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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Secretary of State agree that, on the crucial medical services, the White Paper is strong on generalisations, which I welcome, but silent on points of detail? Is that not surprising, as a report was completed some months ago on the secondary care agency? Will he confirm that he will build on the core of the Royal Naval hospital at Haslar and the medical college at HMS Dolphin, retaining them as a centre of the enlarged medical services?

Mr. Robertson: Rebuilding the defence medical services and the morale that has disappeared will not be easy, but we are committing money and people to ensure that it happens. I cannot say what the final shape will be; Haslar and the local national health service trust are having on-going discussions. I want urgently to consider how best we can fulfil our commitment, use properly the money that we have set aside and ensure that one of the key capabilities of our armed forces is given the priority that people believe it should have.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln): May I pay particular tribute to the review's acknowledgement of the worth of our service people and its practical commitment to improving their lives through better personnel services, education and training and the task force for the family? Will my right hon. Friend tell my constituents when a decision is likely to be reached on the future of RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is right to point to the key role that people have in the review and in the armed forces as a whole. I am told that it is a cliche to say that people are our key asset, and I suppose that it is; it is repeated by those who have done them a disservice as well as by those who have done them a service. However, it is a fact of life. People make our defences the envy of the world; their capability and skills are highly important. She mentions the Royal Air Force, of which the same is true; the fast jets do not fly without skilled people to man them, and we give those people due priority.

We will announce in due course the implications of the review for individual circumstances, which are complex at this stage, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be relieved as a consequence.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for including me in the consultation process, and I am naturally gratified that some of the recommendations that I, among others, made have found their way into the document. He did not, however, properly answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples): will the carriers in fact be built? They are the only factor that justifies the word "strategic" in relation to the review, which is otherwise a list of fairly intelligent cuts and an exercise in saving money.

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How will the Secretary of State protect himself against the fact that, as soon as the Treasury realises how much equipment and expense will be involved in maintaining a dual-carrier task force--the review is short on detail--it will torpedo the carriers, leaving only the debris of the three services that have been pillaged to pay for them?

Mr. Robertson: I thought, when I made the announcement, that I would have the right hon. Gentleman's support, as I know of his abiding interest in the subject. Every capability in the Ministry of Defence has been examined thoroughly in the review. The balance in the document and in the supporting documents--he may care to read them--leads to clear conclusions about how we should best configure our forces to meet the uncertainties of the new world. That is why we decided to plan for two new carriers to replace the current three.

The costs of the carriers and the aircraft to go on them--decisions are still further down the line--will be considerable, but they will be spread over a long period in both preparation and delivery. It is no intention of the Government to make a proposal and then walk away from it. We are saying in the review what we believe will be right for our country's future and what should be delivered.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an inclusive and open process, culminating in the television programme, which was undoubtedly the talk of the steamie throughout Scotland. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it struck me as faintly bizarre that we have invested tens of thousands of pounds in technicians who have no transferable pieces of paper to take them into civilian life, and officers who can drive boats and ships across the world but are not qualified to drive a CalMac ferry across the Minch. I welcome the learning forces initiative. Does my right hon. Friend have a time scale in mind for its implementation?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is my own representative in Parliament, and a very fine one, too. I welcome her question. The transferable qualifications that we have proposed that all recruits and existing personnel should aim for are a key component of the review, to help to ensure that we recruit and retain the best people. The learning forces initiative is designed to be implemented as quickly as possible.

I know that my hon. Friend is in the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Royal Navy, and perhaps I may take the opportunity provided by her question to make a small announcement about the review's implications for our frigates. As the White Paper makes clear, the emphasis is moving away from large-scale maritime warfare and open-ocean operations, and as we have concluded that our force of attack submarines will be reduced from 12 to 10, there will be implications for frigates.

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HMS Splendid will pay off in 2003, when she was due for refit. HMS Spartan will have a refit in Rosyth, starting in 1999, but will pay off in 2006, a little earlier than previously planned. Five type 22 frigates based in Devonport will be paid off: in 1999, HMS Boxer, HMS Beaver and HMS London; HMS Brave will be paid off in 2000; and HMS Coventry in 2001, as two new type 23s are brought in. HMS Birmingham--a type 42 destroyer--will pay off as planned in 1999, to be replaced by a new type 23 frigate. It is right that the House should receive that news, not any outside audience.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I must conclude questions on the statement--[Interruption.] Order. Some Members are exasperated that they have been rising for a long time, but have not been called and I sympathise. At 4.15 pm, I said that progress was not to my satisfaction, but hon. Members ignored what I said and continued to put many questions to the Secretary of State, as well as making long statements. To a large extent, the House must discipline itself. I have done my utmost to call hon. Members with direct responsibility for defence establishments in their areas. If there is a debate on the White Paper, I shall see to it that those hon. Members who have taken an inordinate length of time asking questions today do not get priority.

Points of Order

5 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It arises from yesterday's debate, in which the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey(Mrs. Bottomley) sought to intervene on my speech. I initially resisted her intervention. However, I had named the right hon. Lady and intended to give way to her after I had completed that part of my speech. I apologise to the House for any unintended discourtesy on my part. I must reassure the House that I accept unequivocally that it is right and courteous to give way to right hon. and hon. Members whom one has named in a speech and I thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to advise the House that I intended no discourtesy to it.

