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Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the Minister confirm that those Army caterers were trained in Aldershot?

Mr. Spellar: Not only that, but I suspect that they have probably recently used the excellent sporting facilities that

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I know the hon. Gentleman has visited, built on time and to price, as an excellent part of smart construction. They are extremely good facilities which are--to answer the hon. Gentleman's question of yesterday--part of our continuing commitment to Aldershot.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Will the Minister also give a commitment to farmers in the Ribble valley and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom that, where possible, the food will be sourced from United Kingdom farmers?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will have seen what we managed to achieve with beef. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be making a further announcement on meat in his winding-up speech, which I think the hon. Gentleman will find of interest.

The DLO is working on a number of initiatives to revise the principles of supply chain management to generate better ways of working. The aim is a step change in stockholding and repair and maintenance practices which will reduce the volume, value and complexity of the inventory, in turn reducing storage requirements. Greater commercial involvement in support and the increased use of public-private partnerships will improve the delivery and reduce the cost of both logistics and engineering support.

We are also transforming the way we buy the mass of low-value but high-volume items consumed by the armed forces. One example is the Government procurement card which we launched earlier in the year and is now in use at 147 sites. It is effectively a charge card that enables goods and services to be ordered and paid for whenever required, without the need for large amounts of form filling. I have spoken to those on the shop floor who are using it and they find it enormously helpful. It creates greater job satisfaction, because they can get on with the work rather than waiting for parts to come in. They say that it speeds up work, cuts down bureaucracy and reduces turnaround times. That is good for the armed forces on the front line and also for our people in the support chain.

These initiatives are designed to meet the chief of defence logistics' target of 20 per cent. savings on output costs over the next five years, releasing resources for the front line.

From the outset of the strategic defence review, we have acknowledged the need to do more for the men and women who serve in our armed forces and their colleagues. Since taking up office, we have done a great deal to improve the lives of service personnel and their families.

On operational welfare, our levels of operational commitment have been steadily falling in recent months. Some 22 per cent. of the Army is currently committed to operations, compared with 44 per cent. at the height of the Kosovo campaign. We are committed to bringing people home as soon as possible. For example, force levels for operations in Kosovo have reduced from 13,000 last summer to around 3,000 now. It is right that our armed forces should be heavily involved at the height of such operations, given their capabilities and rapid response. It is also right that once the conditions have been created for others to take over some of those tasks, they should do so. The corresponding increase in time

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between operational deployments that this brings about is welcome. However, we must also recognise the pressures on families during operational deployment.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): One area in which our commitment is increasing is Sierra Leone. Back in June, 250 troops were sent there to help with training. The commitment is now more than 1,000 troops and several royal naval vessels. To many people in the House and outside, rampant mission creep seems to be going on in Sierra Leone. While the situation is awful, and we want to support the United Nations, it seems to me and to many others that no discernible British interest could justify United Kingdom military action in Sierra Leone. If the Foreign and Commonwealth Office allows us to be drawn into that, there will be substantial opposition.

Mr. Spellar: The total number involved in the training and the headquarters support is about 400. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the amphibious group that will be going to Sierra Leone to demonstrate the practicality and effectiveness of the rapid response. That will be for a brief period during November. I do not therefore think that the hon. Gentleman should read that as the kind of dramatic increase that he described.

When our troops are involved in operations, that puts pressure on families. That is why, as I have said before, we have increased the telephone allowance, from three to 20 minutes a week so that deployed personnel can better keep in touch with those at home. We have also provided modern facilities for those wishing to keep in touch via the internet including the "electronic bluey" We have provided internet terminals at military bases and families centres around the country, in our overseas garrisons and on many ships, so that as many people as possible can have access to it.

We have introduced Project WELCOME, a new communications system that gives service personnel deployed on operations access to a welfare telephone while away from home. On my visits to various bases, I have seen that this is working and starting to have an impact on the service. These arrangements have already worked well during recent operations in East Timor, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.

We have also introduced guaranteed periods of post-operational tour leave so that personnel can be assured that they will be able to spend time with their families when they return from operations. That is because we value our forces--service men and women alike--who do a great job. I am sure that many will greatly resent the comments of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) yesterday. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here today. They will resent the hon. Gentleman's slurs about the quality of women in our armed forces. I think that he showed himself in his true colours when he praised the forces for being "old-fashioned". No, they are not old-fashioned; they are traditional. The armed forces support traditional values and are probably one of the best examples in our country of traditional values in a modern setting. Service men and women support traditional values but are very up to date in their thinking, adaptability and flexibility.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Can my hon. Friend confirm that steps are being taken to improve the accommodation facilities in Kuwait for our forces?

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That was drawn to the attention of the Ministry of Defence by the Select Committee on Defence some months ago. The Ministry of Defence replied that improvements were due to start in November. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those improvements will be made and that our forces in Kuwait will get adequate accommodation in the near future?

Mr. Spellar: Those matters were drawn to our attention by the Select Committee on Defence, and to my attention by members of the armed forces about three weeks ago, when I went to Kuwait. I have also had discussions with the Kuwaiti Government, and I understand that the contracts should be signed shortly, which we and they will welcome.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The Minister may not be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not here today because he had a long-standing constituency engagement, which was arranged long before this debate was scheduled; that is why he spoke yesterday.

My recollection is that my hon. Friend's remarks were to the effect that there were certain key military tasks that women, because of their lighter physique and lesser physical strength, could not undertake successfully. That was recognised by the Equal Opportunities Commission when it gave evidence to the Defence Committee a few days ago.

Mr. Spellar: Practical reasons are precisely why the Army is undertaking a full study of that issue, on which it will report next year. It will evaluate the matter properly, unlike the hon. Member for Blaby, from whom we heard the standard blimpish prejudice, which does our debate no good. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) rightly said that there should be a proper evaluation and assessment of military effectiveness. That is why a proper study is being undertaken. We do not need knee-jerk reactions. They may go down well in saloon bars but they are not appropriate in the House.

We should consider both the forces who are deployed and their families who remain at home. That is why we set up the service families taskforce and encourage families federations for the various services. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) discussed the Navy yesterday. It is true that for a while the Navy did not have a families federation, but we were delighted to support the creation of that body, which provides a channel of communication.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Several of my constituents are the families of the men who serve on HMS Tireless, which is in Gibraltar. There is a feeling that that vessel may be there until next spring. However, little information is reaching the families, who need to know exactly what is going on so that they can make plans for the future. I hope that the information will be disseminated.

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