Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



80.  That is one issue. Can you give me three others perhaps?

  (Air Marshal Pledger) Things like definitions of reckonable service and pensionable pay, survivors' benefits, ill-health provision.

81.  If we did it on the basis of a month per issue we ought to be expecting 36 issues just now?

  (Air Marshal Pledger) You asked for three or four.

  Mr Cann: Hoisted by your own petard.

Dr Lewis

82.  Not really, no. Would you like to give us a few more?

  (Air Marshal Pledger) I think the Minister has already said that there is a clear linkage with the compensation review which had to be made coherent and that is being looked at in parallel, which of course makes the complexity that much greater.

83.  Hopefully if we come back to consider these matters in another six months' time we will not have to ask you the same series of questions?

  (Mr Spellar) You might but we might have more developed answers.

  Chairman: We might have different people to ask them! But I am sure Dr Lewis will be one of those doing the asking.

Mr Cohen

84.  Just a bit more on families policy, Minister. The Service Families Task Force has got a remit to address the issues caused by the mobility of Service families that are outside the direct control of the MoD. That is the issue; they are outside the direct control of the MoD. What are you actually doing to tackle some of these problems like education problems, welfare, health issues, that you have not got a direct handle on, a local authority or a health authority or a local education authority? It does cause a lot of problems when Service personnel are moving around. What are you doing to address that?

  (Mr Spellar) It does and that is precisely why we have the Task Force because we were not in a position to resolve that as an individual department. I am sorry that the Member for Canterbury has gone because he quite threw me during the debate by paying tribute to the work that has been undertaken by the Task Force because we have managed to get high level representation and commitment by other government departments at ministerial level precisely where we were able to address the pretty well unique difficulties that are faced by Service personnel and their families because of the nature of their lifestyle and particularly the way and time-scale by which we often move them. In some cases that is due to communications difficulties and in some cases it is due to the movement, and obviously in terms of earlier notification of moves we can play a part in that and we have certainly worked on that. We have also worked with those other departments who have then been issuing guidance further down the line to the agencies of their departments that operate, whether those be hospital trusts, whether those be schools admission bodies, or indeed even taking direct action, for example with the Department of Health actually employing additional direct dentists in certain areas with high levels of concentration of Service families to actually deal with the mobility and also the very considerable numbers that are involved.

85.  Paid for by your Department or the Department of Health?

  (Mr Spellar) The Department of Health because our Service personnel are taxpayers who are rightly entitled to that.

86.  There is not much incentive for them to appoint additional dentists.

  (Mr Spellar) That is why the Department of Health recognised there was a unique problem and dealt with that. In other areas it is getting the appropriate body like schools admissions bodies to address the problem, and to understand that the movement of our personnel is not going to necessarily fit their standard pattern, and there has been a degree of success on that. That has not been universal because, as all of us as constituency Members of Parliament know, there are a number of schools in every area that are over-subscribed, and particularly consistent with the policy of trying to ensure maximum size of classes of 30 for five to seven-year-olds, that does pose some difficulties within this. So I am not saying that everyone has been satisfied as a result of that. I would argue, I think justifiably, that there has been a considerable improvement and much greater focus on the problems that these moves bring about. The reason then for also having on the other side of the equation the liaison with the families' federations from the different Services is precisely so that they can be filtering up the difficulties that their members are having, so that we can say we have made these changes which have brought about these improvements but they have also thrown up these further difficulties and then to engage with the other departments as to how we can address them. Some of those, as I have said, are problems that may not be unique to Service communities and may be of the type I have described which are common to Service and civilian life, but some do arise from the unique nature of service and those again are ones we will further explore. One where we are dealing with a non-government agency is with regard to access to credit. Because one of the key checks for credit card companies and also for other forms of credit is record of being on the electoral register at a location for a period of time and also a notification against a property, someone can find that they are being refused credit because an occupant five years ago (but maybe three or four occupants back) was in default. That is a difficulty. Some of these problems may be solved by the easier access for Service personnel to register on the electoral register as a result of the new legislation from the Home Office, but, equally, we have been in discussions that here we have people with regular income and defined income and therefore they should be treated as much better credit risks, and we are involved in a fairly active dialogue with them on that. That is an area where we are dealing with non-government bodies but again one where the nature of our people's work leads to them suffering disadvantage. We are looking to other areas and obviously we will be receptive to representations from the Services and families' federations on that.

