Previous Section Index Home Page

16 Oct 2007 : Column 782

I am sorry, but it is not notorious. Dedicated men and women from the armed forces and the NHS are working at the hospital. When, as part of the Defence Committee’s report into medical services, we visited it recently, we saw some first-rate treatment. When I was there, I put to Julie Moore, chief executive of University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, some of the headlines that had appeared in the newspapers in the previous six months. On 2 October 2006, The Daily Telegraph carried the headline, “Muslim accosts injured Para in hospital”. On 5 March this year, the Daily Star had this one: “Hero squaddie told by British hospital to strip uniform as offensive to Muslims”. Finally, on 10 June this year, The Mail on Sunday ran the headline, “Muslim women abuse soldiers at troops’ hospital”.

I put those headlines to the chief executive, because it is important to get to the truth. If the stories had been true, I would have been totally appalled by them. However, what Ms Moore said was interesting. In respect of the first headline, there were no Muslim nurses on the ward in question; in response to the article, every soldier there had been interviewed, along with representatives of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, but nobody had complained about what had been alleged. The second article was partly true, in that people are told to take off their uniforms if they are going to get into bed. However, anyone who has been to Selly Oak will see uniformed armed forces personnel walking around, so it is simply not the case that they are not wearing uniform. For the last claim, she could find no evidence whatsoever. I put those questions again to the clinical director, Dr. David Rosser, and asked whether he could find any such instances that had really taken place. His answer was no, and neither could the chief executive. We have to deal with fact, not mythology. Before people repeat the kinds of things that they have during this debate, they should go back to the facts in question.

Ann Winterton: Did the chief executive or the clinical director take any action by writing letters to editors of the newspapers concerned in order to refute the articles that had been printed?

Mr. Jones: Yes; I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. When I asked Miss Moore,

she said:

As long as people who repeat those stories from newspapers deal with fact, I do not mind. If some of them were true, I would be as angry as anybody, but they clearly are not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): My hon. Friend will know that I visit Selly Oak regularly and take a great deal of interest in it given my responsibilities. I was there only a
16 Oct 2007 : Column 783
few weeks ago and spoke to nearly every injured service person on the ward. To a man, all said what excellent treatment and care they had been given. I also talked to their families. I do not know what the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) is smiling about—it is a fact. If he wants to challenge it, let him intervene, by all means. I am disappointed that he is smiling about such an important issue. I got a clear message from the families. I heard tales of nurses sitting up all night comforting injured service persons and of surgeons undertaking mammoth operations and coming in on their days off to ensure that our people get the best possible care and treatment. That is what Selly Oak is about.

Mr. Jones: I entirely agree. We also need to give thanks to the dedicated NHS nurses who sit up with patients and have a real passion for the work that they are doing in caring for these young men. I want to give credit to the surgeons, as well. There has been a great deal of debate about whether we should have separate service hospitals, but the medical care and operations at Selly Oak are not only examples of the best treatment in this country but some of the best in the world. I would like to see a few stories about the pioneering surgery that has been taking place there, but they are obviously not going to appear. I hope that we will be able to cover some of these issues in our report later this year.

I am concerned about how individuals access the medical system when they leave the armed forces, and some improvements might be needed. In view of the covenant that has been mentioned, we should ensure that people who leave the armed forces are tracked through the medical system. This Government set up the Veterans Agency—public acknowledgement of the fact that we have veterans. I am pleased about the announcement on the medical assessment centre at St. Thomas’s to treat veterans with possible mental health problems that go back to 1992. I hope that that work not only assists the research that is required into such problems, but helps the effort to support in the community some of those who sadly have to deal with manifest mental illness for quite a long time after they leave the armed forces.

As for the ability of service personnel to raise problems that they may face in the armed forces, I think that all three services need a voice—that is why I proposed my private Member’s Bill in the support of the British Armed Forces Federation earlier this year. That independent voice is very important. I respect the work of various service charities, but I have to say with respect to the Royal British Legion campaign that although I agree with some of it, it seems to be venturing into areas of politics where it should not go. It could be dangerous if it goes any further down that road. As part of its public campaign, it should at some stage recognise what the Government have done.

