To ask Her Majesty's Government whether British troops in Afghanistan have the same equipment for detecting improvised explosive devices as their NATO allies in the International Security Assistance Force.
The Minister for International Defence and Security (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Private Sean McDonald of 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, Corporal Johnathan Moore of 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, Warrant Officer Class 2 David Markland of 36 Engineer Regiment, Lance Corporal Darren Hicks of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh of 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, Rifleman Mark Marshall of 6th Battalion The Rifles, Kingsman Sean Dawson of 2nd Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, Sapper Guy Mellors of 36 Engineer Regiment, Lieutenant Douglas Dalzell of 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards and Lance Sergeant David Walker of 1st Battalion Scots Guards, who were killed on operations recently in Afghanistan.
I turn now to the Question. For operational security reasons, I cannot comment in detail on the equipment used by UK Armed Forces and our allies to detect improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. A range of technologically advanced equipment is in service, including metal detectors and explosive ordnance disposal robots, to ensure that our troops can operate.
Lord Addington: My Lords, I associate myself and Members on these Benches with the condolences just expressed by the Minister. Does she agree that it is imperative, when we are operating closely and in similar circumstances with our allies, that any information derived by our allies when testing equipment should immediately be made available to us, and that that should be reciprocated when we test equipment of our own?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, a very comprehensive memorandum of understanding is in place between ourselves and the United States and, indeed, with other allies on counter-IED measures. It includes everything from intelligence to the equipment that can be used, although I would point out that equipment is only a small part of our defences against these particularly obnoxious devices. We do of course include our allies in terms of sharing information and we use the information that they give us, but often we
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The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, bomb disposal officers and NCOs are highly trained and extremely valuable. Is the noble Baroness satisfied that the casualty rates among bomb disposal officers and NCOs are not too high, and are we having difficulty in recruiting and training enough members of those units?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, it is true that unfortunately we have had several casualties. These soldiers are highly trained, very brave and take a great number of risks on behalf of their colleagues. Those who undertake this kind of work are volunteers, and it has been possible to find volunteers to undergo the training at present. We are continually in the process of trying to expand the skills that we have in this area. However, we should be under no illusions about the dangers that these people face. We should all be very grateful for the work that they undertake.
Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many urgent operational requirements for the detection of planted IEDs have been placed by the MoD since our deployment in Afghanistan was increased last autumn? Has the Treasury agreed that these UORs will be financed from the Consolidated Fund and not met by defence budget funds?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the urgent operational requirement estimate has now been uplifted by £101 million based on the forecast spend on UORs in the current operational climate. That brings the total estimated expenditure on UORs for the year 2009-10 to £736 million, and that does not include the plans to spend over £700 million on protected mobility vehicles. The Treasury has recognised this particular area, and I think that the Prime Minister's Statement last year made it clear that for everyone in Government, countering the IED threat, which is so important in this campaign, is a very high priority indeed.
Given the very grave public concern surrounding the improvised explosive device threat, can the Minister be a little more specific about the work being undertaken in the UK, and with our NATO allies, to deal with the IED threat, and the timescales to which they are working?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, I cannot be very specific about the work that is going on, because by its nature it has to be kept somewhat confidential so that we do not put our troops under unnecessary threat. However, I can assure the noble Lord and indeed the House that everything possible is being done. One of the most significant initiatives was the tiger team set up by the MoD last year to bring together the best brains from industry and the scientific community, inviting new ideas and then evaluating them. That is a very exciting project. It is ongoing because the threat is developing all the time. Although we are sharing that information with the United States,
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Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I understand the Americans have found drones very useful as a means of watching when people are likely to be placing IEDs in Afghanistan. Are we doing the same thing, and do we have enough drones for the purpose?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, drones are extremely important in that area as well as in other areas. By the end of last year we had increased very significantly our capability in terms of the hours that we have available for drones: by 33 per cent for Hermes, 50 per cent for Desert Hawk, and 80 per cent for our Reaper capability. We acknowledge the very real importance they can play, but I emphasise that the equipment we have is only one part of the battle. It is also about our tactics and procedures, and the training we give our troops. Overall, taking all those things into account, we have made real headway, and we are working very closely with allies to share our experience and indeed to learn from them.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, will the Minister pass on the thanks of this House to the scientists and engineers at various MoD establishments who do such brilliant and diligent work in developing the countermeasures?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, the noble Earl raises an important point. Very often the people who do this essential and vital work are behind the scenes and we should take every opportunity to commend them on the efforts they make on our behalf.
Lord Ramsbotham: My Lords, returning to the point raised by my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig, does the Minister agree that the question is not so much about how much urgent operational requirement money has been provided by the Treasury, but about how much is then going to be clawed back from the defence budget?
