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26 Mar 2007 : Column 1150

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As my hon. Friend will be aware, pay rates for the armed forces are recommended annually by the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Since 1998, the average increase has been 3.3 per cent.

David Wright: A number of units within our armed forces seem to be regularly rotated into front-line action, and rightly so—one thinks of the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. In an earlier answer, my right hon. Friend said that he will focus on better pay and conditions in those particular units to ensure that recruitment stays high. I welcome his commitment to support a 9.2 per cent. increase for the lowest paid members of our armed forces, but what more can we do to ensure that those elements of our forces that regularly rotate on to the front line are rewarded properly?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend will know that there is a tax-free operational allowance, which is £2,240 for six months—in my view, and, I think, in the view of the armed forces, it goes some way to recognising the contribution made on operations. As well as those who get a 9.2 per cent. pay rise, the next band up gets a 6.2 per cent. pay rise as a result of the acceptance of the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body report reflects the fact that there are a number of specific incentives, one of which concerns the retention of marines, to address pinch points that result in retention problems in the armed forces. In the past, such approaches have improved our ability to hold on to those who have the skills that we need, whether or not they were deployed in operational theatres, and that is what we will continue to do.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State will take a close personal interest in the fact that next month the Army will have its first pay run under the new joint personnel administration—JPA. He will remember that when the system was rolled out in the RAF and the Navy there were errors in the pay of 6,500 members of the RAF and 10,000 Navy personnel. Will he assure the House that he has taken steps to ensure that such errors will not be repeated in the Army’s pay run next month?

Des Browne: I was aware of the teething problems with the roll-out of JPA to the RAF and Royal Navy. The hon. Gentleman will know that when the system was rolled out to the Royal Navy in October 2006 we were able, as a result of the RAF experience, to anticipate some problems and to respond to others timeously for those affected. I am advised that the programme is on track to go live in the Army from March 2007. He may rest assured that it has put in place a number of contingency plans to deal with any possibilities that may arise.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend is aware, more than 20,000 people who are employed by the Ministry of Defence live in Scotland; given an average salary of £20,000, that means that nearly £500 million is being pump-primed into the Scottish economy. Is my figure correct? Would he like to speculate on the security of that investment in Scotland in the short, medium and long-term?

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Des Browne: As far as I can see, the Scottish people intend to stay part of the United Kingdom, so my hon. Friend may be reassured that the contribution that is being made and the economic consequences of that contribution to the Scottish economy will continue. Of course, the people of Scotland must take into account—this is why they are so intent on staying in the United Kingdom—the fact that taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom, particularly if it were ruled by those who propose to do so, would mean coming out of NATO. In such circumstances, there would be no need for those who currently serve the British armed forces to serve the armed forces of an independent Scotland.

UK/EU Navies

9. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the performance and requirements of the navies of (a) the United Kingdom and (b) other EU member states. [129303]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We regularly assess the performance and requirements of the Royal Navy through routine departmental planning processes. The performance and requirements of navies belonging to EU member states are matters for the countries concerned.

Mr. Robathan: At this time, we should remember with pride the role of the Royal Navy in suppressing the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century, as well as 400-odd years of excellent service to this country. Instead, under this Government, the Navy has been cut, cut and cut again, to the extent that the First Sea Lord has said that this country’s naval capability risks being turned into that of Belgium. He has called in particular for two carriers, which the Government have promised. The main gate decision should have been taken in April 2004; three years later, we must ask when, if ever, the order for the carriers will be placed.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman began by discussing the slave trade, and I echo his sentiments on that. We are talking about not only the passing of an Act of Parliament in terms of the abolition of slavery, but the bravery of the Royal Navy—in the main—on the high seas; it tried to stop that ongoing trade after the passing of the relevant Act in this House all those years ago, and many lives were lost in its doing so. The bravery of the Royal Navy should be marked, alongside all the other events that are taking place in respect of the abolition of the slave trade.

The hon. Gentleman asked a range of questions, but his main question was about the carriers. We are still committed to carriers, and an announcement will be made when we are ready to make it.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Minister will know that there were two birthday celebrations last week: the European Union was 50 years old and, last Thursday, our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary was 55. At the celebrations in Berlin, there was a discussion about further co-operation between our EU partners. Following on from St. Malo in 1998 and Le Touquet in 2003, is the Minister satisfied that, as
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regards the Navy, we have the capabilities required to work more closely with our colleagues so that we can have a more collective approach to our armed services?

