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Topical Questions

T1. [219832] Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As Secretary of State for Defence, 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 tasks that might arise in the future.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. According to Government figures, operations in Iraq in 2006-07 cost £956 million, while operations in Afghanistan cost £738 million. Will he explain why that is, given that there is a much larger troop presence, and much more troop activity, in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is simply that that is what we needed to spend. The complexity of the two operational environments is such that comparisons of that sort cannot be drawn simply from the figures. I suggest that he avail himself of the opportunity to visit one or both of them. When he sees that there are some similarities between them, but also significant differences, he will understand why such a comparison cannot be drawn.

T2. [219833] Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): In view of the recent tragic deaths involving personnel in Snatch Land Rovers, including the death of the first female British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan, and the coroner’s comments that the deaths could have been avoided if the protection of armed vehicles had been improved, will the Secretary of State tell us what precise measures have been taken to ensure that the coroner’s advice is taken on board and followed, so that we avoid future unnecessary deaths?

Des Browne: I have answered questions relating to vehicles at the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions, and indeed in debates we have gone into the subject at some length and in some depth, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government’s responsibility is to provide operational commanders with a suite of vehicles that cover all operational requirements. I am sure that he will accept that. Consistently, military commanders are of the view that Snatch Land Rovers perform a necessary function in the operational theatre because, in part, the security of our troops there is related to how they present themselves to the communities in which they operate. That means balancing the risk of not having the protection that other vehicles, such as the Mastiff, may provide, against factors such as flexibility, speed of movement and presentation.

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Every single day, I spend time with people in the Ministry of Defence looking at how we can enhance and improve the choice, and how we can improve protection. I stand by my record, and the record of my ministerial team in the MOD since I have been in charge. We have considerably improved investment in the vehicles that we have been able to deploy, but there is more to do. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me time to identify where the vehicles in question are, to equip them and to deploy them, I am sure that he will see them in the operational theatre in the medium term.

T8. [219839] Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): In Portsmouth we have been celebrating the signing of the aircraft carrier contract, which will secure not only the future of Portsmouth naval base, but high-quality manufacturing jobs in our area for many years to come. Will my right hon. Friend carry on the good practice of interdepartmental working, which he started with the Command Paper, by working with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to ensure that young people in our area take advantage of the apprenticeships on offer at this joint venture? In that way, we will also keep the skills base for many years to come.

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Of course; that applies across the entire industrial estate. My hon. Friend made a point about the skills that there will potentially be in Portsmouth for generations to come. They have to be exploited, but we cannot do that on our own in the MOD. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to work with other Departments to do so.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): To go back to the point that the Secretary of State made a moment ago, I should say that Snatch Land Rovers do have flexibility, and commanders appreciate that. However, the risk to our troops is getting ever greater. Can the Secretary of State expand on his previous answer and tell us what alternatives the Government have already considered to replace the Snatch Land Rover? What might the estimated costs of such a programme be and does he expect the full cost to be carried by the Treasury reserve?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have approved more than £3.6 billion of urgent operational requirements for Iraq and Afghanistan, and the majority of those have related to force protection, including the requirement for protected vehicles. From his own experience in the operational theatre and from talking to military commanders, he will be aware of how welcome the Mastiff vehicle, among others, has been in the operational theatre. Protected vehicles, armour, electronic counter-measures and body armour are all part of the complex suite of capabilities that we need to protect our people in theatre. Commanders now in the operational theatre are extremely positive about the equipment that they have.

However, all vehicles, including the Mastiff, have their vulnerabilities; no vehicle can completely guarantee protection, which is derived from a combination of factors. However, we have a range of vehicles now. There is a role for the Snatch, the Viking, the Land Rover, the Jackal and the Mastiff. There is also a role for the Ridgback vehicle—the 4x4 vehicle that we are in the process of procuring, up-armouring and completely
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fitting out. That investment is being supported by the reserve. However, there is also, of course, a role for the MOD to look forward at how it purchases and protects vehicles for the long term. That has to be part of the thinking in respect of the ongoing equipment programme.

Dr. Fox: On 8 July, the Secretary of State told the House:

However, is it not true that when procurement through urgent operational requirements reaches £900 million, 50 per cent. of the cost is directly carried by the MOD? This year, with troops active in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with fuel costs soaring, the MOD will be forced to cut £400 million from its own budget. What sort of crazy agreement penalises the military when they get new equipment and cuts the core budget in the middle of two wars? That arrangement is not the Treasury reserve carrying the burden of Afghanistan, but a guarantee to bleed the military dry over time.

Des Browne: I read in my copy of The Times this morning that the hon. Gentleman was threatening to grill me about the increase in the fuel bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “Don’t believe what you read in the papers.” I have often given him that advice, including when he has briefed the papers to report what was being reported. The fact is that I did not recognise the detail that had informed the story in The Times. [Interruption.] I say to the hon. Gentleman that the total cost of fuel last year for the MOD was about a quarter of what has been suggested. If he is relying on the information in The Times, he is misinformed. The agreement to which he refers, which is reported and transparent, is designed to get the balance right between long-term investment and urgent operational requirements. I have never been refused any request that I have made to the Treasury for urgent operational requirements, and I do not expect that I ever will be.

