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26 Apr 2007 : Column 1056

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): Like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that the lessons from Deepcut and in respect of the duty of care have been learned, but one of the issues that was raised time and again was the way in which potential recruits were judged before they joined the forces. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that lessons about the early judgment of the suitability of potential recruits to the armed forces have been learned, and is he also satisfied that we now have in place the right sort of training for the recruiting officers who carry out that task? Do they now have the expertise to make better judgments than they might have done in the past?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman raises two important points. He is right in what he says about the pre-selection assessment. Gaining access to medical records is important, although that is not the only concern, and we now have in place the required process to be able to do that. We are much more conscious of how we assess young people who want to join—people who want to join are not always young, but the most vulnerable ones are likely to be young persons.

I have forgotten the hon. Gentleman’s second point. If he reminds me what it was, I had an answer to it which I will then give him.

Mr. Hancock: It was on the training of the trainers.

Mr. Ingram: Yes, the quality of instructors was identified as an issue, and, in response, we put in place a more extensive and better selection process for those taking on the instructor role. We are now in the process of establishing a training school—it will be open soon—specifically to train the trainers. That is crucial. Such steps take time, however: we have to get the infrastructure in place, and then we have to find the trainers to train the trainers. A huge amount of effort has gone into addressing the issue, and I am grateful for the support that I have received from all parts of the House in trying to improve matters.

On recruitment and retention, as of 1 January 2007 the armed forces trained strength stood at 97.1 per cent. of the requirement. I would never deny that we face challenges in recruitment and retention. Competition is tough because we have a strong economy, because more people are going into further education and because our personnel are in high demand in the civilian world, but we are making progress. The number of those in training has risen by almost 2,000 since January 2006. Exit rates, which were increasing, have now steadied: 500 fewer soldiers left the Army this quarter than in the same period last year, and voluntary outflow dropped over the last quarter. On 1 January 2007, there was a deficit in respect of the armed forces full-time trained strength of 5,330; three months earlier the deficit was 6,330. There are therefore signs that retention initiatives are working; they are one of the tools that we are employing, and they appear to be having an effect.

Tony Baldry: The Minister is referring to the regular Army, but the Territorial Army is also an important part of defence of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) wears the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company,
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and I am proud to be wearing today the tie of the Sussex Yeomanry. When I enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry, the TA would have deployed as complete units to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine. That is no longer the ORBAT, or order of battle—that is no longer the case. Many men in the TA find after doing six months of active service in Iraq or Afghanistan that it is difficult for them to do another tour, for family or work reasons. There is a continuous haemorrhaging of personnel from the TA. What do the Government intend to do about that?

Mr. Ingram: I could ask, “What do we all intend to do about it?” There is an issue: clearly, we have a particular problem in terms of TA recruitment. It is one of the reasons why we have restructured the TA to make it more integrated into the one Army. That is beginning to pay off. Recruitment strength is currently standing at about 79 per cent., which is very low, but in 2006 we had the best recruiting period since 1999. Therefore, we must be doing something that is beginning to have a beneficial impact, but we face an uphill struggle. Interestingly, as Members will be aware, we are increasingly using reserves across all our theatres of operation—and reserves are queuing up to serve. I agree that we must address the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. I am unsure whether there are simple or off-the-shelf solutions. We must have intensive recruiting efforts, and we need to keep on articulating that the reserves are important and emphasising what people can get back from serving the country.

Let me now return to our commitment to our military personnel. We are seeking to support them, which is why we agreed a new tax-free operational allowance last year. That was well received. It is also why we have agreed an above-inflation pay increase for all service personnel—an increase of more than 9 per cent. for most of the junior ranks. That is the biggest military pay rise in four years, and the biggest in the public sector. It is well deserved.

We must consider how we support the families of servicemen and women who die in service because giving proper support to such families is part of our debt to those who have given their lives. We must provide support from the time when the tragic news must be conveyed to the next of kin, through to the potentially difficult experience of a coroner’s inquest and beyond. We have well-established welfare systems in place to support family members, and we keep them under constant review to ensure that they are fit for purpose—and, again, if lessons need to be learned, we will do so. One aspect of our support mechanisms is military visiting officers, who provide a crucial liaison between the families and the services. If necessary, they will guide families through boards of inquiry and inquest procedures. They stay with the family for as long as the family wishes. That is a difficult task, but those who are asked to do it do so willingly and in a professional manner.

Let me now turn to operations in the UK.

Mr. Lancaster: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, I want to make progress.

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Dr. Fox rose—

Mr. Ingram: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Fox: I wish to ask a question before the Minister moves on from inquests. As he knows, a large amount of the work of the Oxford coroner will now be transferred to Wiltshire. Can he give the following simple commitment to the House today? Will that increase in work load be matched by an increase in resources?

Mr. Ingram: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I recently had a meeting with the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, who has departmental responsibility for the coroners. We are looking at a number of issues that we must address. We have not quite got the best solution, and we will make a statement, probably as a written statement, on the next developments.

