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Departmental Housing

3. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will make a statement on the sale of his Department's housing. [66960]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): As the hon. Gentleman will know, most of the families quarters estate in England and Wales was sold in 1996 to a private company, Annington Homes Ltd., under a sale and leaseback agreement. Under the agreement, houses that subsequently become surplus to defence requirements are released to Annington for disposal. The identification of surplus properties for release is a matter for the Department, but the method of subsequent disposal or usage by Annington is entirely a matter for the company based on its commercial judgment.

Dr. Cable: What estimate has the Department made of the cost to the Exchequer of this privatisation? The property was sold off before the current housing boom, but is now being leased back at market rates or new houses are having to be built. In my constituency, Ministry of Defence houses are in surplus, so they are being rented by the developer at commercial rates at no benefit to the taxpayer or to the armed forces? Is that not a scandal? What are the Government doing about it?

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Who is responsible? Who are the guilty men?

Dr. Moonie: I hesitate to point out yet again that that was a matter for the last Government. It was not the best deal that a Government have made, as I am sure we are all aware.

There is no action that I can take to affect the sale of houses in the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). Those houses are the property of Annington Homes and our agreement with it must be

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obeyed. It imposes a considerable cost on our budget to maintain the leaseback arrangements, but I can see no alternative.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Before the Minister makes an irrevocable decision to sell off the houses owned by the Ministry of Defence at Dean Hill munitions depot, will he bear it in mind that by doing so he is destroying the heart of a rural community? Will he also have a word with Lockheed Martin, which said of the team that services our Paveway bombs at that establishment and is to be disbanded, that the work force at West Dean are quite simply the best?

Dr. Moonie: The decision to change the use of that establishment is not a matter for me, but the sale of the houses is. If houses are surplus to requirements, we have a duty to ensure that we receive the best financial deal when we sell them. However, we always take account of social need. Where possible, the houses are transferred to an appropriate agency outwith the Ministry of Defence.

Regular Army

4. Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on changes in the trained strength of the regular army between 1997 and 2001. [66961]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Army strength stood at 101,199 as at31 December 1997 and 100,914 as at 31 December 2001.

Sir Michael Spicer: Given those figures, how can the Government plan a land war in Iraq?

Mr. Ingram: As we have shown time and again, when our armed forces are called on to defend the interests of this country, they do so.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): That is not an adequate response. There is widespread speculation in the papers and elsewhere that the United Kingdom's contribution to United States' action in Iraq will be one formed division of 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. The Army is 6,000 under strength and the Government have not lived up to their SDR commitment to recruit 3,500 extras. When will the Army be fully recruited? How confident is the Minister about putting a formed division on the ground in Iraq or anywhere else?

Mr. Ingram: There are two parts to that question. Our recruitment and retention measures have started to turn around the 15-year downward trend. As of June 2002, the whole Army strength stood at 101,503, which is an increase of 1,356 in the past 12 months. We are confident that we will continue to reverse the downward trend of those years. We have put many measures in place to produce a more positive return and they are beginning to pay off.

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Welbeck Army College

5. John Mann (Bassetlaw): What his plans are for Welbeck army college; and if he will make astatement. [66962]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Following the defence training review, the Ministry of Defence has invited tenders for a private finance initiative contract to provide facilities and to run a defence sixth form college, which will educate potential officer recruits for engineering and other branches requiring technical understanding in the three armed services, and for the Ministry of Defence civil service.

A final decision will not be made before December 2002, but if the decision is made to go ahead with the sixth form college contract it is likely to open on the site of the former Woodhouse barracks outside Loughborough in September 2005. The current Welbeck college would then be closed and the lease of Welbeck Abbey terminated.

John Mann: Bearing in mind the fact that we have a national defence service and the shortage of such facilities in my area, will the Minister exercise caution in making decisions to move a facility from the north of England to a site further south? In particular, will he bear in mind the history of Welbeck army college and the importance to the local economy of the jobs that it creates as the 10th largest employer in my constituency?

