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4 Nov 2002 : Column 15—continued

Naval Bases

12. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): If he will make a statement on partnering services at each navalbase. [76704]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): New commercial partnering arrangements were introduced at the three naval bases at Devonport, Portsmouth and on the Clyde in September this year, under contracts awarded to Devonport Management Ltd., Fleet Support Ltd. and Babcock Naval Services. The new arrangements will deliver engineering support, waterfront services and logistics, estates and facilities management at each of the naval bases more efficiently and effectively, and at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

Syd Rapson : I thank the Minister for the sensitive way in which he personally intervened in the Portsmouth partnering services scheme, which smoothed the way tremendously. May I ask a question about cross-platform partnering services? Will there be any adverse effects on those services when the Defence Logistics Organisation reverts from a provider to a decider?

Mr. Ingram: I thank my hon. Friend for saying that I handled the matter sensitively—I will put that fact on my CV because it may come as a surprise to some people.

My hon. Friend has alighted on an important change in the delivery of DLO services to the front line. The DLO will move from being a provider to a decider organisation, and the pace of that change will depend on a number of factors. We do not expect to take a Xone size fits all" approach to complex logistics support requirements. Our decisions will be driven by sound reasoning about what is best overall, taking into account the impact of changing arrangements and the benefits to be gained in effectiveness and efficiency. The change will inevitably have an impact on the civilian work force, but as a responsible employer we will always

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seek to look after the best interests of our civilian employees, just as we did when we made changes to naval base delivery.

Firefighting Training

13. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): How many service personnel have been trained for firefighting duties. [76705]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): This deployment involves more than 19,000 service personnel from all three services. About 3,000 Royal Navy personnel, 7,700 Army personnel and 2,300 RAF personnel have been trained. A further 6,500 personnel will be engaged in administrative, security, command-and-control and other duties, drawing on normal armed forces skills and training.

Mr. Swire : Given the uncertain situation in Northern Ireland and the need to prepare for possible action in Iraq, as evidenced by the desertisation of two tank brigades in Germany, has the Minister assessed the loss of real training time caused by the need for firefighting training? How and when will that critical training be made up?

Mr. Ingram: That is an impossible question because we do not know whether there will be a strike. I understand that a decision is pending, but talks continue, and we all hope that they will lead to a resolution of the dispute. All efforts should be made towards that. As to the numbers that we have deployed in anticipation of a dispute over the next few months, there must be a knock-on effect for the training regime, and the longer the strike runs, the greater the effect will be. We must constantly review the situation; over time it will create problems for effective delivery and for other missions in which we may be called on to participate.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Will my right hon. Friend ignore Opposition calls for firefighters in the services to cross the Fire Brigades Union picket lines, and does he agree that if they did so it would only inflame an already serious situation?

Mr. Ingram: At this stage, that is a wise judgment. As we move, hopefully, towards a negotiated settlement, it is better to try to keep down the temperature of the dispute. Again, however, the question is impossible because we do not know the shape, format and length of the dispute and, therefore, the nature of our response.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): We can all understand that while negotiations continue between the Government and the union, it is tactful not to give service personnel access to the latest firefighting equipment available in the fire stations. Does the Minister accept, however, that in the interests of public safety there will come a point at which service personnel must be given access to the best equipment?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman makes an important recognition in saying that the decision is tactful, but, more than that, it is sensible. This is both a logistics issue and a training issue. I know that there is a

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debate about how long it takes to train people, but we have committed large numbers of service personnel to the Green Goddess delivery system because of the short training required. If we decide to use sophisticated equipment for which longer training is needed, where will we get the personnel from? If we use the same pool of people, they will have to be taken out of service to be trained, so the logistics make it impractical to use that equipment. All these matters have to be kept under review, but there are no plans to do as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Bob Russell (Colchester): Putting the fire dispute to one side, does the Minister agree that it would be in the national interest if one or two regiments of the British Army were trained to use the sophisticated modern fire appliances to create a reservoir of trained personnel for firefighting and other emergency duties in a national emergency?

Mr. Ingram: No, I do not take the view that that is sensible because we do not want to appear as though we are always prepared, rather than forced, to participate. There is also the problem of skill fade. A sizeable number could be trained for an eventuality, but it is 25 years since the Green Goddesses were last called out. [Interruption.] I appreciate that we had to deploy them in regional strikes.

We would have to consider where the regiments would be based. It would also be unfair on the personnel who were trained as permanent firefighters because that is not why they joined the armed forces, irrespective of which branch they represent. Nevertheless, in terms of emergency support for the community, we always stand ready to meet that immediate demand if and when it arises.

Angus Robertson (Moray): The Minister will be aware that aid to the civil power role played by service personnel in areas with a large military presence, such as my own, is significant. What assessment has been made of the impact of firefighting duties on the operational role at bases including RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth? What assessment has the Ministry of Defence made of what would happen if the defence fire service is privatised should a similar problem or industrial action arise?

Mr. Ingram: As my right hon. Friend muttered to me, XOr if Scotland becomes independent." Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should explore his policy on the armed forces—out of NATO, out of the United Kingdom and out of many international coalitions. In those circumstances, defence personnel may have more time to participate in that activity in Scotland, but they are not there to do that; they are there to defend the realm.

There is an impact on operational capability as a consequence of firefighting duties. I have answered a number of parliamentary questions on that, including in response to the matter raised by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). I said that there is also an

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impact on training. There is no point in hiding that reality, which we continue to assess as the situation develops.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Minister aware that I agree with him about not inflaming the industrial situation while negotiations continue? The Tories say that we should allow someone else to use the appliances, but the strike is not continuous. The firefighters will want to use the same appliances, which will be impossible after their eight days have concluded. Not only would the Tory approach inflame the situation: it would be practical nonsense as well.

Mr. Ingram: I tried to explain some of the practical difficulties that would arise from that approach. Hopefully my hon. Friend agrees with my assessment of that. I certainly tend to agree with his presentation of the problem.

Missile Defence

14. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): What discussions he has had with the United States Administration on missile defence since July. [76706]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I last discussed missile defence issues with the United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, at our meeting in Washington on 11 September of this year.

Richard Ottaway : The Secretary of State will be well aware of the huge amount of interest in the project and its relevance to our country's strategic defence. As his research is reaching an advanced stage, can he give an idea of which bases in the UK will be involved in the project and which of our European partners are on board?

Mr. Hoon: I set out the Government's position—clearly, I hope—to the House on 17 October. I said that there was not yet a specific request for any particular bases in the UK and that the Government would agree to such a request only if we were satisfied that the overall security of the UK and the alliance would be enhanced. The hon. Gentleman's question is premature. As I said, we propose to set out for the benefit of hon. Members and others the necessary technical and policy considerations before returning to the House for a further discussion on that subject.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Will my right hon. Friend say whether, before British taxpayers' money is committed to that vastly expensive, technologically dubious protection against something that the MOD has assessed as a remote threat, Parliament will be permitted to debate and vote on the issue?

Mr. Hoon: I said on 17 October that the House would have the opportunity to discuss the material I just mentioned, which is currently being prepared within the Ministry of Defence. That is as far as I am prepared to go at this stage.

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