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Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and the priority he is giving to Afghanistan issues. Does he agree that if the Afghans are to buy into the new state we must not only maintain security, but make progress in terms of economic development? Will he therefore press the United Nations to encourage the international community not only to be better co-ordinated, but to do more on security and economic development?

The Prime Minister: I want to praise the work of my hon. Friend in linking up with women in Afghanistan to encourage the emerging process of democracy in the country. She is right that we need the UN co-ordinator appointed for February, and we need that role to be better than the current one in co-ordinating the development efforts of all the different countries involved in Afghanistan and in building a strong relationship that is supportive to the Afghan Government. We also of course need the international effort she talks about to be expanded. We will, as a result of this statement, make all our efforts to do that.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. When members of the International Development Committee were in Afghanistan at the end of October we visited not only Kabul but the rural area around it, and Helmand in the south and Balkh in the north. There was a recognition that there was a real commitment and a long-term strategy, which people in Afghanistan appreciate—and people in this country need to understand that. In particular, I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to additional development and reconstruction funding of £450 million, and I urge the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement in the House at an appropriate time as to how it will be deployed, and to resist the call from the Leader of the Opposition to concentrate all those resources in Helmand as we must instead understand that we have to build up the capacity of the Afghan Government across the whole country.

The Prime Minister: Building up the capacity of the Afghan Government is in many ways the theme of the statement; we need Afghan ownership so that in security, economics and, of course, governance, Afghans can take the lead that is expected of countries when they are running their own affairs. As far as the budget is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman will, as a member of the International Development Committee, want to question in detail the Secretary of State for International Development on where the money will go. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that £350 million comes from the DFID aid budget, and the extra money is from the stabilisation fund that we created involving the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and DFID. That money is spent on stabilising economies in difficulty and fractured societies. It will go as a priority to Afghanistan, because as he knows, that is where the need is now greatest. The £450 million that we talk about will be provided from a combination of development money and money from the stabilisation unit.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Last month, Members attended a briefing of senior Army officers led by General Sir Richard Dannatt, at which the Secretary of State for Defence was present.
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One of the problems they identified was the lack of equipment for training purposes immediately before deployment. Clearly, there is a danger when servicemen suddenly find themselves using new equipment in theatre. What are the Government doing to address that problem that the Army has identified, and can they give us any idea of the time scale in which it will be dealt with?

The Prime Minister: I have also talked to General Dannatt about these issues. We have funded new equipment on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq through what are called the UOR—the urgent operational requirements—so it is possible by the expenditure of large sums of money to get the most modern and up-to-date equipment quickly into the theatre or field. That is what we have been trying to do. I think I am right in saying that UORs have accounted for more than £2 billion in recent years, and we have set aside additional money over the next few years. If we are putting such equipment straight into theatre, that raises questions about the resources that we have available for equipment for training. We are now giving attention to that. The hon. Lady is right to raise this point, but it is a function of the success of getting the best equipment into theatre as quickly as possible.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Prime Minister will be aware that 18 months ago we warned the Government that one combat unit being sent to Afghanistan was wholly inadequate. Now there are five major units in theatre and the pips are squeaking on Army manning. Will the Prime Minister please dedicate himself to restoring the Army to full manning and reversing the disastrous decision to disband three battalions?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is right that the Army wishes to, and should be able to, increase its establishment. In terms of the armed forces as a whole, when we came to power they were, I think, 95 per cent. established—in other words, 95 per cent. of the necessary level of troops were provided. I think that figure is now 97 per cent. He is therefore right that we wish to recruit and retain more troops for the armed forces—that is what we intend to do and that is what we budget for. He makes the important point that this is about recruitment and then about retention. We shall do whatever we can, in consultation with the armed forces, to move that forward.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must move on, but I shall remember those whom I have not called for another time.

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Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Military Covenant

Mr. Speaker: I have to inform the House that I have selected the amendment tabled in the name of the Prime Minister.

1.30 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I beg to move,

I very much welcome the opportunity to have this debate on the military covenant, and it is apt that it should directly follow the Prime Minister’s statement on action in Afghanistan. I start by paying tribute to all our service personnel. It was clear from the statement that Members on both sides of this House are united in recognising the professionalism, courage and bravery of the world-class fighting force that constitutes the British armed forces. We pay tribute to them and to the veterans who have served before them.

This has been an eventful week with the recapture of Musa Qala and the handover of Basra province to the Iraqi authorities, which took place, at last, a few days ago. We should acknowledge the success of the British troops, working alongside our allies, in both those theatres and we should recognise the honour and the duty that we owe them in the light of all that. The military covenant, and the commitment that it implies, extends not only to the troops but to their families. As Christmas approaches, we should remember that many families will be apart, and that people will be anxious and lonely on account of that. We should think of the families as well as the troops.

