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With my noble Friend Lord Drayson, the Minister responsible for defence procurement, I spoke on Monday to more than 700 of our personnel in Bristol and Bath. That is why I was not here for the urgent question and response. I know that many questions remain unanswered about the detailed implementation of our new proposals, but what struck me most was the staffs willingness to accept the need for another period of change. I do not claim that that is true of everyone who is affected, but members of that large part of the DLO-DPA structure were markedly up for the change, even though they knew that it was going to be difficult.
It is now up to Ministers and the senior management responsible for those changes to ensure that our objectives are achieved and that those members of staff whose jobs will go are properly treated. As ever, all that has been announced will be subject to full and proper consultation with the trade unions and staff interests.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly said that the Conservative manifesto at the previous election proposed doing exactly what we are now doing co-locating the DLO and the DPA. The argument of the hon. Member for The Wrekin was a wee bit like angels dancing on the head of a pin. He tried to say that he understood the justification for the change but that it should not happen now. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that there is probably never a right time for change because one can always find good reasons for putting off making the right decision. I know that, having driven through some significant change in the Ministry of Defence in recent years. I believe that all our changes have proved successful so far. They have been handled with skill by the management and, more important, they have been absorbed by the staff.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin also mentioned the announced closure of a part of the Army Base Repair Organisation that affected his constituency. The background to that was that the work flow had disappeared. We could not keep part of an organisation going if the work had gone. That forced those who were considering what they needed in the form of support and armoured vehiclesin this case, the Army, through Commander-in-Chief Land Commandto examine the matter. They determined that there was a further requirement and found the resource. Consequently, we reconsidered the matter and a change was made accordingly. Flexibility has to be built into all those processes. It is why we have consultation and why we have to be careful when we move forward with complex changes. However, the sound principle of what we are trying to achieve will bring us great benefits in defence in the years to come.
Mark Pritchard: The Minister says that change is never welcome but nevertheless needs to be introduced. He also said that the timing is never right. However, would not a better time be when we were not faced with two major conflicts? Would not it be better to introduce those changes to the DLO and the DPA when the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are over?
We have driven through some fundamental changes, all of which were criticised at the time. None of the criticism was founded, however. I am not saying that everything has gone 100 per cent. smoothly; nothing is perfect. However, where we have had to adjust, we have adjusted. That will apply equally in this case. We have also undertaken a major transformation of our armed forces during a period when we are asking so much more of them. If we had not done so, the RAF, the Navy and the Army would not be best placed to be expeditionary. The transformation is still under way; not all the Army has been Bowmanised, because of long lead times and the high amount of investment in
network-enabled capability necessary to ensure that we have the best integrated tri-service approach and delivery for the commanders, wherever they are, to have the proper effect in the field. However, all those changes are being driven through, because those who have to deliver at the sharp endI include civilians in thatrealise that there are better ways of doing things.
This transformation is not being driven by some kind of political lexicon; it has not been lifted off a shelf, or out of a book called Lets Have a Go at Defence. The very opposite is the case. It is happening organically. There are better ways of doing things, and Ministers are heavily engaged in the definition as well as in the engagement and delivery of the transformation. That will remain the case throughout this complex and important change.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a solid and effective contribution, and one or two of his points need to be addressed. I do not think that he was in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West made his speech, but it was interesting to see the realisation of the enormity of what we are seeking to do, and the skill with which we are trying to work through some of the difficult points of difference.
I shall deal with some of the issues that the hon. Member for Woodspring raised. He mentioned the level of spending. These points are becoming a bit old hat, but they none the less need to be repeated, because there are different versions of how they are to be viewed. As a percentage of gross domestic product, defence spending is sitting at 2.2 per cent., and that will be the case for the next two years. That is higher than the European average, so we are actually spending a considerable [ Interruption.] Well, hold on. In relation to what our allies are spending, we are above the average. Interestingly, we have a big and successful economy, so let us look at how this figure comes out in real terms. The £3.7 billion more in the last spending round was the largest sustained real-terms increase for 20 years. We are asking people to do more with all that money, and it will all then have to be balanced as we go into the next spending round.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned recruitment and retention. In regard to retention, people are always asking whether we are haemorrhaging staff, and if so, what is the scale of the problem. In regard to recruitment, people worry whether we are hard up against targets that we are nowhere near to achieving. Neither of those characteristics applies. By dint of a lot of very hard effort, we have been able to work against some of the difficulties that we have faced in that area.
As of 1 April 2006, the tri-service manning level stands at 182,980, which represents 98.4 per cent. of the requirement target of 185,920. That is the average, but as we look at the different services, we find that they are all sitting on or around that high level. Indeed, the RAFs strength stands at 46,900, which represents 99.2 per cent. of the requirement. That is a shortfall of only 390. We cannot be complacent, however; we need to recognise that these are issues.
