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There may not be enough money in the defence budget for helicopters, but there is enough for the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is about time spent.

Des Browne: I shall endeavour, Mr. Speaker, to answer in relation to the original question, which was about the time that I spend on my respective duties. I ask the hon. Gentleman, as I have asked all his colleagues, to judge me by my actions rather than the criticisms that he can manufacture. Our record in the Ministry in the past six months, when I have held
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both responsibilities, is, in my view, impressive. We have improved the operational welfare package, with council tax relief and free post; offered financial and practical support to assist inquests and improved compensation for those with multiple injuries; sustained outstanding operational medical capability; improved commitments and funding for accommodation, especially single-living accommodation; settled the comprehensive spending review, meaning an additional £7.7 billion for defence spending in the next three years, and—a matter that is close to the hon. Gentleman’s heart— ordered two new aircraft carriers, which are the largest vessels ever to be commissioned for the Royal Navy.

Sustainable Procurement

3. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What account his Department takes of the Government’s code for sustainable procurement in contracting for procuring food and drink for the armed forces. [169647]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Ministry of Defence is committed to developing sustainable procurement for food and drink, and we are working with our contractors to identify opportunities. However, we need to ensure that value for money and transparency are maintained in our contracting.

Mr. Kidney: At a time when British livestock farmers are recovering from a foot and mouth disease outbreak, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Ministry buying British meat is not only sustainable but good sense? Will he refuse to listen to Ministry buyers who say that price is the obstacle? When the Ministry has worked with the Red Meat Industry Forum to change out-of-date specifications from the Ministry, everybody benefits—from the Ministry to the individual farmer who supplies.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am more than happy to listen to the points that my hon. Friend or the industry wish to make. Some progress has been made, but price is a barrier in some cases. More than half the beef that we procure is from British sources. That applies to all the pork and all the turkeys, but to only 13 per cent. of the lamb because there are problems with both the product that is provided and its price. If there are ways in which we can work around that, we will examine them and try to move in that direction.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Given the sheer scale of the new project to build a military training academy in St. Athan in my constituency, will the code of the practice be part of the main-gate contract to be signed next year? Will sustainable procurement apply to food and drink at the new tri-service academy?

Mr. Ainsworth: We will try to implement the code in every aspect of our procurement policy, including applying it to the new facilities at St. Athan, as my hon. Friend requests.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware—I am sure that he is—that the NAAFI in Cyprus is now being operated by the French? The
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first thing that they will do to try to make savings is stop British products being sold in the NAAFI shop. Does he agree that that is unacceptable for our troops?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I am not aware of that specific instance. I shall look into it afterwards and talk to him further.

Joint Pay Award Allowances

4. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the operation of the joint pay award allowances system; and if he will make a statement. [169648]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The introduction of the joint personnel administration system has been a significant achievement. It is one of the most complex business change projects in the private or public sector ever introduced. There are no known systemic problems with JPA affecting the payment of allowances to armed forces personnel. Although errors have occurred, much has been achieved to ensure the quality of the service being provided to address problems, including additional training and guidance.

Mr. Swayne: My interest is in the register.

The Minister says that there are no systemic problems, but let me tell him of one. The system is not paying Army cadet force personnel or Territorial Army officers on the unposted list. I spoke to an officer a weekend ago who told me that he had arrears of £5,000. He was articulate and was able to persuade someone to pay him out of an imprest account, but there are hundreds of much less articulate personnel out there who are not being paid. Will the Minister do something about that?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course errors have occurred and would occur in any payroll of that size and complexity, in terms of allowances and the number of people who have to be paid. I am aware that the issue that he has raised has been looked into and I understand that a solution has been found on which work is progressing.

Departmental Policy

5. Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to work with other Government Departments to ensure that the needs of armed forces personnel and their families are taken into account in the formation and implementation of policy; and if he will make a statement. [169649]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Government recently announced work to develop the first ever cross-Government strategy for supporting our armed forces personnel, their families and veterans. The Command Paper will outline future initiatives and report on those steps that have already been taken in areas such as medical care, welfare and accommodation.

