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Troops (Telephone Packages)

4. Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): What recent changes have been made to the telephone package offered to troops serving overseas. [219810]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Personnel serving on eligible operations for two months or more are entitled to 30 minutes of free telephone time per week to any location worldwide, including mobile telephones. Earlier this month, we increased the allowance for personnel deployed for nine months to one hour, and personnel deployed on 12-month tours are entitled to two hours per week. We have also rationalised charges for additional call time to a flat rate of 11p per minute.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I thank my hon. Friend for that very positive response and for the allowance increases that have been announced. He will be aware of their
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importance, not only to the troops, but to their families and friends back here in the United Kingdom. May I encourage him to assure us that he will continue to keep this matter under review? He will be aware of the importance of communication, be it postal or telephone, to the troops and their families and friends, so may I suggest that at some future point he could be even more generous than he has been?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we always keep these things under review. Whenever I visit Iraq or Afghanistan, I ensure that I talk to service personnel about the welfare package to get their views, and I do the same when I see families back in the UK and elsewhere.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): May I give credit where it is due to the communications teams in Her Majesty’s forces, especially the Army, for the substantial improvement in the welfare package, particularly on communication with families? I used to receive regular complaints from my constituents about that, but I have not received any such complaint for a long time. Credit should be given for the way in which free e-mails are available—free webcams are usually available too—for the fantastic job that the British Forces Broadcasting Service is doing and for the fact that newspapers are often available in the major centres in Iraq and Afghanistan within 24 hours of their publication in London.

Derek Twigg: I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Nevertheless, some constituents serving in the armed forces —[Interruption.] I shall have to put this one slightly differently. Some constituents, including some of mine, who are serving in Helmand province complain that when they have tried to use the telephone helpline to find out about problems accessing their wages—money to which they are entitled—they have been told that that time ought to come out of their time for telephoning relatives. Does the Minister agree that anyone who has a legitimate complaint to the forces helpline that deals with wages should be able to access that without it cutting into other telephone time?

Derek Twigg: We are working very hard to ensure that our armed forces personnel access such services. We are aware of some of the difficulties—I assume that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the Joint Personnel Administration—and we keep them under review. As I have said, we are making improvements all the time.

Armed Forces (Recruitment and Retention)

5. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What steps he is taking to improve recruitment, retention and morale within the armed forces. [219811]

6. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What recent representations he has received on levels of recruitment and retention in the armed forces. [219812]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Ministry of Defence receives many representations from Members of this House and elsewhere on the important subjects of recruitment, retention and morale
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in the armed forces. Last week we published the service personnel Command Paper, which is an unprecedented attempt to remove the disadvantage associated with service life and complements a raft of previous initiatives, such as enhancements to the deployed welfare package, and retention and commitment bonuses.

Sir Robert Smith: The Minister will recognise that the morale, professionalism and bravery of our armed forces have been built up over generations. I welcome the fact that the Government, as the custodian of that inheritance, have proposed the measures in the Command Paper, which will go some way in helping to address morale. Does he recognise that the crucial thing that the Government must confront is the overstretch of our armed forces? To that end, when will he realise that the forces need to be withdrawn from Iraq and that their efforts need to be concentrated in Afghanistan, where there remains a major job to do?

Mr. Ainsworth: We recognise that problem and the impact of service life on family life and harmony, and attempts to ensure that we stay within harmony guidelines are at the forefront for all of the services all of the time. We will, as the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have said repeatedly, leave Iraq when the conditions are right, when the job is done, and when Iraqi security forces are capable of taking over and protecting the democratic Government of Iraq. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later, but it has to be conditions-based, not based on some artificial timeline that the Liberal Democrats keep asking for.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome the Command Paper, which I believe will make some changes, but is the Minister aware that at any one time there are between 3,000 and 4,000 people living in the Vale of York who work on the four military bases? One issue that the Command Paper does not deal with, concerning not just those in the military schools on the bases but those who go into normal education, is that it takes three to six months for the children of servicemen and women to settle in, which may be reflected in poorer results, both for them and for the school, and lead some servicemen and women to consider their long-term future with the Army? Will he please review that position now?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is a clear commitment in the Command Paper to look at the disadvantage in terms of school placements that is sometimes caused to the armed forces by the way in which we oblige them to work. We will work with the adjudicator and the admissions code to identify any disadvantage and to deal with it. I agree that it is essential that we try to remove those annoyances, which is why the commitment is in the Command Paper. I will point out the chapter to the hon. Lady if she wishes after questions.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that the Defence Committee has just concluded a report on retention and recruitment in Her Majesty’s armed forces, and we have all been impressed by the opportunities in jobs, education and training that all three services give young men and women. In the light of that, does he agree that former senior members of the armed forces should comment on current situations rather than on some of the historical nonsense that we have heard over the past few days?

