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Column 215"The general impression is of health and local education authorities struggling with greater or lesser success--in terms of administrative co-ordination--against the fundamental problem of under-resourcing."
That problem is constantly reiterated.
The 1981 Act has, I think, been on the statute book for long enough. In view of this extra survey revealing health authorities' concern that they are unable to fulfil its full requirements, we should now put the necessary resources into making it a reality. The final paragraph of the report quotes the Trent region as saying : "The Circular on its own, it is felt"--
I presume that this will apply equally to the draft circular "could not be revised to assist health authorities in fulfilling their responsibilities. To put it bluntly, it is more people that are required, not more paper!"
That is putting it most bluntly. The report concluded that the National Association of Health Authorities requested that the Department of Education and Science, together with the Department of Health
"immediately respond to the matters detailed in this report, setting out a timetable for action to ensure that children with special needs do receive the assistance that is theirs by right." I emphasise that "by right."
Under British and international law, children have an inalienable right to an education. It would be a tragedy if British citizens have to seek that right under international law because they cannot get it under British law. Therefore, the Government are required to respond sensitively and carefully to a matter which concerns every constituency in the country and involves 134 children statemented as having special needs.
I know that the Minister is a caring and sensitive Minister, so I stress with all the force as I can that the needs outlined in those statements must be met with sufficient resources to allow those citizens with disabilities that require special services to achieve their full potential.
The House of Commons must address the matter, particularly as we all know, and as will be confirmed later today, the country is not short of financial resources.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. John Butcher) : First, I thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) for raising the debate and for the manner in which he made his speech. Clearly he spoke not only for the interests of his constituents but on a number of general issues which have exercised his concern for some time.
I, too, have been impressed by the sheer commitment of parents of children with statemented needs. The way in which they deal with the pressure that puts on the family, whether or not they have other children who do not have statemented needs, extracts the admiration of many Members of Parliament who meet such parents. Those parents have to be, and nearly always are highly motivated and particularly dedicated. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to address the subject of children with special educational needs--an issue which transcends party differences and unites the House in a way that few other subjects can.
I shall spend just a few moments on definitions which are germane to a number of points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. It needs to be recognised from the
Column 216outset that "children with special educational needs" is not a term which defines a homogeneous group, easily identifiable and equatable with a label. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's supportive remarks on the objectives of the Education Act 1981. Although he is now looking at the follow-through and the practicalities, we agree that it was a good Act in its intention and most of its practice. Since that Act, and following the recommendations of the Warnock committee, the concept of special needs has been applied to children who have a learning difficulty which requires special educational provision to be made for them.
The Warnock committee estimated that perhaps 20 per cent. of children have, at some time in their school career, special educational needs, and that at any one time one sixth of the school population may have learning difficulties. The bulk of such children's needs can be met by special educational services--the 1981 Act uses the term "provision"--supplied by their own mainstream school. A small proportion of children, however--the Warnock committee estimated that it might constitute 2 per cent. of the overall school population--can be expected to have difficulties which are more severe and which call for something extra.
Under the 1981 Act those children will be formally assessed and provided with a statement of SEN. The statement specifies the nature and extent of the learning difficulty. It specifies also the special educational provision or services which they require in order to address those difficulties. The emphasis is rightly upon the individual needs of the child. The particular requirements of each pupil are assessed and provided for without regard to some general category of disability or a particular label. This was not discussed tonight, but it is all germane. It is the relevant backcloth to all discussions in this area. I think most people across the parties and across the experts welcomed the move away from labels categorising young people. That was a positive move.
For those children within the Warnock 2 per cent. the responsibility for assessing and determining the nature of the child's learning difficulty, and what the requisite provision should be, lies with the local education authority. The nature of the services or provision specified on the statement will depend upon the nature of the learning difficulties identified after a formal multi-professional assessment, which must include educational, medical and psychological advice, together with parental representations and any evidence submitted by or on behalf of the child's parents.
I will say a few words about the educational provision, although I know that the hon. Gentleman is only interested in the mix of the educational and health provisions and how the two relate. On the educational provision, a distinction is made in the 1981 Act between educational provision and non -educational provision which may be required to meet the needs of children with statements. The educational provision of services is to be specified in terms of facilities and equipment, staffing arrangements, the curriculum and teaching methods. Where relevant, educational environment, access and transport provision should be specified. Such educational services are the responsibility of the LEA. LEAs are legally bound to provide the special educational services which are detailed in the statement of SEN.
