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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1030continued
Mr. Ingram: The possibility of a strike puts a significant strain on our armed forces. If the strike continued for some time, it would greatly curtail many activities in which we are currently involved. We must also bear in mind that we do not know what future deployment may be required. There are therefore serious issues to consider. However, the response to the dispute, the numbers that we have been able to commit and the preparedness of men and women of the armed forces to take on an onerous task is a tremendous tribute to them. There is a personal cost, not only to them but to their families. I hope that those who are considering industrial action will hear that message.
The armed forces cannot fully replace the broad spectrum of capability that the emergency services provide, and they cannot be party to the dispute that we are considering. Although I am sure that hon. Members will join me in hoping that the dispute is resolved as quickly as possible, we have implemented a contingency plan to provide a service that will minimise as much as possible the danger to human life during any action. The 19,000 personnel who would undertake the tasks are disciplined, capable, well organised and led. They have been trained to perform the tasks that they would be expected to undertake to the best standard possible in the time available.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) made a specific point about the cancellation of leave. In a debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week, I raised the great concerns of the Welsh Guards whose families have lost deposits for cancelled holidays and have not been reimbursed. The Under-Secretary rightly said:
Mr. Ingram: I noted the response to the debate, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I asked questions. My hon. Friend may want to deal with the matter later. There are standard practices for tackling such matters against which we have to set applications for compensation. The best information available is that something is likely to be done because that would be consistent with the procedures. However, that does not apply across the board because people can insure against potential loss, for example, if something is planned and we fail to deliver. When the tempo demands short-notice deployment, which militates against everything else, we must deal with the matter properly and sympathetically.
Existing operational demands on the armed forces remain. Although there may be a need to maintain emergency fire cover if the dispute continues, the impact on their primary duties of defence of the UK interests and acting as a force for good will remain under review and be balanced against other commitments.
Providing emergency cover can be undertaken only at some expense. That means not only the financial cost but, as we said earlier, a cost to service personnel. We will do everything necessary to mitigate the impact on personnel of providing cover. We have done our best to ensure that the burden is shared. For example, there are
All the operational capabilities that I mentioned depend especially on the men and women of the three services. The demands on them are considerable. Availability of suitably trained and motivated personnel is vital to operational success. A vital element of the strategic defence review was the XPolicy for People" recognition that our defence depends on our armed forces personnel and their families, and the civil servants who work with them. The armed forces overarching personnel strategy ensures that people remain at the centre of our plans.
Hon. Members have mentioned recruitment in interventions. It is one of our highest priorities. The services are engaged in a fierce competition for talent; they need approximately 24,000 individuals every year. They undertake many varied initiatives to find and recruit those young men and women.
Let me comment on the MOD's status as an employer. It complies fully with the responsibilities required of any employer unless there are strict operational reasons for not doing that. Often, we provide far more than many other employers because of what we demand.
We are not into making people, but breaking people. Our training develops thousands of highly motivated, highly qualified and highly professional service men and women whose performance and record of success are second to none. If serious institutional problems existed, we could not provide what we do. As I said earlier, we take on 24,000 people each year. The vast majority become regular service men and women. It is worth noting that between 17,000 and 18,000 service men and women leave the services each year, and society is the better for them.
We are not complacent, and I am not saying that problems do not exist. Given the numbers involved at any one time in our training pipeline, it would be wrong to claim that we were perfect. I would ask that we be judged on our high level of success, against the background that I have just set out. Nevertheless, we must keep a constant and critical eye on what we do, and if lessons need to be learned we will learn them. That is why progressive changes to personnel policy have been made over the years, designed to ensure the high quality of our outputs. Once recruited, it is important that we keep these highly trained assets.
As with recruitment, there is no single approach that will address retention. Our approach to that issue embraces a balanced and layered mix of measures, some dealing with broad issues such as pay, pensions, training, families, accommodation and diversity, and others addressing issues of concern to particular high value groups such as air crew, medical personnel and engineers.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched this new policy on 14 October. We have identified three main priorities to take forward: getting best value from our acquisition decisions; improving market access; and investing in research and technology. Competition remains at the heart of our acquisition system. We use it to place some 70 per cent. of our equipment orders by value, and it remains the best means of delivering value for money, innovation and efficiency. But let me repeat the Secretary of State's promise that, for this Government, competition will always be a tool, not a dogma. Our goal is best value for money. If competition does not offer the greatest advantage for a project, we will not use it. However, value for money needs to be considered in a wider context than discrete project decisions. Often, decisions that we take now will shape defence decisions in the future, when, for example, they may impinge on the preservation of competition. So we look across projects and into the future to take into account all the factors that enable us to get best economic value for the United Kingdom.
I began by saying that the context of the past year had been the atrocities committed by international terrorists in the USA last year. Of course, there have been other terrorist attacks since then, including the vicious attack in Bali on 13 October. I set out to make two things clear, in opening this debate. The first is that the Government as a whole are committed to ensuring that the security of the United Kingdom is maintained and enhanced. The second is that the Ministry of Defence is both ready and able to play its important role in that essential work. As well as being a force for good internationally, we are a vital source of comfort and security at home. Post-11 September, we face enormous challenges. We have the trained personnel ready to meet those challenges and we are increasingly equipping them with the equipment and resources to help them to carry out their task. We have also put in place the response machinery at the heart of government to ensure that we stand ready, no matter from where, or when, the next threat comes.