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29 Jan 2009 : Column 521

I was fortunate enough to go on an armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Afghanistan just before this operation, and it was a rare chance to try to find answers to some of the questions that I and my constituents have asked about what the men and women from Plymouth who are deployed out there are doing on our behalf, how they feel about it, and how their kit and equipment are serving them and standing up to the harsh treatment that it gets in the high-tempo operations and different terrain and climate. I wanted to see for myself the medical services and find out whether they were as good as our Defence Committee report suggested last year. I had many other questions too numerous to mention.

We spent our first day in Camp Bastion receiving some excellent briefings from Colonel Andy Maynard, who is Op Herrick 9’s chief in charge of logistics. We also heard from Lieutenant Colonel Colin McClean who is in charge of equipment support and gave us a really good overview of the equipment at their disposal for force protection and projection. We got an idea of how that equipment was used, how it gets there and how it is kept in working order. People often make efforts way over the odds to keep it in use. Further detail was spelt out in other briefings. We had lots of chances to see and chat with the people delivering some of it, from Post Office workers and those dealing with the e-blueys to engineers keeping the planes, helicopters and vehicles maintained, and we found out information from how the very good food gets on the tables in the canteen to how the pay and admin issues are dealt with.

A highlight of the visit had to be, of course, the visit to joint force medical group and R2E hospital with Wing Commander Roger Thompson. There are some 15 Plymouth medical personnel operating in Camp Bastion and a similar number elsewhere, including on the forward operating bases.

Another highlight was undoubtedly the visit to 42 Commando Royal Marines HQ and to Camp Roberts. We talked with Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Stickland, who spoke with pace, passion and clarity about the recent ops, the role of his marines and the preparations that they were making for further operations. It was also good to see Lieutenant Colonel Neil Wilson and 29 Commando Regiment alongside 42.

After nearly 40 years of experience in the battleground of politics, I take my hat off the young men, often in their early 20s, who can flex to the physical exploits of supermen, for which they are all so well known, and within very short order, take tea with the mullahs, discussing an amazing range of political, social and economic issues in a way that understands and is sensitive to Afghan culture. “Stunning” and “awesome” were words that I heard my colleagues use after our visit to Camp Roberts, where we learned more of how that was done through practical demonstration and kit and equipment displays.

People seem appreciative of how the urgent operational requirement process has delivered better kit and equipment, with the Plymouth-manufactured Jackal being particularly welcome. The marines and commandos had a lot to say about how kit and equipment could be better still. They are standing up to some of the world’s worst and most vicious bullies on our behalf and they certainly deserve to be taken note of when they raise issues about how these things can be done better and how kit and equipment can be designed to work better together.

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I was very pleased to get a letter responding to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I put to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), after we returned from that visit. We received a very detailed response about how attention is being paid to most of those points. I shall read it very closely, because I know that when the troops return from deployment they will challenge me to say whether the issues that they raised with us in the heat of deployment are being taken seriously. I look forward to continuing those conversations not through questions on the Order Paper but through detailed discussions with the Minister.

The Afghan army is building up steadily. We met and talked to some of the “Omlets”—the military liaison and training officers from the UK and other international security assistance force forces. We did not manage to visit Camp Shobarak, and I suspect that it will be quite a long time before the Afghan army can act to provide security in the challenging circumstances in that part of Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand, but it is good to see and hear that the work to achieve that is under way.

I know from Plymouth Herald reports and the work that I do on the Select Committee on Defence that the insurgency by the coalition of old and new Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists has changed and is increasingly dangerous and challenging. There is an unholy mix of the original religious zealots with narco and other criminals. Some use the Taliban and al-Qaeda brand as a terrorist flag of convenience to hype up the fear factor of the bullying, thuggish behaviour that they inflict on the Afghan people. We are of course there to support the Afghan Government in bringing security to their people and communities. More importantly, some would say, considering the price that we are paying in blood and money, we are there in the interests of our own security, as the Minister said so clearly in his opening speech.

