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6 July 2006 : Column 1072

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend has alerted the House to a tactic that the Government might consider. They might make it sound as if the situation will be desperate so that we will all be relieved when it turns out to be slightly less desperate. However, we have been warned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring spoke about health services, and drew attention to the excellent medical care that our armed forces receive in theatre. It would be helpful if the Minister, either now or in future, addressed the exit process for armed forces personnel who are discharged for medical reasons. The Royal British Legion and other service charities have told me that sometimes the Ministry of Defence does not alert them to individuals who could benefit from their services on discharge. The traditional data protection argument is deployed—I accept that some armed forces personnel have legitimate concerns about personal security—but with sufficient willpower the problem can be fixed so that personnel who leave the forces can receive those services if they need them. Those charities should be able to work in partnership with the Ministry of Defence so that the transition to post-service life is as seamless and painless as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring dealt extremely well with the issue of mental health, so I shall not attempt to repeat his arguments. However, as I have said before, concerns have been expressed about the armed forces compensation scheme. While it works extremely well for personnel with physical injuries there are anxieties about the way in which the tariff structure works for mental health conditions. Does the Minister of State intend to evaluate the scheme every year to see how it is working, particularly for mental health conditions, as that would be welcomed by organisations that work in the field?

May I draw attention to another issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring? Given the challenging security situation in Afghanistan, is it not time to consider merging Operation Enduring Freedom and the international security assistance force sooner rather than later? We need, too, to look urgently at American plans for force deployment to make sure that resources are available so that our forces can operate successfully at minimum risk to themselves. Several hon. Members drew attention to the families of service personnel, and it is worth repeating that we owe a debt to them as well as to those who serve. Soldiers in the field are much more effective if they know that their families are well looked after, and it is the families who bear the brunt and suffer pain and anguish when soldiers lose their lives. Our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered over the years, particularly those who have suffered recently.

Some hon. Members mentioned housing. I accept that the Government have done a great deal. However, to use their own phrase, much has been done but there is still much to do. No doubt the Minister of State will refer to that in his winding-up remarks.

I want to say something positive about kit. The Defence Logistics Organisation at Caversfield, which procures military clothing, has been swift in responding to changing demands for body armour and in transporting it to theatre. The Secretary of State mentioned the Kestrel and Osprey designs, but I understand that another design—according to my hon. Friend the Member for
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Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), it is known as the Elvis outfit because it has a high collar—is critical for personnel undertaking top-cover sentry work. The original design was not particularly comfortable, but the DLO quickly changed it to provide a much more wearable version. That is a good example of the way in which logistical organisations can respond swiftly to concerns in the field.

One topic that has not been raised, which I hope will not become a big issue in the future although I fear it might, is the roll-out of the joint personnel administration system. We are asking our people to do important and difficult jobs, and the very least that they expect from the Ministry of Defence and the Government is to ensure that we pay them on time. When the JPA was rolled out in April, initially for the Royal Air Force, more than 6,500 servicemen had pay inaccuracies, which is over 15 per cent. of the relevant work force. From written answers we know that the situation has improved in the second pay run, but still more than 1,000 people are affected. By next April the system is due to be rolled out to the whole of the armed forces—over 250,000 people—and it would be helpful if the Minister gave us some idea of how those plans are progressing and whether he is confident that the right steps will be taken.

I know from my experience in business that in payroll systems very little inaccuracy, if any at all, is tolerable. We must deliver a system that works 100 per cent. of the time. Servicemen, particularly those in operational theatres, should not have to spend any time at all worrying about whether they will be paid or whether their families will be able to pay the mortgage. That is critical. I know that the roll-out to other parts of the armed forces has been delayed once. The Opposition would prefer the system to be made 100 per cent. accurate before it is rolled out, rather than allowing it to cause grief to our servicemen. The Minister will get our support if that is necessary.

