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Mr. Hancock: Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This shows that Ministers are extraordinarily guilty about the way in which they have let these people down. They are as responsible as any non-commissioned officer or senior officer in the Army for exercising a duty of care to these young men and women and their families.
The Geneva convention, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), does not cover many of the situations in which we now find ourselves. We do not know if a prisoner of war is a genuine combatant of the country with which one is at war, an insurgent, a common criminal, or a terrorist engaged in fighting not for a country but for an abstract issue that is not directly part of the war. That blurring of responsibilities makes it difficult for soldiers on the
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ground to decide who is covered by what. The prevailing situation should always be governed by how we would want and expect to be treated ourselves in a similar position. I hope that that message goes out loud and clear.
I urge the Ministry of Defence to reconsider some of the issues that it has so far identified as being at the top of its listfor example, the replacement for HMS Diligence, a ship that has served this nation well and offered a capability that will be lost when she goes out of commission in 2006. When that issue was raised by at least three hon. Members at a recent meeting of the Select Committee, the Secretary of State said, "We've moved on from replacing like with like, ship for ship." But this ship is a unique facility that is being got rid of with no way of replacing it. The Government should seriously consider the way in which it has operated over the past two years in making a significant contribution to the maritime aid and defence of the soldiers and civilians whom we want to assist.
On the capability of the Royal Air Force, the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) spoke with passion about his concerns for the work force at St. Athan. No satisfactory answer has been given to the question of why this is being done. What will happen to that multi-million pound facility? It is a similar situation to that of the military hospital in Haslar, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Gosport. The facilities were updated at the same time as the Government were considering closing it. The same thing has happened at St. Athan.
As always in these debates, Members have to balance what they say in defending the armed forces and the great work that they do and in spelling out the problems as we see them. Ministers might feel that some criticisms are unfair, but they are not listening to the men and women who work and serve in our armed forces if they ignore many of the concerns that have been expressed here this afternoon. Armed forces personnel care about how their families are treated. I urge the Minister to think long and hard about this question: when does he genuinely believe that he properly exercised his duty of care to the parents of those children who died at Deepcut and Catterick? It is about time that we had more than a face-saving device and undertook a proper public inquiry.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con):
I have not participated in an armed forces personnel debate before, and having listened to the speeches I rather feel that I have been missing out. We heard powerful contributions from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who spoke in defence of contracting out and privatisationone does not often hear that from a Labour Memberand from the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who talked about Gulf war syndrome. I particularly enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who spoke with great wisdom and knowledge about the dangers of cuts to the RAF. I entirely agree with him. I am afraid that my own contribution will be much more mundane and prosaic, concentrating on a couple of issues that particularly matter to forces families in my constituency.
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I apologise to the Minister for missing his opening speech. I am particularly sorry because I know that he visited RAF Brize Norton in my constituency this week. I want to take this opportunityas, I am sure, would heto put on the record how much we value all the work done by the armed forces and other personnel at RAF Brize Norton, not just their support for forces overseas but the help they have given with the tsunami appeal and other such things. All hon. Members say how much we value our armed forces, so it is important for us to turn words into action. The forces do so much work for us and there is much more that we should do for them.
As I have said, RAF Brize Norton in my constituency is one of the largest and most important air bases, and it is becoming more important as staff will be relocated from Lyneham to Brize Norton. When I went there recently, planes and personnel were in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Ivory Coast and elsewhere. As the Minister will know, the base has a huge range of facilities. It has a fleet of VC10s, TriStars and C-17s, and there is the future strategic tanker aircraft to come. It includes the parachute training school, the tactical communications wing and two auxiliary squadrons supporting the RAF on the ground, as well as a number of lodge units.
Brize Norton is the funnel to convey men and materiel out of the country to wherever they are being deployed. As our role grows, as we do more, as we do what my predecessor Lord Hurd described as punching above our weight in the world, it is important for Brize Norton to have all the facilities that it needs. My point is simple: Brize Norton is becoming a super-base. It is becoming more like a Catterick or a Colchester than what it has been in the past. We must ensure that it has the facilities that go with that status, and that we treat the people who work there well. We should also look at the facilities in the neighbouring town of Carterton.
Many are far more expert than me when it comes to procurement and equipment, but there are real concerns in the RAF, often relayed to me, about whether our forces will have the planes that are necessary for them to do what is required of them. The issue is continuity of equipmentpeople are worried about gaps between the decommissioning of one set of equipment and the commissioning of a new set. Everyone says, and I am sure it is true, that mobility and flexibility of forces are what will matter in the future. At the heart of that lie heavy lift and refuelling, which are very much what Brize Norton is all about.
