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House of Commons

Monday 16 June 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—


1. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): What role the armed forces are playing in providing humanitarian relief in southern Afghanistan. [210788]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Lance Corporal James Bateman and Private Jeff Doherty of 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Thursday 12 June. They were young men of remarkable courage and professionalism, and we owe them an enormous debt.

The primary focus of the international security assistance force—ISAF—is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in the maintenance and extension of security. Practical support for reconstruction and development efforts is one of ISAF’s key supporting tasks.

Laura Moffatt: I am grateful for the opportunity to ask that question, and I echo my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on those who continue to give their lives to secure peace and security in Afghanistan—I send them my eternal thanks. Does he agree that the best way for the people of Afghanistan to have confidence in the work that is taking place there is to forge ahead with the health and education programmes that are crucial to that work? Education and health are a basic right, and people in Afghanistan will come to understand that when those programmes are rolled out throughout the country.

Des Browne: From her own professional experience in health, my hon. Friend knows how important health care is, particularly to women. I am pleased to say that, as a result of ISAF’s effect in Afghanistan, 80 per cent. of people now have access to basic health care—less than 10 per cent. did so before. Education offers a long-term sustainable future for Afghanistan, and there are now 6 million children in education, one third of whom are girls. We should remember that the Taliban refuse to educate girls, and they still kill those teachers who educate girls, and try to destroy the schools.

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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): From a parliamentary reply from the Department for International Development, I notice that there is just one single non-governmental organisation operating in Helmand province. Seven years after the invasion, it is astonishing to discover that we cannot invest more and encourage NGOs to do their work. If that is the case, why do the Royal Engineers not have one single Trojan or Terrier vehicle, which would mean that they, instead of DFID, could help the reconstruction and development work? It appears that we have taken over responsibility for the provisional reconstruction team, but we are not doing enough about it.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows that I respect his informed observations about Afghanistan—he takes a lot of time and trouble to inform himself. I am sure that he will accept that, from my recent visit to Afghanistan, I have seen significant improvements in reconstruction. When I was in Lashkar Gah a couple of weeks ago, 30 projects were under way across that city. I may have more to say later in some detail about what is happening across Afghanistan, but he can be assured, in terms of reconstruction and development, that we, with our allies, are investing $12 million a week in Helmand province alone.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): How does bombing, including of civilians, by the US military; hostility to Iran, including incursions; and threats to invade Pakistan’s sovereignty, help the humanitarian effort in southern Afghanistan?

Des Browne: With respect, my hon. Friend always manages to make a partial analysis of what is going on in a country of great complexity. He forgets to remind the House that while civilian deaths caused by ISAF forces are accidental, deeply regretted and always investigated, they are part of the Taliban’s plan. Indeed, they intend to do that, and that is the substantial difference between us. As for his other two observations, I know from my work with Bob Gates, who is the US Secretary for Defence, and from the American Government, that they are doing a significant amount to get the Governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan to work across their common border to deal with insurgent and other terrorist activity that blight both countries, and cause significant difficulties for them. A lot of positive work is under way: I just wish that my hon. Friend would occasionally refer to that as well.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I was in Lashkar Gah the week before the Secretary of State and with reference to his earlier answer he did not tell the House that there are fewer schools and health clinics open in Helmand province this year than last year. One of the principal concerns that I heard from my colleagues in the Royal Engineers is that they are frustrated that, while they have been asked to undertake reconstruction and development work—and progress has been made by the stabilisation unit—the time that it takes to obtain the money for the project is getting longer. What can we do to help that time line?

Des Browne: I do not recognise the statistics that the hon. Gentleman has shared with the House, and they certainly do not correspond with the briefing that I was given.

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Mr. Lancaster: It is true.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman says that it is true, but I do not recognise those statistics. For example, during the week that I was in Helmand province, the hospital in Garmsir opened for the first time in two years, because of the work achieved by Scots soldiers and Americans working together in that part of the province.

