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Veteran Support

13. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): What arrangements his Department has put in place to assist veterans injured in service to access the services of Jobcentre Plus employment advisers when the veteran is in receipt of a veteran's pension provided by the Veterans Agency; and if he will make a statement. [309577]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The veterans welfare service is available through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to all veterans and their families. For those leaving the service as a result of serious injury or illness, locally based welfare managers, working closely with service charities, provide practical advice and assistance and will act as gateways for the services provided by other Government Departments, including Jobcentre Plus and the Benefits Agency.

Jane Kennedy: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he look again at the case of Mr. William Harvey? After 17 years of distinguished service in the British Army, during which he was injured on three occasions, in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland, he has been in receipt of Veterans Agency support as compensation for his injuries, but he is therefore unable to receive jobseeker's allowance. The jobseeker's allowance rules appear to bar him from receiving the support of jobseekers' advisers in gaining new employment. This policy muddle should be addressed.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, and a similar case was raised when I met veterans the other day. I am working on this, alongside other issues concerning overlapping policies, with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and we will make an announcement in February.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Minister will no doubt be aware that in the Army, and in particular in the combat units, battalions and regiments are rapidly filling up with lesser-injured men and women who are nevertheless not capable of deploying on operations. What are we going to do with these people? There must be fresh thinking on this, and I wonder what the Minister has in mind.

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Mr. Jones: This morning, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and I announced initiatives on giving a lifetime guarantee to the severely injured in respect of the transition into the health service and support for life. In respect of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, I am currently engaged in a piece of work and an announcement will be made in February.

Afghan National Army

15. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What the UK's financial commitment to the Afghan national army is in (a) 2009-10 and (b) 2010-11; and if he will make a statement. [309579]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): The UK does not provide direct financial support to the Afghan national army but does deliver assistance in other forms, including the provision of training through the "NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan", in Kabul, and through a number of operational mentoring and liaison teams in Helmand province.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that unless an army is well paid, it does not get good soldiers? It is clearly crucial that the Government of Afghanistan have a good army, and if we do not help to fund that army, either now or in the immediate future, who is going to be responsible for that if that Government cannot provide the money?

Bill Rammell: I take it that that was another uncosted spending pledge from the Conservatives. I should say directly to the hon. Gentleman that there has been an improvement in pay in the Afghan national army and the issue remains under review, but that is not just a responsibility for this country; it is a responsibility for the whole of the international coalition and the Afghan Government.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Amazingly, a significant percentage of the officers in the Afghan national army are illiterate. How much is to be spent on the education of that army in the forthcoming period?

Bill Rammell: My hon. Friend's comment underlines the lack of development in Afghanistan-that is a reality that we face. On education, the key priority that we have set out is to work alongside the Afghan forces to train, mentor and develop them. In addition, this country is committed to providing £500 million in development aid assistance over the coming four years to try to improve these conditions and the lot of the people in Afghanistan.

Topical Questions

T1. [309589] Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My Department's responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended, now and in the future,
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and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in military tasks in which they are engaging, either at home or abroad.

Joan Ryan: Given that the British public expect that a decent level of compensation will be guaranteed for service personnel who suffer injury, disability or loss of limb while on service, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to update us on the armed forces compensation scheme review that this Government initiated last year?

Mr. Ainsworth: It was this Government who introduced the armed forces compensation scheme in 2005. Prior to that nobody received any kind of lump sum payment and people depended on a pension when injured in the service of the nation. We introduced the scheme and then in 2008 we doubled the level of up-front compensation for the most seriously injured personnel. We are in the middle of a review, which is being conducted on our behalf by Admiral the Lord Boyce. Various aspects of the compensation scheme are being examined and we hope that he will report in the near future.

T7. [309597] Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): Yesterday's Sunday Herald reported that the initial gate decision on Trident has been delayed-yet again-perhaps until after the general election. Will the Minister announce when he intends to take that decision or, preferably, that he is abandoning plans for the like-for-like replacement of this outdated, unnecessary and very expensive weapons system?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): We are certainly not going to announce that we are abandoning that project, for the important reasons that I set out in response to an earlier question. As I said in that response, as soon as we have gone through all the various technical options-one or two have arisen recently and we have to examine them seriously and profoundly-we will come to a decision about the right technical solution for the design of the successor class submarine. We will then go through what we call "initial gate" and we will make an announcement to the House at that time, and that is a matter of a few months away.