T9. [219840] Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I refer the Secretary of State to the parliamentary question that I tabled on 13 November 2007 asking what his Department intended to do to commemorate the rather special 90th anniversary this year of the armistice? The Secretary of State, his Minister of State and the junior Minister have always promised to write to me, but we are now about to go on parliamentary recess. They do not only need to write to me—they need to tell the world what we are going to do. Will they make a statement to tell us how we are going to mark this very important social, political, military and legal anniversary, in which many schoolchildren, students and veterans are very interested?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I assure my hon. Friend that I will keep him up to date, as I have on a regular basis. The last thing that I said to him was that there would be a ceremony at the Cenotaph for the 90th anniversary. I have also been in discussions with my French counterpart about what might happen in France. I assure my hon. Friend that as soon as I have more details I will write to him with them.

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T3. [219834] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What could be more topical than the historic welcome that Parliament as a whole is about to offer 4 Mechanised Brigade as it marches through Carriage Gates this afternoon? Does the Secretary of State agree that your presence, Mr. Speaker, at 3.45 pm at the North Door of Westminster Hall is symbolic of the pride and gratitude that the entire nation feels for the fantastic job that 4 Mech Brigade has done in Iraq?

Des Browne: I had the privilege of visiting 4 Mech Brigade twice when it was deployed in Iraq. No words will be sufficient to recognise the contribution that it has made to the improvement in the situation for the Iraqi people, particularly in the city of Basra and the wider province. It is a small thing for those of us in this House to welcome the brigade here, to spend some time with the soldiers and to say thank you. I am delighted, Mr. Speaker, that you have given permission—I am sure that that was easy to do—for them to march through Carriage Gates. I am even more delighted that you can be there to welcome them on behalf of us all.

T4. [219835] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the discussions of senior officers in the RAF and the MOD about the possible sale of some tranche 1 Eurofighter aircraft to help to fund tranche 3 are continuing? Will he put us out of our misery and tell us when he is going to make an announcement on this vital order for BAE Systems in my constituency?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: As has already been reported to the House, an equipment review is going on in the MOD. That is designed to inform the decisions of the next—2009—planning round. The issues that the right hon. Gentleman talks about are part of that review, along with a lot of other things.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend comment on the success or otherwise of recruitment from ethnic minorities? I am thinking specifically of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities in the north of England, where there are high levels of unemployment.

Mr. Ainsworth: We are making some progress on recruitment among ethnic minorities, but not nearly as much as we would want. To be frank with the House, we are still behind on the targets that we have set ourselves. However, we are moving in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than I, or my hon. Friend, would want. How exactly we go about placing ourselves well among some of our ethnic minority communities needs constant thought. If she has any ideas that she wants to feed into that process, they would be most welcome to me and to my ministerial colleagues.

T5. [219836] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The former commander of 3 Para, Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Tootal, recently said:

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Does the Secretary of State agree?

Des Browne: We addressed this question earlier. As I have made plain, including in my written statement to the House, the number of helicopter hours and the availability of helicopters have increased significantly—by 30 per cent.—and we are taking further steps to increase the fleets from which we will deploy aircraft into Afghanistan. In addition, we are part of a coalition, and the Canadians have taken steps as a consequence of their review to buy six additional Chinooks and eight Griffins, and they are leasing eight Mi-17s in the short term.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that, in co-operation with France, we have engaged in an initiative with the European Union and NATO to increase the deployability of the many hundreds of helicopters that many of our allies have but which are not deployable, either because their crews are not skilled enough to fly them in the environment or because they are not suitably equipped to provide the maximum amount of safety. Those things are going on all the time; the problem is that it takes time to get from where we are to a point where we have further deployable equipment in the operational theatre. Every single day, however, we make a step in the right direction.

T6. [219837] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Any escalation in the tension between Iran and Israel would have implications for our troops in the region. There has been recent talk of Israel taking military action unilaterally. What would be the position of the British Government if that were to occur?

Des Browne: The Israeli Government’s position is four-square with that of the international community in the preponderance of activity in trying to deal with the Iranian challenge across the board, in terms of the diplomatic effort. Where some encouragement of the Iranians has been needed, we have all gone to the United Nations. We have significant numbers of troops deployed in the region, and other assets there. We have contingencies for almost any eventuality, in terms of the protection of our troops and others in the region.

T7. [219838] Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The UK defence industry employs 310,000 highly skilled workers and it won exports of about £10 billion last year, but the Prime Minister chose to snub the Farnborough air show. Did the Secretary of State advise him not to attend?

