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Service Strengths

10. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): When he expects each of the three services to reach their full manning strength. [1192]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Air Force is in broad manning balance. The aim of the naval service remains to achieve broad manning balance by 2002. The Army's aim is to achieve full manning by 2005. However, we recognise that there are shortages in particular skill areas in all three services, and those are being addressed by a range of measures, some of which have already produced positive results.

Mr. Boswell: Yes, but in April, did Ministers not concede within the space of 48 hours, first, that the Army was 8,000 under strength, and, secondly, that the other two services were short of nearly 200 operational pilots? Does the Minister remember that Catherine the Great's Minister Potemkin, who thoughtfully laid on a series of

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empty peasant villages for her, got a real battleship named after him? Is this Minister going to measure himself for the role of the empty vessel?

Mr. Ingram: As I come from Glasgow, I can take some satisfaction from the fact that the name of HMS Glasgow is a reflection of that city.

As for the relative strength of the armed forces, I have given the hon. Gentleman our objectives. I have also recognised the shortages in particular skills, which we have to address against strong competing demands in the wider economy. If there were easy solutions to those problems, they would be lifted off the shelf and implemented. If the hon. Gentleman has any good ideas that we have not thought of to bring the Army, the Air Force and the Navy up to strength, perhaps he will write to me.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Has my right hon. Friend given any thought to recruitment to the defence medical services? The Select Committee on Defence considered that closely, and there were many initiatives to encourage people to enter the service. I know that this is a vexed question, but has thought been given to holding further discussions with the national health service to explain how wonderful it is for people to join the medical services as volunteers?

Mr. Ingram: I can reassure my hon. Friend that much thought is being given to that. In my early rounds of meetings with senior commanders and others in the armed forces, the need to ensure that that medical support is available has been strongly put. We are considering ways in which that and other support services can be brought up to reasonable strength. There are significant career opportunities for people who want to join those wings of the armed services, and I am sure that the Select Committee's report will help to advance the campaign to attract more people to them.

Army Recruitment

12. Patrick Mercer (Newark): If he will make a statement on the number of Army recruits recruited (a) by the recruiting group and (b) by soldiers detached from battalions in the last five years. [1194]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Army recruiting is an integrated operation involving both the Army Training and Recruiting Agency and the field Army. All recruits are enlisted at an armed forces careers office, and no central record of the source of their interest is maintained.

Patrick Mercer: I thank the Minister for that clear response, but does he agree that soldiers detached from regiments contribute disproportionately to the number of civilians who come forward for enlistment? Is he aware that those soldiers come from established regiments that are on active service? Does he not agree that as we take them away from regiments—a form of "de-weaponising"—they should be properly established and properly funded, as a matter of some urgency?

Mr. Ingram: I had already intended to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House, and to pay tribute to his

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important contribution to Army recruitment in his previous role in the Army Training and Recruiting Agency. I am sure he will recognise that many people make a considerable effort to recruit sufficient numbers of the right quality of people to the Army. As I said to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), if the hon. Gentleman has any good ideas, he should bring them to my attention. We all want the Army, Navy and Air Force brought up to strength, as set out in the targets. It is a collective effort, and it is right that different parts of the Army contribute to the important role of recruitment. It is also important that we retain that role in the Army.

Army Equipment

13. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): What plans he has to improve front-line equipment for the Army. [1195]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Our equipment modernisation programme aims to ensure that the front-line capability of our land forces remains among the best in the world. We are investing heavily in programmes such as the Apache attack helicopter, which entered service earlier this year. In the longer term, we have plans to acquire artillery weapons with improved range and accuracy, a fully integrated fighting system for the infantry and a range of new armoured fighting vehicles.

We are also resolving two longer-term deficiencies in equipment that is fundamental to the Army's effectiveness. The SA80 rifle is due to be modified later this year. The trials conducted on the new weapons have gone extremely well. We also expect to select a preferred supplier for the Bowman communications system soon.

Mr. Cunningham: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he tell the House exactly what modifications have been made to the SA80, and can he assure us that those modifications will make it more reliable?

Dr. Moonie: The pilot programme to modify the weapon has been taking place, and the Army has been testing it. I am happy to say that it appears to be very satisfied with the modifications, which seem to have remedied the weapon's faults, particularly its unreliability, in a very small number of cases, in extreme conditions. The work is proceeding well, and the weapon will come back into service, after modification, at the beginning of next year.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The Minister mentioned the long-delayed acquisition of the Bowman communications system. I understand that a decision is to be made about that in the next few days. Is there any reason why the preferred bidder should not be the Thales consortium, given that, unlike the Canadian and American competitors for the contract, the firm employs more than 14,500 British people, and that the Thales bid, unlike the others, would mean that 88 per cent. of the work would be done in this country?

Dr. Moonie: I cannot give an opinion on any specific bid, because we are not in a position to announce our preferred supplier. The bids have been carefully evaluated, and are broadly comparable in the investment

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that they would make in this country and in the quantity and quality of jobs that they would supply. We are confident that, whoever we proceed with, we will have a solution to the problem within the time limits that we have set.

Peacekeeping

15. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): What recent discussions he has had with the United Nations about the promotion of peacekeeping. [1197]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State discussed peacekeeping issues with UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan on 21 June during his visit to the UK. Discussion included implementation of the Brahimi report to improve UN peacekeeping, peacekeeping training and current UN operations.

Paul Goggins: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and welcome the action taken so far on the Brahimi report. Will he act to speed up the implementation of the report? What action is he taking to develop the capacity and commitment of our UN partners to play their full role in international peacekeeping?

Mr. Ingram: The British armed forces have particular experience and expertise in peacekeeping operations, and that is an example to others. We are already doing much to assist others through bilateral and regional programmes of training, seminars, workshops and exercises. We operate several military training teams that provide such support permanently. We are looking to do more in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, through new initiatives funded by the global conflict prevention fund. I am sure that all those initiatives will allow us to make rapid progress on the Brahimi report.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Precisely what financial contribution does the Minister envisage Britain making this year, and how exactly does it compare with the figure for last year?

Mr. Ingram: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with those details.

Trident

16. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What the basis is for holding the present number of Trident missiles. [1198]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): During the 1998 strategic defence review, we conducted a fundamental re-examination of the level of nuclear deterrence capability required, and concluded that one ballistic missile submarine on patrol at all times, with 48 nuclear warheads, would be sufficient to deter the threat from potential aggressors. That continues to be the case, although we keep the situation under constant review.

Dr. Cable: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. My colleagues and I welcome the reduction in the scale of the national minimum deterrent in the SDR, which

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reflects the post-cold-war environment. What plans does the Secretary of State have to redefine the minimum deterrent, particularly the Moscow criterion, in the light of the emergence of national missile defence systems?

Mr. Hoon: As I said in answer to an earlier question, and in reply to a written question from the hon. Gentleman, we keep the situation under constant review, although we recognise that the United States of America is right to be concerned about the threat from states of concern—states that may not be deterred by a nuclear response. In those circumstances, we understand why the United States is seeking ways of developing missile defence.


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