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House of Commons

Monday 29 March 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Compensation (Shoeburyness)

1. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What representations he has received on provision of compensation to people whose properties have been damaged by explosions at Shoeburyness. [324443]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The work at Shoeburyness is directly linked to saving the lives of service personnel on operations in Afghanistan, providing, among other things, essential pre-deployment training in the safe and controlled disposal of improvised explosive devices and similar ordnance. In 2009, I received three representations, with a further two so far this year, from people claiming that their properties had been damaged by noise and vibrations caused by activities at MOD Shoeburyness.

Mr. Carswell: Everyone accepts that our armed forces need to train at Shoeburyness. However, many of the explosions are caused not by our armed forces' training, but by commercial waste disposal from which big corporate interests profit. Will the Minister give an undertaking for full transparency, so that local people are made aware of which explosions are being caused in the interests of our armed forces and which in the interests of crony capitalists?

Mr. Jones: I know that the hon. Gentleman is not a great supporter of our defence industries in this country, but let me tell him that the amount of ordnance exploded at Shoeburyness that is not related to training-this is, the disposal of ordnance that is out of date or that the MOD needs to get rid of in a controlled way-comes to 5 per cent. That is done in partnership with QinetiQ, a world-beating company that we should be proud of. As for trying to hamper us and put more in the way of our training, I am sorry, but that would be a misuse of the MOD's time.


2. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [324444]

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Hon. Members: Wake up.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My apologies: I think the problem is deafness rather than sleep.

As General McChrystal has said, the situation in Afghanistan is serious, but it is no longer deteriorating, and the international effort will make real progress this year. Already Afghan forces and ISAF-the international security assistance force-have successfully delivered improved security to the population of central Helmand through Operation Moshtarak. Working closely with our Afghan allies, the international community's next step will be to strengthen governance and security in Kandahar city.

Mr. Jones: Security in Helmand province has for years been the responsibility of British forces, many of whom have lost their lives in the process. What effect does the Secretary of State think it would have on our forces in Helmand if they were to be told, as has been suggested in The Sunday Telegraph, that they are shortly to be replaced by United States marines?

Mr. Ainsworth: There has been a substantial increase in forces going into Helmand. Some of those have been ours-we have increased our forces in Afghanistan by about 1,200 in a year-but the biggest single inflow has been from the United States of America. We have been very happy to work alongside US forces, and they now operate in the south of Helmand province-we very recently handed over Musa Qala to them. What we are involved in is a coalition effort: we have to work alongside our coalition partners, and that does not mean just the United States of America. In Helmand we have Danes and Estonians working in our area of operation alongside our forces, as well as those of the Afghans of course, so I do not think that there is a problem among our armed forces in recognising the need to work with others.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Concern has been expressed about the impact of Taliban and al-Qaeda training camps in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. Can my right hon. Friend say what assessment has been made of those camps, how effective they are, and to what extent the Americans now have a controlling impact on them, so that they cannot undermine the work being done by NATO and UK troops in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: The overwhelming improvement that we have seen on the Pakistan side of the border over the past year or so has come about as a result of the efforts of the Pakistani Government and the Pakistani armed forces. Those forces have suffered great losses in some of the operations that they have conducted against insurgents in the FATA-the federally administered tribal area-and Waziristan. Those forces are bearing down on the insurgency on their side of the border, and we should recognise that and congratulate them. Of course we work with the Pakistani Government, as do the American Government and American forces.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): But in his carefully crafted answer, the Secretary of State declined to deal with the point that was raised a moment or two ago. Is there a proposal that British forces should be withdrawn from Helmand? Yes or no?

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Mr. Ainsworth: Look, let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as a result of the huge inflow of forces into the south of Afghanistan, there are a number of proposals as to how we approach the issue of command and control, and how we divide up our forces in order to ensure that all can be successful and that there is no gap in the security that we are providing. Those discussions are ongoing-

Sir Menzies Campbell: So the answer is yes.

