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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): May I say how much I have enjoyed our debate on personnel? We have heard 12 Back-Bench contributions. The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) inevitably mentioned Haslar, and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) talked about the Yorkshire regiments. I shall come back to the speech made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) later. We heard from the hon. Members for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry). We also heard what one might call new contributions from the hon. Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who are both welcome in joining what has become a rather exclusive club of hon. Members who speak in defence debates.
May I also say how much I enjoyed the speeches made by my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)I shall return to his speech laterand for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes)? My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) was inevitably in the Chamber, as he always is for such debates.
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I want to try to answer several of the questions put to me by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), although I hope he will accept that I cannot possibly answer them all in the time available. I begin by welcoming his comments on behalf of the official Opposition about how the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and I regard the troops who have been injured. Like both my right hon. Friends, I always make seeing troops who are recuperating from injuries a key priority of any visit to Catterick, Cyprus or anywhere else.
This week's press has been thoroughly misleading, so I want to clarify the situation for the House. The latest available figures show that 790 service personnel have been evacuated from Iraq, but that number includes the full range of injuries from relatively minor shrapnel wounds and sprained ankles through to broken limbs and more serious injuries caused by enemy action. It is worth noting that some injuries resulted from road traffic accidents and sport. Our priority is for our personnel to make the speediest possible recovery, and I am glad that all parties have recognised that important fact this afternoon.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked a general question about investigations. Our troops in Iraq continue to perform outstandingly, but they are not above the law. It remains Ministry of Defence policy to scrutinise for evidence of criminal wrongdoing every instance when the actions of British service personnel might have led directly to the death or injury of Iraqi civilians. As at 6 December 2004, the number of investigations into such incidents that had been launched by service police since the start of the conflict stood at 160. The majority of those cases involved incidents in which United Kingdom forces had returned fire after being attacked. Only 19 cases related to alleged incidents involving Iraqis in British military custody, and only seven of those 19 contain any evidence of deliberate abuse. Let me say again that more than 65,000 service personnel have served in Iraq, yet only 36 have been reported for offences in connection with specific incidents by the service police, and only seven have so far been charged.
I hope that it will be helpful if I make a series of updates on personnel issues. I shall start by updating the House on operational effective military discipline and service law, and the new Bill to which I referred in our previous personnel debate.
As hon. Members know, we have been working for some time on modernising and harmonising the separate systems of service law governing our three services. Subject to parliamentary time being available, we intend to introduce legislation in the next Session to create, in place of the present three systems, which are sometimes different, a single system of service law that will better serve the armed forces in the years ahead as they increasingly train and operate together. In advance of that, the Defence Committee is currently examining our proposals, and I am grateful for its constructive interestindeed, I shall appear before it next month.
Discipline is at the heart of service law. The authority of the chain of command depends on powers to enforce discipline to ensure the fighting effectiveness of those under command, and to be effective that authority must apply equally at all times and wherever forces are serving. It is of the utmost importance therefore that the
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services have a system of law that is fair, expeditious and consistent and that is subject to appropriate safeguards in order to protect the rights of service personnel. That is what we will seek to introduce in the next armed forces Bill.
We are also investing in technology with a new military personnel management modernisation programme, the joint personnel administration. The programme will introduce simplified and harmonised personnel policies and processes to each service in turn during 2006.
In partnership with leading academics, we are implementing a long-term scientific study to develop a coherent set of measures of individuals' expectations, attitudes and values and to monitor how those change over time. The study, "Measuring human capital", will get under way next month in partnership with King's college, and it should enable us in the longer term to target our resources and further develop our personnel policies to maintain satisfaction and improve retention of our people, which is an issue that many hon. Members have mentioned this afternoon.
We have embarked on a major programme to transform the management of the civilian work force. The people programme will put the MOD at the leading edge of human resources practice and maximise the civilian contribution to defence by providing modern, efficient internal human resources services. The programme will generate financial savings and will release hundreds of civilian staff as part of the reduction announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last summer.
A number of hon. Members asked about service family accommodation, which is an issue that is often raised. This year's target was to upgrade 500 properties, but we have now extended it to 2,000 properties by increasing resources, and we expect to meet that target. Of the long-term core stock of 42,000 properties, around 23,000 are currently at standard 1 and a further 18,000 are at standard 2. As hon. Members have pointed out, it does not mean that there is room for complacency, but it is progress.
The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) raised the issue of single living accommodation. Again, we are making rapid progress. More than 1,100 bed spaces have been completed, and a further 2,100 are being designed. We expect a total of 4,000 bed spaces across several sites to be constructed very soon.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) and a number of others raised the issue of reserve forces. Hon. Members know that we recognise the important contributions that reservists and their employers make, and we intend to continue to improve the support that we provide. Together with the work that we are undertaking on integration, we are very conscious of our responsibilities to ensure that we do not endanger the commitment and dedication of our reserve forces or the tremendous support that we have received from employers. We have been working to clarify the way in which the MOD uses the reserve forces and to establish a set of aspirations that the MOD can work towards. Based on the lessons learned from Operation Telic, we are examining the optimum period of notice that we should aim to give reservists to report for mobilisation, and the frequency with which we can reasonably
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mobilise reservists on a compulsory basis. I expect to make further announcements on that in the House next month.
In his excellent opening speech, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the early service leavers initiative, which was instigated as part of the veterans strategy. It helps to improve resettlement for those leavers who are vulnerable to social exclusion. For those leaving with less than four years' service or those discharged administratively, there is now a mandatory unit-level brief and a one-to-one interview to assess vulnerability to social exclusion. Early service leavers are also advised on available housing assistance through the joint services housing authority organisation and SPACESthe single persons accommodation centre for the ex-services. A proper resettlement umbrella is therefore now in place, covering all service leavers.
I hope the House will agree that the veteran's lapel badge, which Members will note is worn by many of their veteran constituents, has been a tremendous success. Indeed, more than 35,000 have been dispatched since its launch last May. From 1 February, I am extending the badge's availability to second world war widows, but I want to go further still. Transition from service to civilian life is an important area of policy for the Ministry of Defence, so I am announcing that from 1 February a veteran's badge will be included as part of the leavers' packs, subject to certain conditions. I hope that that reinforces the high esteem in which the country holds, and the thanks that we owe to, those who fought 60 years ago, along with today's armed forces personnel, who do such a first-class job.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow made an outrageous attack on the work done by this Government since 1997 on Gulf veterans' illnesses. Perhaps I can refer him to the Hansard for Tuesday 18 January, when I responded to an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe). I set out then in detail the action that has been taken since 1997.
In what may have been a slip of the tongue, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood referred to four suicides at Deepcut. He will of course be aware that the verdict was one suicide, with two open verdicts and one case still to be determined.
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