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9 Oct 2008 : Column 461

Mr. Ainsworth: The truth is that I am not satisfied and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have done a fair amount of work to try to improve the support that we give to the families of our bereaved servicemen. We have made many improvements and put some resources into that. We have not got it right, because there is more that we can do to offer that support, and we are looking at it all the time. We have sometimes allowed the process to take too long and sometimes we have even caused the delay. That only adds to the upset and the bitterness that families feel when they have lost someone close to them, so we have to improve and do as much as we can. My hon. Friend draws attention to an area on which the MOD must keep working.

We are now working across Government to implement the promises that we made in the Command Paper. We have formed an external reference group, with members drawn from Government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia, which will report formally to the Prime Minister, and through him to the public, to ensure that we honour the military covenant not just now, but down through the years. In pursuit of this, we have done much more over the last year to improve the lot of our servicemen and women. We have increased the commitment bonus to a maximum of £15,000 and increased the operational allowance to £2,300, improved the longer separation allowance, and invested in Headley Court to the tune of £24 million. We have extended Defence Medical Services to reservists on operations. We have introduced child care vouchers, achieved better access by service personnel to the key worker living scheme, arranged free post at Christmas for parcels, awarded above-inflation pay rises and brought in council tax relief for those on operations.

We plan to do more in the future. We are establishing a military ward in Birmingham’s new hospital and rolling out the community mental health services for veterans. For families, we are disregarding compensation payments for the means test on home adaptation grants, providing additional accommodation for service leavers at risk of homelessness and removing disadvantage when it comes to access to schools. We will give service leavers with more than six years in the forces their first A-level course or even a degree course with no tuition fees. We will extend concessionary bus travel to seriously injured personnel and veterans.

Our initiatives have led the Royal British Legion to say:

That is all a far cry from the bluster and hyperbole of the Forsyth commission. The commission’s report was 40 pages long and made no real commitments—well, they were few and far between. It was a huge retreat from the commision’s interim report and it deservedly sunk without a trace.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I do not want to get into the debate about the Forsyth commission, but it mentioned the importance of Headley Court, which was mentioned by the Minister, and I think that the whole House would pay tribute to the hard work that takes place there. Questions were raised about the swimming pool, which is an important part of the rehabilitation process. Will the Minister use this opportunity to update the House on what is happening about the advent of a swimming pool as a facility at that location?

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Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman knows that the money was raised by Help for Heroes and that they have now completed that fundraising. There is no reason from a finance point of view for any delay, and just the detailed work—such as that to do with regulations—and the construction work needs to go ahead in order to provide a swimming pool at Headley Court. The Government are providing £24 million to secure the development plan for Headley Court over a 10-year period, providing all the other rehabilitation facilities that are needed.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that although people sometimes say that we should not rely on charity, it is important not only that we fund the facilities adequately as a Government through the taxpayer but that we attract and encourage charitable contributions. Help for Heroes has done an amazing job to fund the swimming pool at Headley Court. That organisation and others, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, ought to be congratulated and nurtured. They ought to be helped to continue to make the fantastic contribution that they make.

Accommodation was one of the issues addressed in the Command Paper, and I would be the first to admit that not all our accommodation is what it should be. After decades of under-investment in the defence estate, the Government have built or upgraded more than 29,000 units of single living accommodation since 2003 and upgraded nearly 13,000 service family homes since 2001. We will invest a further £8 billion in service accommodation over the next 10 years.

In the Command Paper we also pledged to improve access to the property ladder for our people and for those leaving the forces, so I am pleased to tell the House that there is a team working on proposals to address those issues that will report by the end of the year. The Prime Minister has already announced a £20 million pilot scheme to promote home ownership, which is to be launched in 2009.

Bob Russell: Will the Minister confirm that all that public money is being invested in housing stock owned by a company that acquired Ministry of Defence housing in 1996, privatised at a price way below its value? In 10 years, the Government have spent more money in rent than the previous Government received in capital receipts, and all that public money is further enhancing the property value of Annington Homes rather than benefiting the public purse.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right that the deal that was done by the previous Government has left us a legacy that we have to work with. The overwhelming majority of our service family accommodation was sold off and we are now renting it back from Annington Homes. The money was taken and most of it did not go into the defence budget; it was taken by the Treasury before the 1997 general election. However, we have to live with the circumstances as they are. We have to work with Annington Homes and with anyone else who can help not only to improve our accommodation but to provide opportunities for our service people to get into home ownership. Despite some of the difficulties in the housing market in this last year, that is an aspiration that most of our people have and we must do as much as we can—with Annington Homes or with anybody else—to try to meet that aspiration.

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Opposition Members are not short of words on what more we need to do to look after our armed forces, but it is this Labour Government who have actually delivered for our forces. We have provided better equipment, better pay, more compensation, and improved health care. We have upgraded accommodation, which the Opposition sold off. We do not talk about what needs to be done; we get on and do it. Everything that we have debated—accommodation, support, training and pay—has an influence on recruitment and retention.

