|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
5. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on Veterans day. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): I am pleased that the first-ever national Veterans day is taking place on 27 June. Not only will a major event be organised at the Imperial War museum in London, but we know of 150 events that are being organised locally across the UK. More than 70 events have received financial support from the Department at a total cost of about £130,000. I am delighted that this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our veterans is being embraced so enthusiastically by organisers, veterans and the general public.
Ben Chapman: While many congratulations are due on the introduction of Veterans day and all that has been achieved, may we turn our attention to how we recognise those involved in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, now approaching its 25th anniversary? But a more pressing pointat least for meis the situation of those interned by the Japanese during hostilities in the second world war. Can my hon. Friend update me on how we are settling that debt of honour?
Mr. Watson: I shall answer both parts of that supplementary question. I can confirm that there will be a major celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands. I probably speak for both sides of the House when I give the reason why. Today, many of us were in the company of the most remarkably brave people, who have served their country in military and civilian capacities. Some of them served in the Falklands and they deserve a commemoration 25 years on. My view is that the anniversary should be celebrated in the UK and the Falklands. I am not in a position to sketch out the detail yet, but I will report to the House when we have more information.
On my hon. Friends
second point, I am pleased to say that the criteria for the new 20-year
residence criterion for the far east prisoner of war scheme have been
agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the
chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East
Region. They will be implemented with effect from
today. I hope to place the detailed rules in the Library of the House. Those who were British at the time of their internment who think that they meet the criterion of 20 years residence in the UK between 1945 and 7 November 2000, whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces of the British empire, should apply to the Veterans Agency. We expect the first payments to be made very shortly.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Ministers answers to both those questions will be warmly welcomed throughout the House and the country, but would it not focus attention on what we owe to the veterans, and also enable young people to be taught just what is involved, if we had the commemoration as a public holiday?
Mr. Watson: The granting of a public holiday is not in my gift, but the hon. Gentlemans point about young people, for whom the Falklands war is something that they learn about in history, is well made and I hope that, as part of our commemorations of 25 years, we can involve school and youth groups up and down the country.
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The Stockport British Legion was presented with a cup for its outstanding fundraising last year. This year, it will surpass even last years effort. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the British Legion, the Normandy Veterans Association and the Combined Services Association in Stockport on the valuable work that they do in helping veterans? His announcement on extending the veterans medal has been warmly welcomed.
Mr. Watson: The whole House will wish to congratulate Stockport British Legion. My hon. Friend failed to invite me up to visit the British Legion personally, but if she were to do so, perhaps I could do that during the summer recess.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I welcome the Ministers announcement about the far east prisoners of war. I know that that has taken a good deal of time, and I hope that that will deal with the rest of the outstanding cases. As for the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about a veterans day, it may not be within the Ministers power to grant a days holiday, but since there has been some criticism this year of the extent to which the Chancellor has tried to involve himself with veterans day and since he appears to be all-powerful in the Government, perhaps the Minister could have a word with him to see whether he could grant such a day.
Turning to next years celebrations, veterans day in 2007, which will be coterminous with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, will be particularly poignant. I urge the Minister to assert the primacy of the Ministry of Defence on that issue and to work closely with Opposition Front-Bench Members to make sure that we have a day that will truly be worthy of our veterans.
Mr. Watson: Let me give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we can do that. The whole House needs ownership of that commemoration. I hope that his input and that of his colleagues will be paramount. As for the Chancellor granting a bank holiday, I am not sure whether that is in his gift either, although, of course, he is all-powerful.
6. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What the mission statement is for United Kingdom troops in Afghanistan. 
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): UK forces in Afghanistan are primarily deployed as part of the international security assistance force. The ISAF mission, as published, is to help the Afghan Government to create a secure environment in which their authority can be extended across the entire country and reconstruction of the country can be taken forward. Of course, that objective will not be achieved by military means alone, and consequently the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that we deliver a fully integrated package that addresses governance, security, economic development and political and social change.
Mr. Mackay: I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that that objective will also not be secured with only 6,000 NATO troops in the southern part of Afghanistan. Is it not essential that more troops are made available, and what is he doing to ensure that that happens?
Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that no one is yet at full operational capability in southern Afghanistan. We are in southern Afghanistan with several international partnersCanada, the United States, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark, Romania and Australiaand for our part, in Helmand province, we believe that we have deployed an important and appropriate force. I do not necessarily accept that there are insufficient forces in any other part of southern Afghanistan. However, the issue will need to be kept constantly under review by ISAF and NATO. It will be incumbent on us to ensure that we deploy sufficient forces to enable us to carry out the task in hand. However, the right hon. Gentleman should not forget that the Afghan army itself is increasingly deploying forces to that area. The assessment of those soldiers that I am given is that they are of the highest calibre.
James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I know that the
Secretary of State will agree that central to a successful deployment
in Afghanistan will be the heavy-lift capability provided by the
Hercules aircraft from RAF Lyneham, which is in my constituency. In
that context, he will know that one of the contributory factors to the
tragic crash of a Hercules in Iraq last year might have been the
absence of foam flame retardant in the wing tanks. Will he tell us how
quickly the retardant will be fitted in the Hercules fleet and
how many planes will be fitted with it? Will he confirm that all the planes that are deployed in Afghanistan will have that safeguard fitted to them?
Des Browne: I am happy to accept the hon. Gentlemans invitation to pay tribute to the contribution that the Herculesand, more importantly, those who fly the Herculeshave made to military operations in not only Afghanistan and Iraq at present, but elsewhere. He knows, as I am sure that the House does, that we intend to fit the flame-retardant foam into Hercules and to ensure that those that are deployed to the theatre are fitted with that. I have said in public, so I have no reason to say anything different from the Dispatch Box, that we hope to be able to do that by August for the first of them. We will ensure that sufficient numbers of Hercules are fitted with the appropriate retardant foam so that operations can be conducted.
7. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the likely future structure of the Royal Marine Corps within the UKs defensive capability; and if he will make a statement. 
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Marines make a unique and essential contribution to our armed forces and have done so for more than three centuries. We remain firmly committed to maintaining a world-class Royal Marine force and amphibious capability.
Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise and applaud the work of the Royal Marines, especially in the deployment to Afghanistan that will take place shortly. What thoughts do the Minister and the Department have about the formation of a future additional fourth commando of the Royal Marines? Has he thought about the formation of a new special operations group with commandos from the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment and others who have done the commando course at Lympstone?
Mr. Ingram: On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman might be aware that a special support regiment has been stood up and is based at St. Athan. The question of the fourth manoeuvre unit of the Commando Brigade is being examined, although no recommendations have reached Ministers desks yet. I will wait and see what the recommendations are before giving the hon. Gentleman an answer to his specific question because I will have to see the merits, benefits and, perhaps, disbenefits of the proposal before reaching a considered opinion. Work is in hand to achieve that, however.
Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will know that there
has been a lot of speculation in Scottish newspapers recently about the
possible deployment of 45 Commando, which is based in my constituency,
to Afghanistan. Those troops have
special expertisethey are technology expertsin winter warfare. Given the Secretary of States earlier answer, will the Minister assure us that any such deployment would keep UK troops within the agreed ISAF parameters and would not represent an extension to the UKs involvement in Afghanistan?
Mr. Ingram: No decision has been taken as to the next deployment, but 45 Commando clearly has particular capabilities and is trained for specific purposes, and that comes into play as part of the planning process, in both the medium and long term. However, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it not to be deployed or he is in favour of it being deployed. I do not know where his party currently stands on that because we are talking about a NATO mission, and his party is of course opposed to NATO. Therefore, I am unsure where he is coming from on this issue. I meet 45 Commando personnel regularly and I can say that, in common with all other members of Her Majestys armed forces, they actually like being deployed. We have to make proper judgments accordingly as to when and how often that deployment takes place.
8. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If he will make a statement on the role played in his Department by Dr. David Kelly. 
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Dr Kellys role in the Department, on secondment from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, was as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Iraqs chemical and biological weapons capabilities, the work of the United Nations Commissions dealing with inspections in Iraq, and on issues relating to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. Dr. Kelly also advised the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission on training, and communicated Iraq issues to the media and institutions. All that was set out in the Hutton report.