Madam Speaker: Thank you.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I accept the hon. Gentleman's apology. Perhaps he should have allowed me the opportunity to right that wrong accusation, but I accept his apology and his endorsement of the convention.

Madam Speaker: I appreciate that. Thank you.

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Empty Homes (Value Added Tax)

5.1 pm

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I beg to move,

The Bill would take a large knife and cut the waste of empty homes, which litter our towns, cities and countryside. Ours is a small island straining to provide enough decent housing for all its inhabitants. With the countryside under threat from development and inner cities in need of regeneration, we have a bewildering and contradictory situation that allows the building of new houses on green-field sites to be exempt from value added tax, yet penalises those refurbishing, converting or saving homes by charging them VAT at the full rate at 17.5 per cent. The Bill would provide a greater incentive to the building industry to bring empty homes back into use by reducing the level of VAT paid on their refurbishment. In doing so, it would help to create a more sustainable house-building policy.

In England and Wales, more than 800,000 homes are empty, and the great bulk of them are in the private sector. When publishing the White Paper, "Planning for the Communities of the Future", my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced that the target for building homes on previously developed land would increase from 50 to 60 per cent., which was a welcome move. As we frame a new housing policy, it is vital that we consider how to sustain existing property. Wasted homes that are lying idle could make a significant contribution to the Government's inherited figure of 4.4 million homes being needed--or however many we end up believing we need.

Lowering VAT to 5 per cent. on the renovation and refurbishment of homes that have been empty for more than a year would make that significant contribution to providing for the nation's housing. The Government have stated that they are committed to producing an agenda for sustainable development and, in doing so, have undertaken to consider moving taxation to environmental bads from environmental goods. We saw evidence of that in the vehicle fuel escalator and the reducing of burdens on home energy-saving materials in the recent Budget. Most environmental groups are convinced that the use of empty homes would not only provide a contribution to housing the nation, but save the existing fabric of buildings and reduce toxic greenhouse emissions associated with the manufacture and transportation of materials.

Much has been done to bring empty properties back into use, but it has been led principally by local authorities, often in partnership with housing associations. I was responsible for introducing an empty property strategy on my local council. Within 18 months, we had refurbished 100 empty homes, but the cost had to be transferred to tenants through higher rents. High rents can prove a barrier or a disincentive to low-income families, or to those who want to move from welfare to work. If my Bill had been in place, my council could have renovated 15 more properties. The same is true of many excellent local authority initiatives up and down the country. However, the matter cannot be left to local councils, because most empty properties are in the private sector.

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There is proper concern about how we define an empty property in need of refurbishment. My Bill would not provide a loophole for anyone who left home on holiday, returned via a do-it-yourself store and sought a reduction in value added tax. The Bill addresses the 250,000 empty homes of long standing, on which councils all over the country have full information because of the details that they are required to provide from their council tax work. Councils are well placed to issue exemption certificates, as local authority bodies have said. A mechanism is in place for the avoidance of fraud.

The next question is whether the Bill's proposals are achievable under European law. The Government have successfully negotiated a cut in VAT on fuel. They had to work hard for that, and cutting VAT again would require time-consuming and difficult negotiations. However, a modest, sustainable and sensible policy would be better than the ill-conceived and contradictory existing policy that allows barns to be converted and millionaire mansions to be built on green-field sites for social reasons, free of VAT, while local councils have to stump up the full whack when they bring a two-up, two-down terraced house back into use for a family on low pay. The policy is the wrong way round.

I concede that there would be an initial loss of revenue. However, we should not lose sight of the savings that my Bill would bring. Increasing work on empty homes will increase the VAT yield. More work for the construction industry means more national insurance and tax contributions. Lower rents will cut benefit bills, and grants to housing associations could also be reduced.

My Bill does not go far enough. I am constrained by the rules on Bills from promoting all that I would like. I want the Government to create a level playing field for the refurbishment of long-standing empty homes and the building of new homes on green-field sites by harmonising VAT at 5 per cent.--a move which was supported by more than 60 hon. Members on both sides of the House in early-day motion 1467. Harmonisation would yield £200 million a year for the Treasury if 176,000 houses were built. That truly would be a sustainable policy.

The Bill is supported by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the Civic Trust and the Empty Homes Agency, which has done much work and which deserves tribute. Moreover, the Bill has been recommended to the Government by their own advisory panel on sustainable development.

Reducing VAT on refurbishment of long-standing empty properties to 5 per cent. is an important first step towards dealing with the waste that bedevils our community. We inherited an appalling legacy in social housing, with council house repairs running at £20 billion. The Government made a good start by releasing council house receipts, but many families still live in appalling bed-and-breakfast accommodation, which is bad for their health, bad for their children's education and an indictment of society. The indictment is all the greater when houses are waiting for renovation and builders want to do the work.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Jonathan Shaw, Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews, Mr. Bill Rammell, Dr. Brian Iddon, Mr. David Chaytor, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Jane Griffiths, Mr. Martin Salter, Mr. Derek Wyatt, Mr. Vernon Coaker and Mr. Brian Sedgemore.

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