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My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury drew attention to the harmony guidelines. The Royal Logistic Corps has a 15-month average tour interval, against a target of 24 months. That cannot be sustained. Furthermore, there is an outflow of personnel. We now know that in the year ending 1 September last year, the voluntary outflow rate of RAF officers was 3 per cent., against a long-term sustainable rate of 2.5 per cent. The figure for other RAF ranks is 5.8 per cent., against a sustainable rate of 4 per cent. Clearly, if that trend continues, there will be serious consequences for the maintenance of capability. In the first six months of last
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year, there was a net outflow of something like 1,250 people—overwhelmingly, that means 12,200 experienced people being replaced by 10,960 rookies.

The Prime Minister is falling over himself to ingratiate himself with the new US President, so who can doubt that he will press service chiefs to accede to any request from the United States for more troops in Afghanistan? I understand that one battlegroup is all that can be afforded; Ministers need to tell us how many troops they are prepared to contribute. The truth is that our armed forces are overstretched. They have received much better equipment in the form of improved armoured vehicles, as has been mentioned, but the Snatch Land Rover remains in operation, which causes great concern for the safety and security of our armed forces, and we were told just before Christmas that a whole series of programmes were to be cut, curtailed, reduced or scrapped altogether. That is not at all satisfactory. If the Government want our armed forces to do what they are being asked to do, the Government have to back them with resources; otherwise they will have failed our armed forces.

I will conclude on a positive note, by paying tribute to the British public, who I think do support our armed forces. The welcome home parades have been mentioned. I salute Wootton Bassett for what it has done, and I salute my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire for what he has done as chairman of the all-party Army group. The nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, and the more that we can show that we are understanding of their commitment and the sacrifice that they are making on behalf of all of us in this country, the better we will be able to impress on them that we really are concerned about them and value them, and will do much more than we are doing to ensure that they get a fair deal from the Government of this country, whoever is in power.

5.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I start by echoing the sentiments expressed by Members in all parts of the House who paid tribute to the commitment and valour of our armed forces who have done a tremendous job on our behalf, and this debate is a good way of saying a big thank you to them. Obviously, if I do not cover points that have been raised, I will write to individuals, but I should like to answer directly that raised by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). Yes, the announcement has been made. As to whether I am angry that the BBC got the story before the announcement was made to Parliament, I am, and I shall look into that as a matter of urgency. I shall certainly do all Members present the courtesy of writing to them with the reason why that happened.

I want to address some of the points that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) raised. He seems to think that the more parliamentary questions asked, the greater a party’s commitment to defence. Whoever is organising this in the Conservative party, may I ask that duplicates are not submitted? Two or three hon. Members have been doing so on a regular basis over the past week, and it ruins my Sunday afternoon having to sign the duplicates off when they come in my Red Box.

The subject of time limits was raised. Under the scheme, five years is the time limit, which is more than the three-year limit in civil litigation. There is a provision
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for those time limits to be relaxed and extended in certain cases—the late onset of illness, for example—where a claimant cannot submit a claim until the illness is identified.

The hon. Member for Westbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) spoke about veterans in prison. That is an issue which I take very seriously, as would all hon. Members who care about veterans. The figure that was highlighted is not correct. A study is under way to identify the number of veterans in prison and how we should respond to that.

On decompression time, I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). When I have spoken to individuals coming back from operations, I found that the last thing they want to do is spend two weeks in Cyprus. I think we have got the time right.

The hon. Member for Westbury should not denigrate the role that civil servants play in theatre. Some of them are in extremely dangerous situations, doing a tremendous job in support of our armed forces.

Dr. Murrison: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jones: I will not, because I have limited time.

The issue of visits to schools was raised last year. I will have no truck with any organisation trying to stop our servicemen and women going into schools. In my constituency, my experience, which is shared by many hon. Members, is that most schools welcome servicemen and women because they are a force for good and they make good role models. Around armed forces day on 27 June I would like to see more of our armed forces going into schools to project positive messages.

May I put on record the fact that the defence training review is going ahead and is affordable? There have been delays but the momentum exists. The work on a successor to Land Securities Trillium is well advanced and an announcement will be made shortly.