The same applies to the voluntary outflow rates. We hear a lot of storiesthey turn out to be no more than thatabout haemorrhaging taking place. The reality is somewhat different, however. By comparison with the previous year, voluntary outflow rates have increased
slightly, by 0.3 per cent. for officers and by 0.1 per cent. for other ranks. That is not as dramatic as many would lead us to believe. That does not mean that we do not have issues to address; unquestionably, we do. However, the situation is not as many people try to present it.
Mr. Soames: I accept entirely what the Minister says, but does he understand the real worry in the Army about the number of senior warrant officers leaving, whose families cannot maintain their equilibrium at the current rate of deployment? That is a very serious matter for the Army.
Mr. Ingram: The real core strengths lie in those groups with more than 10 years of experience, in all the theatres in which we have engaged, whether Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq or Afghanistan. Yes, there may be issues, and we must attend to those. In relation to the similar point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring, a hard logic must be appliedif people are leaving because we are busy, we must be less busy, which means that we should not be in certain theatres [Interruption.] There may be other answers, and I would be interested to hear what they are. Given that warrant officers or sergeants cannot be recruitedthey have to growwe must do our best to encourage them to stay. We have applied various solutions at other pinch points over the years, such as golden handshakes or handcuffs, depending on our approach. That might become an issue in future. Such people are very dedicated, but we understand that there are family problems, to which I shall refer later.
We have had to address the pinch points, because it is not just a question of that cohort of sergeant-majors or warrant officers but of the enabling trades. Part of our approach to the Armys future structure was to reconfigure, to examine where the pinch points were and to reinvest what came out of one end of that structure in those pinch points. We said that we would reinvest about 3,000 posts, and we are making progresswe have cut the shortfall by 600. We are still some way short, but that is not because of lack of effort or determination. There are other problems that we need to address. We must address the harmony and pinch point issues and the specifics of certain groups of voluntary leavers. There are no easy solutions, but we must address the issues before we can find solutions.
Mr. Jenkin: The Minister implies that the only way to ensure that commitments and resources are matched is to reduce the commitments. He could return to the original strategic defence review, consider the tour intervals and cycles planned in that document, and extrapolate the commitments into that calculation. He would probably come up with an Army of about 130,000, which is what he needs to meet the Armys current level of commitment. That is the choice facing the Governmentwhether to cut the commitments or increase the resources.
It is not just a case of increasing resources. For any spending Department, increasing resources is always welcome, but we must ensure that resources are properly spent and balanced. That is why other fundamental changes are taking place, which are
strongly resisted. I have said previously at the Dispatch Box that we must drive through £2.8 billion of efficiency savings as part of the last settlement, and that if we do not do so, that will hit the front line. We are well on the way to achieving that, because we have been determined to do it. With everything that we have done, it has been a case of, Fix this, Minister and Secretary and State, but dont do it if it affects me. We must face up to some harsh realities.
I have given the figures for the manning level. We have reduced requirement levels, but we are still not hitting 100 per cent. We have thrown millions of pounds at recruitment campaigns, and we are still finding recruitment difficult. That is because other job opportunities in the marketplace out there are much more attractive. Moreover, imminent demographic change in some parts of the country means that we will not be able to recruit from a population of the size to which we are accustomed. There is also the fact that more young people are choosing to undertake further and higher education. If we do not manage to attract the 9,000 people under 18 whom we are required to recruit each year, we may lose that recruitment source. Those are the issues that the human resources planners must tackle.
I am aware of the problems. This has been a good debate, which has featured agreement on and understanding of certain issues. Let us now understand the complexity of what Ministers, indeed all of us, must address.
Dr. Fox: Given the recruitment campaigns that have taken place and the market position that the Minister correctly described, why has recruitment to the Royal Air Force plummeted far more than recruitment to the Navy or the Army?
Mr. Ingram: I have no easy answer to that question, but anyone who deals with manpower planning must follow the curve. A bit of prediction and analysis is possible, but sometimes things happen before we are prepared for them. Is the problem caused by our having changed the nature of the RAF, which is now expeditionary rather than static? There is a different understanding of its purpose now. It may be remembered that it used to stand in bases in Germany and elsewhere, waiting for the Russians to come. Indeed, the same applied to large parts of the Army. Because the requirement has changed across the three services, the tempo and the demand have greatly increased, which puts pressure on key personnel.
I could make more guesses. Perhaps people are no longer encouraging their families to join the services. We know that there are problems with gatekeepers. The absence of members of the Scottish National party was mentioned earlier. Not so long ago, a member of the SNP said that we should ban visits by recruiting teams to schools in Scotland. That is outrageous and disgraceful, but we must accept that it is a currency and we must take it on.