Norman Baker: Dr. Kelly made an immense contribution to the security of this country and the world. As part of his work for the Department, shortly before his death he co-authored a report for the United States and the UK that was delivered to the US on 27 May 2003, and which made it clear that the so-called mobile biological weapons laboratories were nothing of the sort. However, two days later President Bush indicated,
we have found the weapons of mass destruction,
which Dr. Kelly flatly contradicted in public afterwards. What discussions took place between the UK and the US regarding Dr. Kellys public statement about that matter, and what investigations have been conducted to establish where the fake trailers masquerading as mobile laboratories came from? If the Secretary of State cannot answer now, will he please write to me?
Des Browne: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be surprised that I approach the Dispatch Box to confirm that I am unable to answer a question of such a nature without having had some prior notice of it. However, what I will say is that it is my understanding that although the hon. Gentleman has publicly said, in terms, that he is about to devote one year of his life to pursuing investigations in relation to Dr. Kelly and the circumstances surrounding his death, it is not my intention, periodically or consistently, to start an investigation from the Dispatch Box. The position is that Lord Hutton investigated fully the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to start picking up aspects of that case piecemeal. However, I will look carefully into the question he has asked to see if I can provide any information, despite the fact that my Department was entirely open in respect of Dr. Kellys role and all the evidence that it had for the Hutton report. If, contrary to my view, there is anything of assistance that I can communicate to the hon. Gentleman, I will do so.
9. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent trends he has identified in levels of recruitment to the Army. 
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): A combination of high employment, a prosperous and strong economy, attractive alternatives in further education and stiff competition from other employers have all increased the pressure on the Army in its efforts to attract young men and women. To counter this, the Armys recruiting group has redoubled its recruiting effort through advertising campaigns. During recent months, its intensive marketing campaign has paid dividends and the number of applications has increased. The challenge now is to convert that interest into enlistments.
Mr. Dunne: With unprecedented numbers of Territorial Army soldiers and other reservists currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet with TA strength at its lowest level since its formation more than 100 years ago, what do the Government plan to do to fix the recruitment crisis now affecting all our reserve forces?
Mr. Ingram: As of 14 June 2006, some 574 members of the Territorial Armyabout 1.8 per cent. of the TAwere deployed on operations overall, of whom 397 are serving in Iraq. Extensive efforts are being made to achieve better recruiting. As at April 2006, the TAs strength was more than 2 per cent. higher than it was one year ago, and it is at its highest level since June 2004. Its strength has increased by about 900 since the beginning of the year, which could indicate a trend. However, in respect of the TA, the reserves and the regular forces, constant effort needs to be made to keep the marketing intensity high, because that is what the competition is doing to attract young men and women into their areas of interest. We are beginning to see some trends that are to our benefit, but we can maintain them only through such intensive effort.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that Lancashire and the entire north-west is a very fertile recruitment area for the armed forces. However, has the time not come to ensure that, in addition to good recruitment, we enjoy good retention in the north-west by moving Army bases from the south to the north, which is where the families live? That is much overdue and much needed, and the time has come to recognise the needs of our troops.
Mr. Ingram: It is about recognising the need of the armed forces overallin this case, the Army. Part of the basing reason is to be close to training areas, and that is why we still have extensive basing in Germany and in the southto be close to those training areasbut my hon. Friend raises a good point, which he should follow with interest in the months and years ahead. Super-garrisons are being considered as part of the future Army structure, but it is too early to say where the lay-down of such garrisons will bewhether in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, the midlands or the south. However, all that work is under way. Moving troops involves spending an extensive amount of money on infrastructure and has to be planned for. That will not happen overnight, but work is under way to achieve some of those objectives.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am very pleased indeed to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) in emphasising the importance of the north-west to Army recruitment. Will the Minister accept that the TA makes an increasingly important contribution to our armed forces, and certainly in respect of recruitment? He recently admitted to me that there has been a problem with the payment of the bounty to TA soldiers in the north-west, in that soldiers who deserve the bounty have not been awarded it. Will he ensure that that matter is corrected at a very early date?
