The Secretary of State was asked—
Service Leavers (Support)
Providing transitional support to service leavers is a high priority. Those who have completed a minimum duration in the armed forces are offered a framework of support services. Of those who make use of this framework, over 90% of those seeking work find employment within six months of leaving the armed forces. However, we believe we can do more, and I announced in September the appointment of Lord Ashcroft as the Prime Minister’s special representative for veterans’ transition. He has a long-standing interest in the armed forces and a track record of support for veterans’ charities. He will review the support available to service leavers making the transition to civilian life and make recommendations for improving that support and for better co-ordination across Government and with service charities. We look forward to receiving his recommendations in due course.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Over the next two years, 9,000 brave men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country will be coming home from Afghanistan. They will need help to find a home and retrain to find a job, and support for their families. At the moment, they are often pushed from pillar to post around local authorities. If there were a veterans champion in each local authority who could co-ordinate those services, they could make the system work effectively for those veterans coming home. Will the Secretary of State consider the campaign for veterans champions in each local authority area and give it his support?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that local authorities are a vital part of this equation. I am pleased to be able to tell her that more than 150 local authorities so far have signed up to the community covenant. I will certainly make her specific point to Lord Ashcroft and ask him to consider it very carefully in his deliberations.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. As we build our Army reserve to a level of trained strength of 30,000, it will be essential that we capture the skills of regular Army leavers, not just to help us with the numbers but because of the resilience that they will give to reserve forces. I promise him that that is what we will do.
One of the tasks that we have asked Lord Ashcroft to undertake is a discussion across Government and the wider public sector to see what more we can do to ensure that service leavers have the very best opportunities in relation not only to employment but access to benefits and social housing—all the other things that they need. I assure the hon. Gentleman that from my knowledge of Lord Ashcroft I am sure he will do this extremely thoroughly.
My right hon. Friend knows very well, not least from the excellent report produced by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), that one of the biggest problems facing returning servicemen is mental health problems, not only when they first get back but for very many years thereafter. What extra steps can the Secretary of State take to make sure that we alleviate the worst effects of these mental disturbances?
As my hon. Friend will know, the excellent report produced by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is being taken forward by the Government. We will continue to work closely with the Department of Health and others to look at how best we can implement the remaining recommendations in that report.
May I congratulate the new ministerial team who have found their places on the Front Bench today? It is only a shame that that comes at the expense of their dedicated and highly effective predecessors, who deserve the thanks of everyone in all parts of the House.
Many of our armed forces are currently being made redundant. One of the worries is that the Ministry of Defence seems to be trying to save money by sacking experienced people very close to their full pension entitlement. I have been contacted by angry and disappointed family members who feel very let down by this approach. Will the Secretary of State confirm that in future rounds of service redundancies he will take into account proximity to pension qualification when deciding whom to make redundant?
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous comments on the retiring ministerial team, and I am sure that he will appreciate that my new Front-Bench colleagues will give him an equally hard time in future.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, proximity to pension point is not and cannot be a determining factor in selection for redundancy. Wherever we set the bar—we have made some reductions in the immediate pension point for those being made redundant—some people will, unfortunately, fall just short of it and it is inevitable that they will feel a sense of injustice. The legal advice that I have received is that it would not be appropriate—we would be subject to challenge—if we used proximity to pension point as a criterion in redundancy selection.
There will be disappointment at that answer, not least in the pension justice for troops campaign, one of whose high-profile supporters is Sergeant Lee Nolan, who served our country in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, and who was sacked just 72 hours before qualifying for his full pension. So disgusted is he that he has returned all six of his medals to Downing street in protest. Will the Secretary of State at least enter into all-party talks, with the aim of guaranteeing that no one currently serving in Afghanistan will be affected in this way? It is simply wrong and not good enough for someone who has served our country bravely and for many years in Iraq, Afghanistan or any other theatre to be sacked so close to qualifying for their full pension entitlement.
Before the right hon. Gentleman climbs any further on his high horse, I remind him that we are having to make reductions in the size of our armed forces to deal with the legacy that we inherited from the Labour party. Nobody who is serving on operations or who is on post-operational leave is eligible for selection for redundancy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are deeply sympathetic with regard to those very difficult cases in which people missed their immediate pension point by a very short period, but I assure him that the legal advice is unambiguous on the issue.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Newark Patriotic Fund, particularly Mrs Sue Gray and Mrs Karen Grayson, for its work? It is tireless, splendid and could very easily be copied by hon. Members, so could I encourage him to encourage them?
