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Armed Forces: Joint Warrior

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What consultations took place with the local communities in north-west Sutherland on the timing of the military training exercise Joint Warrior.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of the four British soldiers who were killed on operations in Afghanistan yesterday. This brings home to us the huge sacrifice made by our Armed Forces and the significant debt of gratitude that we owe them.

The Joint Warrior military training exercise takes place twice a year in the north-west coastal region of Scotland. There is regular consultation between defence officials and the local communities both before and after the exercise, including meetings with the Durness community council and the Cape Wrath Conservation Group.

My Lords, I join my noble friend in offering condolences to the families and friends of the soldiers who tragically lost their lives yesterday.

I declare an interest in the Question, as one of my daughters is a shareholder in the Keoldale Sheepstock Club in Durness. Is my noble friend aware that the Joint Warrior exercise, which consisted of some 36 ships and 70 aircraft, coincided with the lambing season? While the population in Durness and north-west Sutherland has always been supportive of the use of the Cape Wrath range, is she aware that that relationship seems to have deteriorated somewhat since the Army took over responsibility from the Royal Navy in the past couple of years? Does she agree with me that the training needs of the United Kingdom and NATO forces can still be well met by avoiding such crucially important times for a fragile local economy as the lambing season?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that the local community has been very supportive of the training exercises that take place in this area. It is an area where certain training can be done that cannot be done anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The fact that the training exercise takes place during part of the lambing season is to be regretted, but the lambing season has extended and there were local consultations about when the best time for this exercise would be. As I mentioned, we consult as widely as possible, but my noble friend will be interested to hear that an integrated rural management plan for Cape Wrath went out for consultation today, which includes matters such as military activity, nature conservation and local farming interests. We expect local people to respond to it.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I offer most sincere condolences to the families of the four soldiers whose sad deaths we heard about today. Is there a definite rule concerning consultations in circumstances such as those mentioned? Is there, indeed, an established method of communication between local military bases and the relevant local authorities as well as those further afield? I refer, of course, to one-off military exercises and not those conducted down a fixed line of flight.

My Lords, when we engage in military exercises we try to ensure that the local community is given as much notice as possible. We are not always able to accede to all the demands but we try to take into account issues such as conservation or disruption to the local population by, for example, low-flying aircraft. We endeavour to give as much information as possible.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences offered for the recent casualties in Afghanistan. Will the Minister finally nail this down? If there is severe disruption to farming activities, will the Government agree to offer some form of compensation as to do so cannot be that expensive?

My Lords, to my knowledge, the matter of compensation in Cape Wrath has not come up recently. We have tried to engage with the local community to find the best way to conduct these operations without causing disruption. To that end, we have amended flight paths or the times at which aircraft are in an area; we have provided fencing to try to protect some of the sheep; and we have used practice weapons instead of high explosives. Therefore, we have modified our plans in response to local concerns.

My Lords, has there been any consultation between the Army and the Navy, as the latter obviously got on better with the locals?

My Lords, it is not a question of which is the lead service but of trying to ensure that we tailor our requirements in a sensitive way so that we co-operate with people locally. There is a good dialogue, and it must be maintained.