Jim Sheridan: I thank my hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that the best interests of members of our armed forces at every rank and their families would be served not by a trade union, but by an armed forces
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federation similar to those in other countries? That would be better than the current system of having to wait until the generals retire and find a safe place in the other place.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not sure whether retired generals would be elected in such a federation. Establishing such a body would change the ethos of our armed forces, so we should not go in that direction without considerable thought. The issue of receiving complaints from our armed forces is very important, and my hon. Friend will be aware of our recent appointment of a service complaints commissioner, a post designed to improve exactly that area of work and ensure that all the complaints that our service personnel raise are dealt with appropriately and thoroughly.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Can the Minister confirm that service wives and families will be talked to when the gap between operational tours is fixed? There is not enough time for men and women to return to their spouses, because there are not enough troops and because disastrous decisions have been made about recruiting and the disbandment of three battalions. Unless the Minister gets the issue right, force levels will drop even further and service families’ morale will be further dented.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am talking to service families, as the hon. Gentleman does. I know that people are pushed. Their lives can be made difficult in those circumstances, but harmony guidelines are being adhered to in the majority of cases. The hon. Gentleman talks about the need for three further battalions, but he needs to talk not only to the Government, but to those on his own Front Bench, because I understand that although they support that proposal, they do so at no additional cost to the MOD, which would therefore result in cuts elsewhere. The Opposition cannot go on about the Navy, the Air Force and the Army without saying whether they would be prepared to spend additional money on defence. The silence from the Conservative Benches on that issue is deafening.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that advice from the former chiefs of defence staff would be of greater value if it were not couched in personalised and politicised terms, as it was a week or two ago? Does he think that the recent efforts of General Guthrie, the new Tory party adviser, have helped or hindered the efforts of the current chiefs of staff?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend makes a point. We welcome any contribution to the debate about the future funding and development of our armed forces. However, we would not want it to be couched in personal or political terms, because that would only detract from the weight of the points made.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the cross-departmental strategy, as no matter where in the UK armed forces personnel and their families or veterans are based, it is vital to ensure that they receive the same quality of service. Will the Minister ensure that that quality of service is assured in Scotland and Wales as
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well? When we took evidence from the Scottish Parliament last month on this very issue of health services, we were appalled by the quality of service provided in Scotland.

Mr. Ainsworth: During the process of drawing up the Command Paper, we need to consult veterans’ organisations, family associations, local government and devolved Administrations as well as the whole of Government in order to get it right. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made a similar point last month in the Chamber and it applies equally to Scotland as to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the Minister realise that the most devout hope of the families of any serviceman on operations is that he or she should have the right equipment to undertake their jobs? Although much of the personal equipment is very good on operations, what steps are the Government and all their Departments taking to ensure that more helicopters are got to our forces on operations as soon as possible?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think the hon. Gentleman knows that we have six new Merlins coming into service and that the first will arrive in spring next year. We are also converting eight Chinooks. Together, those will considerably increase our helicopter capability. We have also done some modifications on Sea Kings to enable them to be capable in the Afghan theatre and they will provide us with greater flexibility. Yes, we understand the need for helicopter capability and we are taking steps to improve it.

Armed Forces

6. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): How many members of the (a) Army, (b) Royal Navy and (c) Royal Air Force are Welsh. [169651]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The Ministry of Defence records the number of UK nationals in the armed forces. Specifying national identity within the UK is not mandated, so it is not possible to provide accurate figures for the total number who are Welsh.