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Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend points out a problem, which is that people talk from their own experiences, which are not necessarily up to date, about force protection as provided in the operational theatre, the welfare package or other packages and measures that we have tried to introduce to assist our armed forces. One would hope that they made themselves aware of recent developments before they comment on them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend must be aware that the big issue with recruitment is that we can do better if we have more regiments based in the north-west instead of reducing them, and that the best way of ensuring better retention is to stop the revolving door of going out to theatre, coming back and going straight back out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we could extend the period in the UK between periods in theatre, we would have better morale and retention?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is an honorary colonel in a north-west-based regiment, so I can understand his bias in that regard. We have tried to address to the maximum degree possible the harmony situation, and the breaches of harmony guidelines in the Army have come down from 15 per cent. to around 12 per cent. in the last year, although we must continue those efforts. My hon. Friend is right that if we are sending people out to theatre more often than not, that will have a bearing on morale. However, he should bear it in mind that there are some in our armed forces who are more than happy to deploy as often as they do, and some would seek to deploy more often than we think is good for them.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): One way in which the Government have tried to combat falling numbers in the Army is by increasing recruitment from Commonwealth countries. Unfortunately, the G1 or welfare package has not kept pace. For example, if a Fijian soldier is given compassionate leave he is returned only to the UK and is forced to fund his own travel back to Fiji, or, invariably, his own unit will have to do so. Will the Minister look at this area to ensure that there is equity across the board for all soldiers?

Mr. Ainsworth: There are a number of measures in the Command Paper. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the chapters to do with foreign and Commonwealth recruits to our armed forces and our attempts to deal with some of the disparities in treatment and to remove some of the botheration from them, their families and their partners. There are measures that we have taken. If he wants to take up other measures with me, I am prepared to look at them and to talk to him about them.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): Many Members of this House have concerns and want improved recruitment and retention in the reserve forces and the Regular Army. I am delighted to say that the all-party group on reserve forces launched a report earlier today—I am pleased that the Minister responsible for reserve forces was able to receive that report. May we be assured that that report will be taken seriously? Some excellent work is going on, particularly in the Royal Naval Reserve air
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branch, and the report is—we hope—our contribution to the excellent Command Paper and to ensuring that we have the best recruitment and retention in our armed forces.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend will know that, separate from the Command Paper, we are part way through a review of the reserve forces. It is not expected to complete before the end of the year. Of course, her comments and those of the all-party group will be taken on board. I know that the group is being consulted throughout that process.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Minister’s hon. and indeed gallant Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) is undoubtedly right that overstretch is primarily the greatest problem. What effect does the Minister think it has on the recruitment, retention and particularly morale of soldiers, sailors and airmen to know that, if the head of their service speaks out in favour of better conditions for them, he can forget about ever becoming Chief of the Defence Staff?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman were speaking the truth, that would be a very serious matter indeed. I see no facts to support the allegations made by the hon. Gentleman. The Chief of the Defence Staff remains in post and will remain in post. He is doing a very good job and steering us through the difficult times that confront our armed forces at present.


9. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What arrangements have been made to ensure the availability of adequate supplies of potable water in Afghanistan for troops. [219815]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The UK has its own water treatment and bottling plant at Camp Bastion, producing significant amounts of drinking water per day from local sources. That water is transported onward to troops in operational locations. In addition, a number of forward operating bases are equipped with their own boreholes. Soldiers are also equipped with water purification tablets to treat local water if necessary when out on patrol.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for his response. Much has been made of the equipment shortages besetting our armed forces in Afghanistan, and rightly so. Do the Minister and the Secretary of State not agree that the ability to provide adequate supplies of water to service personnel operating in desert conditions is the most basic responsibility and should be taken very seriously by the Government?

Derek Twigg: I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that of course that is taken very seriously. It is essential that we have a proper water supply. In fact, when the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) raised these matters with me, I checked up with our people and could find no evidence that people were denied water or were unable to access water. We take the matter very seriously indeed.