As to non-educational provision, an LEA is also required to provide details in a statement of any
Column 217non-educational provision which it considers advantageous and is satisfied will be made available for the child by the district health authority, the social services department or some other body, if not made available by the LEA. The Education Reform Act 1988 changed the legal position to enable an LEA to provide non-educational services, but it does not place a duty on an LEA to do so. That is the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the recent dispute in the courts involving parents in Lancashire. I noted from a press statement of 11 March 1989 that the Court of Appeal ruled that speech therapy could be classed as a special educational provision under the 1981 Education Act, so the council had a duty to provide it. Further on, Lord Justice Balcombe said that the court accepted that such therapy stood between medicine and education. Lord Justice Stuart-Smith's comment in the High Court was that at one end of the scale it was akin to teaching while at the other it might be regarded as purely medical.
According to The Independent report, a very interesting parallel was asserted : to teach an adult who had lost his larynx because of cancer could well be considered as treatment rather than education, but to teach a child who had never been able to communicate by language seemed, according to the judge, just as much an educational provision as to teach a child to communicate by writing. The judges refused the council leave to appeal to the House of Lords, but that does not prevent a direct application for leave. For reasons with which I am sure the House is all too familiar, I shall not comment further on that matter, except to say that it goes to the very heart of the debate that the hon. Gentleman has raised on this occasion and, indeed, on other occasions.
I want to deal now with the hon. Gentleman's point about physiotherapy in special schools and to the resource implications to which he referred. The provision of physiotherapy services for children in both special and ordinary schools remains the responsibility of individual health authorities, although, under paragraph 83 of schedule 12 to the Education Reform Act 1988, education authorities can provide any therapy specified in a child's statement of special educational needs. We would expect them to co-operate with health authorities in the provision of physiotherapy for such children. Health and local education authorities must work closely together to make the best use of available resources to meet the needs of individual children. We should not object to a local education authority funding physiotherapy provision where this had been discussed with the health authority and was in the best interests of the child. Physiotherapy services are required by many groups of patients with acute and chronic conditions. It is for individual authorities to determine the priority that can be given to services for children in special schools, in the light of the particular local circumstances.
As for resource implications nationally, expenditure on physiotherapy services has increased from £38.2 million in 1978-79 to £115.3 million in 1986-87. Expenditure on community physiotherapy services, which are particularly relevant to children with special educational needs, is increasing at about twice the rate of the increase in expenditure on the hospital physiotherapy services. If my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State for Health were here he would probably talk about the Health Service index. Even making that allowance, the
Column 218growth that I have cited is real, and I suspect that the debate will turn on targeting and on the link between educational provision and Health Service provision.
The numbers of physiotherapists employed in the NHS in England continues to increase. The total went up from 6,430 whole-time equivalents in 1979 to 9,330 whole-time equivalents in 1987--an increase of 45 per cent. The Department of Health is looking at the longer-term demands for, and supply of, physiotherapists through a joint Department of Health--National Health Service manpower advisory group. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is co-operating in a study of manpower issues, and an initial report is expected later this year.
The Wilson Stuart school is, of course situated in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. That school has had difficulty in securing adequate levels of physiotherapy. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter with the Department and with the West Birmingham health authority, which is responsible for such provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I begin with the time-honoured words "I am informed that". I will unravel my own conclusions, but I am informed that the position at the Wilson Stuart school has improved. There are now four physiotherapists working full-time at the school throughout the year, including the school holidays. In addition, the school has a full-time physiotherapy helper and a part-time helper, who works 20 hours per week.
The relevant unit general manager meets the head teacher each term to discuss and review provision. I am advised that there are currently no unresolved issues between the school and the district health authority. Having said that, however, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will very carefully and clearly draw the attention of my hon. Friends to his comments.