That is what the military covenant is all about—the implicit two-way trust and bond between the armed services and the nation. Members of the armed forces put their lives on the line and risk everything for the nation, and in return the nation has a duty to look after them, ensure that they are in a position to do the job that is asked of them and give them the assurance that when they are risking everything in operational theatre their families are being looked after adequately back at home. In that sense, it is clear that more remains to be done.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the interviews that were conducted by the Ministry of Defence at the Argyll and Sutherland
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Highlanders’ barracks in Canterbury during the summer? The feedback contained a litany of criticism, including complaints about partners being deployed for too long and people’s pay being regularly messed up, and about a cut in the financial assistance for people travelling back to Scotland from their barracks in Kent. Are those not the kind of shortcomings that need to be sorted out?

Nick Harvey: I am sure that such shortcomings do need to be sorted out. The first of those—the too frequent deployment of the armed forces—is certainly worthy of our attention. It is well documented that our armed forces are very stretched. We have not, as yet, prised the word “overstretch” from the lips of any Minister, but senior officers and some of the defence chiefs are less reticent about acknowledging that we are asking an awful lot of the troops, and that that constitutes overstretch. For several years the defence planning assumptions have been exceeded and the harmony guidelines, which determine or indicate how frequently the armed forces should be out on active duty—six months in every three years—have been habitually broken. The hon. Gentleman refers to exactly that point when he tells us about the feedback from families. This is a serious issue and the situation cannot go on as it is. If it does, in the words of General Sir Richard Dannatt, there is a distinct danger that we could “break” the Army.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that things are not as bad as some people would have us believe? A recent independent survey carried out for the Ministry of Defence said that 92 per cent. of Army officers and 79 per cent. of other ranks felt proud to be in the Army.

Hon. Members: Of course they are proud.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman has heard the reaction of the House. Someone’s pride in being a member of the armed forces and their satisfaction with their lot across a wide front are two very different things. I am picking up on the latter point, which is the subject of this debate.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that what most damages our forces, especially when they are on deployment, is the thought that their pay and allowances are not being put into their family’s accounts to meet their requirements —as happened to a constituent of mine—and the failure of the joint personnel administration scheme?

Nick Harvey: There has been a series of difficulties with the transfer to the joint personnel administration. Possibly my hon. Friend goes too far by badging the whole thing as a failure, but teething problems have arisen as it has been rolled out across the armed forces. Mess-ups in the pay arrangements are hard to bear on top of everything else, but I pay tribute to those who have done their utmost to put those right as quickly as they can. As time goes on, the purpose of the JPA will be fulfilled, and it will result in an improvement across the piece in the long run.

Part of the problem is that engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be longer and more hostile than originally anticipated. The Prime Minister reiterated today that we are in Afghanistan for the long haul. There is a consensus across this House that that is
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the right approach and that, for the reasons articulated today, this is something that we must do. It will remain a serious burden on, and challenge for, our armed forces for many years to come. We must try to ensure that that long-term commitment does not mean that deployments abroad are longer and more frequent than they should be. That is one of the key senses in which the military covenant is being broken, and there is quite a lot of agreement in this House about that. Even the Government have acknowledged that there is some way to go and that more will need to be done. This autumn, the Royal British Legion launched its campaign to honour the covenant, and that has played a useful part in raising public awareness of these problems and concentrating the minds of the political community.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): On that campaign, does my hon. Friend agree that probably every Member of this House regularly receives representations from constituents who have served in the armed forces and suffered as a consequence? In some cases, people have suffered loss of hearing from long exposure to blasts. Yet such people are often denied pensions or compensation—indeed, the MOD spends considerable sums denying any kind of connected responsibility. Does he agree that that matter ought to be part of the covenant and that it should be recognised that if one has a disability as a result of serving in the armed forces, one should get proper compensation?

Nick Harvey: In principle, that is supposed to happen. The whole point of the military pension is that, in principle, it recognises and acknowledges exactly those points and makes some ongoing remuneration to cover them. I come across those who are dissatisfied with the military pension award that they have received, as I am sure other hon. Members do. There sometimes seems to be a difference in attitude between how the British face up to things such as Gulf war syndrome and the approach taken by the Americans and other of our allies. They tend to be far more ready to acknowledge things and to step in to offer remedy.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Was it not the Labour Government who brought in the armed forces compensation scheme in the last Parliament, which for the first time introduced lump sum payments for those injured in battle? That was not opposed by the Liberal Democrats or by the British Legion, or even commented on at the time.

