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I am convinced that debates such as this one, poorly attended as it is, can have an influence on the direction of the MOD, and that the issues raised are being taken seriously because, slowly but surely, military thinking and direction is changing. However, I cannot make out whether the MOD, the defence chiefs and top civil servants are co-operating closely or as well as they could, and which constraints appear to be limiting their effectiveness. Unless change takes place quickly, the UK will fail to give its service personnel the proper
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support that they need to win the war on terror, and there will be little or no chance of winning insurgency wars either now or in the future.

12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Before I respond to the points made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), may I regretfully announce that another soldier has died in Iraq since the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) and I addressed the House last Thursday? On 29 April, Rifleman Paul Donnachie of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles was killed by small-arms fire in Basra. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in sending our sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on what she rightly says is an important subject, on which she has a great deal of knowledge, and as we heard last week, she gives a considered speech on the issues about which she feels passionate. I hope to respond to a number of those issues today, as well as to set out the wider context of the equipment programme and the operational direction of our armed forces.

I am sure that hon. Members will join me and the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our armed forces for the courage and professionalism that they show—day in, day out— in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. I welcome the opportunity to debate the direction in which we are taking our forces. The Government have a very clear vision for ensuring that we deal with today’s operational requirements and prepare for the future.

It is important to set out the context of two of our current operations—those in Iraq and Afghanistan—by talking about the challenges we face today. In both those places, our service personnel are performing outstandingly in the most difficult of conditions.

Our forces remain in Iraq under the authority of UN Security Council resolution 1723, as part of a 26-nation coalition and at the request of the democratically elected Government of Iraq. The situation remains difficult—we understand the issues and challenges that we face. The hon. Lady talked about the serious insurgency that is taking place, although it is lesser in Basra than in Baghdad. It is worth stating that, although the current level of violence in Baghdad and surrounding provinces is of grave concern, the security picture elsewhere in Iraq is not as bleak, with the majority of attacks—about 80 per cent.—confined to four of the 18 provinces.

Much progress has been made by our armed forces, working in partnership in Iraq. A new Iraqi Government and an ambitious programme of security sector reform are resulting in Iraqi forces increasingly taking the lead, with the handover of four provinces to Iraqi security control, most recently Maysan on 18 April.

Our commitment to Iraq is long term, and our goal remains an Iraq that can govern itself, with a functioning economy and capable security forces. Our forces will remain to provide support and training even
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after we have handed over security responsibility for all the provinces in the south-east, which we hope to do later this year.

I shall touch on Afghanistan before responding to the more substantive issues raised by the hon. Lady. In Afghanistan, we are part of an international effort, backed by the UN, to support the democratically-elected Afghan Government. Afghanistan was a base for international terrorism, and we cannot let it become that again. It is in our national interest to be there.

The campaign is not a traditional battle, and the hon. Lady made that point. Demonstrating progress is not as simple as being able to point to towns being liberated, ground being taken or enemy killed. Progress can be measured by milestones, such as democratic elections—there were successful ballots in 2004 and 2005—and social indicators, such as the increase in the number of girls attending school and the nearly 5 million refugees who have been able to return. When there is security, construction and development follows.

International assistance on security, governance, development, justice and economic reform has brought about great progress. The UK has, of course, played a central role, which we are rightly proud of. However, there is more to do, particularly in the south. Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan will take time, and we are committed to the task, but we must be patient. Our mission in Bosnia, which is a relatively prosperous and developed country, has taken 15 years, and there is still more to do.

We are under no illusions that, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we face difficult and dangerous insurgencies. The safety of our personnel on operations is a prime concern, but there is no such thing as perfect protection. Military operations are inherently risky, and if our troops are to fulfil their mission in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, they must expose themselves to danger, precisely because of which we treat the protection of our service men and women so seriously.