We shall look especially at the examples that the hon. Gentleman gave--of Liam, Anthony, Kate and Katherine, who could provide interesting exemplars about the change of requirements and therefore of provision that the hon. Gentleman is commending. I am afraid that I cannot go any further tonight than to use the word "interesting" because, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, I cannot commit a colleague to a particular response. However, I am sure that colleagues at the Department of Health will respond to the hon. Gentleman in detail.
I turn now to the report of the National Association of Health Authorities in England and Wales on the implementation of the Education Act 1981 to which the hon. Gentleman referred, having had the courtesy to advise me that it would figure in his speech. The report adds little to what is already known and is a disappointingly anecdotal and, some would argue, even superficial report that provides no firm evidence on the level of manpower resources that health authorities need to fulfil their role. Several initiatives are already under way, aimed at solving some of the problems that have been highlighted. They include a major research project undertaken by the Institute of Education and jointly funded by the then Department of Health and Social Security, and Department of Education and Science. Although originally three separate research projects, the findings have been pooled to produce a training pack and a manual for use at local authority level, which is aimed at improving local collaboration for children with special educational needs. The training pack and manual are due to be published in the near future.
Column 219There has also been recent agreement on a revised pay and grading structure for speech therapists. There is also a joint Department of Health and NHS manpower advisory group to consider the long-term demand for and supply of physiotherapists. The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy is also co-operating with a study of the manpower and an initial study is due--
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : We in the south-east would be peculiarly pleased if the proposals to allow district health authorities to pay the going rate for services such as speech therapy are implemented as proposed in the White Paper because in my constituency at the moment the acquiring and retaining of speech therapists has become virtually impossible because of the price of housing, and that that is putting a huge strain on the treatment of children with special educational needs.
Mr. Butcher : That is potentially a major debate in its own right. Indeed, if I were sitting where my hon. Friend is sitting, I would join him in making a fairly lengthy speech about the rigidities in national pay systems and structures. I suspect that that will loom larger and larger in my Department, the Department of Health and in other major employers of public service personnel and I hope that it will do so as much in the minds of trade unionists as in those of Ministers. I have no doubt that several of my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in the south-east and in London are becoming anxious about that question. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind if I do not launch off into that at this time in the morning, whether in the context of speech therapists, teachers or other public servants. However, his point was well made.
I return to the report by the National Association of Health Authorities in England and Wales and the comment that the joint DHSS-DES circular 83 will be taken into account in the current review of that guidance.
In conclusion, I reassure the hon. Gentleman that his concerns will be brought carefully to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Department of Health. I was interested in his view that circulars should remove the bureaucratic burden. They certainly should, and I suspect that in the future someone will do an audit of the impact of circulars on education or health. For the hon. Gentleman's money, and mine also, it is what they do for costs, simplicity--or the lack of it--as well as resources, manpower and womanpower, that is important. At this time of the morning, a number of matters fall out of context but others return into it. The hon. Member for Perry Barr has done the House a service in raising the subject today.
At 4.15 am, the blackbird in Mr. Speaker's Court was singing with gusto. Such a welcome when one arrives at the House at that time of the morning tends to cheer one up a bit, but one is also cheered by the quality of debate on an occasion such as this.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) on raising, with his usual sincerity, what is happening in his area, which is
Column 220reflected throughout the country. That is one of the most important points to be made following the Minister's speech.
I understand the problems that the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is experiencing in the south-east, but it is important to recognise that they are being faced nationwide. In my constituency, the employment position is different to that in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. A major report appeared recently in the local press about the shortage of speech therapists and the problems recruiting them. I hope that the Minister will not mind me saying that he mentioned manpower, when womanpower would have been appropriate. Most of the people employed in speech therapy and physiotherapy are women.
Speech therapists' pay is a major issue. The Minister will be aware of a case that has been before an industrial tribunal and is now before the European Court about equal pay for speech therapists for doing work of equal value. I have been involved in the case because the speech therapists are members of my union. Indeed, I have met the women who brought the case.
The main issue involved in this subject, as in quite a few others, is resources. There is the commitment and will to move forward and resolve problems. As the Minister said, there is cross-party support about need and even the way in which it should be met. We know what we should be doing, but the resources are not being provided to meet those needs.