T2. [309591] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State bring us up to date on the defence advisory forum's review of the future for modern warfare?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The defence advisory forum has been of great assistance in the preparation of the Green Paper. Not only have we allowed and encouraged various experts to give us the benefit of their views as we have been drawing up the paper, but we have managed to encourage the other two political parties to participate-we tried to ensure that the Green Paper has a broad political base for the propositions that it makes.

T8. [309598] Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Although the Royal Navy and our allies can tackle pirates off the horn of Africa, they cannot tackle the sources of piracy. What more needs to be done by the international community to tackle piracy at source?

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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): This is a significantly acute challenge. The Royal Navy is doing an immense amount, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, it is the source of piracy that needs to be tackled. That requires a comprehensive approach, including significant investment and governance action in Somalia.

T3. [309592] Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Given the importance of the aircraft carrier project to future national security and to jobs in my constituency, in central Scotland and in other parts of the UK, how safe is the carrier project investment with this Government?

Mr. Quentin Davies: The project is 100 per cent. safe in our hands. We are 100 per cent. committed to going through with the project to build these two vital 60,000 tonne carriers for the future defence of the nation. My hon. Friend will not get the same kind of ambiguous response on this matter, sadly, from the Opposition.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Over the Christmas holidays, I met serving military and their families in my constituency and they mentioned a whole range of welfare issues, from warm jackets being inadequate in Afghanistan to the lack of housing repairs. Will the Minister name an official in his office to whom we can go with these kinds of problems? Most could be resolved with a decent dose of common sense.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): It seems to me that the hon. Lady is covering an array of issues. If she is concerned about welfare or housing, will she please contact my private office? Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that I take complaints very seriously.

T4. [309594] Hazel Blears (Salford) (Lab): The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in which many brave Salford lads serve, has recently come home after a distinguished and courageous tour of Afghanistan. Like all our troops, in the years to come they will need the highest standards of care and support. On that basis, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously consider supporting the excellent manifesto issued by the Royal British Legion on behalf of our troops?

Bill Rammell: Like my right hon. Friend, I support the excellent work done by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Musa Qala and Sangin valley. I know that she has been a strong advocate of the work that it has been undertaking. I also agree that the manifesto of the Royal British Legion is a substantial document that contains many significant and positive ideas, a number of which are already being implemented, and I endorse it.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Ahead of the Afghanistan conference later this month, will the Secretary of State pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins the Canadians, who have lost 137 armed forces personnel and had 400 injured, many of them seriously? Indeed, will he comment on supporting those of us who want to see that courage and commitment given beyond 2011?

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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am sure that the Canadian armed forces will too. They have provided a very capable high-end fighting capability in Afghanistan, which has been much appreciated by all those who have worked alongside them. We encourage and hope that the Canadians will continue to make a contribution in Afghanistan. They have been real allies in every sense of the word.

T6. [309596] Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recall the very skilful operation in September 2008, which saw considerable loss of life, in which British soldiers took a turbine to the Kajaki dam? Why is it that that turbine has not functioned since its delivery? Can we be told why not? Is it still in kit form? What is the problem, because it cost us dearly?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is a project to increase the electricity supply to the whole of Afghanistan and the turbine at Kajaki is an important part of that. It is not all that we have relied on, and there have been local generation schemes, too. Of course it took a great deal of effort to get that turbine up to Kajaki; it was a tremendous achievement to get it there. Although we have not made the kind of progress that we would have wanted to make within the time scales that we would have wanted to meet in order to get the benefit of that achievement, the Kajaki dam none the less delivers electricity, and we are hopeful that we can increase the amount of electricity that it provides.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want several more colleagues to get in, but I need very short questions and very short answers.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Do Ministers share the concerns that have been expressed to me by servicemen who have recently returned from Afghanistan that, although they welcome the arrival of new equipment, in many cases the first time that they get an opportunity to use it is in theatre because it is not yet available for training outside Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: That is not true. People have equipment available during pre-deployment training for their operations in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will remember that just before Christmas we announced a diversion of resources from other programmes to ensure that the equipment that people are expected to fight in will be available to them far earlier. That diversion was opposed by many Opposition Members at the time, but I see from the newspapers that they are now prepared to cut the defence budget, albeit that they will protect the mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State seen the report in The Times of India about a secret conclave of the Indian general staff in Simla last month in which a planned military attack on Pakistan was discussed openly? Is it really helpful for a Commonwealth partner and nuclear power to talk about attacking Pakistan at this stage? Will he write to ask his Indian opposite number to stop beating the drums of war?

