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As my hon. Friend points out, the equipment is not delivered by the tooth fairy. When the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and Members of Her Majesty’s Opposition say that we must do more across the piece in every area, we need to reflect on the context. In this case, the Liberal Democrats are clearer
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than the Conservatives, which does not often happen: there would be no more money for defence from the Liberal Democrats. That is what the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats said on television at the weekend, so in effect the hon. Member for North Devon is saying that all the initiatives he talks about and all the additional spending he asks for will have to come from cuts elsewhere in the defence budget.

The Liberal Democrats have questioned the joint strike fighter and Typhoon, and of course we could solve some of the RAF’s problems by entirely denying it fast jets, as the Liberal Democrats seem prepared to contemplate. However, they cannot advocate additional spending here, there and everywhere without acknowledging that there will be costs, as my hon. Friend has just pointed out so well. If they are not prepared to spend any more money—as they have clearly said—the price will be cuts elsewhere in the defence budget. If more money is to be spent on welfare, it will probably have to come from capability.

The Conservatives’ policies are not quite as clear, although as the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) seems to want to intervene, he may be able to clarify their position, but they do not answer the question; the silence is deafening. The Conservatives are reluctant to say what their policy is. Are we or are we not spending enough on defence? What is the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition? If they believe we are not spending enough, they should say so. Let us have an honest debate, not the constant pretence that gains can be made with nothing to pay. The Conservatives need to be as honest as the Liberal Democrats, and say whether they believe the defence budget is adequate. If they do not, they should say how much more it ought to be. I shall sit down so that the hon. Member for Westbury can tell us whether they would spend more on defence.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con) rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Member for Westbury has been reinforced.

Dr. Lewis: For the umpteenth time, I shall tell the Government exactly what our position is. The defence budget is not large enough for the commitments we are undertaking, so a future Conservative Government will fully fund the commitments we undertake, which will mean either more money for defence or fewer commitments, or a position between the two. The right hon. Gentleman will know all about it when the time comes, in the run-up to the next general election, which cannot come too soon for us.

Mr. Ainsworth: The House will have noticed that there was no answer either way on whether the Conservatives would spend more, just a wishful belief that the world will change, our commitments will reduce and we will live in a better place. We shall have to continue to ask whether there should be more or less for defence.

Jim Sheridan: I did not see the television programme on which the acting Liberal Democrat leader said that there would be no more defence spending. Would the £5 billion we have set aside for improving accommodation be cut, should the Liberal Democrats ever gain power?

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Mr. Ainsworth: What was said in answer to a question was clear: no more spending on defence. If more spending is needed on the areas outlined by the hon. Member for North Devon, who says we are not spending enough on accommodation and medicine, it will come from cuts.

I turn to the capability we have delivered. Many Members attended a recent meeting to which Members of both Houses were invited by General Dannatt, when Colonel Westley, who has just returned from theatre, told us that the British infantryman is better equipped now than ever before and that there had been few complaints from his soldiers in the past few years.

There have been decades of underinvestment in housing for our personnel, so it is taking some time to put things right, but we are moving fast and much of our accommodation is now of a good standard; for example, 95 per cent. of service family accommodation is graded in the highest two categories of condition. The hon. Member for North Devon talked about substandard accommodation, but all our properties meet the decent homes standard. Only 145 service family homes are in the lowest standard, and by the end of this financial year the number will be reduced to about 81, so it is wrong to say that thousands of service homes are substandard—they are not. Our standards are higher than those in other areas, and we have no intention of lowering them to make the figures look better. Our service people deserve better, but it is unfair to suggest that there are thousands of substandard homes.

Mr. David Hamilton: I am well aware that there is a major programme over the next five years to deal with accommodation, and that in my area about 10,000 houses are being built. Throughout the UK, an enormous amount of house building is taking place, so one of the practical problems might be insufficient workers for the repair programme. Would it be possible to set up a joint development programme so that local authorities and social housing associations combine with the Ministry of Defence? That would be very practical.

Mr. Ainsworth: The rate of building work is a problem, as my hon. Friend points out. I would be happy to talk to him about the detail of his proposal to see whether it would have practical benefits.

We have spent £700 million on accommodation over the past year alone. In this financial year, we shall be making improvements to 5,000 service family homes, including substantial upgrades to more than 600 of the poorest quality properties. By 2013, the number of bed spaces built or improved since 2001 will rise to more than 50,000. We are changing the law so that people leaving the services will be allowed a local connection to ensure that they have fair treatment compared with those in civilian life.