Nick Harvey: I am sure that nobody opposed that, as it was a worthwhile scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman and others will be aware of considerable dissatisfaction with the way it has worked in practice, in that those with compound injuries were compensated only for the most serious of them. The Government have announced some modifications to the scheme recently, and it remains to be seen how it will work in the future. It is a worthwhile scheme, but as yet it is not functioning satisfactorily.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Everyone welcomed that legislation, but the trouble was that it did not cover everybody. It contained exceptions that are causing great personal tragedies and loss, for individuals and families.

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Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend is right, and further improvement is clearly needed. The Government have said that they will introduce a new Command Paper to address the welfare of the armed forces. That is welcome, although I do not know when it will be published. We look forward to seeing their proposals and we welcome the fact that it must be implicit in their intention to introduce such a paper that they are acknowledging that a wide range of problems needs to be put right. I hope that there will not be too much delay before we can see that Command Paper and start debating it.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the debate launched by the Royal British Legion on this issue. I do not believe that the covenant has been broken, but we do have to do much more to improve it and to remain focused on it. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned several issues, including families and so on. I had the privilege of serving as the veterans Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we could better address some of the issues if we had a separate veterans’ department within the Ministry of Defence to work with organisations such as the Royal British Legion to focus the whole time on issues affecting veterans and ex-servicemen and women?

Nick Harvey: That would certainly be a welcome further development. We welcomed the creation of the Veterans Agency, but taking that distinction into the heart of Government would further improve the work of attending to the particular needs of veterans.

The Government are doing what they can to try to improve the lot of those on the front line. For example, they recently improved the parcels regime, so that more parcels get through to the troops on the front line. I recently heard from some serving troops in Iraq, who said that they were very grateful for the extra parcels from home, but there were some slight complaints that the Prime Minister’s visit over the weekend meant that they were not able to use phones or the internet on Sunday night. That brings me to the thorny subject of the use of the internet and telephones.

The troops were promised free wi-fi by the end of this year, but that now seems to have been pushed back to April or May next year— [ Interruption. ] Well, that is what I have heard in the past day or two. At the moment, the troops have to pay £2.50 an hour in two-hour chunks for internet access. They get 30 minutes’ free phone time a week, for which they are no doubt very grateful, but beyond that they have to pay £10 per 90 minutes. There is a concern that some front-line troops may end up in debt by having to pay for things that might well be regarded as basic welfare provision.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Is not the issue clear? Our servicemen and women are placing their lives on the line. Those sorts of things should be free to all those who are in the teeth of the enemy.

Nick Harvey: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is precisely my point. I welcome the advances that have been made, but it would be in the spirit of the obligation for those things to be entirely free.

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As we look forward to the next few years, to the financial commitments that we are promised and to the procurement budget, which appears to be in a state of flux, it is clear that we need another strategic defence review. I have made that point before, and received support for it from others. The last SDR was the best part of a decade ago, and the world today is very different in terms of the stresses and strains and the demands placed on our armed forces. Another SDR is long overdue, and if we are to better fulfil the military covenant and consider where our future priorities lie, it is an absolute necessity. We should get on with a new SDR now and we should also make a commitment to doing so regularly. The Americans have one every four years, and we should do so at least once a Parliament. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that.

In the past 12 months—and especially in the last few days—we have seen a great deal of coverage of service housing. In December last year, the former Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, described forces accommodation as “frankly shaming”, and there has certainly been an unfortunate catalogue of errors. Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers, the Adjutant-General, recently conceded that the Army has to fight for receipts from asset sales to be reinvested in the housing programme, but our armed forces should not have to lobby the Government for quality accommodation for themselves and their families. The Government should be on the front foot and provide it anyway.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does my hon. Friend accept that before 1996, when the Ministry of Defence sold off any surplus housing or land, all the proceeds went into upgrading housing stock, but that following the privatisation by the Conservative Government, Annington Homes now reaps the benefit of those sales?

Nick Harvey: It certainly reaps most of the benefit, but the Annington deal was in 1996 and the present Government came to power in 1997. It is easy to blame the whole problem on the Annington deal, and it certainly was a rotten deal for the taxpayer, but since 1997 the Treasury has had huge capital receipts from the disposal of military assets and estates. If even a modest proportion of those receipts had been reinvested in the housing stock, it would not be in the sorry state it is today.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that one of the problems with the Annington Homes deal was that it tied the Ministry of Defence into a very bad deal that was entered into by the previous Conservative Government? If he is really concerned about it, has he thought about taking the matter up with his friend in the other place, Lord Owen, who is a consultant to Terra Firma, a company that has an interest in Annington Homes?

Nick Harvey: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s description of Lord Owen as a friend, because I do not think that he is any friend of ours. However, I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this matter.

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