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MOD Land

5. Tony Baldry (Banbury): What financial targets have been agreed with the Treasury for returns on the disposal of MOD land surplus to requirements. [50944]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): As part of the comprehensive spending review in 1998, the Ministry of Defence was set a target of £700 million in estate disposal receipts over the four years to March 2002. The MOD achieved cash receipts of £819 million against that target.

The spending review 2000 set another demanding target of £600 million of asset disposals, including equipment and other non-land disposals in the three years between 2001 and 2004. We expect that receipts from the sale of surplus land will make up the bulk of that target. An accrued receipt of £208 million in the financial year just ended represents an excellent start.

Tony Baldry: In the interests of openness, will the Minister explain whether, if MOD land at Bicester is made available for an accommodation centre, the Home Office will have to pay a commercial rate for the land? If not, will the MOD budget bear the loss?

Dr. Moonie: I shall certainly write to the hon. Gentleman on this matter if I am wrong, but, as far as I am aware, this is based on normal valuation of the land concerned. If that is not the case, I shall send the hon. Gentleman the correct reply to his question.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Surely the truth is that the MOD is hooked on asset stripping to underwrite its day-to-day expenditure requirements. Is it not the case that while the Minister waits for land and other assets to be sold off—including, I must remind him, 27 per cent. of the Aldershot garrison—HMS Monmouth lies idle awaiting a refit, 5 Squadron's Tornadoes have been mothballed, infantry recruitment has been put on hold until September, and Para recruits cannot complete P Company owing to a shortage of C130 crews and aircraft? When will the Government match the resources to the commitments that they are imposing on our hard-worked armed forces?

Dr. Moonie: I think that one of the points of selling land that is surplus to requirements is to get what receipts we can to offset the costs of the very matters that the Opposition spokesman is talking about. Surely, one can hardly suggest that the MOD ought to hold on to land that is surplus to requirements. That would be commercially and militarily foolish, to say the least.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will the Minister bear in mind that, in this age of international terrorism, it is more important than ever for the Royal Air Force to have options to disperse its aircraft? If it is going to concentrate its aircraft in an ever smaller number of bases, they will be inherently more vulnerable. Will the hon. Gentleman assure the House that no more flying stations will be closed in the next few years?

Dr. Moonie: No, I certainly cannot assure the House on that matter. I have to say, however, that any disposals

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or closures are made on the advice of the service chiefs in the department; they are not just plucked out of thin air by Ministers sitting in Whitehall.

Veterans' Forum

6. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What progress the Veterans' Forum has made in addressing the needs of veterans; and if he will make a statement. [50945]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The veterans plenary met for the second time on 17 April and was attended by 172 representatives from veterans organisations. I was able to highlight a number of successes achieved by the nine working groups that were set up last year to take forward the veterans' strategic action plan. We have also achieved agreement on a £100,000 research programme—funded by the Ministry of Defence and other Departments—to understand better the nature of the problems facing veterans and how they arise. In addition, a trial began on 1 March seeking to provide a much-enhanced package of resettlement advice for those who leave the services on medical or disciplinary discharge, and who are judged to be at greatest risk of unemployment or homelessness.

Dr. Iddon: I have always felt that we have not cared enough for our ex-service men, particularly those who experienced trauma in service and suffered as a result, so my hon. Friend's remarks are welcome. What practical benefits does he expect the recently formed Veterans Agency to bring to Britain's war veterans?

Dr. Moonie: In the first instance, we have concentrated on setting up an effective helpline, which will allow all veterans access to a range of services and advice across government. That was not available in the past and it will greatly improve and ease access. I am considering the role of the welfare advisory service within the Veterans Agency to see how it can best work with the voluntary and charitable sector, which provides so many of the services on which veterans depend, to improve services across the board.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): The whole House welcomes the improvements that have come through the formation of the Veterans Agency, but will greater resources be made available in the coming year, in particular to assist the agency with helping three groups—test and nuclear test vets, veterans with asbestos-related illness and Gulf war veterans—to put their claims together and to get supporting medical evidence so that they can make legitimate claims to the MOD in support of genuine veterans' grievances?

