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Ms Taylor: In thanking my hon. Friend for that response, I ask him to reassure the House that the statistics held on the number of veterans who are seeking
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good housing are accurate. We are aware that London’s figures have improved enormously, but what about the rest of the country and, in particular, the north-east? It is time that the MOD spoke to every local authority and housing association to ensure that men and women who have served their country are treated with dignity when it is their turn to be housed or rehoused.

Mr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in this subject, which I know goes back many years. I also thank her for her work in County Durham in promoting the cadets force. This is a real issue. The MOD, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, commissioned York university to carry out a study into London veterans, which showed that 6 per cent. of the London homeless population are veterans, down from 22 per cent. in 1997. I will be placing a copy of that report in the Library of the House. My hon. Friend also raises an important point about the extension of the problem in the rest of the country. I, along with the Department—I also had a meeting with service charities a couple of weeks ago—will try to commission similar research to ensure that we know not only what the state of the problem is but what can be done about it.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne) (Con): A significant proportion of rough sleepers in my constituency appear to have a services background. Will the Minister give his support to a new project run by my local Salvation Army to set up a hostel for rough sleepers, and will he look into whether some MOD funding might be made available to help the project get off the ground?

Mr. Jones: I commend that initiative. On 2 December, I chaired a meeting of the Veterans Forum, which brings together service charities and others interested in the subject, to discuss homelessness. Later this week I will meet my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my counterpart in that Department, to talk about how local authorities and other charities can draw upon the existing expertise, as well as the money available for rough sleepers not only in London but across the country, so I would be interested in having details of the project to which the hon. Gentleman referred to see what assistance I can give.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome what my hon. Friend said about help for homeless ex-servicemen and women, but many who leave the armed forces have problems moving from service to civilian life. What is being done to promote the Veterans Agency as the first point of contact for servicemen and women who need help?

Mr. Jones: I pay tribute to the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency for its work in helping servicemen and veterans. My right hon. Friend highlights the transition stage. Clearly, one answer lies in projects such as Mike Jackson house and I want to explore with service charities and the Department for Communities and Local Government how we can expand the network of support throughout the country. Later this year, I intend to conduct a number of regional meetings with the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to promote its work in the regions, and ensure that veterans, local authorities and other stakeholders know about the agency’s excellent work.

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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Minister will be aware that in my constituency the Army is paying in excess of £700,000 a year for more than 200 Army family houses to stand empty. On homeless ex-soldiers, may I draw his attention to the excellent charity Veterans Aid? Can further support be given to the charity in assisting former members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who have fallen on hard times and giving them somewhere decent to live?

Mr. Jones: I certainly commend the work of Veterans Aid. I visited the hon. Gentleman’s constituency before Christmas, and one problem with some of the accommodation there is that it is waiting for refurbishment. There are other problems arising from the Addington Homes contract, on which I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert. When MOD property becomes surplus the Department is conscious of and keen to look at opportunities for providing it on a short-term basis, or even longer term, to servicemen and women when they leave the armed forces. We shall certainly do what we can to help.


5. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan. [246444]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): Our assessment of the security situation in Pakistan on the routes used to supply UK armed forces serving in Afghanistan is continuously reviewed. We are grateful to the Government of Pakistan for their support for resupply operations for UK and other ISAF—international security assistance force—members in Afghanistan. Through those efforts our lines of supply have not been significantly threatened and remain open and effective.

David Taylor: The recent closure of the crucial Khyber pass route into northern Afghanistan will no doubt have stretched our air bridge supply lines and the strategic transport aircraft fleet. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he is satisfied with the supply route options available and, more narrowly, whether there have been any problems at all with delivery to our servicemen and women in theatre of the all-important morale-boosting mail from home during the Christmas period and the weeks since?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s concern. I can assure him that all the mail got through, and there is more than one supply route into Afghanistan. He referred to the recent closure of the Khyber pass; it was closed by the Pakistani security forces as part of a sweep to clear insurgents from that part of the Khyber agency, and it has been successful. I can assure my hon. Friend and the House that our lines of supply and communication to Afghanistan are robust and secure, and we have an effective air bridge. Clearly, the air bridge needs to be adequate and sufficient and, if necessary, we will not hesitate to provide additional resources to complement those that we have deployed.

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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): In view of the attacks on the supply route, is the Secretary of State considering acquiring new C-17 or C-130 aircraft, and if he is, will they be funded from the contingency reserve?

Mr. Hutton: We are looking at all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the C-17s; we recently acquired additional C-17s, and we are looking at the possibility of acquiring more, yes.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Along with other hon. Members, I visited Pakistan last week and met the President, the Prime Minister, senior Government figures and Opposition leaders. All were committed to democracy, and were encouraging about the support that the British Government have been giving, but they all expressed concern about Americans bombing and about drone missiles in the north of Pakistan. That not only undermines attempts to introduce democracy, but gives substance to the claims of terrorists. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to influence the Americans on that issue?