We clearly need to replace the Hercules fleet, but the A400M has not yet been built and many believe that there is no chance of its arriving on time. We also need to replace the VC10s, which are extremely old, but the future strategic tanker aircraft contract is huge and complicated and it will be difficult to deliver. I would like the Minister to tell us whether the Government are confident that continuity of equipment can be achieved. I would also like to know whether the Government have a plan B lest any of those things do not come to fruition at the intended time. As I have said, refuelling and heavy lift are essential and are at the heart of what happens at Brize Norton. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
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I want to say something about schools and housing. Almost exactly a year ago, I secured an Adjournment debate on forces schools. A vital issue of concern to armed forces personnel is the level of education that their children are getting and whether the schools are adequate for the job. As the Minister knows, there are two types of forces schools. There are those run by Service Children's Education, which are very successful. If SCE were a local education authority, it would be one of the top performers in the country. Then there are normal schools which are part of LEAs, but admit a large number of forces children. I want to talk about the second type.
In my constituency there are five primary schools in Carterton containing a large number of forces children. I am visiting one, St. John's, tomorrow. There is also Carterton community college. The key issue is what is known as turbulence, or turnover. At some of these schools the number of children arriving and leaving within a year can be as high as 75 per cent. At Gateway school in Carterton, which I visited recently, the turnover is 45 per cent.
It does not require rocket science to work out that such a high turnover leads to problems. There is a problem with continuity of teaching, and extra report writing obviously imposes additional costs. There is the problem of integrating new children, particularly those with special educational needs, in a new school. There is a series of issues for Ofsted, which does not always understand the pressures faced by forces schools. There is also the fact that these are forces families, not just any families. Given the situation in Iraq, among others, counselling serviceseven bereavement counsellingare required. It should be borne in mind that while a man or a woman is away in theatres of action, the family left behind becomes a single-parent family, with all the pressures and problems that that entails.
"In response to concerns that were raised, the SCE and the Department are working together to develop the National Association for State Schools for Service Children's Education into an organisation that operates more formally than at present. We hope that it will be an effective organisation representing schools with service children nationally and commenting on policy matters. The schools contacted so far have expressed support for the proposal."[Official Report, 7 January 2004; Vol. 416, c.100WH.]
He went on to explain that a national conference was anticipated later in the year. That was all very positive stuff. My question for the Minister today is: what happened next? From what I have discovered, the answer seems to be not much.
"In May 2004 we set up regional meetings all around the country and invited Headteachers of schools that had service children along with LEA representatives. The issues that were facing schools were noted from these meetings. We sent a letter to the Minister at the beginning of August 2004. The letter outlined the issues and made recommendations . . . In September 2004 the DfES responded to our letter. Firstly it had not been seen by the Minister and secondly it ignored many of the issues that we raised. At the meeting we asked the DfES representative to give a copy to Charles Clark. This they agreed to do. We cancelled a meeting in November because there had been no response from the Minister
This is a serious situation for the Minister to take into account. May I suggest that MOD Ministers get in touch with their DfES colleagues and try to push this matter to the top of the appropriate Education Minister's in-tray? One of the most tangible things that we can do for service families is ensure that their children get a good education. Oxfordshire county council has put some extra money into forces schools, and it is time for the national Government to take the issue more seriously.
My final point is on housing. The Minister knows that this is a long-running saga in Carterton, and we need to resolve it. The bottom line is that the forces housing in Carterton is among the worst in the UK. The prefab homes were never meant to last this long. We now have a real opportunity to provide better homes for our forces families and a better environment for the town. Almost every services family has a story to tell about the wife arriving, seeing the forces home and bursting into tears. Yet that is where they will have to live for the next few years. Some of the buildings look, from the outside, like Soviet housing in Volgograd; we really need to do better.
There is a clear answer to be found in the knock-down and rebuild programme, but this private finance initiative scheme has been beset by delays. It has required three bodies to take action: West Oxfordshire district council is dealing with planning and planning gain; Annington Homes is involved in making land available to other bidders; and, above all, the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Housing Executive that must push the process forward. I can now give the Minister an update. West Oxfordshire district council has given outline planning permission for the scheme and costed the section 106 agreements. It has done its bit. Annington Homes has made its land available to the other bidders, Riverside and Tricon, at a transparent price. It is now up to the Ministry of Defence to move things forward. I hope that this issue will get to the top of the Minister's in-tray. It really would make a huge difference to my constituents in Carterton.
The forces do a great job for us and we must do more for them. Overstretch in our armed forces is getting worse, time at home between missions is getting shorter and the stresses and strains on our forces families are getting more severe. We want to see action being taken and priority being given to these issues. Frankly, it is the least we can do.
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