BAE Systems/EADS Merger
I was involved in a number of discussions regarding the possible merger of BAE Systems and EADS, as proposed by the companies themselves, prior to their mutual decision to end negotiations on 10 October.
I first pay tribute to the former Minister with responsibility for procurement. When we had problems and needed meetings to resolve difficulties, he was one of the very first to arrange such meetings. We never had a problem. Having said that, why did the Secretary of State not take into consideration the shareholding issues experienced by BAE and its associates? Does he not understand that this has caused a lot of unease among them?
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman means by saying that I did not take account of shareholding issues. The Government made it clear that we understood the reasons why the companies were attracted to a possible merger and that we were willing to listen to the arguments for it, subject to setting out clear red lines about the UK’s national interest with regard to national security, our technology base and protecting jobs. It subsequently became clear that the UK’s red lines could not be satisfied while simultaneously satisfying those of the French and German Governments. It also became clear—I think that this is the point of the hon. Gentleman’s question—that not all the shareholders on either side of the transaction were satisfied that it made sense.
I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s red lines, but I put it to him that the palpable failure of BAE’s business model—which, basically, focused only on defence—and the shortcomings in its current management should not be allowed to drive us into an unsatisfactory situation, and that, such is the value of the assets that it controls, we may in the long run have to take a less than entirely hands-off approach to the company.
As my hon. Friend would expect, the Ministry of Defence has a close working relationship with BAE Systems as our largest supplier. The company has a substantial order book, a profitable business and strong cash flow, and it will continue to operate as an independent British business. Clearly, it will face challenges as its principal customers shrink their budgets, and it will need to adapt its business model for the future.
The Defence Secretary has regular discussions with his Cabinet colleagues regarding the support provided to those who have been seriously wounded while serving in the armed forces. The matter has also been discussed by the Cabinet Sub-Committee on the Armed Forces Covenant. Work on minimum payments is at an early stage, but Ministry of Defence officials continue to work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to develop the support that we provide to service personnel and veterans.
There seems to be a little hope in the Minister’s answer. Will he say what is being done now about veterans who have already lost their disability living allowance? My constituent Aaron Moon lost his leg in Afghanistan and had more than six months without disability living allowance. Surely that is not the right way to treat our wounded heroes.
I hope that we can offer the hon. Lady some good news. When the personal independence payment comes in, anyone will be able to apply for it. However, seriously injured service personnel and ex-service personnel will instead be able to apply for a separate payment, which will guarantee that they will not be worse off than under disability living allowance. Under that payment, they will not be subject to periodic reassessment, as PIP recipients will be. The separate payment, which is known as the armed forces independence payment, or AFIP, will be available to those in receipt of an award from the armed forces compensation scheme at tariff levels 1 to 8, or with an entitlement to a guaranteed income payment of 50% or higher.
11. Does the Minister share my concern that multiple amputee UK soldiers are not receiving the Genium X2 product, which is generally accredited as the best available in the prosthetics field and is used by the US? Will he agree to meet triple amputee Rifleman Jack Otter, who is my constituent, to understand the difficulties and worries that such people have? (123722)
I understand that my hon. Friend’s Question was further down the Order Paper, but has been grouped with another Question. However, using the principles of military flexibility, I will attempt to be fleet of foot.
I am familiar with the issue that my hon. Friend raises. The Ministry of Defence has made considerable investments at Headley Court to provide a world-class service for those with prosthetics. I was present when His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales opened the new £17 million Jubilee rehabilitation wing, which was paid for by the Ministry of Defence. The Secretary of State has recently announced a further £5 million of investment. I am familiar with the case of my hon. Friend’s constituent and will agree to meet him. However, I must enter the caveat that I am not qualified as a doctor and that I will have to take clinical advice on what decision it would be best to take following the meeting.
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for 27 years and he is often right, but on this occasion he is half right. The hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) does have a Question lower down the Order Paper. That played a part in my choosing to call him now. It is Question 11, as the right hon. Gentleman will correctly discern, but it has not been grouped with any other Question.