Mr. Ainsworth: There may be people within the coalition, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has read in The Sunday Telegraph, who believe that it would be a good thing for us to remove ourselves from Helmand to Kandahar. I would have to be persuaded-and I would take some persuading-that that was a good thing. We have developed a level of understanding of the situation in Helmand province over a period of time which should not be thrown away lightly. We have invested a great deal in terms of money and infrastructure, as well as of losses. This is something that we would have to be very concerned about before we would agree to doing it. However, we should not set our face against things as some kind of knee-jerk reaction; we should be prepared to discuss these issues with our coalition partners.

Mr. Speaker: If we are to make proper progress down the Order Paper, as I always seek to do, we need to make progress a little more quickly.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On 19 April, during the likely general election campaign, the Government are likely to face a court case relating to the ability of UK forces to hand prisoners over to Afghan authorities. The case, brought by peace campaigners, could have major implications for our commanders in Afghanistan as a result of international and European human rights law. It is bad enough that our troops have to deal with warfare; now they have to worry about "lawfare" as well. Will the Government place before the House, before the Dissolution of Parliament, consolidated Ministry of Defence guidelines on the detention of personnel in Afghanistan, so that Parliament and the British people can make a judgment about the Government's position ahead of the court case, which many will regard with outrage?

Mr. Ainsworth: We do detain people in Afghanistan. Detention is an important part of the operations that we undertake there. Our forces are threatened by people in that country, and detention is therefore necessary. We also hand people over to the Afghans, and we have a clear memorandum of understanding about when and how we do that and about the safeguards that we seek to put in place. I will do as the hon. Gentleman asks and place in the Library a copy of our policy on detention-I had intended to do that anyway. I will do it as soon as possible; if not today, then tomorrow.

Defence-Related Employment (Tyneside)

3. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): What steps he is taking to maintain levels of defence-related employment on Tyneside. [324445]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): There are many companies on Tyneside and in the related travel-to-work area doing important work for defence, and we are extremely grateful to them for the skills and dedication of their employees. Good examples include A & P, which is building sections for our two carriers on the Tyne. I have visited it twice, and on the last occasion was privileged to cut the first steel. I also visited Astrum in County Durham the other day; it is producing tracks for our armoured vehicles. I have visited BAE Land Systems, which has produced the Challenger, the Warrior and the Panther and is now working on the Terrier. BAE Systems is also opening a new ammunition factory in Washington, Sunderland.

Jim Cousins: The workers at BAE Systems' armoured fighting vehicle factory on Newcastle's Scotswood road have loyally backed up the efforts of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they now face job losses, and the run-down and possible closure of the plant, because of the loss of the specialist vehicle order. Was this because Tyneside was politically outgunned by Wales and Scotland, or because the management at the plant were incompetent? Will the Minister come to Tyneside to explain how this decision was made, and what the way forward for the workers will be?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman allowed himself three questions. We do not begrudge him that, but one answer will do.

Mr. Davies: It was neither of those two things. The contract award was made on value for money, which was a function of performance, reliability and cost. I understand my hon. Friend's disappointment about the decision, but we have to make such decisions on the basis of value for money. I would certainly be happy to accept his invitation to come to Newcastle and to meet the management and the work force again.

Improvised Explosive Devices

4. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): How many soldiers have been issued with protective equipment against improvised explosive devices; and if he will make a statement. [324448]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Bill Rammell): All our deployed personnel in Afghanistan are equipped for the tasks that they are asked to undertake. This includes a range of protected vehicles, including the Mastiff and the Ridgback, which offer world-leading protection against improvised explosive devices. Comprehensive training is provided prior to deployment and on arrival, and a very large part of that training concentrates on IED avoidance and recognition.

Miss McIntosh: In pausing to remember the bravest of the brave who have made the ultimate sacrifice in dealing with IEDs, will the Minister tell us how many people on active deployment in Afghanistan are trained to find IEDs, whether there is a shortage of such personnel, and how many have left the service prematurely on return from duty?