The latest figures on recruitment give some encouragement. There has been an 11 per cent. increase in the number of new recruits joining the forces in the 12 months up to June 2008, and there has been a 12 per cent. increase in the number of recruits joining the trained strength. The number of people leaving the trained strength has fallen by 1.4 per cent. in the past 12 months. On 1 August 2008, the full-time trained strength of the armed forces was 173,470, against a target of 179,160. That is 96.9 per cent. of the requirement.

Hon. Members will be aware that our people are working very hard, and some are deploying more frequently than any of us want. Obviously, that is not ideal, but the service chiefs have said that the current situation is manageable. For a number of specific groups in each service, including the Royal Marines ranks, the Army infantry, and RAF firefighters and engineers, manpower shortages create significant pressures. Measures to reduce those shortages include recruiting bonuses targeted at shortage areas, re-engagement bonuses, restructuring to spread the load more evenly and an enhanced operational welfare package. There is still some way to go before the situation is fully rectified, but we have made progress and will continue to do so.

A last word on harmony: as we move to a new role in Iraq, harmony will improve. I do not want to get into a debate on exactly when that will be; suffice it to say that in the medium term the decrease in our military commitment in Iraq will considerably ease the current stretch on our armed forces.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. About three weeks ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Afghanistan and listening to concerns about the Apache aircraft. As many of us will be aware, the concern is about a shortage not of aircraft, but of pilots. That came through loud and clear. We have 67 Apache aircraft. We could send them all out there, but they would not fly, because there are not the crews to man them. That message must be driven home. What is the Minister doing to expedite the training of crews, so that more of the Apache aircraft that are sitting dormant, or being used for training purposes in the UK, can be shipped over and used in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: We need to watch closely our ability to recruit and retain pilots, among other groups. I refer not only to helicopter pilots, but fixed-wing aircraft pilots. There is—or has been in recent years, in any case—a very buoyant civil aviation industry that pulls our people out earlier.

Mr. Ellwood: So what are you doing about it?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have reeled off a list of things that we have done to try to address the recruitment and retention needs of our armed forces. The Government
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will keep them under review and will respond to the needs as and when required. We have done that, and will continue to do that.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. There is not a single class of helicopter used by the US armed forces that does not have reservist crews, many of whom work in the dynamic aviation industry that he mentions. The US armed forces are able to rotate those reservist crews into operational theatres without moving the machines; the guys just fly out and take over the machines that are over there. Surely we should expand our aviation reserves, and not, as is planned, reduce both the Royal Naval Reserve and the Army aviation reserve.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was about to move on to the issue of reserves. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have commissioned a study about how best to use our reserves.

Based at nearly 400 locations across the UK, our reservists create and maintain important links between the armed forces and the wider community, in addition to making a huge contribution to current operations. Since March 2003, more than 17,000 reservists have served on operations around the world. They make up 9 per cent. of British armed forces in Afghanistan and 4 per cent. of our forces in Iraq. They are a significant part of our front-line capability, and in every way a force for good. They not only add power and expertise to our regular forces, but take the skills and abilities that they learn in defence into their civilian roles, adding to our front-line capability as well as our economy.

Since April this year, we have been conducting a strategic review of reserve forces, and the report to the House is due later this year. The aim of the review is to shape reserve forces so that they can better support front-line operations now and in the future. The hon. Gentleman has co-operated with that review; I know that he is hugely interested in the reserves. His points about niche capabilities and whether we can use the reserves to a greater degree will be taken into account. We will seek to expose those issues in the reserve review and exploit the capability out there.

I want to remind the House that across the UK there are about 132,000 cadets and 26,000 adult volunteers. Cadets belong to one of the largest youth organisations in the UK, second only to the scouts. Cadet schemes offer our young people a broad range of experiences and are recognised for giving young people ability in leadership, self-confidence, a “can do” ethos and resourcefulness.

Defence keeps our nation safe. It also adds value to our economy and invests in our people, and I have mentioned only some of the ways in which it is doing so. It is evident that we owe the armed forces credit not only for maintaining our security through operations overseas but for all that they do for us at home. The Government will remain committed to ensuring that service personnel, veterans and service families get all the recognition and support that they need. They deserve no less.

2.42 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I join the Minister in paying tribute to the 10 service personnel who lost their lives on operations. I also wish to remember the larger numbers who have been seriously injured on those same operations.

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Service welfare in the United Kingdom is always among the issues raised in debates such as this. Previously, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) dealt with that topic; he was a humane and assiduous Minister, and we wish him well following his departure from Government. In his place is the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has put his name to robust Defence Committee reports that have rightly described some single living accommodation as appalling and have rightly deplored operational overstretch and the consequent failure to meet harmony guidelines; it will be interesting to see how he gets on in addressing those issues.