A major crisis is facing speech therapists especially, but also physiotherapists. As we are becoming an aging society, we are making more demands on physiotherapists. The problems of speech therapy for children who are or are not statemented is becoming increasingly acute. There is hardly an hon. Member who has not had
respresentations made to him or her about shortages in their area and children whose needs are not being served. There was widespread support for the Education Act 1981. I was in a primary school yesterday where the head said that the best piece of legislation for education passed under this Government was the 1981 Act. However, he said that the problem is that the resources required have not followed to ensure that the Act can be brought into effect. The welcome for that Act is now tinged with near despair at the lack of resources to fulfil its aims and the aspirations of parents of children with special needs.
I appreciate that since his appointment the Minister has been studying special needs with some attention and in some detail. I hope that he will continue to do that. The resolution of the issue that we have raised tonight requires some national direction because, with the implementation of local financial management for most of their schools, local education authorities have had the resources that they have available constrained, if not restricted. In talking to the authorities, they have expressed to me concern about health authorities being frequently unable to meet the demand, so education authorities may have to meet the demand, but with a diminishing resource base.
I hope that the Minister will continue to study this matter. The Opposition will return to the matter fairly frequently, I hope, over the next year. The will and commitment of parents, local communities and local authorities is there. It is the responsibility of the House to ensure that adequate resources are made available so that that will and commitment are not frustrated and the aspirations of parents and the abilities and prospects of the children are given the fullest support from the House. That
Column 221inevitably means resources. I hope that we can come back to that subject and reassure parents and authorities soon that the resources will be available so that the children will be given the opportunities and support that they need.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone) : I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this morning the important issue of the 36th Engineer Regiment. The issue is important not only to the regiment itself, but to the town of Maidstone, and it carries wide implications for decision-making on matters concerning the armed services. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who is in his place, and who will, I know, be participating later in the debate, seeking permission to raise this issue, because the 36th Engineer Regiment is just across the boundary from my constituency, in his constituency. The issue is one of such vast local importance that it concerns us both.
The matter before us is the proposed move from Maidstone, where the regiment has been for the past 40 years, and with which it has a considerable connection and in which it takes considerable pride, to Thorney island, a place with which it has no connection and in which it would be difficult for it to find any pride or affinity. From correspondence and representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Kent and myself to my hon. Friend the Minister and his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), my hon. Friend will be aware of the strength of feeling in both town and regiment and of our concerns about some of the issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering saw fit to visit the regiment in December in response to a request I made in a debate in July. I shall say more about that visit later. I think that it was important because it opened my hon. Friend's eyes not only to the strength of feeling but to the valid arguments against any move from the present base.
We are talking about considerably more than sentiment. It is not sentiment that makes us raise the matter in the House. It is concern for recruitment and retention, and grave concern for morale. We are concerned too, that financial and operational sense should prevail in the decision that is made.
The 36th Engineer Regiment is a regiment of sappers and, by definition, spends a great deal of time away. The regiment spends the majority of its time outside Maidstone and, indeed, abroad. For example, 50th Field Squadron has spent nine months of each of the past three years abroad, while 20th Field Squadron, which looks set to follow in its footsteps, spent nine months of last year abroad. That contrasts sharply with the time spent away by the artillery regiment now based on Thorney island, which spends only comparatively brief periods abroad.
During the past year the 36th Engineers have been posted to Belize, Cyprus, the Falklands, Ascension Island, Germany and Northern Ireland. The regiment has one of the highest rates of separation from spouses and families in the Army. Let us pause to think what that means. If we are to recruit and retain soldiers, we need morale to be high. An essential part of the morale of a regiment that spends so much time abroad is that the men, who spend so much time away from their wives and children, should be convinced that they are happy and integrated into the community. Similarly, the wives will have a considerable influence in determining whether their husbands will stay in the Army. If the wives are unhappy, they will influence
Column 223them not to stay on in the Army and not to renew their contracts when statutory periods are over. They will not give a happy account of the regiment to potential recruits.
