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Why, then, at a time when our armed forces are so grossly under-recruited, is the Minister scrapping those
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formidable recruiting sergeants? Is it to save the blushes of the Secretary of State for Defence in his other part-time job, given left-wing opposition to the teams’ entering Scottish and Welsh schools?

Derek Twigg: I think that the hon. Gentleman is slightly confused. As his hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) will know, the purpose of the presentation teams was not to recruit but to get the defence message across in schools. However, he is right in saying that they did a very good and important job.

We wanted to discover how we could deal with communications better with the resources that we had. That is why we introduced Defence Dynamics, a web-based system. The hon. Gentleman may wish to have a look at it. Only a week ago I visited a school where it has been launched, and found that it was very popular and being used to good effect in lessons. It plays an important role in conveying defence issues to young people in the classroom.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know that the Army is putting together a people programme, which will look at the facilities offered to our service personnel when they are not on operations. He knows that peer-group pressure is one method we can use—when people return home, they can explain to their friends what a great life it is being in the forces. Will he, however, look into our traditional recruiting areas and whether they were damaged by the mergers of the battalions and regiments, and will he present a review of that to the House?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend will see that recruitment to the Army has increased: there was a 25 per cent. rise in the last financial year, and we continue to work hard to ensure that that is the case. He is right in one respect, however: the best ambassadors are our armed forces personnel themselves when they go back to their communities; another is people seeing the outstanding job being doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the important role the forces continue to play elsewhere in the world and in the UK. It is also important that we link in our veterans, as they are great ambassadors for the armed forces, too. I believe that we continue to do well in terms of recruitment in what is currently a very buoyant economy where there are many different opportunities for young people.

Topical Questions

T1. [169635] Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As Secretary of State for Defence, my departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need to achieve success in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in the future. I have today made written ministerial statements on the signing of a contract for the purchase
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of a sixth C-17 Globemaster aircraft to be delivered in 2008, and on the letting of a contract for the future provision of marine services to the Royal Navy.

Ms Clark: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the representations that have been made in relation to MOD Beith in my constituency and the continuation of an apprenticeship scheme there. Will he hear further representations on the business case for such an apprenticeship scheme, and will he meet the relevant trade unions?

Des Browne: I commend my hon. Friend for her support for the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Beith. I have a personal interest in this matter as my older brother served his apprenticeship there many years ago when it was another institution. I recently wrote to my hon. Friend about the decision taken in 2004 to close the apprenticeship training scheme at Beith. I know that that disappointed her, but the decision was based on the analysis of the business requirement over the next 10 years. There is a declining market for the complex weapons that are processed at Beith, and there was not a sustainable opportunity for apprenticeships in the context of such a business case. However, my hon. Friend is, of course, entitled to make representations on behalf of her constituents and businesses in her constituency, including this one, and I will be happy to meet her at an early opportunity, when we can also discuss whether I need to meet others who wish to make representations.

T2. [169636] Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Given that our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made an immense effort to build relations between the UK and India, what is the Ministry of Defence doing to strengthen relations between ourselves and India on defence issues?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): We see India as an increasingly important strategic partner across a wide range of issues. India is increasingly engaged globally, including as a supplier of troops to the United Nations. We expect the current high level of defence engagement to continue. We see India as an important strategic partner and we continue to engage with it very strongly on defence.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Chief of the General Staff says that the Army has

and the Assistant Chief of the Naval Staff says that

Which of those statements should the country be more worried about?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The Army is stretched—I have accepted that. I have been saying for some time that if we continue to ask it to operate at this tempo in the long term, that will be unsustainable. Over that period, we have been reducing the pressure on the Army. It is recognised that with the conclusion of Operation Banner in Northern Ireland
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and of the operation in Bosnia, and the planned reduction in the number of troops in Iraq, a significant amount of that pressure will be reduced.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech to the Conservative party conference suggested that the Army needed three further battalions. I do not believe that the Army needs that or that it thinks that it needs that. I accept that we need a balanced force structure in the Army, but that debate will not be helped by people seeking soundbites, particularly the sort that do not bring with them the commitment to invest the £700 million that would be necessary to make them reality.

