The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram):
Procurement of kilts for the Royal Regiment of Scotland will be carried out under public procurement regulations, which are applicable under United Kingdom and European Union law. Sourcing the tartan will be the responsibility of the successful bidder. Award of the contract for the kilts will be based on a thorough assessment of quality and technical standards as defined by the user, as well as on cost in order to ensure best value for money for the taxpayer.
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Mr. McGovern: I thank the Minister for his response and for the correspondence that he sent me on this matter. However, there remains considerable concern in Scotland that the new tartan might well be manufactured outwith Scotland, possibly in eastern Europe. On this, the very day before the official formation of the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, will the Minister assure the House that, just as Jersey potatoes must come from Jersey and Newcastle brown ale from Newcastle, the new Scottish tartan for the new Scottish regiment will be manufactured in Scotland?
Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend is trying valiantly on this issue, but we are constrained by European regulation. [Interruption.] Perhaps I should explain that the current prime contractor for the kilts is based in England.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I am astonished by the Minister's last remark. My understanding is that the firm of John Noble and Co., in Peebles, has made the kilt for the British Army in Scotland since the late 18th century, and that the contract is for 5,000 kilts at a cost of £300,000. The Minister must appreciate that the Scottish soldier's kilt has always been made in Scotland. It is made there now by John Noble and Co., and surely the Minister can see that both its weaving and manufacture should continue to be done in Scotland.
Mr. Ingram: On a point of accuracy, Robert Noble and Co. makes the tartan, the prime contractor is a Yorkshire-based company and a company in Alexandria manufactures the kilts. The contract, which is a £1 million contract for 5,000 kilts, will go out to tender. There will be a repeat contract for 300 kilts each year. The material in question is not being changed; it is already in use. We are simply standardising the use of a material that used to apply only to certain officers throughout all the ranks.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Army kit that used to be made in Lancashire is now being made in China. It is simply unacceptable for the tartan for Scottish kilts to be sourced from Shanghai or any place in eastern Europe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. McGovern) suggests.
Mr. Ingram: I do not know whether that was a question. There were a number of bidders for the contract to which my hon. Friend refers and, from memory, they all outsourced outside the United Kingdom for the material and its manufacturing. Indeed, the company that previously had responsibility for the manufacture of the uniform in questionit was one of the two main competitors in the bidwas also seeking to outsource in China.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig):
We recognise that many service personnel and their families need assistance with, and advice on, housing matters. Through the Joint
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Service Housing Advice Office, we provide comprehensive advice on housing options and, in some cases, assistance with housing placement where personnel are about to return to civilian life. In addition, we work closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, ex-service charities and other specialist services to help identify those who might be at risk of homelessness.
Mrs. Dorries: The situation that servicemen and women find themselves in before discharge has been highlighted by my serving constituent, Mr. Nick Cowan. Housing associations are able to step in only when such people are officially declared homeless28 days before dischargeand charities are left to pick up the pieces. The JSHAO to which the Minister just referred provides only advice, not, as he stated, assistance. Is this the way to repay loyal servicemen and women?
Mr. Touhig: I am of course familiar with the case that the hon. Lady mentions; she has corresponded with me about it and I have answered some of her questions. I do not doubt her commitment to her constituent and the hard work that she has done on this issue, but I suggest that she look at her website, on which she says that one of her priorities is opposing the Government's "damaging" house building plans. Well, we have to have houses to house people in the first place; nevertheless, she makes an important point. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will listen, I will give an answer. We have been working across the board to try to deal with these issues but, as she knows, questions of housing priority are often a matter for local housing authorities. The council in the area represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gives housing priority to those who have served in the armed forces, and I urge councils throughout the country to think on that.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When a member of the armed forces is discharged and is looking for a roof over their head, they are at a disadvantage in gaining access to social housing. No matter how long they have been based in a particular area, their residence does not establish a local connection in the eyes of many councils, although there are honourable exceptions. Effectively, such people are treated in the same way as those who are resident in prisons. Why, in the light of the Minister's concerns, have Ministers from the Ministry of Defence and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister not met to discuss the local housing connection?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have ongoing discussions with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister so that we can overcome some of the problems, but as I pointed out a moment ago the allocation of priority housing is a matter for local housing authorities. When I was a young councillor in my 20s, my council gave priority housing to key workers and those who had served in our forces. We understand the problems experienced by those who have served in our forces as they move into civilian life and we do everything possible to make sure that the transition is smooth. We give every support that we possibly can, but often people want to be housed in an area to which the local authority feels that they have no particular links or
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connection so they do not receive priority. We shall do all that we can to bring the matter to the attention of the Local Government Association and others. At present, the LGA is run by a member of the hon. Gentleman's party, so he might care to make representations to the association to urge local authorities across Britain to give priority to our ex-servicemen and women who apply for housing.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Corporal Mark Cridge who died last week in Afghanistan. I have today learned of another fatality in Afghanistan, believed to be a road traffic accident and my thoughts are also with his family and friendsas, I am sure, are the thoughts of the whole House.
