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5.38 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Many of the 41,000 armed forces personnel in the south-west are, of course, based in Plymouth, and many of them are based in Plymouth, Sutton. The Devonport naval base is the largest

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such base in western Europe and the base port for the Royal Navy's biggest vessel, which is currently on deployment in the middle east: the helicopter landing ship HMS Ocean. It is also the base for 14 type 22 and type 23 frigates, seven Trafalgar class submarines and six hydrographic survey ships. The base employs about 2,500 people, with whom many families are associated, just as many families in the area are associated with the Royal Marines, who have a big presence in the south-west generally and especially in Plymouth, where the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade, the Stonehouse barracks, and the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery is situated. The latter is based at the historic citadel and provides gunnery support to the Royal Marines. On the outskirts of Plymouth is situated a base for 42 Commando at Bickleigh.

Royal Marine units from the south-west have recently seen service in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and are being deployed to Afghanistan as we speak. Some 110 personnel from 29 Commando and 200 personnel from 3 Commando, which is based in Plymouth, are on a rolling programme of deployment this week. Some may be travelling or arriving and familiarising themselves with the terrain and continuing their exercise and training as we speak.

The armed forces personnel strategy, which emerged from the strategic defence review, recognised that military operations are physically and mentally demanding, extremely unpredictable and—of course—inherently dangerous. In the end, they depend for success on teamwork, which comes from first-class training, good leadership and mutual trust. In recent weeks, as deployments were made in Afghanistan, and during Exercise Saif Sareea, the Evening Herald—our local evening paper—gave detailed, balanced and interesting coverage of the actions on our behalf of armed forces based in Plymouth. We ask a lot of them, especially when preparing for, or in the aftermath of, operations.

Many hon. Members have given graphic descriptions of exactly what is involved for those who are deployed, and for the families that they leave behind. The demands do not stop at the front line. Other hon. Members have also referred to families, and I want to concentrate the bulk of my remarks on that issue. During his opening speech, the Secretary of State said that personnel welfare, particularly in relation to families, is a key concern for his Department. Well-motivated and well-cared-for personnel are absolutely crucial to the strength of the armed forces, and how we look after their families matters greatly.

In that regard, communication is exceedingly important. The Department has acted positively by identifying in the strategic defence review a role for the new service families taskforce. It has also brought together and given voice to family associations such as the Association of Royal Naval and Royal Marines Families. Others have already mentioned the Army Families Federation and Airwaves, the RAF family association.

It is not easy to reconcile the demands of the front line with those of the family, but it is possible. Officers based in Plymouth who are members of the Association of Royal Naval and Royal Marines Families are working hard to ensure that it is an independent voice that represents families' interests and concerns in an open, observable and accountable way. The service families

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taskforce, established under "Policy for People", has provided a focus for that voice. It enables my hon. Friends to engage in dialogue with their ministerial colleagues, and it forms the basis for progress already made on some of the issues that I want to raise. Those issues, which were identified in the taskforce survey, relate to health and education, and arise from the high levels of mobility that service life often requires. They include school admissions, access to dentists and doctors, registration with general practitioners, and hospital waiting lists and appointments. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is nodding—he is obviously familiar with them.

I pay tribute to the work of the strategic defence review, which has enabled Ministers to help service families. However, I want to discuss some issues that constitute work in progress, as it were, such as schools admissions. Discussions have led to new statutory guidance on schools' admissions policy, which recognises the needs of service personnel's children and has enhanced nursery school provision. However, it is still not easy for service families to access their local community school.

Often, the transition for families moving from Scotland to Plymouth is made a great deal easier if they become part of the community school in the area in which they are to live. I know that the welfare associations will raise aspects of the appeals procedure with Ministers through the services taskforce families forum, which is to meet in the near future. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister listens carefully to what they have to say, as they have practical and positive proposals to make with respect to appeals.

