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10 Jan 2008 : Column 584

One of the key issues affecting both families and single people in the forces is accommodation. To be frank, when our men and women in uniform return from theatre to their barracks, it is deplorable that some of them return to a very poor standard of accommodation. Progress is being made. In the last financial year, we delivered 5,822 modernised bed spaces; this financial year, we expect to deliver approximately 7,000 modernised bed spaces, and in the next financial year we also plan to deliver 7,000 bed spaces. Overall, it is expected that about 60,000 modernised bed spaces will be delivered by April 2013.

For the last year our public position has been that some £5 billion will be spent on housing and other accommodation over the next decade. That figure was an extrapolation of future spend based, in part, on current spending levels, and was made before the outcome of the comprehensive spending review was known. However, the £5 billion figure did not take into account a number of large private finance initiative projects that include living accommodation. The most notable of them is Project Allenby/Connaught, which will provide modern living and working accommodation for some 18,000 military and civilian personnel in the Salisbury plain and Aldershot garrisons. Maintenance and leasing of service families accommodation and single living accommodation worldwide was also excluded. In addition, the amount we plan to spend on maintenance work is now higher than that included in the £5 billion figure. Accordingly, we have reassessed our likely spend on accommodation for the next 10 years to take account of those elements previously excluded. The total amount will in fact be £8.4 billion. Of that, £3.1 billion will be spent on new-build and upgraded accommodation, £2.3 billion on refurbishment and maintenance and £3 billion on routine costs, including rent, other leasing costs and the equivalent of council tax. Over that same period, we also expect to receive £2.4 billion in rental income from service personnel, leaving a net expenditure of £6 billion.

We want to help personnel become independent home owners. We already have in place the offer of a personal loan towards a deposit after four years of service, but I think that we can improve on that and, as part of the Command Paper, work is being done to introduce arrangements to make housing more affordable for military families. We have also just extended the key worker status scheme so that all servicemen and women can qualify for the open market homebuy scheme—a scheme that can boost the buying power of a forces family by up to a third. Finally, we have agreed with the Department for Communities and Local Government that those leaving the services will have access to social housing on a par with everyone else in the area in which they will settle; they will no longer go to the bottom of the local authority housing lists as they did before.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Can the Secretary of State confirm not only that his wish that that happens has been conveyed to those local councils that have large numbers of military personnel, but that those councils are carrying out what he wishes to happen?

Des Browne: The intention is that it will be a statutory duty, so if the councils behave legally there will be no problem about them knowing about it. A
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problem we faced in the past was that there was a variable interpretation of parts of the legislation but, in consultation with the DCLG, we have agreed that we will amend the legislation so that there is clarity and that best practice will be applied across the board.

Should the worst happen and families lose loved ones, our support must be the best possible. At such a sensitive time, we must deliver the right support and care in the right way at the right time. I am very sorry that that has not been the experience to date for some families.

Every serviceperson killed on operations overseas whose body is repatriated to England or Wales is the subject of an inquest. Currently, all repatriation is done through RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. Once repatriation has taken place, it is now policy, wherever possible, to give jurisdiction to the coroner closest to the bereaved family. That avoids backlogs and improves access for families. Extra resources have been made available to both the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire coroners. Those extra resources, and recent policy changes, have made significant improvements. Some 75 inquests were completed in 2007, which is more than were completed in the previous five years put together.

This Government value our service personnel highly. They are top of my agenda and the Government’s agenda. We are committed to supporting them, both on operations and at home, with actions not just words and during service and after it, helping both them and their families.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State agree that behind the military personnel lie those who supply the forces? They also need guarantees of job security. Will he clarify where we have reached with the placement of the military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—project orders? Will he tell us in particular whether or not there is a guarantee that they will be placed in a way that ensures that job continuity is maintained, particularly on the Clyde?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is a persistent and, on occasion, imaginative advocate for his constituents who work in the Clyde shipyards. He is equalled in his capacity to raise these issues in any circumstances only by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). They share an important business, representing people on either side of the Clyde, and they know that those yards have recently enjoyed a particularly purple period in terms of the placing of Government orders.