Dr. Moonie: I have to say that, as a Scot, I would always object to moving things further south if it could be avoided. [Interruption.] Opposition Members have no sense of humour.

The move is only about 30 miles, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the Welbeck site is an excellent one, but its owner has indicated that he would like us to terminate the lease there, so we are faced with no option but to look for a development elsewhere. Given my hon. Friend's constituency interest, I should be happy to discuss the matter with him.

Deepcut Barracks (Deaths)

6. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): What inquiries he is making in conjunction with the police into the deaths of soldiers at Deepcut barracks in recent years; and if he will make a statement. [66963]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The deaths of Privates Geoff Gray, on17 September 2001, and James Collinson, on 23 March 2002, at Deepcut, are the subject of ongoing investigations by Surrey police, who have retained jurisdiction in each case. In addition, Surrey police announced on 5 July their intention to reinvestigate the cases of Privates Sean Benton and Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut in 1995.

Those investigations are independent of the Ministry of Defence, although the Department, through the Army and Royal Military Police, is co-operating fully. Surrey police have been given full access to Army records, and the weapons involved in the incidents surrounding the deaths

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of Privates Gray and Collinson have been passed to the police for ballistic examination. Army boards of inquiry into the deaths of Privates Gray and Collinson will be held in due course, but cannot commence until the associated police investigations are complete. Boards of inquiry into the deaths of Privates Benton and James were carried out at the time and copies of the final inquiry reports were passed to the next of kin.

Mr. Hawkins: I thank the Minister for that answer.I echo the tributes that have already been paid by assistant chief constable Frank Clark and chief superintendent Gerry Kirby to Army officials, who are co-operating fully with Surrey police, as I learned from the police when I was briefed by them last week. I welcome the help that I have already had from the Under–Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), and his private office. I hope that I will be able to meet Brigadier Clive Elderton and Colonel Raydon, the Army points of contact for the police.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, this is a matter of grave concern in my constituency and more widely. When the police have completed their inquiries, will the Army continue to look into any further implications that there may be for military matters?

Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Recognising his interest in the tragic death of his constituents, we have facilitated his access to the proceedings as much as possible. Clearly, what follows will depend on the outcome of the police inquiries into the deaths of Privates Gray and Collinson and of Privates Benton and James. If the need for any change is highlighted by the police investigations or by the subsequent Army boards of inquiry, we will respond positively, just as we responded to the inquiries in 1995 by making changes.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am grateful for the Minister's statement. Will the Ministry of Defence set up a confidential phoneline so that members of the armed forces who served at Deepcut can contact the MOD to give information? That hotline should be advertised both to veterans who may have served at the camp and to all serving personnel who have been through it since 1995.

Mr. Ingram: That is an interesting point, and I shall certainly consider it. However, given the public awareness of the matter and the existence of the ongoing police investigation, I should have thought that anyone with material information should inform the police in the first instance. Perhaps Surrey police, rather than the MOD, will want to take the hon. Gentleman's initiative on board.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Minister will know that we fully share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and other hon. Members, including the Minister himself, about the individual tragedies and their potential effect on morale at Deepcut and elsewhere. I am sure the Minister agrees that the quicker the inquiry is carried out by Surrey police, the better, but given the importance of maintaining confidence in military investigations, will he tell the House whether he has requested a copy of the report that

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will be produced by Surrey police; whether he will ensure that that report is published; and whether he will undertake to make a statement to the House when that report appears?

Mr. Ingram: It is for the police to decide what happens to their report. Following their report, the case goes to an Army board of inquiry; after that, if the families so request, and the offer is made to them, they can be given the full report. As I said, in 1995 some lessons were learned and new procedures were put in place, and if there are any new lessons to be learned from the recent tragic incidents, we will act quickly. As for the publication of the full report, the House should remember that it will have to deal with highly sensitive personal issues, and its publication might not be in the best interests of the family.

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