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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1086continued
Bob Russell (Colchester): I shall concentrate on the retention of our armed forces. It has been pointed out that recruitment is not as difficult as it was in the past, but in the defence of the United Kingdom we need military personnel who are experienced and who wish to remain in Her Majesty's armed forces. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Government need to do more to create a culture for the retention of our soldiers. We recognise that they are well trained, highly motivated, qualified professional soldiers.
I regret that only last week the Conservative defence spokesman referred to soldiers of the Colchester garrison as Xsquaddies". I hope that in his summing up, the Minister will confirm that as far as the Government are concerned, our Army is made up of professional soldiers, who should not be described in such a derogatory way.
Patrick Mercer: In my 25 years' service in the Army, I never found anything pejorative in the use of the word Xsquaddie". None of my Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire soldiers regarded it as a pejorative term. The hon. Gentleman is wholly unfair to say that.
I am particularly concerned about the quality of accommodation for our married soldiers. Can the Minister say why the defence housing executive upgrade programme is so far behind? It is my understanding that only 60 houses have been completed and in Colchester garrison more than 500 remain to be done.
I recognise that the Conservative Government's disgraceful decision to privatise the married quarters of soldiers in Britain was not in the best interests of our soldiers, but equally it is this Government's responsibility to ensure that all married quarters are brought up to the high standards that we and any other responsible employer would expect.
Annington Homes, the privatised landlord, in Colchester, as elsewhere, is selling off houses at huge profits. The Government should recoup that profit to plough it back into the married quarters so that our soldiers and their families can have the best possible accommodation. We are talking here about retention, which is what my contribution today is about.
Work will start in the next year or two on the new Colchester garrison under a massive private finance initiative. The Minister knows that I do not believe that such private finance initiatives are in our long-term financial interests, but they are the only game in town, so we go for them, and the Minister knows that I back him 100 per cent. I welcome the assurances that I have been given that the single soldiers' accommodation will be of a quality of which they will approve and that there will be quality technical support and training facilities. Only the best will do.
But there is more to this than just the housing of our military personnel. I draw the Minister's attention to an Adjournment debate two or three years ago that I secured on the education of the children of our soldiers in garrison towns and naval and air bases throughout the country. More investment is needed in those state schools with a high proportion90 per cent., 95 per cent., and sometimes 100 per cent.of pupils from military families who suffer from what is known as the turbulence factor. We had an interesting debate in this Chamber. Unfortunately, the Government do not recognise the special needs of such children, which result from families moving backwards and forwards, with fathers and mothers being sent elsewhere in this country or overseas on tours.
Bob Russell: The Department for Education and Skills bases its recognition of need on the number of free school meals that a school provides. The nature of the circumstances means that very few soldiers' childrenif anyare entitled to free school meals, so none of the deprivation or other factors that might apply in a mainstream school on an estate next door will come into play. As children from military families can be moved mid-term and their father or mother can be sent on a tour away, there should be greater recognition of such anxiety and upheaval and additional resources should be put into the schools. That is the turbulence factor, which exists even though the usual education criteria ignore or overlook schools whose pupils are predominantly, if not exclusively, the children of military personnel. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention, as he made a serious point. I hope that it will be addressed, as sadly, it was not dealt with following my Adjournment debate.
On military personnel who require medical attention, there is no problem with the primary care that is provided on site, but what I am told is called secondary care hospital provision is often not supplied in the locality. When that is the case, personnel can be bussed long distances to military hospitals. We do not have such a hospital in Colchester. Indeed, there are very few such establishments, which is why personnel are sometimes taken long distances to receive medical attentionanother area of anxiety. None the less, I welcome the news that a regional rehabilitation unit for injuries is to be established in the Colchester garrison next year. That is certainly something to look forward to.
I have mentioned the new Colchester barracks, and this is an opportune moment to place it on record that the garrison commander, Colonel Julian Lacey, retires on 15 November. That may be good news for him, but it is certainly not good news for the new Colchester garrison project. I express my appreciation of all that he has done. I hope that the Minister will ensure that all his expertise and knowledge will somehow be retained in respect of the new garrison project, which I believe is the largest such development in the UK in PFI terms.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) painted a grim picture of what might happen in this country. I sincerely hope that his worst predictions do not come to pass, but he brought to our attention the need for vigilance from everybody. We should not rely only on the armed forces to provide that vigilance. There is obviously widespread intelligence, but the whole of society needs to be on alert.
We all pray that the fire dispute will not happen. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues elsewhere in government a suggestion that I made four years ago when Essex had one of its fire strikes? We have such strikes from time to time and the Green Goddesses were on the road in that instance. The serious point is that, as other hon. Members have mentioned, we will be sending out our soldiers in fire appliances that are almost museum pieces. Would it be possible for the territorials or one or two regiments of the British Army to be trained as a skilled auxiliary reserve that is capable of
Patrick Mercer: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but it would make territorials difficult to recruit. Anyone who wants to be a territorial solder joins the Territorial Army. Anyone who wants to be, for want of a better phrase, a Xterritorial fireman", becomes a retained fireman. Is not there a danger of a conflict of interest?
Bob Russell: I do not believe so. I was trying to embrace the hon. Gentleman's earlier point about the territorials. I am happy to stick with my original proposal of four years ago of one or two regiments with an auxiliary role. Their members would be soldiers first, but have a second skill, which would not necessarily be the ability simply to cover the sort of dispute that may happen in the next week or two. They would constitute an auxiliary force to deal with not only fires but emergencies. The fire service deals with more than fires.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but last year, troops were involved with the foot and mouth epidemic, flooding and many other things. How would the auxiliary forces be trained to the appropriate level to ensure their effectiveness in emergencies?
Bob Russell: We acknowledge that the modern fire appliance cannot be operated by simply anybody; it has to be used by trained personnel. One or two regiments of the British Army could be trained to enable them to offer something extra in an emergency.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): My hon. Friends are well aware of the passionate opposition of some of us to military action against Iraq in the current circumstances. However, the debate is not the occasion on which to go into that.
On 29 October, at column 683 of Hansard, Mr. Speaker gave me permission to present a case for a debate under Standing Order No. 24. In the course of that application, I asked 14 questions, and I have written to 14 Ministers to ask for their comments. I have also asked for the comments of the ambassadors of France, Russia, China, Qatar, the Emirates, Jordan and various other countries.