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Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, as I have given way to the hon. Gentleman already.

Mr. Bellingham: It is a separate point.

Mr. Ingram: I should hope so, as I have spoken on about three different subjects since the hon. Gentleman's previous intervention. However, I am conscious of the time and of the fact that other hon. Members want to speak in the debate.

We have developed a service personnel plan to deliver sufficient capable and motivated people, in a co-ordinated, coherent and effective manner. The plan analyses the strategic environment for at least the next 15 years, and uses the latest academic and business techniques. The result is an ambitious, and widely supported, personnel change programme with clear milestones for delivery. It also provides a risk analysis mechanism, and performance metrics led by senior programme champions.

The armed forces are determined to ensure that they become more representative of our diverse society in the UK, through harnessing the wealth of talent and skills of individuals from different backgrounds. We aim to create an environment in which everyone is valued and respected, and encouraged to reach their full potential. I should highlight the fact that, as recently announced by my hon. friend the Under-Secretary of State, we are extending the range of chaplaincy provision currently provided from the Christian and Jewish faiths by appointing the first chaplains from the Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim faiths.

Improving the retention of personnel is a crucial factor in sustaining our desired manning profiles. It also helps to provide an effective return on the substantial investment we make in training our people. Our overall "people package" is a factor when people choose whether to continue service or to seek alternative careers.

The need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified people lies at the heart of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body's work, with the unique circumstances of service life being a key consideration. I am pleased that last year, for the sixth year in succession, we were able to accept the review body's recommendations in full, including increases to those allowances specifically designed to compensate for separation from families.

The review body's latest report was submitted on 17 January to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defence. As always, the Government will give the most careful consideration to the recommendations.

Our forces continue to be deployed on operations and other tasks around the world. I understand the potential impact that this has on families. Family issues are central to our personnel policies. The service families taskforce brings together Ministers and officials from across Government with representatives of the Service
 
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Families Association. It plays a vital role on issues affecting communication with families, housing, education, children and health, and I pay genuine tribute to that work.

With the end of the arms plot, battalions will, in future, be fixed by role and largely by location. That will mean that the infantry is able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families. It will also allow the career development of soldiers to be much more carefully planned, while keeping the variety, opportunity and challenge of new roles and locations open to soldiers in the large infantry regiments.

All that provides peace of mind for our people while they are away from their partners and families so that they can concentrate on the job in hand. At other times, it allows them to plan their lives with confidence, knowing that they will be able to establish roots in one place, if they want to. That, in turn, supports separate careers for spouses and the schooling and employment of their children. We remain committed to providing good quality accommodation for service personnel and their families.

Bob Russell: Annington Homes.

Mr. Ingram: Well, that charge cannot be levelled against this Administration. I joined the hon. Gentleman not long ago in a major initiative for a big development in his constituency—the beginning of many such projects. I shall leave it to him to score political points against those on the Benches to his right—

Bob Russell: Politically.

Mr. Ingram: Well, one never knows with the Liberal Democrats. However, they are probably on the right side in this instance.

Our housing strategy aims to provide greater choice through a mixed economy of service, rented and privately owned housing. Perhaps the hon. Member for Blaby will tell us when he winds up whether he will reverse the actions taken to sell off service accommodation. Would he spend even more money clearing up the mess his party left behind? He shakes his head: it does not surprise me that he will not rise to the bait.

We aim to provide high-quality single and family service accommodation in the right locations to support mobility. We are also providing better advice and assistance to those who seek greater stability and a stake in the housing market.

We value and support the well-being of the service community, because it is good employment practice and it contributes to operational capability. We have learned lessons from Operation Telic on the availability of welfare services and we are reviewing welfare and well-being issues more widely, including strategies for stress, care of vulnerable people, and the coverage of existing welfare provision.

This April, we introduce new pension and compensation schemes that provide equal terms for officers and other ranks, and compensation better
 
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focused on the more seriously disabled. Where possible, the schemes include changes sought by service personnel and ex-service organisations. Notably, we have introduced a major increase to widows' benefits, provided pensions for unmarried partners, improved death-in-service benefit and extended the time limit to claim for compensation. The new arrangements should better meet the needs of the armed forces for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman may wish to intervene in the speech by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State later, because he has the specialist knowledge of the matter. I never shy away from taking on a challenge, but I have enough respect for the hon. Gentleman to know that he will take the opportunity to make his contribution in his own way.

We also take the problem of ex-service homelessness very seriously. We have a duty of care to ensure that service personnel are given as much assistance as possible to make a successful transition to civilian life, and when things go wrong, for whatever reason, we provide assistance through ex-service charities. Of the estimated 5 million veterans in the UK, research shows that the vast majority found service life a positive experience and made a successful transition to civilian life.

All service leavers now receive some form of resettlement assistance, regardless of time served or reason for leaving.

Pete Wishart: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I enjoy the knockabout with the SNP. Will he apologise for the comment about the butcher's apron?

Pete Wishart: I will ask the question, if the Minister does not mind. How many of the veterans' associations that he consulted in his survey welcome General Jackson's plans for the Scottish infantry?

Mr. Ingram: I have dealt with that point. I have had enough knockabout on that point for now. I offered the hon. Gentleman an opportunity when he intervened. A representative of his party made an outrageous slur on the armed forces and, time and again, I have asked SNP Members to condemn it. They have not done so and, therefore, I can only assume that they share that view. Perhaps I should not have given way, because it has led us into consideration of other issues. However, I repeat the point that we genuinely listen to the views of veteran and regimental associations. I have met several of them, as have my ministerial colleagues. We view the associations with respect and we understand their sincerely expressed point of view. They are not involved in political point-scoring because they have the interests of the regiment at heart. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman falls into that category.

Mr. Hancock: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram: No, I have already dealt with the hon. Gentleman.
 
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The MOD provides general housing advice to all service personnel as well as identifying service leavers at risk of homelessness. For the latter, we provide additional preventive assistance as necessary. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, will speak further on veterans and resettlement issues later in this debate.

Our service and civilian personnel have continued to do a remarkable and widely applauded job in difficult circumstances. But we cannot stand still. We must ensure that our armed forces are organised and equipped to meet the challenges that we will face in the foreseeable future. Our people policies must continue to provide us with the right number of well trained and motivated people, ready to undertake the most demanding operations. I am confident that the work we have in hand now, which I have set out, and our plans for the future will allow us to achieve that goal.

2.15 pm


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