Mr. Hutton: I have some sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend raises, but essentially those matters are between the US Government and the Government of Pakistan. It would be remiss of me if I did not point out to the House that the attacks have had a significant degrading effect on al-Qaeda operations in the area and, to that extent, have advanced the security of UK and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): As the British Government reassess their strategy with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, alongside our American allies, will the Secretary of State comment on reports of an apparent fraying of relations between the British and American militaries? Will he take this opportunity to underline how important it is to our country that we should be able to offer the Americans effective military aid in support of their efforts, so that we remain as important to them as they are to us?

Mr. Hutton: Again, I am very grateful—I am spending all my time today saying how grateful I am to hon. Members—to the hon. Gentleman, and I can give him an assurance. The reports are complete rubbish, and they do not reflect the current state of relations—military, political or diplomatic—between the UK and the United States. The United States remains our principal international ally. UK forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have done a superb job of advancing British policy, and the policies and security of our friends and allies around the world, and—I believe this to be true—they have no critics in the US military at all; it respects and appreciates the work of the UK’s armed forces. That is a tribute to the professionalism and bravery of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. It remains my clear view that everything that we in the Ministry of Defence do will be designed to enhance that relationship and ensure that it remains strong and reliable in the years to come.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend rightly spelled out the need for more heavy-lift aircraft, but he mentioned using C-130s; where does that leave the A400M programme?

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Mr. Hutton: That is a very good question. The A400M programme is now likely to be subject to considerable delay— [Interruption]—because of problems that EADS is having in producing the aircraft, not because of any policy decision made by the UK Government or any other partner nations involved in the project. We cannot accept a three or four-year delay in the delivery of those aircraft. That would impose an unnecessary, unacceptable strain on our air assets. We, along with all our partner nations, will have to consider very carefully what the right response to the problem is.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): One of the consequences of a better security situation in Iraq is that many of the fanatical extremists are moving up to the north-west frontier in Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State comment on the measures that he is trying to take to prevent the constant flow of extremists from the madrassahs in Pakistan to the front line, where they confront our troops? It is demoralising for our troops always to find that there can be replenishment by the Taliban, and reoccupation of sites that our armed forces had taken, once they have pulled back in order to retrench.

Mr. Hutton: I agree absolutely with the central thrust of what the hon. Gentleman said—the need for greater border security between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority, and I am glad, for example, that Presidents Karzai and Zardari recently agreed to focus additional effort on border security, which we welcome. The Pakistani frontier corps is making a significant effort, both in Baluchistan and in Waziristan in the tribal areas, to try to get a proper grip on what is happening. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is demoralising to see Pakistan used as a sanctuary and a source of resupply and reinforcement for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The solution to that problem will primarily require a greater focus of effort on the Afghan side of the border and on the Pakistan side, but I can assure him that British military advisers are involved in those debates and discussions, and we are looking at what further help we can provide, on both the Afghan and Pakistan sides of the border, to address those serious issues.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Further to that, does the Secretary of State not agree that the federally administered tribal areas provide an enduring criminal sanctuary? They provide command and control for the Afghan insurgency, with financial support and training. Is not the bottom line that we cannot achieve our objectives in Afghanistan until we disrupt at the very least the al-Qaeda-Taliban network that is attacking from Pakistan? When the United States takes out al-Qaeda leaders, should we not celebrate, rather than criticise?

Mr. Hutton: I think that that is exactly what I did a few minutes ago. They are our mortal enemy, and we are involved in a fundamental struggle with them, in which we must prevail. I accept the need for greater security in Afghanistan, which will be met to a great extent if we can tighten the freedom of movement across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The challenge is the best way to do so. It is primarily an Afghan and Pakistan issue of security that must be addressed, but we are doing everything that we possibly can to enhance
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the safety and security of the British mission, and that of our allies and partners in Afghanistan, as we deal with al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. That will continue to be my absolute priority during my time as Secretary of State for Defence.

Dr. Fox: To guarantee the security of supplies when they reach Afghanistan, we need a rural security presence, especially with a dispersed rural population. Does the Secretary of State believe that we have sufficient forces to clear and hold territory, then build on that, whether from the international security assistance force, Operation Enduring Freedom or the Afghan national security forces? If extra forces are required, how can we get our allies to shoulder their fair share of the international security burden? Surely, joint security implies joint commitment?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I agree very strongly with that, too, and we continually make the case in NATO that our allies should take more responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. I believe that the conflict in Afghanistan will be the defining conflict of the 21st century for NATO, and will confirm its relevance or otherwise, so it is absolutely essential that there is proper and effective burden sharing. As for troop levels in Afghanistan, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an announcement recently about additional deployments to Afghanistan, partly to advance some of the operations to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention. We need more security, particularly around Lashkagar, and that is what Operation Sond Chara was designed to do over Christmas and early in the new year. It has been a resounding success. The theatre capability review has just been completed in Afghanistan, and we are considering its findings. If there is a case, and if there is an announcement to be made about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this will be the first place to hear it.


6. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What steps his Department has taken to raise public awareness of veterans’ rights. [246445]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The nation’s commitment to service personnel, dependants and veterans was set out in the service personnel Command Paper published last July, which received widespread publicity. Benefits and assisted support are publicised through Government and ex-service organisation websites and publications, and through local and national press articles. We are also determined to use the armed forces day on 27 June this year to publicise the range of benefits and support available to our veterans.

Mr. McGovern: May I add my message of sympathy to those families who have lost a member of their family serving in the armed forces since the last time the House met. May I also pay tribute to Mr. Victor Herd and Mr. Bruce Kelly of the Combined Ex-Services Association in Dundee, whose time, effort and commitment ensure that Veterans day in Dundee has been a success every year since it was inaugurated. I am sure all hon. Members
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would agree that respect and recognition are due to those who have served this country, whether that comes via health care priority, the veterans’ badge or, indeed, Veterans day. Could the Minister outline in more detail the Government’s plans for the newly titled armed forces day 2009?

Mr. Jones: I add my congratulations to those two individuals. They are part of an army of volunteers throughout the country who serve charities and do unpaid voluntary work, and we should thank them wholeheartedly. I will make an announcement later this month on the successful city that has been chosen for Veterans day. Alongside that, I will publish suggestions about how towns, cities and communities can get involved, and I would like individual Members of Parliament to do what they can to promote armed forces and Veterans day.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Will the Minister join me in praising the work of the Fife Veterans Association, which does the sort of work that he described—voluntary work, promoting and standing up for veterans throughout the kingdom? The association does a splendid job promoting the rights of those veterans, and it deserves the support of the House and beyond.

Mr. Jones: I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Fife veterans. I visited Scotland before Christmas and met Veterans Scotland. I pay tribute to them and the range of organisations involved in Veterans Scotland that are doing a fantastic job in Scotland to promote veterans’ affairs and offer practical assistance to veterans.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend recognises that we have made tremendous strides recently with regard to veterans. One measure that particularly pleased me and, I am sure, my hon. Friend and everyone else is the free university education for veterans and free training and qualifications for veterans. Have we yet linked up universities and colleges through the MOD and Army sites to allow veterans to be aware of where they can go, what qualifications they can get and the fact that they can take that up free?

Mr. Jones: Like my hon. Friend, I am pleased that that was a key part of the service command paper. Later this year we will announce the first individuals who will be taking advantage of that. Armed forces day will be part of the promotion of the steps that we have taken and where we are up to in implementing the recommendations in the service command paper. As my hon. Friend knows, in July this year the evaluation paper will be placed before Parliament showing exactly what we have done and how far we have got in implementing those measures, which our servicemen and women rightly deserve.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The right to priority treatment for occupational illness caused by service in the armed forces is implicit in the military covenant, yet the UK is shamed by its allies’ superior effort in raising awareness among servicemen, veterans, health care professionals and the general public of the potentially crippling nature of combat stress and what
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can be done about it. What plans does the Minister have for active combat stress case finding, or are his Government content simply to allow the increasing number of veterans with severe service-attributable mental ill health to go undiscovered and untreated?

Mr. Jones: I am shocked and surprised that someone who is a clinician does not understand what we have done. An excellent report recently produced by the King’s Centre for Military Health Research outlines 10 years of research ranging from the issues associated with Gulf war syndrome to a very good study, which I suggest the hon. Gentleman should read, on Operation Telic, which looked at 7,000 people—3,000 who did not attend operations and 3,000 who did. It brings out some very good figures, and shows, for example, that some of the alarmist statements about post-traumatic stress disorder are not being found. That is not being complacent; it is making sure that we have the evidence in place to ensure that the services that those individuals deserve are available. I do not accept that the Government or the United Kingdom are doing any less than any other country. They are, perhaps, doing more.

Shipping Safety (Horn of Africa)

7. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): If he will hold discussions with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the safety of shipping in the waters off the horn of Africa. [246446]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We continue to discuss the issue of shipping safety off the horn of Africa within the international community. UK officials and officials from the People’s Republic of China will be in attendance at the contact group, which is due to meet this week to discuss a coherent international response to this difficult problem. The People’s Republic of China has sent three vessels to the gulf of Aden and international forces are liaising with them to ensure that their activities are co-ordinated. We welcome China’s contribution.

Mr. Pelling: Following on from the Minister’s welcome, does he feel that this is an opportunity to work more closely and co-operatively with the People’s Republic of China on defence matters in the African continent and the middle east as a whole?

Mr. Ainsworth: We try to have appropriate contacts with the Chinese military, on a military-to-military basis. The Chinese military’s potential is considerable because of their size; if they can be made to be a contributor to international efforts, as they already are in so many areas, that is to be welcomed. It is a positive move, and we do everything that we can to encourage it.

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