We have been in Helmand as part of NATO/ISAF strategy to support the Afghan Government only since 2005. We often think that it is longer because there has been action in Afghanistan for longer, but it has only come into Helmand for a shorter time. Dealing with the issue there means less trouble on our doorstep. It is remarkable that the country is making some progress. It may be frustratingly slow and halting, but we forget the starting point at our peril: some of the deepest poverty and highest rates of infant mortality in the world, a space in which al-Qaeda camps trained in the region of 50,000—some say 70,000 plus—terrorists; the twisted roots of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers; and a state governed by religious zealots, the Taliban, who let all that happen. For the first time, I heard there of the idea of reducing the dependence on the poppy crop through a sensible, phased approach, which, given time, I thought might just work. Both doing that and creating a safe enough space for the elections this year need to come together to secure the right direction of travel. What we heard was measured and realistic, stated in a fair, low and sombre key, confident but not gung-ho and giving a strong impression that there is a very strong sense of pulling in the same direction—civilians as well as service personnel now, both with good morale.

I kept coming across naval personnel in all sorts of roles, from cooks to drivers to administrative officers, some in their usual day job roles but so many doing
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quite different things from the usual. That is unsurprising, as this is the biggest land deployment of naval personnel for a long time. The visit gave me a strong sense of commitment to a really difficult task, for which our service personnel deserve to be better appreciated. As a community, we will certainly be doing that in Plymouth when they come back, soon. Some are already back, of course: medics tend to serve shorter but more frequent deployments. In April there will be a major event—a march past—so that we can all come together to mark our respect for what they have been doing. There will be quite a few events leading up to the first armed forces day, when we will be building on the remarkable range of events put together by the city council and the federation of service organisations.

The understanding of what personnel are doing is important to their families, who are looking forward to the homecoming—the end of the deployment. Sadly, as the Minister said in his opening speech, some will not be returning. There has been a very high level not only of deaths but of casualties because of the intense nature of some of the fighting. I was particularly pleased with the progress he reported on the implementation of the service personnel Command Paper, particularly in the long-overdue changes to the compensation scheme.

Some remarkable veterans have been returning from deployment via Plymouth. Some have been featured nationally. Ben McBean and Mark Ormrod come to mind. One lost two limbs, the other three, and yet when I rang the other day to inquire after one of them, I was told he had gone skiing. They are remarkable people, doing a remarkable job for us.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by focusing on one of the small things that can make a difference. We heard when overseas that small things matter, and that it is important that they are not neglected. The problem to which I wish to draw attention does not directly relate to the Afghan deployment; I heard about it from a senior serving officer who serves in my constituency. I have mentioned it in debate and in continuing correspondence, but I do not think that the Department properly appreciates the problem. It is being treated as an equality issue—which it certainly is.

The problem is that when Marines approach retirement age, they need to have two years’ service ahead of them in order to apply for senior tri-service positions, so from their early 50s they cannot be considered for such positions. That cannot be in the interests of the armed forces, let alone fair. If it is truly impossible to bring the retirement ages into line earlier—I know there is a long-term plan to do so—perhaps the alternative is to bring some flexibility to the two-year rule. Obviously, junior positions in the Royal Marines lean towards young, active people, but I see no reason why among senior appointments a Royal Marine officer who is enthusiastic and experienced cannot be placed on an equal footing with his tri-service counterparts.

The armed forces have been working incredibly hard on our behalf. As draw-down from Iraq takes place, the opportunity finally to implement programmes of recovery and recuperation, which need to be well planned, must be fully taken, not just to restore the harmony guidelines so that families feel under less pressure, but so that the
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training that makes our armed forces world class can be restored and the service personnel can remain world class today, tomorrow and in future years.

4.20 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I begin, as ever, by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed services, who work tirelessly, bravely and professionally, often in difficult, demanding and increasingly dangerous circumstances. My thoughts are particularly with my constituents, the marines and engineers from Chivenor in North Devon, who are serving in Afghanistan and form part of the wider marine community that is represented by, among others, the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who are in the Chamber. I join others in expressing my deep condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives serving their country and my sincere sympathy to those who have returned injured—either physically or mentally, or both.

