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Bob Russell: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the rushed sale by the outgoing Conservative Government,

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which raised £1.7 billion, represented good value for money? Does he think that, out of that £1.7 billion, only £100 million was sufficient to upgrade the housing stock?

Mr. Jenkin: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a shame that the Government did not honour the commitment that we made before we left office, and that they have scaled back the commitment to the development of the defence housing stock. The Army Families Federation has said that soldiers are driven to leave the service by intolerable living conditions, so I would be grateful if the Government could report to the House on the progress being made in upgrading service housing.

The Pay 2000 initiative has worthy roots but unfortunately, it is also proving a source of resentment. Strange discrepancies have been thrown up. For example, a farrier in the Veterinary Corps is paid less than a farrier in the Royal Armoured Corps. An explosive ordnance disposal specialist—someone who carries out highly dangerous operations—can be paid less than a chef. I would be grateful if the Minister could pay close attention to those potential problems, as resentment about such cases could become a "pull factor" for many personnel.

There are many other matters that I could raise, such as pensions and defence medical services, but I conclude by saying that I think that the Government agree that people must be at the forefront of their defence policy.

On a positive note, they have implemented a number of good measures to improve service conditions and welfare. I welcome those. In particular, I welcome the guaranteed period of post-operational tour leave to enable service men and women to spend some quality time with their families following an operational deployment. However, I wonder how much that is being respected. Also welcome are improvements to welfare packages on deployment, and financial retention inducements, for fast jet pilots in particular.

All too often, however, despite the Government's warm words, people in the forces feel that they are being given a raw deal. It is not just the official Opposition who say that; service personnel say it themselves. All too often, I hear that morale is lower than it has ever been. That is why retention is suffering, and why our forces are in the vicious circle of undermanning.

I call on Ministers to pay careful attention to the problems that I have outlined, and, more importantly, to continue their best efforts to do something about them. We wait with bated breath for the Budget, following the Prime Minister's remarks in the House yesterday. However, the words that ring in our ears are those of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, who said that the strategic defence review was underfunded from the start.

2.52 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I shall make a few brief remarks. The subject of military housing has been raised, and although I may be wrong—I do not think I am—I recollect that when the properties were initially sold, the then Secretary of State for Defence was challenged by his then shadow about whether the Government would guarantee the present level of

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expenditure on maintaining houses. The Secretary of State would not say. If we were to spread the £100 million or so over seven years, providing about £16 million a year, the expenditure on maintenance would be reduced, and that is exactly what the Government of the day did. The previous level of expenditure was not guaranteed. The Government who sold the houses—at a pretty low price, and gaining a pretty small benefit—talked about a figure of £100 million, which was meaningless.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) asked about the figures, and asked why we were still short of however many thousand people. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) mentioned the figure of 7,000, and that may be accurate; I do not know. The shortfall, in troops at least, has been about 5,000 or 6,000 since the mid-1990s—perhaps even earlier.

No one would disagree that there is a clear correlation between a strong economy and difficulty in recruiting troops. That has been true not only in the post-war era but throughout Britain's history. When there are jobs around it is difficult to recruit, and it is easier to recruit when there is a weak economy.

We need 25,000 people for the services every year. We do have shortfalls, and because of the immense recruitment requirement, a drop of a few per cent. is reflected in very large numbers, which is why—

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman is contradicting those on his Front Bench. They are arguing that recruitment is quite healthy, and on one level they may be right. Recruitment itself is not the problem. The problem is retention—not bringing people into the forces but keeping them there.

Mr. Joyce: I would, of course, hesitate to disagree with my Front-Bench colleagues. Recruitment is extremely successful, and I shall say more about that later, but I also agree with the point about retention. There is a slight shortfall in recruitment, but more than 90 per cent. of the requirement is achieved, and that should be a cause for modest celebration. It is pretty good, given the strength of the economy.

I was reflecting on what the Conservative Government's strategy to improve recruitment had been, and then I suddenly realised. Recruitment is hard if we have a strong economy, so perhaps it was the plan of successive Conservative Chancellors to mess the economy up completely, so as to make it easier for the military to recruit. I suddenly realised that there was a cunning plan—but it was unsuccessful.

Recruitment levels at present are something to be quite proud of, and there have been some successful initiatives, but there is an ongoing trickiness, and it may continue for some time to come. None the less, we should be pleased that we are achieving more than 90 per cent. of our target.

I have raised the issue of ethnic minorities before, and I had the privilege of working briefly at the Commission for Racial Equality, so I know that it thought that the Army's efforts over the last five years had been quite impressive. A doubling of the number of people from ethnic minorities coming through the doors in the last three years is a pretty good result.

I suspect that the new census will reflect the fact that there are far more people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the recruitment zone now, and that will

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continue. The question is: why is it so difficult to raise those figures even higher? There has to be some responsibility on the other side of the equation now: the wider society, such as schools and so forth, should stress to members of the ethnic minorities the benefits of joining the Army. Ethnic minority communities themselves have to consider more seriously career options in the military and the armed services as a whole.

When I talk to people from ethnic minority backgrounds I sense that they sometimes make the mistake of bracketing the armed services with the police. That is wrong. Whatever reasons there may be for the perceptions about joining the police among people from ethnic minority backgrounds—some of those perceptions may be right, some may be wrong—the armed services are different. The time has come for other bodies—not the Ministry of Defence, but other agencies, schools and ethnic minority leaders themselves—to start to make that distinction and encourage people to join the services.

Until the early to mid-1990s, several different parts of the Army divisions ran 14-week potential officer courses. Most of those were cut—possibly for good reasons, possibly not—in the early to mid-1990s by the previous Government. There was probably a cost-benefit analysis.

To a certain extent, those courses at least represented some kind of positive action. Some people were quite talented and capable of being good officers, but may have been missing in one or two respects, so they were given an extra course, after which they could go to the Regular Commissions Board, and by then many of them had been brought up to standard.

In the Army today, at the Adjutant-General's Corps centre at Worthy Down in Winchester, there are two courses that have such an effect. One is the pre-RMAS course and the other is the potential officer development course. Both are excellent, and they are probably the last courses that are vaguely akin to positive action. The main difference is that, unlike what happens with positive discrimination—which would, of course, be unlawful—people have to be brought up to the required standard and are then tested with their peers. If they do not come up to the standard then, they are not accepted.

It seems to me that there might be scope for some linkage of those courses with the under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. I wonder whether, in a course such as the pre-RMAS course, there would be scope for encouraging more such people. The Minister might like to say something about that when he sums up.

My final point has been brought to my attention by a couple of my constituents, ex-service personnel, who have come to me over the past year. Other Members with more experience than I may have come across the subject more often. Some areas have fewer council houses than others. Mine has a large number. In some parts of the country council houses are disappearing altogether. In Glasgow they will all go; in Birmingham they will not. For the moment, at any rate, there are 22,000 in the council area that I serve.

Historically, when people left the services they were given extra points that enabled them to be pretty well guaranteed a council house. That does not seem to happen now. It is no longer the case with my council, and I am not sure whether it is in other parts of the country. That is one modest idea that the Ministry of Defence could

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pursue. We could raise awareness among councils. Ultimately, it is a policy issue for the councils themselves, but in terms of resettlement, it is an idea that we could helpfully press. I am only mentioning it briefly, but the Minister may want to comment on it in his summing up.

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