I welcome the Minister to his post. Having travelled with him and his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), all the way to Stanley last year, I can say that an 18-hour journey is useful in fostering cross-party co-operation.
I welcome the Minister’s comments today because, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances on the personal independence payment, in a letter to me dated 30 September the then Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), who had responsibility for disabled people, wrote:
“we are working with the MOD to establish if it would be possible to avoid severely injured veterans undergoing multiple reassessments”.
At that stage, the Prime Minister’s message clearly had not filtered through to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions. Will the Minister clarify how far back the policy that he has announced today will apply?
It was an enjoyable trip, but what goes on tour stays on tour.
As I have already tried to explain, there will be a special payment called the AFIP, which we hope will be able to address the bulk of these issues. The hon. Lady will know from her interest in the field that the second principle of the armed forces covenant is special treatment where appropriate, especially for the injured or bereaved. We hope that the AFIP will play into that and be an example of the second principle of the covenant in action.
The UK Government are confident that the people of Scotland will choose to remain part of the United Kingdom, and we are not making plans for Scottish independence. We therefore have no plan for the strategic nuclear deterrent to be relocated from its current home at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde.
The Minister will be aware that last week the Scottish National party decided that an independent Scotland would join NATO, availing itself of the nuclear umbrella. It then voted to evict the UK deterrent from the Clyde. Replicating that facility would cost millions and take many years. Is that a coherent policy or a hypocritical rant?
I have to say that that question is best addressed to the SNP, but unfortunately no SNP Members are here to answer it at the moment. It is almost incredible that a country might wish to join NATO but then say that NATO’s assets and armaments would not be allowed to be stationed in that country or pass through it.
The Minister has noted that there is no SNP presence in the House today. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said, “Who dares wins,” but SNP Members do not dare turn up to engage in the debate.
Does the Minister agree that it smacks of a contradiction for the SNP to say that it wants to join an international alliance and promote co-operation with NATO, and at the very same time say that it wants to leave a Union that best serves the defence of Scotland?
We should not be too hard on SNP Members. I am sure that pressing engagements in their constituencies have prevented them from attending Defence questions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can share respect for those who are opposed to nuclear weapons in principle, but that we can share only incomprehension at those who say they are opposed to nuclear weapons in principle and then want to join an alliance that is based on nuclear deterrence?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I do agree with him. If I may, I shall quote from The Guardian—not always my favourite reading. It stated this morning:
“After losing Friday’s vote, rebels inside the party now want him”—
the First Minister—
“to prove that NATO would allow a non-nuclear Scotland to join the alliance.”
That is a very good point.
The hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) is exactly right. What we witnessed at the SNP conference at the end of last week was double standards—the shelter of the NATO umbrella, but the removal of Trident.
Has the Minister heard that the Scottish Government are establishing a defence department or section? What formal approaches have Ministers had from the Scottish Government, or from that dedicated department, about the removal of the nuclear fleet from an independent Scotland? The SNP talks about that a lot, but have there been any approaches?
This is an unusual outbreak of consensus throughout the Chamber, and I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. I believe that the Scottish Government have a Minister for Veteran Affairs, who shares the hon. Gentleman’s surname, but if I am honest I am not quite sure what he does. We have had no contact from the Scottish Government about a department of defence. We remain committed to the United Kingdom, and I am glad to say that there is agreement pretty much throughout the Chamber on the need to continue the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations. Current Government policy is to continue with the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent based on Trident. Should the Scots vote for independence—God forbid!—we would need to review the situation, but the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent remains our policy, and I see that proceeding into the future.
I echo the sentiment that we should not be too hard on SNP Members who are not in the Chamber—after all, we want to keep them in this place. Is the Minister aware of any discussions that SNP Ministers have held about their plans to remove the deterrent with either the United States or other NATO members?
There have been no discussions with the UK Government or, as far as I am aware, with any other NATO member. As I said earlier, I think it incredible that NATO would accept in the alliance a country that would not allow the various weapons used by NATO to be stationed in or pass through it.
Type 26 Combat Ship
The Type 26 global combat ship programme is still in its assessment phase, and the timetable for the build programme of the ships will be determined at the main gate investment decision, currently scheduled for the middle of the decade. Build will commence to meet the current planning assumption of the first ship entering service as soon as possible after 2020.