The brigadier in charge of our troops in Helmand province took me through a list of construction projects that were going on and told me a very interesting anecdote about his presence at the opening of a secondary school. It opened for the first time ever, because, after having been built, it had been closed by the Taliban.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the investment of funds not only in quick-impact projects but in long-term development projects. I remind him of what I told the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood): we are currently investing $12 million a week through projects in Helmand province, which is $600 million a year. I think that that is quite a significant amount of money. The ability to invest there stretches the capacity and capability not only of the Afghans, but of our own forces.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May I associate myself with those whose thoughts are with the Paras who died last week? Having visited Afghanistan on a number of occasions, including southern Afghanistan, I have always found morale among our armed forces personnel to be very high, and that they are very proud of what they are achieving in southern Afghanistan. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to keep up a constant battle to ensure that their good work and the sacrifices that they make are kept at the forefront not only of the news agenda, but of the minds of the British public?

Des Browne: In my conversations with our troops on the ground in Helmand province, Kandahar and, indeed, Kabul, very many of them have said to me that their deepest frustration is with the failure of people back in this country to appreciate exactly what progress is being made—the concentration always on the negative and the lack of understanding about how difficult an environment it is. I remind the House that Afghanistan has gone through the best part of four decades of violence and lost 2 million of its own people, and two generations in respect of education. In many parts of the country, only between 17 and 22 per cent. of the indigenous population can read and write. There needs to be some strategic patience with what we are trying to do. Nothing will happen year to year on a metric that meets the demands of some unreasonable commentators on what is happening in Afghanistan.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware of a report, which was published by Oxfam earlier this year, that found that the provincial reconstruction teams had extended beyond the remit that was originally intended at the expense of delivery by the local Afghan institutions? Does the Secretary of State believe that that is true? If so, how does he think that we can build up the capacity of the Afghan institutions so that they can deliver much more of their own aid, development and reconstruction?

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Des Browne: I read many reports written by people about Afghanistan. The reports that I place greatest store by are those from people who are on the ground in Afghanistan, living and working in that environment. There is, however, an issue about provincial reconstruction teams. At present, the second in command of ISAF, who is a very experienced British general, is, at the request of the previous commander of ISAF, undertaking work on provincial reconstruction teams. On the question whether it is time in certain parts of Afghanistan to move from that sort of reconstruction support to longer term development, I think that the general will almost certainly conclude that in some circumstances provincial reconstruction can exist for too long. At present, however, that is hardly likely to apply to the south of Afghanistan, where most of the most difficult work is being done. Reconstruction is at the heart of what we need to do there.

Service Pay and Conditions

2. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What plans he has to improve pay and conditions for members of the armed forces. [210789]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): A number of measures have been implemented to improve armed forces pay and conditions, including a 2.6 per cent. pay rise, along with a 1 per cent. increase in the X factor component of basic pay from 1 April this year. The operational allowance, introduced in October 2006, now stands at £2,380 for a six-month deployment. Recent enhancements to the wider remuneration package include the council tax relief scheme announced in September 2007, increased separation allowances and financial retention initiatives.

Mr. Evennett: I note the Minister’s response, but what relationship does he believe exists in our armed forces between pay and conditions on the one hand, and recruitment and retention on the other?

Derek Twigg: A variety of factors affect recruitment and retention. Currently, the good thing is that recruitment is up, and retention, certainly in terms of outflow, is broadly similar to what it has been in recent years. We always face challenges and we always look at various initiatives to deal with them. For instance, we obviously take advice from the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and we have implemented its recommendations, but we continue to look at what more we can do to improve the pay and conditions of our armed forces.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend will recognise that it is very important that we get pay and conditions right because that helps with retention. Can he also ensure that we help forces personnel to get on to the property ladder by helping them with deposits and in other ways so that they can have their own properties for the sake of their long-term interests?

Derek Twigg: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very keen to help our armed forces personnel to get the opportunity to acquire property and to buy equity in property, and we are considering a number of ways in which we can do that. As a result of the 2008 pay review, my right hon. Friend announced
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money for that purpose this year and for future years. At this stage we are working on the relevant plans; of course, when we have something further to say we will do so.

Mr. Speaker: Sir Peter Viggers.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I am grateful to colleagues.