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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Prime Minister is something of an authority on bottling, so he is no doubt aware that before the commencement of bottling at Camp Bastion the cost of producing a litre of water in theatre was 70p. It is now 22p and is projected to fall to 10p. Geographically displaced bottling plants have the capacity to resolve the recent problems that troops in Afghanistan have had with potable water—an inexcusable failure in the supply chain. I know the Minister, and he is no bottler. What is he doing to ensure that our men and women have a reliable supply of fresh water without having to endure the ill effects of water purification tablets?

Derek Twigg: It is absolutely a priority for the Government, the Ministry of Defence and the ministerial team to ensure that our people have the water supply they need. Their accessibility to water is very important and we continue to keep the matter under review to ensure that they have a water supply. As I said in my original answer, there is a bottling plant at Camp Bastion that works very well.

Reserve Forces

10. Phil Wilson (Sedgefield) (Lab): What progress has been made on the strategic review of the UK’s reserve forces; and if he will make a statement. [219816]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The strategic review of reserves work is now moving from research to analysis, returning to those consulted where necessary to test assumptions and to clarify detail. A second round of consultation workshops will be run in September, with delivery of the report due later this year.

Phil Wilson: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the 102nd Battalion the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jock Murdoch? The REME battalion is based in Newton Aycliffe in my constituency, as is the 201st Northern Field Hospital and the 124th Recovery Company. REME and the other units have undertaken courageous duties in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Territorial Army does a magnificent job in the most dangerous of circumstances?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right. We should never underestimate the contribution that is being made by our reserve forces to our current operations, as has been made throughout the 100 years of the TA. The reserves review is to ensure that they remain as relevant to the armed forces over the next 100 years as they are at present and have been over the past 100 years.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I join the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) both in thanking the Under-Secretary for attending our launch this morning and in congratulating the MOD reserves team on the way in which they are conducting the study. May I put it to Ministers that when it comes to making decisions they need to bear two things in mind? First, the volunteer reserves are working desperately hard and their numbers, too, are very much under pressure from overstretch. Secondly, our English-speaking cousins—America, Canada and Australia—all prove more
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imaginative than us in the number of ways they find to make good use of reservists, of whom helicopter crews are just one example.

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman that we have to look all the time at how to improve the contribution that the reserves can make and that we have to be imaginative about exploring the possibilities. However, we must always be aware that those people are volunteers, so we have to balance that with the offer we actually make those individuals if it is to be sustainable over time. I am convinced—as I know is the hon. Gentleman—that we can get far more from our reserves than we do at present and that we may be able to offer them better opportunities and training and a more enjoyable experience.

Armed Forces (Recruitment and Retention)

11. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What recent steps he has taken to improve recruitment, retention and morale in the armed forces. [219817]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier today to the hon. Members for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh).

Mark Hunter: I make no apology for returning to this hugely important issue, particularly in light of the MOD’s recent survey of servicemen and women, which found that up to 59 per cent. of Army personnel are now more likely to leave because of the level of operational commitments and overstretch. Although the steps the Government have already announced are to be welcomed, can the Minister tell the House a little more about what they will do specifically to tackle the twin problems of overstretch and frequency of tours?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I said in the earlier exchanges, by managing our forces as well as possible given the present calls on them, we have reduced—or improved—the harmony gap in the Army and the other services. In terms of morale, retention and recruitment, the measures in the Command Paper will be significant. For example, if young people look not only at the educational opportunities they will have while in service but at the fact that if they give six years of service to the armed forces we will pay for their qualifications at A-level, or if they are already there, at foundation degree or degree course level, they will see that it is a considerable offer. When it is combined with the retention bonuses and the commitment bonuses paid across the forces—eight years’ service brings a £15,000 commitment bonus—I think we shall be able to continue to recruit good-quality people to our armed forces in the years to come.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I know that we have always recruited soldiers and sailors from the Commonwealth, but we are relying on those countries increasingly. Is there an upper limit on the number of people whom we take from Commonwealth countries?

Mr. Ainsworth: There has been an increase in soldiers from foreign and Commonwealth countries in recent years, as my hon. Friend knows, but to say that we are
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totally reliant on them is wrong. We have traditionally recruited from many parts of the world, including parts of Africa and Fiji, and there are the Gurkha regiments, too. We are talking about long and historic connections with our armed forces, and I do not think that anybody thinks that we ought to pull back from them.

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