We have used the urgent operational requirement process to procure a fleet of new, protected patrol vehicles to supplement the vehicles already in theatre. Mastiff, Vector and Bulldog are already on the streets, saving lives and proving hugely popular with troops. We have invested hugely in new equipment to meet the specific circumstances and evolving threats of conflicts. About £6.6 billion has been provided for those theatres since 2001. That has been new money from the reserve; it has not come from the defence budget, or at the expense of spending on future needs and assets. It includes £700 million spent through the UOR process on new force protection equipment for those theatres on everything from body armour to electronic countermeasures. There is a whole range of issues, and we have made progress in force protection and support in our operations.

Those UORs complement the equipment programme, which is funded from the defence budget and is designed to deliver the long-term core capabilities that our forces need. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have acknowledged how good the UOR process is at rapidly delivering to the front line the battle-winning capability
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required by our armed forces. However, equipment alone is not the answer to countering insurgency. Training, tactics and procedures are also most important. They are kept under constant review by the services to evolve and to meet changing needs.

I can reassure the hon. Lady that our service personnel in theatre are equipped and prepared for their current tasks. It is simply wrong to suggest that the Government would deploy our armed forces if they were unprepared for the threats that they might meet. We have introduced a range of new systems over the last few years that have significantly enhanced our forces’ capability to conduct counter-insurgency operations, including underslung grenade launchers, head-mounted night vision equipment, new light machine guns, ballistic eye protection, and a range of other offensive and defensive systems, including armoured vehicles and the helicopter uplift.

The hon. Lady spoke about equipment and support. We have delivered equipment valued at more than £10 billion to the armed forces in the past few years, and we have given priority to equipping our people. My experience from when I visited Afghanistan and Iraq and talked to many hundreds of service personnel is that they believe that their personal equipment is the best that they have ever had. Equipment and equipping people properly is a priority.

On procurement of equipment, the defence industrial strategy sets the framework for a better relationship between the Ministry of Defence and industry. It will help to deliver the capability that our armed forces need with best value for money for taxpayers. We have successfully merged the organisations that procure and support military equipment and create defence equipment and support. That establishes a unified approach to the procurement and through-life support of equipment from the factories to the front line, thus improving capability and reducing costs.

Ann Winterton: I remind the Minister gently of my two specific questions, to which I would like a reply before the end of the debate. First, why did the recent announcement appear on the European Defence Agency website and not the MOD website? Secondly and more importantly, when will the order for the 180 medium-protected patrol vehicles be placed?

Derek Twigg: I will write to the hon. Lady on those two specific points.

It is important, for the reasons expressed by the hon. Lady, to accept that there have been procurement mistakes, but we want to learn from those and to ensure that we develop and produce high-quality, battle-winning equipment at the forefront of technology. We continue to make progress, but when things go wrong, we acknowledge that and want to put them right.

Referring back to the title of the debate and operational direction, it is important to remember that our nation has a proud history of responding to the challenges of an uncertain world, and we must continue to do so. We recognise that the major security challenges are those posed by international terrorism, by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
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and by failed and failing states. Our armed forces are proving that they can meet those challenges. However, while our focus remains heavily on current operations in an uncertain world, we must also be ready to meet tomorrow’s threats and challenges. We cannot assume that they will be the same as those facing us today. Let us just look at the range of operations that our forces have faced in recent years. Sierra Leone, East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia, Lebanon, disaster relief in Pakistan and the Indian ocean, and the early stages of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan had little or no counter-insurgency element, but there is no guarantee of whether the next ones will.

Other fast-accelerating trends are complicating the picture. Issues such as climate change, changing demographics and new technologies may further exacerbate existing security problems or present security challenges of their own. For example, changes in the geopolitical balance might even result in the re-emergence of state-on-state warfare in the longer term with an impact on our interests, especially in an increasingly globalised world. We cannot predict whether and how those developments will evolve and interact, or how they will affect us. It would be irresponsible not to maintain armed forces that are balanced, agile and adaptable. That provides some insurance against the inherent uncertainty of the future.

We need balanced forces capable of responding to a broad range of scenarios, and we must acknowledge that, once a capability is removed, it takes many years to get it back, if it can be restored at all. Nor can we rely on our allies to provide the capabilities that we need in the circumstances that we need them. However, I accept the hon. Lady’s important points about our relationship with the United States and our other partners.

