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Mr. McFall: I thank the Minister for his efforts with the unions yesterday, but there is a still a big job to do in assuaging concerns, so will he and perhaps the Secretary of State and others ensure that they will visit the yards? In particular, will the Minister visit Faslane with me, so that we achieve that co-operative effort and ensure that best practice, which has been maintained at that yard, will continue?

Mr. Ingram: I can tell the House that Portsmouth council has asked to meet me, along with local Members of Parliament and, I suspect, trade union representatives. I have agreed to that meeting. If the unions requested a meeting at the facility, I would not refuse it. If my hon. Friend's local authority made a similar request, I would not refuse it. However, I do not want to impose myself into that debate if those involved do not wish me to be there.

Linda Gilroy: The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), will meet Plymouth city council a week tomorrow to discuss a number of issues related to the dockyard, including the one that the Minister mentions. Would the Minister agree to meet representatives of the council if that is their wish?

Mr. Ingram: Yes, because I believe that we have a strong and sustainable case and it is right to deal with it in that way. However, at the end of the day, the relationship is with the trade unions in one sense and, more importantly, with the employees in those dockyards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said that the way in which we are dealing with nuclear refit represents a new departure. Contractors already deal with nuclear refit, so there is no new

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departure. There is already a mixed economy in those dockyards and what we are doing represents a step change in that approach.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No. I have spoken at length about that issue.

Mr. Gray rose

Mr. Ingram: Very well.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister reconsider the privatisation of the defence fire service?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should await the outcome of the study into providing those services and let me consider all the options that are put to me at that time. If he has any answers to deal with what is undoubtedly a range of inefficiencies in the delivery of those services, I shall be interested to hear them. We are trying to address the issue by examining the options, so that we can maximise the return on the defence pound and the money saved can then go into the front line.

I visited Sierra Leone a few weeks ago. I was able to visit and speak to our men and women in Afghanistan last week. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and, of course, for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) accompanied me on that visit and, as they said, it was very worth while.

Mr. Jenkin: Some of it was.

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is not complimentary about the visit, but that is a matter for him. I was greatly impressed by what I saw during those visits.

In Sierra Leone there are about 360 personnel, providing highly valued military training and assistance to the Sierra Leone armed forces and ministry of defence. On the ground in Afghanistan, in the separate roles of security assistance in Kabul and combat against terrorist groups, by the end of this month, there will be a total of about 3,000 service personnel.

Those men and women are working tirelessly to ensure that our promises to root out evil and bring hope and stability to the battered populations in Afghanistan are delivered on. Our supporting maritime deployment consists of nearly 1,900 personnel on 12 vessels. Everyone to whom I talked was highly motivated, dedicated and committed to what has been asked of them. I accept that that is recognised throughout the House.

The Government recognise the unique position that our armed forces occupy in our society. We ask our men and women to make an open-ended commitment that imposes limitations on their individual freedoms, and requires self-sacrifice not only from them but from their families.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South talked about expeditionary campaigns, and how we deliver the infrastructure for them. We procured an improved tented camp as an urgent operational requirement during the Kosovo campaign. That provides

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much, but not all, of what is needed to support deployed forces. It is available for use by ISAF and the other elements deployed in Afghanistan.

That is undoubtedly an improvement on the pre-Kosovo equipment but it does not provide everything that we need in a form as easily deployable as we would like. We are therefore also working quickly to procure a much improved expeditionary campaign infrastructure, which will provide a fully integrated stand-alone capability, with power generation, ablution facilities, sewage treatment, and laundry and catering facilities for more than 5,000 troops. That capability will come into service during 2003-04, and it will be among the best in the world. We shall feed the lessons that we are learning in ISAF, and those that we learned through Saif Sareea 2 and Kosovo, including best practice from other countries, into the project.

The question of the food available to our forces has been raised. The food available to our forces deployed in Afghanistan is the envy of the other forces deployed alongside them. [Interruption.] Those who accompanied me on the visit may not agree, but that is what those who consume the food say—and it shows the great success of our new arrangements for contracting for food and delivering it to the front line. We should never minimise that part of the logistic chain. Good quality food and regular hot meals are important for people in very difficult circumstances.