Mr. Ingram: I recognise one of the birthdays. Let me deal with the EU aspect. In building up our capabilities with NATO and EU, not only as regards the Royal Navy but across our armed forces, we are meeting the various challenges that have been set, including the headline goals that were laid down for 2010. That is part of the process of ensuring that we have the capabilities required not only to meet the foreseeable demands as best we can anticipate but to be ready for, and able to address, the unforeseen. There are many examples of joint training taking place to build up that interoperability between nations. It is important that we work with our allies in the EU and in NATO and that we stop those who are advocating part of this proud nation coming out of NATO, which would diminish our capacity to defend these shores and work against good European tradition.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is not one of the requirements of the United Kingdom Navy to obey the rules of engagement set by the Ministry of Defence? Did not the current rules of engagement that allow no conflict in Iraqi waters with Iranian forces lead directly to 15 of our service personnel being abducted by the Iranians?

Mr. Ingram: Rather than speculate about events, let us stand back and understand the sensitivity of the situation. There is too much speculation about what happened and what did not happen. Those carrying out that mission clearly have to respond to the level of threat that is posed to them. We will have to investigate that when they are safely returned to these shores and we get their version of events rather than the speculation that is being paraded around in the media and elsewhere.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Clearly, the most important requirement for the Royal Navy is personnel. One of its great sources of new recruits is the sea cadet units around the country, including HMS Minerva in Llwynypia in Rhondda. However, those units get no direct guaranteed funding from the Ministry of Defence. Is it not time that we put them on a proper footing?

Mr. Ingram: If my hon. Friend looks into this, he will find that that is because of the way in which the sea cadets have been set up as a charitable organisation. I do not have all the information to hand as to the precise structure, but I will ensure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who has responsibility for this, responds to him in detail.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Most of the 29 ships that have joined the fleet since this Government came to office were ordered under the previous, Conservative Government. Is it not a fact that in the past five years the only warship order has been for a single, solitary offshore patrol vessel? When the order for the carriers eventually, and belatedly, comes through, will the Minister guarantee that it will
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not be used as cover for the cancellation of the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers, which the Navy says it needs to ensure that the carrier taskforces are properly protected?

Mr. Ingram: As has been said many times from the Dispatch Box by previous Administrations as well as this one, there is a continuum in the defence of this country. It does not surprise me that ships that have been commissioned in the past 10 years were ordered in previous periods. The important aspect is that those orders were carried out because it was acknowledged that it is important to maintain the strength of the Royal Navy. On top of that, there is a projected £14 billion capital programme for the Royal Navy in the next decade. That includes carriers, Type 45s and other vessels for the Royal Navy. At the end of that, it will be a formidable Navy.

The Royal Navy is at the point of change—change for the better.

Injured Troops

10. Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): What progress has been made in improving health care provided to troops injured on operations on their return to the UK. [129306]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Selly Oak hospital, part of the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the primary reception hospital for operational casualties. It is a centre of excellence for treating the injuries sustained by our troops. A military-managed ward reached initial operating capability in December 2006. There are 22 military nurses, including military nursing managers, who work at all levels on the ward. That allows the presence of military nursing staff on duty on every shift. We have also increased the overall number of military psychiatric support nurses and have military welfare staff and liaison officers at the hospital.

Personnel who require rehabilitation following hospital treatment may receive it at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court. That world-class facility provides high-quality, appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and individually tailored as necessary to the specific patient.

Alison Seabeck: My hon. Friend knows that a large contingent of personnel from Plymouth is currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot emphasise enough the importance to the families of understanding that there is a decent health care service in place for those who are injured, and equally for those who return from stressful tours of duty. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, despite the recent incident in Cyprus, the Ministry will continue to support decompression programmes—one of which I saw on HMS Temeraire—to assist, for example, Iraq veterans back into regular Army service?

Derek Twigg: It is clear that we provide top quality, world-class medical support and treatment for our
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injured service personnel. I have talked to many injured service personnel and their families in recent months. A recent survey at Selly Oak of those who had been discharged showed everybody saying that their care and treatment had been excellent, very good or good. It is clearly an important facility, which we are continuing to develop. We are taking an initiative on reservists and mental health. Mental health support exists pre and post-deployment.

Decompression is important, and commanding officers decide how it is handled and delivered. It clearly has an important role to play in allowing service personnel who return from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to come to terms with their experiences, discuss any difficult problems that they may need to take forward and, of course, relax. That is all part of the process before returning home to their loved ones.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Given the success of Defence Medical Services in keeping alive injured troops who, in earlier times, would have died, is the Under-Secretary satisfied with the aftercare available, especially for those injured out of the services? Is he content with the long waiting list for former servicemen to access psychiatric services? Given increasing awareness of the services available and the problems that former servicemen experience, will he expand the defence psychiatric service to make it the equal of those in America, Australia and the Netherlands?