Against that background, we must maintain the capability to undertake conventional hard-war fighting, counter-terrorism, intelligence gathering, peace-enforcement, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. To prepare for the future, we must sometimes preserve capabilities that might be more likely to be used tomorrow than today. But we should not forget that major platforms, such as aircraft carriers, Typhoon and nuclear submarines, have a role to play in today’s operations.

Typhoon will provide the RAF with a world-class, multi-role aircraft for use on expeditionary operations. Our Astute class nuclear submarines, such as those currently in service, will be equipped with land attack missiles that are capable of delivering effect many hundreds of miles from the sea, as they did in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. New aircraft carriers allow us to project force across the world in a range of scenarios from diplomacy and persuasion to war fighting, just as their predecessors did in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Iraq. We shall make an announcement on carriers when the time is right. We must continue rigorously to examine our relative priorities to allow focused investment in those that we need most, and we do so.

The hon. Lady was right to draw attention to the need to ensure that we have the balance right between meeting the very demanding operations that our forces face now and the less predictable challenges of the future.

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Lone Parents (Employment Opportunities)

1 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to have secured the debate, but I shall begin with some important caveats, because recent media coverage has demonstrated that the politics of parenting and of parenting and work remain highly contentious. Raising a family is one of the most important, rewarding and demanding roles that life has to offer, and raising children alone is equally challenging and even more demanding than raising children in a couple. Everything that the Government do should be geared towards helping families and supporting children. For that reason, work will not be the right answer sometimes, or it will be an answer that must wait. For all those caveats, however, poverty is one of the most damaging things that can happen to a family, and work is a central route out of poverty. The Government and employers must ensure in partnership that we strike the right balance financially, personally, socially and culturally.

Taken overall, the lone parent employment rate has been a success story for this Government. It has risen by 11 percentage points in a decade, largely thanks to a voluntary and supportive approach at a time of economic growth. However, there are serious challenges ahead, and some prescriptions on offer are wrong. They must be rethought if we are to deal with the problems of London, on which I shall focus most of my comments, and the problems of the most disadvantaged groups—the groups that are furthest from the labour market—elsewhere. The practical steps that could be taken would have a positive impact, but some of them deserve greater attention than they have received to date.

I shall concentrate on the London experience, not least because it is what I experience as a constituency MP with some of the most deprived wards in the country, despite the leafy sounding title of my constituency of Regent’s Park and Kensington, North. In the ward of Westbourne, 83 per cent. of children are growing up in workless households. That is the highest percentage in the country, despite the ward being only a couple of miles from the west end, with all the opportunities that the labour market has to offer there.

It is clear that the strength of London’s economy has demonstrably not spread fairly and equally among all sectors of the population. Child poverty is acute in London—especially inner London—and it can largely be explained by the issue of labour market access. In London, employment for parents in all families is low compared with that for non-parents. In the rest of the UK, lone parent employment rose from 45 per cent. to 58 per cent. between 1995 and 2005. The rise that took place outside London is even more impressive than the national figures that are usually cited. In London, there was a much smaller rise from a much lower baseline—38 per cent. to 43 per cent.

Children in London are more likely to live in households where no one works and less likely to live in households where someone works, compared with other regions. Indeed, disparities in employment among parents account for most of the London-UK employment gap overall, which is growing. If we take
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account of individual characteristics, the lone parent employment rate in London is 12 percentage points lower than the rate in other metropolitan areas—up from 10 percentage points in 1997-98. With individual characteristics accounted for, that labour market phenomenon seems to be specific to London, and the tax and benefit system is very much a part of the problem. The relatively low employment rate among lone parents in London is not a city phenomenon writ large, and it is not due to differences in characteristics, such as ethnicity, between lone parents in London and in other cities.