We are in Afghanistan under United Nations Security Council resolution 1623 and at the invitation of the democratically elected Government to prevent that country from ever again reverting to being a haven for terrorists, by helping the Afghan people build their own democracy, security and legitimate economy.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the developments pose further questions about the security of the theatre where UK service personnel are based? Why did he write to me on 27 February to tell me that no one was being deployed from the Vale of York, yet I have learned subsequently that 215 personnel from one base in the Vale of York are going to Afghanistan and that a number from another base who were supposed to go there are being redirected to Iraq? Does not that pose serious questions about the Ministry of Defence's knowledge of what is going on and who is currently being deployed to Afghanistan?
We are in Afghanistan for a clear reason: to assist the people of Afghanistan to build their own democracy, security and economy, thereby preventing the country from falling back under the heel of the Taliban and the terrorists, since it was from there that the worst-ever terrorist atrocity was launched. I fully accept that it is more dangerous in the south than anywhere else where we have been present hitherto, but whatever the dangers, they are less than the danger of the Taliban and the terrorists taking over Afghanistan again, which would be a danger to not only our forces but the people of that country.
I apologise if I have given the hon. Lady wrong information and will check immediately after Question Time and write to her again. From memory, I am not aware of the specific details of the letter, but I shall check the position and rectify it as necessary.
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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): As the Secretary of State has told the Select Committee on Defence, if British troops in Afghanistan take people into detention, it is the Government's policy that they be handed over to the Afghan authorities. Is it the Secretary of State's understanding that the United Kingdom maintains a duty of care for such people even after they have been handed to the Afghan authorities?
John Reid: Obviously, the British authorities' duty of care is primarily while people are in their custody, which is, as the right hon. Gentleman said, for only a limited period. I think that we can detain someone for up to 96 hours before handing them over to the Afghan authorities, which now operate under the sovereignty of a democratically elected Government who bear prime responsibility for the custody of such detaineesas any Government must.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Yesterday, the international security think-tank the Senlis Council reported that millions of pounds of compensation promised by British officials to farmers in the Helmand province has not been paid. Some 400 cheques, drawn on a British Government account, have even bounced because of insufficient funds. Does the Secretary of State accept that the resultant damage to good will in the province will make the British deployment in Afghanistan even more difficult and dangerous than it could have been?
John Reid: What I do accept is that if part of the building of a legitimate economy is the interdiction of an illegitimate economythe production of opium and narcoticsit must be accompanied by some alternative income and livelihood for the farmers. What I do not necessarily accept are the views of the group to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As he will know, it campaigns for the legitimising of the production of opium and drugs on the grounds that they could be used for medicinal purposes. We have considered that, but we do not believe that it is viable in the present situation in Afghanistan. More importantly, the Government of Afghanistan do not believe that that is viable. We must be a little careful about accepting the assertions of people who have an agenda to promote. They are entitled to promote it, but we are entitled to regard it as incompatible in the present situation.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): May I first associate the Opposition with the remarks made by the Secretary of State following the further loss of life, albeit not as a result of conflict? It nevertheless illustrates the risks facing our armed forces and the courage with which they are undertaking the missions that we ask of them.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the two strategic aims of suppressing the insurgents and seeking simultaneously to eliminate the poppy supply in Helmand province are compatible, or does he share my concern about the grave risk of creating an unholy alliance between the Taliban, the warlords and the poppy farmers? If the latter's livelihoods are destroyed, they may vent their spleen not only on Afghan forces but on British troops acting in their support.
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John Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his condolences. The strategic aim of the international security assistance force is not to suppress the insurgents and eliminate the poppy trade. That is the strategic aim of Operation Enduring Freedom, which is the American-led exercise to chase the terrorists and the insurgents. The strategic aim of ISAF is to provide the security umbrella within which the Afghan Government can extend their control, the security forces to protect that democratic control can be built up and the economy can be built up. It is in the course of that that we have to tackle the drugs trade.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman wholeheartedly that in doing that latter task, it is necessary to ensure that if the farmers are, to a greater or lesser extent, dependent on income from narcoticslet us remember that they are Afghan farmers and have nowhere else to goit would be unwise to remove that income without a replacement income in the short term and a replacement livelihood in the longer term. We would then create not stability, but insurgency. I therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is a very important task in the pursuit of our strategic objectives.