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I then checked out the Defence Estates website, which I recommend; it is very good indeed. The latest entry on that website is dated 12 October, which is very recent. The way in which Defence Estates is filling in the background to the policy decisions that it has to implement is to be commended. I learned a lot from the website this morning. It states:
I then used a link to the Army Families Federation website. I congratulate the AFF on tackling many of the issues that affect the families and the Government's people policy. Its website represents a great advance and must be widely used because it is accessible from Cyprus, Germany, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. However, that catalogue of delight has a downside: when I phoned the Army Families Federation to congratulate it on the website, I heard that it was having a tough time because
The Army Families Federation keeps us well briefed on housing and married quarters issues. Many hon. Members have referred to those continuing problems. The sale of married quarters to Annington Homes was the best answer that the Conservative party could find when in government to release money that would otherwise be withheld by the Treasury. That sale was hugely controversial, but it seems to be working quite well now. However, there are still problems with the Defence Housing Executive, such as the cutting of its budget, and pushing back refurbishment by a couple of years was not welcome.
Another issue that affects many Army families overseas is the pet travel scheme, at which I ask Ministers to look seriously. The situation in Germany and in Cyprus is particularly difficult. Will Ministers look at the situation in Germany, where there is a dangerous dogs Act? Staffordshire bull terriers are subject to the new size and weight limits under that legislation, which is distressing for families. It is also feared that the Act will cover soppy Labradors. It will be difficult for forces families if their Labradors are classed as dangerous dogs in Germany.
There is also a problem in relation to Cyprus. I believe that the King's Own Scottish Borderers are due to return to the United Kingdom in February 2001. As many as 400 owners of domestic pets will expect to take advantage of the Government's inclusion of Cyprus in the pet travel scheme. That is welcome. However, there are logistical problems; my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) has brought the matter to my attention and I am grateful to him. Not only does movement in January look difficult, but the legislation necessary to include Cyprus in the scheme might be knocked back because of the Government's legislative problems in the other place. There are also problems of transit. I understand that both British Airways and Cyprus Airways are reluctant to carry pets back to this country--and, if they did, where would they go? The issue is causing distress to families in Cyprus on quite a large scale. I would be grateful if Ministers looked at it.
The final issue to which I want to refer is the problem of medical services and attention to medical records. We know that, in Sierra Leone, there were some 50 cases of malaria. By good luck, the first forces in happened to be heading for an exercise, so they had all the right inoculations and all was well, but I think I am right in saying that the spearhead battalion was not inoculated. Everyone in the spearhead battalion cannot be completely
I discussed the matter with some Australian army officers, who regularly have to operate in tropical situations. They were amazed at the drug being used by the British military and were not surprised that there were problems of dizziness, loss of vision and so on, which could be dangerous in a military situation.
I remember my experience with anti-malaria pills in Nicaragua. I was issued with two bottles. I had to take the pills from one bottle every day and from the other bottle every week. I got them the wrong way round. It was a most peculiar experience--not a very good one.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: While my hon. Friend is on the subject of Army medical services, will he pay tribute to the TA, which is providing so many personnel to cover for military medical services in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere? They are playing a valuable part.
Mr. Key: I echo that warm tribute to the TA and its contribution to defence medical services. We look forward to a resolution of the problems in defence medical services. No doubt that is a debate for another day.
I was pleased that the Minister for the Armed Forces answered a parliamentary question on Monday setting out the MOD's policy on tropical diseases. That is good news because it gets things set out properly, but there is another issue, to which I draw Ministers' attention. Regarding the Defence Committee report--I think it was the second--on Gulf war syndrome, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), said that the MOD faced the problem of a lack of records--when soldiers were inoculated in the field, records were not kept--that one of the answers was likely to be an electronic tag, which could be programmed on site, and that work was being done on that.
That was 1996. In 1999, I took the matter up and asked a parliamentary question. The Minister for the Armed Forces replied in a letter on 19 August, saying that smart cards could have personnel and logistics applications. He said:
The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that our debate had been good-humoured and good-natured, which was generally true. Unfortunately, however, it started rather unpleasantly with attacks from the hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) concerning Air Marshal Day's appearance before the Select Committee on Defence. I checked what happened. Officials asked Air Marshal Day whether he would give an interview to The Sunday Times. That paper could not get to the briefing that Air Marshal Day and an official gave on Tuesday. The interview was not at the instigation of Ministers although, of course, Ministers' offices would have been informed of it in the normal way. Any suggestion that Air Marshal Day was pressurised into giving an interview is utter nonsense and shows that the hon. Members for Portsmouth, South and for Canterbury do not know the man. It is appropriate to put that on the record. Indeed, the hon. Gentlemen gave differing interpretations of the matter and might have done better to have waited until the record came out, rather than leap in as they did.
