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It is odd that the Government should set up an inquiry into the relationship between the people and the military while apparently ignoring their part in the
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covenant. Given the unpopularity of their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this Government, more than any other, owe it to the armed forces to do the right thing.

Who can doubt that overstretch and incompletely funded discretionary commitments lie at the heart of the current sad state of affairs? They run as a thread through everything that relates to the armed forces today. Our troops put up with single accommodation for trained soldiers that first-year college students would laugh at. They put up with a gulf between social housing and homes apparently fit for heroes and with a Government who refuse to adopt even the minimal decent homes standards that apply elsewhere. As the Public Accounts Committee said in November, housing is viewed as low-hanging fruit when savings are required.

Our soldiers put up with inequitable Government funding for Army schoolchildren in counties such as mine. In a letter to me this week, the Minister for Schools and Learners suggested that he would consider a revision to the funding formula to reflect forces children only in the context of people such as migrant workers, whose children also changed schools frequently. No special consideration—so much for the military covenant.

We have seen harmony guidelines routinely breached, with 10 per cent. of the Army’s trained strength currently affected and dire consequences for mental, physical and domestic well-being, as we know from a recent study published in the British Medical Journal. We have seen delayed coroners’ inquests, as well as a gross shortage in medical staffing, including a monstrous 55 per cent. shortfall in trained doctors in the Defence Medical Services, and a Government unwilling to say whether increased spending on the NHS has been reflected in full by a commensurate uplift for defence medicine. We see compensation for wounds that looks tawdry when set against settlements for relatively minor industrial injuries.

All those are examples of how a mismatch between commitments and resources and the traditional grudging attitude of Labour Ministers to the military has fractured the covenant between the armed forces and the Government. The result is that people who can leave do leave, hence the Public Accounts Committee’s revelation in July that there are now more than 80 operational pinch points, from medics to aircrew. That is why 1,344 Army officers quit in the final six months of last year, which was twice the comparable six-month figure for 2005-06 and three times the figure for 2004-05.

Unfortunately time is extremely limited, but I have two anecdotes that exemplify fairly well the problems that we face through the Government’s and the public’s attitude to our military. The new year has already brought us two bad weather stories that, in their own different ways, encapsulate the shoddy way in which the public and the Government deal with our troops. The first anecdote is about 200 homecoming soldiers who were apparently ordered to strip off their desert combats on freezing tarmac before entering the terminal building at Birmingham airport, to which they had been diverted because of fog at Brize Norton. An airport spokesman said that

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Will the Minister clarify who told those soldiers to remove the Queen’s uniform and assure the House that whoever it was has been rigorously re-briefed? Will he also undertake to blacklist any airline that presumes to stipulate that our servicemen may not fly in rig?

Fog at Brize was apparently also responsible for the diversion of 130 soldiers returning from Basra to Prestwick in a horrific 36-hour transit fiasco that got them back to their home base in Wiltshire at 5 am on Christmas day. Why were soldiers left stranded at Prestwick, armed only with a railway warrant? Why was the charter flight sent over dozens of fog-free English airports to dump those troops at Prestwick? On Christmas eve, why did somebody from Whitehall’s newly refurbished, incredibly plush MOD retirement home for the top brass not get their finger out to ensure that those boys and girls got home on time?

Is it not the truth that the Government’s commitment to honouring the covenant does not extend to replacing clapped-out airframes, showing bargain-basement contract operators the door and coughing up the paltry runway dues or whatever else it takes to get our people home for Christmas? I look forward to hearing the fogbound Minister’s account of what on earth was happening on both those occasions and to listening to what he thinks they say about our commitment to the military covenant.

5.47 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): At the end of that we have to remind ourselves that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) started his contribution by telling us how our society had become less polite.