Finally, I want to speak about the debt of honour and recognition of servicemen who are killed or wounded in conflict. We seem to have a bit of a strange view—though I understand it up to a point—that we should not give medals to people unless for bravery or some special tier of duty. I believe that there is now a good case for granting some type of honour for those who are severely wounded or killed in action; such
16 Oct 2007 : Column 784
recognition is so important for the families. I thus congratulate the Daily Mirror on its “honour the brave” campaign. I hope that the MOD can overcome the natural conservatism of our armed forces and try to ensure that, as in other nations such as Canada and the US, we bestow some sort of honour in recognition of those whose ultimate act is to give their lives for the freedoms that we take for granted. It is important to acknowledge their role in some way.

9.1 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I apologise for not being present for the whole time, but I am grateful to be called to contribute to what has been a good debate.

I agree with the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that Britain is a force for good in the world. We should hear that much more and I believe that we have seen a consensus tonight that liberty, freedom, democracy, human rights and equal rights are universal aspirations that peoples all over the world wish to enjoy. We are often called on as a nation—as are our brave servicemen and women—to enforce British foreign policy or international law, but we can do so only with the right level of armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) was absolutely right to say that the current level of UK commitment needs to be backed up with appropriate levels of personnel and equipment. I believe that a strong defence means a strong peace. We often talk about peacekeeping operations as well as aggressive operations and the same rules apply in respect of having the right level of capability.

I will touch only briefly on Afghanistan and Iraq later, as they have been ably covered in great detail this evening. I would like to deal with a few areas that have not been elaborated on so far. First, given that this is a broad defence policy debate, I would like to discuss the ballistic missile defence shield. The fact is that in July and November last year I asked two questions about it— [Interruption.]—and I am pleased to see that the Secretary of State is in his place to hear my thoughts on the matter.

It is time that we had a proper debate on Britain’s role in the ballistic missile defence shield. Some people say that the current technology does not work. Well, that is what they said about the tank when it was first rolled out and we know that it has developed somewhat since 1915. I believe that the technology is getting there. There is no doubt that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the increased number of countries with access to intercontinental ballistic missiles means that Britain is more vulnerable now than ever before, as other Members have suggested. It certainly will be in the next few years if Members do not accept my premise on that point. That being the case, we need to be clear that our first duty as MPs is to ensure that we defend our nation. We must therefore ensure that we are part of the American ballistic missile defence shield.

Of course, a very expensive price tag is attached, which is why I suggest that the quid pro quo for the Americans having their eyes and ears at Fylingdales and one or two other places in this nation is that the Pentagon picks up the bill for the ballistic missile
16 Oct 2007 : Column 785
defence shield, so that it is not a spending commitment but a commitment, as I am sure the Secretary of State would agree, to ensuring that this nation and our constituents are protected in future.

Japan is making its own way. It has the Americans using Aegis destroyers off its coast, with ship-based missiles that can track and intercept incoming missiles to Japan. There are also other platforms, such as airborne ones with specially adapted 747s, and land-based systems that might be placed in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is right that we should have a debate on whether we should have land-based or other forms of platform that can track and intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles that might come our way in the future.

Of course, some people say that, if we do that, we will put the United Kingdom at risk. In fact, we are already at risk if we supply the eyes and ears to the Americans, through Fylingdales and other bases. If there were a simultaneous attack on the UK and America, the UK would be in a farcical position. Someone from Permanent Joint Headquarters or the equivalent could phone the Pentagon and say, “There are missiles coming on your eastern seaboard”, and the Americans could interdict those missiles, but we could do absolutely nothing about the missiles coming to the UK. It is a mistake of any Government—indeed, any Parliament—to say that that threat will never be realised and that that risk is minimum. We must be prepared for the unexpected; so I hope that the Secretary of State will take this opportunity to say that there will be a full debate about the future of the ballistic missile defence shield and the UK’s role in it.