Joining the ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence as an additional member is the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), in the latest twist of an eventful parliamentary career. He takes over the defence equipment and supply portfolio. In its last two incarnations, that has been held by Lord Drayson and Baroness Taylor, Members of the upper House—perhaps the hon. Gentleman is hoping that a trend in that direction is being established. The hon. Gentleman has always been intellectually independent, grounding the positions that he takes in considerable historical knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman shares that quality with the new Secretary of State for Defence, as I discovered last year in the national archives when I looked up from my researches into counter-insurgency and propaganda to see him immersed at an adjacent desk in the records of the Lancashire pals’ battalions, on which he was writing a book. At least we know that the Secretary of State, unlike some other prominent parliamentarians, actually writes the books to which he puts his name. Referring to the leader of his party, of whom the Secretary of State is such a well known admirer, they do, however, have one important factor in common—they both have important shipbuilding industries in their constituencies. Barrow is the home of UK submarine construction, and it will be interesting to see how many of the eight attack submarines promised by the Government in 2004 will be ordered and built there.

The outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), deserves credit for his promotion of the case for the next generation of the nuclear deterrent, which was not an easy thing for him to do in the context of Labour party politics. Many Conservative Members often challenged him on other issues, but he always responded without rancour. It was his misfortune to fall victim to the Prime Minister’s ill-judged decision to lumber him with a second ministerial portfolio at a time when the country is involved in two counter-insurgency campaigns abroad and a significant security issue at home. Every working minute of the Secretary of State for Defence should have been focused on those threats and the service welfare and procurement issues that traditionally hamper the conditions and capabilities of our forces in the field. It was not fair to the right hon. Gentleman, and it certainly was not fair to our forces in the field, that he had to spend up to 20 per cent. of his time on Scottish affairs. Never before has a Prime Minister taken such a half-baked, ill-judged and morale-sapping decision on parliamentary job sharing. Where United Kingdom defence is concerned, it must never happen again.

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Listening to everything that the Minister said about service welfare, I was reminded of the famous American film, “The Best Years of Our Lives”, which won seven Oscars in 1946 and had tremendous resonance with the public, both in America and in the United Kingdom. It was about the problems of re-entry into society at the end of four years of war, in the case of the USA, and six years in the case of the United Kingdom. Our servicemen and women face that problem of disconnection and reintegration into society at the end of every six-month tour. The harmony guidelines are supposed to give them 18 months between operational deployments, but we all know that that does not happen.

Viscount Slim, the victor of Burma and one of the greatest modern strategists the British Army has seen, once did a radio talk in which he compared people drawing on courage with drawing on a bank balance—although I do not think that he had the modern conditions of British banking in mind. He said that they could overdraw from time to time but must replenish their resources. He also said that the bravest men would crack if they were not rested adequately, and yet, conversely, men who were exhausted but were rested adequately could go back and win the highest awards for valour.

Last night, I viewed a recording that I had made of a BBC3 programme from two days ago. It was about a lance-corporal in the Grenadier Guards who was described by his company commander as, “Fearless, occasionally to the point of recklessness, but a very brave young man.” The Army deserves great credit for allowing the BBC access, in Afghanistan and back home, to what was going on in that company. The BBC likewise deserves credit for its sensitive and objective presentation. The young lance-corporal ended up, on the self-same day, being congratulated on the mention in dispatches that he had been awarded for heroism under fire, and losing his rank for disciplinary offences that he had committed on his return home. He had done four operational tours in his five years in the Army—so much for the harmony guidelines. When service personnel return to the United Kingdom, they need understanding, support and conditions of accommodation that reflect the regard in which they are held by society. Great improvements have been made for those damaged in body, but not enough yet for those damaged in mind, particularly those who could become damaged in mind when subjected to inadequate facilities and unnecessary pressures on their return to the UK.

The lance-corporal I referred to has now left the Army, but I know of another who aims to serve his full 22 years. He took part in the initial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has since done a third tour lasting seven months—not six—in Afghanistan. Now back in the UK, he has spent time in the Browning barracks in Aldershot, where the toilet blocks stink even when the lavatory pans are not blocked with sewage, and where the corridors are overheated whilst the rooms are freezing cold. His weekend get-you-home pay is supposed to give him £270 per month. Sometimes it is paid when it should be, but sometimes nothing comes through for three months at a time. That unevenness causes him, often unwittingly, to dip into the red, and thus incur punitive charges on every direct debit and every other transaction on his bank account.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I am sad to hear about the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Would he send me the details of it, so that I can take it up?

Dr. Lewis: I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is getting off to such a good start. I shall certainly do that, and I will be very pleased to see if he is able to do something to put that situation right. My point is that bank charges of that sort are irrecoverable. The man in question has not complained to me about it, but his partner has. She said:

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