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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1050—continued

Mr. Ingram: Sergeant, not sergeant-major.

Mr. Keetch: I am grateful for even that humble assessment from the Minister. I would hope that the Conservatives would join in that role, too, as many people who are not currently members of the TA would like to contribute to what they see as the home defence of our country. We must bring in people who are specialists—chemical engineers, linguists and so on—whose skills can be brought to bear.

In the SDR, the TA was to reduce in numbers, and the MOD undertook to ensure that

We are far from that. Unfortunately, at present, barely 60 per cent. meet their bounty every year. Against a strength of 39,663, only 23,201 are fit for role. The medical reservists illustrate that point, too. According to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats over the summer, 201 field hospital, for example, is 34 per cent. undermanned, with a 90 per cent. shortfall in medical consultants, with no radiology or pathology consultants, and no neurosurgical nurses either. Furthermore, 202 field hospital was 53 per cent. undermanned, with no anaesthetics consultants, no radiographers and no burns nurses. Those are regionally based units—an asset to any community—and we must attract the right people into their ranks.

When there is talk of war—we have already heard such talk in the House this afternoon—the families of those who serve in our armed forces listen very carefully.

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The MOD should have a clear idea of the concerns of those who serve in our armed forces through the continuous attitude surveys undertaken on its behalf by QinetiQ on issues such as career prospects and equipment, and, in terms of their families, on aspects of life on base or in Ministry housing or accommodation. It is time the Government shared those concerns with Parliament. We should be able to hear the voices of the armed forces. The Army Families Federation, for example, receives more calls about housing than any other issue. The Under-Secretary, who has responsibilities for veterans, said he believed that the privatisation of the MOD housing estate was

He is absolutely right. On 18 July, the Secretary of State himself said that MOD accommodation was Xshocking". I am sure that even the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk would agree with that.

Of course, bad management is part of those problems, and I understand that a major building programme is under way. Sadly, however, the mistakes of the past have to be lived with today. Since 1998, the Government have spent #100 million pounds on renting empty properties from Annington Homes because they were not good enough or not in the right place to give to service members. Have the Government had any discussions with Annington Homes about trying to renegotiate or overhaul the contract, which I accept was foisted on the Government? How do the Government propose to address the rising cost of substitute accommodation? In the first quarter of 2002 alone, the Government spent nearly #9 million on substitute rented accommodation for the armed forces. That is equivalent to 225,000 nights in average bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That means that, this year, the Government are heading for an annual total of around #40 million. No wonder the customer attitude survey conducted by QinetiQ for the Defence Housing Executive shows that a third of armed forces families are Xnot content" with their accommodation. That must improve.

In the Government's comprehensive spending review settlement, the defence budget was given an extra #1 billion a year over the next three years. Of course, we welcome that. However, a succession of major and minor defence reviews over the last 10 ten years have all indicated that current capabilities cannot be maintained without major structural changes and extra funding year on year above domestic inflation. When the SDR targets were set, the additional threat and costs of the campaign against terrorism were not foreseen. Estimates assumed that major projects would not be subject to cost overrun, but of course they still are. We know, too, that personnel costs can be met at present only because of shortfalls. We need more open competition and value for money, less waste, ways of saving money through co-operating with our European partners on procurement and logistics, and further targeted increases. Otherwise, the ability to mount additional operations could be jeopardised.

The service pay rise this year was a realistic and achievable 3.7 per cent. Recent comparisons between firefighters and the troops that are on standby to replace them have been illuminating. Personnel costs for well-

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qualified service men and women increase at or above inflation rate, and that trend is worsened in times of poor retention. There are also concerns about pensions. If we are to address the problems of retention, we must address the changing needs of our male and female soldiers, sailors and airmen. The risk of relationship breakdown, for example, for members of the armed forces is higher than for most people in civilian life. Marriage rates are falling. Since 1997, however, the number of UK regular forces aged between 25 and 29 has fallen by a remarkable 20,000, while the number aged between 20 and 24 has steadily risen. The average age of our armed forces is therefore falling considerably.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): The hon. Gentleman has used an enormous amount of statistics in his speech. I have been reflecting on a statistic that he used earlier, and I want to establish whether there is depth in what he is saying, or whether he is simply reading off a sheet. When he said that the RAF was 130 pilots short each year for the next four years, did he mean 130 short, or 130 short every year for the next four years in a cumulative way?

Mr. Keetch: Actually, I referred not to the RAF but to fast jet pilots, because, of course, there are fast jet pilots beyond that. What I meant was 130 short every year for the next four years—year in, year out—which is a serious problem. I am more than happy to give the hon. Gentleman the figures and supply him with the parliamentary answers that I have received from his colleagues on the Treasury Bench, which are the basis of these statistics. I have used statistics because they show the severe overstretch of our armed forces at the moment.

We have a new generation of soldiers, both male and female, some of whom would have been only 10 years old in 1990, and would have watched the reports of Desert Storm in Iraq on their televisions. Many of them would not remember the Falklands war. If we are to recruit and retain high-calibre young men and women to our forces, we must look at their concerns, not at the concerns that we judge that they have. In the QinetiQ continuous attitude survey, the MOD asked soldiers an interesting question: whether unmarried partners should be granted the same support and allowances as the spouses of officers and soldiers. I am glad that the Government asked that question. Of course we do not know the answer, but I hope and believe that there will be changes as a result.

When faced with the need to adapt its traditions and rules to keep pace with the rest of society, the Ministry of Defence understandably adopts a cautious and precautionary approach, but that has proved costly. We have had to pay compensation for the infringements of the rights of gay men and women in the military. Pregnant soldiers have been summarily dismissed. We should not wait until such issues are tested in the courts before we recognise that a policy needs to adapt. Our society is ahead of the armed forces in recognising the legal and financial rights of unmarried partners. Members of the House voted to amend our pension scheme to give recognition to unmarried partners. The civil service pension scheme recognises unmarried partners, too. We know that last year the Ministry of Defence settled out of court to a young lady whose

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unmarried partner was killed on active service in Sierra Leone. How would the Government act should a similar situation arise? That is one decision that the Ministry of Defence could make without fearing that the modernisation and reform would threaten the fighting capabilities of our armed forces. Indeed, it would only enhance the men and women who serve in them. If our forces are sent into action, they should know at the very least that their loved ones are being provided for, whether they are married or not.

The Government have been willing to revise the strategic defence targets according to changes in circumstances. For the same reason, they should be as willing to adapt to the needs of the men and women who fight in our armed forces, because those people are our defence in the UK. Policies must put their needs first and be developed with their input. If we ask our armed forces to serve us, we must make it clear that we are determined to serve them.

3.41 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and support the case for improved pay and conditions for members of the armed forces, as indeed I do for the firefighters.

The House will be horrified at the high level of casualties following the use of gas in Moscow last weekend. The Russian authorities faced a truly difficult set of events. Although I hope that authorities in this country never face a similar problem, we have important lessons to learn and policy initiatives to take. At the same time as we press the Russians for greater openness on what was used and how it was used, there should be greater openness concerning British preparations to use gas in counter-terrorist operations.

In March 1998, I asked about a chemical agent held by the Ministry of Defence called CR, which it keeps to maintain

Initially I was pleased to be told that the Government's policy on CR

However, as the same permission enabled the Russians to use their gases, I am concerned about the use of CR for law-enforcement purposes in the United Kingdom.

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