On health care, the survival rates for battlefield casualties are unprecedented. We provide expert medical treatment and care to injured personnel on the front line. I have visited the field hospitals at Camp Bastion and Basra air station, where the care provided is world class, as it is at Selly Oak and at our rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. I welcome some of the things the hon. Member for North Devon said, but his comments about the standard of care provided were not fair and will not be welcomed by those who
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are doing their level best to ensure that our service personnel are properly treated throughout their health care pathway.

It would be good if people looked at the facts. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) intervened and talked about the comments of an individual who was leaving the armed forces. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Defence Committee, which visits facilities on fact-finding tours all the time. If he takes part in some of those visits, he will find that he has a more rounded view.

Mr. Hancock: I did not take part in the Committee’s visit to Selly Oak, but I visited Selly Oak myself because service personnel from my constituency were there. I also visited the Ministry of Defence hospital unit in my constituency—that is on the record of the Defence Committee—so I am well aware of the situation. I represent a sizeable chunk of our service personnel—unlike the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has now left the Chamber, who gave the Minister that information and who, sadly, does not have the opportunity to hear daily of the problems of service personnel.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman is participating in the Defence Committee, which praised health provision in its recent report. I am glad that he acknowledges that.

Support for families of the injured is also important. We provide both family accommodation and funding to help with travel for families visiting injured personnel. We ensure the proper transfer of care when personnel are medically discharged, with properly managed resettlement and the monitoring of those who are seriously disabled for at least two years after their discharge.

On mental health, the risk of psychological injury as a result of operational service is a particular concern. All the research—our own research and independent research—indicates that the risk is small. However, we take it very seriously. These are serious and disabling conditions, but they can be treated. We have measures in place to increase awareness and to mitigate disorders. They include pre and post-deployment briefings, support, assessment and, if required, treatment.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am pleased that the Minister referred to the importance of families. The Government have not provided proper legal representation for families at inquests. In the forthcoming inquests of Flight Lieutenant Stead, who was one of my constituents, and the other people who were killed in his Hercules—partly because it did not have the proper suppressant foam—the Ministry of Defence will be represented by a senior barrister, but the Government will not allow the same luxury and afford the same courtesy to the families involved. Will the Minister assure the House that proper legal representation at inquests will be offered to families such as the family of Flight Lieutenant Stead?

Mr. Ainsworth: This matter has been raised repeatedly by different people, and that is perfectly and utterly understandable. I am not going to commit to legal representation and legal aid for families at a
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coroner’s inquest. The coroner’s inquest is an inquisitorial, fact-finding process. It is not always appropriate that legal representation be provided. So, we are not going to provide legal representation at coroner’s inquests, as a matter of course, in all circumstances.

Let me tell the House what I am concerned about with regard to the system. We should make sure that we are as open as we can be with people and that we reduce the appalling length of time that people have to wait. Under the current system, we wind up with a military police investigation, which sometimes goes on for months or even years. In many instances, we do not even start a board of inquiry until after that investigation is finished. A coroner is not happy or prepared to start his inquest until after the board of inquiry has completed its work and has reported. Meanwhile, the families are waiting and waiting, not certain about what happened to their loved ones and unable to get closure. We need and want to do more on that, but I am not sure that providing legal aid in the coroner’s environment is always the most appropriate thing.

Patrick Mercer: I hear what the Minister says, but the fact remains that my colleagues and I, and Labour Members, have been making exactly this point for the best part of three years. If this were my battalion and something were not being delivered that could be solved, I would want to know why. I would put the resources into it, until such time as—this is exactly the Minister’s point—the families get closure to the ghastly process of mourning.

Mr. Ainsworth: A long-standing methodology is being used. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. We cannot continue to leave people waiting as long as we do. We must try to do all that we can, which means involving other Departments and coroners co-operating to try to shorten the process. It is not acceptable to keep people waiting years for such decisions. I will see what we can do to try to improve the situation.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about delays. I have a constituent who has been waiting three and a half years for an inquest into the death of his son. However, may I press my right hon. Friend a little more on financial support for families? If the families of those who die in prison cells and police stations find that the deaths of their loved ones are considered exceptional cases, will he look at the possibility of deaths in the armed forces being considered exceptional cases? In which circumstance, financial requirements for legal aid can be waived, so families do not have to spend their life savings in an attempt to be legally represented.

