have the troop numbers and resources, such as Germany, should pull their weight in the same way that we do in NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan and Libya?
I am very happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said in response to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), a number of NATO countries seek to take advantage of article 5 and the other protections that NATO gives them without divvying up the membership fee. That is certainly something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is working on—showing other countries that if they want the protection of NATO, they have to contribute to its funding.
Will the Minister assure the House that there will be careful analysis of what went wrong in the early days of the Libyan encounter? Ever since the United States seems to have pulled back on its operational activity, we seem to be have been much less effective at defending innocent people in that country.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is being slightly churlish. I was extraordinarily impressed by the speed with which NATO responded. After all, there was a United Nations resolution and no mechanism by which it was going to be implemented. It is hugely to NATO’s credit, and particularly to the credit of its Secretary-General, that he and it made those structures available to enable support for the Libyan people to be provided not only by NATO but by many other countries. I am sure there will be a review about how successful everything has been in due course.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that despite the programme of modernisation, which is very welcome, and NATO’s extremely effective and speedy response over Libya, the question of NATO’s transformation is proceeding not nearly fast enough? Does he agree that it would be a pity if the Ministers’ meeting at NATO did not come up with a really substantial reform in that department?
As ever, my hon. Friend puts his finger on the point. He is absolutely right and we are absolutely determined. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be pressing ahead with transformation. We have led the way on this and we are determined not to let the issue lapse because if NATO is not efficient, lean and modern, it will not be able to deliver what we all seek.
Nuclear Test Veterans
The findings of the health needs audit are expected this summer. The study will document veterans’ self-reported experience of ill health and their experience of health and social care services, and it aims to provide practical, forward-looking recommendations on how health and social care services for this group could be improved. We intend to share the outcome of this work with other relevant areas, such as the Department of Health, and we will publish the report’s findings and any response.
I thank the Minister very much for that response. Like many Members, I look forward to the Secretary of State’s statement on the armed forces covenant shortly. One could argue that the duty of care it entails is also relevant to Britain’s nuclear test veterans. What action is the Minister able to take after so many years—it has been many years now—properly to recognise the sacrifices of our nuclear test veterans and to bring some much-needed closure to survivors and their families?
I think the whole House would join me in paying tribute to those who served in the armed forces in the 1950s. Most of those involved were national servicemen and were doing their duty, as it was explained to them, by witnessing the nuclear explosions. We provide war pensions to anyone who suffers from an ailment that is linked to the service they underwent, such as watching nuclear tests, but it is necessary that we provide pensions and compensation only to those who were harmed by their service.
Does the Minister agree that this is a sad and sorry business? Those people suffered grievously many years ago and successive Governments have prevaricated and obfuscated on the matter. The nuclear test veterans need help, support and compensation, and above all they need an apology from successive Governments for the way they have been treated.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. He says that people suffered grievously. Some people are of course ill, and some are ill because of their service. It is important that the Government should look to that. The previous Government did, as we do, through the war pensions system. However, there is no study showing that people who witnessed those nuclear tests have more cases of cancer than their cohort groups. We must base our response and expenditure of taxpayers’ money on evidence, not on emotion.
As I have said before, the Ministry of Defence will make an announcement as soon as we are in a position to do so, and that will be before the summer recess. But as I have also said, this is a complex piece of work and we will take the time necessary to make sure we reach the right conclusions.
On Friday I attended the disbandment parade of 13 Squadron at RAF Marham, which was a moment of both pride and sadness. Given the additional commitments taken on by the RAF in Libya and the statement by the Chief of the Air Staff that our air force is heavily stretched, will that have an impact on the basing review?
That will not have an impact on the basing review, but I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to everybody involved with 13 Squadron, which was involved in the early stages of the operation in Libya and has a proud history going back 96 years, including distinguished service in the second world war and later in the no-fly zone in Iraq and Operation Telic. The name will live on next year when a new squadron of reaper, the remotely piloted aircraft, will take on the number 13, and I am pleased to say that most of the personnel involved have been found other roles elsewhere in the Tornado force.
At the time of the strategic defence and security review, the Secretary of State told me that the basing review affecting RAF Lossiemouth would be concluded before the end of December 2010. That was put back to the end of February 2011, and we are still waiting. The delays are causing uncertainty and economic damage in Moray and, I am sure, likewise in Fife, Norfolk and elsewhere. Does the Minister agree that the least that service communities should expect is a definitive date and no more delays?
As I said a moment ago, this is a complex piece of work. The Army coming home from Germany happens only once, and the future lay-down of the Army and the basing of the British Army for the future is something that we have to get right. It is necessary to take the time to get those decisions right. I understand the impact that waiting for a decision has on local communities, but it is more important that we get this right than that we do it fast. As I said a moment ago, we will make an announcement by the summer recess.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the professionalism and commitment of the men and women who serve at RAF Leuchars, which he saw for himself earlier this year, continue, notwithstanding uncertainty about the future of the base. What view does he take of the kind of speculation that we saw last week, apparently originating from within the House, which appears to suggest that decisions affecting RAF Leuchars have already been taken?
I am pleased to hear that the professionalism of those serving at Leuchars, which I saw for myself recently, remains unaffected. There has been some ill-informed and unhelpful speculation in the media. In particular, last week there was a routine meeting to discuss all aspects of defence reform. It was absolutely not the case that there was ever any prospect of decisions being taken at that meeting, nor was there any proposal to that effect on the table. This is important work, and there is more work ongoing. I categorically assure my right hon. and learned Friend that no such decision has been taken, and we will come to the House as soon as we are in a position to do so.
Last week the Chief of the General Staff told the Defence Committee that substantial investment in accommodation and training facilities will be needed if the Government are to be able to meet their challenging target of withdrawing half the troops currently based in Germany by 2015, let alone withdrawing the rest by 2020. What assessment has the Minister made of the cost of this policy and will it come out of the current departmental financial settlement?
The Chief of the General Staff was absolutely right to say that the accommodation that the British Army will need must be of the highest standard. What that will cost will depend entirely on the decisions that are taken on where the Army will go and the state of readiness of any facilities into which we might propose to move them. The figures will emerge when we know where we are sending them and what will have to be built in readiness to receive them.
What assurance can the Secretary of State give the House and members of the armed forces, such as my constituent, 19-year-old Private James Kenny of C company, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, who has recently returned from active service in Afghanistan, that an independent panel will be set up to report on the Government’s performance in relation to the military covenant?
I have not had the misfortune of getting into a lift with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), but I have spent many hours debating the military covenant with him. I was therefore very surprised to learn at the weekend that he has performed not only a U-turn on the matter, but a double U-turn. He had said previously that he did not believe that a veterans ID card was necessary. What does the Secretary of State think?
