Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 6 DECEMBER 2000
SPELLAR MP AND
80. That is one issue. Can you give me three
(Air Marshal Pledger) Things like definitions
of reckonable service and pensionable pay, survivors' benefits,
81. If we did it on the basis of a month per
issue we ought to be expecting 36 issues just now?
(Air Marshal Pledger) You asked for three
Mr Cann: Hoisted by your own petard.
82. Not really, no. Would you like to give us
a few more?
(Air Marshal Pledger) I think the Minister
has already said that there is a clear linkage with the compensation
review which had to be made coherent and that is being looked
at in parallel, which of course makes the complexity that much
83. Hopefully if we come back to consider these
matters in another six months' time we will not have to ask you
the same series of questions?
(Mr Spellar) You might but we might have
more developed answers.
Chairman: We might have different people
to ask them! But I am sure Dr Lewis will be one of those doing
84. Just a bit more on families policy, Minister.
The Service Families Task Force has got a remit to address the
issues caused by the mobility of Service families that are outside
the direct control of the MoD. That is the issue; they are outside
the direct control of the MoD. What are you actually doing to
tackle some of these problems like education problems, welfare,
health issues, that you have not got a direct handle on, a local
authority or a health authority or a local education authority?
It does cause a lot of problems when Service personnel are moving
around. What are you doing to address that?
(Mr Spellar) It does and that is precisely
why we have the Task Force because we were not in a position to
resolve that as an individual department. I am sorry that the
Member for Canterbury has gone because he quite threw me during
the debate by paying tribute to the work that has been undertaken
by the Task Force because we have managed to get high level representation
and commitment by other government departments at ministerial
level precisely where we were able to address the pretty well
unique difficulties that are faced by Service personnel and their
families because of the nature of their lifestyle and particularly
the way and time-scale by which we often move them. In some cases
that is due to communications difficulties and in some cases it
is due to the movement, and obviously in terms of earlier notification
of moves we can play a part in that and we have certainly worked
on that. We have also worked with those other departments who
have then been issuing guidance further down the line to the agencies
of their departments that operate, whether those be hospital trusts,
whether those be schools admission bodies, or indeed even taking
direct action, for example with the Department of Health actually
employing additional direct dentists in certain areas with high
levels of concentration of Service families to actually deal with
the mobility and also the very considerable numbers that are involved.
85. Paid for by your Department or the Department
(Mr Spellar) The Department of Health
because our Service personnel are taxpayers who are rightly entitled
86. There is not much incentive for them to appoint
(Mr Spellar) That is why the Department
of Health recognised there was a unique problem and dealt with
that. In other areas it is getting the appropriate body like schools
admissions bodies to address the problem, and to understand that
the movement of our personnel is not going to necessarily fit
their standard pattern, and there has been a degree of success
on that. That has not been universal because, as all of us as
constituency Members of Parliament know, there are a number of
schools in every area that are over-subscribed, and particularly
consistent with the policy of trying to ensure maximum size of
classes of 30 for five to seven-year-olds, that does pose some
difficulties within this. So I am not saying that everyone has
been satisfied as a result of that. I would argue, I think justifiably,
that there has been a considerable improvement and much greater
focus on the problems that these moves bring about. The reason
then for also having on the other side of the equation the liaison
with the families' federations from the different Services is
precisely so that they can be filtering up the difficulties that
their members are having, so that we can say we have made these
changes which have brought about these improvements but they have
also thrown up these further difficulties and then to engage with
the other departments as to how we can address them. Some of those,
as I have said, are problems that may not be unique to Service
communities and may be of the type I have described which are
common to Service and civilian life, but some do arise from the
unique nature of service and those again are ones we will further
explore. One where we are dealing with a non-government agency
is with regard to access to credit. Because one of the key checks
for credit card companies and also for other forms of credit is
record of being on the electoral register at a location for a
period of time and also a notification against a property, someone
can find that they are being refused credit because an occupant
five years ago (but maybe three or four occupants back) was in
default. That is a difficulty. Some of these problems may be solved
by the easier access for Service personnel to register on the
electoral register as a result of the new legislation from the
Home Office, but, equally, we have been in discussions that here
we have people with regular income and defined income and therefore
they should be treated as much better credit risks, and we are
involved in a fairly active dialogue with them on that. That is
an area where we are dealing with non-government bodies but again
one where the nature of our people's work leads to them suffering
disadvantage. We are looking to other areas and obviously we will
be receptive to representations from the Services and families'
federations on that.