When the carrier work ends there will be more than 200,000 tonnes of warship in Portsmouth dockyard, and 1,000 extra sailors—numbers not seen in my city since the 1950s. There will then be a two-year gap before work starts on the Type 26. Rather than pay more to stretch out those contracts to cover that gap and retain sovereign capability, would it be a better use of funds to build some much-needed ocean patrol vessels? Would, and when might, the Minister consider such an option?
As my hon. Friend knows, the Ministry of Defence has a terms of business agreement with BAE Systems Maritime Naval Ships. That agreement commits the company to maintain warship design and build capability, and elements of support covering all complex service warships in the UK. The Government continue to work with BAE Systems on the utilisation of shipbuilding capability once work on the current carrier programme is complete. As my hon. Friend knows, Corvette offshore patrol vessels are currently under construction by BAE Systems in Portsmouth for the royal navy of Oman.
I welcome the Minister to his new position. As he will know, there is a long and proud record on the Clyde of building warships for the British Navy, and a complex ship for the British Navy has never been built in a foreign country. Will the contract for the Type 26 ships contain a clause for the event of a vote for an independent Scotland in 2014?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said, the Government are not currently planning on the basis that the Scottish people will vote in favour of independence in a referendum. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) is right to say that the UK has not built a complex warship outside its shores since the second world war, and I believe that the only times it did so during the first and second world wars were in then colonial territories for local use. The Government remain committed to using UK industry to build UK warships.
In the unlikely event that Scotland should decide to separate from the UK, the Scottish defence industry would be eligible to bid only for contracts placed by a future Scottish Government or competed outside the UK, or placed by the UK or other Governments. That is because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, many UK defence contracts are exempted from procurement rules for reasons of national security.
The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that the programme is currently in its assessment phase. A decision on main gate assumption is due to be taken in a few years’ time, and the build programme will roll forward from that point. The Government have made some assumptions in the equipment plan, which we will publish shortly, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to glean more information from that once it is available.
Just under 2,000 UK military personnel in the Gulf region are serving on current operations, of whom the majority are royal naval personnel. Reserves could be made available to support the full range of military activity in any operation. The decision to employ reserves is taken by Ministers and subject to a 28-day notice period for individuals.
The UK, together with the international community, remains committed to a negotiated diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear ambitions. The Government are pursuing a strategy of pressure and engagement to persuade Iran to negotiate seriously, and to allay the legitimate concerns of the international community. However, we have made it clear that if Iran makes the wrong choice, all options remain on the table.
The Iranian armed forces have a significant capability. We do not, at the moment, advocate a military solution to this crisis. We advocate a solution based on pressure and engagement, and on persuading the Iranians to engage with the legitimate concerns of the international community. Should the situation evolve, it is certain that, if the UK took part in any action, it would do so as part of an international coalition.
The ramifications of any military action against Iran are enormously unpredictable, not only for our forces in the middle east but for the wider region, so I am glad to hear the Secretary of State confirm that our main thrust is diplomacy. Although we are enormously worried about Iran’s intentions, I hope he can tell the House that we will do everything we can to avoid any military dimension.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Because of the strategic position occupied by Iran and the vital nature of the strait of Hormuz to the world’s economy—oil supplies transit that waterway—any action, or even suggestion of action, will be deeply destabilising and debilitating. We remain committed to the process of engagement with our European allies and others, which includes the use of economic and financial sanctions to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian regime. There is very significant evidence, particularly the declining value of the Iranian currency, to suggest that such sanctions are beginning to have an effect and to cause fracture within the Iranian leadership.
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Government for the policy they are pursuing towards Iran. Will he continue to ensure that the policy serves to divide the Iranian Government from their people and does not inadvertently unite them?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and is absolutely right. I have quizzed many of our allies in the Gulf who have an intimate knowledge of what is going on in Iran on the ground. We do not want those sanctions to unite the Iranian people with their oppressive regime; we want to wake the Iranian people up to the cost of this madcap dash for nuclear capability.
The Israeli Government have their own well known position on the issue. The UK Government believe that engagement and continuous ratcheted pressure on the Iranian regime is the best way to proceed. We have also made it very clear to the Israelis and others that we do not believe that a pre-emptive military strike is the right way to proceed or the best way to resolve the situation.
