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10 Jan 2008 : Column 577

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It must be related to the point of order that the Leader of the House made on the business for next week, and nothing else.

Mrs. May: I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise if I attempted to relate my point of order on business questions to the point of order from the Leader of the House, but it is about business questions. I have a point of order about business questions this morning. Is it not possible for me to raise it as a separate point of order?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Yes. [ Laughter. ] Briefly.

Mrs. May: An issue was raised in business questions as to whether the Leader of the Opposition had received the Senior Salaries Review Body report on MPs’ pay, and the Leader of the House indicated that it had been sent to him on Monday. I understand that it was received in his office yesterday, but he did not receive volume 1, which related to the report on Members’ pay. He received only volume 2, which contains the appendices. I wanted your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to how I could ensure that the record was put straight on that matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Clearly, all documents that are necessary in order that Members of this House can carry out their business should be made available in the correct way as quickly as possible. The right hon. Lady has made her point, it is now clearly on the record and perhaps we ought to move on to the next business.

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Armed Forces Personnel

2.58 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I beg to move,

I welcome the opportunity to debate issues relating to the men and women of the armed forces. It is common ground that they are remarkable people, who perform extremely difficult and arduous tasks in some of the most dangerous places in the world. I have been deeply impressed by their work and, especially through my visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen at first hand the magnificent efforts that they make. Everything we achieve is down to them and they have my deepest gratitude and most profound respect.

As a Government, we have a duty to ensure that we offer armed services personnel—and their families—the support that they need and deserve. Delivering that poses several challenges, but I believe that the Government are rising to meet them and will continue to do so.

In the past 18 months, we have made real improvements to the welfare package that we offer our forces. I will not list them all in detail here, but they include: the introduction of a tax-free operational bonus of £2,230; council tax discount for those on operations; free post; more free telephone calls and internet access; a new child care voucher scheme that can be used both in the UK and overseas; improvements to mental health treatment; a military managed ward at Selly Oak, and an increase in the number of military nurses there. That is alongside all the improvements made to ensure that those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have the best equipment and kit possible.

Hon. Members will have seen reports in the media this morning about a small number of UK service personnel and civilians who received life-saving emergency blood transfusions of US blood while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That blood might not have had a valid retrospective test. First, I should stress that the blood transfusions saved those people’s lives. However, even though only a small number of personnel—18—are affected and the risks of infection are very low, we take the matter extremely seriously. Immediately on learning about the risk to our people, my Department acted quickly and promptly to establish who might be involved and where those people were and to ensure that they were offered the appropriate support, counselling and testing. All 18 UK service personnel, whether still serving or veterans, have now been contacted. I would like to reassure hon. Members that, while our own procedures for blood transfusions on operations are robust, we are not complacent and review them regularly.

We have achieved a lot in the support that we provide not only for our forces but for their families. Families have a key role in supporting their loved ones. Without them, the British armed forces could not be the success story they are. The frequency with which they are required to move location affects their access to health services, the education for their children, employment prospects for partners and, obviously, their personal relationships. We need to take stock of what we have already achieved and what more is needed.

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That is why the Government have launched a cross-Government personnel strategy, which is considering—for the first time—what more might be done across all Departments to support past and present members of the armed forces and their families. The personnel Command Paper will consider the progress already made, identify areas for improvement and propose new initiatives for our and other Departments. Key matters on which we will concentrate include accommodation, education, health, welfare and social care and inquests, and veterans support, which cuts across many of those issues and others.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I welcome the review of accommodation because it is important. However, given that the cross-party Public Accounts Committee has described nearly half of all service accommodation as substandard and that the Army’s surveys show that half the soldiers feel that the maintenance of their accommodation is not what it should be, does the Secretary of State at least understand the strong feeling of many soldiers that the Government have forgotten the first world war concept of “homes fit for heroes”?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I shall tackle in more detail in my speech. To give the matter, which is so important to our armed forces, the priority that it deserves, I shall respond to his point generally now and deal with some aspects in more detail in a few moments.

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the issue as an important one. I would have more respect for him if his memory of how we came to be in this position was a bit more comprehensive than it appears to be. I say that because we have discussed the issue over some months and I have been impressed by the ability of hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise that it is a legacy problem, arising from a failure to invest in that accommodation over many decades—and, in some cases, over the best part of a century.

That means that all of us in the House have a responsibility. The issue needs to be addressed in this century, and within a reasonable time period. My responsibility as the Secretary of State is to identify the resources, and a time scale and a programme of work that are reasonable, taking into account all the other challenges that go with dealing with accommodation. They include the fact that we have busy armed forces that have to operate in the same environment in which we carry out that work and the fact that people have to live there. There must be a recognition of the capacity challenge in relation to our ability to do that and the logistical challenge in relation to planning. I have repeatedly set out our plans on that and will do so again in this speech. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is insufficient—that there is a faster and more efficient way of doing the work and that his party intends to put in additional resources of such a scale that the work will be completed quicker—he should give us chapter and verse on that. I would be pleased to hear that, because I have heard no such arguments from anybody.

