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Policy Development

12. Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to encourage other Government Departments to take the needs of armed forces personnel and their families into consideration in developing relevant policies. [180014]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Government are publishing in the spring the first ever cross-Government strategy setting out our vision for supporting service personnel, their families and veterans. Since we announced it, I have been encouraged by the response. The Department of Health has introduced an extension of priority medical treatment to all veterans with a service-attributable condition and, with the MOD, a mental health community pilot scheme. The Department for Communities and Local Government has extended the open market home-buy scheme to members of the armed forces to help make home ownership more achievable in all regions of England, and we intend to remove local connection legislation to ensure fairness for our armed forces in housing allocations.

Mr. Bailey: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the British Legion’s Honour the Covenant campaign, which among other things emphasises the need to provide priority medical support for servicemen and their families, and ex-servicemen. Can he tell me what progress is being made?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Royal British Legion is part of the group that we are consulting with regard to the Command Paper and it is free to raise whatever issues that it wishes within that process. Additionally, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) has regular meetings with the Royal British Legion and others to chase up issues and to ensure that we respond appropriately to the needs of our armed forces personnel, as well as to those of the veterans’ community.

Mastiff Vehicle

13. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future availability of the Mastiff vehicle. [180015]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Procurement of the Mastiff protected patrol vehicle has been a huge success. Just 23 weeks after the decision to procure was taken, Mastiff had been built, upgraded, tested and shipped out to theatre, along with a developed support package. It has proven itself in the field as highly capable and is hugely popular with troops on the ground, providing vital protection with effective mobility.

With respect to the hon. Lady, I am withholding further information on vehicle availability, as the disclosure of this information would or would be likely to prejudice the security and operational effectiveness of our armed forces, but I extend to her the offer that I have made to her regularly; if she wants to know the detail of that information, I am happy to provide it on a confidential basis in a personal briefing.

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Ann Winterton: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. He is aware that one of the reasons why the Mastiff vehicle is so popular with our troops and has proved such a success is that enhanced security was designed into the vehicle from the outset in its V-shaped hull. It is built from commercial components, so that if it is, by any chance, hit by a mine, replacements can be easily bolted back on to the vehicle, to ensure that it returns to action in double-quick time. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the future rapid effect system vehicle will exhibit those admirable attributes, which save the lives of British servicemen day by day?

Des Browne: The hon. Lady is consistent in her questioning and in her interest. She has substantial knowledge of the capabilities of protected vehicles, and I commend her for being so consistent and well informed in that regard. I assure her that she is no less informed in relation to these matters than those who have to make the decision about FRES, not least senior officers in the Army.

Topical Questions

T1. [179977] Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If he will make a statement on his Department’s responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): My departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities that they need to achieve success in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in the future.

Norman Baker: When I asked the Secretary of State how many RAF personnel there were at RAF Feltwell, the answer was none. When I asked why, I was told that there was no requirement for any RAF personnel at RAF Feltwell. Is it not time that we acknowledged the reality and started calling such bases US bases? Is it not symptomatic of British defence policy that we pretend to be in control, when we are little more than the back end of a penny-farthing to President Bush?

Des Browne: I am not entirely sure whether the hon. Gentleman has struck an important point for the defence of the realm in the question that he asked. I will consider the point that he makes about the naming of RAF Feltwell, but I suspect that I will come to the conclusion that we will continue to call it RAF Feltwell.

There is no question about the independence of our defence policy. However, we are part of the most successful military and political alliance that the world has known in NATO. The Americans are a very valued ally and I make no apology to the House for working closely with them. Among other things, I am proud to say that because of our discussions with the Americans, they will deploy significant additional resources to southern Afghanistan in support of our troops and those of the other countries present there. That is the sort of support that the Americans give us and I am proud of the fact that they are prepared to do it.

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T2. [179978] Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that none of those armed forces pensioners who have been overpaid will have to pay anything back? If the Treasury will not write off the money, will he have to make cuts in his Department? If so, where?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The hon. Gentleman refers to part of a project announced in a written statement to the House on 11 July 2006. Just under 1,300 pensioners have been awarded increases to their pension and 98 cases were reported in the media today. We are making the case for a write-off to the Treasury, and I will not pre-empt its decision.