Reference was made to stand-alone military hospitals and Haslar. I have to say to the hon. Member for Westbury that I wish the Opposition would not make a political issue out of that. When his party was in power, it closed military hospitals. That was the right decision, supported by the Defence Committee’s report last year, which also stated:

That decision ensures the best medical care for our armed forces. To highlight one such site is a mistake.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who are strong advocates, and say a big thank you to the Royal Marines in their constituencies for their dedication and for the role that they play in Afghanistan. I also pay tribute to the lord mayor of Plymouth, Councillor Brian Vincent, who is working hard to make sure that the parade is a success.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raised a number of issues, including pay. I do not accept that the pay for our armed forces is as he described. The basic salary is between £16,270 and £25,182. In addition, there are operational allowances of £2,320, council tax relief of £240, and the longer service separation allowance
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of £1,100. That would leave an individual on a six-month tour in receipt of about £11,500. Can we do more and try to advocate more for our armed forces? Yes, we can. In the past few years, the Government have shown that they have accepted the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That has meant that the armed forces have had some of the better pay increases in the public sector.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned nuclear test veterans. Obviously, I cannot go into much detail as the court case is ongoing. However, I want to scotch the rumour, which is nonsense, that somehow the legal action is a technicality. Defending the cases has been made more difficult as time has passed, so the current case is to determine the issue of time limits. I should like to put on record the fact that the notion that other countries are compensating the individuals involved and we are not is wrong. We are. Those who can show that their medical condition is related to their service can apply for the war pension. That is clear.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the Gurkhas, which is my responsibility. The Government have given good support—not only to Gurkhas in service who are not in receipt of pensions, but in allowing those who served after 1997 to settle in this country. Some 6,000 have already done so. The hon. Gentleman said that a technical point was involved, but that is not true: the High Court held that setting the date was justified as that was when there was the move from Hong Kong to the UK. The role of the Gurkhas is tremendously important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow talked about homeless veterans and veterans in prison. The York university study has been useful in trying to ascertain the extent of the problem of veteran homelessness in London. My hon. Friend rightly says that that is less of a problem than it was 10 years ago. Before Christmas, I chaired a meeting of the Veterans Forum that was specifically about homelessness, and I am determined to do research in other parts of the country so that we can provide the support that such individuals need. I am thinking of the excellent projects at Mike Jackson house, which gives support to homeless veterans. I part company with my hon. Friend on the issue of under-18s. If he cares to visit the Army foundation college in Harrogate, the sixth-form college at Welbeck or Catterick itself, he will see tremendous work in supporting and developing young people and providing some of them with educational opportunities on which they have missed out.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire mentioned the joint personnel administration scheme. It is firmly on my radar screen. Yes, mistakes were made early on; savings may have been taken out when the RAF first introduced it, and that led to some of the problems. Overall, however, it is a good system, and compared with other IT infrastructure projects across Whitehall, it is a success story. I am conscious that we now need to ensure that it beds in. However, we should not try to pull it apart—the three services must not try to reinvent what they had before, because that would lead to further problems. I should put on the record the fact that the issue is a standing item on the agenda for when I meet Vice-Admiral Wilkinson, the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff.

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I understand the frustration of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about Project Belvedere: in the past few months, I have found quite a few things frustrating as I have tried to drive things forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) raised a number of issues and I shall write to her about the specifics. The head of the Army and I are clear that bullying and racist behaviour are not acceptable anywhere in the armed forces. She mentioned “The Undercover Soldier”. I cannot say much more about individual cases because, as she knows, an investigation is under way. However, the Adjutant-General and I will visit Catterick next month to look at the work being done there and to see what can be done to address some of the issues. My hon. Friend is aware of some of the excellent work being carried out by Lynn Farr and Daniel’s Trust, for example.

I accept some of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). However, some Members from her party have tabled questions about what we are spending on press officers. Such work is done by dedicated men and women, many of them in the armed forces.

Finally, I should like to say a big thank you to the people of Wootton Bassett for their work in honouring the dead who are returned. I also thank everyone—

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Business without Debate

Business of the House


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Domestic Violence (Black and Minority Ethnic Victims)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Spellar.)

