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Female Soldiers

19. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What recent assessment he has made of the fighting capabilities of female soldiers. [156946]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): A review of the employment of women in the armed forces is currently in progress. I expect to receive advice on its conclusions later this year.

Mr. Swayne: What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the criteria against which female soldiers will be measured are not watered down, to the detriment of our operational capabilities?

Mr. Hoon: The review that is being conducted is extremely thorough. It comprises a wide-ranging review of scientific literature. There is an attitude survey, a field trial looking at team dynamics and assessments from each of the three services, but I emphasise that operational effectiveness will be the deciding question. We will not allow any decision to be taken that in any way compromises the operational effectiveness, the combat effectiveness, of our armed forces.

Army Manpower

20. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): If he will make a statement on Army manpower. [156947]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): As at 1 March 2001, whole Army strength stood at 100,199, a shortfall against the currently assessed post-strategic defence review requirement of around 8,000. The Army remains firmly committed to achieving full manning by 2005 and work is in hand across a very wide range of initiatives.

Mr. Brady: The Secretary of State said a few moments ago that recruitment to the Army was progressing satisfactorily. Does the Minister understand that the real problem is retention within the Army? Is not the failure of this Government to make the Army and the other services an attractive career the real reason why the Defence Committee says that it will be 2008 before the target is reached?

Mr. Spellar: It is rather unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman prepared his question before hearing the earlier replies, which made it clear that retention had improved considerably, not least because of the considerable measures that we have undertaken to improve the quality of service life. Much of that was needed to address the significant problems that had built up in the 18 years of Conservative Government, not least the question of accommodation. Equally, we must recognise that recruitment and retention are taking place against a background of a strong economy, in which unemployment is at its lowest level for 25 years,there are 1 million extra jobs and a considerable number

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of youngsters are going into tertiary education. The recruitment teams for the Army and other services are performing a magnificent job in bringing youngsters into the armed forces, but they are not complacent, and additional work is being undertaken to improve recruitment at all levels. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, along with his colleagues, will be going to local schools to urge youngsters seriously to consider the armed forces as a good career prospect.


21. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What discussions he has had with the US Administration about threats posed to western security by Russia. [156948]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I have had discussions with the US Administration on a wide range of defence items, including threats to western security. The 1999 NATO strategic concept made clear that Russia was not currently regarded as a threat and that

Dr. Cable: Does the Secretary of State share the increasingly sceptical and hostile attitude of the Bush Administration to Russia on proliferation, espionage and other matters, or does he feel that there is an opportunity to strengthen our relations with Russia under the common European Union framework?

Mr. Hoon: I have made it clear that, under the framework of NATO, we support NATO's 1999

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conclusion that efforts should be made to secure a strong, stable and enduring partnership between NATO and Russia.

European Security and Defence Policy

28. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What representations he has received concerning the European security and defence policy. [156955]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier today to the hon. Members for Blaby(Mr. Robathan) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).

Dr. Lewis: I am delighted that the Secretary of State has referred me to his earlier answers, because that enables me to point out how inadequate they were. Is it not a fact that senior American politicians, the Finnish general in charge of the European rapid reaction force and the French Chief of the Defence Staff--who has not, incidentally, modified or retracted anything he said, despite the earlier predictions by the Secretary of State--have made it perfectly clear that the ERRF is to operate outside, not inside, the NATO structure? Will he now stop his waffle about the need to co-operate with our European allies--which we all support, within NATO--and set our doubts at rest? Is not what is being proposed the building of something outside NATO which will undermine NATO--something of which our American allies are becoming increasingly aware?

Mr. Hoon: We have now had experience of two American Administrations, and both have made it clear that they support efforts by European nations to improve their military capabilities because by doing so they contribute to the success of NATO. We have made it clear that we regard the development of any improved European capabilities as a contribution to NATO.

