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21 Jan 2008 : Column 1189

House of Commons

Monday 21 January 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ex-service Personnel (Housing)

1. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What progress is being made on enabling former ex-service personnel to demonstrate a local connection when applying for council housing. [180002]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, before I answer my hon. Friend’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of the soldier from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who was killed in southern Afghanistan yesterday. His tragic death reminds us of the debt of gratitude that we owe those who have lost their lives in the service of our country and those still serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On 28 December, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing announced that we are taking action, as part of the Housing and Regeneration Bill laid before the House, to ensure that service personnel are treated fairly when applying to councils for social housing or homelessness assistance. We are amending the law so that service personnel will acquire a connection with the area in which they are stationed or living, which will put them on an equal footing with their civilian counterparts.

Laura Moffatt: I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. To take him a little further in the debate about council housing, we know that, if action is taken early, we can reduce the numbers leaving our services and becoming homeless in our areas. Are discussions taking place between local authorities and the armed forces to ensure that those brave people obtain houses?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Bases and the armed forces have regular discussions with a range of people about housing, including not only local authorities, but charities. The resettlement package that we have put together is quite extensive in terms of providing housing advice, too. The latest figures from the research that has been undertaken show that around 6 or 7 per cent. of the
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homeless are ex-forces. We have a number of partnerships, working with people to provide accommodation for former service personnel who have become homeless. Last year I visited the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation in East Acton, which has an excellent scheme. Project Compass in London is another fantastic charity providing hope and support, particularly for ex-service personnel, not just on housing but on education and work.

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Does the Minister agree that that point is important, and that a particularly heavy burden falls on those towns that have substantial service garrisons within them? Service personnel leaving the armed forces while living in those garrison towns will naturally look first to that town, rather than to their local authority of origin. Will he also look at the burden on the local authority of origin, which is particularly important when armed services personnel happen to leave prematurely and unexpectedly?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course there is a lot of pressure on local housing in garrison towns. Our joint service housing advice office is important for service personnel. As I mentioned earlier, the resettlement package that we have put together includes housing advice. Working with local authorities is an important part of that. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments on board next time I discuss the issue with officials.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Why cannot there be a national scheme that recognises that every local authority has national obligations? Why cannot every local authority be required to top-slice, in order to put a small percentage of voids at the disposal of ex-service personnel, which would maximise the choice to retiring service personnel and be fair to all local authorities rather than to some? Surely that is the answer. Why is it beyond the wit of men and women to organise such a scheme?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend raises an issue that has perplexed many of us: why do local authorities not give priority to ex-service personnel? Many local authorities in fact do so, and they should be praised. We have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and the Department for Communities and Local Government about such issues, and we will continue to do so. As I said in my opening answer, I am pleased by the announcement about the local connection, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will take such matters up.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Is the Minister aware that of the 4,500 people on the housing waiting list in the borough of Rushmoor, which includes the garrison town of Aldershot, some 600 are service personnel and that an increasing number of those are non-UK citizens who have enlisted in the Army? What action is being taken to warn overseas recruits, particularly those who serve for a short period of time, that there is a severe housing shortage in the United Kingdom?

If I may crave your indulgence as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, Mr. Speaker, I should also like to seize this opportunity to pay tribute to the Army and to Rushmoor council for last week being selected by the British Olympic Association as the pre-Olympics
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training base for Britain’s athletes. This may be the most depressing day of the year for the Government, but there is great rejoicing in Aldershot.

Derek Twigg: I add my congratulations to Aldershot on its being chosen. I am sure that it will help to add to our medal total in the Olympic games. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point on housing. I accept that we need to do all that we can to assist with housing and advice, but if we look back to the time when his party was in government, we will remember the amount of house building that took place and the amount of cuts that it made in social housing. This Government have plans to increase the amount of housing provided in this country.


2. Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [180003]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. Levels of violence are still unacceptably high, but there has been significant improvement nationwide over the course of 2007. In and around Baghdad, for example, following action by Iraqi and coalition forces, security has been enhanced. In the south, the security situation remains relatively stable. The increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces, under the leadership of Generals Mohan and Jalil, enabled the successful handover of security responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqi civilian authorities on 16 December. The Iraqi security forces have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred since then, such as the disturbances in Basra and Nasiriyah during last week’s Ashura festival.

Mr. Binley: Senior elements in the Iraqi army say that they have enough people in Basra but that they are dangerously short of equipment. Will the Secretary of State impress upon the Iraqi Government that British efforts will have been wasted if the Iraqi army is unable to procure the relevant equipment quickly?

Des Browne: I am aware of the need to ensure that the Iraqi army is properly equipped to carry out the task that is expected of it. Of course, our focus is not only on training troops but on ensuring that the Iraqi Ministry of Defence is able, through its procurement process, which we support specifically by the deployment of support to the Ministry in Baghdad, to spend the increasing levels of income that the Iraqi Government are able to achieve from the sale of oil. We are making significant progress in that regard, and that equipment is improving day by day. I spoke to General Mohan when he visited last week, and I know that he has expressed some frustration about the pace at which that is happening, but that is a result of a number of different things and we are keeping a close eye on the situation. Procurement is improving.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State give us an indication of when he expects the last British troops finally to leave Iraq?