Following the increase in troop numbers as a result of the international security assistance force surge in the second half of 2010 and the continuing increase in both the size and capability of the Afghan national security forces, I am confident that there are sufficient forces in Afghanistan to meet the insurgent threat over the coming months. For that reason, there are no plans to increase the UK’s endorsed force levels.
I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but there are a considerable number of troops in Afghanistan, a considerable number of forces operating in Libya, and I have no doubt that further military operations will be required in other parts of north Africa. I understand that defence cuts need to be made, but can he assure me that those currently being discussed will not include any further cuts to combat forces?
The justification for dismantling improvised explosive devices, rather than blowing them up, is that those who made them can be identified and captured. As this has resulted in the deaths of many of our brave soldiers, should we not alter the policy, particularly now that the prisoners are escaping in such huge numbers?
It is certainly not the case that we always go for the option of dismantling IEDs, as some of them are destroyed, but as part of the ongoing effort to counter the IED threat it is absolutely vital that we have an understanding of how they are made and who is making them. It is absolutely essential intelligence to us—to garner that information on occasions—and we have no intention of changing that approach.
My colleagues in the Home Office and I are very pleased with the results of the public consultation, which ended on 31 March, on the recent Green Paper. We used a number of mechanisms, notably conferences, regional visits and a dedicated website, to encourage wide participation, and we received 143 separate written reports from individuals, companies and organisations, as well as more than 200 comments on the website. We are now analysing the information received and will publish a summary of the consultation responses later this year, alongside the planned White Paper.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Ministers in the Department are committed to the Government’s policy of export-led growth, whereby the Government are making radical steps to ensure that responsible defence exports are actively promoted. This year I have visited India, Japan and Turkey on precisely that mission, and all members of my ministerial team have made similar such visits to ensure that the outcome my hon. Friend rightly seeks is achieved.
Service Family Accommodation
In the strategic defence and security review published on 19 October last year, we announced that we will undertake a detailed review of our approach to accommodation with the aim of meeting the aspirations of service personnel for affordable and good-quality housing. Work is now under way and we will report in the summer of 2012.
I draw the House’s attention to the entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford), for reasons that I have put on the record on a number of occasions already this Session.
All the evidence is that constant moving, perhaps every couple of years, between homes and schools for service personnel and their families is extremely destabilising and not good for family life. Has the Minister therefore made any representations to the Department for Communities and Local Government about the impact of the flexible tenure proposal in the Localism Bill, and about the effect that it will have of perpetuating the cycle that such people currently experience?
The hon. Lady is quite right: service personnel can be disadvantaged in many ways by the many moves that they make. As it happens, not two hours ago I was at a meeting at the Department for Communities and Local Government with the Housing Minister to discuss that among other matters. Unfortunately, I left before that matter came up on the agenda in order to come to the House, but I can assure the hon. Lady that we are looking at the issue very carefully and we did have that conference this lunchtime.
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future; that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in their military tasks; and that we honour the armed forces covenant.
Following the First Sea Lord’s comments that he wished he could revisit the Government’s position on the Ark Royal and the Harrier jets, and that if the UK had an aircraft carrier it would be deployed in Libya, will the Minister consider reversing the decision on the Ark Royal and explore ways of closing the carrier strike-capability gap?
What is important in Libya is the fact that we are able to project our air power in an effective and timely manner, and we are able to do that because we have no problems with basing or with over-flight, which is exactly the analysis that we made in the strategic defence and security review.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and as I said just now we had a meeting at DCLG just a couple of hours ago. We are determined that armed forces personnel, be they serving or just leaving the services, which is often when they want to buy a house, are not discriminated against by mortgage providers or, indeed, by credit reference agencies.
T2. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that legislation that protects reservists’ employment is red tape, or does he agree with me that scrapping it would jeopardise recruitment and morale? Will he therefore guarantee to protect it? (55395)
I am very grateful to be able to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House personally, and I look forward to the expertise that he will bring to Defence questions. He will be aware that we are undertaking a very detailed review of reservists, not just the number and structure of the reserves, but the framework within which they operate, including for example the issues relating to employment, so that this country can make proper use of our reserves and maximise the benefit that they can bring to the armed forces, as happens already in many other countries.
T5. Does my right hon. Friend share my recognition of the critical importance of defence diplomacy to UK interests around the world? Will he update the House on what progress he has made on making amends for the decade of Labour neglect in this area? (55398)
I can assure my hon. Friend that since taking office we have set a new and vigorous pace to make up for the deficiencies of the previous Labour Administration. As my 1924 map of the British empire should remind everybody, the United Kingdom enjoys extensive historical ties with a large number of countries, giving us an unrivalled position. It is our policy to build on that strength through defence diplomacy, and we are doing so.
T4. The original White Paper for the Trident replacement programme estimated a figure of £11 billion to £14 billion in 2006 prices, but in a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark), the Minister stated that “the combined cost of the Concept Phase, totalling approximately £900 million, and the Assessment Phase, totalling approximately £3 billion at outturn prices is consistent with the departmental guidance that programmes should spend approximately 15% of the total costs before Main Gate.”It appears that this would put the cost of the whole programme at £26 billion. Will he confirm that that is an accurate projection? (55397)
As I previously explained in an Adjournment debate, all the costs that we are using are entirely consistent with the original projections. I will be delighted to spend some time with the hon. Lady explaining to her in detail exactly why that is the case.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right that in order to rebalance flying training in the light of the new requirements, there will be no further intake of elementary flying training students at RAF Church Fenton. That is because the requirement is reduced from 155 to 105 pilots a year, and the last course, which is currently under way, completes in August. I understand that that will create considerable concerns for local people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. No decisions have yet been taken about the future of RAF Church Fenton, although the Yorkshire university air squadron, which incorporates No. 9 Air Experience Flight, will continue to use the station, and it will continue to act as a relief landing ground for RAF Linton-on-Ouse.
T8. Post the very welcome announcement on the future base porting of the Type 23 frigates, will the Minister—I am sure he will forgive me for not letting the paint dry on this one—tell us at what stage are the strategic discussions about the future of the Type 26? (55401)
I was very pleased to confirm, on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff), that the seven Type 23s are to remain based at Plymouth. The Type 26 global combat ship is in the assessment phase at the moment, and we are working extremely hard to see whether we can build it in partnership with other nations. I cannot go into too much detail at the moment, because much of it is commercially sensitive, but I can assure the hon. Lady that as part of our defence diplomacy initiative, it appears to be going rather well.
