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RAF Support Units

4. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What progress he has made in his review of the RAF active combat service support units. [143771]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The review is progressing well and is expected to conclude in the new year.

Mr. Kidney : Does my right hon. Friend accept that an early conclusion of the review might be that the value of the communications and logistics units under review has not been appreciated as fully as it should have been by those at the highest levels of the RAF? Will he accept from me that the emerging conclusion is that instead of shuffling units around from camp to camp, we might do better to invest in their training, their equipment and—as I have suggested in other questions over the past two years—their living accommodation? Does he understand how strongly people in Stafford feel about the future of RAF Stafford? Would it be possible for me to bring a delegation from all parties in Stafford borough to see the Minister to discuss the matter while the review is taking place?

Mr. Ingram: The answer to the latter question is yes. My hon. Friend knows that I am only too willing to meet people to discuss those key important matters, but clearly the same invitation would have to be extended to all other bases covered by the review. My understanding is that all MPs who have an immediate interest have been fully consulted either in writing or by being given access to station commanders so that they are brought up to speed on the evolving review as it develops. It is important to do that. There are big issues involved. My hon. Friend touched on the importance of support units, which are vital to what the RAF does. That is why we need to consider the basing strategy to ensure that we are utilising what is undoubtedly a key resource to the best effect.

On accommodation, my hon. Friend was advised at one stage that the single living accommodation was up to scratch. A subsequent review showed that the RAF was not happy with the standard of the accommodation. That shows the concerns on that subject. All of that is tied up in the ongoing review. We must ensure that we get it right, primarily for the reasons that he gave: for the good of the RAF and the way in which the particular units support it overall.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Does the Minister agree that bases such as Royal Air Force

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Stafford not only contribute to the local economy, but provide an important contribution to the national military footprint? On the wider issue of logistics—if I may trouble him with a matter of detail—is he not embarrassed by the NAO report's findings that

Will he accept that just-in-time industrial practices suitable for Rover motor cars were not appropriate for our servicemen and women who put their lives on the line for our country?

Mr. Ingram rose—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Hand it over.

Mr. Ingram: I was going to hand it over. It is clear that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has not read some very specific comments, both detailed and overall. The report said that, overall, UK equipment performed impressively. It said that

and that they were also supported effectively. That is the overall general assessment of an extremely detailed examination of a huge logistical effort. I sometimes wonder what is in hon. Members' minds when they raise these questions. Are they trying to talk success into failure? [Interruption.] That is good to know. The National Audit Office report also says:

The balance has to be struck at all times. My first quote is one that pays genuine plaudits to all the work that was done.

Of course we recognise the importance of RAF Stafford to the local economy. That is why these issues are taken into account when we undertake basing reviews. The hon. Gentleman has probably forgotten, but his party was once in Government. That Government conducted a massive cutback in the UK's defence footprint. I am sure that the people of this country will welcome the way in which we go about our business, because we take account of the local economy.

Suez Medal

5. Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): How he will ensure that all Suez veterans are awarded their medals. [143772]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I said to the House on 8 September that I expected some Suez medals to be with veterans for Remembrance Sunday. Nine hundred such medals were sent to veterans directly—as are all medals following their application and approval. I can now further update the House. As at 12 December, the medal offices had received 27,192 applications, and 2,011 Suez medals have so far been dispatched to veterans or their next of kin.

Huw Irranca-Davies : I thank my hon. Friend for that full answer. The steady uptake in the collection of the

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awards is testimony to the fact that no longer can Suez veterans be referred to as the forgotten army. Has he any estimate of how many people may be entitled to claim a medal for their work and for the ultimate sacrifice that many made in the campaign?

Mr. Caplin: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The estimate of the possible number of veterans who can qualify is about 200,000 consisting of 25,000 from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, 55,000 from the RAF and 120,000 from the Army. In reality, it is unlikely that anywhere near that number of applications will be made, and certainly not in the short term. However, to cope with the applications that are expected, we have set up a special medal office at the Army medal office at Droitwich to deal with the applications.

Defence Fire Service

6. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the future of the defence fire service. [143773]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Options for the modernisation of the defence fire services were examined in "Fire Study 2000". The results of that study informed the airfield support services project, which will identify the most cost-effective way of providing a range of services, including fire cover. Bids are being evaluated against the public sector comparator and I intend to decide the way forward in the first half of next year.

Mr. Grogan : Does my hon. Friend agree with those senior officers in our armed forces who argue to me and others that they regard the defence fire service as part of a core military function that should not be privatised but kept in the public sector, particularly given that its members are currently risking their lives serving in Iraq?

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend has raised these points before. It has been explained to him that the in-house option has been given much support and much encouragement because we want to ensure that there is a level playing field. The importance of the points that he raises about the capabilities of the defence fire service and other matters that could be affected by the review must be taken into account. We must then consider whether we use sponsored reserves or the current process. That is why the process has taken so long. We want to make sure that we get things right because of the critical nature of the services that are supplied both through the defence fire service and all the supply services on airfields.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Does the Minister agree with the Transport and General Workers Union that cost savings sought by privatisation could be achieved while keeping the defence fire service as a truly accountable public body in the public sector? He mentioned "Fire Study 2000", so will he confirm that it identified room for 20 per cent. efficiencies? How much taxpayers' money would have been saved to date if "Fire Study 2000" had been implemented?

Mr. Ingram: I hesitate to disagree with the Transport and General Workers Union, as I have been a member

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for the past 28 years or so, and proudly remain one. However, that does not mean that its analysis is always correct. The TGWU, along with other unions, was fully consulted on that project and review and is helping to develop the public sector comparator. As I mentioned earlier, it has been given full support to achieve that. It would be wrong not to express the thought that always goes through my head when the hon. Gentleman asks questions. Would we have an air force under an independent Scotland? Indeed, would we have a defence fire service under an independent Scotland? He wants to rip out and destroy the success, quality and strength of the British armed forces and go into an unknown future.

Far East Prisoners

7. Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): If he will make a statement on compensation for civilian prisoners of the Japanese in the second world war. [143774]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): In November 2000, the Government instituted a scheme to make ex gratia payments of £10,000 each to members of certain groups held captive by the Japanese during the second world war. Among those covered by the scheme are British civilian internees who had a close connection with the United Kingdom at the time of their captivity. So far, 1,876 payments have been made to former civilian internees, and a considerable number to the surviving spouses of those who died before 7 November 2000.

Mr. Dismore : While I acknowledge the generous scheme that my hon. Friend outlined, a small number of people have been excluded because their grandparents or parents were not born in the UK. They were British enough to be interned by the Japanese, but it seems that they are not British enough to receive the compensation to which they are morally, if not legally, entitled. Two of my constituents, Mr. Abraham and Mrs. Sopher, are among the 324 such people resident in the UK. Will my hon. Friend meet Mr. Ron Bridge of ABCIFER—the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region—which lobbies on behalf of those people to discuss a way forward and see if anything can be done to help those who have been left out of that generous scheme?

Mr. Caplin: May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaigning on this issue? He, like me, knows that the legal process undertaken by ABCIFER has come to an end. I have seen his letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of 3 December, and I can assure him that a detailed reply will be on its way very shortly.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Sadly, Members on both sides of the House have to write to the widows of that dwindling number of the old and bold or attend their funerals. Those widows feel after many years that they have been let down, in all honesty by Governments of all political persuasions. Would the Minister consider at the very least meeting his hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), me and

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others who are seeking to represent the interests of that small band of people so that we can discuss a proper way forward?

Mr. Caplin: I have told my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that I would be happy to meet him if there are outstanding issues or new matters that he or other Members want to discuss. That offer still stands.

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