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6. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): If he will make a statement on the refurbishment of service families' housing. [104540]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): We are spending £470 million on a comprehensive programme to refurbish service families housing. Currently those families' quarters which have been upgraded total 7,958, or 14 per cent. A further 23,514, or 42 per cent., are close to this standard. The remaining families' quarters are at various stages of upgrade and it is planned that the programme will be complete by the end of 2005.

Mr. Gray: I thank the Minister for that answer, but does he admit that about £11 million has been cut from the budget this year for the much-needed refurbishment of service accommodation? About 30,000 service families are currently living in substandard housing. Is he not concerned about the many vacant houses? For example, at RAF Lyneham in my constituency, there are about 80 houses vacant on a relatively small site. In that context, will he take an early opportunity to have a word with CouncillorMrs. Elizabeth Hitchens, the Liberal Democrat housing chairman on the North Wiltshire district council, who by chance is also a Ministry of Defence employee and the manager of the said 80 empty houses at RAF Lyneham?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I try to avoid talking to Lib Dem housing spokesmen. We have one in the city which I represent in part. The Lib Dems are making a big enough mess there to compensate for everywhere else.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that theplans for RAF Lyneham, in which I know he takes a tremendous interest, will include upgrading the Slessor road, Melsome road and Preston lane estates. I am sure that he will be happy about that. There is no reduction in the money that has been allocated for these purposes. The hon. Gentleman should examine the record of the Conservative party when it was in government before he came into the House, and the debacle of Annington Homes, when properties were sold off in a so-called private finance initiative, which seemed to be balanced entirely in the interests of the Nomura bank rather than those of the families housed in those properties.

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Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): Does the Minister agree that the previous Government's actions, especially on the sale of married quarters, were totally botched and appalling value for money for the taxpayer?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I have to agree with my hon. Friend; the previous Government did a botched-up job. We--including the families who are forced to live in substandard accommodation--have had to pay the price for the deal that the previous Government did, which partly financed tax cuts that the country could not afford. The people who lived in those houses could not afford for money to be dissipated in that way.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Minister knows that there is a great deal of service accommodation in my constituency. He will recall that in various sessions of Defence questions last year, I raised grave anxieties with the Minister for the Armed Forces about the way in which discussions were conducted between Ministry of Defence officials, especially Defence Estates officials, and officers of my local borough council. They bypassed the interests of elected representatives.

The Minister will be as shocked as I was to hear that, in the past few weeks, Ministry of Defence officials attempted to talk in confidence to officers of the council, thus completely bypassing councillors of all three parties who have a democratic mandate. There is anxiety about married quarters accommodation, and the danger of sweetheart deals between Defence Estates officials and developers, who will ignore the interests of local people. Will the Minister and his colleagues give a further rocket to officials in Defence Estates and ensure that those of all three parties who are democratically elected are consulted first about issues that relate to Deepcut and the Royal Logistic Corps and other defence sites?

Mr. Kilfoyle: The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a long-standing and well-established procedure of confidentiality in such discussions. I am not sure whether he is clear about the difference between Defence Estates and the Defence Housing Executive. We are firmly committed to ensuring that those who live in substandard housing will live in housing of an appropriate quality by the end of the programme in 2005.

Many improvements are already under way. I cannot speak about specific housing in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but the work that has been done on housing in, for example, Catterick, is of a standard that we want to achieve for all our service families.

Asset Sales

7. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): If his Department's targets for efficiency savings and receipts from asset sales have so far been achieved. [104541]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): The Ministry of Defence's targets for efficiency improvements and the sale of surplus estate assets cover the period 1998 to 2002, as set out in the Department's public service agreement. The targets for 1998-99 were achieved, with efficiency savings of £594 million against a target of £505 million, and receipts from asset sales of £158 million against a target

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of £150 million. The Department is on track to meet its targets in this financial year and over the remainder of the PSA period.

Mr. Ruffley: I draw the Minister's attention to the comments of Admiral Sir John Brigstocke. He said that £1.5 million, which had been earmarked for the Surgeon General's department, is being wiped out as efficiency savings. In other words, that represents £1.5 million of budget cuts. In the light of that, does the Minister understand the contempt of serving men and women in our armed forces for a Government who are happy to send them into battle zones but do not have the decency to fund the health care that they need when they fall sick?

Mr. Kilfoyle: That was a good try, but wholly misdirected. The claim is untrue. Such a cut has not been made. A letter from the admiral shows that our actions on resources and funding have been understood at the highest level. We are beginning a get well programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are trying to rectify the cuts that we inherited. That takes time, and such action has to be balanced against other operational requirements.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): The Minister has hinted at part of the problem: the Government inherited a disastrous medical service that had been cut not on the basis of need, but purely to make savings. Does he agree that we cannot run defence medical services in such a way and that, although it will take a long time, the Government are committed to replacing those services?

