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School Access (Service Families)

4. Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): What steps his Department is taking to improve access to schools for service families. [113691]

11. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): What steps his Department is taking to improve access to schools for service families. [113698]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The service families task force has achieved considerable success in improving access to schools for service families. There is reference to service children in the Department for Education and Employment's code of practice on school admissions. The Service Children's Education Agency is now a formal member of, or is in attendance at, 18 local education authority admission forums. Although some families are still experiencing problems, the code has generally improved access to education for service families.

Ms Coffey: As someone who was brought up in a service family and went to seven different primary and secondary schools, I welcome the Minister's reply, which I am sure will also be widely welcomed by thousands of service families who experience real difficulty in getting access to schools to enable their children to have a decent education. What evidence is there that the new guidance is having an impact?

Mr. Spellar: Discussions are under way with service families. In the Chester area, which is quite close to my hon. Friend's constituency and where the 1st Battalion of the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire is stationed, all the families have been able to put their children into their school of first choice. We recognise that there are still some difficulties, but progress is being made, and there is a willingness by admissions bodies across the country to understand the particular difficulties

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and necessities that arise because of the requirements of service life and service careers--which my hon. Friend will obviously understand, given her background.

Charlotte Atkins: I am pleased to hear that progress has been made on this long-standing problem, but does the Minister accept that, because of their mobile life styles, service families also experience difficulties in gaining access to national health service waiting lists and in finding NHS dentists? What progress is being made in that regard?

Mr. Spellar: The NHS has made provision for extra dental services in areas that we identified as having particular difficulties and containing a large number of service families. The same applies to access to doctors' waiting lists. Those improvements are being achieved by the service families task force, which I chair and whose members include Ministers from a number of other Departments. The task force has focused on difficulties arising specifically from the service life style, and on the responses that other Departments can often make quite easily and effectively.

We are also examining hospital waiting lists. Some people, especially those with less threatening but often very painful conditions, may be on waiting lists for longer than they and their families are in the relevant location. We are undertaking further work on the jobseeker's allowance, and we have had considerable success in regard to student loans. From September this year, students--even if they have been resident abroad with the armed forces--will have access to loans.

Ours is a considerable record of success. Not only are we proud of that record, but we believe that it has had a real effect on the conditions experienced by the service families who play such an important part in ensuring the effectiveness of our armed forces.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I welcome the progress made by the service families task force, which is clearly an improvement on that of recent years.

Does the Minister agree that when men and women leave the armed forces, it is important for them to have access to the services that they need, in the places where they need them? Will he discuss with housing authorities the possibility of those who have served their country being put at the top of housing lists when they return to the local authority areas from which they originally came?

Mr. Spellar: There is a considerable housing problem, not least because the last Administration encouraged the selling off of so many properties. A number of Army families, in particular, are experiencing difficulties; this applies less to Navy and Royal Air Force families. When we have dealt with the immediate issues, we shall need to explore those difficulties further.

Once some problems have been solved, others always arise. For instance, the mobile life style of many service personnel causes difficulties with access to credit. I have asked my officials to discuss that with credit organisations. After all, we are talking about people with

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regular incomes and assured careers. We want to ensure that they have proper access to credit, and we are making considerable progress in that regard.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Will the service families task force, whose establishment I welcome, undertake to audit the provision of facilities on bases throughout the United Kingdom? Is the Minister aware that the 1,400 service personnel based at Warminster have access to two playgroups, a creche, a mothers and toddlers group and a youth club, whereas the 7,698 service men at Catterick enjoy no such provision? Is it not time that our service men had equal provision, regardless of where they are based?

Mr. Spellar: This is almost a case of "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

If we had uniform provision, we would never make progress. Once we have made progress in some areas, we can see what works and then start to "level up". As I have said, we have made considerable progress, but we regard what we are doing as work in progress. We appreciate that there will be future needs, because of changing aspirations and changing life styles. For instance, far more service wives now work and have careers, and that creates problems for families because of the mobile life style. We are continuing to work on this. We do not think that we have solved all the problems; I merely say that we have made considerable progress.


