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Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, can the Minister say whether there is any anticipated shortfall in the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve of officers or men?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am not aware of any such shortfall. As the noble Lord will know, we announced that we shall retain the strength of the Territorial Army at roughly 59,000. That announcement was supported by all sides of the House.

Lord Mayhew: My Lords, will the Minister say whether there has been any change in the Government's assessment of our necessary commitments during this period? Will he give an assurance that there has been no change in our commitment in Northern Ireland?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the noble Lord's question goes slightly wider than the Question on the Order Paper. The noble Lord will know that an announcement was made last week that another unit was being returned home from Northern Ireland. We hope very much that as the process continues in Northern Ireland it may be possible to withdraw others. But that will depend very much on what is happening there and what the chief constable feels is necessary.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his replies will be very reassuring to those of us concerned about the strength of the Armed Forces? As regards the small shortfall which exists in the Army, can he say whether there is any regimental pattern? Press reports have suggested that some regiments, for example the Parachute Regiment, are seriously under strength. Will the Minister comment on that?

Lord Henley: My Lords, obviously the position varies from unit to unit. Very broadly, the shortfall is in the infantry, the Royal Armoured Corps and the Royal

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Artillery. In comparison, I think I can say that the Royal Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, REME and the Adjutant General's Corps are in surplus. There will then be variations within individual infantry units. As I said, we shall certainly consider whether various different remedial measures regarding short-term enlistment of TA personnel, the payment of an enlistment bounty, or the payment of a retention bonus might help in particular cases.

I can also say that there were press reports of particularly severe levels of under-strength in the three parachute regiments. I can assure the noble Lord that those levels were not nearly so bad as was reported in the press.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that by April there will be a 3.3 per cent. shortfall in the armoured regiments and the Household Cavalry? Will he comment on the report in the Daily Telegraph—I always regard that paper as a relatively reliable source of information—which quotes one official as saying,

    "People are fatter. Many have no concept of how far a mile is, let alone of running it".

The article states that recruits are generally too soft for life in the forces.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I accept that perhaps as a personal criticism; some of us are somewhat fatter. Possibly the comment applies to Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and not to soldiers.

I cannot confirm the first figure which the noble Lord gave. The deficit that I gave regarding the Royal Armoured Corps is of the order of 1.4 per cent. I accept that it is still a deficit. As I made clear earlier in answer to a noble Lord, we are considering various remedial measures.

Obviously physical standards, in particular regarding recruits, is a matter that we shall have to look at. In future, we may have to accept lower standards and then train the recruits a little longer to take off that surplus weight.

Lord Ironside: My Lords, as regards providing trained officers in the Royal Navy, can my noble friend indicate how long the Royal Navy will be able to rely on the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to provide some of the academic training needed for the particular skills involved? If the college at Greenwich closes, what alternative arrangements will be made?

Lord Henley: My Lords, my noble friend's question is way beyond the scope of the Question on the Order Paper. However, I am sure that he will look forward to an announcement on the subject of Greenwich and Camberley which will be made shortly.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, does my noble friend accept the fact that so many people now wear soft shoes that when they join the Army they damage their legs? That is a fact. Will he talk to his noble friend in the Department of Health to seek to make people aware of the damage that they do to themselves by inadequate training?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I really think that what shoes individuals wear should be a matter for

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themselves. What my colleagues in the Department of Health think is another matter. As I made clear, I accept that physical standards are not always what we might like them to be. If we have to accept lower standards, we would obviously train those people for a little longer to get them up to our standards.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo: My Lords, being aware of the soft shoe shuffle, will the Minister confirm that no studies are currently being undertaken further to reduce the strength of our Armed Forces?

Lord Henley: My Lords, again, that is another question. I can only repeat the commitment given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, that we consider it necessary to have a period of stability in the Armed Forces for the foreseeable future and that there will be no further cuts in the front line strength.

Kent: Local Government Structure

3.4 p.m.

Lord Aldington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why they have announced a further consultation for the county of Kent on a local government structure which has been rejected by the Local Government Commission after consultation with all concerned; and whether they have taken full account of the cost in money and efficiency of continuing the consultation for a further year.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, while we have decided against wholesale change in Kent, we intend to ask the Local Government Commission to undertake fresh reviews of Gillingham, Rochester upon Medway and, possibly, Dartford and Gravesham. Our decision takes account of the characteristics of these districts, the representations we have received, and the need for consistency, coherence and stability in the future structure of local government. Since the reviews will be focused on districts, the cost and the impact on the rest of the county should be minimised.

Lord Aldington: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer which is rather fuller than the one he was able to give on the last occasion the matter was raised. However, is he aware that the Local Government Commission's report covered all the points to which he has referred? The commission went out to consultation on Option One which is exactly the proposal that my noble friend says the Secretary of State is referring back. The answer to that consultation was that around 70 per cent. of the people in the county were against the option and in favour of the two-tier existing structure. A slightly higher percentage was against the option in the four districts to which the Minister has referred. Why are the Government flouting the expression of local opinion? What good does that do?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the review, and for that matter the re-review, is more than just an opinion

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poll. It involves securing effective and convenient local government which reflects local needs and identities. After the final report from the Local Government Commission was published, Ministers received strong representations in favour of unitary status from north-west Kent and the Medway area. Written representations were received from Dartford, Gillingham and Rochester councils and from the Medway Chamber of Commerce. All four local MPs from Gillingham, Medway, Dartford and Gravesham met Ministers and argued in favour of unitary status for their areas. I believe that my right honourable friend was quite in order to consider that those re-reviews should take place.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the primary legislation under which such consultation takes place, as tested in the courts by Derbyshire County Council and by Lancashire County Council, in which I declare an interest as a member, requires that the first question to be put in the consultation must be whether there is a case for change supported by the local community?

Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the criteria set out in the Local Government Act 1992—namely, the need to secure effective and convenient local government and to reflect the identities and interests of local communities—still apply. However, as I indicated on a previous occasion, we shall be consulting on new guidance to the Local Government Commission in April or May.

Lord Rochester: My Lords, what reason is there to suppose that as regards Warrington in Cheshire, where I live, a reconstituted commission will reach a different conclusion from that of its predecessor? In four separate surveys the people of the district have expressed the view that there should be no change in the structure of local government there.

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