Mr. Kilfoyle: It was always anticipated that cuts would be made by the previous Government, but I fear that the real problem was their lack of both coherence and a comprehensive view of the country's defence needs. It is a constant refrain that they made ad hoc cuts in a variety of ways, which had consequences that they never imagined.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Will the Minister make it absolutely clear from the outset that the Prime Minister's press spokesman is wrong and unfair to attack senior military staff for simply leaking documents ahead of budget discussions? That is outrageous. Is not the reality that there have been cuts in housing, fuel and health? The housing programme has slipped by at least three years, the Government cut the fuel budget by 30 per cent. and then had to raise it by 25 per cent., and there was definitely a cut of £1.5 million in the get well programme in their health budget. This morning, they panicked and talked about remedial action with fast-tracking in Portsmouth. Have they talked to Portsmouth health authority, and exactly what waiting list will they damage now?

Mr. Kilfoyle: No, I have not spoken to Portsmouth health authority; and no, I certainly would not question the probity of the Prime Minister's official spokesman--that would take a brave man on this side of the House. I also say no to the hon. Gentleman's assertions about where cuts have allegedly been made. Even if they had been made, I would ask him to say where he would find the money to make up those cuts, which are notional--he has invented them.

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Defence Medical Services

8. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): If he will make a statement on the reorganisation of defence medical services. [104542]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The reorganisation of defence medical services following the strategic defence review is on track. We have established a close partnership with the Department of Health and with the national health service at local level to manage the transition to new arrangements in the Portsmouth area. As I announced on 13 December 1999, the University Hospital Birmingham NHS trust has been selected as the preferred host for the new centre for defence medicine and we are very excited by the prospects for that vital new development.

Mr. Viggers: Is the Minister aware that this is one problem that the Government cannot wriggle out of by trying to blame somebody else? He who dealt with a shortage of doctors and nurses by closing the one remaining military hospital--Haslar, in my constituency. What will be the cost of developing the new facilities at Birmingham and how do they compare with the cost of building up Haslar, as was planned in defence costs study 15 in 1994? He ought to have those numbers at his fingertips, but if he does not will he write to me in detail?

Mr. Spellar: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with his Front-Bench spokesman, who said on the radio this morning:

He went on to say:

    "Oh I think absolutely . . . beyond any doubt we recognise that those cuts in the Defence Medical Services had gone too far."

I therefore think it very appropriate to blame a Government who cut £55 million out of £400 million on defence costs study 15. That led to the situation that we inherited, with the rundown of defence medical services.

Unfortunately, the problem with the medical side is that it takes much longer to train individuals in the medical disciplines in order to repair those cuts. I have been down to our defence hospital unit at Derriford in Plymouth and talked to the staff. There was tremendous enthusiasm in the unit, which is of the same type that we shall have in Portsmouth, precisely because it is getting the sort of work, throughput and training that will enable the staff to undertake their tasks. That is the real experience, not the scare stories that the hon. Gentleman is putting about.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): The Minister will recall the report of the Select Committee on Defence in the previous Parliament, which highlighted the Conservative Government's appalling cuts in resources, manpower and equipment. What action have this Government taken and can he assure the House that those cuts will be reversed?

Mr. Spellar: We have already allocated £140 million over four years. It was that which was behind the letter from Admiral Sir John Brigstocke when he said that the situation into which defence medical services had been allowed by the previous Administration to slip had now

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been recognised at the highest level and that a get well programme was beginning. In addition, there are the other measures to which I have just drawn attention.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Given the Minister's sympathetic response, and accepting that the defence medical services' problems were inherited from the previous Government, as was amply demonstrated bythe Select Committee's report, does he agree that the problems of the defence medical services, of overstretch and of procurement, and the other problems that the armed forces now face, simply demonstrate that the world has moved on from the strategic defence review? Is it not time to revisit that review and to match the Government's aspirations with our defence ability?

Mr. Spellar: It was as a result of the strategic defence review that we allocated the extra £140 million to defence medical services, moved towards a centre for defence medicine and, driven by the need for medical accreditation from the royal colleges, moved from Haslar into the arrangement with the Portsmouth Hospitals NHS trust. Those developments are starting to work their way through. One problem with the health service is that it takes much longer to train people and see the results of that compared with some other disciplines. That was the particular problem that resulted from the substantial cuts that were acknowledged by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) on the radio this morning.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): May we now come to the nub of the matter? Can the Minister explain to the House how it was, when I asked him what had happened to the £1.5 million allocated for orthopaedic waiting lists, that he said in a written answer last Monday that there had been no cut because there had been no allocation--a point that he repeated to the Select Committee? We then discovered that, as long ago as last December, Admiral Sir John Brigstocke had written confirming that there had been an allocation and a cut of £1.5 million. I for one feel misled. Who is right--the admiral or the Minister?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is becoming very excited. It would have helped not only him but the listeners and hon. Members if he had read the full answer that I gave on 17 January. I said:

That is absolutely true. I rather wish that the hon. Gentleman, along with some BBC reporters, would not be selective in quoting from such answers.

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