Of the 803 men in the 36th Engineers, 604 operate out of Maidstone. They have with them 197 wives and 274 children. The factors that keep wives happy are social integration, the opportunity to work--a most important point if husbands are away for any length of time--and schools. Social integration means accessibility. In Maidstone the 36th Engineers are very near the centre of a large town. Some 123 of the wives work locally in the community. There are good accessible shops and schools, which include the envied grammar schools. By comparison, on Thorney island the nearest post office is three miles away. The nearest shopping centres is 12 miles away. Buses run once every two hours. There is limited schooling with limited choice and there is extremely limited opportunity for employment. It is almost certainly necessary to own a car to get to and from work--not a happy prospect for an Army wife. Is it any wonder that the wife of a CO on Thorney referred to :
"real welfare problems caused by the isolated nature of the island"?
Thorney island presents a similar prospect to the Falklands, but without the penguins. It simply cannot be an encouragement to wives, or a boost to soldiers' morale if they feel that their families will be removed to a remote area with few facilities and that their wives and children will be left alone to face that lack of facilities in that remote area for considerable periods.
When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health visited the regiment last December, he pronounced himself impressed with all that he saw of the social integration of the wives in the community. Those wives made strong representations to him to the effect that they wanted to stay in Maidstone, that they were happy in Maidstone, that they had confidence in Maidstone's schooling, and that, if they were to stay on as Army wives and if their husbands were to pursue careers in the armed services, staying at Maidstone was a major factor in any such decisions.
There will be problems in retention and recruitment if the regiment is moved to Thorney island. That is a pity, because, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, there is currently a high retention rate in the regiment.
Combined with the possibility of moving to Thorney island, we must consider the possibility of alternative employment. At the moment, a married Sapper on a nine-year contract can expect to earn £100.47 a week, but, if he were to leave the Army and take employment with a local Maidstone construction firm, he could expect to earn £221--twice as much--a week. Is there any point in having brand new barracks on Thorney island--we would have to build such barracks to accommodate the 36th Engineers--if we end up with no Sappers to put in them? The history of the 36th Engineer Regiment is extremely proud. It includes service in the Falklands war. Several soldiers were badly wounded in that conflict. The regiment's efforts to rehabilitate them, keep them on and find them employment have impressed my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent, myself and my hon. Friend the
Under-Secretary of State. The proposed move is a waste, not only of retention, recruitment and training but of the massive efforts involved in attracting young men into the
Column 224regiment, and it is an expensively equipped regiment. It has £13 million worth of engineering and vehicles alone in Maidstone and half as much again in Laarbruch in Germany.
There are arguments not only about retention but about operational matters. It is the only regular United Kingdom home defence regiment, and it carries out exercises in every country. At the moment, it is placed close to the royal school of military engineering in Chatham. It plays a major part in disaster relief. I cannot see that it can be anything but operationally less effective if it is moved to Thorney island.
Then there is national policy. The Gaffney report identified the regiment and its relationship with the town as ideal for a major unit. It seems odd to fly in the face of that report and to move the regiment.
Then there are financial arguments. I submit, and the regiment would submit, that the Minister's analysis is wrong. For example, it was said that, if the regiment were to be moved, there would be £8 million worth of savings in maintenance costs. The costs of the new barracks on Thorney island have been substantially under-estimated, and the loss of retention and the expense of recruiting and training again from scratch is considerable.
On the first point, a new road is involved. I am hugely proud of most things connected with my constituency, but I am hugely horrified by its traffic. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent will join me in that horror. Traffic flow is extremely restricted, largely because entry roads from other major towns are simply not up to carrying it.
One of the proposed new roads actually goes through the site of the old barracks--not the barracks currently occupied by most of the regiment, but the old barracks. The council and regiment have been negotiating what will happen when that road goes through the old barracks. The possibility is that the barracks will be rebuilt at the expense of the council and not of the Ministry of Defence. If that hope is realised, it follows that the £8 million worth of maintenance savings is, in fact, not such a saving at all, because the rebuilding will be carried out without expense to the Army. It also makes building afresh at Thorney island much less attractive. That would be an entirely incremental expense to the Ministry, whereas, if the rebuilding is at Maidstone, it will be an expense to the council as well as to the Army.