Baroness Taylor of Bolton: My Lords, an agreement was reached on UORs some time ago and is in the public domain. Over a certain limit the MoD will make a contribution, not least because the equipment developed under urgent operational requirements is now becoming mainstream equipment for everyone in our Armed Forces.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, while the young person's guarantee is focused specifically on younger jobseekers, who have suffered the largest rise in ILO unemployment rates during the recession, unemployed people aged 50 and over continue to receive access to a wide range of support through Jobcentre Plus, including the Flexible New Deal. Meanwhile, 50,000 of the 170,000 jobs that we are creating through the Future Jobs Fund are available for people of all ages in areas of high unemployment.
Baroness Greengross: I thank the Minister for that reply. The Government were right to concentrate initially on the young but many older workers find that premature exit from the job market really means early retirement because employers will not take them on for what they see as a short period. A recent CIPD report showed that three-quarters of these people need to work past the state pension age because this affects their pension. Given that the number of over-50s who are unemployed increased by 136 per cent in the year to last October, will not the Minister review-
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, this question is highly relevant because the Leader of the Opposition has reached the age of 50 today. The House will understand that I would not wish to offer him any redeployment opportunities from the Dispatch Box. I recognise that this is a serious question. It is right that we invest in young people, who are the future of our country, and ensure that they are not allowed to drift into long-term unemployment at the start of their working lives. We have made significant investment in new measures for jobseekers of all ages. In the recent White Paper, Building Britain's Recovery, we announced more help for older workers. This includes new, specialist, back-to-work support for the over-50s; a widening of access for over-50s to work in job trials, where older jobseekers would benefit from earlier access; and ensuring that over-50s with significant barriers to employment receive early access to the six-month offer. We are reviewing the default retirement age.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, ILO unemployment figures fell in the last quarter for the number of people under the age of 25 who are
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Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, on his birthday today, and I am sure I speak for many of us in wishing him many more years as Leader of the Opposition. The Minister talked about unemployment rising more slowly among the over-50s than among the young, but is he aware of the sharp difference in the figures for men and women? Among men, long-term unemployment has gone up by more than 50 per cent in the last year for the over-50s, compared with only 23 per cent for women. Why does he think that is and what steps is he taking to avoid a whole generation of men over the age of 50 being thrown on the scrap heap, as they were in the Thatcher recession?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right that unemployment has increased more for men than for women, but we are seeking to avoid the many mistakes of the last recessions through the support for all over-50s, which I outlined earlier: new specialist support to get them back to work; help with barriers to employment, such as skills training; and additional time and training for Jobcentre Plus advisers to work with individuals in that category.
Baroness Howe of Idlicote: My Lords, given the importance of flexible working to companies during this recession, how does the Minister plan to promote a change in culture towards flexible working, not least to ensure an intergenerational workforce where the skills and knowledge of the over-50s can be passed down to the younger generation?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The noble Baroness raises a very important point. We know that a significant number of older people would wish to work past the age of 50, or even past state pension age, if they could work part time, which is why the December White Paper announced plans to work with employers to encourage and help them to understand the benefits of flexible and part-time working.
Lord Freud: My Lords, in the light of reports that local authorities are planning 20,000 redundancies, how many jobs have been displaced by the young person's guarantee and how many are estimated to be displaced in the future?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, this is not about displacing jobs. We all recognise that the public expenditure backdrop is a challenging one, which is why local authorities are focusing on programmes such as Total Place and innovative procurement as ways of dealing with services in the future to make sure that people are supported and that resources are shifted from the back office to the front line.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, whether in the private or the public sector, boards that have a diverse mix of people and talent make better decisions. We have set challenging targets to improve the diversity of public appointments and have a clear action plan in place, including raising awareness of public appointments and new mentoring programmes for potential candidates from underrepresented groups. As the women's employment strategy published earlier this month set out, we are also working with business leaders to find a business-led solution to improving diversity on private sector boards.
Baroness Prosser: I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Given that there is an overwhelming understanding of the value of diverse debate and decision-making, would she agree that, while the figures are dispiriting in both the public and private sectors, advances could be made on private boards by establishing an exemplar group of companies, where the possibility of target numbers could be discussed and best practice guidelines produced?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, that is certainly an interesting idea, which I shall discuss with my noble friend Lord Davies of Abersoch, who is having discussions with company chairs and nomination committee members about the need for boards to have the right mix of skills, knowledge and experience. He is talking also to headhunters about these matters. He is determined to make progress on this issue, because, with his vast experience, he can see what society is missing out on because there are not enough women on these boards.
Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, does not the Leader of the House agree that it would be easier for the Government to persuade private companies if they looked a little closer to home? Is she content that, across all departments, women fill only 32.9 per cent of senior Civil Service positions?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am certainly not content with that figure. The Government are looking at this and working with departments to ensure that, as with all public boards in the Civil Service, we ensure that there are women coming up through the ranks who are able and willing to take senior positions.
Baroness Northover: My Lords, what does the noble Baroness make of the fact that two of our publicly owned banks, RBS and Northern Rock, have only one woman each on their boards? In the case of RBS, that appointment was made only this last January. Does she think that alpha males have contributed to the success of these companies?
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