I am replying to a shortened debate with a shortened contribution. I am sorry that I will not be able to respond to all the points that have been raised, but I thought that it was more important that the hon. Gentleman and I should both agree to shorten our contributions to enable those who have made the effort to turn up to speak. There is a degree of expertise in the House that is recognised on both sides. I will do my best in the time remaining to respond to the many points that have been made and will write to hon. Members afterwards if I do not manage to cover the issues that they raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked me about super-garrisons and our continued commitment to them. We are indeed still committed to the creation of super-garrisons. He is right that they will offer opportunities for improved individual development and have the potential to give stability to Army families. I know that he is anxious that we should do something in Stafford—he is relentless in his representations on behalf of his constituency—but such issues are complicated and are tied up with the issue of bringing home troops from Germany, as he said. We are looking to travel in the direction that he would want us to travel in, but not necessarily at the speed at which he would want things done.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) welcomed the Command Paper and raised a couple of important points that are worth addressing. First, he asked about the appropriate role for charities
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and for the Government? We have a long-established principle in this country that charities should play a role. Is there any hon. Member in any political party who wants to see that diminished, who does not want it continued, who does not acknowledge the fantastic work that many military charities do and have done over many years? It is not for the Government to do everything, but of course the Government have responsibilities and must discharge them. There is no way that we want to disincentivise the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Royal British Legion and all the other organisations that support our military.

Secondly, my hon. Friend, along with other Members, raised the issue of inquests. We are making progress on inquests, as we have given additional resources to both the Oxford and the Wiltshire coroners to enable them to do more. As part of the Command Paper, we are looking into whether we should do more to support service families in their bereavement. I accept my hon. Friend’s point that changing this may not necessarily be my top priority, but I ask other hon. Members who call for a change to think very seriously about what they want us to do with the coroner service.

The Ministry of Defence is represented by lawyers at only a minority—a small minority—of coroners’ inquests. If we want to give families legal aid in order for them to be represented at such inquests, we are effectively saying that lawyers should have a role in them, which fundamentally changes the nature of coroners’ courts. I do not know whether Members really want that fundamental change and I am not at all sure that that is the best use of the money we have to support families, particularly bereaved families. There is a lot more that we could and should do, so we are looking into that as part of the Command Paper.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) felt that other Government Departments were falling down and not necessarily doing the business, leaving the military to hold the baby, as it were, in areas of operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when the Prime Minister announced the “next steps” for Afghanistan, recognising the need for a comprehensive approach. We acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point that the military can do only so much and that other organisations—not just our own Government organisations—have a role to play. The politics of Iraq underpins some of these issues and it is the politicians of Iraq who can and should pick them up and take them forward. They have the ability, the wherewithal and the finances to do so. Our military cannot be blamed if everything has not been put in place at the appropriate time, when they have done a good job in providing the stability that has allowed progress to be made in the first place.

Mr. Ellwood: One subject that I have discussed with the Secretary of State is the introduction of a co-ordinator or a lead figure in Afghanistan to join together the work of all the key bodies—the EU, the Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development and so forth. There has been a great deal of talk about that, including from the former Prime Minister and our current Prime Minister, so can the Minister update the House on what is happening about this appointment? I understand that there is
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tentative agreement between the EU and UN about this appointment, which is timely when Tom Koenigs, head of the current UN Afghanistan operation, has retired.

Mr. Ainsworth: We will update the House on that, but it is not appropriate to spend much time on it in an already shortened debate. There is no huge disagreement between what the hon. Gentleman is saying in principle and what we agree needs to be decided on those issues.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about homes, particularly the contract for Annington Homes. He is right: we still live with the consequences of that contract. As he said, we have paid more in rent than we have received. However, the contract was entered into and we must honour it. The company had the good fortune to buy property at the bottom of the market at a time when it was impossible to lose.

The hon. Gentleman said something that has been said repeatedly in the House. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, we recognise what still needs to be done to improve accommodation, but let us stop this nonsense about half our accommodation being substandard by any measure. The standards that we use to measure our service accommodation are higher than the standards applied in civilian life—and rightly so—and we have aspirations to ensure that our people live in the best grade of accommodation. The fact that we are not prepared to lower our aspirations should not allow people to exaggerate the situation. There are people who must put up with bad accommodation, and I accept that it is 100 per cent. bad for them, but huge progress is being made. Money is being spent and has been spent over a long period, and we have plans for continued spending which the Secretary of State set out.

Mr. Baron rose—

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), whom I was about to mention, made an extraordinary speech. He came pretty close to saying that we needed to spend an extra £5 billion on defence. He claimed that people going out to theatre did not have body armour, and that we did not listen to our troops. He should go and have a look. Everyone going out to theatre has his own body armour. It is irresponsible to say in the House that that is not true, and that we are sending people into theatre without body armour.