Derek Twigg: As the hon. Gentleman knows, Defence Medical Services is responsible for such services, pre and post-deployment. As he rightly said, once personnel leave the armed forces, they become the responsibility of the NHS. In October, we announced the reservist mental health care plan, whereby reservists who visit their GPs are referred to the defence medical mental health unit at Chilwell. We are currently working with the Department of Health and Combat Stress to improve further the mental health support for our veterans.

We hope to get several pilot schemes up and running in the not-too-distant future to consider how we improve both the understanding of mental health problems that result from being on operations or in the armed forces and education and support for that throughout the health service. I shall report further to the House as that develops.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend note that it is very important that servicemen be treated within units where they are totally comfortable and surrounded by those who they most want to be with? Will he resist any attempt to divide the specialist units from the main national health service providers because it is essential that they be given a wide range of treatments and are not left in conditions that are inadequate in comparison with other NHS patients?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, but the decision to move away from military hospitals was taken some time ago and it was based on expert clinical and medical advice. It is important to ensure that practitioners, clinicians and military medical staff are able to develop their
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experience, see a range of cases and be given a range of skills to use out on the front line in Afghanistan and Iraq and back home when injured soldiers return. The best way for that to happen is in the context of a large NHS trust where those skills can be developed and honed. The experience they gain there can be used for the benefit of injured armed forces personnel.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): General Sir Richard Dannatt said that we may see a dedicated military ward at Selly Oak within three years, but at Prime Minister’s Questions, the Prime Minister did not seem to believe in the concept at all and we now know from contractors at Selly Oak that it will be at least five years before such a unit is up and running. What is the truth in all that shambles? People in this country think that our troops deserve better than the confusion and contradiction that they are getting and want to see an exclusive military unit inside the NHS as soon as possible.

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Derek Twigg: We are now seeing the best medical treatment ever for our armed forces personnel, thanks to the quality and expertise at places like Selly Oak as well as in the field hospitals in operations out in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let me make it clear that we are moving towards a military managed ward with initial operating capability and by the early summer we will have full capability. Alterations and works are taking place at Selly Oak hospital to do that. As to General Dannatt’s comments, he raised the issue of having a fully military ward—in other words, a ward with no civilian patients—but it is a problem when there are empty beds and civilian patients need them. It is important to think about how to deal with that problem. With the developments coming up over the next few years, including the development of new units at the hospital at Selly Oak, we will be looking further into how to introduce a military ward into the new facility. We are working with people at Selly Oak and elsewhere to do that, as General Dannatt understands.

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Business of the House

3.32 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement altering the business of the House for tomorrow in the interests of restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland:

Tuesday 27 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion. Followed by proceedings on the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No.2) Bill followed by conclusion of the Budget Statement. Followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments to the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) (No.2) Bill.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been signified.

The business for Wednesday and Thursday remains unchanged and as previously announced.

Wednesday 28 March—Motions relating to communications allowance, notices of questions during September, Select Committees (Reports) and parliamentary contributory pension fund. Followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument on casinos.

Thursday 29 March—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

The House will recall that the St. Andrews agreement set out a timetable for devolution; and the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 set in statute the date for the restoration of devolution as 26 March—in other words, today. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have repeatedly made it clear that, nine years after the Good Friday agreement and following countless rounds of talks and negotiations, the point has been reached where substance has to take over from process. Both my right hon. Friends have stated in categorical terms—and I have underlined in the House—that if the path to devolution today as laid out by the British and Irish Governments were not followed, the parties would have to reach agreement on a way forward themselves.

Our way, which in November Parliament endorsed without dissent in the 2006 Act, has been clear: that if devolution did not happen today, dissolution would happen tomorrow. That is why I made it clear, both last Thursday and the Thursday before, that the Government planned no emergency legislation as the Democratic Unionist party had requested—a position reaffirmed to its leadership team in a meeting last Wednesday by the Prime Minister.

In the long and difficult history of Northern Ireland, our approach to date has been based on a reality—that up to now there has never been a consensus or a way forward agreed between the parties. All the achievements since the 1998 Good Friday agreement, however momentous, have depended on the two Governments calling it as they thought best. Until today, that approach has been the only one available because the parties themselves have been unwilling to do so their own way.

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