The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) got in on the act and, as usual, returned to the question of the Chief of the Defence Staff in Kosovo. During the major conflict in Kosovo in which the armed forces were engaged day in, day out, we all remember that the hon. Gentleman's main contribution was to call for the Chief of the Defence Staff to be sacked. The hon. Gentleman may think that we have forgotten that, but we certainly have not. Frankly, he will never be taken seriously on defence in this House until he apologises for that despicable behaviour.
The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) returned again to the question of the Navy not leaving port at Christmas. I thought that I dealt with that quite well at the time, when I said that that was a very good thing too. Apart from the strategic deterrent or important operations, I would certainly hope that the fleet would be alongside at Christmas so that personnel could be at home with their families. It never ceases to amaze me why Conservative Members keep raising that issue.
The speech of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green and those of some other hon. Members seemed to be slightly obsessive in relation to Europe. It was a little reminiscent of the obsessive period in the Labour party when everything had to be analysed in relation to class. There were class analyses of, for example, industrial relations, social relations, the neighbourhood and the family. There was also an analysis of football and the class struggle.
A colleague in the Greenwich Labour party told me about a debate on pets being kept on one of the local estates. The argument went on for a while, until one of the members got up and said, "Comrades, are we not forgetting something? Comrade Lenin had a cat." After that intervention, a whole new debate was begun on that interesting bit of sociological information. It is getting a little like that among Conservative Members--everything comes back to their obsession with Europe. They are concerned about Europe and football, or about Europe and defence.
Conservative Members' obsession with Europe extends even to mounting a sustained criticism of a very eminent European official. The fact that he is a previous Secretary General of NATO did not seem to phase them in their criticism. They seemed to think that he is a bit subversive, which makes it a little surprising that he was appointed to that office when they were in government and, presumably, had some influence in the matter. They have attacked someone who has served Europe, European defence and NATO extremely well.
I think that Conservative Members, rather than continuing the internal Conservative party feud on Europe, should be considering what best serves the United Kingdom's interests and examining--as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said--what works best in the opinion of other NATO members, including the United States.
Of course we do not want separate planning and the creation of a parallel bureaucracy; Europe and NATO do not have the resources to do that. That is precisely why we want to use NATO assets. I should think that hon. Members would want to support that position, which sustains the alliance rather than weakens it. One of the key questions frequently asked by our friends in the United States is about Europe spending more money, getting greater output and bearing its share of the defence burden.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) talked about the Defence Aviation Repair Agency at St. Athan. A clear feature of DARA's plan has been to consolidate and specialise on different sites. The DARA Fleetlands facility, for example, transferred electronics work to DARA Sealands. So successful has that specialisation been, and so successful the management of DARA, that various leading American companies are working in partnership with it to service third-party contracts. In Almondbank, in Perth, for example, DARA
It is a real success story, but it requires efficient management and some rationalisation and specialisation, particularly in the use of specialist equipment. Obviously, there will have to be discussions with the work force and with their trade unions, to ensure that the work force's best interests are accommodated. However, we should not resist rationalisation without paying due regard to its benefits.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan talked about married quarters. I do not know the details of the case that he described, but I am prepared to look into it. Sometimes a local housing authority requires a formal legal eviction notice in order that someone can get council accommodation. That happens within families, because, as Members of Parliament, we have to tell people to write a letter, giving the member of their family notice to leave the property so that they can then formally register, under the required regulations, with the local authority for housing. Sometimes that necessity is distressing, but there is a reason for it. However, that does not mean that mistakes are not made.
We understand the problems of housing that we inherited, not least the rushed and botched job of the sale to Annington Homes. The amount needed for repair was underestimated and therefore the time scale for the renovation of the properties had to be moved from 2003 to 2005. However, nearly 25 per cent. of the stock is at standard 1 condition and about 52 per cent requires some refurbishment--but not a great amount--to raise it to standard 1. Quite a bit of the stock still requires refurbishment and at least £61 million will be spent in this financial year on upgrades.
I take the point that the focus has been on family quarters and some fairly appalling single living accommodation. The Under-Secretary is responsible for our construction programme and he is working with Defence Estates and the top level budget holders on a programme for refurbishing or rebuilding properties. That is important.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) talked about SSNs; I am pleased that he welcomed the good news on HMS Triumph. He talked about co-operation with other countries, and I have drawn attention to the fact that we have had discussions with our long-standing partner in nuclear submarine operations, the US Navy. Those discussions have been successful and we work closely with it on the technical details. We also support each other.
The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife, the hon. Members for Portsmouth, South, for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and others talked about the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash. We part company here, as we believe that flying too fast, too low and into fog is negligence. Frankly, various other details that are put forward do not change that fundamental point.