The professionalism, loyalty and courage, both moral and physical, given so freely by the men and women of our armed forces create an obligation that has to be met. Ensuring that we continue to deliver on the strategic defence review's "A Policy for People" is one way in which we can begin to meet that obligation.

Before I deal with some of the personnel issues that have been raised, I should comment on what the hon. Member for North Essex said, and the debate that took place between him and his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), about the joint Harrier force, and our decision to concentrate the development of that force on the Harrier GR7. That decision has already been explained by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and of course, we upgraded to GR9 standard.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex suggested that our decision had frustrated a desire to deploy those aircraft in support of operations in Afghanistan. I wholly refute the suggestion that our forces in Afghanistan sought the deployment of Sea Harriers, or that that was at any stage a feature of our military planning. There was no operational need for UK air defence aircraft. As was made clear when we announced our investment strategy, the planned withdrawal of the Sea Harrier will not begin until 2004.

Mr. Soames: I was not talking about the deployment of Sea Harriers to Afghanistan. I was talking about the GR7. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman clarified the point.

Mr. Ingram: If I have got it wrong, I apologise. The issue is the defence of the fleet, and the hon. Gentleman was referring to that in terms of Afghanistan.

Mr. Soames: The point that I was making was that, from the date on which the Sea Harrier is withdrawn from

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service, the fleet when deployed anywhere will not have its own integral air defence. That is wholly unacceptable and renders the Royal Navy a coastal force and no longer a blue-water force.

Mr. Ingram: That might be unacceptable to the hon. Gentleman, but it was of course part of the planned development concerning the expeditionary force—[Interruption.] Many issues have been raised in the debate, but I am sorry that I have touched on that one—not because I got it wrong, but because the hon. Gentleman has said that there would thereafter be no air defence of the fleet.

The new fleet—the type 45 destroyers and all the defensive aids and suites that go with them—will form a very sophisticated layer of defence. That is part of the planning assumption. We have of course been planning for strike capability—developing the expeditionary force so that we can destroy the threat on the ground rather than having the layer of defence dependent on equipment that will be phased out. If I have misinterpreted some of the hon. Gentleman's language, I apologise, but he and others are wrong in their allegations.

Mr. Francois: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, I am going to try to move on as I have only three minutes left.

There are five main pillars to our personnel delivery strategy: to cultivate, obtain, retain, sustain and remember. Many of the issues that right hon. and hon. Members have raised relate to all those elements. Cultivation is about creating a climate in the country in which the armed forces are still seen as relevant, necessary and desirable—an essential feature of what we are doing. Hon. Members have mentioned the role of the cadet forces in that respect, which is of course just one element to it. Many other initiatives are taken. The other pillar relating to overall policy is the obtaining of the resource that we need. The recruitment of individuals of the right calibre poses huge challenges for the armed forces.

Retention is undoubtedly a very big issue. The reality is that no single policy can address it. In raising the issue, some hon. Members have said, "Here's an example; now implement it." I hope that all hon. Members who have participated in the debate will accept that no one policy can address the issue. We need to understand what motivates or discourages individuals. That changes according to each individual's circumstances, so our approach must and does embrace a balanced and layered mix of measures, some addressing broad issues such as pay, pensions, training, families' accommodation and diversity, and other addressing issues of concern to particular high-value groups such as aircrew, engineers and medical personnel.

I have not even begun to touch on many of the issues raised in the debate. All hon. Members whose issues I have not addressed will of course be written to.

Personnel are thoroughly at the heart of this Government's endeavours on defence. The armed forces' overarching personnel strategy will play a pivotal role in maintaining that aim. It is both focused and comprehensive. This Government recognise that the character of conflict will continue to present a physical and moral challenge to service personnel, and that

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problems remain, but hon. Members of all parties should not think that we do not accept that more is required or that we have not implemented policies and strategies that address those problems—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without question put.

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