Bill Rammell: No, I cannot and will not give that detailed information because if I do that publicly, I give it not only to the hon. Lady and our media, but to our
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enemies in the form of the Taliban. What I can say is that nothing has been given a higher priority in our efforts in Afghanistan than countering improvised explosive devices. That is why we established a 200-strong force last April and why, as recently as December, we committed and reprioritised £150 million towards tackling the lethal threat we face from the Taliban in respect of IEDs.

Service Veterans (Mental Health)

5. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of long-term mental health support for armed forces veterans. [324449]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): Initial results from the six NHS mental health pilot schemes are encouraging, with evidence that veterans feel able to access and use the services with confidence. The evaluation of these pilots will be complete later this year, with a view to all NHS mental health services rolling out special provision for veterans during 2011-12. Additionally, the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas' hospital in London continues to prove an important resource to veterans with mental health problems.

James Duddridge: I thank the Minister for that reply. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of veterans in prison, the number of them homeless and the number that, sadly, commit suicide? What more can be done for those groups of people?

Mr. Jones: We have completed studies on those three groups. On homelessness, we conducted a study with York university on the figures in London that showed 4 per cent. homelessness among the veteran population. As for the prison population, we have just completed a review of our data along with those of the Ministry of Justice, which showed that the prison population of veterans is about 4 per cent. We are subjecting those findings to more scrutiny to find out exactly what more can be done in mainstream services in prisons to support veterans.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): A year ago, the Minister was good enough to meet Piers Bishop of Resolution, which has done groundbreaking work on mental health issues among our armed forces. Does Resolution still have a part to play on this issue, to which I know the Minister has given a great deal of personal attention?

Mr. Jones: We are always looking to work not only with the NHS but with third sector providers. Two or three weeks ago, together with the Department of Health, I was pleased to sign a partnership agreement with Combat Stress, which is now going to embed its mental health professionals in NHS trusts to act as champions for the mental health of veterans. We will consider any proposals on their merits.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The mental health pilots to which the Minister referred-I have visited one of them-are most welcome, but even if they were rolled out in a definitive programme, it would still mean that the majority of cases of combat stress
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would be undiscovered and untreated. The Minister is probably not aware that the medical examinations people are given when they leave the armed forces have not been updated for many years and they certainly do not reflect the level of service-related mental illness generated since 2003. Why has he allowed this obvious missed opportunity to endure, and will he partially redeem himself by offering to support our proposal to screen veterans for service-related mental illness both at the point of discharge and at intervals thereafter?

Mr. Jones: I am sad that the hon. Gentleman does not pay more close attention to what I am doing in my portfolio. A few weeks ago, I announced a new initiative whereby the medical records of those discharged will be transferred more seamlessly to the NHS. We also now have an agreement with the NHS whereby older veterans can have the fact that they served in the armed forces flagged up on their GPs' records. We continue to support the work and research of the defence study conducted at King's College, which is about to produce a report that will show the true effects of service not just on those who are serving now but on those who served many years ago.

Defence Spending (Commitments)

6. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. [324451]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): In our planning rounds, we ensure that our plans deliver defence capability, that they are sound and that resources are allocated in line with defence priorities. I announced the main elements of the 2010 planning round on 15 December 2009. This included a package to spend £900 million more over three years on enhancements to support operations of the kind that we conduct in Afghanistan, on top of operational costs paid for by the reserve. In taking this decision, however, we had to prioritise rigorously and recognise that tough choices were required better to match the defence programme to the available resources.

Michael Fabricant: Given that the Treasury claims to scrutinise every capital project and reserves the right to intervene in such projects, may I ask who was responsible for the £1.4 billion cut in the helicopter programme? Was it the former Secretary of State for Defence, or was it the former Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to decisions made in 2002-03 or 2003-04. He must accept that those decisions were made by the Ministry of Defence, not by the Treasury, and also that the position then was very different from the position now. We had 400 troops in Afghanistan at that time, and they were in the relatively benign area of the north, not in Helmand province.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): When my right hon. Friend speaks of defence procurement, is he bearing in mind our defence industrial strategy? Can he promise the House that, as far as possible, we will always secure supply in this country in order to maintain our skills base and the sovereignty that we require?

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