Mr. Ainsworth: There are exceptional circumstances in which that may be appropriate. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend outside the Chamber about how that works and in what circumstances it ought to be allowed. We have given additional resources to the Oxford coroner and the Wiltshire coroner. There are now additional facilities and we hope to see some reduction in the time that people are waiting. There is the system to be considered as well. The additional
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resources on their own are not going to buy the benefits that we need when it comes to the delay that we are imposing on people.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I would simply point out that these casualties result from operations. They should be regarded as an exceptional cost of operations, and, therefore, the care of the servicemen’s families should come out of the Treasury reserve. We know the position that the Minister has been put in by the Treasury. He has been told that if he wants to fund coroners’ inquests and representations, the money will have to come out of some other budget in his Department. That is not acceptable. I am quite prepared to stand here and say that we should spend more on defence in order to fulfil the military covenant.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman ought at least to recognise that there have been additional resources. However, resources on their own are not going to sort the problem out. We have to do something about the delays.

Mr. Hancock: I think that the whole House shares that view and will support the Minister in anything that he can do to speed up the process. However, if the Government are not prepared to fund legal assistance for families, will they continue to fund legal assistance for MOD witnesses at coroners’ inquests and will they themselves be represented by an expensive legal counsel?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is not a blanket idea of never funding legal assistance for families, but, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the coroner investigates matters himself. If we want to put money into legal representation, in that fact-finding inquisitorial process, that is money that is coming from elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that there is other support for families, which they appreciate, and which we need to make sure is appropriately delivered. We do not necessarily want to hand that over where that is not necessarily the right and proper priority.

Dr. Julian Lewis: If the families are expected to manage at inquests without legal representation, which is an arguable point of view, why are Ministry of Defence officials, with all their professionalism and expertise, allowed to have legal representation?

Mr. Ainsworth: The coroner system is a benefit for all. There are occasions on which the MOD feels that it needs legal representation, and there are occasions on which we would consider, in exceptional circumstances, legal aid for families. However, introducing that across the piece would not be the appropriate route down which to travel.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Are not those who are calling for families to get legal assistance fundamentally misunderstanding the process in a coroner’s court? Even if the families have legal representatives, they play no direct role. Would not the money be better spent on supporting the families who go along to coroners’
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courts, rather than putting it into the pockets of lawyers, who have no role whatsoever to play in the process?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend puts it better than I do. We must consider our priorities. The families must be our concern, but we have to ensure that we are looking after their genuine needs, rather than spending money on what should not be the top priority.

Let me turn to veterans’ health. Mental illnesses sometimes do not emerge until after individuals have left the armed forces. We recently launched the first of six pilots for a new community-based veterans’ mental health service. Subject to satisfactory evaluation, the model will be rolled out widely across the country. We have increased by 45 per cent. the fees paid by the MOD for mental health care for eligible war pensioners at homes run by the charity Combat Stress to enhance the care offered.

Let me talk about compensation for our armed personnel. The commitment that we make is for life. It starts with medical care and rehabilitation. If a person is unable to return to service, or to work, there is a pension for life, which is index linked and tax free. The one-off lump sum is not an alternative to that, but an addition to recognise the up-front costs that inevitably confront a person with injuries. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) pointed out earlier, there was no up-front payment whatsoever when the Conservative party was in power.

We announced last month that over the next six months we would be pulling work together across the whole of the Government through the Command Paper on service personnel strategy. It will give us in Defence and every other Government Department the opportunity to assess what we are doing, to check our priorities, and to ensure that we are all doing all that we can to support our service personnel.

Linda Gilroy: I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend intends to say anything about welfare support packages for the families of service personnel who are on deployment. The situation has been vastly improved through access to e-mail and the telephone. May I draw to his attention the circumstances of submariners’ families? Given the way in which submarines are deployed, including the stealth aspect, families cannot keep in touch in the same manner. Will he consider the welfare of submariners’ families and, especially, ensure that they can get together before deployment so that they can draw support from each other during the very long time for which submariners may be deployed and out of touch with their families?

Mr. Ainsworth: The welfare of the families of people deployed is an important matter that will be examined by the Command Paper. We ought to look at whether we can do more for submariners as part of that process.

The hon. Member for North Devon talked about the new wi-fi facility. He should recognise that there is an allocation of free telephone calls and free internet connection in theatre. He should also recognise, as most hon. Members do—especially those who understand the armed forces—that Afghanistan is not the easiest place for connectivity. Logistically, it is about the most difficult place to run operations. We
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made a new commitment to wi-fi, but we never said that we could bring it in immediately or by the end of the year. We are looking to bring in this new additional commitment, and we will do so as soon as we are able.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not going to give way again—I have given way a lot.

Through the service personnel Command Paper, we will look to see what more we can do across the whole of the Government to check our priorities and to ensure that we are supporting our armed forces appropriately. We will thereby ensure that we honour the spirit of the military covenant.

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