Nearly all advertising expenditure by the Ministry of Defence is to attract and recruit the best personnel for the armed forces. In the current financial year, the MOD has to date had approval from the Cabinet Office efficiency and reform group to spend £12 million on recruitment marketing operations to fund general service recruitment activities. A further £18 million was approved for specific recruitment marketing campaigns to address pinch points. The efficiency and reform group is due to decide soon whether to grant a further request for £250,000 for marketing operations and just under £3 million for pinch point campaigns. Further requests may arise during the course of the year. Like all Departments, the MOD seeks to minimise the cost of advertising. Spending has, for example, been reduced from nearly £60 million in 2009-10.
I thank the Minister for that full response. It does seem a little strange that we are spending money on advertising for the Army at the same time as we are making members of the armed forces redundant. On the surface, it looks strange: would the Minister comment?
I know that my hon. Friend has a personal interest in the armed forces as his son is a Chinook pilot who is still flying—I pay tribute to him. His son could probably explain that one needs a constant flow of recruits into the armed forces as otherwise one ends up with an age gap. That has happened in the past—I recall it happening in the 1970s, under the Labour Government of Wilson-Callaghan—so one must continue to recruit; otherwise one ends up with a great gap in skills and ages that is very difficult to fill. A constant age structure is needed throughout the armed forces.
Afghan National Security Forces
UK forces will continue to mentor and train the Afghan army and police as they progressively assume responsibility for security operations over the next two years. The Government are clear that our support to Afghanistan will endure long after the end of our combat operations in 2014. That is in our national interests and in line with the long-term commitment made by the international community at the Chicago summit in May.
NATO is currently working to refine the detail of its training, advisory and assistance mission in Afghanistan after 2014, but the UK has already committed to lead the new Afghan national army officer academy near Kabul, which is under construction.
One of my constituents, Private Thomas Wroe, who was just 18, went to the aid of an Afghan policeman last month but was murdered in a cowardly way. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that during the draw-down our troops are protected as much as possible from these green on blue attacks? Will he also join me in praising the hundreds of people from Kirklees and Huddersfield who turned out last Thursday to pay tribute on the homecoming of Corunna Company, 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment?
I know that every Member will join me in condemning these attacks and those who perpetrate them in the strongest possible terms. We were all deeply shocked by the cowardly act that resulted in the death of Private Wroe and his colleague in 3 York, Sergeant Gareth Thursby. I know that the thoughts of the whole House will be with their families and friends.
We continue to work with our ISAF and Afghan partners to reduce the risk to an absolute minimum, but I am clear that we will not allow these cowardly attacks to deter us from our strategy or our commitment to the mission in Afghanistan. I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in congratulating the people of Kirklees and Huddersfield on turning out in strength to demonstrate their support for the units of the armed forces that are particularly connected with those communities.
As long ago as 2006 I saw on a visit to Afghanistan some of the excellent work our forces were doing to train the Afghan army. Given that six years later we still appear to have more work to do, how confident is my right hon. Friend that the transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces will be completed by 2014?
Commanders on the ground are confident that it will be completed by 2014. Yes, we still have more work to do, because Afghan security forces have been expanding dramatically since the time six years ago to which my hon. Friend refers. Afghan forces are taking more initiatives on their own. They are planning their operations, leading on almost all operations and acting alone or as the primary force on many of them. They have recently started to conduct much more sophisticated operations—for example, flying raids using night vision goggles. This is a very important step for them and we are very confident that by the end of 2014 Afghan national security forces will be capable of containing the insurgency as ISAF forces withdraw.
Families who suffer bereavement or veterans who suffer injury in Afghanistan know that when they return local authorities currently have the power completely to exempt war disablement pension and war widow’s pensions when means-testing for council tax benefit. Does the Secretary of State agree that under the new system local authorities should continue to ensure that the full disregard is given for those benefits in England and Wales?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in principle, and will look into his specific question, although I doubt whether we have the power to direct local authorities in Wales. I suspect that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, and I know that he will take it up with the relevant authorities.
The RAF tactical medical team provides the only consultant-led, blue-light rescue service across ISAF. It is highly regarded, giving those whom it rescues and treats a 25% greater chance of survival. Will he ensure that at least a basic capability is passed on to the Afghan national security forces, so that they too will have the confidence of knowing that they have rescue services that can support them?