87.  I welcome that answer and I think it is a good focus that the Service Families Task Force is doing here, but I would still like you to talk the Committee through what happens, say, for a family that has been moved by the MoD and needs to get their children into a local school and those local schools are full. How does that process work? How do they get into a school if the local authority is dragging its feet, for example?

  (Mr Spellar) Apart from anything else, apart from one education authority, we actually have representation on local authority admission forums by the Service Children's Education Agency, so they are getting an input at that level in order to influence those policies.

  Mr Cann: Which is the one?

Mr Cohen

88.  Which is the authority not doing its job?

  (Mr Spellar) I think it is Surrey.

Mr Cann

89.  Surrey, there you go.

  (Mr Spellar) On the education side, just to amplify, I think there is one other area which has been of particular value which has been on student loans and access to student loans. This particularly applies to youngsters from families who are resident in Germany in our Services and that came in in September of this year. That is an anomaly that has been dealt with. Jobseeker's Allowance is another problem. Another one we managed to iron out with the help of the Northern Ireland Office was with regard to child benefit because the administration of child benefit is separate between GB and Northern Ireland and, again, we have managed to work our way through that. These may look like minor changes but they can make a considerable difference to people who are having the disruption of moving anyway and we can help to mitigate that.

Mr Cohen

90.  What about NHS waiting lists?

  (Mr Spellar) We are working on that. We are getting some progress on that because one of the difficulties that our people face with moving (quite often within a two-year period) particularly with non-emergency operations, is that therefore they can go back down to the bottom of the list, and we are engaging in discussions on that. I think there are one or two areas where that is not working particularly well and we are working with the Department of Health on that and I believe it is actually starting to improve.
  (Air Marshal Pledger) And, interestingly, the Army Families' Federation's own in-house journal recognises in one of their articles exactly what the current situation is and advertises it to all its members where we are going.

91.  Is there not a necessity for the Armed Forces personnel to be fit and a priority on the waiting list?

  (Mr Spellar) You are talking about two different issues here, with respect. One is to do with Service personnel and the measures we are taking to ameliorate their conditions, and the Under-Secretary of State can give you details of a number of initiatives he has been taking with regard to remedial work, particularly on orthopaedic questions and also to do with physiotherapy and so on. That is to get people back into active service and is addressing the number of those who have been medically downgraded. That is separate from the issue that I was primarily concentrating on here which is families of service personnel who are themselves, although not our employees, awaiting operations but because we have moved the family they have the problem that they do not get to the top of the waiting list, which is a slightly different one but one we have been addressing with the Department of Health.


92.  Our servicemen do not have priority in Haslar because they can be bumped by people from the local community. If you cannot get your own people in a Service hospital for priority treatment, God help you getting them into a health trust with any degree of priority. A question—I do not expect an answer—if servicemen's children are pushed from one school to another based on the progress of their father or mother, has any research been done on the end product of this schooling process in terms of would they have more or less opportunity of going on to university had their father remained in Dudley or Walsall than being an employee of the Services? Has that kind of research been done, Minister, because it seems to me the likelihood of many going through to university, having moved from often one not great school to another every couple of years, and the disruption of that education has got to be calculated somehow to show how successful the schooling process has been.

  (Mr Spellar) We can certainly provide you with the figures of those of our schools that are in the Service education system in Germany and in Cyprus. They are actually pretty good results, comparable with many of the best county education authorities, which I think indicates the commitment of that service and maybe an indication of output as well. As to other figures on that, I really plead that is the responsibility of my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State but I will be more than happy for—

  Chairman: We shall write to you and you can pass it on to your colleague with your approval.

Mr Cohen

93.  Just a small question. Again, you do not have to address it now, perhaps more for information. Can you indicate when the issue of domestic violence was last reviewed? Is your policy towards it under review at the moment? Perhaps at some point you could provide us with information of how it is dealt with when you get such an issue.