It is easy for Ministers and others to pay tribute to the exceptional men and women who serve in the armed forces, but we need to work in the community to
ensure that every part of it is seized of the enormity of what we face. If we do not have the strength that we need in the armed forces, we cannot defend the interests of this country. I do not think that anything divides us on that issue. We have not been in party political point-scoring mode today.
Sadly, I have had time to deal with only two or three points. I could not give all the responses that I wished to give, but no doubt I shall be able to return to them. I am conscious of the time; let me end by referring to two vital parts of the armed forces communitythe families who stand by our front-line personnel, and the legions of veterans and their families.
Given the intensity of recent campaigns and the tragic loss of life that we have experienced, we have sought to give more recognition and support to families. I must be honest: much more needs to be done. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), is dedicated to tackling the shortfallswhether in proper housing provision or in the overall welfare packagethat affect our service personnel and their families. A major effort has been made to deliver in many of those areas.
I have given this example before, but I shall do so again. During a recent visit to 7th Armoured Brigadeotherwise known as the Desert RatsI was struck by how much more we are doing. The Desert Rats established a home rat system, which involves a wraparound enabling the young wives and children of men serving in Iraq to keep in touch with them. I know that 20th Armoured Brigade is doing the same, as will 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Parachute Regiment. We have now realised that so much more needs to be done.
We have all commented on the veterans and it is very humbling to listen to what they tell us at the various events that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary and I have attended over recent weeks. It is very humbling indeed
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have listened with great interest to what Mr. Speaker and the Leader of the House have said about providing hon. Members with accurate and speedy responses to parliamentary questions. On 12 June, the Leader of the House stated to me in relation to written questions:
I have discussed at Cabinet with my ministerial colleagues the importance we attach to proper accountability to Parliament.[ Official Report, 12 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 885W.]
On 3 May, I tabled 10 questions to the Home Secretary, specifically relating to Wellingborough prison. TodayI should say, this afternoonI received three answers from the Home Secretary, all dated 29 June but not delivered to me until 6 July.
I do not understand why an already delayed answer took seven days to reach me. Unfortunately, the three answers were identical. It was a standard reply, issuing me with a copy of a letter from the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, which had been issued to the public. It did not refer in any way to Wellingborough prison.
There are only 11 sitting days left until the recess. It is impossible for hon. Members to scrutinise the Government properly if answers are both delayed and totally irrelevant to the questions asked. Are you able, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to direct Ministers to give hon. Members questions more attention and to treat them with urgency?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: To answer the specific question whether the Chair is able to direct, the answer is obviously no. However, Mr. Speaker has put it on the record that he expects the best possible standard of service to Members in this respect. He cannot be responsible, however, for the content and quality of replies to specific questions and he is not responsible for administrative hold-ups in the delivery of an answer to a parliamentary question. The hon. Member has had his chance to put his latest complaint on the record and I am sure that it will have been noted. Members have to pursue these matters through the available means, and I hope that that will have a favourable impact on the performance of various Departments of State.
Bob Russell: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a debate that lasted five and a half hours, every Minister and every Opposition Front Bencher took a comfort break, as, indeed, did I. I make no complaint; clearly such breaks are necessary. Unfortunately, however, in my absence, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) criticised me for not being in my place for about 30 minutes. I recognise that he needs ample time for a lunch or three and he was not in his place for one hour and seven minutes. Is there any procedure whereby I can raise that matter and put it on the record?
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I wish to present a petition on behalf of 15,000 citizens of Northern Ireland, representing the majority of people in Northern Ireland who want the House to understand their anger at the changes to the education system embodied in the draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. The petition:
Declares... that there has been no infrastructural audit or costing by Government relevant to the changes that are to be proposed...
Further declares that it is undeniable that, were the Northern Ireland Assembly to reconvene, legislative proposals on the lines of the Draft Order would not command majority support, let alone the cross-community support required for controversial measures under the Belfast Agreement of 1998...
Further declares that the decision to bring the Draft Order before Parliament rests with a governing party unwilling to seek the franchise of a single voter in Northern Ireland.
Further declares that while efforts to restore the Assembly continue, it would be an extraordinary step to pre-empt that happening by effecting this fundamental change within an area of devolved responsibility.
Further declares that we citizens residing in Northern Ireland wish to be governed with the same respect as citizens residing in Great Britain, and are unable to reconcile the proposals herein referred to with the Prime Ministers recent decision to avoid any confrontation with areas in England choosing to retain their grammar schools.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons revoke the proposals for radical educational change in Northern Ireland embodied in the Draft Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
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