Des Browne: The Government were well represented at the Farnborough air show. A number of Cabinet Ministers were there; indeed, when I attended there were at least three other Ministers present. I heard no complaint from those who were at the Farnborough air show, exhibiting or engaged— [I nterruption. ] I heard no complaint from any of those who were there that they had not got the support that they expected from the Government. On the contrary, I consistently heard praise for those in the Government—in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and my Department in particular—who had supported them to win those orders, which created the jobs that the hon. Gentleman identified.

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Welfare Reform

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Purnell): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Government’s Green Paper, “No one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility”.

The welfare state is a vital part of our country. We take pride in it. It is how we come together as a nation to support those who are vulnerable and in need of help. But our welfare system has not always kept pace with the changes in our society. In preserving some of the structures inherited from its founders, we have neglected their principles. William Beveridge’s contract for welfare had three founding ideas, the first of which was that revolutionary times called for revolution, not patching, and the second was that welfare was about more than just income. He wanted to topple not just want, but the other four giants of disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness too. These became the defining issues for the Attlee Government and inspired that Administration’s creation of the welfare state.

However, over time, Beveridge’s third principle—that the system of social security should not stifle incentive, opportunity and responsibility—was perhaps lost. The purpose of the welfare state was to help people in need today so that they could reduce their need tomorrow. From the 1960s onwards, that principle was eroded. The nadir came in the 1980s, when all conditions were removed from unemployment benefit and unemployment rose to more than 3 million—much higher than it needed to do.

In 1997, we inherited an essentially passive welfare state. Since then, we have been turning it into an active one. The Green Paper completes that transformation. It is based on the marriage of two simple ideas: more support and more responsibility—the root of a fair system for claimants and the taxpayer. It aims to meet five main goals.

First, the Green Paper aims to end the idea that there is a choice between claiming and working. Instead, from now on, the longer people claim, the more we will expect in return. At three months and six months, claimants will intensify their job search and have to comply with a back-to-work action plan. After a year, they will be transferred to an outside provider, who will be paid by results. Claimants will have to work for their benefits for at least four weeks—longer if the provider requires it. For the 2 per cent. whom we anticipate to be still out of work after two years, we will explore mandatory full-time work programmes and other approaches, such as daily signing.

We will give our advisers the power to use full-time work as a sanction at any stage of a claim for those who abuse the system. We will improve treatment for those who have a problem with crack cocaine and opiates, but require them to take up that support. We know that our support works, but we also know that conditionality works. By getting more people to take up the support, we can increase employment and reduce poverty.

When we introduced the new deal, we started to end the idea that people could claim benefits indefinitely when work was available. As long-term youth claimant unemployment fell by nearly 80 per cent., we extended
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that principle to other workers. Consequently, we now have more people in work than ever. Claimant unemployment has been halved, saving £5 billion a year. Nine out of 10 people leave jobseeker’s allowance within 12 months of claiming.

Work works, and it is only fair that we make sure that a life on benefits is not an option. The second goal is to ensure that no one is written off. In 1979, around 700,000 people were on incapacity benefits. By 1997, the total had risen to 2.5 million and was going up by 50,000 every year. We have reversed that trend, and the number on IB is the lowest that it has been for eight years. Annually, nearly 400,000 fewer people are flowing on to IB compared with 1997.

We have created the Pathways to Work programme, which helps people improve their health, adapt to their condition, rebuild their confidence and look for work. We know that that support works, too, and have made it mandatory for all new claimants.

We have legislated to abolish IB and replace it with the employment and support allowance. That new benefit treats people as individuals, looking to what people can do, not what they cannot. Today, I am announcing that we will migrate everyone from IB on to ESA between 2010 and 2013, with personalised support for everyone, based on our successful pathways programme. We will review the medical test to ensure that it reflects the latest evidence that work is generally good for people’s well-being, and we will reassess all existing claimants to ensure that they are on the right benefit for them.

Those who are ready to work will move on to JSA. Those with the greatest needs will get a higher benefit rate—up from £86.35 to £102.10—and can volunteer for Pathways to Work. We will increase funding for our specialist training programmes and for supported employment. Everyone else will get personalised help, based on pathways, to get them back to health and back to work. However, they will be required to take up that help, and look for work when a doctor recommends it.

The changes mean that, for the first time, no one will be abandoned to their fate, to get by on benefits. For the vast majority, ESA will be a temporary benefit, not a permanent snare.

Our third goal is to transform the rights of disabled people. Disabled people do not want to be told that they cannot work. Instead, they want society to remove the discrimination that makes it harder for them to work. So we will double the Access to Work budget, paying for sign language interpreters, specialised IT or help with mobility. Our aspiration is that everyone who could benefit from access to work should be able to do so. We will also consult on a new right to control. We know that individual budgets work. I want to give disabled people the right to know how much the state is spending on them, and request that that money be given to them as a budget that they control. We want to put disabled people in control, not under the control of others.

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