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House of Commons

Monday 12 January 2009

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. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the risk of overstretch affecting forces’ families. [246440]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): Before I begin, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan since the House last met. They were Sergeant Christopher Reed, of 6th Battalion the Rifles, and Corporal Robert Deering, Corporal Liam Elms and Lance Corporal Ben Whatley, all of them Royal Marines. Our thoughts and prayers are likewise with the family of the Royal Marine who died in Afghanistan yesterday.

Providing effective help and support for service families remains a high priority for the Ministry of Defence. We recognise the challenges that service families face as a result of the current high level of operations and have already made a significant investment—for example, in service accommodation and in making it easier for service personnel and their families to keep in touch during operations. Specialist welfare support staff have also been increased by more than 20 per cent., and we will continue to look at further measures to help in the future.

Simon Hughes: I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to those who have given their lives. As somebody with a Marines base in my constituency, I pay particular tribute to the Marines who suffered extensively over recent months in active service. Our thoughts are not just with their immediate families, but with their colleagues who remain to do the job on behalf of our country.

Given that there is an opportunity later this year, when our troops come home at last from Iraq, and given that we know that the evidence shows the effects of overstretch on families, divorces and post-traumatic stress disorder, what proposals does the Secretary of State have for taking advantage of having one less theatre of operation to reduce the burdens generally and support the families who need us so much?

Mr. Hutton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Royal Marines at the beginning of his question; 3 Commando Brigade are doing an outstanding job in Afghanistan today and unfortunately, 42 and 45 Commando have taken very substantial casualties. I am grateful to him for his words of respect and admiration for the Royal Marines, who do a brilliant job for our country.

On service families, the opportunity does present itself later this year, when the operation will significantly change in Iraq, for us to bring about a lessening of the operational tempo for the armed forces, and we are determined to take that opportunity. Of course, we have to keep under careful review the deployment in Afghanistan, and we are looking carefully at what we might need to do there in future weeks and months, but we must and should take advantage of what I think will be a very significant moment later this year to help servicemen
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and their families adjust to a better way of life, and a period when they can enjoy more contact with each other and their families. That is very much what we are trying to do, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to say that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, associate myself with the earlier remarks about the support for our forces at this time. One of the best ways in which we can support families is to provide greater clarity regarding the provision of accommodation not only when people are serving, but when they leave the armed forces. Can we look again at the ways in which housing is made available, to make sure that it is more easily available and is provided in the way that many of us would like?

Mr. Hutton: Yes; we are prepared at every time to look at ways in which we can improve how we do the work that my hon. Friend has referred to. He will like to know, I am sure, that the Government have made a commitment to invest significantly in improving the standard of service accommodation that we provide for single, as well as married, soldiers. I hope and believe that that will add significantly to some of the morale and satisfaction issues that he alluded to.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I also pay tribute to the Royal Marines, whom I, along with other Members of this House, had the privilege of visiting in Camp Bastion before the summer recess, and to the Rifles, which is a Territorial Army unit? What special help are families in the TA units being given when they lose their loved ones or when on deployment, which is a completely different issue for them than for the regulars?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I do accept that point. This is an issue for the welfare support staff whom the MOD employs, and it is also obviously the work of the TA battalions and their officers and commanding officers to make sure that TA soldiers, airmen and royal naval personnel who are on active service get the appropriate family and welfare support that they must receive. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we put very significant effort into ensuring that the excellent service that the TA renders our armed forces is properly rewarded and that its families do not suffer as a consequence.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives since the House last met? When the Secretary of State considers the morale of families, will he take account of the fact that the quality and clarity of the information that they receive while family members are on active duty are vital, that the Ministry of Defence website is sadly lacking in this regard, as are other means of communication from the Ministry, and that because of modern communications, this information is often gained in other ways? I ask him to examine the matter, because I am sure he recognises that it is very important for the morale of families when their loved ones are fighting overseas.

Mr. Hutton: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and I agree with its central premise: it is incumbent on Ministers and on the services themselves
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to maintain morale among service families while husbands and other loved ones are on active service. We fully intend to discharge that duty. If there are practical ways in which we can enhance the utility of the MOD’s website—I suspect that it is probably not the principal source of information in this context—we are happy to do that. I shall take away what she has said, consider it carefully and come back to her on it.


2. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of potential military threats posed by Iran. [246441]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): We routinely assess the military capabilities of other nations’ armed forces, including those of Iran.

Mr. Jones: Last month, Iran conducted a major naval exercise in the gulf of Oman, involving more than 60 warships and military aircraft. Next month, the first shipments of liquefied natural gas will start sailing from Qatar to Milford Haven, and in due course LNG from the Persian gulf will account for some 25 per cent. of the gas consumed in this country. To what extent does the Secretary of State recognise the military threat of Iran to the security of British energy supply and to what extent is the UK working with its allies and the Gulf Co-operation Council to counter it?

Mr. Hutton: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks. He will understand that we take a close interest in these matters. Iran has the ability to contribute not just to greater global security, but to greater global energy security. Unfortunately, it is not doing that, so its influence remains malign and it poses a significant threat not just to global security, but to regional security. Naturally, we keep all those matters under careful review and we discuss all these concerns closely with our allies in the Gulf and elsewhere, but it remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to ensure that energy supply routes through the gulf of Aden remain open, and we have forces in place there to achieve just that.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I am unsure whether my right hon. Friend will have seen yesterday’s report by Steve Erlanger in The New York Times. It stated:

That came from The New York Times, not any other source. Does the Secretary of State agree that Iran’s involvement in the current crisis, including the smuggling of Fajr-3 missiles into the hands of Hamas, is a great danger and that the warm relationship between the leadership of Hamas and the current anti-Semitic leadership of Iran also indicates just what a poisonous role Iran is playing generally in the region and further afield?

Mr. Hutton: I did not see that edition of The New York Times, unlike my right hon. Friend. I shall just repeat my earlier comment that Iran’s influence in the region is malign. We want the situation to be transformed, and we are actively pursuing better dialogue and engagement with Iran, but there can be no regional
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security as long as Iran continues to support not just terrorist organisations in the middle east, but, for example, Taliban elements in Afghanistan, and as long as Iran continues to have active and close links with some of the terrorists and insurgent groups in Iraq. That has to change. Iran has suffered as a result of the isolation that her foreign policy has brought upon her, and that can change if Iran changes her attitude and approach to these issues. Her Majesty’s Government are clear about the need for peace and stability in the middle east, and that is not helped by the current policies of the Iranian Government.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Iran can pose such a local and strategic threat because of the technological assistance on missile defence and missile development that it continues to receive from both China and Russia. Can the Secretary of State tell us what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to try to stop that flow from China and Russia?

Mr. Hutton: I do not want to go into the detail of that point on the Floor of the House; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand. We share his concerns about the possibility of defence forces in Iran being enhanced by such technology and we are in discussions with several nations to try to prevent that from happening.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The news coming from Washington, from President-elect Obama, is that he seeks, and is willing, to engage with Iran. Is that a lead that the Government might want to follow?

Mr. Hutton: We have diplomatic relations with Iran. As I said earlier, we seek an active engagement and dialogue with the Government of Iran, because they are potentially significant partners for peace and security in that region of the world, which is so sorely troubled by the absence of security, but that engagement has to be on the basis of respect for other nations’ borders and frontiers and the right of other nations to live in peace and security. Currently, the Iranian Government do not respect those principles, and until they do, Iran will remain an international pariah state.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I associate those on the Opposition Front Bench with the tribute paid to our service personnel who have died or been wounded since the House last met?

In the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), the Secretary of State seemed to accept that Iran could, if it chose, pose a major naval threat to our fuel supplies. Does he accept that in countering such a threat our attack submarine fleet would be crucial? For that reason, will he consider restoring the promise that the Government made in 2004 to build eight Astute submarines?

Mr. Hutton: We have looked very carefully at all these matters. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are currently envisaging building seven Astute submarines, and that remains the Government’s position. I do not dispute the important role of the ship submersible nuclear fleet in securing those trade routes, and I can assure him that, along with other naval assets from this country and our NATO partners, we retain credible naval forces designed to ensure that our energy supply routes, especially from the middle east, remain open.