Secondly, for example, the costs at Thorney island do not include separate officers' messes that would normally be expected, and which would certainly inflate the current estimates considerably. Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Minister will be only too aware of the costs of the highly technical training of a sapper and what it would amount to if large numbers were to leave and had to be replaced. It is not only the effect on the regiment about which I am concerned, but the effect on the town. A couple of weeks ago I presented to the House a petition from the men of Kent to retain the engineers where they are. There are 21 regular users of the facilities enjoyed by the regiment. They include sports clubs, but also clubs for the hearing-impaired, wheelchair clubs, the police, the fire brigade and many other important groups, clubs and institutions in Maidstone. In addition to regular users, there are also numerous ad hoc users.
The regiment enjoys the freedom of the town with which it has had a 40-year association. Since I have been
Column 225a Member of Parliament, I have been aware of the gratitude felt by the town to the regiment for the substantial help that it provided during the October wind storm that completely wrecked parts of my constituency. That caused tremendous travel and access problems in Kent which the regiment was able to ease.
Similarly, the regiment has been used consistently to help with snow clearance, not only in my constituency but in many parts of Kent. It is difficult to imagine that the regiment will come back from Thorney island when we have snow.
I am joined in my plea to keep the regiment in Maidstone by the borough council, by parishes, by schools, by those who use the facilities and by those who are grateful for their presence and for their disaster relief.
The suspense has been too long. The question mark hanging over the regiment has been there for many years. It is having unsettling effects. It is unsettling for morale, for the wives and for recruitment. The general belief held locally was that we had convinced my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering during his visit that there was an unanswerable case for keeping the regiment on its present site. Now, because of a changeover, once again there is a question mark. People are no longer so convinced locally that their views are fully understood. I would welcome reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister on that point if on no other.
Meanwhile the negotiations over the road, the rebuilding and the contribution from the council must all be carried out in a vacuum because we do not know the regiment's long-term future. It flies in the face of national policy and the Gaffney report if we remove the regiment. It will cause a wasteful loss in a regiment with an excellent record of retention. It will make operational nonsense. There could be financial gains from staying rather than from going. Will my hon. Friend the Minister consider visiting the regiment? I recognise that that invitation should be properly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent. Will the Minister settle the matter one way or the other? If my hon. Friend cannot offer a firm settlement this morning, will he at least give a firm date for its settlement as the suspense has gone on for too long and the reasons for the disastrous move are not understood by the regiment, by the town or by its parliamentary representatives?
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) for raising this issue and I am glad that she has given such an overwhelmingly comprehensive display of the argument for retaining the regiment in Maidstone. I am particularly glad, because I only received notification of her intention to raise this matter less than 12 hours ago and that has not provided me with the same opportunities for research as my hon. Friend has usefully employed.
In addition to my hon. Friend's forceful argument there are three things that I shall mention. First, it is appropriate that the MOD should constantly review the capital stock upon which the defence of the country is based. Changing financial circumstances mean that any part of the Ministry's capital assets are likely to be in need of revaluation at regular intervals. I have no quarrel therefore with the Ministry's desire to consider the financial value of
Column 226Invicta barracks as part of its regular review process. There could be no more appropriate time to review that site than when, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, a part of those barracks is about to be redeveloped.
During that perfectly proper review I hope that the Ministry has understood the value of keeping the regiment in a place where it is not only a focus for recruitment of young men, but a place where service families are sufficiently content to live. It is therefore possible to retain such highly valued people in a highly competitive atmosphere and because of that the regiment has flourished. The straight book transaction that means that land in Maidstone may be more valuable than land in Thorney island only tells a small part of the story. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone rightly argued, there is no point in building new barracks in Thorney island merely to find that everyone who might have lived there has left the service because their families have dissuaded them by telling them that there is nothing to do down there and that they would be much better off earning considerably more in private employment. The second point that must be stressed is the opportunity provided to the regiment for joint exercises with the royal school of military engineering at Brompton barracks. Such exercises represent a sensible use of joint facilities. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister has learnt from the files, if nowhere else, that, in the past I have been involved in attempts to acquire training territory in my constituency. What a bitter disappointment it was that the last of those efforts fell to bits. The principal villain in that negotiation was the sheer cumbersome review procedure for such acquisitions which operates within the Department. I hope that he will take on board the enormous importance of the Ministry of Defence being able to move swiftly when the opportunity to acquire territory for exercises or for other purposes comes up. Land in the south-east is at such a premium that it is absurd that procedures are so cumbersome that any private developer or farmer can move faster than the Ministry of Defence. I very much hope that that lesson has been safely learnt. Thirdly, I happen to share the Government's belief that it is appropriate for Government personnel to be distributed around the United Kingdom as far as that is practicable. It is wholly wrong to fill up expensive space in overcrowded urban areas and parts of the economy that are under pressure with central Government bureaucracy. I believe in the dispersal of personnel around the country, but to move an Army unit to another part of the south of England requires enormous justification, and so far none has been forthcoming. It would not be right to destroy the close local links of the regiment merely in order to move it somewhere else in the south.
