Previous Section Index Home Page

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) treated us to a little bit of the history lesson that we have to listen every now and then in order to put into context some of the allegations that are made today. He did that very well. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) talked about the debt that we owe to our servicemen and their families, and he was particularly concerned about accommodation. He recognises—even if some Opposition Members do not—that a huge building programme is going on, and that some of the legacy issues of our single-living and family accommodation are now being dealt with. That cannot be done overnight; the neglect went on for generations. There are Members in this House who know that, yet they choose to try to deny it. However, I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are some big issues that we need to address, particularly in relation to family living accommodation and the right to buy. We
16 Oct 2007 : Column 795
are as concerned about and interested in those matters as he was when he did his job at the Ministry of Defence.

I am sorry that I was not in the House for most of the speech of the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who talked mainly about procurement. I was a little surprised by her intimation that she is concerned that the Royal Navy is going to be dominated by the carriers. Yes, the carriers are going to be somewhat dominating features of the Royal Navy. If we want our Navy to have worldwide reach and the ability to project force around the world wherever we want it—be it air power or assault capability—the carriers and the protection force are the single most important way in which we will do that. That is why the carriers are so important.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) talked about the covenant and said that we have a debt to our armed forces that needs to be met. I do not disagree with him, and he knows that nobody in the ministerial team does. This is not just an issue for the Government. We need to recognise that we are paying back our armed forces for the tremendous sacrifice that they make for, and the capability that they give to, our nation. The nation also needs to recognise that. This is not an easy issue to address, and there are no quick remedies. It is not just a matter of parades, for example; we have to work on this. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and others in the House have said, we all have a responsibility to address this issue, to take it out to the public at large, and to ensure that we all do our best—irrespective of where we sit in this House—to connect the work being done on behalf of the nation by the armed forces with the general public, whose understanding is perhaps not all that it once was. With effort, perhaps we can make that connection again. The hon. Member for Canterbury also talked passionately about the Territorial Army, about which I know he has great concerns. I intend to sit down with him and talk through some of those issues as soon as I can.

In a wide-ranging discussion, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) talked about a lot of issues. He, too, was concerned about housing, and particularly about the priority given to our armed forces by local authorities throughout the country. He asked whether we were prepared to meet him and a delegation of Members of Parliament—and we of course are. I do not suppose that he is concerned about whether it is most appropriate for me or for another member of the ministerial team to meet that delegation. One or other of us will be more than happy to make ourselves available for a meeting.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) talked about our relationship with the USA. However, he was also concerned to ensure that we should develop our co-operative capability with our European neighbours, and stressed the importance of that for the future. I agree with him in that regard.

The fact that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) has certain problems was exposed in some of the interventions made during his contribution. If he thinks that he can cherry-pick the defence estate and imprint in Scotland, he will have to do some explaining—beyond this debate in the
16 Oct 2007 : Column 796
House—to the many people up there who depend on that work for their livelihood.

The hon. Gentleman talked about cap badges and the history of the Scottish regiments. Of course we must honour our history, but we all know that we cannot live in it. Time moves on, and we must address the issues that face us today. There is a need for change, and although we must try to retain the golden thread that runs through our regimental history, we must also deal with the problems confronting our military in today’s world.

The hon. Member for North Devon talked about the situation in Iraq, and asked me to explain the statement that I made in evidence to the Defence Committee in July. He compared that with the recent statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I do not think that any explanation is necessary. I am not a military expert, and do not pretend to be. I would not come to the House and say otherwise, but the statement that I made to the Defence Committee was based on military advice given to me at the time.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister does not pretend to have military expertise either, but the military advice that we are given, and the situation that we face, have both changed. We are now able to consider the possibility of reducing our force level in Iraq, and to plan for it. Our forces will be backed up by other forces in the region, but the level that we will maintain will be lower than that which our military advice was prepared to contemplate in July.

The hon. Member for North Devon also talked extensively about the situation in Afghanistan, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) and other hon. Members. It is a matter that we must look at very seriously. Sometimes, the feeling is that our military personnel take a narrow view of the matters that they are dealing with, but my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North made it very clear that that was not true of the discussions that she had had out in theatre.

The House should be aware that no one is more able to take a broad view of what people in the military are able to contribute than those people themselves. They know what they can do, and they also know what must come in behind them to ensure the nation building that has to happen if we are to render Afghanistan viable in the future. That is one of the tasks that face us, and our military people understand that as well as we do. In no way do the Afghan people want the Taliban back, but we must make sure that the growing capacity of the Afghan state is seen to be a force for good, a positive force that improves the lives of the people. A lot remains to be done, and it can be done only if we adopt a comprehensive approach.