We have to accept that the responsibility will stretch over a period of time. I believe that I, as the Secretary of State, and the Department are facing up to it. We are putting the investment in and I recognise the effect
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that it has. There are manifest improvements. I invite the hon. Gentleman to go round the estate and visit the places where those improvements are not just manifest, but are being enjoyed on a considerable scale by our armed forces. He has that invitation, and he can rise to his feet to tell me that he accepts it. If he does, I will make arrangements for him to go and see some of the best, as well as some of the worst if he likes.

Mr. Baron: I welcome that invitation from the Defence Secretary and will indeed take him up on it. Perhaps he would also like to join me in a visit to the cavalry barracks in Hounslow, to which the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers will return in the spring. I will show him accommodation that is clearly substandard and that has been condemned in the past.

However, to return to the Defence Secretary’s earlier point, although I accept that we cannot consider the issue in isolation, the Government have been in power for 10 years. No matter what he does, he cannot run away from that fact, nor can he run away from the fact that the Army’s own surveys and the House’s—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May I say to the Defence Secretary and the House that we have a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches today? Time is of the essence and the hon. Gentleman is seeking to catch my eye. Interventions take time and so does responding to them, however seductive that might appear, as the Defence Secretary will be aware. I ask the House to bear that in mind.

Des Browne: I am conscious of the need for me to respect the rights of Back Benchers to make contributions to this important debate.

The hon. Gentleman and I have much more in common on the issue than would appear from this exchange. We will seek an opportunity to share invitations outside the Chamber in such a way that we can both see the best and the worst, and the scale and nature of the challenge.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the example of the Hounslow barracks, to which the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) referred, is the fact that the Army needs to make a strategic decision in London on where it will concentrate its housing? That decision must be taken before the major investments come forward, so although Hounslow is an example of bad practice, it is also a false example.

Des Browne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It would not serve this debate well for me to go through all the individual challenges that we face in accommodation and on the estate. It would serve us and our relationship with the armed forces well if we recognised that the issue has been neglected for far too long and that it is now being addressed on a scale that will improve the situation within a reasonable period of time. I will ensure that the resources that are devoted to that are properly invested and that if I find more, I will devote them to it, bearing in mind the challenges created by other work going on across the country on securing the building capacity to carry it out.

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Let me move on. The personnel Command Paper to which I referred is being prepared. The Government would welcome constructive contributions to the strategy that underpins that. I assure the House that all contributions from right hon. and hon. Members will be considered.

We also want to see the nation as a whole understanding and appreciating our armed forces. That is why we are undertaking a national recognition study to identify exactly what more can be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is leading that study and I am sure that the whole House looks forward to hearing his proposals. The end result will, I hope, be a nation that better demonstrates its appreciation of what our brave servicemen and women do on our behalf. They deserve no less.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Will the Secretary of State consider or put his weight behind requests for a decoration, medal or award for the families of the dead and those who have been wounded in action?

Des Browne: The issues that underpin the hon. Gentleman’s question generate a significant amount of support across the House and in our wider society, as is also seen in campaigns to achieve the same. They are welcome to the extent that they show the level of support generated in recognition of what our armed forces are doing. I am sure that he, among others, is particularly well placed to understand what I am going to say.

As a Minister of the Crown, I am very wary of expressing opinions about individual medals and honours for the very reason that this country has a system that relies on a process that is independent of politicians—and most certainly independent of politicians in the Executive. Taking decisions about whether medals should be struck for service, valour or other contributions involves a process that this Department reports and accounts for, but in respect of which decision making lies outside and independent of that Department, which is as it should be. The assessment of whether recommendations should be made to the independent committee is made in the traditional way—and it is now constitutional, I believe, as it is a convention of the constitution that is well practised by the chiefs of staff. That is where it is should lie. That is why, when I am constantly invited to express views about this issue, I resist the temptation to do so.

Candidly, at the end of the day, if most politicians are honest with themselves, we all understand why it is better if politicians stand well away from this particular form of Executive decision making. I suspect that if it were left to politicians, there would be a tendency to over-decorate and present awards and baubles to too many people. That is not what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but I think that he understands my point, which is why the convention exists. I trust that he will allow me to respect that convention, without diminishing my tribute to the motivation that underpins his argument.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I want to ask my right hon. Friend about an issue that affects many service personnel. When we debate the treatment of casualties, we tend to focus on what they receive when
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they get back to the United Kingdom rather than on the first hour or two after suffering their injuries. However, if we want to ensure that they live, the first hour or two is the most important time for intervention. Is he confident that we do everything that we can in theatre and that we explore every scientific advance to ensure that as many of our casualties as possible are kept alive?