As it happens, in this case the regiment's operational requirements are much better served by keeping it close to the motorway network, by which it can swiftly transport its heavy equipment and skills to any part of the south when they are needed.
When I first raised this subject some years ago, after the story had broken that a threat was hanging over the barracks, almost at once two major local crises occurred. The engineers were indispensable in coping with the effects of the extraordinary blizzard and with the exceptional hurricane, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone pointed out.
Column 227The liaison with the civil power, which has been of a high order in Kent, is not lightly to be thrown aside. It is good for the Army and the future of the armed services in Britain that there should be warm and effective links with the civil power. Thank goodness, it is a long time since people in this country have had direct experience of war, and it is sometimes difficult to persuade them that the armed forces are a necessary and appropriate form of employment for their children.
This is a clear demonstration that regiments such as the engineers greatly contribute to the quality of civilian life and is well worth treasuring. Maidstone is a fine place in which to demonstrate that ; it is shown there every day of the year. I understand that my hon. Friend the Minister has already made it known that the regiment may stay for the foreseeable future. I hope that the debate this morning will encourage him to lengthen his perspective to the point where "foreseeable future" becomes just "the future".
Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow) : I intervene briefly because my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes), our Front Bench spokesman on the Army, asked me to apologise for his absence this morning due to a long- standing engagement. I can assure the hon. Lady that the points made in the debate have been listened to very carefully.
I have always had a keen interest in the Royal Engineers, being an ex- Sapper myself and having served at Chatham, both at Kitchener and Brompton barracks, many years ago, before serving with the Royal Engineers in Cyrenaica, formerly a small country now part of Libya. I well remember spending many months building a bridge half-way between Benghazi and Tobruk, at a place called the Wadi el Coovu, the Valley of Caves, and to the best of my knowledge that bridge is still there 40 years later. So I agree with the points made about the skills of the Royal Engineers and certainly support any efforts to maintain that particular regiment.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member forMaidstone (Miss Widdecombe) has been able to take advantage of this debate to raise once again the question of the deployment of 36th Engineer Regiment, which has, as she pointed out, been based in Maidstone for many years. I know that she has a strong personal interest in this matter, and I am pleased to take this opportunity to express my apreciation for the concern that she has shown for the regiment, its morale and welfare, not only on behalf of those serving in it but also of their families. These are obviously matters of no less concern to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, and to those directly responsible for the management and well-being of the Army. I am therefore also glad to have this opportunity to say something about 36th Engineer Regiment and about the Ministry of Defence's policy on managing the defence estate, although I would have preferred a different hour than six o'clock in the morning.
It might be helpful if I first say a little about the history and role of 36th Engineer Regiment and its connection
Column 228with Maidstone. The regiment forms part of 5th Airborne Brigade in peacetime and has a strength of 621, all ranks, at Maidstone. In peacetime it exercises and carries out a variety of tasks in the United Kingdom, including the provision of emergency assistance as and when required. Elements of the regiment also exercise overseas and are liable for emergency tours in Belize and the Falklands, as well as in Northern Ireland. In war, the regiment and its squadrons would be required to carry out a variety of roles in this country, the NATO central region, and beyond. During the many years that 36th Engineer Regiment has been based at Maidstone it has forged an excellent relationship with the local authority and the local community. This is symbolised by the grant to it of the freedom of Maidstone which, other commitments permitting, the regiment exercises each year.