Chris Bryant: May I suggest that, notwithstanding the Ministry’s not knowing the figures, we are pretty sure in Wales that we produce a higher proportion of members of the armed forces than any other of the constituent parts of the UK? Is it not clear that Wales has a strong and proud military tradition? If we are to continue it, do we not need to ensure that when Welsh regiments return from operations tours—as have members of the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh—a proper welcome is given to them in Wales? Should we not pay tribute to their work and, in this particular case, pay tribute to those who died in Iraq, including Private Craig Barber, Lance Corporal Ryan Francis and Corporal Paul Joszko?

Derek Twigg: Let me say to my hon. Friend that we are very proud of the work that the UK armed forces do and that the Welsh play a very important part in that. I pay tribute to their contribution to the armed forces and to their magnificent and outstanding
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achievements in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the 1st and 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh, and there are also the Welsh Guards, who returned from Bosnia. It is very important to recognise what our armed forces do throughout the UK and that they are given a proper welcome home. We have seen examples of that recently and I am delighted to support them.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). When my father served in the British Army, he often acted as an unofficial interpreter for those of his compatriots who did not have fluency in English. Given the number of Welsh speakers who join the armed forces every year, will the Minister consider allowing those who wish it the facility to receive at least some of their basic training through the medium of Welsh?

Derek Twigg: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that that is not the way we do the training. Of course, I will look further into issues surrounding the Welsh language and decide whether there is anything more we can do to help.

Veterans' Badges

7. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): How many veterans’ badges have been issued in the last 12 months. [169652]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Between 1 November 2006 and 31 October 2007, 196,197 veterans’ badges have been issued.

Mr. Crausby: I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that veterans’ badges have been a tremendous success, but they are only one part of the covenant that exists between the Government, the British people and members of the armed forces. What further action does he intend to take in recognising the unique nature of military service?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the recognition of veterans. More than half a million veterans’ badges have now been presented, but the awarding of badges is just one of a number of things that we are doing to support veterans. Veterans day itself is an important aspect of what we are doing, and I am sure that next year even more Members will support it than did so this year. We now have a Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, and the Government have appointed a veterans Minister.

Recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made an announcement about priority treatment and I announced new mental health pilots for veterans. The Ministry of Defence will work with the national health service to provide even better support for veterans’ mental health.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Minister has sensibly led me to my question. Veterans who receive their badges will be interested by Ministers’ announcement of the expansion of NHS priority treatment to all veterans whose injuries or ill health are suspected of being due to service. A veteran hearing that
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announcement could have been forgiven for thinking that it represented a policy change, but, as the Minister knows, he said exactly the same in a letter to me earlier this year.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should simply ask the Minister whether it represents a policy change.

Derek Twigg: In his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made it clear that he was reiterating the policy on veterans and the priority given to their health. Hull primary care trust has also made veterans’ treatment a priority when their GPs consider that they may have a condition resulting from their service. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue, because it is important for us to convey the message about veterans’ priority treatment, and I am pleased that my right hon. Friend was able to make that announcement.

Army Recruitment

8. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What steps he is taking to increase recruitment into the Army. [169653]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The Army as a whole uses a range of methods to attract individuals to a career in the Army. They include the use of targeted advertising campaigns, the latest of which is aimed at potential infantry soldiers among others. A further education bursary scheme is being piloted in recognition of the fact that more youngsters are staying in further education. A dedicated careers website was relaunched earlier this year featuring an online recruiting office where individuals can chat to a recruiter. There are also 39 armed forces careers offices and 84 army careers information offices in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.

Mr. Prentice: I thank my friend for all that information, but am I right in thinking that 7.5 per cent. of the British Army is drawn from Commonwealth countries? Is that number too high, and should a cap be placed on it to reduce our dependence on our friends in the Commonwealth?

Derek Twigg: We have always recruited from Commonwealth countries, and we think that the balance is about right. It is important that we continue to recruit from the Commonwealth, and we welcome and value the contribution of our armed forces personnel from those countries.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Although he did not mention them, I am sure the Minister will agree that student presentation teams do a very good job in boosting recruitment. Indeed, on 7 February he said:

adding that they offered

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