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Surplus Land and Buildings

6. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): What steps he is taking to involve local communities in the sale of his Department's former sites. [1188]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The disposal of surplus Ministry of Defence land and buildings is conducted in accordance with Government accounting regulations—normally on the open market, in the interests of taxpayers generally. Sites are usually sold with the benefit of outline planning permission or a planning brief. Thus, in the case of a major closure or draw-down, it is normal practice for officials in Defence Estates to work closely with the relevant local authorities, and to liaise with recognised local community bodies as part of the disposal process. We seek to take local aspirations into account wherever possible. The Ministry of Defence recognises that that can be particularly important when surplus sites are in rural or isolated locations.

Sir Robert Smith: I thank the Minister for his reply. As he knows, constituents of mine at RAF Edzell have been occupying housing that was formerly on the MOD base there. Will he take into account their experience when he considers future sales? Will he consider the qualities of future purchasers or developers, and the way in which they handle the sale of property to private individuals?

Dr. Moonie: It is generally assumed that people who can find the financial backing to take over such a scheme are competent to deal with the issues involved—but if the hon. Gentleman wants to make specific points, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss them.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I welcome my hon. Friend's reply to the question. Does he also think that it would be good policy for companies owned by the Ministry of Defence to consult local communities before those companies acquire new sites? The Defence Aviation Repair Agency, in St. Athan in my constituency, has managed to alienate almost the entire community of Rhoose in the Vale of Glamorgan, although the decision to move has not yet even been taken. Local people should be consulted.

Dr. Moonie: That is a good point, but one on which I must confess that I know little, because it is not part of my brief. I shall look into the matter for my hon. Friend and send him a note about it.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Will the Minister make my constituents and me an offer similar to the one he made to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith)? From exchanges that he witnessed between myself and his hon. Friend the Minister for Transport—when his hon. Friend was part of the Defence team—he will know that when officers from my local authority were asked to keep the plans to convert the staff college building into a luxury hotel secret, they showed great sensitivity. Those plans were stopped only when it was revealed that the staff college in my constituency contained a war memorial. As concern has

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been expressed that some civil servants who work for the Minister have not been as sensitive and as sensible as my local authority officers in dealing with such issues, will he agree to meet a delegation, including the leader of Surrey Heath council, to ensure that there is no repetition of those problems?

Dr. Moonie: Yes, I shall be happy to do so.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Will my hon. Friend take a personal interest in the proposed sale of Derby barracks on Fletcher street in my constituency, which is the home of Bolton sea cadets and several community groups? Those organisations are trying to raise money by various means—including lottery funding—but will my hon. Friend consider renting the premises to them rather than selling the buildings from under their feet in the near future?

Dr. Moonie: I am certainly prepared to consider that. However, where we decide to sell barracks, it is our normal practice to try to ensure that re-provision is made.

RAF Saxa Vord

7. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): What plans he has for the disposal of housing stock owned and maintained by his Department in support of RAF Saxa Vord. [1189]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): As a result of the draw-down of RAF Saxa Vord, it is expected that 38 houses in the Setters Hill estate will be surplus to requirements and will therefore be passed to Defence Estates for disposal in the next few months.

Mr. Carmichael: Does the Minister recognise the very fragile state of the economy on Unst—Britain's most northerly community—since the draw-down of RAF Saxa Vord? Does he appreciate the central role that local management of the housing stock will have in providing a sustainable future for Unst? Will he give an assurance to the people of Unst that when the time comes for disposal, preference will be given to a local bid, and that they will not be left to the mercy of the property developers?

Dr. Moonie: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will be well aware that that is a difficult undertaking to give, but we are conducting a survey of public opinion among the islanders to find out what the general view of the sales is. We are discussing the issue closely with the local authority and the Highlands and Islands development board, and all their views will be carefully taken into account before we proceed with the sale. We are well aware of the sensitivities involved.

Porton Down

8. Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East): How many claims for compensation by service volunteers at Porton Down have been received by the War Pensions Agency. [1190]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Between 19 February and 31 May 2001, the War Pensions Agency received 31 claims from Porton Down service volunteers. Information prior to 19 February is not available as separate records of war pension claims from Porton Down volunteers were not identified before then.

Mr. Atkinson: Is that not a rather surprising and disappointing reply, in view of the recent investigation by Wiltshire police into hundreds of volunteers whose health was impaired at Porton Down and whose claims for compensation were turned down by the agency, including that of my constituent, Mr. Michael Painter? Now that the agency has been transferred from what was the Department of Social Security to his Department, will he ensure that an independent medical reassessment of all those claimants takes place, to ensure just compensation for them before they are all dead?