Is the Minister aware that one aspect of conditions causing concern to commanders is the lack of rehabilitation facilities for men and women who have been injured physically or mentally? Is he aware that the Royal hospital, Haslar, is ideally suited to provide such rehabilitation facilities, and will he work with charities and others who are striving to develop those facilities?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman, who is a great defender of Haslar hospital, has done a lot of work over the years on the issue, and I recognise that he feels very strongly about it. However, I do not recognise his viewpoint as regards rehabilitation. Only a few weeks ago, we announced a £24 million investment in Headley Court, which is our main rehabilitation centre. I think that everyone accepts that it is doing remarkable work in rehabilitating and helping our injured service personnel. In many cases that care now means that they can stay in the service and not necessarily leave. We also have a regional group of rehabilitation centres providing world-class treatment and support. We are continuing to invest in rehabilitation for our armed forces personnel to ensure that they get the best possible care and treatment.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): Would my hon. Friend accept my condolences, along with those of others, not only for those who have recently so tragically died in Afghanistan but for all those who have fallen in the service of this country, and will he recognise the courage that they have shown in their activities? Does he accept that the role of a member of our armed forces is unique? Unlike any other public sector servant, our servicemen and women promise, by contract, to serve even until death. The public therefore need to be reassured that the remuneration that we are giving to those young men and women is adequate to the sacrifice that they are prepared to make. Some misleading comments have been made over the past month or two. Is he in a position to tell us about the value of packages available to soldiers serving, say, in Afghanistan so that we can cut through some of those stories and the public can be told what is the very minimum that is paid to a young soldier in Afghanistan?

Derek Twigg: My right hon. Friend makes an important point about the remuneration of our armed forces personnel. Of course, we set a high store by that. That is why we have accepted the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendations in full—I must stress that to the House. In the case of a newly trained private who is going to Afghanistan, if we take into account certain benefits that they might receive, such as the operational allowance and the separation allowance, and the excellent contribution made by the very good pension scheme, the package can amount to about £25,000. It will depend on which pay scale they are on and will increase accordingly,
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but that is roughly what one of our most junior privates would get on coming out of training. Let me add that last year we recognised that there was an issue with pay for the most junior ranks and increased their pay by the best pay award in the public sector—over 9 per cent.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Yes, but it was not funded, was it?

On Saturday morning, I attended the latest welcome home parade for the crews of the Chinooks that are coming back from Afghanistan. Those personnel are over there on a regular, rolling basis. The people of Odiham showed a huge degree of appreciation for the wonderful work of those men and women. I was not able to speak to them all because they were lining the streets three deep to welcome home those members of the armed forces, and others, but those to whom I did speak agreed unanimously with the remarks of the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, who says that we need to have a debate about the priority that we give to our armed forces. The work that those people are doing is second to none. Does the Minister agree?

Derek Twigg: Our armed forces are absolutely outstanding—I think that they are the best in the world. Like my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces, I have visited our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seen what they do, and they undertake quite an amazing job. It is important when looking at pay and conditions that we take a strong view about how we pay and remunerate our armed forces, which is why the Armed Forces Pay Review Body is independent. It goes all around the world, talking to armed forces personnel and their families. I was in Cyprus just a few weeks ago after its representatives visited to talk to families there about remuneration and the conditions of service package. We have implemented those recommendations in full.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is it not a source of concern to the Minister when senior military personnel say:

Does that not concern the Minister?

Derek Twigg: I do not think that anyone is in the position to say, “If asked if they would like more pay, most people would say no.” I understand the concerns, but having spoken to service personnel over the past two years about pay awards, the feedback I have got has been positive, particularly from chiefs of staff. The chiefs’ aspirations are the same as those of Ministers—to ensure that we get the best possible pay awards for our armed forces personnel. I stress to the House that we accepted in full the recommendations of the independent pay review board.

Of course, the question is much wider than one of pay, which is why we are spending £8.4 billion over the next 10 years to improve a lot of service family accommodation. We are trying to put right decades of neglect. We also have world-class medical services for our injured service personnel, whether in Selly Oak, in
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the field hospitals in Iraq or Afghanistan or back at the rehabilitation centres. We are ensuring that our armed forces personnel are given a range of support.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It was a very serious matter for the Chief of the General Staff to express his continuing concern at the level of pay for our front-line forces. Is he mistaken in his view; otherwise, why is the Minister so complacent about the level of pay?

Derek Twigg: I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not complacent about the level of pay. I have clearly stressed that we have an independent review body, and we accepted its recommendations in full. Additionally, we introduced an operational allowance, the separation allowance has been increased, we have introduced a council tax rebate and we are looking at what else we can do. The pay review body talks to armed forces personnel and their families around the world to get their view of conditions. The Chief of the General Staff and the other chiefs want to see further improvements and so does this ministerial team. I know for a fact that when I spoke to the Chief of the General Staff, he was pleased about the increase given this year.

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