T5. [179981] Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The Minister will acknowledge that the Army cadet movement is excellent and gives young people opportunities that they would otherwise never have had. What is the Ministry of Defence’s thinking on the future of the cadet movement and what aims does it have further to develop that excellent movement?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend is honorary colonel of the Durham Army cadet force, which is a privileged position. I thank her for her long-standing support; I know that she takes a significant interest in the cadets. I believe that it is the best youth movement in the country by a mile. I am always delighted to talk to cadets; on a tri-service basis, of course. As she may recall, we announced last year that new combined cadet forces will be set up at six schools. I believe that cadet forces will continue to thrive. They give young people a fantastic experience and many opportunities to do things that they would not normally do. As I say, I think that it is the best youth service in the country.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What assessment have the Government made of the new Polish Government’s attitude to ballistic missile defence, particularly since the Russians sent a visitor to Warsaw warning of the implications of such a scheme? Also, what assessment have the Government made of changing opinion in the Czech Republic? In the light of those developments, is it not time that we had a debate on the subject in the House?

Des Browne: As I understand it, the Polish Government’s position on ballistic missile defence is that they are discussing the possibility of basing some missiles on their soil, under an agreement with the United States of America. I am not, and would not be expected to be, in a position to report the detail of those discussions to the House. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait, along with the rest of us, to see how those discussions take place and what their outcome is. As for holding a debate in the House on ballistic missile defence, we have regular debates on defence issues. I had some research done and, to my knowledge, since I have been Secretary of State for Defence, on only one occasion has someone made a contribution on the subject of ballistic missile defence in one of those debates. That is how much demand there is for such a debate, despite the posturing of members of his party outside the House.

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T3. [179979] Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): With a decision on the future rapid effect system utility variant vehicle expected before April 2008, will the Secretary of State confirm his views are on the sharing of intellectual property once that decision has been made? Would it be better for Britain to have the French VBCI vehicle, or the General Dynamics vehicle? We know about the track record of General Dynamics on sharing intellectual property.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman asks an appropriate and specific question. If he and the House will excuse me, I would prefer to put the answer in writing, because it raises a number of issues of some complexity. I am conscious of all the issues that he mentioned and when we make decisions on utility vehicles, their procurement and deployment, and the sharing of information, we will take them all into account.

T6. [179982] Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Before the next Cabinet meeting, will the Secretary of State meet his colleague, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, to discuss the bar on Departments sponsoring academies and to discuss building on the excellent work of Skill Force, which is based in my shire? The Secretary of State will know that people who retire from the Army can be, in a sense, recycled: they can put their knowledge to good use in good works such as helping young people to get back into work, or to get the skills that they need. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families whether the Ministry of Defence could consider sponsoring an academy?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend raises an important issue regarding the involvement of ex-service personnel in Skill Force and the excellent work that they do. In fact, a year or so ago, not long after I was appointed to my post, I went to Knowsley and Skelmersdale to see the work that the organisation does and I was extremely impressed. I cannot comment on his proposal that the MOD sponsor an academy, but there have been discussions with the Department for Children, Schools and Families about the general issue of academy sponsorship. As he knows, however, there is an important opportunity, particularly for cadet forces, so I can assure him that we will continue to have discussions with my colleagues in that Department on the issue.

T8. [179984] Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): In the light of weekend reports, will the Secretary of State give details of future troop withdrawals from Iraq, bearing in mind the number of our constituents who write to us about the military covenant, suggesting that our British servicewomen and men are not treated well, either in service or when they leave service? [Official Report, 28 January 2008, Vol. 471; c. 2MC.]

Des Browne: I refute the assertion that our servicemen are not treated well either in or after service. I do not demur from my responsibility to meet the challenge of increased expectations in the 21st century, particularly those resulting from the deployments in which we have asked our servicemen and women to take part. We have made significant improvements, day by day, week by week, year by year, in that regard.

As for specific numbers, there is a constant assertion, often fed by politicians, that information about troop numbers in Iraq is erroneous. It is not. Troop numbers were reduced to about 4,500 before the turn of the
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year. Indeed, only last week there were 4,330 troops in Iraq, but that number fluctuates because of rest and recuperation, and sometimes because of temporary troop deployments. It is of no help to families who have to live with those concerns to suggest that information is inaccurate, as that is not the case. They are general figures, but the trend is for a reduction. We will meet the reduction that we announced in the House and when appropriate we will make another statement about a reduction in numbers.

T9. [179985] Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): There are alarming reports that the joint strike fighter is in deep trouble with its principal customer—the United States air force—which would have catastrophic consequences for our forward defence equipment programme, which is already unaffordable, 10 years out. Will the Secretary of State make a statement?