I cannot give the hon. Lady any specific assurances about the form of continuing enablement post-2014, but I can assure her that ISAF commanders are acutely aware of the effect on Afghan morale of having high-quality medical support services available. One issue that will be addressed over the next two years will be how best to deliver that in a way that is sustainable post-2014.
When my right hon. Friend made his welcome comments last week about reducing the number of British troops in Afghanistan next year, was he signalling a change from the agreement at the Lisbon NATO summit of “in together, out together”? Or will he confirm that decisions will continue to be taken with our key allies, most notably the US, which is a little preoccupied at the moment? How soon does he expect the US to make the decisions, and will those not be all-important?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that there is no change in policy. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to pass on the rather good news that commanders in theatre now believe, given the situation on the ground and the role that Afghan security forces are increasingly playing, that it should be possible to achieve a further significant draw-down in forces before the end of 2013. I can assure him, however, that the principle of “in together, out together” remains. ISAF will take these decisions together, and I expect them to be made once the new US Administration is formed early in the new year.
With permission, I shall answer these questions together as I understand that they have actually been grouped.
The MOD regularly meets the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions and others regarding initiatives to assist service leavers in making a successful transition to civilian life. Prior to leaving, all service personnel are entitled to some form of resettlement assistance, consisting of time, money and training, according to length of service. Those who serve six years or more, and all those medically discharged, regardless of how long served, are entitled to the full resettlement programme, which includes a three-day career transition workshop, the use of a career consultant, a job-finding service, retraining time and a retraining grant.
To leave the armed forces is to lose a way of life. Does the Minister not accept that we have a triple obligation to our heroes—never to short-change them by making them redundant within days of their enjoying a full pension; always to ensure that they get the support necessary to re-enter civilian life; and, crucially, to honour their past service to this country? Will he therefore take this opportunity to apologise to the House and the Royal Fusiliers for the actions of one of his fellow Ministers last week, who wrongly sought to exclude those brave men from the Public Gallery?
I do not believe that my right hon. Friend attempted to do that. The hon. Gentleman’s first point was addressed directly in an earlier answer by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I agree that we should endeavour to do the best for our service men and women when they leave the service—it is part of the armed forces covenant—and on that I can offer the hon. Gentleman some specific good news and one direct example: BT is set to bolster its current work force by recruiting 250 further engineers from service personnel already committed to leaving the armed forces. That will make a total of 1,000 people whom BT has taken on under that heading, and we welcome that.
Given the worrying statistics on the problems faced by ex-service people in gaining employment, would Ministers be interested to hear that 1 Rifles is working with Omega Resource Group from my constituency in developing veteran-specific employment programmes? Is that something they would like to hear more about, and should it be considered in Lord Ashcroft’s review?
I would indeed be interested to hear more about that, as I am sure will be Lord Ashcroft. I know for a fact that, for instance, the Rifles have been working on projects to help seriously wounded ex-servicemen to engage in archaeology. A number have gone on to study archaeology or have applied to study it in further or higher education as a result of that initiative. The Rifles have an active programme in this regard, and we commend them for it.
Service Personnel Children
The Ministry of Defence and other Departments have made important changes in service children’s education. We have introduced the service pupil premium, and we have extended it to children of military personnel who have died in service and to eligible service children whose parents have left the armed forces. In addition, the MOD introduced the support fund for state schools with service children. The new schools admissions code now enables infant schools in England to treat the children of UK service personnel as a permitted exception to class size regulations. That means that infant schools may admit service children and increase the class size to more than 30 if they feel they have the resources to do so.
I most certainly will. As the Secretary of State has already said, more than 150 local authorities have signed the community covenant, and we are now on track to get to 200. They are coming in fast, which gives us the nice problem of tracking them as they come in. If I can give my hon. Friend another example of how the scheme works in practice, Oxfordshire county council has amended its admissions procedures so that service personnel who apply to move their children into an Oxfordshire school before they move to Oxfordshire can use a British Forces Post Office number on the application form. That might sound like a small thing, but prior to the change service personnel could not apply for a school place until they had moved into an area. Allowing service personnel to apply in advance of their children moving to an area materially affects their family’s quality of life. I commend Oxfordshire county council for its initiative and I hope others will copy it.