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Rural Taskforce

3.30 pm

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells) (by private notice): To ask the Minister for the Environment if he will make a statement on the work of the rural taskforce with regard to the foot and mouth crisis.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): It became clear, soon after the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease began, that the disease and the restrictions that were introduced to control its spread would have implications for the rural economy that went well beyond the agricultural sector. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister therefore asked me to set up the rural taskforce with a remit to consider the implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease for the rural economy, both immediately and in the longer term, and to report to him on appropriate measures.

The taskforce includes all the Government Departments involved, the devolved Administrations and experienced members from the private and voluntary sectors, including the rural business and tourism sectors, farmers and representatives of rural communities. It first met on 14 March. There have been four further meetings so far, and the next meeting will take place on Wednesday. I am extremely grateful for the hard work and dedication that the members of the taskforce have put in and for the practical common sense that they have shown in discussing the issues.

The taskforce's work covers both short-term measures to alleviate the hardship that so many people and businesses are facing and measures to aid the speediest possible return to normality. I shall remind the House of measures that have already been announced, starting with the measures to assist businesses to weather the immediate problems.

First, I have announced a number of measures to provide relief from business rates. They include increased Government funding, from 75 per cent. to 95 per cent., to enable local authorities to offer hardship rate relief to businesses in rural areas, targeted at businesses below £12,000 rateable value, and offering reductions of up to £1,290 over a three-month period. A further measure is the deferment, by three months, of the deadline for business rate appeals in rural areas.

Rural businesses will also be helped by the Government's legislation to extend mandatory 50 per cent. rate relief to all food shops in small rural settlements, and that legislation will also provide a transitional, five-year, 50 per cent. mandatory rate relief for new enterprises on former agricultural land. At the same time, recent regulations have extended 50 per cent. rate relief to sole village pubs and garages with a rateable value of less than £9,000. We have also arranged that when a rural local authority agrees to defer payments my Department will in turn defer the payments that the authority is due to make to the national rate pool. The Valuation Office will consider applications from businesses for a reduction in their rateable value to take account of the impact of foot and mouth disease.

Secondly, the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will take a sympathetic approach to requests for deferral or extended time to pay for tax and national insurance contributions, especially for rural businesses in agriculture,

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transport and tourism, and related retail businesses. Thirdly, the major banks have made it clear that they will, on a case-by-case basis, consider mechanisms such as extended lines of credit, capital repayment holidays and other measures. Fourthly, we have extended the types of business that can apply for loans up to £250,000 under the small firms loan guarantee scheme.

Fifthly, I announced a further £15 million for regional development agencies to help rural businesses in the worst hit areas. Sixthly, to help those who have lost work because of foot and mouth, the Benefits Agency has announced that it will provide quick assessment of applications for jobseeker's allowance from such applicants, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has announced a skills boost package to ease the impact of foot and mouth disease on jobs.

Finally, the Government have pledged to match public donations to rural charities, to help to address cases of severe hardship and to provide support for organisations responding to rural stress. The scheme is being administered by the Countryside Agency and will apply to personal donations, including the generous donations of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Westminster.

Everyone agrees, I think, that the key to recovering from the serious economic effects of the disease is to get back to normality as quickly as possible. That is why the taskforce has put a lot of effort into ensuring that the message that most of the country can be safely visited is widely understood. Its work has led to a number of advertisements under the auspices of both the Government and other key organisations, to explain the position to the general public and encourage people to go and enjoy the many facilities that are open.

The Countryside Agency will also make available grants of £3.8 million to help local authorities to open their footpaths. Further advertising by tourism organisations is being promoted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced additional support of £6 million for the English Tourism Council and the British Tourist Authority to get the message across that Britain is open for business.

That all adds up to a total package for immediate practical help for the rural economy of more than £200 million, but that is not the end of the story: there is a great deal more to do, especially in considering longer-term measures to help to get the rural economy moving when the disease has been dealt with. I look forward to further meetings of the taskforce to advance that important work.

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