T9. So often the House focuses on our armed forces in theatre and in conflict, but is it not also important that we celebrate our armed forces at home? I hope that the House will forgive me if I celebrate in particular the work of the armed forces recently at the royal wedding, where they were so brilliantly turned out. (55402)
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. After the service that so many have given on the front line, including in Afghanistan—some of those involved that day were involved on the front line in Afghanistan—it was very good, with the eyes of the world looking at us, that the contribution of the armed forces was able to be celebrated in that way and that they gave such a good account of themselves with everybody watching.
T10. Has the Department reflected on the concerns of the Royal British Legion and the other place over the post of chief coroner? If so, what representations has it made to other Departments about the necessity of keeping the post? (55403)
I share the concerns of the Royal British Legion and the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of this issue. I am having ongoing discussions with the Ministry of Justice to determine the best way to ensure that the skills required in this specialist area are available, that access is improved and that the distances that families have to travel to attend are minimised.
Further to oral Question 16, does the Minister understand that soldiers who have returned recently from Afghanistan are living in family accommodation that is not up to the right standards, while across the road, former Army houses have been modernised at a cost of millions of pounds of public money? If the Government can find money for that side of the road, why can they not find it for our soldiers’ families?
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I have driven along that particular road and seen the situation. [Interruption.] I hear somebody shouting from a sedentary position, “It’s your Government!” Actually, the houses were built under the last Government, and the houses that have not been done up were not done up under the last Government. We are trying.
It is tempting to make light of the nonsensical ideas that tend to come from the Scottish National party, but now that it is in such a strong political position in Scotland, we have to take these issues more seriously. It is extremely worrying that the SNP has previously had a posture that is anti-NATO and anti the nuclear defence of this country. It is time to engage in a serious debate on issues that ought to worry all those who believe in the United Kingdom, and in sound defence for the United Kingdom.
In a television debate on the BBC on 6 April, the Minister for the Armed Forces asserted that this country did not have the capability to fly Harriers off aircraft carriers even before the defence review, and that we had not flown them off aircraft carriers since 2003. The truth is that they flew off Ark Royal as late as November 2010 in difficult sea conditions. I am sure that he did not intend to mislead the British public. Will he put the record straight now?
I am happy to correct what I said in that TV interview. I had thought that from the context it was clear that I was talking about flying in combat operations. The 2003 date was the last time that we had flown Harriers off carriers in combat operations. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Harriers continued literally to fly off carriers after that. Indeed, the nation watched the valedictory flights off Ark Royal back in December, as he said. I apologise for any confusion that my remarks may have caused.
I do not think it will get to that. This is necessarily a complex subject, and I cannot give a straightforward answer. There are costs that would be incurred anyhow by the armed forces operating in Libya. There are additional costs that are specific to the campaign. We would also have to establish the precise value of the assets deployed or used in the campaign. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that the House will be informed in the usual way of the precise costs in the winter supplementary estimates.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, because we take it very seriously. She will know of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) entitled “Fighting Fit”, which is extremely valuable. We are taking forward its proposals. For example, there is already a helpline for those who have concerns, and I have phoned it to check that it works. We continue to be concerned and are working with Combat Stress to ensure that people who have concerns or who may have mental health problems can raise those issues with the authorities. Along with Combat Stress, we will ensure that they have the best possible care.
May I tell the Secretary of State that his earlier answer on Libya will cause a great deal of anxiety? Is it now the policy of the British Government, despite the denials, to take Gaddafi out by one means or another and bring about regime change? Would that not be totally outside Security Council resolution 1973?
The policy of the Government is not regime change, which would be outside resolution 1973. It is Government policy, as it is NATO policy, to do everything possible to protect the civilian population, who would be considerably better off if Colonel Gaddafi and his regime were not there.
When we were in opposition, we were critical of the former Government for not having enough helicopters. In the SDSR it was confirmed that we needed helicopters and planned to purchase them. Can the Minister confirm that the 14 Chinooks will now be ordered?
Given today’s reports in The Times, and following Ministers’ responses earlier this afternoon, it appears that the Secretary of State has some stark choices. He can restrict the capacity for British military capability and influence by cutting personnel and equipment still further, or he can secure a better deal from the Treasury. Which option does he prefer?
It was always clear to those who followed these matters that following the SDSR, there were a number of very important second-order issues to address, such as the basing review, the reserves review and the changes made under the defence reform unit. It is also essential that we put the armed forces’ finances on a firm footing for the years beyond the current spending settlement, which runs from 2014-15 to 2020. That is the exercise upon which we are currently embarked, because we are determined that we will not get the defence budget into the shambles that it was in when we inherited it from Labour.
Would the Minister like to take this opportunity to welcome the news that India has just put the European Typhoon, made by BAE Systems, on a shortlist of just two for the hugely valuable multi-role combat aircraft tender, one of the biggest defence orders on the horizon anywhere in the world?
The simple answer is yes. That is an extremely successful outcome, and we are delighted with it. A lot of effort has been expended by the four partner nations. I was at the Bangalore air show myself in February pursuing the cause, and I am delighted by the outcome. We must now pursue the campaign to a successful conclusion.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the future servicing and storage of complex weapons systems? In particular, what assurances can he give about the future of Defence Munitions Beith, in Scotland, which stores such systems?
Have Ministers had a chance to consider the imaginative scheme to retain HMS Ark Royal for the nation as a heliport facility in conjunction with the Homes for Heroes project, bearing in mind that this year is the centenary of the first naval aviators being taught to fly and bearing in mind the importance of keeping aircraft carriers in the forefront of our minds until they resume their rightful place in this country’s armoury?
I doubt whether my hon. Friend, or many other Members, would believe some of the suggestions that we have had for the future use of Ark Royal. Its use as a helipad is one of them, and although I find it particularly attractive in some ways, I am not sure whether the residents where it might be placed would think exactly the same. Its use is subject to a range of issues, not least planning considerations but also a range of financial ones. As ever, however, he makes a welcome and creative contribution to the debate.
It has been essential to ensure that all the issues involved are agreed on, including, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware from his constituency interest, those to do with the safety of nuclear propulsion. I will make a statement to the House in the very near future.
Armed Forces Covenant
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the armed forces covenant. The Government have no higher duty than the defence of the realm, and the nation has no greater obligation than to look after those who have served it. The men and women of the three services, regulars and reservists, whether they are serving today or have done so in the past, their families and those who have lost a loved one in service, all deserve our support and respect. That obligation is encapsulated in the armed forces covenant.
The ties between the nation, its Government, and its armed forces are not the product of rules and regulations, nor of political fashion. They are much deeper than that. They have endured for generations and they go to the heart of our national life. The armed forces covenant therefore does not need to be a long and detailed charter. It should be a simple and timeless statement of the moral obligation that we owe. We are therefore publishing today a new version of the covenant, written for the first time on a tri-service basis.