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3. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What progress is being made in reducing the time taken to complete inquests on members of the armed forces killed on operations? [246442]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We have managed largely to eliminate the backlog of inquests. We have established the Defence Inquests Unit to lead our drive to improve co-ordination and support for families, coroners and others. However, some inquests, due to their complexity, will always take time, and it is only right that they are allowed to do so when necessary.

Rosie Cooper: I thank the Minister for that response, but perhaps he could tell us what lessons have been learned that will enable to us to continue to improve the service we give to the families of service personnel?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have said to the House on previous occasions that one of my priorities in this job was to eliminate unnecessary delay, because it just adds to the pain and suffering of people who have lost their loved ones when we delay our inquiries, and often therefore the coroner’s inquiries. We had to get on top of that, and we had to ensure that we eliminated such delay. We have done that over a period of time, and I am enormously pleased by that. We also need to look, as we are doing, at the level of service that we give to families when they have suffered a bereavement, to try to ensure that we give them the most professional support without breaking the vital link between the families and the individual regiments and units to which their loved ones belonged. That is also important.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The Minister will be aware of the good progress made between the UK and Scottish Governments on ensuring that investigations can take place in Scotland into the deaths of service personnel who normally reside there, but I understand that some work remains to be done before that becomes a routine measure. What progress is being made and when is that likely to happen?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman may know that the then Secretary of State wrote to the Scottish Government in March last year on this issue. We eventually received a reply in November, and we will respond as soon as we are able to do so. I hope that that will be very shortly.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I pay particular tribute to the retiring Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, who has done a superb job in getting the backlog down and in carrying out very difficult inquests such as that into XV179, the Hercules that was downed in Iraq. In the town of Wootton Bassett in my constituency, we see the return of the bodies week by week. Surely it is time for the Government to consider something rather like the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) is suggesting with regard to Scotland. Rather than using local coroners in Oxfordshire and now in Wiltshire to carry out these difficult inquests, would it not be possible to have the inquests in the places where the servicemen are based?

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Mr. Ainsworth: First, let me join the hon. Gentleman in praising the work of the Wiltshire coroner, whose dedication and thoroughness in his work are quite tremendous and should be applauded. We attempt to have inquests undertaken in the local area wherever possible and we have made some progress in that. We do so overwhelmingly for the benefit of the families. It is not possible in Scotland, but we are looking to sort that out and hope to have the assistance of the Scottish Government in doing so. Mr. Masters has undertaken a lot of inquests, and on the odd occasion he has taken inquests back when it was felt that the expertise that he was able to apply would be more useful than a local inquest. He has been very constructive in that regard.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Fallen service personnel are repatriated through Lyneham in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). The office and office staff, however, are in Salisbury. The retiring coroner said last week that he feared for the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire because a decision was made with no consultation to move the office and staff from Salisbury to Devizes, the excellent constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is in his place. The coroner fears that the expertise of those staff will be entirely lost. It is a complex and difficult situation involving relations with the military. Will the Minister undertake to look very closely at the future of the coroner service in Wiltshire to ensure that a service that serves the nation is not lost but, far from that, is enhanced?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that I ought to concentrate on trying to do my job as Minister for the Armed Forces rather than trying to run the coroner service as well. I would be worried if we lost the expertise. I am worried that we will lose the expertise that Mr. Masters has built up over time. He is due to retire, so that is possibly inevitable, but we need to try to keep that expertise. The hon. Gentleman laughs, but there is a possibility that we will not be able to retain Mr. Masters’s services. I do not know whether that is the case, and it is not a matter for me. I would like us to do whatever we can to maintain the expertise that we have had, but it is not a matter for the MOD in the first instance.

Veterans (Homelessness)

4. Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): What recent steps he has taken to provide support for veterans who become homeless. [246443]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): We have introduced a number of measures that will make it easier for our service personnel to access social housing, become home owners and occupy void MOD properties as an interim measure before leaving service. Following the successful launch of Mike Jackson house, a 25-bed unit in Aldershot, we aim to gift land in Catterick for a similar project. It will offer more veterans short-term housing while they plan their return to independent living.

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