On the Navy, the process of reducing the fleet was started by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported at the end of the cold war, and has continued in line with the White Paper of 2004 in respect of numbers. The most important thing about our Navy is that with fewer ships it can deliver precisely the same tactical effect as before. I recognise that that does not mean that it can deliver the same strategic effect—that is a function of numbers rather than one of capability—but the ships that the Navy has have significantly greater capability.

Dr. Fox: But it is not just about manning where there is a gap. There are real gaps at the moment—we have a real shortage of battlefield helicopters, as I saw in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago. That came as a direct result of this Government’s decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004. We may be getting more helicopters now, but people in the field are asking what sort of idiots cut the helicopter budget in the middle of two wars. We have ended up with not enough helicopters, soldiers or ships, we are not even paying all our troops and the Prime Minister gives us a part-time Defence Secretary to boot. Do Ministers understand that it is not only former defence chiefs who are angry about this, but increasing numbers inside and outside the armed forces?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows two things about helicopters from his trip to Afghanistan. The first is that operational helicopter hours in Afghanistan have increased significantly over the past months and that there are plans to increase the number of helicopters quite significantly. He also knows that that investment has been made and that one cannot just buy helicopters off the shelf—one must get them from the production line and make them deployable, and that takes some time.

T4. [169638] Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen the opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan, commissioned by the BBC and published today, which shows massive public support for the NATO military presence in Afghanistan and only 4 per cent. of respondents supporting the Taliban? Is that not an encouraging vindication of the great efforts and sacrifice of our troops on the ground, whose courage and professionalism we all so much admire in this House?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): My hon. Friend is right about what we have achieved in Afghanistan. Those who had the pleasure of speaking to the representatives of 12 Mech Brigade when they were in this House last Thursday would know why. Those troops and others who have been on the ground
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in Afghanistan know fine well what they have been achieving over the past six months, building on the work of the taskforce that was there before them. Those who say that we face strategic defeat in Afghanistan do not understand what our troops have achieved there. Every time we have faced the Taliban, we have defeated them. That is why 60 to 70 per cent. of the people of Afghanistan support the presence of the international security assistance force troops.

T3. [169637] Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): On 19 November, the Secretary of State skilfully avoided the question of whether Lord Drayson “approved in advance” the closure of the Defence Export Services Organisation. The reply given was:

Will the Secretary of State give a one-word answer to the question whether Lord Drayson knew?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The hon. Gentleman knows fine well that the structure of Government is a matter for the Prime Minister. It has been so for every Government who have ever governed this country, and it will continue to be so.

T5. [169639] Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): A written answer earlier this year showed that the Government have spent more than £2.3 billion on external consultants. Does the Secretary of State think that that was good value for money and could it not have been better spent on, for example, our ageing helicopter fleet?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Significant money has been spent on our helicopter fleet, as we have already discussed. The value of consultants is in whether they genuinely add value to a process and bring skills into government that government does not have. One cannot answer that question in the general sense without examining every contract involved. I am certain that every contract was let on the basis that the consultants coming in would add value.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Last Thursday and Friday, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and I had the privilege of attending the defence ethics seminar at Shrivenham. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that seminar is given the support it needs to continue in the future? It is a valuable asset for our services. In addition, will he ensure that other Members of Parliament also enjoy the privilege of attending?

Des Browne: Yes.

T6. [169640] Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): There is real concern among some troops training to go on operations that they do not have access to some of the equipment that they will use on those operations. Will the Secretary of State assure members of 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example, that they will have full access to some of the excellent equipment that is being made available, especially night-vision goggles for drivers, which is of great concern to all ranks?

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): So far as it is possible to do so, yes. The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an issue that is raised tangentially, if not directly, in the Select Committee report that was published this morning. The success of urgent operational requirements—UORs—has generated another challenge. Our ability to get good equipment into theatre generates another challenge of providing enough of it to enable people to train with it in anticipation of deployment. We are doing everything that we can to ensure that we meet that demand.