87. I welcome that answer and I think it is a
good focus that the Service Families Task Force is doing here,
but I would still like you to talk the Committee through what
happens, say, for a family that has been moved by the MoD and
needs to get their children into a local school and those local
schools are full. How does that process work? How do they get
into a school if the local authority is dragging its feet, for
(Mr Spellar) Apart from anything else,
apart from one education authority, we actually have representation
on local authority admission forums by the Service Children's
Education Agency, so they are getting an input at that level in
order to influence those policies.
Mr Cann: Which is the one?
88. Which is the authority not doing its job?
(Mr Spellar) I think it is Surrey.
89. Surrey, there you go.
(Mr Spellar) On the education side, just
to amplify, I think there is one other area which has been of
particular value which has been on student loans and access to
student loans. This particularly applies to youngsters from families
who are resident in Germany in our Services and that came in in
September of this year. That is an anomaly that has been dealt
with. Jobseeker's Allowance is another problem. Another one we
managed to iron out with the help of the Northern Ireland Office
was with regard to child benefit because the administration of
child benefit is separate between GB and Northern Ireland and,
again, we have managed to work our way through that. These may
look like minor changes but they can make a considerable difference
to people who are having the disruption of moving anyway and we
can help to mitigate that.
90. What about NHS waiting lists?
(Mr Spellar) We are working on that.
We are getting some progress on that because one of the difficulties
that our people face with moving (quite often within a two-year
period) particularly with non-emergency operations, is that therefore
they can go back down to the bottom of the list, and we are engaging
in discussions on that. I think there are one or two areas where
that is not working particularly well and we are working with
the Department of Health on that and I believe it is actually
starting to improve.
(Air Marshal Pledger) And, interestingly, the Army
Families' Federation's own in-house journal recognises in one
of their articles exactly what the current situation is and advertises
it to all its members where we are going.
91. Is there not a necessity for the Armed Forces
personnel to be fit and a priority on the waiting list?
(Mr Spellar) You are talking about two
different issues here, with respect. One is to do with Service
personnel and the measures we are taking to ameliorate their conditions,
and the Under-Secretary of State can give you details of a number
of initiatives he has been taking with regard to remedial work,
particularly on orthopaedic questions and also to do with physiotherapy
and so on. That is to get people back into active service and
is addressing the number of those who have been medically downgraded.
That is separate from the issue that I was primarily concentrating
on here which is families of service personnel who are themselves,
although not our employees, awaiting operations but because we
have moved the family they have the problem that they do not get
to the top of the waiting list, which is a slightly different
one but one we have been addressing with the Department of Health.
92. Our servicemen do not have priority in Haslar
because they can be bumped by people from the local community.
If you cannot get your own people in a Service hospital for priority
treatment, God help you getting them into a health trust with
any degree of priority. A questionI do not expect an answerif
servicemen's children are pushed from one school to another based
on the progress of their father or mother, has any research been
done on the end product of this schooling process in terms of
would they have more or less opportunity of going on to university
had their father remained in Dudley or Walsall than being an employee
of the Services? Has that kind of research been done, Minister,
because it seems to me the likelihood of many going through to
university, having moved from often one not great school to another
every couple of years, and the disruption of that education has
got to be calculated somehow to show how successful the schooling
process has been.
(Mr Spellar) We can certainly provide
you with the figures of those of our schools that are in the Service
education system in Germany and in Cyprus. They are actually pretty
good results, comparable with many of the best county education
authorities, which I think indicates the commitment of that service
and maybe an indication of output as well. As to other figures
on that, I really plead that is the responsibility of my colleague,
the Under-Secretary of State but I will be more than happy for
Chairman: We shall write to you and you
can pass it on to your colleague with your approval.
93. Just a small question. Again, you do not
have to address it now, perhaps more for information. Can you
indicate when the issue of domestic violence was last reviewed?
Is your policy towards it under review at the moment? Perhaps
at some point you could provide us with information of how it
is dealt with when you get such an issue.