For those who do not know what the MARS project is about, I should say that it is designed to provide the floating logistical support for the Royal Navy—what used to be known as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service; it aims to replace those ageing ships. There are several elements to it, one of which, the tanker element, has been advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. No decision has yet been made as to where the order will be placed, and no decisions have been made about the other elements of the process.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) recognises in the Government’s
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actions—and, indeed, in their words—our commitment to maintaining a sustainable shipbuilding capacity well into the future, for the good reason that we are making significant investment in the Royal Navy. We want to ensure that we maintain the skills in this country to be able to continue to make that investment and to make the best of that substantial investment once we have made it and these ships are afloat. He can rest assured that his constituents on the Clyde can look forward to many decades of work delivering orders that will be placed by the Government.

An underlying allegation has been made from numerous quarters that deep down the Government do not really care about the men and women in the British armed forces, that the covenant between the Government and the armed forces is broken and that we are sending people into harm’s way without due care and support. That is wholly wrong and false, because we do care and we deliver—we will continue to deliver. We are demonstrating our gratitude and the nation’s gratitude, and we are fulfilling our duty properly to support the men and women of the armed forces in return for their self-sacrifice and hard work. They carry out the work on behalf of this nation, and it makes this nation, and the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed the world—a safer and more stable place.

3.29 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I fully associate myself and the Conservative party with the praise offered by the Secretary of State for the courage, professionalism and sacrifices of our armed forces? As we all recover from the celebration and, in some cases, the excesses of the Christmas period, it is worth remembering that this time of year brings hardship and sacrifice to the family members of some of our armed forces. Unfortunately, war does not stop for Christmas, and our brave servicemen and women, along with their families, have done an outstanding job 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the holiday season. While the rest of the country enjoyed the Christmas break, they were defending our security every single minute.

Knowing that one’s husband or wife, mum or dad, or child spent the holiday in harm’s way brings little happiness, of course, to service family members. That is why it is so important that the Government not only get their military policy right, but are open and honest with service members and their families. That is why spin for political gain is so damaging.

The Prime Minister announced on 2 October that force levels in Iraq would be reduced by 1,000 from 5,500 to 4,500 by the end of the year. No doubt it made many family members very happy to learn that their loved ones might come home in time for Christmas. But like everything else to do with this Government and the armed forces, one has to take a close look at the small print. We now know that when the Prime Minister made his announcement in early October he had given himself a head start of almost 500 troops. Figures released by the Government show that on 9 September, three weeks before the Prime Minister’s announcement, there were only 5,030 troops in Iraq, not the 5,500 that he mentioned in his announcement.

Far from the number of British troops in Iraq being reduced by 1,000, troop figures released just before the
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holiday recess show that levels in Iraq have been reduced by only 120. During the same period, MOD figures show that the total number of British troops deployed in support of the mission in Iraq, but based elsewhere in the Gulf in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and at sea, has actually increased by 570. Far from being home by Christmas, British personnel were simply deployed to other locations in the Gulf region. Whether one is in Iraq or somewhere else, separation is still separation and there must have been many disappointed households this Christmas.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that some of those troops based in the Gulf serve the Afghanistan theatre, as well as the Iraq theatre?

Dr. Fox: They do indeed. I am not complaining about the military decisions or the presence of the personnel: I am complaining about the fact that the Prime Minister purposely gave one impression, knowing that it was at least partly not true even as he said it.

During the last defence policy debate on 16 October, the Secretary of State hinted that he was willing to give personnel diverted from service in Iraq to other bases in the region the operational allowance. Now we know, according to a letter sent from his Department to the three services on 2 November, that some British personnel based in Kuwait, specifically at Camp Beuhring the Kuwait support facility, are now entitled to the operational allowance. The appropriate section from the letter states:

Is that clear? Not really, because by that argument one would have thought that those at Al-Udeid in Qatar or working with Nimrods in Oman, or those elsewhere in Kuwait, were also supporting coalition operations in Iraq. But the letter goes on:

The Secretary of State dug a hole for himself during the debate on 16 October and frantic talks were held with the Treasury to do something to get him out of it. But rather than a fair remuneration package that supports all personnel deployed in support of both Operations Telic and Herrick, including those in Kuwait, and the wider Gulf region, the Government have produced an inconsistent, incoherent mish-mash. We now have a shambolic situation whereby some personnel in Kuwait will receive the operational allowance while others will not. Those supporting Nimrod reconnaissance missions in the Gulf, the dangers of which have been highlighted, will not receive it. Does anyone seriously think that that is a fair or satisfactory state of affairs?

That brings us to a related issue. Troops in Iraq are rightly given some recognition with the award of the Iraq medal. Is that medal now to be given to the personnel serving in Kuwait who also receive the operational allowance? One would think that that would only be logical. How can troops be given the operational allowance based on the personal danger to them and not be given the medal? Will they get it?