The covenant is enduring, but it will mean different things at different times. The expectations of today’s servicemen and women are, rightly, different from those of their predecessors. Alongside the covenant we have published guidance on what we believe it means in today’s circumstances. It sets out a framework for how the members of the armed forces community can expect to be treated, and the aspirations and expectations that we believe are implicit in the covenant.
The covenant and the guidance do not, however, describe what the Government are doing to put that into effect. That is why I am also publishing a paper, entitled “The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow”, that sets out the practical measures we are taking to support the covenant. The paper brings together the commitments we have already made with the new measures that I am announcing today.
A number of those measures take forward the ideas of Professor Hew Strachan, who led an independent taskforce on the covenant last year. I should like to record the Government’s thanks—and, I imagine, the Opposition’s thanks—for his extremely valuable work. Today, we are also publishing the Government’s full response to his report.
One of Professor Strachan’s most important recommendations was the introduction of a community covenant. That will strengthen communities and build new links between them, local government and the armed forces. I can today announce that we are allocating up to £30 million over the next four years to support joint projects, at a local level, between the services or veterans groups and the wider community.
The Armed Forces Bill, which the House will shortly have a further opportunity to consider, contains provision for an annual report on the armed forces covenant, which is designed to strengthen this House’s ability to scrutinise how we are fulfilling our obligations. In that way, the existence of the covenant is being recognised in statute for the first time, as promised by the Prime Minister last year.
In deciding how best to recognise the covenant in law, the Government have had to maintain a careful balance. On the one hand, we do not want to see the chain of command undermined or the military permanently involved in human rights cases in the European Courts. On the other, we must ensure that the legitimate aspirations of the wider service community, the armed forces charities and the British public for our armed forces are met.
We believe that a sensible way forward—one that will give the right kind of legal basis to the armed forces covenant for the first time in our history—is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise that review through the annual report, and ensure that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent. I believe that it is right for the Government to be held to account on delivering the principles underpinning the covenant by this House, and not by the European Courts. That is what our approach will ensure.
I want to highlight two important aspects. First, the Government will set out on the face of the Armed Forces Bill the key principles that we believe underpin both the covenant and any report on its implementation. Ensuring that members of the armed forces community do not suffer disadvantage as a result of their service, and that where appropriate they receive special treatment, are at the heart of the armed forces covenant. I can tell the House this afternoon that the Government will bring forward amendments before Third Reading to require the Secretary of State to address those principles in preparing his report to Parliament, and to recognise the unique nature of service life.
Secondly, I made clear to the House on 10 January our commitment to consult stakeholders on the annual report. We intend to consult widely in its preparation, and prior to laying it before the House will give external reference group members from outside Government the opportunity to comment on it. We will also publish any observations alongside it.
We are working with the external reference group to update its terms of reference in line with its significant new role. The Government place great importance on maintaining our dialogue with bodies such as the service families federations and the major service and ex-service charities, which tell us what is happening on the ground, and I pay tribute to the invaluable contribution they make to the welfare of the armed forces community. In particular, I pay tribute to the contribution to this debate of the Royal British Legion, which continues to do such outstanding work in support of our armed forces.
The armed forces covenant is not just about words; it is about actions. The men and women of our armed forces judge us by what we do to improve their lives and those of their families. Since taking office, the coalition Government have taken a series of important measures to rebuild the covenant. I shall mention just some of them: we have doubled the operational allowance; we have included service children in the pupil premium; we have introduced scholarships for the children of bereaved service families; and we have taken action to improve mental health care. These measures are especially impressive when set against the background of the dire economic situation in which the Government must operate as a result of the previous Government’s legacy.
There is much still to do, however. I have always been clear that our commitment to rebuild the covenant is a journey that we are beginning, not something we can do overnight, and I believe that the British people understand that. We are continuing to take action, however, and I am today announcing additional measures that will tackle some of the problems experienced by serving personnel, their families and veterans. I have already mentioned the new community covenant grant scheme. However, we are also setting up a new fund of £3 million per year over and above the pupil premium arrangements to support state schools catering for significant numbers of service children. We will also launch a veterans card that will allow access to discounts and privileges.
Furthermore, in helping injured personnel, we will guarantee that veterans suffering serious genital injuries have access to three cycles of IVF, wherever they live. We will also increase the rate of council tax relief for military personnel serving on operations overseas from 25% to 50%. In addition, between now and the summer recess, I expect there to be further announcements that will again underline that this is a priority across the whole of Government, and not just for Defence. Today Ministers are chairing a meeting with key stakeholders to discuss and agree ways to improve access to housing for our service people. The Health Secretary and I are looking forward to the report by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on how to improve further the supply of prosthetics for injured personnel. Also, we will consider how to ensure that the guaranteed income payments made under the armed forces compensation scheme are not required to be used to pay for social care provided by the public sector.
The obligation we owe to our service men and women, set against the commitment and sacrifice that they make, is enormous. In the current financial climate we cannot do as much to honour that obligation, or do it as quickly, as we would like, but we can make clear the road on which we are embarked. Our understanding of the covenant will change over time, as will the way in which the Government and society meet it. The framework we have set out today provides the necessary flexibility to ensure that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt they owe to our armed forces, their families and our veterans. I commend it to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for my advance sight of it. I would also like to place on record the Opposition’s appreciation of Professor Strachan and his sterling work.
Today we are reminded of our armed forces and the sacrifices that they make in defence of our country. They and their families are in all our hearts. Their actions overseas make Britain’s streets safer, and we not only honour them, but celebrate their immeasurable professionalism and bravery. In that context we support the headline measures announced in today’s statement, which can improve the well-being of service communities.
However, in the military covenant it appears that the Government are doing the right thing for entirely the wrong reason. The Armed Forces Bill is currently going through Parliament, and was meant to be debated just last week. The Government faced concerted pressure in Parliament—along with enormous concern in the country—to amend the Bill and enshrine the military covenant in law. However, at short notice and in the face of almost certain defeat in Parliament, that was delayed so that Ministers could organise this retreat, which they are announcing today.
As someone who has been open in saying that we should have gone further in the past to take the covenant out of the cut and thrust of party politics and put its principles in law, I congratulate all who played a part in the campaign. However, the Secretary of State today finds himself in the peculiar position of announcing a policy that he recently voted against. In February my colleagues and I tabled an Opposition day motion that called for
“establishing in law the definition of the Military Covenant, in so doing fulfilling the Prime Minister’s pledge”.
The Secretary of State, his Front-Bench team and the entire Cabinet voted against the motion.
The Minister responsible for veterans has been the principal covenant-denier. In February he said in Committee that to “write down” the covenant and
“try to codify it by statute would be, frankly…surprising.”