Our personnel are the lifeblood of our military capabilities, yet faced with low pay, long hours, sometimes substandard accommodation, insufficient albeit growing recognition, and the prospect of another 10 or perhaps 20 years in Afghanistan, they certainly do not have an easy time. Our priority in the House must be to ensure that the nation honours its duty of care to the armed forces and that they are backed up with the necessary resources, equipment and support to do their jobs. We must also ensure that the economic downturn does not water down support to the military, especially at a time of heightened threat. The Ministry of Defence’s own credit crunch has already hit with delays in the carriers and armoured vehicle. We must not allow that to undermine our capabilities.

We need to look further at how our armed forces can be even more flexible, efficient and effective as a fighting force. I welcomed some of the thinking sketched out last week by General Sir Richard Dannatt about the way in which he will go about that task. I must restate yet again the need for a new strategic defence review, the principal objective of which should be to assess afresh where to strike the balance between, on the one hand, aligning ourselves for the wars of today and the medium-term challenges that we can anticipate, and acting as a force for good throughout the world and, on the other hand, sustaining adequate capability to provide the insurance that we need to defend ourselves in any future state-on-state warfare.

As we have observed many times before, the key problem is overstretch, which continues to have a severe impact. The extent to which experienced personnel leave the armed forces prematurely remains alarming, and recruitment can plug only part of the gap. Our recruitment has been kept going only by the twentyfold increase over a decade in the number of recruits from Commonwealth countries. Many people are leaving as a result of overstretch, low pay, bad housing and the inevitable strain that too many extended periods away from home places on personal and family life. At a time of economic downturn, perhaps one silver lining might be a growth in armed forces recruitment, with a diminished readiness to leave early and take chances on the job market.

What incentives do we offer new recruits? Those joining in the lower ranks find that their pay is less than that of firemen, policemen and bus or tube drivers.
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While serving long hours on the front line, they will not get even the minimum wage for a career serving their country and putting their lives on the line. It was pointed out a few months ago that even traffic wardens are paid better than young soldiers, and I heard a caller to a radio phone-in suggest that the solution was to send all of them to the front line. As General Dannatt observed recently, too many soldiers struggle to support their family on the finances available to them. Surely the best Army in the world should not be among the worst paid.

The issue of mental health has often been discussed in this House, and I am pleased to note that awareness of, and attitudes towards, mental health problems have improved markedly, but the psychological toll of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means that mental health services will be busy for many years to come. I acknowledge the progress made in improving services, but much more remains to be done. A recent study of the consumption of alcohol and binge drinking in the armed forces revealed a significant increase in alcohol consumption among those who had been deployed, those who had feared that they might be killed and those who experienced hostility from civilians. There are, and always will be, disturbing and difficult experiences in conflict zones, and it is important to tackle drug and alcohol issues alongside mental health issues.

We Liberal Democrats have persistently raised the issue of accommodation. The Ministry of Defence has recognised that there is a problem, and it has a programme of improvements, but it has an inclination to overstate what it is doing by cheerfully adding together the rent that it pays to Annington Homes, the cost of routine maintenance and what it will spend on capital improvements. It likes to give the impression that the total is all being spent on capital improvements. The Department is spending money on capital improvements, and there is some progress, but at the current rate of progress, not all accommodation will be of the top standard as soon as it needs to be.

Only last year, the Public Accounts Committee noted that many personnel leaving the service cited the “appalling” state of the accommodation as a factor that led them to take their decision. More than 9,000 MOD properties were left vacant last year, more than a quarter of which had been left unused for between one and five years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) has pointed out on many an occasion, the Ministry of Defence has therefore spent millions of pounds on renting unoccupied housing, with an average annual bill for each property of £3,600.

It is a very different story for the top brass. Although the Ministry of Defence was paying Annington rent for 648 empty homes in London, it still went to the private rental market and paid £16.6 million a year to rent 1,100 private properties. On just 11 private homes in London, the Ministry spent £290,000 in rent, with the most expensive coming in at £4,200 a month. It is perfectly clear that there is still something very wrong and that there is a long way to go to put right the issues to do with forces accommodation.