Des Browne: I unequivocally assure my hon. Friend that, if not the best, we are as good as the best in the world in the medical care that we provide to our forces in operations. I believe that I have made a total of 12 visits to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 18 months and on every occasion, if my memory serves me correctly, I have made a point of attending the hospital and medical facilities in order to pay respect to, and admire, the enormous skill displayed there. The equipment is second to none and the facilities are second to none. That is now playing through.

I cannot remember precisely the evidence that the surgeon-general gave to the Select Committee, but he provided some striking evidence of survival rates. Candidly—this relatively crude way of putting it does no disrespect to the nature of these circumstances—very experienced consultants have said to me on more than one occasion that many people were returning from theatre in circumstances in which it might have been thought that they had no right to be alive within a comparatively short period of time. The success of their treatment during that period and thereafter is second to none. I believe that those people are receiving the best possible treatment, and that the centre is the match of the best polytrauma centres in civilian hospitals and the equal of any other military medical facility in the world. That is to the credit of those who—during our time in office, but before that as well—have met the difficult challenges of designing a modern medical facility and service. By common consent it was not always the best that it could have been, but I believe that it is now.

Given that this is a comparatively short debate, and given the House’s new rules about Front-Bench speeches, time is of the essence. I intend to concentrate for the remainder of my speech on a small number of issues that are of key concern both to the armed forces and to hon. Members.

I do not deny that, at present, members of the armed forces bear a heavy load. As I have said before, along with the chiefs of staff, they are stretched. We are asking a great deal of our service personnel, and the operational tempo is high. However, we have taken decisive action to address that. In the last 12 months alone, we have reduced our commitments in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq. Between July and September this year, 17 per cent. of regular forces were deployed on operations. That is a reduction of 5 per cent. on the previous quarter. This spring, conditions permitting and subject to the advice of commanders on the ground, we aim to improve on that and reduce numbers in Iraq further.

All three services are undergoing restructuring to realign personnel numbers so that they can be focused on where they are needed most. The retention incentives that we have introduced are proving successful. Of those offered the incentive package, 100 per cent. of unmanned aerial vehicle operators and 88 per cent. of
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infantrymen have accepted it. Contrary to what hon. Members may have been led to believe by recent media reports, recruitment to the armed forces has increased. The most recent annual statistics show an increase in the number joining the forces. In 2006-07, we gained 19,790 new recruits from civilian life—99.6 per cent. of the target. That is an increase of 9.3 per cent. Army recruiting increased by 8 per cent. during the last financial year, with infantry enlistments up by 25 per cent.

Patrick Mercer: I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way again. The fact remains that while recruitment may be improving, he knows very well that retention in training is appalling—40 per cent. of infantry recruits fall out—and retention in service is equally dreadful. Will he be quite clear about the depth of the crisis that faces, in particular, our combat arms, many of which are having to deploy at 50 per cent. of their combat effectiveness?

Des Browne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have enormous respect for his knowledge of the circumstances, but I do not accept that there is a crisis, although I do accept that there are issues in relation to retention. We are operating in an employment market that is very different from the one in which the forces operated 10 years or more ago, when many young men in my constituency had no alternative but to join the armed forces. We are competing now. Another crucially important point is that the added value of an armed forces training makes it a very valuable commodity. The private sector is competing to attract away from the armed forces people whom we have formed, matured and trained to a level which, in my view, would not be reached in any other walk of life.

Those are the realities, and they face not just our armed forces but armed forces throughout the developed world. All the Defence Ministers to whom I speak face the same challenges and problems. I recognise that we must develop methods, along with a modern response to the armed forces by society which is such that people will not only volunteer or allow themselves to be recruited but, once trained and effective, will stay in the forces and continue to contribute. We have had considerable success in some areas, although there are issues which I do not seek to avoid. The retention incentives need to be developed—and we have been developing them with some success, as is clear from the examples that I have given.

Obviously, a high percentage of personnel are currently deployed on operations and, because of that, harmony levels have been affected. Harmony levels have, however, improved over the past year by 3 per cent. for the Army, and they have remained steady for the Royal Navy, but they have worsened for the RAF, with 6.7 per cent. breaching harmony compared with 2.9 per cent. a year ago. I am grateful to all our personnel for their efforts, but particularly to those whose harmony guidelines have not been met. We have a duty to recognise such commitment; living up to that duty underpins everything I have set out today.

In recognition of the Government’s commitment to the armed forces, we granted them the best public sector pay deal last year: 3.3 per cent. In particular, we addressed the concerns of the lowest ranks by increasing their pay by more than 9 per cent. In fact, in all but one of the last five years armed forces salary growth has exceeded that of the whole economy.

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