“The covenant is a conceptual thing that will not be laid down in law.” ––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 10 February 2011; c.20-21.]
Those were the words of Ministers in February. Although today’s announcement is welcome, it is not an action of conviction by the Government, but an act of submission to the parliamentary arithmetic that was building against them.
In the few minutes that I have, let me turn to the other measures in today’s statement and strike a more bipartisan tone. Many of the announced measures appear to have their roots in the 2008 Command Paper on service personnel. We will want to look at the detail of today’s proposals. Let me ask the Secretary of State some specific questions and invite him to offer the House, and forces families, direct answers. Can he say what criteria will be used to identify those qualifying for council tax relief, and whether they will be the same as for those receiving the operational allowance? Will those currently serving in Libya or Afghanistan benefit from the policy?
The announcement on concessionary travel is welcome. The Secretary of State will know that the Command Paper announced that the bus concession in England would be extended to include service personnel and veterans under the age of 60 who were seriously injured. Can he share with the House whether his announcement today is the implementation of that policy, or whether it is an entirely new announcement?
On housing, can the Secretary of State say whether today’s announcement is in addition to or supersedes the introduction by the previous Government in January last year of the shared equity armed forces home ownership scheme? How many forces families will benefit from the scheme announced today? He has said that a new veteran’s card will be introduced. We strongly welcome that, but again, the Minister responsible for veterans said in February that
“the Government still have no intention of introducing a veterans card,”
“I do not think that a veterans ID card is necessary, even in relation to access to commercial discounts.”––[Official Report, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, 17 February 2011; c. 102.]
What role will the veterans card have if it is not to be used for commercial discounts? Will the Secretary of State say who will pay for the card and how much it will cost?
My final specific question is to invite the right hon. Gentleman to tell the House whether he would consider exempting the seriously injured and war widows from the impact of recent pensions and benefits indexation changes, which will lead to enormous financial loss on the part of those who have given so much to our country. I am sure that the House and the British people would like to know his thoughts on that matter.
I have asked a number of questions in response to direct announcements made today by the Secretary of State. We will support today’s announcement, but we will scrutinise it. We will want to know which of the announcements are genuinely new and involve new investment. However, the Government are entitled to widespread support on setting out to enshrine the military covenant properly in law. If they set out to achieve what they have announced today, the Opposition will strongly support them in that.
I am grateful for the welcome—the basic welcome—that the right hon. Gentleman has given. Yes, it is perfectly true that the Opposition raised some of the issues in a recent debate—except that they would not define what they meant, nor would they tell us what rights they might create or how they would pay for them, yet they expected us to take them seriously. The reason why we have taken time to produce these reports and responses to detailed work is that we want to get the policies right and do the right thing for our armed forces, their families and their personnel.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the doubling of council tax relief. As I said, this will be 50% for personnel on eligible operations overseas. It will go to all those who currently get the 25% discount, which is a wider definition than that used for the operational allowance, but not to all those serving overseas—for example, in Germany. He also asked about the launching of the veterans card. It will be used to access commercial discounts or privileges, and we will consider how to expand it to include service families. It is linked to the relaunch of the defence discount scheme next year. It is not an ID card, for the reasons that we consistently gave in Committee and in the House.
On indexation, when the change was made from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index, none of us in the coalition Government wanted to see anyone in the public sector disadvantaged—but may I remind the Labour party that it left us with a £158 billion deficit, which has to be addressed? We will spend more on debt interest next year than on defence, the Foreign Office and aid put together. That is the scale of the problem, and it is the deficit deniers who are now on the Opposition Benches who put this country at risk. They had 13 years in office, yet they now have the audacity, after 12 months, to tell us that we are doing things at the eleventh hour. No credibility!
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and Professor Strachan on his outstanding work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that members of the armed forces are the only people in the country who face competition between having enough ships, aeroplanes and bullets, and having decent accommodation and health care? What can we do about that competition?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point, which we have grappled with in our approach to the covenant. The reason why equipment is not in the military covenant today is that the covenant for the welfare of our personnel involves a pact not just between the Government and the armed forces but between the whole nation and the armed forces. That includes local government, communities, charities and private individuals. The provision of the right equipment for our armed forces is a duty of the Government, and it should primarily be seen as the duty of the Government rather than of the wider national community. It is the Government who should properly be held to account for that.
The Secretary of State’s congratulations to the Royal British Legion are well deserved, because it was its campaign more than anything else that forced this most welcome retreat by the Government. He will know that what wound the Royal British Legion up more than anything else was the attempt to water down the involvement of the reference group in the monitoring system set up under the Command Paper on service personnel. He appears to be saying that that is now to be restored, and that that role will be fully implemented in the proposed reporting mechanism. Can he confirm that there is to be no watering down of the involvement of the reference group—the stakeholders and the service personnel charities, including the Royal British Legion itself—in the ongoing reporting on the covenant?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for asking for clarification on that point, and I can give him this assurance, which, as he knows, I have given the House on a number of occasions. I have wanted to see a maximising of transparency on this, and I have therefore decided that the external reference group will be able to see the Secretary of State’s report in advance and comment on it, and that we will publish those comments and any other representations at the same time as we publish the report of the covenant to Parliament.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s attempt to draw a distinction between Government and community obligation, but is not the Government’s responsibility also a moral one? For that reason, should we not recognise that the Government have a duty not to expose our armed forces to unnecessary risk, always to provide equipment that is fit for purpose, and to ensure that the operations that our men and women are obliged to take part in are always proportionate and legal?
Legality has to be a foregone conclusion in this House if we are to take our appropriate place in the international family of civilised nations. As to the Government’s duty in sending our armed forces into combat, I would say that they have two clear duties: one is to ensure that we maximise the chance of success of their mission; the second is ensuring the minimum risk to them in carrying out that mission. Both those duties imply that the armed forces must be properly equipped for any task that any Government ever send them to carry out.
I particularly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement about three cycles of IVF for the injured when they come back. He will know that that is virtually the first thing that the young men who return to the Queen Elizabeth hospital from Afghanistan will ask about. He also mentioned prosthetics. When it comes to rehabilitating soldiers, we are doing things with them—and doing them better—that are not yet happening in the NHS. What work is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that what we learn from the treatment of our veterans can be translated back to the NHS and the wider population?
The hon. Lady makes two valuable points. As regards the first, on IVF, it is bad enough that we often deny mobility and life chances to individuals, but to deny them the chance of producing another generation is worse, particularly when it is something that we can avoid. We should avoid it, and doing so sends out an important signal about the pastoral care that we are willing to give to our armed forces. Today’s announcement is a key one, which I think will be welcomed across the whole country.