I welcome the recent announcements made by the Minister, which clearly demonstrate that this Government are doing their bit to honour the military covenant. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps are being taken to help those children who have been bereaved to go on to higher education?
Yes, I can. The coalition programme for government included an undertaking to provide
“university and further education scholarships for…children of Service”
“who have been killed on active duty since 1990”.
The aim is to provide a head start in life, enabling bereaved service children to obtain higher education qualifications. The education scholarship scheme was launched on 8 April 2011 and, where the criteria are met, provides further education and university scholarships for the children of servicemen and women who died while serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces.
My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future, through delivery of the military tasks for which the MOD is mandated. My first priority is and will remain the success of the operation in Afghanistan. The Ministry of Defence has also embarked on a major project of transformation to ensure the behavioural change needed to maintain the budget in balance and deliver the equipment programme, so that our armed forces can be confident of being properly equipped and trained. With many of the most difficult decisions needed to put our defences on a sustainable basis having been taken, and with the benefit of a balanced budget to build on, we now need to focus on the future, and in particular on building the trust and confidence of the people who make up defence.
Small and medium enterprises such as Aircraft Maintenance Support Services in my Bridgend constituency provide invaluable support and enablement to combat troops. They send their employees out to ensure that equipment is available for troops to use outside the bases. Does the Secretary of State agree that we owe a huge debt of thanks to those private sector companies that ensure that our troops are appropriately equipped to take part in active service?
I absolutely agree. I always make the point clearly that there are three legs to our defence: the armed forces, regular and reserve; the civilians who support them; and the contractors—the hundreds of thousands of people working in the defence and defence support industries who provide and maintain equipment so that our troops can do their job.
I, too, welcome the new Front-Bench team. Two and half years into this Government, there is a hiatus in the decision making on Defence Equipment and Support. Ministers’ views seem to ebb and flow, and indecision is rampant. We need clarity, so when exactly will the Minister set out plans for a Government-owned contractor-operated body—a GoCo—or whatever other body he intends to bring forward?
The hon. Lady talks about a hiatus. There were 13 years during which the previous Administration made no attempt to transform procurement within the Ministry of Defence, but this Government are determined to make procurement efficient and effective so that our armed forces can be given the right equipment at the right time and at the right cost. In July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an investigation into the GoCo route, narrowing the options for Defence Equipment and Support. A value-for-money exercise is nearing completion, and we expect to make a decision before the end of the year on whether to move forward.
My hon. Friend might know that the 1st Armoured Division’s signal regiment, based at Herford, and the 16th Signal Regiment, based at Elmpt, will move to Beacon barracks in Stafford in the second half of 2015. A competition is under way between four bidders to develop the main site, and we hope to let a contract for that development in the summer of next year.
T2. There is a degree of confusion over what happened in last Thursday’s debate, so may I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that the Minister for the Armed Forces approached the Speaker’s Chair about the conduct of Fusiliers in the Public Gallery? (123737)
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for letting me set the record straight. I have the greatest respect for ex-service personnel, including the Fusiliers who were in the Chamber last week. By the way, I do not think that the hon. Lady was in the Chamber that day, so she does not speak with great effect, does she? Furthermore, I believe that anybody should be allowed to watch our proceedings from the Gallery, because that is an important part of our democratic process. May I finally say that what she alleges is entirely untrue?
T5. I shall be pleased to be wearing the Queen’s Jubilee medal for service to the police on Remembrance Sunday this year, but that service pales into insignificance compared with the service given by the Arctic convoy veterans. Should not the Government recognise—or allow the Russian Government to recognise—their heroic role in defeating national socialism? (123740)
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he has taken a long-standing interest in these matters. I should also like to add my strong thanks to those who served in that particularly unpleasant theatre during the second world war. He will know that, earlier this year, Sir John Holmes began to undertake an independent review of the rules applying to military medals and that, on 17 July, he reported his findings, which appeared in the form of a written ministerial statement. Further work has been commissioned by the Prime Minister, including a re-examination of issues that have been the subject of past campaigns, such as the Arctic convoy medal. The outcome of Sir John’s further work is expected by the end of the year.
May I say that we had an excellent debate? I have to say that I found myself in a minority of one when it came to speeches defending the Government’s position. We had an excellent debate and we listened carefully to what was said, but I do not think that, at the moment, it is the House’s intention for a vote in such a debate to be binding upon the Government.