In terms of resources, a process was put in place to try to ensure that the inquests were held nearer to where the families lived, so that the burden did not fall on one coroner and his staff. We have put in additional resources and those resources must match the demand, if the demand increases. We have shown that we learned that important lesson across Government. We need now constantly to monitor the situation. It is not just about speeding up the process; it is also about the quality of the support that we provide to families and the quality of the coroners themselves, who have to understand what are very complex issues. We give a lot of specialist help to coroners, so that they understand the environment in trying to comprehend whether an equipment failure, for example, has occurred. We have ramped up our efforts, and I have direct responsibility for much of the effort that is being made to deliver on these issues. As ever, if we find faults, they will be corrected. It is not that we do not understand the importance of these issues; sometimes, we have to learn a new lesson, and we will.

Let me now turn to operations within the United Kingdom—operations that protect us all in one way or another. Our armed forces support the police and security services in combating terrorism. Over recent years their capabilities, ranging from air defence to bomb disposal, have proved invaluable in preparing for, responding to and deterring violence specifically aimed against British citizens. I am extremely pleased that our longest running military operation—Operation Banner, in Northern Ireland—will, on current progress, draw to an end this year. Force levels, which numbered 28,000 at their peak in the 1970s, stand at around 7,000 and will reduce to 5,000 in the summer. We will maintain troops capable of being deployed in the event of large-scale public disorder, although they will not necessarily be based in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the 763 members of the armed forces and the 303 members of the security forces who lost their lives as a result of the violence in Northern Ireland. Without their sacrifice, and the efforts of more than 300,000 military personnel who served in the Province over the years, the current peace would not exist.

Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, our forces provide an emergency search and rescue and mountain rescue service. In 2006, military search and rescue units
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were called out 1,900 times, assisting 1,500 people, mostly around the UK. Just three weeks ago, the Royal Navy and the RAF contributed to the rescue operation after the Norwegian ship Bourbon Dolphin capsized off the Shetland Islands with tragic loss of life. Royal Navy divers undertook repeated searches of the submerged vessel for signs of life. Our servicemen and women are acting with courage and professionalism daily here in the UK, often putting the lives of others before their own.

The Royal Navy continues to ensure the freedom and security of our territorial waters. The ships of the Portsmouth-based Fishery Protection Squadron enforce fisheries quotas and boundaries on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. They make an important contribution to the conservation of our fishery stocks. This financial year, crews have boarded 1,332 vessels, detecting 221 infringements.

On bomb disposal, units from the three services assist the civil authorities by providing emergency explosive ordnance disposal teams. Some 2,700 such tasks were undertaken in the last financial year.

The Royal Air Force continues to defend the skies of the United Kingdom. While the threat of a wholesale assault has diminished, a wide variety of numerous incursions remain that, between them, the Civil Aviation Authority, the police forces and the RAF monitor, investigate and intercept if necessary. This remains a 24-hour task, for which the RAF maintains Tornado—and, soon, Typhoon—fighters at very high readiness.

A different type of operation, but one that contributes significantly to the UK’s economy, is equipment procurement. Defence makes an important contribution to local economies throughout the country, and to our national industrial base. It supports more than 310,000 jobs in UK industry and commerce. We spend some £14.5 billion directly with UK firms each year, on everything from boots to nuclear submarines.

In many towns across the UK, the most visible defence presence is a volunteer reserve unit. Our volunteer reservists serve the community, their employers and the armed forces. The skills that they acquire as part of our forces—in leadership, for example—make them more effective employees and better citizens. Reservists are performing superbly alongside their regular comrades in Cyprus, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Their qualities are of the highest standard, as the recent awards for heroism of a military cross and a Queen’s gallantry medal stand testament to.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He spoke briefly about procurement, and I am a bit concerned that he has already moved on to a more general subject. May I bring him back to procurement and ask him to take this opportunity to update us on what is happening with the F-35 and the elusive aircraft carriers?

Mr. Ingram: I thought that that question, which contained a barb about aircraft carriers, was going to be helpful. We have made it consistently clear that we are committed to those aircraft carriers. A number of factors have to be taken into account, and we will
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announce the decision when we are ready to do so. The hon. Gentleman will just have to wait, like everyone else, for that announcement. I stated earlier that we have decided where the joint combat aircraft is going to be based, and a very clear commitment has been given in that regard. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks when that aircraft will be ready; on timing, I should point out that this is a complex piece of equipment. I do not have a specific answer on the question of the second engine, but I will write to him giving the best information that we have at the moment. I understand that he is going to Washington. As ever, we encourage people visiting the United States to promote British industry as best we can.

On volunteers, there are of course the 130,000 young volunteers of our cadet forces—the second biggest youth organisation in the country. The cadet forces are based in more than 3,000 towns and cities throughout the UK, and they provide valuable skills and experience for young people from all backgrounds. I would also like to pay tribute to the thousands of volunteers who give up their time to work with these young people.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, I want to make progress.