In the debate there were 13 contributions from the Back Benches, five of which were from the Government Back Benches. Several of those Members were doing their duty and holding the Government to account, probably more firmly than the Government would have liked. There were eight Opposition Back-Bench speeches, which, strangely, were all from the Conservative Benches. There were no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers present at all, as was the case in the last debate on defence policy on 22 June.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on his elevation to the Privy Council. He drew attention to veterans day. When we discussed that at Defence questions, I was pleased that the Minister for Veterans confirmed that he wants to work closely with the Opposition next year to try to make veterans day as successful as possible, especially with the anniversary of the Falklands approaching.

The hon. Member for Islwyn also discussed issues relating to medals. Freed from the constraints of office, he has become rather more liberal about wanting to dish out medals than perhaps he was in office.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, with his well known interest in defence both for wider reasons
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and for his constituency interest, drew attention to the tremendous contribution in the armed forces of personnel from overseas—from the Commonwealth and other countries—to whom we owe a great debt.

I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for his comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring. He noted that my hon. Friend had been exemplary in the way he spoke about the difficult operational theatre in Afghanistan, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that generous tribute. He held the Government to account very effectively about the Type 45 destroyers. We managed to bid him up from six to 12 in the time that he was speaking. I hope the Minister of State will tell us what progress has been made.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West was keen that veterans day should be a bank holiday. Knowing as we do from the Minister for veterans that the Chancellor is all-powerful, perhaps we can have an update on whether that is likely to happen.

Ann Winterton: Many veterans in my constituency and elsewhere believe that the only real veterans day is Remembrance Sunday.

Mr. Harper: I thank my hon. Friend. That point has certainly been made. When we have raised the matter, the Government have made a clear distinction. Remembrance day is very much to commemorate those who have given their lives. They wanted veterans day to be more of a celebration of those who have served. One of the important features of Remembrance day is that it is a day for the whole nation. It is non-partisan and all parties work together to make sure that we can all unite on that day. We must ensure that the same is true of veterans day.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made a powerful contribution in which he spoke about the exceptional and formidable servicemen and women who serve our nation and drew attention to the first principles that underlie what we ask them to do, which was a valuable reminder of the magnitude of the commitment that we ask of them. He was the first to raise the issue of finance, about which I hope he is wrong, but fear he might be right. He pointed out that we are operating beyond the assumptions in the strategic defence review and that the strategic defence review has not been fully funded. He also pointed out that the performance of the RAF in moving our troops to theatre leaves rather a lot to be desired. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot said that the matter had been drawn to the attention of the Chief of the Air Staff, so it is in hand.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) discussed privatisation and value for money, which is an important issue for her constituents in Llangennech. She also mentioned the importance of the civilian work force, and her constituents will be grateful for her effort in speaking up for them.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) drew attention to the MOD’s inability to task operations adequately. He ranged widely in a thoughtful contribution, and also pointed out that we must match our commitments to our defence spending. At the end
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of his remarks, he discussed the increased threat that we face from global terrorism and other security challenges.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) talked about Iraq and focused on the positive aspect of removing the tyrant from that country and the better life that many in that country, particularly in the north, are already experiencing. He also drew attention to the role that our forces and forces of other nations could play in protecting that part of the country and ensuring that the people experience economic development and a better life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) drew attention to a wide range of issues that were not mentioned elsewhere in the debate, such as Army chaplains and the Royal Military Police. He spoke up powerfully for his constituency interest, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. He pointed out that Qinetiq is a successful privatisation and discussed Defence Medical Services. He also talked about the issues arising from the important merger of headquarters. Given his constituency experience and his important work on the Defence Committee, we listened to him with great interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) raised the issue of equipment. She discussed our reserve forces and the number of personnel available for operations. She also expressed her concern about how successful recruitment will be now that regular and reserve forces are going to be recruited together.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made a powerful speech, for which I was sorry not to be in the Chamber—I had to go and obtain replenishment. He pointed out that if there were a new strategic defence review, it would conclude that the number of servicemen and women available today is far too small. Whenever we have asked our armed forces to perform a task, whether it was a completely military task or even a civilian task, such as during the foot and mouth outbreak, we have always been able to count on them to deliver, but my hon. Friend pointed out that, if we continue with current policies, one day the forces may have to report back to Ministers that they cannot perform a requested task. I hope that we never reach that point. He also said that we need to face up to the need, given the world in which we live, to spend more on defence.