5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): When he last met the Chancellor of the Exchequer to discuss defence procurement. [113692]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has regular meetings with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Cabinet colleagues to discuss a range of defence issues, including procurement.

Mr. Swayne: Which procurement exercises have been cancelled, deferred or withdrawn during the current Parliament?

Dr. Moonie: None.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West): Will my hon. Friend confirm that we inherited many of the procurement problems that have been reported by the press from the previous Government? Will he also confirm that we inherited a total overrun cost of £3 billion and an average delay of three years on the top 25 projects? What action is he taking to correct that?

Dr. Moonie: I can indeed confirm that. Because of smart procurement, we are on track to achieve the £2 billion of reductions in spending on equipment procurement by 2007-08. We aim to achieve that as a result of the defence review. The programme to introduce the new structures and procedures is right on course, with integrated project teams, a new customer organisation in

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my headquarters and a range of new processes. Smart procurement really is a complete overhaul of all aspects of the business of buying and managing equipment.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Does the Minister accept that the immense purchasing power of the armed forces can have a direct effect on the economy of these islands and that, other things being equal, that effect should be borne in mind, not least in the purchase of meat for the armed forces? There is an inability, apparently, to secure home-grown lamb from any competitive source. Surely that can be reversed, and it is possible to purchase lamb from within these islands.

Madam Speaker: Order. Questions should be about defence procurement.

Dr. Moonie: With regard to the procurement of beef and lamb, I am doing everything that I can to facilitate the purchase of those materials from British sources.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): In his discussions with the Chancellor, will my hon. Friend ensure that the case is put forward for the Meteor and A400M programmes, on which tens of thousands of jobs in the north-west depend? I realise that finance is always important, and savings of £300 million could come with the Antonov 124-100.

Dr. Moonie: I cannot comment now on the purchase of the BVRAAM--beyond visual range air-to-air missile--because we are evaluating the bids that we have received from two groups of companies: Matra BAe Dynamics and Raytheon Systems Ltd. However, our assessment will take into account a wide range of factors, including missile performance, cost, technical risk, industrial issues and overall value for money.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): I think that the Minister may need to think again about his rather hasty answer to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). Surely, last summer, the original C17 leasing contract was shelved indefinitely and the current heavy-lift contracts and projects are all being considerably delayed. Those are just two examples.

Is it not time that Defence Ministers or perhaps the Chancellor himself--who no doubt imposed the savings--came clean about those efficiency savings? Is it not a fact that the Select Committee, which has a Labour majority, now regards those so-called efficiency savings as thoroughly suspect? When, for example, 65 per cent.--

Madam Speaker: Order. We want a question to the Minister. We do not want examples.

Mr. Davies: But if 65 per cent. of the current cost of running a warship goes on salaries, which cannot be arbitrarily reduced, and if, as the Minister himself has acknowledged, all the forces are under strength, those savings will have to come--

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Madam Speaker: Order. I expect Front Benchers in particular to put questions to Ministers and not to hold the House up, as the hon. Gentleman is doing with examples. He should put a question to the Minister.

Mr. Davies: Is it not a fact that those efficiency savings are thoroughly bogus? To get 3 per cent. savings out of the remaining 35 per cent. the Government will have to cut spares, fuel and so forth by 10 per cent. each and every year--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat.

Dr. Moonie: I shall reply briefly, Madam Speaker.

The decision on heavy-lift capability is a difficult one to make, as we are evaluating several excellent prospects. To get value for money, it is essential that we make a rational decision and make absolutely certain that we are satisfying our armed forces' need for a heavy-lift capability. It takes time to do that.

On spending, the hon. Gentleman should address himself to the cuts that the previous Administration made prior to the general election.

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