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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1099—continued

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The specific issue raised with me is that the soldiers are being compensated for uninsured lost deposits, but what about the families as well?

Dr. Moonie: I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Operation Fresco and royal naval issues have been mentioned. Missile defence was mentioned in passing, but I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I return to it if I have time; it is really a subject for a full speech, rather than a 15-second interjection by a junior Minister at the end of a debate. Yes, ships are tied up—a large number of ships would have been tied up anyway—but we cannot conduct an operation of this size, and devote to it the personnel that we must, without reference to complement. I am sorry that one of the ships tied up is HMS Norfolk, to which my former military assistant, Commander Tony Radakin, went as commander earlier this year. I send him my commiserations and hope that I will still be able to see him in Aberdeen later in the year.

The majority of personnel have been taken from vessels not currently available for operations and in periods of maintenance and upkeep. In total, about

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2,400 fleet personnel have been assigned to fire-fighting tasks, of which they are well capable, as I indicated in the debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week. With regard to training and the use of respirators, they also have considerable experience in that area because of the unique dangers of severe fires onboard ship. I hope that that sets some minds at rest.

In relation to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I am sorry that I must disappoint him. It is not a case of knowing that there will be a Bill in the next Session but not telling him—in fact, I am not aware of whether there will be a civil contingencies Bill. That will be announced in approximately two weeks' time, and he will have to wait in patience like the rest of us to see if such a Bill is part of the Queen's Speech.

On the comments of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and Apache, I want to put him right on one thing. The figure of 130 relates to last year's shortfall in junior fast jet numbers—I think that he probably realised that as he was saying it. As of 1 October this year, that number has fallen to 93, and there is a downward trend. It is an easy mistake to make, adding numbers together, for a year-on-year trend—

Matthew Green (Ludlow): The Chancellor.

Dr. Moonie: I was waiting for somebody to notice that, just as I was saying it. It is difficult to predict overall numbers for the future, but there is an encouraging trend. Although it will take some years for us to get back up to full staffing in fast jets, we are on our way to doing it.

On aircrew retention in general, which the hon. Member for Hereford also mentioned, the new professional aviator pay spine is due to be introduced on 1 April next year. Overall, as he knows, I think, although the Royal Navy has a shortage of Sea Harrier pilots, that is of less importance than it was because of the migration towards the new Harrier. Most of those left want to migrate to the GR9 in the fullness of time anyway. I think that that covers as much of that point as he would expect.

Armed forces recruitment remains one of our highest priorities. Recruitment of sufficient people of the right calibre is absolutely critical to the maintenance of operational effectiveness. It is very easy for us to choose the statistical period that is of most value to our arguments, and I would not dream of doing so on this occasion, except to point out that the last three months have seen remarkably buoyant recruitment into the armed forces, which I hope will continue. A fair amount of time has been devoted to events surrounding Deepcut, and, in my wind-up, I merely want to stress what a distressing experience the families concerned have had, which has been made much worse by some irresponsible people trying to take advantage of it.

Retention is of the highest priority, and is the other factor in manning balance. Improving personnel retention is a crucial factor in improving manning levels. Our aim is to maintain excellent levels of retention through policies that reflect those priorities. One of the main factors, of course, which has been mentioned again, is housing, and the void situation. There are just over 9,000 empty properties at the moment in the

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United Kingdom, and at least half of those are in the course of disposal or held for future unit deployments. With regard to the specific cases in Norfolk—in West Raynham and elsewhere—married accommodation is now under the ownership of Annington Homes. It is a done deal. Much as I would wish to revisit what was not the best deal that the Government ever got, I have no option: I am stuck with it and have to live with it. When it comes to the sale of houses, I can make my views known to Annington, but it has no reason—

Bob Russell: No scruples.

Dr. Moonie: That is not for me to say, but there is certainly no need for Annington to take cognisance of what I do.

The welfare of military personnel and their families is paramount and we have to strike a balance. We are trying to upgrade houses. The money from the Annington deal was added to the pot. The maintenance budget is always strained. However, something like 90 per cent. of our families are in grade 1 and 2 accommodation. The picture is not as bad as some would paint it, although I accept that some of the accommodation is not good. We are constrained by the fact that we do not know where houses will be required in future. The last thing we want to do is to sell off houses and find that we need them. That would be stupid and we try to avoid that wherever possible.

I was asked whether Apaches could train together. We are procuring the collective training system and it should be due to enter service early next year, about the time we start training properly in groups with the Apache. We have not purchased a training laser. We are thinking about buying an eye-safe laser, which would enable collective training with ground troops so that we can deliver full air manoeuvre capability. Cape Wrath is the only range on which it could be used and is thoroughly suited to that purpose. I know that that makes some people angry and I have often declared my interest that, as a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I am happy for areas of the country to be denied to human transit because it helps our feathered friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) mentioned chemical weapons. I assure him that we are fully open about our chemical holdings. We declare all our substances in our annual report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. We gave up offensive chemical capability a long time ago. Our holding of CS and CR gases is fully declared and fully permitted under the chemical weapons convention for domestic law enforcement.

Hon. Members mentioned the tragic events in Moscow last week. Any country could face a similar problem at any time. It is easy for us to pass judgment with hindsight. The fact is that many people are alive this week who I did not think would be alive. As a medical pedant, I must tell the House that if fentanyl was used, it is not a gas but a liquid and would have been delivered as an aerosol. It is not an anaesthetic. It is largely used as an analgesic. I have used it myself. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead was right: it is a legal drug that is licensed for use in this country for, I should stress, medicinal use. It is highly effective. The great problem with it is that the difference between the pharmaceutical and lethal dose is small.

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My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) defended her cause nobly. I did not agree with it, but I can give her some comfort by stressing that we value the contribution defence experts make to maintaining the viability of the UK defence industry, reducing unit costs of equipment and so on. We get huge benefits from that. After all, we have to pay for equipment to be introduced and the ability to sell it abroad reduces the overall cost to us.

On young soldiers, we signed the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict in September 2000. The minimum age for recruitment is aligned with the minimum school leaving age. Everyone who joins the armed forces under the age of 18 must be genuine volunteers and have the written consent of their parents or guardians. We take great care in the deployment of under-18s to prevent their direct involvement in hostilities. For instance, no under-18s have been deployed to Afghanistan. I think that that approach will become the norm in the British armed forces.

I turn, in the minute left to me, to some general points about the TA. Some have implied a distinction between home defence and civil contingencies. We are not working to any dogma, and we do not intend to distinguish between the cause of an incident, whether it is a terrorist attack, a major accident or a natural disaster, in determining how we respond. We will continue to apply the current system using the most appropriate available forces, regular or reserve. Regular forces are likely to be the first choice because CCRFs are designed to cater for exceptional events—

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


Motion made, and Question put forthwith,

That Standing order No. 152 (Select Committees related to Government departments) be amended as follows:

In the Table

Item 7, column 2, leave out from 'Office;' to end of entry;

After item 8, insert—

'Justice and Constitutional AffairsLord Chancellor's 11'.
Department (including the work of staff provided for the administrative work of courts and tribunals, but excluding consideration of individual cases and appointments); and administration and expenditure of the Attorney General's Office, the Treasury Solicitor's Department, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office (but excluding individual cases and appointments and advice given within government by Law Officers)

Hon. Members: Object.

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