On the hon. Lady’s second point, I think many of us will celebrate the fact that the care we give our armed forces is so much better than others might receive in the NHS that parity is being demanded. That is not a bad position for a country to be in, in terms of the care it gives to service people. The work we are undertaking with the Department of Health will set out to see what lessons the NHS can learn from the treatment of those who have been injured in military action and I believe that that is a very proud moment for the country.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on making his statement and on its contents, and Professor Hew Strachan on his excellent work. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the “no disadvantage” enjoinder within the military covenant establishes a floor and not a ceiling, and that the men and women of our armed forces will particularly welcome the special provisions that he has announced even more than the commitment to establish the covenant and its principles on a firmer footing, which has so exercised the Opposition?
May I take this opportunity—I hope on behalf of the whole House—to thank my hon. Friend and congratulate him on the work he has done, particularly on mental health and prosthetics, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) mentioned? I am sure that his words will be much appreciated. It is important to set out these two provisions whereby there is no disadvantage to our armed forces, their families or our veterans in pursuing a military career, and whereby, if necessary, the rest of society accepts that special measures might have to be taken to recompense our armed forces personnel for the risks that they are willing to take for the safety and security of the rest of us.
I have always believed that how people are treated is very important, but that how our armed forces are treated is of paramount importance. The Navy personnel in my constituency are concerned about their future with regard to air traffic control, and also HMS Gannet. What progress has been made on the contract, and will it be placed at Prestwick?
I am afraid that I cannot make an announcement on that today, although the hon. Gentleman will know that it is part of our wider considerations. I appreciate that the delay brings uncertainty, but it is important to get the wider defence decisions correct overall. As soon as I have any news on HMS Gannet, I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is informed in the first instance.
On Thursday we had the homecoming parade of the Argylls—the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland—who are based in my constituency. I met its last commanding officer, Colonel Richmond, who is at the end of a three-year recovery from a very severe wound to the leg. May I share with the Secretary of State the observation that he made, not on his own behalf but on behalf of others—that it really is crucial that we deliver on the commitment that wounded service personnel, for their subsequent treatment further down the line, do indeed get priority in NHS hospitals?
If we are to honour the military covenant fully, it is essential for those who are injured in action to receive the acute care that they require—and I think the whole House would acknowledge that the level of acute care given to our armed forces personnel is of a world-beating standard—but there are often complaints about the follow-up care, chronic care, continuity of care and collocation of care that are also essential. We will need to take all those issues into account. Along with the Department of Health, we are trying to establish where we can collocate care so that individuals need not travel to six, seven or even eight places to receive the full range of care that the complexity of their injuries may require, as has happened in recent years.
The Secretary of State is aware of the interest in veterans’ affairs taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). He is attending a conference on the subject at present, and was unfortunately unable to be here for the statement.
Many, if not all, of the issues involved in the covenant are devolved, and the re-elected Scottish National party Government have an excellent record of delivering for veterans in Scotland. Given the realities of devolution, why did it not even warrant a mention in the statement?
When the hon. Gentleman reads the documents, he will see that there is ample mention of it. This involves all forms of government in the United Kingdom. I fully understand the position of the right hon. Gentleman and the interest that he normally shows in these matters. We want to work with the devolved Assemblies to ensure that provision that is based in England today is available to all service personnel, families and veterans throughout the United Kingdom. Individuals who serve under the Crown deserve to be treated equally, and we will want to work very closely with the Scottish and Welsh Assembly Governments to ensure that equal benefits are received throughout the UK.
One of the problems with the whole concept of putting rights into law is the potential for a constitutional clash between the Westminster Government and the devolved Governments, and we sought to avoid that. There was no basic disagreement with the RBL; it was simply a question of how we could best put what it wanted into law.
I welcome the historic step that the Government are taking today to honour the unique commitment that British service personnel offer our nation. However, may I press the Secretary of State to tell us what steps will be open to service personnel to redress the position when we fall short of the terms of the covenant?
I hope that there will be no shortfall in our ability to honour the covenant, but the whole point of making the process as transparent as possible is to ensure that any future Government are fully exposed if they do not honour it. We are involving the external reference group to ensure that there is external pressure for that to happen, and to ensure that it is not simply a Whitehall-driven process. Ultimately, it will be for Members of Parliament in the first instance, representing their constituents in the armed forces, to detect whether, in their view, the Government have in any way fallen short of the standards that we have set ourselves today.
For decades many members of the armed forces have felt betrayed by Governments of all colours, so this is not a party-political issue. I am glad that the Secretary of State is going to take a line from Midlothian council, which has always held priority housing for those who leave the armed forces. I welcome his conversion, and the fact that he has finally taken that need on board. However, may I raise the issue of post-traumatic stress, with which many of us are only just coming to terms? Would it not be helpful for everyone who leaves the armed forces to be given an annual check-up, all the way to the grave? Post-traumatic stress can arise five, 10, 15 or 20 years after the event.
Again, I note the ingenuity of Members. The hon. Gentleman has raised two very good points.
There are clearly instances of best practice from which we can learn in relation to access to public housing. When it comes to access to the private housing sector, one of the problems is an inability to acquire a mortgage. That applies particularly to those who have served overseas and have been out of the country for some time. We are examining ways of dealing with the problem, and the Minister for Housing and Local Government is looking into it at the moment.
The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder is crucial. One reason why we have introduced routine mental health screening into the medical examinations of those about to leave the armed forces is to try to identify best those who may require additional follow-up. As scientific and medical evidence develops to help us with profiling, we may well be able to have programmes that allow follow-up for a longer time. We are working closely with the United States on building up a profiling picture. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that this may take some years to develop, at least in terms of the symptomatology, so we will need to look at ways of better predicting the effects, and identifying and following up individuals. We might have to identify them, because self-identification in mental illness is notoriously difficult.
I very much welcome the establishment of the military covenant in law. On 6 December, it will be 29 years since 33 soldiers in my company were wounded. We often tend to forget soldiers and servicemen and women who were wounded a long time ago. I hope that the military covenant in law will increase Government responsibility to care for those who were wounded, regardless of which war or conflict they served in.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who, of course, has considerable experience in this area. First, I would echo the point made by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton) about mental health care being one aspect of long-term care. The Government have given a high priority to that, because the invisible wounds of war are just as damaging as those that we can see. I do not put the blame on any one particular Government, but as a society we have been too slow to recognise that. We are increasingly recognising it now, however. Secondly, medical care will improve in certain areas. Prosthetics, for instance, have come a long way. Individuals are having to be reassessed in the NHS, given the new capabilities that prosthetics may bring and the new lease of life that they may give to individuals, including those with long-term injuries relating to service in the armed forces.