Equally, as various hon. Members noted, we must also ensure that our own people understand what we are doing in Afghanistan. The connection is not always made between what our armed forces are doing out there and the effect on the security of people and families here at home. All of us, regardless of which party we represent, have a responsibility to make sure that people appreciate that link. We must make people understand that what is happening in Afghanistan cannot be disconnected from security at home.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 797

Big issues are involved in that, and they must be fully explained and understood. However, there is a convergence between heroin, organised crime and international terrorism; it is a thread that runs all the way from Afghanistan to the streets of Coventry, and the streets of every town and city in our country. The elements cannot be disconnected.

I have to tell the hon. Member for North Devon that it is not true that there are no dedicated helicopters for medical evacuation in Afghanistan. Dedicated helicopters are available in the field, as I saw when I visited Bastion, so if the hon. Gentleman has been given contrary information, it is untrue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) gave us much information, as well as a vivid personal insight into forces living accommodation over the generations. He gave the lie to the idea that the problems can be solved overnight. There has been ingrained, systematic under-investment over a period of time. We have made structural changes to ensure that will no longer happen, but the problems cannot be fixed overnight.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) reacted as I did to the speech of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). Of all the speeches I heard during the debate, the two from the Conservative Front Bench were the most extraordinary. The hon. Member for Woodspring showed that he was capable of applying himself to give us analysis and a constructive view when he talked about Iran. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was sitting on the Treasury Bench at the time, and neither he nor I could disagree with what the hon. Gentleman said. However, almost all the rest of the speech that he treated us to was a catalogue of misrepresentation and abuse of the facts.

That does not matter so much when what is said is about the Government. The hon. Gentleman deliberately and repeatedly tries to present the case that there are cuts in the defence budget. He tells people that in television and radio studios, and he told us the same thing today. He denies the fact that by the end of the current spending round, real-terms spending will be £3 billion, or 10 per cent., higher than in 1997. As some of my hon. Friends pointed out, our record is in marked contrast to that of the Government the hon. Gentleman supported, who introduced defence cuts year on year during the back end of their period in office.

What the hon. Gentleman says in that vein is part of the cut and thrust of politics. People do not always use facts when they are throwing politics around in this place; we misrepresent the facts and make accusations against people from time to time. However, the hon. Gentleman went on to attack civilian volunteers in theatre and, more importantly, said things about the medical facilities at Selly Oak. I think that he needs to reflect on what he said, and the allegations that he made today.

I visited Selly Oak on Monday. I talked to parents, patients, nurses, doctors and the military personnel who run that facility. I can tell the House that they are sick and tired of being used as a political football. They are angry about that. I am sorry that the hon. Member
16 Oct 2007 : Column 798
for Woodspring cannot be in the Chamber now, because I would be saying exactly the same thing to him if he was. Today he made allegations about a particular case. I will not go further. I say only this: the hon. Gentleman should read what the surgeon who dealt with the individual had to say, and he should look at the press release issued by the hospital tonight. Given that he has an expertise in this area—I am not going to attempt to second-guess medical capability—he should reflect on what he said and how he said it, and the allegations that he made.

Dr. Murrison rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to defend the hon. Member for Woodspring, I shall give way—and I hope that he can do so.

Dr. Murrison: The Minister has accused the Conservatives of using the armed forces as a political football. That is a disgraceful allegation. What does he make of his own Prime Minister’s recent efforts—grandstanding in Iraq?

Mr. Ainsworth: Let us stick to the issue that has been raised tonight. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have tried, in my inadequate way, to respond to the debate. I am talking about things that were said in this Chamber about the worrying state of the medical facilities supplied to our injured personnel in the Selly Oak hospital—that was the allegation that was made. That is not something that is thrown at Ministers; it is thrown at the caring staff, be they doctors, nurses or anyone else. If the hon. Gentleman wants to defend that, let him do so—but it is deplorable, and he and the hon. Member for Woodspring, both of whom have expertise in this area, ought to think about the allegations that they have made. It is up to them. I am not going to take this any further than that, because I do not have the expertise to do so. In those facilities, dedicated people spend day and night trying to provide care and attention for our injured armed forces personnel, and they resent the allegations made in the media, and those being stoked up by people in this House, too.

The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) threw around the same allegations about medical services and talked about the compensation issue in deliberately emotive terms. I do not know whether he was listening when the Secretary of State spoke, but he was present. We are not talking about a compensation package that is an actuarial calculation to cover the loss and injury to be suffered by an individual for the rest of their lives. That is the first point to make. As my right hon. Friend said, like for like—apples for apples—is not being compared.

The other point that the hon. Gentleman and everyone else needs to recognise is that until recently there was no compensation package at all. This is a supplement to the lifelong payment that exists, and existed before the introduction of the up-front payment. It recognises the huge problems that injured personnel have when they are trying to rebuild their lives. It is not a substitute for their ongoing pension entitlement, and it is despicable for the Conservatives to try to suggest that it is.

16 Oct 2007 : Column 799

Tonight’s debate has shown us that there is a degree of expertise in the House that keeps the MOD and its policies under scrutiny, with the help of the Select Committee and the other instruments that we have in Parliament to do that. Our policies and priorities are clear. In the first analysis, they are to support our people and our current operations. Thereafter, they are to look to the future to ensure that we are planning adequately and properly for all the various risks that our nation may face. Those are the priorities that we ought to have. We must do our best to see to it that we meet them.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.



