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Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I have taken an interest in former Japanese prisoners of war and have been a member of the all-party group for more years than I care to remember with no progress whatever being made. Has the hon. Gentleman had any indication that we are likely to get what we have sought for so long?
Mr. Keetch: The Prime Minister mentioned this very recently. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work. My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) have also made important progress on this. It has genuinely been an all-party group. If there is an announcement next week, I am sure that it will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Let me turn to two other issues that have been exercising people recently. The Minister's review of the position of the gardeners is welcome, particularly as possible cuts in the number of gardeners were announced at the same time as news of £340 million being spent on MOD upgrades. Perhaps it was unfortunate timing. We certainly welcome that. I also congratulate the Minister on his response to an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall yesterday concerning the protection of graves at sea on HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. There has been concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House that international protection is required.
I have one final point about Gulf war syndrome. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) has passed on to me a letter dated 26 October this year from a gentleman in Hampshire who is a Gulf war veteran. It would be wrong for me to name him as I have been unable to contact him, so I shall use his words without identifying him. He writes:
Let me now say a few words about procurement. We had a long and interesting debate on the subject last week, but I wish to comment on what the Secretary of State said yesterday. Just after my intervention on the type 45, he said that the type 45 will have
I also welcome the announcements on shipbuilding. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife has said on more than one occasion that the judgment of Solomon is needed in relation to shipbuilding orders. The balance was broadly right in respect of the orders that were announced last week, but there are some serious disadvantages. The shipyards in Appledore in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) has not yet received anything. I hope that the Government will ensure that the United Kingdom retains a variety of shipyards throughout the country with the ability to build warships. Mention has already been made of the carriers and the aircraft to go on them. Of course, any aircraft carrier is only as good as the aircraft that it carries. We therefore look forward to the decision on whether we will continue with the joint strike fighter. We must ensure that, in choosing our carriers, we do not do what we did with the Invincible class and choose something that is too small and cannot carry enough aircraft. We must consider what size our carriers are going to be.
I shall move on to an element of procurement that I mentioned in our debate last week, namely the use of the Duro vehicle for the vertical communications system, about which I have tabled parliamentary questions today, as the Minister will have noticed. May I refresh the memories of hon. Members who were in the House last week as well as those who were not.
Mr. Keetch: The Minister says that the system is a hobby horse of mine, but it is £8 million-worth of hobby horse, and I am trying to get a few answers on it. Indeed, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the matter on 10 October, but have still not had an adequate answer.
We are building a new kind of vertical communications system that will go in the back of a vehicle and will be deployed on a Hercules or a C-17 to support our forces. Used in earnest, I suppose that it is the kind of communication system which, on the battlefield, would be next to headquarters. Having made a decision and put down a specification for the system, the Government have chosen two suppliers, but have allowed them both to choose which vehicle they want. For some reason, instead of choosing a Land Rover, an Alvis or a Leyland Daf, they chose a vehicle from Switzerland. In his reply to me last week, the Minister said:
If we get into service in the British Army a vehicle that may be cheap, but has not gone through any evaluations or testing that Land Rovers and Leyland Dafs have to go through, it will become part of the Army's green fleet and will be available to be bought by other NATO nations without having been tested first. That is why I have tabled seven questions on the matter.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I want to make sure that I am clear about what the hon. Gentleman has said. I presume that he is not advocating that the British Army and the Ministry of Defence should not seek the best value for money on each contract. If they have to buy overseas, they should do so, as that is in the best interests of the armed forces. Work should not be directed unnecessarily to the UK, as that costs the MOD money and takes money away from UK equipment.
Mr. Keetch: The hon. Gentleman is right that we should go for best value for money. However, time and again in the House we hear of substandard equipment that is not up to the job. I would like to know under what specification the vehicle was ordered and whether other UK manufacturers had an opportunity to tender, as some of them say that they did not. I would certainly like some answers about that contract.
Regarding procurement, Bowman was announced yesterday. We should not hold our breath on Bowman, about which there has been a long, arduous tale, but the Government have, at long last, acted. I do not agree with those who say that £200 million was wasted on the project, as some of the money that has already been spent could be used in future developments. That is what the Minister said last week, for which I pay him handsome tribute.
The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spoke about recruitment, but he rushed over the matter, saying that recruitment figures are good. It is true that there is record recruitment and 25,000 people are coming in. However, one area of recruitment is sadly not right--our armed forces' ability to recruit people from our ethnic minorities. The proportion of ethnic minorities in our armed forces is currently hovering at only about 1 per cent and recruiters have failed to reach Government targets.
I have recently attended several recruitment fairs in my constituency and elsewhere that have been organised by branches of the armed forces. Those evenings are enjoyable. They bring together business people, local councillors and members of the community and are undoubtedly successful. However, they clearly do not reach the members of our ethnic communities, which they should be doing. The Government are now recruiting in Fiji, where many excellent members of the armed forces come from, and perhaps the best loved regiment in our armed forces is the Gurkhas. Ironically, however, we are unable to recruit large numbers of people from ethnic communities in our own cities. Whatever the Government's policy is, clearly it is not working, so I hope that they will look again at their recruitment methods in that area.
Retention is a major problem and yesterday we heard a lot about the problem of married quarters. In the continuous attitude survey for service leavers, the effect of service on family life was the most frequently cited
However, the Government could do more, such as setting a minimum consistent standard that could be applied to facilities in all garrison bases. Why do some bases have huge sports halls, while others do not? Surely, we should have a national audit of our bases and should try to ensure that there is a common standard for the kind of facilities that they have. We should review the qualification for married quarters to include permanent partnerships, abolish the current march-in, march-out regulations and replace the contract cleaning of voids paid from an element of rent. We should review the moving and relocation allowances, ensure that pay for them is better and ring-fence funding for family support. For every family on every base, there should be a family officer able to look after the care of armed forces.
We have heard from Members on both sides of the House that we have the best armed forces in the world. We are recruiting them well, they are being equipped well--and I hope, equipped better--but, if they continue to leave, our ability to do what we have done over the past few months will end. Retention is crucial to our armed forces, and, although the Government are starting to move ahead, there is still a long way to go.