Returning to the national picture, there is a differential rate of job retention between parents and non-parents. In other words, it is less a question of a lone parent finding work than of them keeping it. Despite the popular image, which the media often support, the issue is not about the beloved stereotype of the teenager having babies on their own to obtain a council flat and enjoy 20 years on benefits. Lone parents, who can be alone for any number of reasons, are just as likely to try for employment as anyone else. Job entry rates for lone parents generally have converged with those for the rest of the working-age population.

The main employment problem for lone parents is that job exit rates remain much higher. They have come down a little, but they are still much higher. About 10 in every 100 employed lone parents leave a job each year, compared with about 5 per cent. in the rest of the population. The heart of the matter is that if lone parents had the same job exit rates as the rest of the population in the same way that they now have the same entry rates, the 70 per cent. lone parent employment target would have been hit by now. There is not any basis for assuming that lone parents are less likely to take up work than the population as a whole, but there is good reason to believe they have more difficulty staying in a job, which explains their relatively low employment rate compared with other groups.

That analysis challenges one of the key elements in the recent Freud review, which suggested—among many ideas—that lone parents should be moved off income support and on to jobseeker’s allowance when their youngest child turned 12. First, 69 per cent. of that group are already in work. Secondly and more importantly, the JSA regime is poorly designed for the more subtle purposes of supporting sustained employment among people facing complex barriers, providing care and support for adolescent and teenage children, and skill shortages.

Another Freud proposal seems to be aimed at addressing the job retention problem, but many of us are still deeply sceptical about it. On one level, it sounds sensible to reward contractors not only for getting jobseekers over an employer’s threshold for a week or so, but for keeping people in work for three years. However, the strategy would involve long-term, seven-year regional monopolies in which everyone who had been on benefit for more than one year in London, for example, would pass from Jobcentre Plus to the provider. The provider would then be paid on the basis of how many more clients went into jobs than would have done otherwise. There would be a monopoly rather than a competition, and large amounts of public
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cash would be determined by estimates of what might have happened in an entirely different and unpredictable set of circumstances. Among other things, it is not at all clear how one would avoid rewarding providers for what others have done: for example, lone parent rates could go up because of the availability of more subsidised child care, or because of changes to the tax credit regime.

Given what we already know about the complex needs of lone parents in the most disadvantaged groups throughout the country and particularly in London, such an approach would be insufficiently flexible and integral. We need instead to develop devolved models that can deliver to targeted groups and respond swiftly to changing circumstances.

What do we need to do? Basically, we have succeeded in improving access to jobs for lone parents, but we have failed to do enough to make employment sustainable. The strongest factor associated with job exit is low pay, especially for part-timers. Among lone parents leaving the new deal, it has been reported that 18 to 20 per cent. are back on income support within six months, 29 per cent. within a year and 40 per cent. within two and a half years.

The reason for the phenomenon is that compared with other regions, simply living in London reduces the chances of job entry for lone parents independently of other factors, and it slightly increases the chances of job exit. The phenomenon implies that, by London standards, part-time work is particularly low paid and keeps the entry rate down. The impact on job entry is compounded by higher living costs in London and the tax and benefit system.

If we assume, as it is surely reasonable to do so, that the gain from work has to be higher in London to compensate for higher prices, parents will need a higher income to be as well off as parents elsewhere. However, increased hourly earnings do not translate into higher incomes, because there are withdrawal rates for benefits and tax credits. To be as well off in real terms as lone parents in lower cost areas, lone parents in London must earn a great deal more. If the difference in living costs is 10 per cent., earnings need to be 33 per cent. higher—even without taking housing benefit into consideration. When housing benefit is factored in, the situation obviously becomes even more difficult.

Something needs to be done to equalise work incentives in London and elsewhere. In the past year or so, the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have recognised the requirement in principle, and the in-work credit for London was increased to £60 in the recent Budget. That is great news, but it is demonstrably insufficient to bridge the gap that we have identified. I am not being in any way ungrateful, because the recognition in principle is a good step, but it must be regarded as one among many. We need to ensure that the tax and benefit system does not continue to freeze people—particularly those who do entry-level work—out of the job market.

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