That brings me to the Trident replacement. I remember the former Foreign Secretary controversially opening the debate on that and the Secretary of State closing it. In that debate, I welcomed the Trident replacement, but I also mentioned new technologies. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North talked about the flexibility of weaponry, and again she was absolutely right. The trouble with nuclear weapons is that there is very little flexibility. Yes, we must have a deterrent; yes, the deterrent has worked; but I humbly submit that we need something more than conventional weapons and something less than nuclear ones.

Of course, if we use nuclear weapons, there is nuclear fallout, huge international political fallout and moral fallout. They are the weapons of last resort. We need a new weapon that gives us more flexibility to send a very powerful message to our would-be enemies if we need to do so that is greater than that associated with conventional weaponry. So what is that new technology? It is hypersonic technology, and the Secretary of State knows a lot about it.

Hypersonic mass technology will give us such flexibility, because it allows the UK to tell a rogue state or an enemy that, by ratcheting up or ratcheting down, we can take out a military town, a military city or even a military hamlet. Of course, conventional weapons are limited in their capability. If we wanted to focus on a military town to send a message to a rogue state that was threatening us with intercontinental ballistic missiles, perhaps nuclear tipped, we would perhaps not want to consider the nuclear option. So we need a middle way, and it might be hypersonic mass technology.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 786

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but I am also looking at the expression on his Whip’s face, and he is rather perplexed by what is being proposed. Will the hon. Gentleman explain how that technology would be paid for and what it would cost?

Mark Pritchard: It is a question of opportunity cost; what is the cost of not responding to our enemies? The greater cost would be to make the error of judgment of using a nuclear weapon, which would carry a greater political, moral and even financial cost. It would contaminate a whole country or region. The consequences of using nuclear weapons are perhaps more severe than the consequences of using the technology to which I am referring.

If the hon. Gentleman has other ideas, I would be happy for him to submit them to me at some point and to discuss them with him. I know that he is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, but tonight he has been unusually a little bit prickly for some reason, even though he is mostly amiable. It is a bit untoward of him, at best, to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), given that it is absolutely right that Her Majesty’s Opposition should ask difficult questions. When we do not ask questions, his party says that there is no opposition; when we do, it says that we are being party political.

Mr. Jones: I have no problem with the Opposition, or anyone in my party, asking the Government difficult questions. The Secretary of State knows that I do it all the time. What I greatly object to is the hon. Member for Woodspring telling the House things that are not correct.

Mark Pritchard: Shall we go back to the Iraq war and the dodgy dossier? We have not got time. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but we do not need any lectures from his party on the truth and our armed forces.

I would like to move on to commenting on new technologies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unmanned aerial vehicles are very important in the field today, and I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to furnish the House soon with details of Raven and other UAV projects currently under way. The Government should also be putting far more pressure on the Americans to provide an interim solution—the Predator armed UAV. It can give more flexibility in Afghanistan and Iraq. I know that the Predator supply line is being used up by American orders, but more pressure could be brought to bear in that regard.

On Iraq, Afghanistan and counter-indirect fire measures, I had the privilege of going to Iraq some months ago, and while I was there we were mortared in the camp. I was there for only a week, and being mortared for a week is nothing in comparison to experiencing mortar fire on the base every single day for a long period on a tour of duty. I pay tribute to all my constituents—and all serving personnel—who every single night in Afghanistan, or at a single base in Basra air station, have to endure mortar fire. I pay tribute, albeit belatedly, to the fact that the Secretary of State and his colleagues have taken urgent action
16 Oct 2007 : Column 787
during the past few weeks and months to deal with the counter-IDF issue. More needs to be done on that, and I look forward to hearing some details.

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State mentioned terrorism. There is a great mystery in this House tonight, and it is this: I understand that DNA samples have been taken from parts of improvised explosive devices and bomb fragments that have allegedly been linked to known profiles on the British DNA database. If that is not true, will the Secretary of State please rule it out and clear it up once and for all? If it is true, it is in the national interest that we know the identity of the individuals who are known to the UK authorities, whether they have been apprehended, when they will come before the courts, and what the chances are of convicting them. There seems to be a cloud of secrecy. I understand operational security reasons, but sometimes operational security and national security are used as excuses not to give all of the facts. The Government need to make a judgment on that, but it is a legitimate point to raise. Have British citizens, who are known to be on the DNA database, been active in Iraq and Afghanistan? If so, what has happened to them?