Dr. Moonie: We have found no evidence at present to support the contention that deaths and ill health are linked to the experiments that were carried out at Porton Down. That is why we are conducting a very careful epidemiological study of those who were involved to try to establish whether there really are any effects. It is important that we proceed on the basis of solid fact, rather than needless speculation.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): As in the case of the Porton Down volunteers, investigation and clear information are always vital, so does the Minister agree that workers at the nuclear refit facility at Chatham deserve accurate information from the MOD? In January this year the Minister advised me that two former workers and their families were due to receive an offer of compensation, but it is now July, and no offer has been forthcoming. I acknowledge the answer about interim payments that he gave me earlier last week, but does he understand the concern? Will he therefore order a review of the no-fault compensation scheme, so that former Chatham dockyard workers and their families can have some confidence in it?

Dr. Moonie: I am disappointed that it is taking so long to reach a conclusion in those cases. We have offered interim payments, and I am happy to consider the procedure to find out whether anything can be done to speed it up. However, it is very difficult, on occasion, to move the legal profession forward at the speed that we might like.

European Security and Defence Policy

9. Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): What representations he has received concerning the European security and defence policy. [1191]

11. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): When he last met the NATO Secretary-General to discuss European security. [1193]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I have received a number of representations from hon. Members and others on European security and defence policy. I have also discussed the policy with Lord

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Robertson—most recently on 25 June. NATO members, including the United States, have recognised the importance of improving the defence capabilities of European partners, to allow Europe to act when NATO as a whole is not engaged and to contribute to the improvements identified in the European Union's headline goal and NATO's defence capabilities initiative.

Dr. Spink: How does the Secretary of State explain the crystal-clear contradiction that exists, given that the Prime Minister told the US President in February that planning for any EU military operation would take place in NATO, yet the EU military staffs have made it clear that high-level and operational planning will be undertaken by their organisation? Will the Secretary of State tell us which of those statements is true?

Mr. Hoon: I welcome the hon. Gentleman back to the House—although he could possibly have spent the interim period reading about the arrangements for the European Union and NATO more carefully. Had he done so, he would have identified the fact that operational planning will be a matter for NATO. [Interruption.] Operational planning will be a matter for NATO; I have said it twice so that the hon. Gentleman can get that point quite clearly into his mind.

Mr. Amess: Does the Secretary of State recall telling the House last year that defence spending among European nations was growing? In the light of that, will he explain whether he agrees with his former colleague Lord Robertson, the Secretary-General of NATO, who said that Europe's response to the defence capability initiative was totally inadequate?

Mr. Hoon: The two observations are not necessarily inconsistent, in the sense that what is important about the defence capabilities initiative is that European nations develop particular kinds of capabilities that are consistent with the aims of the Helsinki headline goal, and relate to the need to deal with modern issues. Instead of having large numbers of forces deployed on the west German plain to confront the threat from the Soviet Union, we now need rapidly deployable forces along the lines envisaged by the strategic defence review. Although we certainly urge our European partners to increase their defence spending, we also urge them to spend their defence money in a different way—on satisfying the Helsinki headline goal as well as on the defence capabilities initiative.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): As well as ensuring that European funds are spent more effectively in, for example, combat and peacekeeping areas such as the Balkans, is not one of the benefits to Britain of participating in the European defence initiative the fact that, over time, other European countries will spend more on their own and on European defence in general? Will my right hon. Friend use his contacts with our European partners to urge them to spend more, and to make sure that the money is spent more effectively?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his observations. He is right. It is important that European nations spend their defence money more effectively than they have in the past, and this country recognised that point before we conducted the strategic defence review.

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The review was broadly supported by Members on both sides of the House, and it is important that the lesson is also learned elsewhere.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the Secretary of State not agree that the Prime Minister is in danger of becoming habitually inexact about what he has arranged for the euro-army—or the European defence force, as he calls it? Did the Prime Minister not come to the House at one stage and say that any significant operation that the force carried out

However, General Schuwirth, who is now a member of the military staff, has said:

Is not the reality that what the Prime Minister signed up to at Nice and what he tells the House and the country are two completely different things? Are the Prime Minister and his Government not becoming rather like the pushme-pullyou? When they go to Washington, they are against, when they go to Brussels, they are in favour, and when they come to Parliament, they are in denial.

Mr. Hoon: I should have thought that it was rather dangerous for the hon. Gentleman to refer to Dr. Dolittle—but as he hopes to be busy in due course, perhaps we can depend on him for further literary references in future.

I have made the position absolutely clear: operational planning will be conducted in NATO. That was agreed at Nice.

Mr. Duncan Smith indicated dissent.

Mr. Hoon: It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head to suggest that he knows best. If he examines the Nice agreement carefully, he will see that there was an acceptance right across the European Union that operational planning will be conducted through NATO.

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