Armed forces pensioners are disappointed that the Government have introduced CPI instead of RPI in relation to pension increases. Will the Secretary of State seek to include long-term housing costs as part of the pensioner deal for war widows and badly injured service personnel?
As I have already said, changes in respect of RPI and CPI apply across the public sector. Many of us would like not to have to make such changes at all—we have no desire to do so—but we were forced to make them because of the financial situation that we inherited. I understand the sincerity of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but it does not matter how much Opposition Members mean it, because there is no money to do the things that they want. Do they propose that we raise more taxes or borrow more money to fill the hole? If the Labour party is serious, it will fulfil what it was asked to do by its own leadership, which is not to make any spending pledges whatsoever, unless agreed by the party’s leadership. So I ask, is the reversal of the CPI/RPI change now Labour policy?
I welcome the statement and the leadership offered by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. I recognise the contributions by groups such as my local British Legion, which has sought to secure the covenant through its very active campaign. Does the Secretary of State agree that the incorporation of the covenant in law begins to address the gross betrayal of our British forces and their families by the previous Labour Government, who sent troops into war without the right equipment?
Some of those equipment issues from the past have been well rehearsed in the House and the House has decided where some of the blame lies. It is very important that we try to take today’s announcement in a non-partisan way and to build on it with a national consensus, because the public out there will welcome this irrespective of their politics and, indeed, even if they have no politics at all. The way in which this has been done, the compromise that we have reached on the complex difficulties that we face and the balance that we have tried to obtain will be welcomed by the service charities and the armed forces. I think that the whole country should take pride in the fact that we are, as a nation, putting a covenant between the whole nation and the armed forces into law in this way.
I know well the hon. Gentleman’s reservations about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and possibly about any conflict imaginable in any part of the globe. Our armed forces are primarily there to protect the security of this nation. We are very fortunate that we have people willing to volunteer—every one of them is a volunteer—to put life and limb at risk for our security. Governments do not lightly send our armed forces into combat; they are answerable for their actions in this House of Commons and to the wider electorate. We should be grateful that this country still has those who are willing to make those sacrifices for us.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and look forward, with interest, to reading his proposals for improving the mental welfare services for ex-servicemen in this country. May I just ask him to make an awkward clarification? I am sure that he has an answer to this question. This military covenant strengthening is clearly intended to bring an uplift to the services available to our veterans and this will have to be funded from within the defence budget. Will the extra resources have to be found from within the existing defence budget or can he assure us that they will be provided by the nation as a whole, by the Exchequer?
My hon. Friend, again, makes an important point. Some of the costs will be met directly by the Treasury, for example those relating to council tax relief. Some money, such as the funding above the pupil premium, comes from the funding we earmarked within planning round 11, and some comes from other Departments, for example, the Department of Health. It is very important that we recognise that the military covenant is not just an issue that relates to the Government, the nation and the armed forces; it is also a cross-government effort, which does not begin and end inside the Ministry of Defence.
Can the Secretary of State clarify something? The council tax relief increase from 25% to 50% applies to second homes where service personnel live in MOD properties or in their first homes where they are living in other properties, but is that mandatory for all local authorities in England or does this apply in England, Wales and Scotland? Would it not be better to make the figure 100%, because it is up to the local authority to make that provision if it wants to, and some local authorities in Wales are now doing that?
As I said, the increase will go to all those who currently get the 25% discount and they will now be eligible for the 50% rate. I am sure that some councils may wish to go further but, given the current financial environment, I doubt very much that they will be able to do so.
Many of the details of the covenant will be warmly welcomed in my constituency, which is home to more than 10,500 serving armed forces personnel, including Sergeant Gavin Harvey, who two years ago lost substantially his entire lower body in a land mine incident. He is very concerned about the future supply of not only prosthetics, but wheelchairs and mobility aids. Can the Secretary of State assure me that that will be included in the review and can he tell us when we might expect to hear more about that later this year?
I am aware of the individual mentioned by my hon. Friend. Some extraordinarily severe injuries have been sustained by our armed forces personnel and it is testament to the skill of the medical profession that many of our personnel have been able to survive their injuries. Those of us who have visited Selly Oak, for example, will have marvelled at the medical capabilities and at what they have been able to do. There is, however, another side to this medical skill, which means that more people are able to survive these injuries than previously would have been the case and there are more severe disabilities as a consequence than there would otherwise have been. Part of the work we have been doing not just with prosthetics but with wider health care is to tackle that. This is emerging science and the House must understand that this is cutting-edge medical science. We, along with other countries such as the United States, are pioneering medical techniques to enable those individuals to live as full a life as medical science makes possible.
I am sure it was a slip in the heat of the moment, but in responding to the question from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) during Question Time, the Secretary of State neglected to guarantee that reservists would get continuation of employment and that that would not be considered as red tape by the Government. May I give him another opportunity to do so?
I was not evading the question; I said that it is part of the wider review of reservists. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier) is a member of that review and we want to ensure that we consider all the issues relating to reserves—the basing, the functions, the funding, the relationship with the regular forces and so on—including how issues of employment are tackled. We have been very keen to look at the experience in this country and overseas and will make an announcement, I would have thought, before the summer recess.
I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend. With about 2,800 veterans currently in UK prisons, to date support for our armed forces veterans has clearly been inadequate. Will my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that enshrining the covenant in law will give our brave servicemen and women far more support both during and after their service, which will lead to far fewer of our brave veterans winding up in prison?
As my hon. Friend knows, there is considerable debate about the numbers of the armed forces as a proportion of the prison population. I think we can say that for many of those who end up in prison, particularly those who have been homeless or who have been subject to drug and alcohol problems, it represents a failure of other systems to provide a suitable safety net. As a country, when we consider issues such as mental health, we need to ensure that we do not allow those who are potentially vulnerable to fail to be picked up by the services that might prevent them from ending up in an inappropriate institution such as prison.
Tributes have rightly been given to the Royal British Legion, whose UK headquarters are in my constituency, for its fantastic campaign, which has led us to today. Will the Secretary of State assure us that the implication of his announcement on the covenant is that those leaving active service and leaving the services will be entitled thereafter to housing, if they do not have it, and to prompt and continuing health care, particularly mental health care, from the time that they are discharged?
We cannot give guarantees on housing because the Government do not make direct provision of housing, but we will want to work with local authorities to ensure that the aspirations set out today are put forward in as practical a way as possible. On health care, I have made the point on innumerable occasions. I am pleased that so many points have been made about mental health care, because 10 years ago they would not have been made in this House of Commons; there is a shifting societal view of it. It is very important that we get timely health care. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton), it is important that we try to profile, where we can, those who might be the most vulnerable so that we can give them the closest follow up. As is true in mental health generally, those who suffer from mental health problems might be the last to recognise that it is a problem and therefore be one of the last to present. We must try to ensure that we have a mechanism to identify them rather than depending purely on self-identification.