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Mr. Speaker: Order. One question will do, and we certainly want one answer.

Mr. Ainsworth: I did not see the article. I think that we have made considerable progress in our relationship with Pakistan, which has begun to see the insurgency and terrorism as a big part of the existential threat to Pakistan. We want it to continue in that direction, and so good relations with India have a vital part to play if we are to achieve that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): One injured serviceman recently said to me that his fear for other injured servicemen in receipt of lump-sum compensation packages was that they got no financial advice on how to manage that money. For some of them, it is a large sum of the sort that they have never had before. Will the Minister consider that issue to make sure that they get the proper financial advice?

Mr. Kevan Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The issue has also been raised with me and is part of Lord Boyce's review.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Can the Secretary of State describe any possible future situation in which this country will use its nuclear weapons independently?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Our independent nuclear deterrent exists to provide us with a response to the kind of blackmail that we could potentially face from other states that are armed with nuclear weapons. I therefore believe that while such threats exist we need to continue to possess a nuclear deterrent.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Major-General Andrew Mackay, the commander of British forces in Helmand, recently reported that the UK had "consistently failed" to understand the motivations of local Afghans, and called for a fresh "hearts and minds" strategy focusing on the local culture. When will we see that new strategy?

Mr. Ainsworth: There is not going to be a new strategy. We have a strategy, which is a comprehensive and political strategy as well as a military strategy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our understanding of the reasons behind the insurgency, and of local culture, needs to be strengthened. In any conflict, we need to learn those lessons as quickly as possible and get to a level of skill and understanding as soon as we can. We are not perfect at that, as the Afghan and Iraq operations have proved. That is one of the issues that we need to address in a future strategic defence review.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): In The Times today, Robin Greenwood of Christian Aid writes:

That refers to a quote from an article last week by reporters from The Times. Is that an accurate view of Britain's senior military personnel?

Mr. Ainsworth: Our military personnel working in Helmand province-I have seen them working alongside their civilian counterparts-recognise completely the absolutely essential role that civilians play, and the need to empower Afghan institutions. We can do things on
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our own without any involvement from the Afghan authorities, but they will not be lasting, and they will fall apart as soon as we let them go.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, when are the remaining Merlin helicopters in Iraq going to be moved into theatre?

[Official Report, 25 January 2010, Vol. 504, c. 3MC.]

Mr. Quentin Davies: We have already begun to deploy them. The first Merlin arrived before Christmas, and Merlins are in the process of being deployed there. Over the next few months, we will deploy not only more Merlins, but more Chinooks and the re-engined Lynxes, which can fly 365 days a year. As I said earlier, between July last year and July this year, there is to be a 50 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, and an even greater increase in available flying hours.

David Cairns (Inverclyde) (Lab): The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will be aware that a review is under way of the future of Navy buildings in Greenock. Given that the review is four months old, and given that the issue is extremely important to the people who work there, will he provide an update on that review? If not, will he agree to meet me to discuss the matter?

Mr. Kevan Jones: The review is ongoing, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I refer the Secretary of State to the typically excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). What evidence is there that any of the Taliban whom we have killed in Helmand had anything to do with bomb plots against this country?

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaeda's power remains in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may well currently reside on the Pakistan side of that border, but if our troops were not on the Afghan side of the border, the threat would be bound to return, in my opinion, and a return of the direct threat to this country would result from that.

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