I have spoken of the regiment's long association with Maidstone and the strong ties that it has with the town and the local community. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has also spoken warmly of that connection and of the value placed upon it. I am sure that her words will be echoed by members of that community, by their other representatives and by the local authorities there. From the Army's viewpoint it is gratifying that the regiment stands in such high regard in the area and that its presence there is so well appreciated. I am sure that it is well-deserved recognition of its place in the community, the part that it plays in local life and the assistance that it gives from time to time, about which I shall have more to say. I also know that the regiment itself attaches considerable value to this connection and that it appreciates the benefits of its location and the facilities to which it has access through being based at Maidstone. I am thus well aware that the regiment's present location is to the mutual advantage of the Army and of the civil community, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) have made clear this morning.
I wish to consider the particular question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and I will explain why the possibility of relocating 36th Engineers Regiment is under consideration and the factors that we must take into consideration when reaching a decision in that respect.
The size of the defence estate depends on the needs of the services and the procurement executive, but we are determined that it should be no larger than is necessary to carry out its task efficiently and effectively. We vigorously pursue opportunities to dispose of land and buildings no longer required for defence purposes. In the last financial year, for example, we raised more than £75 million by such sales and we hope at least to double that figure this year. Those sums are in addition to more than £400 million achieved in sales of land since 1979. I was encouraged to receive the explicit support of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent for that policy this morning. Ministry of Defence landholdings of some 600,000 acres account for about 1 per cent. of the total area of the United Kingdom. Some four-fifths of this MOD land is taken up by airfields and training areas, and our main opportunities for reduction and rationalisation are therefore likely to occur in the remaining area with, for example, depots, workshops and barrack accommodation. We are always seeking to identify opportunities for rationalisation in those areas, and decisions on future deployments take account of the estate costs.
Column 229As I am sure hon. Members will appreciate, our main consideration must be the operational requirement of the Armed Forces. Although possible receipts from disposals are one element in such decisions, we cannot manage the estate as a property portfolio in its own right. We need also to take into account other factors such as relocation costs. We are not always able to move as quickly as we would like, as the need to reprovide often very specialised facilities at the new site can involve significant initial capital investment which acts as a delaying factor and in some cases, may negate the advantages of rationalising and disposing of our holdings.
Despite those difficulties, we have recently been able to announce the relocation of a number of facilities which will enable us to release high value sites in the south-east. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), when he was Parliamentary
Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces announced last October that the officer and aircrew selection centre would move from RAF Biggin Hill to RAF Cranwell, where it will be located alongside the RAF college and will benefit from the environment of a busy station with an active military airfield. The decision to close Biggin Hill, with all its associations with the last war and the Battle of Britain, was taken only after a great deal of very careful thought, but it demonstrates the need to keep abreast of changing circumstances and to make the best use of our resources. Of course, we shall be maintaining the Battle of Britain memorial chapel at Biggin Hill, and the Gate Guardians as a lasting remainder of all those who sacrificed their lives within the Biggin Hill sector in the second world war. Elsewhere, the No. 1 school of technical training will be transferred from RAF Halton to RAF Cosford. That co-location will give us benefits in respect of costs and training facilities. Similarly, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement announced last week, we have concluded that a move to Preston farm in Teeside is the most cost- effective solution for the headquarters and laboratories of the directorate general of the defence quality assurance. The move would concentrate these functions on a single site with fully modern facilities, while at the same time releasing the Bromley and Woolwich sites that they currently occupy for disposal and redevelopment. We shall be consulting the trade unions about these plans, as is normal practice. More generally, and in line with the Government-wide relocation strategy, we are looking at the options for moving parts of our headquarters away from the high-cost and difficult recruitment area of London. In addition, I hope to be in a position to announce shortly our detailed plans for the rationalisation of the mainly RAF and Army holdings in the north-west London area.
Hon. Members should be in no doubt that we take our
responsibilities for the ownership and management of our estate very seriously. It is in that context that we have been considering the current location of 36th Engineer Regiment. A study carried out some five years ago to examine the potential for rationalisation of the estate considered a number of sites of high value which might be vacated and disposed of, and which would yield a substantial return to the defence budget. The site in Maidstone currently occupied by 36th Engineer Regiment was one identified for consideration of disposal in that way, and the report indicated that in view of its development potential the proceeds from selling the site would be very substantial. However, the study recognised