Dr. Moonie: This and previous Governments have spent a great deal of money on providing advice and support for veterans with medical problems. Many of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman are the subject of potential or actual court hearings, which are a matter for those who decide to initiate proceedings against the Government.

The Government provide generous help through the War Pensions Agency and the armed forces pension scheme for those who are damaged or ill as a result of their service. The asbestos situation, for example, is the

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subject of test cases. I do not think that this or, indeed, the previous Government need hang their head in shame over the help given to veterans who suffer from the illnesses that the hon. Gentleman refers to.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): Many surviving veterans served in Suez between 1951 and 1954. As my hon. Friend knows, none of those service men and women was awarded a medal for their service between those dates. Has that been raised under the auspices of the Veterans' Forum, and will he bear it in mind that a recommendation was never made to the medals and decorations committee that such an award be made? Could such a recommendation now go to that committee?

Dr. Moonie: My hon. Friend will be aware that I have spent a great deal of time over the past two years or so looking into the matter of a medal for Suez veterans. My conclusion is the same as that previously reached by the Department—that there is no avenue available for reopening the matter. However, I understand that it has been referred to the Cabinet Secretary, who is secretary to the honours and decorations committee, to see whether he can identify potential avenue.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister confirm that the veterans advice unit that he has set up consists of three warrant officers? Would not those personnel be better used if they were seconded from the MOD direct to the British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association? Perhaps the other warrant officer could deal with prospective veterans who are still in the armed services? Is not that a better way to provide the most immediate, direct and effective link between his Department and veterans?

Dr. Moonie: There is no shortage of links between my Department and the major agencies responsible for providing help in the charitable sector. The three warrant officers to whom the hon. Gentleman refers are part of the existing MOD structure for providing advice; their work will be drawn into the helpline that is being provided on a much wider scale by the Veterans Agency. I can assure him that we are looking very closely indeed at any avenue for improving communications with the voluntary sector, but so far, and I hold meetings regularly, nobody has raised that as a problem.

Strategic Defence Review

7. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What response he has made to the consultation exercise on the new chapter of the strategic defence review; and if he will make a statement. [50946]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I have been delighted with the wide-ranging and constructive responses to the Ministry of Defence's discussion paper on a new chapter to the strategic defence review. We have now received more than 300 responses, of which some 250 were from external organisations and individuals. Although last month's deadline for responses has passed, I have made it clear that we continue to welcome views and ideas. The responses have been acknowledged where possible, and are being taken into

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account in the work. As I have previously told the House, I expect to be in a position to publish conclusions in the late spring or early summer.

Miss McIntosh: How does the Secretary of State hope to achieve the aims that he has set out in the new chapter? As he told the House in February, we are to mount find-and-strike operations and to extend the global reach of the forces, at a time when our Army has a shortfall of approximately 8,000.

Mr. Hoon: It will depend first on our reaching some conclusions from the work that is under way. Although the hon. Lady has anticipated those conclusions, the material produced previously, and indeed in the discussion document, constituted only our tentative view of what would be required. I expect to be able to tell the House how the funds necessary to support the work will be secured when we are nearer to reaching conclusions.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Has the Secretary of State any plans, as part of the review, to examine the pattern of recruitment, particularly at senior officer level, to ensure that all sections of society and all educational backgrounds are represented? At present, the officer class seems to be drawn from a relatively narrow educational background.

May I also ask whether the Secretary of State, or his Department, intends to continue to be extremely unhelpful in answering questions about this matter?

Mr. Hoon: I was sorry to hear my hon. Friend's last observation. I will certainly try to be as helpful as I can.

The opportunities for individual service men and women to progress to the rank of officer, either directly or indirectly, are currently determined entirely on merit. If my hon. Friend has criticisms of the existing system I shall be delighted to hear the details from him, and I assure him that Ministers will consider them very carefully.

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