16 Oct 2007 : Column 800

Child Protection (Sex Offenders)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

10 pm

Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity of this Adjournment debate this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), when he was Home Secretary, announced on 13 June new powers to protect children from known sex offenders. Following that announcement, I said in a press release in my constituency that there are few crimes more horrific than sexual offences against children. We need to ensure that the most vulnerable group in our society is safe, and I am glad that that is at the heart of Government policy.

The tragic murder of Sarah Payne by Roy Whiting in 2001 sparked a debate about monitoring paedophiles in the community. It was evident that the Sexual Offences Act 1997 did not go far enough, as Whiting was one of the first offenders added to that list and he murdered Sarah Payne. A similar concern regarding the shortcomings of laws on sexual offences against children was voiced in Scotland in response to the murder of eight-year-old Mark Cummings by convicted sex offender Stuart Leggate in 2004. Once again, it is believed that the loss of an innocent child’s life could have been prevented had the proposed new laws been in operation.

The UK has some of the strongest restrictions on child sex offenders, but as my right hon. Friend acknowledged in his statement on 13 June, we need to do more. I hope that the Minister can tell me tonight that the new measures, which will strengthen child protection even further, are a progressive beginning of a more engaged and transparent public policy for the protection of children from known sex abusers.

For too long, politicians have shied away from kicking over the stone of the sexual abuse of children. That may be a controversial thing to say, but in truth our society has failed its children. Whether it be the legislators, the courts, the social services, the police or any other public institution, all of us could have done more and all of us now need to do more. That is why I welcome the then Home Secretary’s acknowledgement of that reality in his statement on 13 June.

In response, I decided to consult my constituents on their opinions on the proposals for England and Wales and to ask them if they wanted the same protection for children in Scottish law. To achieve that, the Scottish Parliament would be responsible for any changes to Scottish law, and I shall return to that point in a moment.

I consulted my constituents through a survey with a freepost reply. For the purpose of my survey, I wrote to a random selection of addresses in every part of my constituency. There are six multi-member local council wards in Lanark and Hamilton, East constituency and I wrote to some 8,000 households in those six communities. The distribution list was Lanark, 1,183 households; Carluke, 1,090; Larkhall, 1,256; Ashgill, 108; Forth, 640; Law Village, 406; Hamilton, 1,159; Uddingston, 651; Bothwell, 540; Carstairs/Carnwath, 493; and Cross Ford/ Kirkfieldbank, 471. The total is
16 Oct 2007 : Column 801
7,997. That is eight times the number used in national opinion polls with an accuracy of plus or minus 3 per cent. I received a magnificent response to the survey. More than 1,300 people—more than 16 per cent. of people who were sent the survey—read the survey, answered every question, folded the answer sheet, went to the post office and posted their reply to me. I would argue that the results of the survey of my constituency are as accurate as it is possible to get.

I shall read on to the record the questions, and the responses to them. My first question was “Have you heard about the new legislation announced in the House of Commons to protect children from sex offenders?” Some 68.5 per cent. of respondents said yes. The second question was “Do you agree that parents or guardians should be able to request details of sex offenders in certain circumstances?” and 98 per cent. of respondents said yes. The third question was “Do you agree that satellite tracking should be used to monitor high risk sex offenders?” to which 99 per cent. of respondents said yes. Question No. 4 was “Do you think that the mandatory drug treatment should be used to reduce sexual drive in child sex offenders?” and 96 per cent. of respondents said yes.

The fifth question was “Do you agree that the use of compulsory polygraph tests to ensure that child offenders are not reoffending is correct?” Some 95 per cent. of respondents said yes. Question No. 6 was “Do you agree that the child sex offender’s conviction should be disclosed in order to protect the child?” to which 97 per cent. of respondents said yes. The seventh question was “Do you agree that the sex offenders register should be extended to include information on when they start relationships with a woman who has children?” Some 98 per cent. of respondents said yes. My last question was “Do you agree that Jim Hood MP should write to the Justice Minister asking that the legislation be introduced into Scottish law?” and 97 per cent. said yes.

In answer to my eighth question, 97 per cent. wanted the same protection for their children that children in England and Wales have, and asked me write to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice to request him to provide just that. I wrote to him, providing him with the results of my survey, and I invited him to respond to the wishes of my constituents. I proposed that he and the Scottish Parliament legislate to give Scottish children the protection that is being proposed for children in England and Wales. I received a reply from the Scottish Minister, and I will refer to it in a moment, but first I want to state the very obvious: this is not a party political issue. There is no place for political gimmickry, gamesmanship, or one-upmanship in a debate on how we protect children from sex offenders. When 97 or 98 per cent. of our constituents demand more protection for their children and tell their politician to get on with it, no politician can ignore those demands.

Next Section Index Home Page