The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) made an elegant plea for recognition of the wartime efforts of the Bevin boys, which is a plea that other hon. Members have made, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) ranged widely over a number of issues, particularly those that are very important in his constituency. In case the Whip is taking notes, I add that he also said that we are all in this together.

My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) highlighted veterans day. He also talked about the importance of the views of families as regards recruitment. When someone’s son or daughter signs up for the armed forces, they must have confidence that their son or daughter will be as well looked after as they can be, and that if things go wrong they will continue to be looked after when they have left the services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) highlighted the role of NATO and drew
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attention, from his own experience, to the importance of forces winning the hearts and minds of local populations. He also expressed one or two of his concerns about our operation in Afghanistan, again based on his personal experience.

Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that our troops in Afghanistan

It is my profound hope that when those brave men and women look at those whose duty it is to provide political leadership, they will feel that that duty has been discharged with the same level of commitment and dedication as they show to our nation.

5.35 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. He touched on most of the points that were made, but, unlike me, did not have to respond to them but merely recount them. I have the responsibility of trying to deal with the complexity of the debate. I relish that, however. Having spent 10 years in opposition, I realise how easy it is: being in government is much more difficult. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the number of Members who spoke, all of whose speeches were substantial and thoughtful and, in sum, added to the greater understanding of what we are trying to do as regards the defence of this country.

I thank the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for Salisbury (Robert Key), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for their contributions from the Opposition Benches.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who is not in his place. I understand that he has gone off to do a television interview, so he is gainfully employed. I do not know precisely what he is saying; I hope that he is not criticising me. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks). I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who is now to be my right hon. Friend. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I wanted to be the first to congratulate him on that from the Dispatch Box. It is a rightfully deserved honour and I know that he will carry it with pride. I hope that I get the opportunity to be at the Privy Council when he is sworn in, because I would be very pleased to do so.

In opening the debate—

Dr. Julian Lewis: What about the Liberals?

Mr. Ingram: I did mention a Liberal in passing; the hon. Gentleman may have missed it. I am not doing any political knockabout at this stage—maybe later on.
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In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out to highlight the importance of our people in everything we do. Ultimately, unless we have well trained, properly resourced, highly motivated and dedicated personnel, we cannot deliver on the arduous and difficult tasks we set ourselves, whether they be in Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere. I shall touch further on that in response to some of the points made in the debate.

In paying tribute to our front-line personnel, it is right that we recognise at the same time the essential and vital role played by civilians in the many and varied functions they undertake. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) and the hon. Members for Mid-Sussex and for The Wrekin referred to the announcement that we made on Monday, which was a major announcement affecting thousands of those civil servants. I want to comment further on that before dealing with the other issues that were raised in today’s debate.

The Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency are two major organisations, which employ between them a staff of some 24,500, with a combined budget of £11 billion. Given their importance to the provision and support of our front line, it is right to try to put in place an effective, efficient and properly focused organisation, which is dedicated to the acquisition and through-life support of the battle-winning equipment on which our armed forces depend.

I do not hide from the fact that our announcement is radical and ambitious. I appreciate that it will mean major change and upheaval for so many of our loyal and hard-working staff, who have given sterling service over the years, especially over the recent period. It is not an easy decision to make, knowing that it will result in the closure of facilities, thus adversely affecting many hundreds of our personnel and their families.

However, I fundamentally believe that what we are doing is right. At the end of this process, we will have a new organisation, which will employ fewer staff than were employed by the DLO alone in 2004. Alongside that, as the hon. Member for Salisbury pointed out, we will have a new combined Army headquarters based on one site at Andover North. We will have released resources through base and facility closures at Telford, Andover South and subsequently at RAF Brampton, Caversfield and Sherborne between now and 2010-11. The efficiencies achieved from that will be reinvested to meet our front-line requirements.

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