Bullying is another example in which parental interest in a school may have particular dimensions for service families, and some schools in Plymouth have positive programmes for tackling it. An incident was reported during the Kosovo deployment: the children of a service man were bullied in the playground and told that their father was a murderer. We all know what role service personnel from my community in Plymouth and elsewhere played in Kosovo—it was very far from that—and the House will understand the importance that parents attach to the ability to select a school that they are confident has an adequate policy on bullying. Those issues, and the health issues, which I know are being progressed through the taskforce, are the challenges that the services always face.

I want to deal with welfare for families while service personnel are in theatre. The provision of 20 minutes of phone calls has been greatly welcomed and well received, but it of course depends on lines being available. Often, the practical experience is that those in a queue of service personnel waiting to phone their families are conscious of wanting to let the next person have their turn. Although significant progress has been made, I hope that we keep that provision under review and build on it. We should also consider how e-communications facilitate contact between families and service personnel on deployment.

I want to say a word about warrants. The family issues differ between the Army and the Navy, where deployments may be particularly long and distant. Warrants are available for the next of kin, but it may be helpful, for example, for a young woman who is having perhaps her second or third child and whose partner is on a lengthy deployment to have the support of her parents or a sibling. Such a woman could get on a train and go to

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her family, but that is not easy with two or three young children. Indeed, although it may be financially difficult, it may be a great deal easier in practical terms for the grandparents or a sibling to go to her.

I hope that consideration is given to extending the warrant scheme. Given the number of people in such circumstances, the cost would not be huge and such an extension would go a long way to help people in service communities to feel that the Government continue to understand and value their role in service life.

Service families frequently take up with me the great need to make relevant information available as quickly as possible. Ministers make great efforts to ensure that that is done, and family briefings direct from the MOD in case of deployment are important, but I am not sure that they run as smoothly as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently implied in answer to my intervention on his statement to the House.

Ministers understand the importance of making information available, but some armchair generals and commentators go in for hype and melodrama. There has been column inch after column inch of speculation. As I said in my intervention, service families can deal with facts, but not with the gossip to which such speculation gives rise in their communities. Hon. Members who share an interest in defence, either through serving on the Defence Committee or because they represent a defence community, know the importance of being measured and restrained, and considerate of the families' circumstances.

I hope that hon. Members will be interested to hear that on 4 April, just a few days ago, the Royal Naval and Royal Marine Families Association launched what I think is the first interactive website, on

Mr. Ingram indicated assent.

Linda Gilroy: My right hon. Friend has heard of it. The site not only gives information on access to services that service families might need and to the latest information, but it has password-protected access so that families can share information and gain support from each other. I gather from talking to those involved just this morning that the site is already serving a useful purpose in bringing people together. When I visited my local Royal Navy community centre last November and talked with a large number of service women, I was surprised to learn that they were sometimes a little slower to receive direct information than we are given to understand.

The website represents an innovative self-help resource, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will look carefully at the resourcing of welfare services, especially the support groups that surround naval community centres, as they will have a critical role to play for some of my constituents in the weeks ahead.

There are many other issues that I could raise. I have already intervened on the subject of the warship maintenance and modernisation initiative. I share the concern expressed by other hon. Members who represent constituencies that are affected by the initiative and I am deeply disappointed that it has not been possible to progress with the trade union proposal.

I greatly welcome the fact that we are able to keep the Millbay Territorial Army centre. It is a beautiful modern centre that brings many young students studying at

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Plymouth university into the territorial armed services. I look forward to continuing to visit the centre and to maintaining my relationship with it.

I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning the opening of Trident dock No. 154 in Plymouth, which took place recently in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh. Obviously, that has huge implications for service families and support workers in Plymouth, and Plymouth is very proud of it.

I make no apology for using my time in this debate to emphasise the value and importance of our service families and to reflect their appreciation of the work that is being carried out through the service families taskforce. I encourage my right hon. Friends to continue to build on the relationship that is being developed through the taskforce and to listen carefully to its views.

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