I cannot comment on the contribution of defence to this country without talking about our armed forces veterans. As a mark of how seriously we take this issue, the Under-Secretary has the specific role of veterans Minister. This post was first created in 2001, and it has proved its worth year after year. The reason is simple. Our veterans—young and old—are an asset to the country. Many of the young men and women who enter the forces emerge as skilled, responsible and highly qualified members of society. Of course, this year is a special year for many of our veterans, as we remember the Falklands conflict on its 25th anniversary. The sailor, soldier or airman of today is the veteran of tomorrow. We must make sure that we accord our veterans respect and care—at the level of involvement that they desire. In recognition of this, we have designated 27 June as Veterans day, which provides us as a nation with the opportunity to celebrate their contribution, to learn from their experiences and to respect their service. Last year, we held a very successful event in my constituency, and we intend to make it even more successful this year. We will probably be inundated with applications from people who want to participate. There are very good examples of such events, and we have also initiated a national campaign to encourage greater engagement. Members of this House have a major role to play in that regard.

As I said at the outset, defence is above all about people—people from communities throughout the country who join our forces to serve their country. They rightly expect the support of the British public and of this House. I know how important that is to them as they go about their difficult and dangerous duties on our behalf. Their reputation has been built on the sacrifices made and achievements accomplished over many years, but also on the immense contribution that they make to the United Kingdom. This Government recognise that operational success depends on the quality of our people.
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We acknowledge our responsibility to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after. We must and will meet that responsibility.

12.58 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I begin by echoing the Minister’s words about the sadness that is felt in all parts of the House concerning the service personnel who have been killed in recent days. All Members will have the families and friends of those personnel in our thoughts and prayers.

This is an opportunity to make a wider point about the dedication and courage of our armed forces. In an era in which fewer and fewer people in our society have direct contact with the armed forces, too few nowadays understand the pressure on personnel—both regulars and reserves—and their families. Too many people believe that security is a right, and that freedom can come without any cost. We therefore need to remind the British public at every opportunity that security is a contract that has to be renewed by every generation, and that in our armed forces we have those with the skill and courage to make the sacrifices necessary to maintain our freedom and security. I am sure that both sides of the House will want that message to go out loud and clear.

I agree with the Minister’s final sentiments about the importance of veterans, the need for respect for veterans and the need to improve the services to them. In the years ahead, our society will have to come to terms with the changing pattern of veterans. Instead of being elderly citizens, such as those represented at the cenotaph, there will be many more younger veterans who will place different demands on the services we offer, and for a much longer time. The veterans of the Falklands, the Balkans and the first and second Gulf wars will put an increasing burden on many of the services that we have a duty to provide. The nature of the disabilities that they experience will also change. Indeed, it has been striking, for those of us who have visited the injured in theatre, Selly Oak or rehabilitation, that the equipment provided, such as body armour, has reduced the number and types of disability. I hope that society will understand that we will need to provide a range of new services and support to those who have made sacrifices on our behalf.

Mr. Ingram: As well as the equipment provided to personnel, the quality of the medical support in the field is important, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree.

Dr. Fox: Indeed. I have witnessed that and I commend the professionalism of those involved—some of whom have left the NHS to work full-time in our medical services on the front line. For instance, our field hospital in Basra has the notable distinction of not having had a single case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in the past four years, which is an example for the NHS to follow.

Today’s debate is a useful opportunity to discuss a range of defence issues other than those of Afghanistan and Iraq, which we have debated at length in the House. I shall touch on issues relating to welfare,
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the overstretch of our forces, procurement and the defence aspects of energy security—all issues that we should spend more time discussing in the House. Welfare issues cannot be separated from those of recruitment and retention—on which the House constantly focuses—because it is common sense that the easiest way to have a problem with retention is to have unhappy service families. In turn, the easiest way to have unhappy service families is to have unhappy service personnel. Therefore, it is incumbent on us to ensure that we consider the continuum of the services that we provide to service families.

It would be churlish not to recognise the considerable amount of work that is being done in terms of service housing improvements. However, it would also be unfair to neglect to mention that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body said in its latest report that

It also said that more than half of single living accommodation is bottom grade. I accept that much has been done in that area, notwithstanding the limitations on finance that the Minister mentions, but we need to give a higher priority to the quality of housing offered to our service personnel and their families. It will be a central element in our ability to retain numbers in our armed forces at a time when demography is against us in the years ahead.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact, as I do, that the MOD is exceeding its improvement targets by, for example, upgrading 1,705 service family houses instead of 600, which is a considerable achievement?

Dr. Fox: As I have just said, I welcome the efforts that the Government are making. Indeed, I have visited some excellent new service accommodation, but the programme is still moving too slowly. Although I welcome the Government’s positive efforts, I am sure that the Minister would agree that they should be speeded up to ensure that the problem is dealt with as quickly as possible.

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