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Dr. Moonie: Why?

Mr. Howarth: None of us is saying that the quality of the medical services provided elsewhere is substandard, but our service men must think that something is wrong if the Government cannot provide the medical services that they need when they are sent into battle. That problem has to be addressed.

Accommodation was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I accept that the Government recognise that much work needs to be done on accommodation, especially single-living accommodation. The Minister knows about the shocking state of accommodation in Aldershot and elsewhere. In addition,

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The Mirror, which does not support the Conservative party, said that the Paras were put into substandard accommodation when they returned from Afghanistan. One of their senior NCOs said:

No one expects results overnight, but the Government have to ensure that there is a programme of refurbishment of accommodation so that it is up to a standard that our service men and women are entitled to expect. Indeed, the Select Committee report said that the

The Government should take that assertion to heart and do something about it, as they should with so many of the Committee's deliberations. I hope that the Minister will say what will happen on that score.

Pensions remain a subject of debate. It is a concern that there is no resolution to the proposals that the Government introduced some time ago. When they launched the pensions review in 1998, the Minister then responsible, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), said:

It is now more than 12 months since the Government's proposals were published. Although consultation is welcome, it is time for them to deal with the serious concerns expressed by some highly reputable organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and the Forces Pensions Society. As the society said, the current scheme has already fallen behind modern, good or even standard practice.

The Minister of State told the Select Committee last month that

Now, however, we are told that improvements have to be found within the existing budget and there will be no recourse to new money. It is unacceptable for the Government to continue to claim that they want to improve the pensions of our armed forces to bring them up to the best in the commercial world while failing to deliver because they say that cost neutrality is now a baseline consideration. A comparison of various costs of benefits per year of service as a percentage of pensionable salary shows that the armed forces are not an exceptional burden, at 15 per cent. Comparable figures are 22 per cent. for the police and 16 per cent. for the civil service. I ask the Minister to take the one-off opportunity of this first serious review in 30 years to ensure that pensions are tackled properly and that if more money is needed to ensure that pension arrangements are in line with best practice in the commercial world, that money will be found and there will be no penny-pinching.

The important role of the cadet forces was mentioned by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). I think that all hon. Members will welcome their remarks. The cadet forces make a huge contribution not only to our local communities but to giving young people the military ethos and, as the hon. Lady said, to keeping them off the streets where they might be led astray. Forty-five per cent. of the Royal Air Force's air crew recruits of all ranks come from the air cadets.

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Last week I was with the Royal Engineers at Gibraltar barracks, where I met people from the university officer training corps, which is represented in 19 universities. They were having a fantastic time and were hugely committed, and large numbers of young people in our universities are joining them. When Ministers make financial decisions, I hope that they will not be tempted to think that the cadets are an easy option that can be knocked off to save a few bob, because the long-term cost will be hugely disproportionate.

We heard about the Territorial Army, which is 1,300 below strength. The Government are increasingly having recourse to our reservists, and the Secretary of State himself acknowledged that fortunately his plans to cut the Territorial Army were insufficiently far advanced to have done all the damage that might otherwise have been done. My hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh and for Newark were right to say that we must consider the role of our reserve forces as we decide how best to tackle the defence of the United Kingdom homeland against the threat of international terrorism. They have a role to play, albeit that none of us wants them to spend all their time being recruited to go and sit by some key installation, because that is not their function. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said, the TA should again provide formed units.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned the case of retired officers, and I support his comments 100 per cent. It is unfortunate that the Government did not include them among those who are to receive the golden jubilee medal, because they make a large contribution to the running of establishments around the country. They work extremely hard, but are paid less than a corporal. I shall give the Minister some examples of what they do. One is a nuclear propulsion naval liaison officer with Rolls-Royce in Derby; another is a staff officer to the Chief of the General Staff; another is a housing commandant at Aldergrove. The Commander-in-Chief, Land, General Sir Mike Jackson, has said that his command would come to a halt without those people. It is time for the Government to review their decision and include them among those who are to receive the medal.