As a former soldier, I fully support the military covenant, but does the Secretary of State have any doubts about whether enshrining even the principles in law could lead to bitter disputes in court with devastating consequences for the relationship between Government and the armed services?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that is key to this whole debate. As I said earlier, we had a duty to try to get a balance between, on the one hand, wanting to preserve the chain of command and, on the other, the legitimate interests of the wider service community, charities and the public. We did not, therefore, want to create a set of rights that could have had the armed forces tied up in European courts for ever, which would have been an utterly inappropriate use of their time and funding, but we did want to set out in the law of this land the principles about where there should be no disadvantage and where there should be special care, if required. It will be against those principles that future Secretaries of State for Defence will be judged and I think the balance is appropriate. We have looked at all the legal implications in great detail over a very long time and we believe that this is an appropriate balance to strike.
As another former serving soldier, may I, too, warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today, particularly the very clear message that this is about more than just the MOD? Does he agree that if we are going to make this work, it might be time to review the way in which other Departments, such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, manage the way in which they deal with soldiers, veterans and reservists?
I must tell my hon. Friend that the Prime Minister has made it very clear to all my Cabinet colleagues that the military covenant does not apply just to the Ministry of Defence, but is entirely a cross-departmental responsibility. All members of the Government—indeed, all Members of Parliament—have a duty to ensure that what we are putting in place today is applied equally across all parts of the United Kingdom and across all parts of government.
Or may have committed suicide after that campaign than died in active service. Has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] These are very serious matters. Has my right hon. Friend had time to see the figures from Combat Stress indicating that further to our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 48,000 veterans may suffer from some form of mental health problem in the years ahead? May I say that his commitment today that the unseen scars of war will be treated as seriously as the physical ones is to be warmly welcomed?
I used those figures myself in opposition, but may I say to my hon. Friend that there is dubiety about the actual numbers? However, let us cast that aside because the important point is that if any of those people who suffer from mental illness ultimately commit suicide, we have failed them. It is therefore very important to try to identify individuals who could be at risk, because the loss of someone’s life, at their own hand, after they have survived the rigours of combat is a tragedy not just for that individual but collectively for the country.
I do not wish to denigrate the legal profession as a whole, but does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a certain type of lawyer who specialises in persuading victims to bring court cases that otherwise might not, and indeed ought not, be brought? Is he satisfied that there will be enough safeguards to prevent that sort of abuse from happening as a result of putting into law the military covenant?
I have a sister who is a doctor and a sister who is a lawyer. My father used to say we had the best of both worlds—the licence to steal and the licence to kill—but I have never taken such caricatures as necessarily being the honest truth. I will not be tempted down the road where my hon. Friend tries to tempt me, except to say that in striking a balance in the legislation, we have sought to minimise the risk of the kind of behaviour that he mentions, while trying to ensure that we honour our responsibilities and give a sound legal basis to the covenant that we are putting forward.
The coalition Government can take pride in the fact that in our first year we have introduced legislation to enshrine in law the armed forces covenant. I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion for what it has done. I am delighted that the Secretary of State has told us that in Cabinet there is cross-departmental support. With that in mind, will he give me an assurance that the need for funding to improve and modernise the family accommodation of our brave service personnel will be put on the agenda?
I am grateful to acknowledge the long-running support that my hon. Friend has given on these matters. He will be extremely pleased today that we have managed to achieve what we have. With regard to the speed at which we can make some of the improvements to accommodation, we are limited by budgetary constraints. We will want to go as quickly as we can. We fully recognise, as we have set out, what our responsibilities are. We also have, as I hate to point out, a wider responsibility to be fiscally conservative, to bring our budget back within affordability and to restore the nation’s economy to health, because that gives us the ability in the longer term to make the investments that we all want to see.
In Harlow recently, we had a special service to remember those fallen since the second world war, particularly in recent years. Their names are inscribed on the memorial. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the military covenant helps facilitate the remembrance of soldiers fallen since the second world war, and that some of the grant that he mentioned is used to help communities put those names on memorials throughout the country?
I refer my hon. Friend to the community covenant grant that I mentioned. I will want to see whether we can widen the scope of that to include the sort of issue that he mentions. The remembrance of those who have given their lives for the security of this country should not be kept only within the generation in which it occurred. We should constantly remind every generation of it.
Many thousands of both serving and retired military personnel and their families in my constituency will welcome today’s statement. Among the several thousand service men and women serving at Blandford Camp are a number of soldiers from Commonwealth countries who have enlisted in the British Army. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the military covenant includes soldiers and their families from Commonwealth countries?
In so far as they have the same rights as anyone else to access public facilities, yes, it will. For some there are complex issues relating to nationality, but as I said, we are setting out today a cross-governmental arrangement. I want to consider some of the complex issues relating to those from Commonwealth countries. In particular, I want to ensure that we fully recognise that those who make the sacrifices share in the benefits.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he indicate his willingness to examine how compensation is paid to members of the armed forces who are injured? Currently, many of those who are badly injured and rightly receive many hundreds of thousands of pounds are at great risk of exploitation when inadequate or no financial advice is available on how to invest that money so that it is available in the years ahead. What relevance has today’s announcement for that?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. I will undertake to have some work begun in the Department to see where we are on that subject. It is obviously crucial for the long-term welfare of those who receive such payments that money is invested in a wise way that can maximise return over the longest period. He raises a crucial point and I will ensure that further work is done. I will report back to the House on that on a future occasion.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of the practical measures to give effect to the armed forces covenant. Is he aware that such varied voices as those of the Adjutant-General, the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, the Second Sea Lord and Bryn Parry of Help for Heroes all made it clear in evidence to the Armed Forces Bill Committee that they much prefer a flexible covenant of principles enshrined in law, rather than a set of prescriptive measures that might see our soldiers marching off to court as regularly as they march off to war? Does my right hon. Friend not think that their measured and sensible approach is the right one?
Indeed I do; that is reflected in the balance we have set out today. There was something of a false debate between the Government and the service charities, especially the Royal British Legion, but they were always very clear that the outcome would be right for our armed forces. It was simply a debate about the best mechanism to achieve that. I think that we have achieved that balance properly in the proposals we have set out today. I hope that it will be widely welcomed by the service charities, which have given a great deal of impetus to the campaign and deserve credit for today’s outcome.
What the Secretary of State has said today will be welcomed by many, particularly those in the Nelson and district branch of the Royal British Legion, whom he met and discussed the matter with when he last visited Pendle. Of particular concern to many is how the Government can help servicemen and veterans with housing. I was wondering whether he could say more on that today.