(Air Marshal Pledger) Briefly, yes is
the answer and we are consulting widely, again including with
the families' federations in putting that together. If I may,
it is a routine review. It is not prompted by any particular difficulties
that you might be suggesting in the Armed Forces communities.
94. Could I say first, sir, that this is the
first time I have been allowed to ask a question outside my brief,
which means either the Chairman is mellowing or it must be near
Christmas, or that he might be frightened by the idea that we
are both going to Moscow next week.
(Mr Spellar) You are building up seniority.
Chairman: When you find out the question
he is going to ask, you will see why I allowed it.
Mr Cann: It is ever so easy. There are
only two of them outside my brief. Number one, you were saying
earlier that the actual number of complaints regarding pay is
going down. I think it would be helpful for the Committee to know
the precision of that, the trends in terms of numbers in graph
form. That was the easy one, Chairman, but my main one is training
and education and it is not on my brief but I am going to ask
it. I have heard that there are a significant number of recruits
who do not get through basic training just because they have worn
trainers all their lives and they cannot get along with Army boots.
I would like to know how many people drop out of basic training
just because of simple things like that because I think it is
something people out there would like to know, particularly people
bringing up children who otherwise would regard the Armed Services
as an appropriate profession. They all laugh when I mention feet.
They will not laugh when they get the answer back, I suspect.
If I can move on to what is on my brief.
Chairman: Would you like to answer the
foot question first.
95. I would want figures for that, Chairman,
because I have seen all sort of spurious figures all over the
(Mr Spellar) One of the areas of concern
was lower limb injuries and that does relate to a lack of resilience
arising from a more sedentary lifestyle, less sport being played,
a dramatic increase in the number of people being taken to school
by car compared to walking to school, a whole number of other
factors, all of which have an impact. We are then looking at them
to see how we can take people up to the right level of fitness
but without them suffering injury on the way. However, the final
output of a fit serviceman or woman is not being compromised by
that. What we are looking at is how we can improve the way they
get there. I want to stress that as well. On pay complaints I
understand there is some data on that. I have to say my comments
were based on a far more rough and ready sample, namely, when
I go to Army units do I get berated about problems on pay by personnel
or not, and I have to say that has dropped off dramatically. I
do not think it is that my demeanour has changed; I think it is
that the problem has started to decline.
96. It would be nice, though, to have the figures.
(Mr Spellar) If we have got the data,
we will provide that.
Mr Cann: I am not sure you can do it
with feet but we can only try. What you are talking about, if
you do not mind me saying so Chairman, is a softly-softly approach,
whereas we ought to be saying, in my view, that there is a problem,
because it is not just people recruited into the Army or Air Force.
We ought to be telling people out there, "Don't put your
kids in trainers all their lives because their feet spread."
Is that right?
97. I am disagreeing with you but, never mind,
(Mr Spellar) The fact is it is rare that
I am accused of a softly-softly approach.
98. And you have kicked a few people in your
(Mr Spellar) And not wearing trainers!
We do need to look at that. We will certainly look at the information.
I do stress again, our objective is to say this is the current
situation. How can we therefore adapt people in order that they
can thenmaybe by a slightly slower route, although not
dramatically sogain a position where they can attain the
levels of fitness we require. We are not compromising on the final
output, although we may be adapting quite sensibly and scientifically
the route by which we get there.
99. The figure I heard was that about 40% of
basic recruits drop out because of being physically unfit, a lot
of which is lower body. I will leave that, otherwise Laura is
going to give me a hell of a time. Can I pick up four quickies
about the Learning Forces initiative. Are the qualifications they
get out of it good enough to fit them for civilian life afterwards,
because that is the key area that is the attraction in terms of
recruitment? Secondly, do enough people know about the scheme
and use it? Thirdly, how dependent is it on the commanding officer's
decision on whether somebody should be allowed to take it up?
Fourthly, is £175 per annum sufficient for a proper training
(Mr Spellar) That was an increase up
from £140 which was a lift up. In answer to a couple of those
questions about whether people are using it, across all three
Services there has been a substantial increase. In some cases
that is from a very low base, although not in the case of the
RAF, which is about 14%.