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RAF Numbers

5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): How many people left the Royal Air Force in each of the past three years. [152702]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): A total of 14,138 people left the RAF in the three years ending 31 December 2000; 4,847 left the service in 1998, 4,712 in 1999 and 4,579 in 2000. That was balanced against intake figures of 4,088 during 1998, 4,759 during 1999 and 3,731 during 2000.

Mr. Gray: Those figures are accurately reflected at RAF Lyneham in my constituency, where each year up to 5 per cent. more people leave than come in. That is not merely a result of overstretch caused by Sierra Leone and the Balkans; it is also caused by very poor living conditions and failure to invest in infrastructure at RAF Lyneham. Does the Minister agree that more people are now leaving the RAF than are joining and that that makes a mockery of the fine words in the strategic defence review's "Policy for People", which stated that

was entirely dependent on finding new people? Why have the Government failed to do that in the three years since the SDR, and what does the Minister intend to do about it now?

Mr. Spellar: I did not read out the outflow figures for the years under the previous Conservative Administration. We inherited a figure of 7,512 in 1997; in 1996--the Conservatives' last full year in office--the outflow figure was 10,544; in 1995 it was 5,610, and in 1994 it was 6,394. In every one of those years, there was a greater outflow than any that has occurred under the Labour Government. We are matching intake figures to outflow figures. The RAF recruited 98.6 per cent. of its requirement last year.

The hon. Gentleman has a real cheek to talk about accommodation when the Conservatives did nothing about it for 18 years and after my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary have announced a major building programme to rectify the problems. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of our policy, but not for his party's dereliction of duty.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Will the Minister arrange for those figures to be analysed to determine whether there is evidence of a significant number of people with minor disabilities leaving the RAF when those disabilities do not prevent them from undertaking their responsibilities; and whether there is any danger of discrimination against people with minor disabilities in RAF recruitment?

Mr. Spellar: The right hon. Gentleman mixes two issues: first, requirements on recruitment and, secondly,

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changes in people's health and abilities occurring during their service. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is undertaking a review of service intake to match up the number of those with minor disabilities to modern day requirements.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that all the services, rightly, do a great deal to accommodate those who have already undertaken training, committed themselves to the service, and have a lot to offer.A balance has to be struck in the light of the requirement that all service personnel be available for active duty, but he will know that that is handled effectively and sensitively by the services.

RAF Bases (Commercial Development)

6. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What steps he has taken to promote the regeneration of former RAF bases for commercial aviation use. [152703]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): A number of former RAF bases have been or are in the process of being sold for civil aviation purposes, including Finningley in my hon. Friend's constituency, Manston, Farnborough, and Kemble. Our usual policy is to market a former airfield for civil aviation purposes where that is consistent with the current planning process and Government accounting regulations.

Caroline Flint: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. May I congratulate the Government on their decision in 1997 to stop the previous Government's proposal toturn RAF Finningley into the fourth prison in my constituency? May I also congratulate them on excluding the option of quarrying on one of the best runways in the country and disposing of it for aviation use?

Will my hon. Friend confirm that former RAF bases have made a valuable contribution to the development of regional and civil aviation? Will he also confirm that several airports, including Manchester airport before it got permission for a second runway, expressed interest in the purchase of Finningley which, with the second longest runway in the north and excellent weather conditions, is ideally suited to be a civil airport?

Dr. Moonie: I can certainly agree with my hon. Friend's final remarks. Finningley offers a superb site for an airport. I understand that Doncaster metropolitan borough council has approved a planning application to develop a major international airport site and that it has been called in for determination by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Several airfields have been or are being sold for purposes which, we firmly believe, will continue to expand civil aviation.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): In order to meet the strategic defence review's commitment to raise gross receipts of £700 million from the sale of surplus defence land by 2002--perhaps the Minister will confirm that that is on course--is it the Government's policy to

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get the maximum commercial return from such spare land, subject to planning permission, or to designate particular areas of spare defence land for particular purposes?

Dr. Moonie: The position is not quite as the hon. Gentleman says. We discuss things carefully with local councils--with their elected representatives if necessary, but certainly with the planning authorities--to try to establish the best use of a site, which then goes forward for bidding in the usual tendering process. In those circumstances, we seek to get the best possible commercial return from the deal.

Ministerial Meetings (France)

7. Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): When he last met his French counterpart to discuss naval co-operation between France, the UK and theUSA. [152704]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I regularly discuss bilateral naval co-operation with both my French and American colleagues. When I last met my French counterpart on 9 February in Cahors, naval co-operation formed part of the background to our discussions. The close nature of our naval co-operation with the United States was most recently demonstrated by agreement to the permanent stationing of a British sailor on the USS Winston Churchill, which was launched last week.

Mr. McWalter: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Given the similarity in the size of the French and British naval forces, will my right hon. Friend set out for the House the full extent of co-operation between them? In particular, will he make clear the synergy between that co-operation and work with the United States navy?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There is an agreement on naval co-operation with the French, which covers a wide range of activity, including operations. In addition, 20 formal working groups have been established, dealing with training, submarine co-operation, operational planning, doctrine communications and personnel exchanges. That agreement was drawn up in 1996 and signed by the then Secretary of State for Defence. As my hon. Friend said, the size of our respective navies means that there are significant opportunities for co-operation with the United States navy, which we pursue vigorously.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Like the Secretary of State, I welcome co-operation with the United States, but does he not accept that co-operation on submarines, especially with the French navy, is crucial to our long-term training for submarine warfare?

