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4.39 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I, first, apologise to you and the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being present for the beginning of the Secretary of State’s speech? I was with other hon. Members at the funeral of Gwyneth Dunwoody.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), who is a fellow member of the Defence Committee. One thing that we can say about his contribution is that it was certainly not lightweight. It was good old-fashioned Toryism, which we all recognise. Indeed, the public would perhaps understand such forthright talk more than the spin that we get from those on his Front Bench.

Today’s debate has been about equipment and big geopolitical issues, but I want to talk about the important element of defence—the people involved in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has already mentioned the fact that the general public’s understanding of the armed forces is not as strong as it was, say, 50 years ago, because our armed forces have a smaller footprint and because there is less daily or weekly contact in public life in certain parts of the country. I look forward to reading my hon. Friend’s paper, which will reinforce some of those points.

What catches the public’s attention is the fact that our armed forces are deployed in two areas of conflict and that people are coming back maimed or are making the ultimate sacrifice. That makes it more important to try
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to ensure that the general public not only support our armed forces but understand the debt of gratitude that we owe them.

I have been a member of the Defence Committee for the past seven years. I have had the privilege of visiting Iraq on five occasions and Afghanistan on three. I hope to return to both countries later this year, if I can pass the strict fitness test that the MOD has implemented. However, looking at the girth of both the Secretary of State and the Minister, I think that I may be in with a chance. On a serious note, let me stress to the Minister that we should not implement rules that prevent parliamentarians from visiting our armed forces in those two theatres. My visits proved invaluable. Many members of the Defence Committee and others who visited returned with not only knowledge but pride at seeing our young men and women doing the job that they are doing.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that military personnel serving in those difficult situations do not want to feel that they are a forgotten Army? They appreciate visits by Members of Parliament and journalists, including embedded journalists, who can report in detail on their daily activities.

Mr. Jones: I am not sure that our armed forces abroad welcome visits by all journalists, but every time I have visited them, I have always felt welcome. People sometimes ask, “Are they forthright in their views?” and I have to say that they are.

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) has done on increasing public recognition for those serving in Afghanistan and, along with the all-party Army group, on organising the reception on the Terrace for 52 Brigade a few weeks ago. It was a tremendous event and everyone involved should be proud. We should continue such work—indeed, I know that he plans to. I met two inspiring individuals at the reception: Marine McBean lost an arm and a leg in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan and Marine Mark Ormrod lost both legs and an arm. However, speaking to them and sensing their courage—they were not going to let their terrible injuries hold them back—was very humbling. I also want to pay tribute to the City of London for last night’s celebrations, as it is important that we salute heroes.

What I am going to say might bring groans from the Opposition, but I want to pay tribute to Prince Harry and Prince William. The two wounded soldiers to whom I spoke were tremendously grateful that the princes had taken the trouble to go to Headley Court to speak to them. Last night, many of the soldiers’ families clearly welcomed the princes’ involvement. This issue has turned into a political football, but we should try not to make it so. From speaking to these young men who went through traumatic, life-changing experiences by losing their limbs, it is clear that they are dedicated to getting back into service. They want to put something back; they are neither negative nor in any way seeking to apportion blame.

I want to pay tribute to Headley Court’s nursing staff, who are to some extent unsung heroes. I met a number of them at a reception recently and it was clear
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that they were dedicated and hard-working men and women. They are doing a tremendous job.

Let me mention another young man from Newcastle, who shows the determination of some of the individuals involved. Following treatment at Headley Court, 21-year-old Lance Bombardier Anthony Makin, who lost part of his lower leg in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan, is going back there later this year. He is determined to make a continuing contribution to the defence of this nation. People such as him should be accorded huge recognition and respect.

Great advances have been made in medical services. I want to refer to a forgotten report of a few weeks ago, which did not get a great deal of coverage: the seventh Defence Committee report, “Medical Care for the Armed Forces”. I believe that it was not widely reported because it highlighted a good news story. The opening summary states:

All members of the Committee of all political parties were tremendously impressed by what goes on at Selly Oak and other defence medical establishments around the country. Our Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), said that when we were in Afghanistan, we saw the great work done in theatre, with doctors embedded at the front line and people receiving medical services and treatment of the highest quality. There is no way that many of those people would have survived without it.

Mr. Ellwood: Without detracting from the fantastic work done at Selly Oak and Headley Court, which I recently visited, does the hon. Gentleman agree that more should be done in respect of the mental health of soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq? I was astonished to learn from a parliamentary answer that 15 members of the armed forces had committed suicide while still in uniform after returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not know the figure relating to those who hung up their uniforms after returning, but I suspect that it is at least double. I believe that we should do far more to look after the mental, as well as the physical, welfare of our soldiers.

