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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Ministry of Defence continues to sponsor a wide range of research activities and projects in aerospace, including those aimed at advancing such technologies as materials, engines, radar, rotorcraft and counter-measures, and to develop our overall understanding of navigation, signatures and the integration of complex systems.
The Minister has read out an interesting list of capabilities. Britain has put on the table two of the joint strike fighter's eminent capabilitiesshort-take-off-and-vertical-landing capability and the ability for precision manufacture. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell me which of the technologies on the list that he has just read out he puts on a par with the two that we have already given to the joint strike fighter. Will he confirm whether he is now prepared to say that aerospace is counted as a strategic technology, alongside encryption, nuclear power and nuclear weapons?
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Mr. Ingram: That is another wide-ranging questionbut what we get back in terms of technology is stealth technology. I am sure that there are many other technological advances, too, which are discussed between the two Governments, that are perhaps better not surfaced. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, as an ex-Minister, will be only too aware of the reasons for some or all of that. There are a considerable range of initiatives through our research and demonstrator programme, working with industry, to lift a range of capabilities. That is why I listed the generic concepts in my main answer.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The Government have always accepted that some veterans of the 199091 Gulf conflict have become ill and that some of this ill-health is related to their Gulf experience. The Government's policy, as set out in 1997, is to ensure that Gulf veterans have ready access to medical advice and all relevant information as well as the proper financial support, while we continue to pursue appropriate research into this important subject.
Mr. Chapman: The veterans in the Gulf were exposed to a variety of drugs, vaccines and inoculations, and to the use of various pesticides in their accommodation. Many of them are now suffering from a variety of conditions after, if not necessarily because of, all that. There is therefore a sense of considerable injustice. As a result of the Lloyd report, about which I know there are concerns regarding the funding, does my hon. Friend propose any new policy lines or any new research avenues?
Mr. Caplin: My hon. Friend will be aware of the research programme that is under way, which costs a total of about £8.5 million, on Gulf veterans' illnesses. I make two points about the Lloyd report. First, it is regrettable that Lord Lloyd has not been prepared to divulge details of its funding. The Government have been clear about openness and transparency in relation to Gulf veterans, and I think that Lord Lloyd should have done the same. Secondly, he made one point that I want to address this afternoon, about the 272 rejections of war pension cases. Of those, more than half relate to diagnosed disorders such as traumatic physical injuries, lower back pain or coronary diseases. The rejections will all have been subject to a right of appeal to the independent pensions appeal tribunals, as the conditions are not found to be attributable to service. I can tell the House that I have decided that we should investigate the remaining 100 or so cases that do or may relate to Gulf veterans' illnesses.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Afghanistan's first presidential elections marked an important milestone in the country's political development. While security for the elections was primarily an Afghan responsibility, British forces also played their part. Our troops in the international security assistance force, for example, increased the number of patrols during the election period, and our Harrier GR7s provided an appropriate air presence.
Tony Cunningham: I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the tremendous work that British forces continue to do in Afghanistan. What plans does he have for the future? In spring there will be parliamentary elections, and at that time security will again be paramount.
Mr. Hoon: I had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan some three weeks ago. I met the newly elected president, and I was able to congratulate him and discuss with him the prospects for the spring parliamentary elections. It is important that lessons are learned from the recent presidential elections and applied in the parliamentary elections, which certainly present some further and more difficult challenges. All of us should join in congratulating the Afghan people. The sight of people queuing for hour upon hour to cast their vote for the very first time was a remarkable one, which we should never forget.
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the officers and men of the Green Howards, who have recently returned from Afghanistan? They played an important role in the areas around Kabul in advance of the elections. Will he meet me and other colleagues from North Yorkshire and the Teesside area, as well as members of the regimental association of the Green Howards, to talk not only about their work in Afghanistan, but about their excellent history, before he has to make any decisions about the future of battalions in Yorkshire?
Mr. Hoon: Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the role of the Green Howards. On my visit to Afghanistan I met members of my local regiment, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, who took every opportunity to make the sort of points that I am sure he would like to put to me in a meeting, which I would be delighted to hold.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon):
As I announced in July, the reduction in the number of forces committed to Northern Ireland means that the overall requirement for infantry battalions can be reduced by four. This reduction will comprise one battalion from Scotland and three from England. The posts saved will be reinvested in strengthening the establishment of the remaining
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infantry battalions and providing additional logistic, engineer and intelligence personnel, who are needed to sustain our expeditionary capability.
In addition, the decision to phase out the infantry arms plot, which uproots Army families every few years, means that a new infantry structure is required. This new structure will seek to preserve the best elements of the regimental system while adapting to ensure operational success for the future. The new structure will be based on large regiments of two or more battalions.
Michael Fabricant : That is the most generic answer I have ever heard: I asked about the Staffordshire Regiment, and not once was it referred to in the answer. Will the Secretary of State say what the future of the Staffordshire Regiment is, as he was asked to do on the Order Paper? Is he aware that next year will be the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Staffordshire Regiment? Will that be a celebration or a wake? Is he aware that the recruiting record of the Staffordshire Regiment is second to none? When exactly will it know its future? The morale of the regiment, like that of so many other regiments, is at risk when such uncertainty continues.
Mr. Hoon: The Staffords have a very fine and distinguished history. I would be the first to acknowledge that, and I do not want the hon. Gentleman to talk down the morale of Britain's armed forces. As I visit members of the armed forces, I do not find that their morale is jeopardised, but I assure him that in the context of seeking a structure for our Army that is consistent with the requirements of the 21st century, we will have every regard to the need to preserve the historic identity of fine regiments such as the Staffords.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recognise that Staffordshire Members of Parliament hold their regiment in high regard. The regiment is in fine spirits at the present time, but I want an assurance from him that when the Army Board makes its decision and the configuration comes out, it will not be a question of our merely rubber stamping and endorsing it, but that it will come out to us for consultation. Many of us have held our fire, in accordance with the wishes of the regiment, to see what the final outcome will be.
Mr. Hoon: I set out to the House as long ago as July the overall principles, which I have repeated today. Within those principles, many hon. Members have helpfully set out their views on behalf of their local regiments. I have taken those views into account, and will take them into account before any final decisions are made.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
(Con):Does the Secretary of State accept that uncertainty causes a great deal of anxiety and heartache? The sooner we can have a clear answer to the questions that we have all been asking this afternoon, the better. If there is to be a Mercian regiment, and if the
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Staffords are to be part of it, will the Secretary of State guarantee that the territorial integrity and identity of the Staffords will be safeguarded and preserved?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman always approaches these issues in a fair-minded way. Had a decision been taken and announced last July, it would certainly have removed the uncertainty, but I am sure that he would, rightly, have protested about the lack of consultation. In seeking to consult, in particular, the constituent elements of the Army, the Chief of the General Staff is trying to satisfy the challenge that he has set himself of reorganising the Army to face the 21st century, while preserving local identity. As soon as I possibly can, I will come to the House and set out the Government's conclusions on the basis of the Army Board's recommendations.
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