I have one or two other queries for the Minister. For example, we need information from the Government on what they intend to do about women on the front line. We also need information about the Government's intentions for courts martial given the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. If they had followed our advice and ensured that Britain had a derogation from the European convention on human rights for our defence services, we would not have had this problem in the first place. The Government should have listened to us.

The Government are keen to call upon our armed forces to defend Britain's interests and those of our allies around the world. We support them in their endeavours. The Government are fortunate that they can take pride in the commitment and professionalism of our forces, but the clear message from both sides of the House is that the current levels of commitment cannot be maintained given the resources being provided. Under this Government, defence spending has fallen consistently as a percentage of GDP—from 3 per cent. in 1995–96 to 2.5 per cent. last year. It is expected to fall further to 2.3 per cent. next year.

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The obvious strain of that shrinking budget is clear for all to see. Too much reliance on the dedication of our existing personnel cannot be allowed to continue. If we are to maintain the effectiveness of the forces in whom we take so much pride, we must will the means to provide them with the best available equipment and ensure that they and their families can enjoy a quality of life commensurate with the commitment that they give to our country.

6.41 pm

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): This has been an informed and wide-ranging debate, as others have said. I am genuinely grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. In the time available, I will do my best to respond to many of the detailed points raised. If it is not possible to deal with them all, I shall respond in writing.

I contend that the Government are working hard for all our people in the armed forces. Given what we as a nation ask of our armed forces, especially when they have to be deployed into unexpected and often dangerous situations, that is only right. As we speak, more than 28,000 men and women in our armed forces are deployed around the world. As has been recognised, it is the quality of our people—both service and civilian personnel—that is the single most important element of our defence capability.

Although this debate is about the armed forces, it would be remiss of me not to mention in passing their civilian counterparts in the Ministry of Defence. Increasingly, they are called on to support the armed forces very close to the front line in, for example, the Gulf, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Oman and Afghanistan. The Government recognise their vital contribution to the defence effort. They do a first-class job.

My hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) mentioned warship support modernisation. I hear what they say and, in my intervention, I tried to explain the way in which we have dealt with the matter. We made a commitment to make a statement to the House through the normal process of a parliamentary question—we could obviously have used other means—and I did not want to breach that commitment. If I had entered into the debate over the weekend, I would have done so before informing the House of our decision. I believe in all sincerity that that would have been the wrong approach and that it would have been wrong to indicate in depth our arguments to individual Members of Parliament—even to my hon. Friends—and to ask them to take those arguments on for me. I believe that I acted with honesty and integrity.

I fully understand the depth of feeling that accompanied our announcement to proceed with the partnering arrangements. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West that it is not a privatisation; it is a partnering arrangement. The non-industrial staff on the Clyde will take a day of industrial action tomorrow and that reflects the unease that some of the work force undoubtedly feel. However, our decision, which was announced in the House on 21 March, was the right one to take at this time in our defence interests. That does not mean that I or my ministerial colleagues value any less the outstanding work that has been done over the years at the dockyards.

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All the options offer significant benefits compared with the current costs of undertaking warship repairs and maintenance, but the company proposals offer the best overall value for the defence pound. A projected saving of £300 million over five years will make a considerable contribution to the better delivery of front-line services.

My hon. Friends will take the view that the status quo was not an option in that determination. If the status quo is not an option and hon. Members are concerned about a contraction in posts and jobs as a consequence, they should tell us how many job losses they would be prepared to accept. The reality is that, although we are talking about some 750 jobs being lost over five years at three yards, the situation will be well managed by the companies involved. It will become a matter between the unions and those companies.

I had a very productive meeting with the trade unions yesterday. They set out their main concerns—the five points mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall)—and we have made some progress on them. We are sensitive to the issue, but we also have to make progress in delivering the best services at the yards.

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