T7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that support across society for the work of our brave servicemen and women in keeping our country safe is ever more widely recognised? Will he welcome the support of businesses for the new defence discount scheme and encourage more businesses to get involved in it? (123742)
Yes, we do indeed welcome the support of businesses for the defence discount scheme, which will offer servicemen, veterans and servicemen’s families a number of discounts in a range of high street businesses across the country. People may already register for the scheme now, but we hope within the next few months to progress the scheme by giving them a card bearing their name, which will make it easier to prove their membership when they enter one of the participating companies. We believe this will be valuable to the people concerned, and we commend those businesses that are participating in the scheme.
The 2012 armed forces continuous attitudes survey provides some very concerning information, particularly in respect of the Army. Only 52% of soldiers are satisfied with service life; the trend of declining morale has continued, with only 18% reporting high morale across the Army; and only 33% of soldiers questioned felt valued. Does the Secretary of State share my concern at these figures, and, if he does, what is he going to do about them?
Yes, of course we are concerned about morale in the Army, which I have previously described as “fragile”. We have been through a period of enormous change—budget retrenchment, necessary redundancies, reorganisation and rebasing. What we can do now is try to get this process completed as quickly as possible, so we can return to some certainty whereby people are able to plan their personal futures. As I said just a few moments ago, we have the challenge of starting to rebuild the trust and confidence of people in the armed forces around the armed forces of the future. I am confident that, despite being smaller, our future armed forces will be highly capable, valued and very well respected.
T8. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether the United Kingdom has shared intelligence on locations with the United States leading to drone strikes in Pakistan? If so, will he explain the legal justification for sharing such information? (123744)
We do not discuss in this Chamber matters relating to intelligence. I can tell my hon. Friend that there is a need for effective action in the Pakistani tribal areas and that there is a need for that action to be owned by the Pakistanis. The United States operates in Afghanistan under a different basis of law from the one under which we operate. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that everything we do complies with the law under which we operate.
One of my constituents served on the Arctic convoys during the second world war. Like many others, he has been advised not to accept a medal offered by the Russian Government. I was heartened by the Minister saying that this matter would be reconsidered and a decision taken by the end of the year. May I ask him to reflect on the fact that other British Commonwealth countries—Australia, New Zealand, Canada—have advised that this medal can be accepted and that it is hardly surprising the offer was not made earlier when there was a communist Government in Russia?
Sir John Holmes, in his excellent review published in July this year, accepted all the principal parts of the rules that go behind or underpin medalling in this country. We have to accept that the integrity of our medalling system is peerless. Nevertheless, Sir John will report further towards the end of the year on the rules that apply to medalling and will deal specifically with the Arctic convoy and various other circumstances.
It is not for the Government to pursue arrangements for the future of BAES, EADS or any other company, but we will of course listen carefully with an open mind to any proposals brought to us by any of these companies. Where we hold a golden share—a veto share—we will allow any such transactions to proceed only where the United Kingdom’s vital national interests can be protected.
Given the Secretary of State’s past comments about the failure of the private sector to fulfil its obligations in regard to Olympic security, does he have similar doubts about the outsourcing of procurement at Defence Equipment and Support, which is based in my constituency?
I think that my hon. Friend is referring to comments about the security arrangements for the Olympic games. Let me say this: there are things that are best done in the sector, and there are things that are better done in the private sector. Our proposals for DE and S are an attempt to get the best of both worlds by bringing in private sector management expertise to work alongside highly skilled civilian and military professionals who have specialist knowledge of military procurement.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for coming into the Chamber to hear my question.
The Secretary of State will now be aware that the Defence Committee has written about the future of Garrison Radio, in the context of local radio not just at Colchester but at Catterick. Will a statement be made today about preventing the British Forces Broadcasting Service from snuffing out local Garrison Radio services?
On behalf of the Prime Minister, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments.
I am aware of the issue involving the BFBS and Garrison Radio. I understand that Garrison Radio tendered for the work initially, but that unfortunately its tender was not entirely successful. I believe that the Future Forces Broadcasting Service will be able to provide a perfectly adequate service, but if the hon. Gentleman—who I know represents a valuable garrison—is still dissatisfied, I shall be willing to meet him personally to discuss the matter.