6 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to have this opportunity to raise an issue that has been of great concern to me for the whole time that I have been an MP. Over the years, the Northampton Bangladeshi Association has hosted for me special advice surgeries for women. I have really appreciated that, together with its support and help in identifying women in the community who need help and support. One of the issues that has come up repeatedly is domestic violence. Two things strike me about the cases that the association has brought to my attention: first, the sheer scale of the suffering of the women; and secondly, the incredible difficulty that those women have in accessing services. That is why the big ask that I am going to make of my hon. Friend the Minister is for a dedicated funding stream from central Government to support work for domestic violence victims in black and minority ethnic communities.

As well as paying tribute to the work done by women in the Bangladeshi community to support other women who have been victims of domestic violence, I want to put on record my appreciation of the men of the community in Northampton, who have facilitated and supported the advice surgery and have, particularly in recent meetings, recognised that that is a real issue that needs to be addressed in and with the community by finding positive and constructive ways forward.

I also pay tribute to the pioneering work done by Southall Black Sisters, who have helped me with cases and provided advice for this speech. I thank the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and acknowledge the fact that I have drawn from its outstanding report, “I can’t tell people what is happening at home”, which brings together information about domestic violence in south Asian communities and its impact on women and children. Tomorrow sees the publication of another landmark report, this time by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the second edition of “Map of Gaps”, which identifies some of the shortcomings that I will discuss.

The scale of domestic violence is well documented. It affects about 3 million women each year, and it is estimated to cost society about £40 billion each year in England and Wales alone. Despite all the progress that has been made in recent years in tackling the problem—I think that everybody recognises that the Labour Government have given outstanding attention to this and brought forward some major policy developments—still, unfortunately, far too few women report domestic violence, seek help or pursue their violent partners.

In looking at the experience of black and ethnic minority women, I want to emphasise that this debate is specifically about domestic violence and support for victims. There has been a great deal of discussion in this place about forced marriages, honour killings and the like, but there has been neither discussion nor action to support the specific needs of women in different black and minority ethnic communities who experience domestic violence in their day-to-day lives. I recognise that in
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some cases forced marriages and other issues might provide some context, but I want to focus on the specific experiences of the women.

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We had an Adjournment debate on domestic violence only a few months ago, where the Solicitor-General acknowledged the role of Southall Black Sisters. There was to be a judicial review of that group’s funding, and she assured the House that funding would be the Government’s main consideration on domestic violence. I hope that after tonight’s debate, there will be further funding and that the issue of resources will be resolved.

Ms Keeble: I agree completely. I spoke to Southall Black Sisters shortly before that, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right that there were real problems with the funding for that organisation. We were all extremely glad that its court case went well, and we hope that it will be secure for the future and provide a great deal of advice on funding streams that could help women in other communities and in towns such as mine, so that they can draw on that experience to get improved services.

There is very little information about the scale of domestic violence in black and minority ethnic communities, but in any event, I would not want a dedicated funding stream to be based on numbers. Even if the prevalence of domestic violence were the same as in white communities, the women who are the victims suffer the consequences quite differently, and sometimes more acutely, because of the problems that they have in accessing services. I would not argue that their suffering is greater, because violence is appalling for any victim, but it has a different impact on women in different communities. For instance Southall Black Sisters found that south Asian women are three times more likely than others to kill themselves because of abusive practices in the family.

Drawing on the findings of Southall Black Sisters and the NSPCC report, as well as on my experience of supporting my constituents, I wish to mention some of the issues that make the experience of black and minority ethnic women different. First, there is the real problem of social isolation. Women who might only recently have arrived in the UK, or who are at home with young children, are by definition isolated. Walking out of their home because of the violence of a partner is difficult for any woman, but for those who have come from abroad and depend wholly on their in-laws, it is perhaps doubly hard.

There are also language problems. I know that we have policies about people learning English, but the reality is that a young wife coming from abroad may not be able to access information or services easily. It is not only language that can be a barrier. There can be cultural barriers that women have to overcome before they act on a completely unacceptable situation. They might not know their rights, and despite the Foreign Office’s work in some countries to provide information, they still might not be aware that they do not have to tolerate what happens to them. They might not want to go outside the family, and they might not know that they should go to the police. The result, as set out in the NSPCC report, is that women from the south Asian community remain in abusive relationships for an average of at least 10 years before even seeking help.

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