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Mr. Spellar: It has been said several times from this Dispatch Box that we must assess the final requirement for repairs, and the time scale that that will entail. We are awaiting a report from our engineering experts in order to

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undertake those repairs, and obviously we shall disseminate the information to the forces and their families. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter.

We have sought to recognise the impact of operations and to introduce various innovations aimed at mitigating some of the differences between service and civilian life. We have taken a leading role in cross-departmental liaison in support of our forces and their families, and the taskforce began its work in the autumn of 1998.

During the past couple of years we have achieved some impressive results, including the code of practice on schools admissions, which now makes specific reference to service children. Service children's education is now represented on new local authority admissions forums in most areas where there are large numbers of service children, and local education authorities are directed to be sensitive to the position of service children returning from abroad. I recognise that there are still some difficulties, but the position is considerably better than it was.

The children of members of the armed forces are now exempt from the three-year residency requirement that is normally needed to qualify for student loans. That means that service children will no longer be disadvantaged by the fact that their parents are serving abroad, especially in Germany or Cyprus.

As a result of the problems that were brought to light by the service families taskforce, the national health service established 24 incentive schemes for dentists to take on more NHS patients in areas where there are large numbers of service personnel. We established that service spouses were, through no fault of their own, not meeting the criteria that would allow them to claim the jobseeker's allowance as they moved around the country. Working with the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security, we produced guidance to overcome the problem.

We are also considering how to help service children with special educational needs, and how to tackle the refusal of credit to service personnel. We believe that it is wrong for the men and women who serve their country with such courage and dedication to be denied services that many of the rest of us take for granted, simply because we require those people, as part of their duty, to move around the country more than the average person would, or to serve overseas.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Although I am no great lover of Labour Defence Ministers, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on the work of the taskforce, which really has made a material difference to the families of members of the services.

Mr. Spellar: I am stuck for a reply; this is totally unprecedented. I merely thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity.

On training and education, we want to enhance the ability of our personnel in their current work and to improve their ability to seek employment when they leave our service. We are rethinking the ways in which we train and educate our forces. Our learning forces initiative is our contribution to the Government's wider learning age proposals. It will greatly enhance our success with distance learning. Personnel are tapping into the DFEE national network, which involves the learn direct telephone service and online learning advice centres.

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The Royal Navy has successfully trialled IT-based learning facilities at sea in the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious. The Army has 115 new internet sites in 33 interactive learning centres.

The motivation that lies behind such initiatives is simple. We want to ensure that the men and women in our armed forces are properly trained and have more opportunities to acquire recognised academic and vocational qualifications. We want to get the best out of them and we want them, when they return to civilian work, to have transferable skills and qualifications. The major new learning credits scheme will expand opportunities for service personnel to pursue academic and vocational qualifications.

Better training is crucial to modernising defence. That is why we are engaged in a fundamental and wide-ranging defence training review to provide our armed forces and civilians with a training system that best meets defence needs in the 21st century.

Training is a multi-billion-pound-a-year business. We need to ensure that it is cost-effective, and that training is shared where it is common between the services and between the services and civilians. To achieve that, we are considering a major programme of rationalisation for defence training and the associated estate, to reduce costs and improve output in support of our joint operational needs. That will contribute to the defence estates strategy, which is aimed at reducing the defence estate to the minimum required to support the effective delivery of defence outputs. The training review team is due to report next spring, when we shall present its findings to the House.

In September, we launched our youth initiative, which involves going more broadly into the community. That initiative is now known as the skill force. It involves teams of serving and recently retired services instructors going into six secondary schools in Newcastle and Norfolk to train a maximum of 25 children in each school in new skills. Those young people are not achieving all that they could, and they may even be in danger of dropping out completely. We want to use the expertise of our service trainers to help to get them motivated and qualified, and to develop skills for life.

The main focus will be key skills training. There will be a chance to develop employability skills and to go for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and a St. John Ambulance first aid certificate. There is also an opportunity for young people to work towards an ASDAN--the award scheme development and accreditation network--award, which is a vocational qualification that covers several skills-related challenges, including problem solving, working with others and improving one's own learning and performance. We have worked closely with the Home Office and the DFEE to forge partnerships between Departments, the armed forces and the community. That will make a real difference to some people's lives, and I very much look forward to seeing it in action during my visit to Norfolk on 10 November.

Understandably, in this debate we have, as always, mentioned the contribution of our reserve forces and of the wider role of our forces in the community, including the cadet forces. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 took effect more than three and a half years ago. It underpins our policy of making the reserve forces more integrated, relevant and usable. The strategic defence review enabled

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us to define more clearly what is required of the reserve forces. Their main task has switched from the reinforcement of UK forces engaged in major conflict to supporting regular forces deployed on a much wider range of operations. The reserves are integral to our ability to expand our forces in times of crisis. The more flexible use of reservists also gives us the opportunity to harness skills not readily found within the regular armed forces. It makes sense to use reservists in roles where their particular skills are most useful. For example, 10 per cent. of UK forces currently deployed in the Balkans are reservists, which shows that we are putting that into effect.

More and more people are taking up the opportunity of full-time reserve service. Well over 1,000 individuals are now serving on those terms. The second Hercules into Sierra Leone, when our forces deployed there so successfully in May, had an FTRS pilot. That is a further step towards maximising the flexibility and employability of our reserve forces, and we often learn from the experience of other countries about taking a more flexible approach on such matters.

Mr. Key: I do not seek to be provocative, I merely seek information. Can the Minister confirm that among the 1,000 or so troops being trained to drive tankers, there are no Territorial Army volunteers, only regulars?

Mr. Spellar: Yes. They are all regular forces. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had clarified that, but I am pleased to confirm it now.

On the other side of the coin, we recognise that employers of reservists are wholly justified in asking what they get in return. The reserve forces have always provided outstanding management and leadership training, but we want to balance the additional demands on employers with the provision of more meaningful qualifications, as a result of which employers have a loyal and better trained work force. We are making considerable progress on that, enabling our reserve officers and NCOs to gain national certificates and diplomas in management--qualifications which will be recognised in the outside world as well. Employers benefit from that, which balances the demands that supporting employees serving in the reserves places on the workplace.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, especially as I do not intend to be as kind on this occasion. Will he confirm that despite the initiatives that he has mentioned, reserve officer recruiting has collapsed, and that of the last three courses at Sandhurst, none filled half its places and the worst filled only about a quarter of its places? Will he also confirm that among the reserves being used, the category most heavily used at the moment continues to be the infantry?

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