Des Browne: During my speech, in response to an intervention, I explained at some length my position on
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the awarding of medals. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House or whether he was listening to what I said. Such decisions are not made by Ministers. I do not know whether what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, but I shall check it with those who take responsibility for such things. He knows—we have discussed this before—that such decisions are not made by Ministers. I shall not make decisions on medals at the Dispatch Box, but I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s point to the appropriate people, who are the chiefs of staff.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful for that assurance, but I would have thought that the Secretary of State and his Ministers would want to know about that when making decisions. Such things impact on morale. If those serving get different allowances and if different people who serve together may or may not get a medal, the whole thing is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

The plans for the council tax refund are linked to the operational allowance, so will some in Kuwait receive a council tax rebate while others will not, because some receive the operational allowance while others do not? It is a simple question. Either they will or they will not. The Secretary of State seems to be telling us that the Government do not really know who gets medals, whether that is related to the allowance or whether the council tax rebate will be related to the operational allowance. That is not a satisfactory state of affairs. The movement of troops on such a scale was in the planning process for weeks if not months. Surely Ministers have simply forgotten, ignored or not bothered to understand the complexity and interaction of the separate issues.

The Government were in such a rush to gain political points by announcing a draw-down in Iraq that they have overlooked detailed issues that matter a lot to those serving in the region. We are left with a situation where some troops in Kuwait will get the operational allowance while others will not. Troops just across the border in Iraq will get the Operation Telic medal, but those receiving the operational allowance in Kuwait might not. Thousands of British troops across the Gulf region who do important jobs supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan might get nothing at all. What sort of message does that send out to our forces? It is no wonder there is a problem with retention and morale.

The House is used to hearing comments from the Secretary of State, his Ministers and even the Prime Minister about how they value and support our service personnel. We can argue about the scale of that support—we have and we will—given the considerable overstretch that we see in all three services. However, surely we can unite—as we did before Christmas when we debated the military covenant—in the belief that, unlike any other Crown servants, we owe our service personnel not only our gratitude but fair recompense for the uniquely dangerous work that they undertake on our behalf.

If the Government are serious about upholding their half of the military covenant, a couple of issues must be addressed. Most of us are aware of the importance and value that serving personnel place on the armed forces pension scheme. Can the Secretary of State or the Minister tell us what work is being undertaken by
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the Department on the cost and structure of the armed forces pension scheme? Is the Department reviewing the affordability of the military pension and, if so, is that as a result of Treasury pressure? If a review is under way, the armed forces and the House will want to know why the work is being undertaken, who is undertaking it and what terms of reference have been issued to the review team. I am sure that the Minister will deal with that when he winds up.

The second issue that must be considered is armed forces pay. Like the police, our armed forces have no right to strike but, unlike the police, they have no federation to represent them. That is why it is vital that the Government accept the valuable work of the independent pay review body. The Secretary of State’s message today of support for our armed forces will be viewed against the action taken when the report comes out.

We do not know what the pay review body will recommend, although the Secretary of State might. The armed forces will be looking for the Government to implement the review body’s recommendations in full but, if for some reason they decide not to do so, I hope that the Secretary of State will explain to the House of Commons, and to our armed forces, exactly why.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, across the board, the British armed forces, quite rightly, had the largest public sector pay settlement in 2007? That was in recognition of all the factors to which he has drawn attention.

Dr. Fox: As I have made clear, I believe that our armed forces are in a unique position. If the Government decide not to implement in full the independent review body’s recommendations, it is only fair to ask the Secretary of State to come to the House of Commons and explain why. Armed forces pay is very important when it comes to improving recruitment and retention, and the House would be entitled to a full explanation if the Government decide to do something different from what is recommended by the independent review body.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) is right to say that the armed forces received pay increases of between 3 and 9 per cent. last year. The Secretary of State can claim great credit for that, but the trouble was that the pay increase had to be funded out of a real increase in the MOD budget of only 1.5 per cent. That meant that the rest of the budget is under considerable pressure—something that must be a real worry for the MOD.

Dr. Fox: My right hon. Friend is, of course, correct. I can say with all sincerity that it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Secretary of State, given the budgetary pressures that he is going to face as a result of the spending settlement that he has received. That is why I did not ask him for a specific commitment on the pay review body’s recommendations, but only for a commitment to explain any decision fully to the House. We are aware of the pressures facing the MOD as a result of its current financial settlement.

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