Mr. Jones: The report deals with that issue. We recognised what the Government had done to support Combat Stress, and I pushed hard to ensure that we could monitor people throughout their lives. It is no good letting people leave the armed forces and be forgotten by the system. One recommendation—there seems to be some reluctance to take it up—was to have a patient passport. That would allow people to be monitored throughout their lives—not just their physical health, but, more importantly, their mental health. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman about that.

Willie Rennie: I am a member of the Defence Committee, which produced the report, and I found many instances of first-class care. However, one of the evidence sessions in Scotland was cringeworthy. The quality of the advice and support from the officials and the Executive was disgraceful. Last week, the Scottish Executive announced a fund of £127,000 over three years for veterans in Scotland, which is a miserly and pathetic response to the report.

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Mr. Jones: As the hon. Gentleman says, when we took evidence in the Scottish Parliament we were shocked by the arrogance and how ill-informed the contributions were. I hoped that our report, which is quite critical of that, would go some way to put it right. If it has not, I am concerned, and the Committee might want to return to the matter.

Anyone who goes to Selly Oak must be impressed not only by the level of care but by the commitment and dedication of staff. However, we were critical of the media’s reporting of Selly Oak—I was not surprised that that did not receive much media coverage. I raised with the director and the armed forces personnel there every single story in the press I could find about lurid topics such as soldiers being abused by Asian patients, and not one of them could be substantiated. In our report, we said:

The Committee roundly condemned that, and we said that editors should be responsible about what is reported. Anyone who is looking at Selly Oak should go there and talk to the people and listen to some of the stories, because world-class medical care is being provided. I urge Members of all parties not to repeat some of these stories, because they are completely untrue and do a lot to undermine the credibility of the great work that is being done.

I was also impressed with the medical services that are now embedded in the NHS. I know that the decision to close stand-alone military hospitals has been controversial. The decision was taken by the previous Conservative Government, and it was right, because a high level of clinical expertise is now embedded in some units and the clinicians acquire experience that they could not get in stand-alone military hospitals. We therefore think that that was the right decision, and we also support the continued closure of Haslar—although I know that the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) is not very happy about that.

Overall, what we found was a good news story, although the Committee must keep things under review. I must also echo a comment: were things all right three or four years ago? I am not sure that they were; I think we have improved, and that the pressure that has been applied has helped.

Another issue being kicked around like a political football is one on which we must try to get some perspective: compensation for armed forces personnel injured or killed abroad. If we had a bottomless pit of money, we would open it up for these people, but there is not a bottomless pit of money in politics—that also applies for future Governments of any political persuasion. However, this Government have made some major moves forward, and they have been unfairly criticised for what they have tried to do. I served on the Bill Committee that dealt with the armed forces compensation scheme, which for the first time ever brought in lump sum payments for people who are injured—sometimes horrifically, as we have seen in some examples in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was a major move forward. Before that, there were no lump sum payments. From
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the media frenzy around this, it might be thought that this Government have done nothing at all, but we have: we have given the lump sum payments plus the lifetime pension. People can score political points if they want, but the previous Conservative Government did nothing on this, and we should be proud of what we have done. It is, however, right to keep the issue under review, and the example of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson showed that the scheme needs tweaking. The Government are looking at that.

I urge people not to jump on bandwagons. I have great respect for the Royal British Legion, but having sat on the relevant Committee I am aware of the implication that other Members argued for more lump sum payments. Nothing was said at the time, and people should give the Government credit when they do the right thing.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I wish to put it on record that there was concern at the time that the tariff would not take full account of the potential range of injuries to which the men might be subject. The scheme was also financially neutral, with no extra money.

Mr. Jones: Those points were raised, but there was no criticism of the actual changes. The hon. Gentleman sat on the Committee with me, and I tabled an amendment to extend pension benefits to unmarried partners, who did not have any automatic entitlement. He should remember that he opposed that amendment, so I do not want any lessons from him about support for the armed forces. Many hundreds of unmarried partners would have had no access to benefits if we had followed his line.

I hope that the Government introduce a coroners Bill in this year’s Queen’s Speech. It is unacceptable that families should suffer the delays that they are suffering. I mean no criticism of individual coroners: the problem is the archaic system that they face. Such a Bill should recognise the unique nature of military deaths. I urge the British Legion not to jump on the bandwagon that favours legal assistance for military families to attend inquests. That will just feed lawyers. I want to see good support and information given to families who attend inquests and it may be that we need more money for family liaison officers, but we should not feed lawyers and barristers. People will know of my prejudice against the profession if they followed my contributions to the passage of the Legal Services Act 2007.

I hope that the long-awaited Command Paper will challenge us on some issues. We need a detailed discussion on the role of the MOD in relation to service charities. I passionately believe that service charities do a fantastic job and possibly deliver some services to service families better than the state could ever do, but we need to know where the dividing lines are. At the moment, the Government are being criticised and people ask why they are not doing certain things, but service charities can do them better.

We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave men and women who have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. If people want to see British youth at its best, they should visit our armed forces on operations. Courageous decisions are taken and huge responsibility is placed on very young shoulders.