T7. [169641] Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The Minister will be aware of errors that have occurred in the salaries of members of the armed forces. Will he undertake to review the joint personnel administration system, and perhaps to introduce a 24-hour hotline for members of armed forces to query such errors?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): This is one of the biggest systems ever introduced, as I said earlier. If we consider where we were last year, with the problems that we had with the RAF, compared with where we are today, following the introduction of the system to the Army, we can see that we have taken a tremendous step forward. Improving the training, guidance and instructions has been an important aspect of improving the overall efficiency of the system. We are always seeking to improve access for service personnel who have queries about their pay and allowances, including those on operations, and we continue to make improvements.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): In my constituency, which is the home of the Royal Navy, we greatly welcomed the announcement of the order for two new aircraft carriers. Can my hon. Friend give me any indication of the progress of the joint venture that will help to deliver them?

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Progress on the joint venture is going well and there is no truth in any of the stories in the press about problems in that regard. The two aircraft carriers will be welcomed by my hon. Friend’s constituents, as they will be by the Royal Navy and the nation as a whole.

T8. [169643] Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with his NATO counterparts about additional combat troops for Afghanistan if, as seems likely, Canada pulls its troops out next year?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The answer is yes, I have such conversations regularly. I do not accept that it is likely that Canada will pull its troops out. It is of course for the Canadian Government and Parliament to make a decision, but by no stretch of the imagination is the situation as pessimistic as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

T9. [169644] Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): Why does the Secretary of State think Lord Guthrie described the Government’s attitude to the armed forces as “mystifying”?

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am happy to speak for myself, but I am not content to stand at the Dispatch Box and speak for Lord Guthrie. Just as I ask people to judge me by my actions, so people should perhaps judge Lord Guthrie by his actions and then they can come to their own conclusions about why he did what he did.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the comments of Field Marshal Lord Inge who in a debate in the other place on 22 November cautioned the people who were arguing for the immediate need to resuscitate the three battalions? Is not the onus on individuals who argue for the three battalions, including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), to say where they will find the money to pay for them?

Des Browne: I welcome debate about our armed forces—about their size, their deployment and our support for them. However, I am mystified about the three battalions, which appear to have support from Conservative Front-Bench Members. They will cost £700 million if they are added to the Army, yet Tory Front Benchers want to be able to tell the country that they do not intend to spend any additional money on the armed forces. That does not make sense to me, but perhaps they will explain it to the country at some stage.

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Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I thank Defence Ministers for working with their colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to provide more financial resources for Her Majesty’s coroner for Wiltshire, which has been of great comfort to the bereaved. What progress is the Secretary of State making with the Scottish Executive on a seamless approach to the problem of the repatriation of the bodies of those who have fallen? What progress can we expect to see in the near future?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of what has been achieved between our Department and, principally, the Ministry of Justice in challenging and difficult circumstances. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the support and co-operation we have all received from all coroners, whether in Wiltshire, Oxford or elsewhere in the country, in dealing with those issues. There is a challenge for the Scottish jurisdiction, because it does not enjoy the power to hold inquiries into deaths that take place abroad. Discussions have been ongoing for some time and they will continue. There is willingness on the part of Scottish Ministers to try to resolve the issue, against the challenges it might generate for their jurisdiction more broadly, which I understand. There is willingness to resolve the issue, but it should not be resolved to the detriment of the families, so we have to be careful how we do it.

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Points of Order

3.32 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 7 June, I raised in the House concerns about the conduct of the chief executive of Warrington borough council. An e-mail from the council has been disclosed to me making it clear that officers considered an action against me for defamation following those remarks. It was accompanied by a letter from the borough solicitor reserving the right to take legal action in the future. As the guardian of the privileges of the House, what advice can you offer anyone in local government who seeks to challenge those privileges? As the contemplation of legal action appears to arise from a question I put to the Leader of the House, can you confirm that remarks made in the House are privileged and that no legal action can be founded on them?

Mr. Speaker: As a Member of Parliament in my own right, it is usually the case—at least it is in Glasgow—that I take advice from local government officers. I do not give them advice; it is the other way around. I can confirm to the hon. Lady that words spoken in the House are protected by parliamentary privilege; outside the House the same protection does not apply.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you yet received a request from the Prime Minister for permission to come to the House to make a statement to clarify his on-the-record assertion that the Leader of the House of Commons first knew about illegal donations to the Labour party on—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Dr. Blackman-Woods.

Mr. Gale: Shall I take that as a no?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman can draw no conclusions whatsoever.

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