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I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman genuinely believes that we should spend an extra £5 billion on defence, but if he does, he will have a job to do with those on his own Front Bench as well as with the Government. Not a single party in the House has committed itself to increased defence spending, notwithstanding all the extravagant claims that are made. The hon. Gentleman needs to discuss that with his own party as well as others.

Mr. Baron: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: I am afraid that I am very short of time.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said that we needed an extra 7,000 people in the Army and we had no budget for recruiting. I remind him that a month or so ago his party presented the House with a paper describing its commitment to the armed forces, and a disclaimer: “By the way, we have not put any budget into this”. That was a rather bigger commitment than the commitment to recruitment. We have recruitment capability the length and breadth of the country, and it is budgeted for. I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not mean that. I think he was saying that we needed additional resources for recruitment, but if his party cannot include any commitment in a strategic paper, claiming that we are letting our armed forces down and then saying that there is no money attached to its proposals, he hardly has a case for saying that we have no money for recruitment.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who opened the debate for the Conservative party, attacked the Prime Minister again for the figures that he claimed in relation to Iraq. The Prime Minister came to the House and said that by Christmas there would be 4,500 of our troops in Iraq. They were; they are. It is no good the hon. Gentleman going around talking about regional variations and throwing out figures. Of course figures will go up and down. As we RIP—relief in place—troops in and out of theatre and make other commitments in the near-theatre area, there will be fluctuations; the hon. Gentleman knows that. What was said in the House was that our troop numbers would be down at 4,500 by Christmas, and they are. [Interruption.] They are down to the figure that was said. The hon. Gentleman also claimed that we were short of helicopters; he should know that we have increased helicopter flying hours—

It being Six o’clock, the motion lapsed, without Question put.

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Ryan Kennedy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Siobhain McDonagh.]

6 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I thank the Speaker for selecting this topic for this evening’s debate, as it gives me a chance to air an appalling case involving the Child Support Agency, which raises important points of principle that require debate and resolution.

I need to start by outlining the basic details of the case, which started on 5 February 2007 when a constituent of mine, Ryan Kennedy, was contacted by the CSA to inform him that he had been named as the father of a six-year-old child. He did not think that he was the father of the child, but he wanted things to be sorted out as quickly as possible so he co-operated with the agency in having the DNA testing carried out immediately—within the two-week required period. He conformed entirely with CSA regulations; indeed, he did so partly because he was told that if he refused to co-operate he would automatically be declared the father of the child.

Mr. Kennedy spent the £200 on the test, and then heard nothing. Bearing in mind that that was in February 2007, he repeatedly contacted the CSA, was passed on from individual to individual and had telephone calls ignored, and in the end, in desperation, he came to my office to see if I could move things forward for him. Indeed, it took me some time to get some clarification from the CSA, but it emerged that the mother of the child had refused to have the DNA test done either on herself or on the child involved.

I would like to read a statement made by my constituent, which exhibits the burning sense of injustice felt by him at this point in the proceedings:

He then went on to tell the man from the CSA how desperate he felt and that

My constituent felt that he was being required by law to have the test done, otherwise he would be declared the father of the child and be liable to payments, whereas the woman naming him as the father of the child was not forced to have the test done on herself.

My constituent described to me the impact the situation had on his health—he was so affected that he could not sleep properly. He was clearly distressed—so much so that he broke down in my surgery. On telling me that he was getting married this year—2008—he immediately impressed upon me the critical nature of the situation he was in. He was getting married and at the stage when the arrangements were being made—he was buying a house—suddenly there was a child on the horizon whom nobody knew about.

My constituent asked me to write to the CSA and, finally, after a number of telephone calls that I myself had to make to the agency on the hotline—I could not even get my staff to do that as they were not getting
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anywhere—on 18 September I received a written response. Frankly, it was appalling, as it spelled out a situation that is clearly discriminatory. It stated:

As the first step, if the

a benefit. However, if the parent with care is a private client

In other words, if the mother was on benefit, the case on my constituent would be kept open, but if she was not on benefit, it would be closed. That is clearly discriminatory and unsatisfactory.

What made the situation worse was a paragraph further down in the letter. It said that Mr. Kennedy had

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