Des Browne: I am happy to deal with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised, in relation to the facts, not in relation to speculation or rumour. I will be in touch with him and I will put a copy of the letter in the House setting out our understanding of the position on the joint strike fighter in relation to the American programme.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) referred earlier to ex-service personnel and their relationship with local authorities. Will the Minister tell the House what steps he has taken to ensure that serving personnel are made aware of their key worker status when applying for housing?

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We are going to use all the methods available to us, including internal communications, service publications, websites and any other method we can use, to make sure that our service personnel are aware of their eligibility in that regard.

T10. [179986] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Sir Glenn Torpy, Chief of the Air Staff, has indicated that
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Ministers are considering 0, 44 and 88 as the number of aircraft in tranche 3 of the Eurofighter programme. Will the Minister who responds confirm that those are the options that are being considered, and can he give an indication to the thousands of aerospace workers in my constituency as to when a decision will be made?

Des Browne: As we always say in relation to these issues, when there is an announcement to be made we will make it to the House of Commons. When there is a further announcement to be made about Eurofighter, we will make it here. I do not think that it serves anyone to feed speculation by putting numbers into the public domain for consideration prior to our making a decision. When a decision is made, we will say it here.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): This year is the Territorial Army’s centenary. I am sure that Ministers would like to congratulate it on its past, present and future service, and on the commitment that it has shown, and continues to show, in support of the regular forces. Will they ensure that the TA does not suffer the cuts that have been proposed, so that that organisation, which is second to none, can continue?

Mr. Ainsworth: We need to look at the role that our reserve forces—not only the Territorial Army, but other reserves as well—play in our armed forces. They have made a tremendous contribution and we need to make sure that our planning properly reflects their capability.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Can the Secretary of State explain why every British combat unit currently serving in Iraq is seriously under strength?

Des Browne: I do not accept that the combat units serving in Iraq are seriously undertrained; in fact, the opposite is the case. We specifically ensure that the forces deployed into the operational theatres are appropriately trained for their operations. That may mean on some occasions that the training needs to take place partly here and partly in the operational theatre. However, I do not accept that the forces being deployed are undertrained for what they are being asked to do.

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Northern Rock

3.30 pm

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Northern Rock. The House will understand that it was necessary to issue a statement to the markets with our proposals before the start of trading this morning in the usual way. Copies of that statement and the accompanying Treasury press release are available in the Vote Office.

Next week, I shall publish proposals for strengthening depositor protection and the supervision of banks, but today let me set out how we intend to meet the previously stated objectives of the Government, the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England with regard to Northern Rock, as well as the background against which we make our proposals.

The proposal that I set out today for a solution to Northern Rock, which is underpinned by Government support, is one that best meets our objectives of protecting taxpayers and depositors and maintaining financial stability. I will set out the reasons for that in greater detail. In the meantime, I can confirm that the existing Government guarantee arrangements to depositors will remain in place. Savers’ money, therefore, remains safe and secure.

The House will recall that at the end of last summer, following the problems in the US mortgage market, Northern Rock found it increasingly difficult and then impossible to raise the billions of pounds that it needed to finance its business. It was completely exposed; it had no plan B. Northern Rock was therefore forced to ask the Bank of England for support to allow it to continue to operate. The Government agreed to that support because, in the then prevailing conditions, there was a serious risk that other parts of the banking system would be destabilised. That support was successful and prevented further contagion, and the decision was wholeheartedly supported by right hon. and hon. Members of this House.

As the House knows, the Government have announced guarantee arrangements for depositors’ money saved with Northern Rock. In October and December, we also provided further guarantees and funding arrangements to give the company the time that it needed to try to find a solution to its problems. At that time, I said that I would ask Northern Rock to come back with proposals no later than mid-February this year. Those guarantee arrangements, including the extension in December, have not been called and there has therefore been no cost to the taxpayer. However, the arrangements remain necessary and will be in place for the time being.

Equally, Bank of England lending is secured against Northern Rock’s assets such as high quality mortgages, assessed by the Financial Services Authority as being of good quality. Again, there has therefore been no cost to the taxpayer. Let me make it clear that the Government’s position, which I reiterated most recently during the Treasury Committee sitting on 10 January, is that a private sector solution for Northern Rock is the preferable route for meeting our three objectives, but that that cannot be at any cost. If it does not prove possible to secure a proposal that meets our stated objectives and conditions, it will be necessary to take Northern Rock into temporary public ownership. For that reason, it would be irresponsible to rule that out.

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