Mr. Hoon: Co-operation on submarines is at a relatively early stage; visits were conducted to one another's ports only recently. There are obviously matters of great national sensitivity surrounding our nuclear submarine fleet, and I am sure that the French believe that that is so for them, too. There are certainly practical benefits in co-operation, not least in the light of the appalling disaster and loss of the Russian submarine Kursk.

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Armed Forces (Retention)

8. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): If he will make a statement on the steps being taken to improve retention in the armed forces. [152705]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Armed forces retention is being tackled as a matter of the highest priority. We have introduced a wide range of measures aimed at improving retention through policies that genuinely reflect the priorities of our people and their families, both at home and on deployment. Last month, we announced that we had accepted the Armed Forces Pay Review Body's recommendations in full, and our people will see that reflected in their pay packets in May, backdated to April. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced our plans to spend up to £200 million a year on an upgrade programme to bring single living accommodation up to the standards expected by service personnel in the 21st century.

In addition, I am pleased to announce that we shall introduce a further package of improvements to the operational welfare package, which will extend welfare provision to include all maritime deployments and exercises lasting two months or more. From next month, all personnel deployed on operations or on exercises lasting more than two months will receive hot shower facilities and laundry, and a comprehensive communications package, including 20 minutes of free telephone calls each week, free e-blueys and free e-mail facilities--[Interruption.]--to enable personnel to keep in contact with their families.

We will also be introducing an additional British Forces Broadcasting Services channel and NAAFI retail facilities in the Balkans, and providing additional leisure and fitness equipment in all our operational theatres for off-duty relaxation. [Interruption.] In all, this welfare package will amount to an additional £60 million over the next four years. [Interruption.]

Dr. Iddon: I am staggered by that answer. I do not know whether I have a supplementary question left, after that. I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that the welfare of our services personnel is an important component of retention. Although good housing is important, as other hon. Members have observed, does my hon. Friend agree that there are other factors, apart from those that he mentioned--[Hon. Members: "He mentioned quite a lot."] He did, indeed. I refer to factors such as counselling when people run into personal difficulties, good schooling for children, and as my hon. Friend suggested, that partners are kept in contact with one another when they are separated, especially when people serve for long periods overseas. [Interruption.]

Mr. Spellar: We should understand the dilemma that the Opposition are in: those are all issues that they neglected over 18 years. We are rectifying matters. There is a long list of steps that we are taking to improve the welfare of our forces, who will note the way in which the Opposition responded to our announcements. The improvements have long been required, and they recognise the pressure that our people are under and the contribution that they make. As my hon. Friend knows, we are dealing with schooling in this country through the service families taskforce and also through the service

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education system, under my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State. We are introducing real change; the Opposition did nothing about it.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I am sure that, like me, most hon. Members appreciate that. Service men and women know only too well who let them down over the previous 18 years. Most of what the Minister announced is welcome, but will he deal with two issues for which he was responsible? One is the speedy settlement of service men's compensation claims, not least the claims of men who did not have proper malaria cover when they were in Sierra Leone. The other concerns the anomalies relating to Pay 2000 and the way in which that has undermined the rates of pay for senior enlisted personnel.

Mr. Spellar: No one will lose money under Pay 2000. We are always prepared to examine anomalies as a system is introduced. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his previous incarnation, pay systems are extremely difficult, but from the response that we have had, we believe that Pay 2000 is a welcome development. With regard to malaria, the situation has been slightly overplayed by the media. The facts that we have ascertained do not bear out the scare stories, but where there is liability, as I understand there clearly is in one case, there will be speedy settlement of that claim.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Before the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) gets too carried away by his Government's propaganda, I should tell him that a number of the announcements that have just been made are recycled and were originally made months ago.

Having had a few minutes of reflection, will the Minister for the Armed Forces accept that he gave a thoroughly disingenuous answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) on the vital matter of numbers? There is no comparison between the planned reduction of our forces in the 1990s, which was consequent upon the end of the cold war, and the current Government's monumental failure to achieve the targets set out in their strategic defence review. What is more, they are continuing to go backwards. Is there now the slightest hope that the Army will achieve even its latest target of a 97 per cent. level of effectiveness by 2004, given that under the Government's mismanagement, net retention in the armed forces continues to decline?

Mr. Spellar: I have to give it to the hon. Gentleman--he is certainly a good sport and is being very fair. It is good of him to remind the House and the country of his Government's lamentable record regarding the sackings, or compulsory redundancies, that occurred in the armed forces, and of the huge numbers of people in the Army whose employment was terminated early. That had a considerable effect on recruitment; indeed, the previous Government left us with significant under-recruitment. In a period of rising employment, with the lowest unemployment figures for 25 years, it is a tribute to our recruitment teams that they have been able to maintain the position, despite the appalling circumstances with which the Conservatives and their gross mismanagement left us. It is good of him to remind us of that.

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