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4.59 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I am mindful of the needs of others, and of your request for shorter speeches, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall jettison half my speech. Unfortunately, not every hon. Member plays the team game.

The subject matter of the debate is defence in the world, and I shall concentrate all my remarks on that issue, rather than on some of the subjects about which we have heard in the past few hours. Some 3,500 soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade, based in Colchester garrison, are in Helmand province, Afghanistan. I know that the whole House will wish them well, and a safe return. I visited Afghanistan earlier this year, and I passed the medical test. I suspect that if I can pass it, many others can too.

The serious point is that we owe a great debt of gratitude to our brave men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to those who have served in other theatres in the past, for what they have done. I want to return to a point that I have put to both the present Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister, and that has also been made today, about the lack of support from other NATO countries for our troops in Afghanistan. We should thank those on the roll of honour—Holland, Denmark, Latvia and Estonia, alongside the US and Canada—for their contribution. The question is: where are the troops, air frames and logistical support from Spain, Poland and Italy, and Germany and France in particular?

To my mind, our army is under-strength and over-stretched. If it was not for the fact that 10 per cent. of the British Army is drawn from overseas, that situation would be even more dire. Clearly, something has to be done to improve recruitment and, more particularly, retention.

Let me briefly bring together the aspects of retention that the Government need to address. The new single-person accommodation provided at Merville barracks at the Colchester garrison is first-class. We should seek to repeat that success wherever we can. The married quarters, however, are not as good as they could be. I find it unacceptable that in the past 10 years or so the MOD has paid more in rent to Annington Homes than the Government received in 1995-96 when the MOD housing stock was privatised. If that same amount of money had been invested in modernising and improving our housing stock, every married quarters in this country would be the best they could be. I put it to the Minister that the Government should consider ways of converting rental payments as a hire-purchase means of regaining a capital asset that was sold in a ridiculous privatisation—a rip off, giving Annington Homes a licence to print money. For example, more than 200 MOD houses are standing empty in my constituency, for which Addington Homes receive about £750,000 a year for doing nothing. The public purse will pump billions of pounds over the next few years into upgrading and modernising housing stock that the public will not own.

I pay tribute to the garrison welfare services and the community in Colchester for all the support that they give families in Colchester. I pay particular tribute to the Colchester Gazette, which produces a “Support our troops” news item almost daily. That is the sort of thing that the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff are urging communities to do.

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So that our soldiers in Afghanistan can be relieved of their worries at home, I ask defence Ministers to discuss the proposals to shut the secondary school in Colchester with their colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, in the spirit of joined-up government. Approximately a quarter of the schoolchildren at the Alderman Blaxill school have a father—sometimes, a mother, but usually a father—serving in the Army, and most of those dads are in Afghanistan, knowing that the school that their children attend is under threat of closure. I believe that that threat could and should be lifted, and I urge the Ministry of Defence to discuss that with their colleagues, in a spirit of joined-up government, to get that closure stopped.

5.5 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in the debate. My first question is whether “Defence in the World” is an appropriate title for such debates. As we have heard in all the contributions today, we must consider not simply what the military are doing in the corners of the globe, but exactly how their operations fit into the peacekeeping, nation building and growth of the communities involved. That is well beyond the remit of any military, and I therefore suggest that these debates be widened to include the work of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so that we fully understand how the MOD operates in connection with those other organisations. For example, in Iraq, security remains bad, but is it the military’s fault that not enough schools are built, that there are not enough hospitals and that we have not established the local and regional government structures that should have been put in place in the very early months when there was an element of peace?

Today, five years after the invasion, Basra teeters on the brink of civil war and Anbar province—the biggest province—has been ethnically cleansed. In the social context, unemployment is rife, electricity is intermittent and petrol for transport remains sparse. Some 25 per cent. of Iraqis totally depend on food rations, according to the UN, and only 3,000 of the 15,000 schools destroyed or damaged have been repaired. According to UNICEF, up to 75 per cent. of children are not attending schools. Iraq’s Ministry of Water says that only 32 per cent. of the population have access to drinking water and only 19 per cent. have access to good sewerage systems.

Hon. Members might ask what that has to do with defence in the world. The point is that we are still in Iraq, and because these issues have not been solved, we continue to stay in Iraq. My argument is that other aspects of Cabinet Departments are not doing enough to support our military to ensure that once the umbrella of security is created, our military can leave, leaving behind a strong sense of governance and the building blocks for a nation to continue on its own.

In my view, we cannot call what we see in Iraq a success story. It has been a costly failure in peacekeeping—a textbook example of how not to nation-build—resulting in a prolonged, testing and ultimately unwinnable task for our armed forces, which, after providing a small window of peace, are now hopelessly and totally abandoned by the FCO, and, indeed, by DFID. There was no plan, no strategy and no idea how to harness the euphoria of the fall of Saddam Hussein and to sow the seeds of governance.

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