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Des Browne: As I have said to my hon. Friend on a number of occasions, we keep these matters under review. We are clear about the progress that we have been able to make, particularly over the past 18 months, with regard to the reduction of our troops in Iraq. I have never been prepared to put a date on when we will remove the last of our troops from Iraq—and I am not prepared to do so now—but it will be a function of the conditions on the ground and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide security for their own people.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Reverting to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), one concern about the Iraqi Ministry of Defence’s procurement processes is that some factions within Iraq might be trying to keep the Iraqi army unnecessarily weak. What can we, the British, do about that? General Mohan is short of machine guns and mortars, and he needs a speedy answer to that problem.

Des Browne: I know that the right hon. Gentleman met General Mohan when he was here last week. I am sure that he was impressed, as I was, by the general’s professionalism and dedication to the job. We are all delighted that he has continued in the job beyond the date of his first appointment. He displayed commendable and professional energy and commitment. He did not raise that specific issue with me but I am sure that he raised comprehensively all the issues that he intended to raise with those whom he met. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but I must point out that, last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Defence was very successful in spending its procurement budget, to the extent of 85 per cent. We believe that the figure will also be about 85 per cent. this year.

My own observations on the restrictions on spending arise from the cumbersome conditions that have been imposed by the coalition authority to prevent corruption. The need for them is understandable, but the Iraqis are sometimes wary of working through them. I have not heard specific comments from any source about ethnic division in relation to procurement, but I can understand why people might think that such an issue might exist. I shall ensure that that does not become a manifest problem in Iraq in the months to come.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about the security situation in Basra and he told the House that violence there was down by 90 per cent. Today, a member of the public from York wrote to me to say:

the decline in violence—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not going to read out a full letter on a supplementary question. He is lucky that I called him.

Des Browne: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the 90 per cent. figure used by the Prime Minister has been used regularly in the House. It relates to the
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reduction in violence and it is due substantially to the fact that about 80 per cent. of violence in Basra was directed at our troops when they were based there.

I have no way of knowing the provenance of the information that the hon. Gentleman presented to the House. He is perfectly entitled to put his constituent’s observations to us, but unless we know the factual basis of that constituent’s opinion, we have no way of evaluating it. I asked for and was provided with about 45 minutes of candid footage of the centre of Basra a couple of weeks ago. I saw obvious evidence of women moving around in the town’s markets and they were not dressed as the hon. Gentleman described. I was struck by that because of the assertions that many people had made. It seemed to be a bustling city in many respects. There is violence and I understand that, but Generals Mohan and Jalil—and the army and the police force generally—are improving their ability to deal with it. There is still some way to go—no one ever represents the position differently—but from my own observation of candid footage of the centre of the city, it is not capable of being described as the hon. Gentleman put it.

School Places

4. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Essex local education authority on provision of school places for the children of personnel to be stationed in super-garrisons with reference to recommendation 5 of the Defence Committee report on educating service children (HC(2005-06) 1054); and if he will make a statement. [180005]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Although Colchester has been identified as a potential super-garrison, it is too early for any firm decision on that. Regardless of that, the Ministry of Defence and Essex local authority officials continue to discuss schooling for the children of Colchester garrison. Paragraphs 6 and 7 of the Government response to the Select Committee on Defence inquiry responded to recommendation 5 and made our position clear.

Bob Russell: I wonder whether the Minister would kindly write to me, and put the letter in the Library, to provide the precise dates when those discussions, and any subsequent ones, commenced. The first the Colchester garrison knew about the proposal to close Alderman Blaxill secondary school, where between 20 and 25 per cent. of pupils are children of military personnel, was when it appeared in Colchester’s Evening Gazette. When did those discussions start and how do they comply with the spirit of the Defence Committee’s recommendations?

Derek Twigg: I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matter and I am happy to meet him to discuss it in further detail. Discussions with the education authority are ongoing and I am assured that MOD officials are content with their involvement in them. I believe that the result of those discussions will be the provision of the best possible education for our service children. As I say, I would be happy to update him at a meeting.

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Educational Support

5. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the provision of educational support to the children of service personnel. [180006]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): We believe educational support for children from service families, whether they are in the UK or overseas, is very important. Last year, investment in service schools through the Service Children’s Education agency, in the continuity of education allowance to support children at boarding schools, and in our highly regarded Children’s Education Advisory Service, was more than £230 million. Ministry of Defence officials regularly meet colleagues from the Department for Children, Schools and Families and from devolved Administration Departments to discuss measures to support service children’s education.

Shona McIsaac: I thank the Minister for that answer. My late father served in the Royal Navy for 25 years, so I sampled many different schools around the country. I have to say that the provision today is far superior to what it was when I was travelling up and down Britain. However, will the Minister allude to what is being done for younger children? I appreciate what he is saying about schools, but what about child care for young children, including the issue of vouchers?

Derek Twigg: I pay tribute to the service of my hon. Friend’s father, of whom I know she is very proud. Our Children’s Education Advisory Service considers regularly the range of education issues and has discussions with local education authorities. Of course, our own education service also provides schools, for example in Germany. Our results are in the top 25 of 150 local education authorities, which is laudable.

My hon. Friend will know that from 10 December 2007 all members of the UK armed forces have had access to the new armed forces child care voucher. They can choose to receive between £30 and £243 per month in child care vouchers instead of cash with salary from the MOD. That is a major step forward. It has been welcomed by the service families federations, and I am sure that it will be well taken up.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Minister bear in mind that across the country about 2 per cent. of children in schools overall, but more than 4 per cent. of service children, have special educational needs? That is down largely to general disruption rather than to any other factor, but it has severe funding implications. Will he draw that to the attention of his colleagues in Government to see whether they can find equitable funding to cope with the tremendous churn in those schools—there are many in my constituency and others—that have a high proportion of service children?

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