There has been some discussion about NATO, and it is right to expect more from our NATO allies. However, it is also right to recognise those NATO allies that have made contributions. I am conscious that the Albanian Prime Minister has been in the House today. I pay tribute to Albania and Ukraine for their contribution, and especially to the brave servicemen and women of Denmark and Holland. They have made a genuine contribution, but we clearly need a larger one, from not only those nations but others. I therefore hope that President Sarkozy is serious about NATO, although I also hope that his proposal is not a Trojan horse for a new Franco-German pact in years to come. However, we would genuinely welcome France becoming part of NATO again and contributing. I also hope that it will avoid the national caveats that have perhaps bedevilled the contributions of Germany and one or two other nations.

I pay tribute to Commonwealth servicemen and women, whose contribution to Iraq and Afghanistan is most valuable. I thank Government Front Benchers for recently giving free blueys—free mail—to Caribbean and other Commonwealth personnel. That welcome change was made in the past few months. It is right that they, as well as our UK forces personnel, should have that.

Defence procurement has been mentioned in detail. I hope that lessons will be learned from the fact that it often means that some projects are delivered late and over budget. That obviously has a knock-on effect on the overall defence budget and the deployability of new kit in the field. I hope that Shropshire and the excellent engineers there will not be overlooked in the future rapid effect system programme.

The debate has been wide ranging. I understand that some changes have been made involving defence attachés, and I know that some squabbling has occurred between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence about who pays for defence attachés in future. Even in the past few weeks, changes have been made, leading to the withdrawal of defence attachés from several UK embassies and
16 Oct 2007 : Column 788
missions in Europe and probably elsewhere. There are to be regional defence attachés so that, for example, someone based in Rome would cover several countries. I should be interested to hear the logic behind that, given that I imagine that defence jobs and the industry are vital to all our constituencies. It is important to have our defence attachés on the spot to ensure that the United Kingdom is considered for any procurement from foreign countries.

In addition, Front Benchers know that defence attachés often help in reforming the armed forces in different parts of the world—that is often the prerequisite for NATO entry. If our defence attachés are not on the spot, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Americans will have theirs there, and that certainly applies to the Germans and the French. If a procurement project is to go somewhere in Europe, the people with defence attachés are more likely to be heard than the UK, which has been short-sighted and withdrawn its attachés.

In the last couple of minutes, I would like to consider Shropshire. I am sure that the Secretary of State did not think that I would rise to my feet without making one or two points about my constituency. I pay tribute to people in the Royal Air Force, the Army and the Royal Navy and Territorial reserve personnel who come from my constituency and the county of Shropshire and have contributed to the effort not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but the Falkland Islands, Cyprus—albeit a downsizing—Kosovo and other parts of the world, including Africa. It is important that we remember our personnel around the world, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All the Ministers present will know that the west midlands has traditionally been an excellent recruiting ground for Her Majesty’s armed forces, going back to the King’s Shropshire light infantry. I hope that there will be some reciprocation of that commitment from the Government in relation to RAF Cosford. Over the past few weeks, the Under-Secretary has kindly responded to a written question, saying that no decision has been made on the future of RAF Cosford, yet the Minister for the Armed Forces suggested in a letter to me that a decision on Cosford had been made, but that the final approval would not be made until spring 2009. That leaves my constituents in limbo, so I hope that the Minister will give some clarity on the decision.

There are two options before us on RAF Cosford. There is no shame in Ministers saying, “We got it wrong”, or, “We want to do a U-turn”, because that happens often. I hope that Ministers will say, “We got it wrong in the defence training review. The infrastructure in Wales is not in place. There is squabbling, which we didn’t really foresee, between the Ministry of Defence, the Welsh Assembly and other agencies. Therefore, we want to give the defence training contract to Cosford, and we will expand the RAF and tri-service personnel there.” That would be the preferred option for my constituents.

Next Section Index Home Page