I very much welcome the doubling of the lump sum payment in the armed forces compensation scheme to £570,000 for the most seriously injured. Although that still imposes a limit that would not really apply in civilian walks of life, I acknowledge that it could make a
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huge difference to those affected and their families. However, points have been raised about two outstanding issues. The burden of proof that the injury was caused by service still lies with the claimant. It should be returned to the Secretary of State, which is where it was under the war pension scheme.

On the issue of time limits for claimants, I listened closely to the exchange between the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and the Conservative Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). If I understood the Minister correctly, he said that if people came forward with specific cases that were outside the time limits that have been laid down, the Government would be prepared to consider them on an individual basis.

Mr. Kevan Jones: No.

Nick Harvey: It seems that I have not understood correctly. Perhaps the Minister would like to clear the matter up. I thought that he was saying that if there were specific examples, the Government would retain an open mind towards them, but perhaps I misunderstood.

Mr. Jones: On the burden of proof issue, I was on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill, along with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). The issue was raised on numerous occasions at the time. What I was saying, and what the Department continues to say, is: bring forward examples where people have lost out because of the burden of proof issue. There has been none so far. On individual cases and time limits, of course they are always looked at on an individual basis.

Nick Harvey: I am disappointed by the earlier part of the Minister’s reply, and intrigued by the latter part. If the MOD is prepared to look on a case-by-case basis at cases that lie outwith the time limits, one wonders what the purpose of the time limits is. Nevertheless, that seems to indicate a degree of flexibility, which it would be churlish not to welcome.

That leads me to the subject of nuclear test veterans whose case is going through the courts to see whether they can be given a hearing to claim compensation. I hope they succeed in that action. What kind of message does it send to our current personnel when our Government close their ears to a group of veterans who have suffered cancers, fertility problems and skin defects as a result of their exposure to nuclear bomb tests? Some of those men and their families have fought for years and virtually every other country has recognised and compensated their test veterans, so why does our Ministry try to hide from its moral obligations by using a technical argument about timing as its device for doing so?

We have long campaigned long for the rights of Gurkhas. Everyone is the House recognises the unwavering support that the Gurkhas have given our country in conflicts overseas. Military personnel to whom I have spoken rave about their bravery and skill. They have fought for a country that was not their own and, in return, they have asked for little but the right for them and their families to remain here. However, despite the fact that the Government have faced up to Britain’s moral duty for those serving after 1997, those predating this utterly arbitrary date but whose circumstances are the same also have to go to the courts to seek justice. I hope very much that they, too, will succeed.

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There are other issues where progress has been made but more is needed, such as help for those leaving the forces to get their foot on to the job and housing ladders, and making a practical reality of the principle of priority treatment in the NHS. I welcome the Minister’s announcement that letters have been sent to all primary care trust chief executives, but there is a considerable gap between writing to the primary care trust chief executives and priority being given in practice. I welcome that as one step forward, as it is not all that long since I had a reply from an NHS chief executive asking what I meant by NHS priority and saying that they had never heard of it. Perhaps even writing to chief executives is a modest step in the right direction. We also need to help forces families cope with the effects of moving home regularly. I welcome some of what the Minister said about that, but again, time will tell whether we have gone far enough.

Our armed forces play a vital role in conflict theatres, peacekeeping and humanitarian work around the world, but if we are to maintain top level capability, we must go further in reinforcing the nation’s duty of care to them. We must not allow the economic crisis to have a damaging impact on them. Tinkering around the edges will neither solve the recruitment problem, nor make any real difference to retention. We need a new approach to our armed forces, a new strategic defence review and assessment of the context in which they work, and a renewed commitment to delivering the care and support so urgently needed by our service personnel and their families.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There are, as is evident, a small number of Members, all of whom are interested in speaking in the debate. We have about an hour, so perhaps Members will watch the clock in order to help their colleagues.

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