  (Air Marshal Pledger) Briefly, yes is the answer and we are consulting widely, again including with the families' federations in putting that together. If I may, it is a routine review. It is not prompted by any particular difficulties that you might be suggesting in the Armed Forces communities.

Mr Cann

94.  Could I say first, sir, that this is the first time I have been allowed to ask a question outside my brief, which means either the Chairman is mellowing or it must be near Christmas, or that he might be frightened by the idea that we are both going to Moscow next week.

  (Mr Spellar) You are building up seniority.

  Chairman: When you find out the question he is going to ask, you will see why I allowed it.

  Mr Cann: It is ever so easy. There are only two of them outside my brief. Number one, you were saying earlier that the actual number of complaints regarding pay is going down. I think it would be helpful for the Committee to know the precision of that, the trends in terms of numbers in graph form. That was the easy one, Chairman, but my main one is training and education and it is not on my brief but I am going to ask it. I have heard that there are a significant number of recruits who do not get through basic training just because they have worn trainers all their lives and they cannot get along with Army boots. I would like to know how many people drop out of basic training just because of simple things like that because I think it is something people out there would like to know, particularly people bringing up children who otherwise would regard the Armed Services as an appropriate profession. They all laugh when I mention feet. They will not laugh when they get the answer back, I suspect. If I can move on to what is on my brief.

  Chairman: Would you like to answer the foot question first.

Mr Cann

95.  I would want figures for that, Chairman, because I have seen all sort of spurious figures all over the place.

  (Mr Spellar) One of the areas of concern was lower limb injuries and that does relate to a lack of resilience arising from a more sedentary lifestyle, less sport being played, a dramatic increase in the number of people being taken to school by car compared to walking to school, a whole number of other factors, all of which have an impact. We are then looking at them to see how we can take people up to the right level of fitness but without them suffering injury on the way. However, the final output of a fit serviceman or woman is not being compromised by that. What we are looking at is how we can improve the way they get there. I want to stress that as well. On pay complaints I understand there is some data on that. I have to say my comments were based on a far more rough and ready sample, namely, when I go to Army units do I get berated about problems on pay by personnel or not, and I have to say that has dropped off dramatically. I do not think it is that my demeanour has changed; I think it is that the problem has started to decline.

96.  It would be nice, though, to have the figures.

  (Mr Spellar) If we have got the data, we will provide that.

  Mr Cann: I am not sure you can do it with feet but we can only try. What you are talking about, if you do not mind me saying so Chairman, is a softly-softly approach, whereas we ought to be saying, in my view, that there is a problem, because it is not just people recruited into the Army or Air Force. We ought to be telling people out there, "Don't put your kids in trainers all their lives because their feet spread." Is that right?

Laura Moffatt

97.  I am disagreeing with you but, never mind, carry on.

  (Mr Spellar) The fact is it is rare that I am accused of a softly-softly approach.


98.  And you have kicked a few people in your time!

  (Mr Spellar) And not wearing trainers! We do need to look at that. We will certainly look at the information. I do stress again, our objective is to say this is the current situation. How can we therefore adapt people in order that they can then—maybe by a slightly slower route, although not dramatically so—gain a position where they can attain the levels of fitness we require. We are not compromising on the final output, although we may be adapting quite sensibly and scientifically the route by which we get there.

Mr Cann

99.  The figure I heard was that about 40% of basic recruits drop out because of being physically unfit, a lot of which is lower body. I will leave that, otherwise Laura is going to give me a hell of a time. Can I pick up four quickies about the Learning Forces initiative. Are the qualifications they get out of it good enough to fit them for civilian life afterwards, because that is the key area that is the attraction in terms of recruitment? Secondly, do enough people know about the scheme and use it? Thirdly, how dependent is it on the commanding officer's decision on whether somebody should be allowed to take it up? Fourthly, is £175 per annum sufficient for a proper training course?

  (Mr Spellar) That was an increase up from £140 which was a lift up. In answer to a couple of those questions about whether people are using it, across all three Services there has been a substantial increase. In some cases that is from a very low base, although not in the case of the RAF, which is about 14%.

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