Mr. Ingram: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentlemans comments: the TA plays a substantial part in all that we do, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but elsewhere. In many ways, that is perhaps why we are beginning to see, once again, an increase in recruitment. In fact, we are getting indications that people want to join the TA because deployment is becoming a feature of the role, whereas before, that was not necessarily the case. The rebalancing of the TA is about restructuring it to make it more usable and better focused on the regular service, so we have attended to some of those issues. I do not recollect saying to the hon. Gentleman what he said that I said about the bounty, although I might have done so in a written answer, of which I write hundreds in a given period. I do not think that I have given that answer, but I will check whether I have, and if there is an issue to be addressed, it will be.
Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Recent figures that I have
before me show that only one infantry battalion in the whole Army is
now at full strength; on average, each battalion is one third below
combat strength. Can the Minister confirm that the infantry
battalion soldier manning deficit is about 3,000, and that the Governments own prediction is that that will worsen while we are deploying more troops abroad? If that is not overstretch, just how would he describe it?
Mr. Ingram: I do not accept that overall analysis from the hon. Gentleman. I have given an indication of the trends and we are beginning to see some benefit from our intensive marketing campaign. I do not deny that we are under-strength, that we find it hard to hit our targets, or that we are under-target, but I should point out that, historically, that has always been the case. What we have tried to do through the new future infantry structure and future Army structure is to get the balance rightto set realistic targets and then to try to achieve them.
In my reply to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), I said that the recruiting environment is difficult. The economy is very strong and we face a lot of competition from elsewhere in the marketplace, so to speak, which is why we are now investing so heavily in the marketing campaign. We can measure the impact in two ways: one of our marketing strategies led to 15,000 expressions of interest, and the Everest west ridge campaign led to an additional 15,000 expressions of interest. What we have to do now is turn those expressions of interest into actual enlistment. That is the next objective.
10. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): If he will make a statement on recent ground operations in Iraq. 
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Coalition operations across Iraq continue to uphold security, to develop robust, self-reliant and capable Iraqi security forces, and to promote effective governance, economic growth and reconstruction. Increasingly, Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in such operations.
Patrick Mercer: The Secretary of State will be aware that 20 Armoured Brigade was recently deployed for ground-holding operations in Iraq, expecting to be there for slightly more than six months. No sooner had its personnel arrived than that tour was extended to seven and a half months. I do not doubt that the soldiers and airmen of the brigade will take that on the chin, but the decision has come as a hammer blow to their families, wives and children, many of whom are isolated in Germany. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that no Ministry of Defence that knows its business could have allowed such a nonsense to occur. Will he tell the House how he will stop that piece of routine planning being made a complete nonsense of again?
Browne: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has
significant knowledge of these matters, but I do not accept that such
decisions are an indication of the Department or the military not
knowing what they are doing. On occasion, as he is aware, there is a
need to review decisions and to change them. I have met many soldiers
on both of my visits to Iraq and I know that they will do the job that
they are asked to do, but I
accept entirely that we must keep their families constantly in mind. The families face as much pressure in the absence of their family members in theatre as do the members in theatre doing what they are trained to do as British soldiers. I undertake to ensure, as far as it is within my power to do so, that in future planning is conducted in a way that gives families the maximum possible degree of certainty, subject of course to the fact that circumstances may cause us to review decisions that have been made.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Earlier the Secretary of State said that there would be an immediate review of the types of vehicles used by our armed forces in Iraq. When is that review likely to report to the House? Does he agree that, although winning hearts and minds is important, keeping our troops on the ground safe is even more important? Is it not time that we moved them out of Land Rovers, reduced foot patrols and got our troops into Warrior armoured vehicles?
Des Browne: We have already agreed to supplement Snatch with a new patrol vehicle, Vector, which will come into service in 2007. We are currently upgrading the protection on the FV430 to allow it to be used more widely, and we have already upgraded the protection on the Warrior, the Saxon and the CVR(T). Such issues are being considered day-to-day, on an ongoing basis, and the steps that can be taken are being taken. As a consequence of my own observations and information that has been brought to my intention, I asked for a review of the matter. That review is ongoing, but I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman a specific date for its completion. I accept that the protection of our armed forces is my most important priority as Secretary of State for Defence.
12. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to support the cadet forces. 
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|